Bruce Robinson arrives, as expected, a little late. All ruffled hair and punkish swagger, he sports the personality in keeping with being the creator of Withnail and I. The observation may be clichéd, but it is also important, as his most famous creation looms large in the conversation surrounding his return to direction after 17 years, and not just because journalists can’t seem to resist asking him questions about it. Indeed Withnail, after all this time, seems to grip on his own character, with Robison candidly detailing how he was based on several of his friends, as well as himself, after wrapping up an interview to promote his return to direction.
Wild youth and substance abuse are important themes in Robinson’s sparse output, and his new film, Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary, sees him coming out of a self-imposed exile at the behest of Johnny Depp, and exploring some surprisingly similar ground. Set in 1950s Puerto Rico, it sees Depp’s Kent (effectively a stand in for Thompson) take a writing job on the island, and soon finds himself being undone by his unhealthy thirst. Becoming involved in Arron Eckhart’s shady real estate deal, he also begins to chase Amber Heard’s demure, rebellious socialite. What emerges is a fiercely entertaining if uneven pleasure, containing Robison’s trademark dialogue as well as a host of colourful supporting characters and a romanticised, beautifully captured Puerto Rico.
How were you were tempted back to Hollywood?
Bruce Robinson: Not Hollywood at all, but by Johnny. I had no aspirations to be a film director ever again in my life, and that’s absolutely true. I made a promise to myself that I’d never do it again, and kept the promise for 17 years! Then I was on vacation in Spain and I got a phone call and it was Depp. It was quite surprising, I don’t know how he found me. “Oh, it’s Johnny here, have you read The Rum Diary?”, and I said no, and he replied “Well I’m getting a copy to you tomorrow”. And then The Rum Diary turns up and then he says “Do you want to write it?” Well, I’m a screenwriter, so I said “Yeah, sure, I’ll have a go at it”, and I did. And then he called me up and he said “Well now you’re going to direct it” and there was a bit of a friction over that.
It’s almost facetious to say it but here’s the world’s number one film star, bullying me saying “You’ve got to do this” and I mean it’s extraordinarily flattering, firstly, and secondly it was very difficult to say no to someone of his stature inside the industry. I did say no in the beginning, but he was so confident about it and kept on about it, so I thought “Well, it’s not my chops on the screen, the risk isn’t mine, because if I f*ck this up, so what?”
How did you feel about making changes to the source material? You combined two characters from the book into one in the film, for instance.
BR: There’s a lot of Hunter S. Thompson disciples carping about the movie in the States. The reality is that there’s an enormous difference between a book and a movie. If you’re so in love with the book take the f*cking book into the cinema. There are two lead characters, and that might work in a novel but when you’ve got one big film star it doesn’t work. So there was Yeamon and there was Kemp, and I realised that Hunter S. Thompson had split himself down the middle into two separate characters, and as soon as I realised that, retrospectively it seems very obvious, but it wasn’t at the time. So I threw one of them overboard, and all the Thompson fans are freaking out, you know.
The film is being touted as a tribute to Thompson. Do you see it that way?
BR: I only met him once. I sat in a hotel room for two hours and we never said a word to each other. How much of a tribute is making Great Expectations to Charles Dickens? How much of a tribute is making Hamlet to Shakespeare? It’s not a tribute at all. It’s a piece of work that Hunter Thompson created and I’ve adapted for the screen. I think that there is a corporate perception, certainly in America, that this is about a sort of guy getting stoned, drunk and drugged in a hotel room and it isn’t. It’s a bit of a butterfly this one, I think.
Johnny Depp is playing a version of Hunter S. Thompson that is quite different from that in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
BR: Well, we obviously discussed that before we started shooting and it was very apparent to me that it would have been a different kind of negative comparison. Terry Gilliam is a friend of mine, he’s an extremely talented man. I didn’t want to remake that [Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas], what would be the point? Plus, in the period this film was set in, Hunter Thompson was a very handsome young man. He used to model clothes to get money in Puerto Rico. So my interest was pre-Gonzo.
That leads on nicely to the central theme of the story, which is Kent’s struggle to find the voice that would later become the Hunter S. Thompson style…
It’s a key line in the film for me where he says “I don’t know how to write like me” and that’s the great problem that anyone who writes. A writer I don’t enjoy, Bernard Shaw, said “When you start writing like yourself, you’ve got a style”. I wrote for years until I thought “Christ, that sounds like me”. And so that was the side of it I wanted to look at. Thompson wrote this book with a fictitious character, of course based on himself, and it’s got nothing to do with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This was actually written 15 years before. You don’t need Johnny with a false bald head and shorts and machine gunning everybody. I didn’t want to write that. It’s the only thing I find tedious about the criticism is this constant comparison between this and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I suppose it was inevitable, but it’s very frustrating to me.
