As serious as the consequences of trashing six and a half years of sobriety may become down the line, there is a Gonzo poetry to “The Rum Diary’s” director Bruce Robinson’s confession, in an exquisite profile in the Independent, that he decided to fling himself off the wagon in order to write and direct his adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson‘s booze-fueled account of his stint as an expat journalist writing for a newspaper in Puerto Rico. In fact, given the high bar of drunken debauchery set by Thompson while writing the roman à clef, it’s amazing the cast and crew of “The Rum Diary” didn’t suffer any more collateral damage (liver and otherwise) during the film’s production. And if we were inclined to believe in a Lovely Bones-style vision of an afterlife with an overhead view of the world left behind, we’re certain HST himself would be grinning deviously at Robinson’s fascinating account of his need to hit the bottle in order to tackle Thompson’s tome.
The film’s journey to the screen was the kind of arduous, protracted, obstacle-riddled experience that would drive anyone to drink. It also closely mirrored Thompson’s struggle to get the book published in the first place. After being pelted with a series of rejections shortly after writing the book, Thompson gave up and abandoned the project for more than thirty years, until he revived and published it in 1998. This was right around the time Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — which starred Johnny Depp as the Thompson-inspired Gonzo journalist who travels to Sin City on a drug-fueled boondoggle assignment for Sports Illustrated — became a modest hit film.
Depp and Thompson had bonded as kindred iconoclasts and became fast friends during the making of “Fear and Loathing.” Shortly thereafter, Depp set out to double-down on the Thompson experience and set out to produce a film version of The Rum Diary. Depp quickly assembled a high-wattage cast including Brad Pitt, Nick Nolte, and Benecio Del Toro, who was also attached to direct. But the project languished in development as the bottom fell out of the indie film industry. At that point, Thompson had little patience for the Hollywood waiting game and fired off a lacerating screed to my old Premiere Magazine colleague, Holly Sorenson, who was then an executive at the indie production company developing the film. It’s amazing how much vitality (and creative grammar) there is in Thompson’s prose, even when he’s manically terrorizing a powerless middle manager. And you gotta hand it to Thompson for dispatching his murderous prose to perfectly capture all the time-wasting, name-dropping, car-flaunting ridiculousness of Hollywood at all echelons.
Thompson can claim credit for getting The Rum Diary made, albeit posthumously. Before Thompson committed suicide in 2005, Depp promised the writer he would see to it the film was produced. Over the next few years, Depp made good on his word, enlisting big-shot producer Graham King (“The Departed”), pulling renegade British director Robinson (best known for another ode to alcohol, “Withnail & I”) out of retirement, and assembled a talented new cast including Amber Heard (“Zombieland”), Aaron Eckhart (“Rabbit Hole”), and Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”).
Though Robinson insists he has no regrets about sacrificing his sobriety (among other things) for the sake of the film, he still has yet to give up the pure, as he says “medicinal,” pleasure of a well-timed glass of wine. Perhaps he’s waiting until he closes the book on “The Rum Diary” after it hits theaters in September. Perhaps the film’s more enduring legacy for moviegoers is that the experience, says Robinson, has “de-innoculated” him from his vow to give up filmmaking. He’s already completed an adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. And he’s nearing completion on a non-fiction book about Jack the Ripper, which seems destined for the big-screen treatment.
Either way, we’re thrilled by Thompson’s enduring ability to inspire and ignite and intoxicate with his words. Is anyone else as pumped for “The Rum Diary” and the revival of Bruce Robinson’s filmmaking career?