It’s a typically misty English November day, and Bruce Robinson is clearly longing for the balmy temperatures of Puerto Rico. “It was fantastic,” he enthuses, dreamily. “A fantastic country.” On and off, he spent nine months there preparing and shooting his new film, The Rum Diary, a comic odyssey starring Johnny Depp as a boozy journalist who arrives in the Caribbean island’s capital San Juan in 1960 to land himself a job on a crumbling English language newspaper.
Adapted by Robinson from the Hunter S. Thompson novel, it marks the 65-year-old British director’s first film in almost twenty years. His last effort, the 1992 thriller Jennifer 8, was mangled so badly by the studio that Robinson swore he’d never direct again. And he didn’t, until Depp—a huge fan of cult comedy Withnail and I, Robinson’s 1987 debut about two out-of-work actors—came calling. First asking him to write the screenplay, he then lured him into going behind the camera. “He’s very persuasive. The very fact that he is who he is, I just thought ‘Why not? What have I got to lose?’”
A former actor himself, Robinson’s respect and admiration for his star is genuine. “He’s a total, true artist is Mr Depp. And sometimes he takes your breath away. He’s a fabulous painter. He can play rock on a guitar as well as anyone in any band I’ve ever known. He’s a terrific actor. He can write. Christ, when everyone was standing in line in front of God, he was called forward. He really is an incredibly talented man—it just oozes out of the bastard. He’s been given a multiplicity of gifts. And when he said, ‘Will you have a go at directing it?’ It was ‘For you, yes.’ I like him enormously.”
So how did the locals react to see the Pirates of the Caribbean star? Were they amazed? “Everyone’s amazed to see Johnny Depp! You don’t need to go abroad to get people going nuts when he’s about. I’m not a superstar, so I don’t pay much cognizance to all of that. But wherever Johnny is, there’s always a big crowd of people wanting the photographs, the handshakes and autographs, the whole thing. He’s got an enormous fanbase. But while everybody else couldn’t wait to go home for the day, Johnny—very graciously—always waited around as long as was necessary to talk to the fans.”
While Thompson’s book is set in Puerto Rico, it didn’t make the island an automatic choice to shoot on. “We scouted places in Mexico that were very beautiful,” Robinson remembers. “It’s not my call this, but you have to weigh up security issues as far as Johnny is concerned. And is Mexico as safe as Puerto Rico? I don’t know . . . but probably not.” This, plus the fact that shooting there would add a level of authenticity—“if you’re in the right place, the extras are going to look right”—meant that Robinson had little choice but to leave his farmhouse in Herefordshire for the Caribbean.
Unsurprisingly, he loved living and working there. “It’s a very friendly place on all levels. The people, the weather, which is usually very, very good there . . . it’s like California in the summer, with salty breezes around it. It rains a bit but it’s pretty good. It’s a delicious place to be, I think. I wouldn’t mind going there again.” Did he not find the heat unbearable? “Not for me, I didn’t. I really love hot places. I never found it really unbearable. At night sometimes, it would be very, very hot. And if you’re shooting all night, that does get a bit stiff.”
Still, it was a “tough shoot”, if only because Robinson was on the go from 5am until 11pm, six days a week for almost two months. “But because it was Johnny’s shoot, Johnny’s film, and he was very happy with everything we were doing, it meant that it was a bit of a joy,” he adds. “There were a few days when I sat in the trailer and went ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing?’ But very few out of fifty days—maybe two or three—would I think ‘I’ve been sucked back in this and I don’t want to do this.’”
The only problem, it seems, was the wine. “I have to say one of the things about Puerto Rico, because it is hot and it’s an island so everything is imported, is that the wine doesn’t travel too well there,” laments Robinson. And as the man who created that great drunk, Withnail, demanding “the finest wines known to humanity”, this was an issue. Luckily, his drinking partner came with provisions. “Johnny’s always got first-rate wine. He’s very interested in high-quality French wine. So very often, when we were going out to dinner, he’d bring his own.”
Prior to starting The Rum Diary, Robinson had been sober for six-and-a-half years, but making a comedy about booze-loving newspaper hacks, he just couldn’t help himself. “The sober side of my head was saying ‘Don’t go there’ and the creative side of my head was saying ‘You can’t write it if you don’t.’ So I drank medicinal quantities of wine while I was writing it.” He’s making no apologies, though.
“If you listen to Beethoven or Tchaikovsky with your ears, and you look at Goya and Leonardo DaVinci with your eyes, why can’t you have art in your mouth? Some of those wines that I’m extremely fond of are like an art form, so therefore I’m not going to necessarily cut them out of my life.”
Revitalized by The Rum Diary, Robinson is now readying himself to shoot his 1998 semi-autobiographical novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman next year, in the slightly less glamorous locales of London and Kent. But would he work in Puerto Rico again? “I think the likelihood of going there to work on another film is zero,” he says, if only because the chances of setting another movie there are slim. “But if I was going to the Caribbean, Puerto Rico would certainly be around the top of the list of places to re-visit.”
The Rum Diary is in cinemas now.