RT Interview: Director Alex Gibney on Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

The helmer on piecing together a crazy life.

by | December 19, 2008 | Comments

Documentarian Alex Gibney, whose last film Taxi to the Dark Side was an Oscar winner about US army torture practices in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq, returns to screens this week with a new feature about the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson. The noted but controversial journalist, who pioneered the Gonzo movement, died in 2005. He wrote the book that became the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the movie’s star, Johnny Depp, narrates passages from Thompson’s writing in the documentary. RT caught up with Gibney to learn more about the movie.

Was there any hesitation from you about trying to explore the mind of a guy like this?

Alex Gibney: Not really. One of the things I thought I could do that hadn’t been done — or at least hadn’t been done in a long time — is explore the work. That’s why I put Hunter at the center — he narrates the film himself. We put together a number of his words so that they would form a kind of narrative. That was important because he was this wild and crazy guy who was a drug-taking action hero, but I think we wouldn’t really care about him unless he’d been a really great writer.

How much did you know of him beforehand? Did you have a chance to meet him?

AG: I never met Hunter but I certainly knew of him and knew a lot of people who knew him. And I certainly knew the legend. What’s that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance? “When you have the truth and the legend, print the legend.” I had fun printing the truth and the legend, I think. I came from the outside so I had an advantage in some ways. I wasn’t allied with anybody, or part of any clique, so I could come in and ask a lot of questions and just say, “Tell me about him.” I found out a lot of stuff that I didn’t know.

Gonzo

Is that part of the joy of being a documentarian; that you have the opportunity to explore?

AG: Yeah, you get paid to learn — how good is that? I feel lucky in that sense — you wade into someone’s life and you get to learn a lot of stuff that you didn’t know before; that’s exciting. There’s something wonderful about the contradictions of everyday life that’s impossible to resist. I started out as a fiction filmmaker and may do some fiction films yet in the future, but I also see a lot of fiction films which look beautiful but seem dead. They don’t have that weird, quirky vitality that the best documentaries have. There’s something about that which I really like.

Do you ever worry that you won’t be able to come out of the other side though? That the story you’re discovering doesn’t have an end?

AG: I do, I always worry about structure and the end point. I haven’t a clue what the structure is going to be when I go in and it’s a terrible feeling. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over time it’s that it will come. I think there’s always enough interesting about almost any subject that if you get stuck you can just take a turn into a different direction. There’s always something there, it just takes time to find it and then come back and structure it in a way so that it becomes a story. Even though I love documentaries, there are a lot whose structure is just too aimless for me — I like to construct documentaries in the cutting room so that they feel like movies and they have that sense of momentum.

Presumably you can be a little less conventional when you’re working on a documentary about someone like Hunter.

AG: I think the whole life of Hunter S. Thompson, and his art, is “don’t be afraid to mess around.” Gonzo journalism is gonzo. The name comes from a Hammond organ tune from James Booker and it’s just got a weird, funky vibe that’s wacky. You never know quite what to expect from the song. That’s the way Hunter’s writing was and that’s what I hope comes across in the film, too.

Gonzo

As familiar as Fear and Loathing is, the film is the most interesting when it’s sharing the lesser known details of Hunter’s life.

AG: Right, it was fun to really dig at the stuff that I didn’t know much about. The letters are fantastic and we included some bits and pieces from manuscripts that are yet to be published, including a full book he wrote on the NRA. In the book, Hunter ends up being too intense for the National Rifle Association. He terrified them because he walked into the offices with a gun and started shooting things and they were like, “No! Anything but guns!”

What surprised you most about him?

AG: I think what surprised me most was learning from people who knew him that he had very high highs and very low lows. He had a manic side but he also had a cruel and vicious side. That’s, I think, one of the reasons he was so good at championing and chronicling the American character, which is so deeply contradictory between this great sense of idealism and possibility and this dark, brooding violent streak — what Hunter called fear and loathing. That was interesting to me, there was something in his personality that may have allowed him to channel the larger character of the American character.

