The Rum Diary, based on the debut novel of the same name by gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, is a movie that has taken over a decade to come to fruition. Bruce Robinson, the film’s cult writer and director, shares exclusive content from behind the scenes and talks to PORT editor Dan Crowe about quitting the booze (during shooting anyway), the creative process of filmmaking and his near-death experience at 10,000 feet with the film’s star, Johnny Depp.
I’m sitting with Bruce Robinson shooting the breeze at his beautiful 16th-century farmhouse on the Welsh border. I’ve known Bruce for several years, but I’m here to talk about The Rum Diary. It’s his first film, as director, since 1992. It features the world’s biggest movie star, Johnny Depp, and is based on the debut novel by Hunter S. Thompson. A highly dangerous combination of personal heroes, access to unreleased film footage and red wine means I must try, very hard, to remain calm.
From teen heartthrob to tabloid favorite to bohemian movie star, Depp’s progression on film is remarkable. After a decade of swashbuckling on the high seas for Disney, he returns to his gritty roots in The Rum Diary, a story of the increasingly unhinged journalist Paul Kemp who, irritated by the crushing conventions of late-Eisenhower-era America, answers a small newspaper advert and travels to the pristine island of Puerto Rico to write for a disintegrating newspaper, The San Juan Star.
It makes perfect sense that Depp would ask Bruce, who wrote and directed the definitive film about stylish, broke and broken hedonism in his cult classic Withnail and I, to turn Thompson’s first book about corruption and excess into a movie. For Bruce, this is a return to what he does best after a disastrous brush with Hollywood production studios with the thriller Jennifer Eight. And what a return. The Rum Diary is said, by the few that have seen it, to be one of the most exciting films to originate from Hollywood in years.
“I think it’s good, and Johnny likes it.” Robinson explains, “It’s got the ’50s style thing going on which is back in vogue, and it features a rotting newspaper at its center, which is quite timely, what with all these side-winding fuckers at News Corp.”
Sitting by a small stream that runs through the courtyard, he pours us both a glass, fires up a cigar and smiles again with a pearly white smile: an elegant vision of hedonism.
Dan Crowe: How did you meet Johnny?
Bruce Robinson: Johnny initially got in touch because he liked Withnail. Shortly after we had reconvened, we were on our way to Los Angeles in his airplane, en route from Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, when the engines cut out. All electrics off. Total fucking silence. I saw the San Diego horizon approaching.
And perhaps because we’d been drinking a sociable amount of Château Haut-Brion, we both just started laughing. I made a remark about how people get into the luggage racks when they’re onboard a doomed aircraft. But suddenly, we’re both on our knees crying with laughter. I realized, at that point, plummeting through the evening air, that I really liked this guy.
Dan: What happened when the engine suddenly switched back on? Was there, as opposed to the plane crash, the adrenalin crash, followed by shock and tears?
Bruce: Another bottle of the Haut-Brion.
Dan: That was when you were location searching for The Rum Diary wasn’t it? How did you feel about doing another film after Jennifer Eight?
Bruce: Johnny called, he somehow found me whilst I was on holiday with my family in Spain, and just said: “Do you want to write the movie?” So I said, “Yes.” I’d had the worst creative experience of my life with Paramount Pictures 17 years ago, with Jennifer Eight, and I thought: “If this is film making, then fuck it, I’ll just write books.” It was dreadful. I didn’t want to ever get behind the camera again, I truly didn’t. But when Johnny asked if I wanted to direct The Rum I thought: “This is the world’s number one film star and if he’s prepared to take a chance, then so am I.” Plus, the principle producer on the movie is Graham King, the opposite of Paramount, a very great producer. So I say “Yeah.”
Dan: That seems brave of you. Did the fact that Johnny is a friend make a difference to your decision?
Bruce: He is such a consummate artist, this guy. In terms of music and painting and acting, who wouldn’t want to be associated with that? He’s quite a phenomenal geezer. But with the reality of my past experiences, I needed assurance it wouldn’t happen again, that I would have creative control. Johnny said he would provide me with a firewall . . .
Dan: You had Johnny Depp as your bouncer?
Bruce: Yes! With Johnny there I had protection, and he has his own protection, so I was doubly protected, and as long as he was happy, I was happy.
Dan: The opposite of Withnal and I, the producers hounding you?
Bruce: Oh Christ, yes. They turned up, like flies on a corpse. Although film is a living thing, it can attract these monstrous creatures. They are like Hieronymus Bosch creations that want to land and peck and suck and fuck you, fuck the wounds they have left. Second guessing you is their modus operandi.
Dan: So what was making The Rum like, was it a relaxed set?
Bruce: Johnny and I had a good process during The Rum, very trusting. He is good like that, he lets you get on with what you are supposed to do, and vice versa. He really knows how to do his job. And this is one of these things that people forget about Johnny because he is such a huge star, like Dylan, people forget how fucking good he actually is. It was enjoyable shooting though, we only had 46 days on set, so it was quite intense, out of bed at 5 am, no lunch—I can’t eat when filming, too tense, just a bowl of fruit pips.