But there is one scene of ‘Fear and Loathing’ style drug use in the film, when they try LSD for the first time.
BR: It was the beginning of the CIA experimenting with LSD, and I thought it was a novel way to use this drug in the film. They don’t even know how to take it. “You take it in the eye?” So that’s the way they did it in the film. But yeah, that is a slight precursor to Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas but I can’t even remember why I wrote the bloody scene now. It’s an extremely difficult thing to do on film I think, to show the subjective state of inebriation.
How much of Thompson’s dialogue is actually in the film?
BR: There was a review that my son showed me on the internet of some American reviewer, who really hated the movie. He said ‘The only thing that saves this movie is Hunter Thompson’s scintillating dialogue’, and there’s only two lines of his in it! [laughs] So I thought ‘Oh wow okay, I’ll take that as an inverted compliment’.
How do you feel about the film having opened badly in America?
BR: You can’t say the film’s bombed in America because no-one’s been! That’s kind of the tragedy. A film bombs if you open on $25 million on the first weekend and the next weekend it takes eight and six, that’s a bomb. But this film was extraordinary, just nobody turned up. It’s very weird. But then again, you see, it’s a little film, and my stuff doesn’t appeal on a broad front anyway. It’s got nothing to do with me: my job is try and make the film. It hasn’t got anything to say other than “I hope you laugh” and “I hope you’re sucked in and find it a bit glamorous and amusing”. That’s all it was meant to do.
How did you come to cast Amanda Heard?
BR: When Amber came in, this vision came through the door. I thought, “God! Who the f*ck is that?!” and she got the part there and then. Hunter Thompson’s lifelong writing obsession was this American Dream, what is the dream? Is it a real thing or is it not? I wanted a dream girl, every boy’s dream girl, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe rolled into one type-of-stuff. So Amber walks in, and she got the part instantly. I didn’t tell her, we brought her back, tested her, and all the rest of it. Thereafter, whenever she was coming back I would always go and loiter in the office that had about a dozen guys all working in it, to look at them looking at her to see if it worked, and it did work. Amazing presence. I have this feeling with actors that they can’t be in front or behind of it, they’ve got to stick to the celluloid. And she just stuck to the celluloid.
Did you cut anything out of the film that you hated to lose, particularly?
BR: The film could probably profit from another 10 minutes taken out of it frankly. But it’s all about balance. Sometimes the problem with cutting is that it throws something else out of kilter. The Amber Heard scene where she does her dance with the black guy, that was cut down. It was so tense, and I really regret taking half of that scene out. It was just you grinding your teeth, you know, what’s going to happen to this girl? There was a lot of stuff hit the deck, you know, and has to.
What is the strongest aspect of the film for you?
BR: I have absolutely nothing but admiration for the quality of the actors in this film. Any mistakes, obviously, are mine, narrative mistakes or whatever, but nobody can say they’re not f*cking great actors these people. They’re as good as it gets, I think. It was an absolute joy to make and I’d do it again with them. I’m not so sure I’d do it again with anyone else, but I’d do it again with them.
So this doesn’t mean that you’ll be returning to directing on a regular basis then?
BR: Oh no, no. No it doesn’t. I have converted a novel I wrote into a screenplay, which I may well do. But it’s a tiny little English film, you know, a couple of million quid. I’ve been working for fourteen years on the same book, about the Whitechapel murderer, which is a kind of obsessive passion of mine. It’ll take me another two years to finish that. The thing about directing is you take a great film-maker like Ridley Scott. He does movie after movie after movie, this one’s a dog, that one’s not bad, that’s brilliant, but my stuff can’t be like that because it’s kind of esoteric, so if I make something and I f*ck it up, I’m persona non gratis, which truly doesn’t bother me.
Are you surprised how well Withnail & I has held up?
BR: It’s amazing isn’t it? Totally by accident and not design it doesn’t seem to age, does it? That wasn’t my intention, I didn’t think ‘Oh I’m gonna make a film that won’t age’ but I saw it with my son, and I hadn’t seen it literally for ten years, and it’s still the same Richard E in that long coat, and fresh! Anyway, you definitely laughed [at the Rum Diary] did you?
BR: Thank f*ck for that.
The Rum Diary is out now.