Tag Cloud

Avengers Starz Thanksgiving Ovation halloween adenture comiccon movie SXSW Premiere Dates CW Seed obituary italian book singing competition mission: impossible series lord of the rings First Reviews hist VOD finale cars crime thriller crossover streaming movies dragons elevated horror Video Games San Diego Comic-Con jamie lee curtis dc james bond interviews TCM Mudbound pirates of the caribbean Comedy indiana jones Disney Channel The Arrangement Extras Valentine's Day Neflix stop motion dark remakes cancelled TV series Holiday Grammys 45 Marvel Studios Hallmark Christmas movies Writers Guild of America A24 hispanic deadpool Walt Disney Pictures adventure SundanceTV football rotten movies we love Tomatazos slashers marvel comics Esquire Logo Hear Us Out Set visit romance cooking heist movie Red Carpet jurassic park RT21 Pop LGBTQ TCA superhero facebook olympics The Walt Disney Company spanish Countdown justice league Fox Searchlight biopic talk show toy story Awards Comic Book Amazon Prime Paramount Network canceled reboot Peacock new york Amazon Prime Video HBO Max tv talk marvel cinematic universe OWN X-Men Bravo stand-up comedy ID batman miniseries Sony Pictures japanese Star Wars Celebration Sci-Fi Universal Winners debate Fall TV cats Disney+ Disney Plus a nightmare on elm street Syfy Amazon Mary Tyler Moore Pet Sematary New York Comic Con ABC SXSW 2022 action-comedy Mindy Kaling HBO Action BBC One high school Prime Video TCA Awards CBS The Walking Dead Wes Anderson latino classics Pop TV MGM Film Festival stoner Television Critics Association Travel Channel Comedy Central feel good Hulu nfl American Society of Cinematographers revenge Vudu rt labs Infographic medical drama christmas movies Sony TCA 2017 Disney Plus chucky scary movies japan unscripted Binge Guide YouTube Premium Mary poppins slasher game of thrones concert Netflix cults Britbox blockbuster book adaptation sequel golden globe awards Best Picture Shondaland black Song of Ice and Fire boxing summer TV Biopics Sundance TV Amazon Studios films Turner genre Musical Television Academy Cartoon Network PaleyFest politics nbcuniversal FX Summer 2015 LGBT 73rd Emmy Awards TLC Comics on TV Toys news Election worst Baby Yoda cancelled TV shows australia animated period drama Trophy Talk Image Comics Christmas war worst movies popular 99% Instagram Live ABC Signature king arthur Polls and Games Ghostbusters USA summer TV preview archives video on demand Nat Geo prank comics spider-verse RT History Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Rocky Indigenous Fox News Reality South by Southwest Film Festival Adult Swim zombies ESPN women die hard movies OneApp Best and Worst Showtime versus Watching Series parents documentaries Trivia BET AMC Plus Stephen King Quiz Teen strong female leads Drama streamig obi wan vampires golden globes Oscars BBC Holidays ratings Women's History Month Mystery The Witch Lionsgate spy thriller scorecard universal monsters scene in color film series mutant Awards Tour President ITV 2018 diversity DC Universe critic resources DC streaming service cartoon mockumentary Best Actor Animation blaxploitation Pride Month MCU saw The Academy award winner Epix Discovery Channel historical drama E3 serial killer comic book movies docudrama FX on Hulu festivals Rocketman Brie Larson twilight 21st Century Fox harry potter BAFTA TNT toronto sitcom Paramount Pictures Broadway Photos sag awards IFC broadcast canceled TV shows hidden camera Lifetime Christmas movies romantic comedy Trailer ABC Family Arrowverse BBC America Disney zombie Geeked Week crime DGA USA Network Native FXX Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt legend Western teaser Lifetime HBO Go leaderboard Opinion trophy Calendar witnail kong Podcast target Hallmark laika 2019 2016 79th Golden Globes Awards hispanic heritage month GoT cancelled kids IMDb TV king kong Legendary dreamworks rom-coms boxoffice Emmys art house Tags: Comedy Fargo international 93rd Oscars transformers Pirates robots IFC Films Pacific Islander trailers screenings Exclusive Video godzilla HFPA 2021 94th Oscars Sneak Peek true crime Star Wars CBS All Access 2017 zero dark thirty scary Tumblr foreign television Cosplay Oscar wonder woman emmy awards Best Director NBA Ellie Kemper rt archives Superheroe Country TCA Winter 2020 cops dexter adaptation Spectrum Originals Mary Poppins Returns directors natural history Tokyo Olympics Crunchyroll Paramount Plus joker Kids & Family 1990s venice Disney streaming service young adult hollywood Focus Features disaster halloween tv VICE summer preview rotten MTV best video live event PlayStation FOX Schedule Family WGN blockbusters target scene in color psycho Crackle TruTV 71st Emmy Awards Music aapi SDCC critics YouTube mcc biography Comic-Con@Home 2021 name the review franchise free movies monster movies PBS breaking bad Netflix Christmas movies fast and furious richard e. Grant Film Superheroes 4/20 telelvision reviews travel Funimation casting basketball Freeform Character Guide Universal Pictures Sundance Now The Purge YA new zealand Endgame Winter TV Marvel Television Emmy Nominations quibi aliens E! 72 Emmy Awards space asian-american gangster black comedy Captain marvel spanish language WarnerMedia Food Network scene in color series ghosts discovery royal family MSNBC Dark Horse Comics Warner Bros. TV comic books Black History Month Hollywood Foreign Press Association dceu Lucasfilm anthology posters GLAAD YouTube Red renewed TV shows History cinemax fresh Classic Film 24 frames cancelled television spinoff dogs werewolf scene in color Pixar supernatural Tubi satire A&E Black Mirror Sundance TV movies Best Actress Box Office Nominations doctor who anime composers The CW streaming police drama suspense AMC Shudder Musicals Certified Fresh VH1 child's play political drama 20th Century Fox Nickelodeon spider-man CNN sequels Marathons rt labs critics edition 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards theme song Academy Awards DC Comics what to watch Star Trek green book Super Bowl criterion Anna Paquin DirecTV kaiju 90s nature TV One Acorn TV Columbia Pictures First Look Interview Tarantino Cannes Spring TV new star wars movies thriller Horror CMT APB documentary TIFF Turner Classic Movies Marvel mob indie Rom-Com Fantasy Heroines Rock spain game show festival El Rey Year in Review 2020 sports NYCC comic book movie technology psychological thriller See It Skip It Spike ViacomCBS NBC National Geographic Creative Arts Emmys Masterpiece sopranos based on movie know your critic Apple TV+ Apple Martial Arts Elton John vs. dramedy BET Awards Apple TV Plus Chernobyl science fiction social media comedies comic independent docuseries GIFs all-time binge crime drama superman french Reality Competition screen actors guild TV Land TV renewals razzies Paramount Alien children's TV live action south america 007 TBS