And so by 8 pm you’ve been going for 15 hours, and still have to re-work scenes, re-jig bits. So by the time I was supposed to be sleeping, I’d still be writing. Which is where the Barrilito rum comes in. Oh my fucking Christ . . . we were filming in Puerto Rico, the epicenter of rum production. This stuff is like Christianity there, it is the cause, the solution, to all the world’s ill. Sometimes, at night, we would pull out a bottle and glug, and the glug would get the writing finished.
The other thing is that Johnny is able to attract some of the best acting talent in the world: Aaron Eckhart, Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins and Giovanni Ribisi . . . Really amazing people to work with. The set was great, everybody got on, the sun was shining every day. We both agreed that we wouldn’t be on the sauce as an insurance policy. And it made a lot of sense: Johnny looks great in the movie. Hunter drank all the way through the shooting though. We had a director’s chair there with a bottle of rum on, the fags, the script and HUNTER on the back of the seat. [Thompson committed suicide six years ago.] Rather like Hitchcock having MRS. BATES on the back of her chair on the Psycho set, as he didn’t want anyone to know that she didn’t exist.
Dan: What did you think when you first read Hunter’s book?
Bruce: I have to say I wasn’t totally blown away by it. I am a fan of Hunter’s but I thought it looked like what it was, which was his first book; and it read like that too, offering the first signs of his inimitable style. The book is really about Hunter S. Thompson before he became Hunter S. Thompson—he’s looking for his voice, his style. That, and Hunter’s obsession about deconstructing the American dream, was something I could understand. I ended up using just three lines from the novel in the whole of my screenplay.
Dan: Was it hard, re-inventing Hunter’s vision?
Bruce: What you have to do is read the book then throw it away and re-invent it for cinema. I don’t want to write like Hunter. I wouldn’t want to write like him even if I could. I made some savage changes to the structure and narrative drive of the book. There are already Hunter fanatics whining, saying it’s shocking it isn’t like the novel. Of course it isn’t like the fucking novel, it’s a film! Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet isn’t like Shakespeare’s play. Tchaikovsky watches the play in Moscow and converts this into music. The screenwriter must convert.
Dan: Johnny also did Hunter his way, playing the journalist in the 1998 film adaptation of his semi-fictional book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But this time it had to be straight, right?
Bruce: But we agreed, for this movie, he was going to play as straight as Cary Grant. I didn’t want any gonzo in the movie, no guns either. This was the stepping-stone for Hunter to become gonzo.
Later in the day, standing in a book-lined room, which also features a drum kit and grand piano, I’m looking up towards a large portrait of Keith Richards. It has a painterly, thick red surface with the rock legend’s profile cutting though, and a background consisting of King Size Rizzla papers. A duck walks gingerly through the room, towards the kitchen.
Bruce: Johnny painted it. Not the duck, the painting. He’s good mates with Keith. He did three like this. I don’t know how he gets everything done.
Dan: There are animals roaming everywhere at your place. Which is odd, as you seem to not care for them much.
Bruce: I have a terrible fear of animals. I have a significant fear of bulls. Can you imagine being confronted by one of those bastards? They have bollocks like the differential on a forty tonne Ford truck.
Hanging out with Bruce, a very fast-witted, handsome and genuinely funny man, is actually like being in Withnail and I. Well, a more refined, grown-up version where there is sufficient wine, not lighter fluid, and a great house. As if perfectly on cue, Richard E. Grant, who played Withnail, was due to arrive shortly after my departure.
Dan: It occurs to me that Hunter S. Thompson, Grant’s Withnail, Johnny’s Kemp, Johnny himself, and you too, are all the same in many ways— outsiders looking in, or looking out in amazement at this strange world full of hope and madness, corruption . . . and booze.
Bruce: Yeah, that’s possible. Almost every character in The Rum is insane. Maniacs, all of them . . . We’re all romantics I guess, willing to push things a little too far. But Johnny’s performance was so much greater for just being him. He’s a remarkable fucker. He’s funny and senses bullshit immediately. He’s someone who can get a film made by picking up the phone. That should be the definition of a movie star.
Later in the evening, after a delicious dinner cooked by Bruce’s beautiful wife, Sophie, we sit down to watch The Rum Diary. Under Keith’s portrait, enjoying some of Bruce’s fine red wine, the opening credits finally begin to roll: a vermillion plane appears and floats through a deep blue sky, it could be a postcard from heaven, then comes a voiceover from Depp.
“It is the year of Our Lord, nineteen hundred and sixty, and the airways are soiled with a hit called ‘Volare.’ Music to heave along to. Mr DEAN MARTIN at the mic . . .”
The Rum Diary opens in the US 28th October and the UK 4th November