Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson is a character of his own making.
The late author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (among many other books) has been portrayed by Bill Murray, Johnny Depp and Lee Cummings on screen, where the actors have struck compelling but cartoonish figures obsessed with drugs and guns as much as literary pursuits.
Thompson’s life inspired and often encouraged that. But when he died by suicide at the age of 67 on Feb. 20, 2005, his persona seemed reduced to a handful of tropes. Crumpled hat, sunglasses and omnipresent cigarette holder. Unpredictable, violent personality. Woody Creek’s unofficial mayor and gadfly, who babbled in unending streams, often indecipherably.
Those stereotypes can’t possibly provide full pictures of Thompson’s life, said Bobby Kennedy III, who first met Thompson as a child when visiting Thompson’s 42-acre Owl Farm compound outside Aspen with his father, political scion Robert Kennedy Jr. (son of Robert F. Kennedy).
“He was the first person I ever fired a gun with,” the younger Kennedy said, adding that Thompson and his father were longtime friends.
Kennedy is hoping his new film, “Fear and Loathing in Aspen,” adds more real-life depth to Thompson’s persona and politics, which feel prescient in Thompson’s calls to demilitarize police, eradicate America’s racial and class disparities, and clean up the environment.
“We’re in a historical echo right now,” Kennedy said during a recent Zoom interview. “If (Thompson) had won his run for sheriff of Pitkin County, maybe something would have changed, or we would have taken up some of his ideas. Cops making war on citizens and journalists is not a new thing in America.”
“Fear and Loathing in Aspen,” which was filmed in Colorado and saw theatrical release in more than 20 theaters on July 23, tells the story of Thompson’s 1970 campaign. It’s been mythologized in art and writing over the years as The Battle of Aspen, since Thompson ran against the establishment in an effort to keep the city clean, affordable and weird (a fight that was clearly lost long ago).
Grainy montages shot on Super 8 film complement meticulously designed, period-accurate scenes of Thompson with his family, or agonizing privately over his work. It’s easily the most complex portrait of the legendary writer ever presented on screen, and one concerned with quiet moments of doubt as much as showmanship.
Having the support of Thompson’s estate and friends was key, Kennedy said.
“We made a deal early on for use of some of his writing, and we ended up weaving that into the narrative,” Kennedy said. “We’re all fans of his so (Thompson’s estate) knew we weren’t going to drag him through the mud.”
As the director and writer, Kennedy pushed for years to find funding for “Fear and Loathing in Aspen” — first from Sony, and then from the state of Colorado.
It couldn’t have been made without rebates from Colorado’s Economic Development Commission, he said. Kennedy landed the film after a charismatic, in-person pitch in 2016 — back when the project was dubbed “Freak Power” — amid promises to use an in-state crew (which were met).
“Because of my longstanding relationships (in Aspen), we’re going to pull in a few favors here and there,” Kennedy said at the time, flashing a charming, practiced grin. “I wouldn’t want to go to Canada with this. I think it would ruin the spirit.”
Due to creative differences over casting a recognizable lead (Sony wanted one, Kennedy didn’t) the budget shrank from a planned $1.85 million to about $250,000 — which also reduced his eligibility for state rebates from $300,000 to about $50,000. Aspen-based scenes were filmed in Silverton in fall 2018, given decades-long development in the former, and the historic, period-appropriate backdrops of the latter. Simply setting up the production in Aspen also would have eaten up most of the budget, Kennedy added.
The all-important casting of Thompson fell into place as friend Jay Bulger, a Thompson geek, director, and fellow Washington, D.C., native, became ever-immersed in the project.
“When I was writing the script, he would come around and do the (Thompson) voice behind my back, which was kind of intimidating,” Kennedy said with a chuckle. “There was never any intent of him being in the movie, but when we canceled the Sony deal we suddenly didn’t need an A-lister in the role.”
With an uncanny physical resemblance to Thompson and a similar backstory — Bulger is also a gonzo journalist who has written for Rolling Stone — Bulger seemed ideal for the main role. The cast includes Kennedy’s wife, the writer, actor and former CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox; Emmy-nominated actor Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), who happens to be his mother-in-law; and Weston Cage Coppola (son of Nicolas Cage and great-nephew of director Francis Ford Coppola).
Some doubled as producers, calling in favors and devoting dozens of overtime hours to the production. Plans were further complicated when more crises arose. One example Kennedy offered was when a box truck drove into a power line on-location, knocking down a telephone pole and killing electricity to the freshly dressed set of Thompson’s cabin. Kennedy had to pay to have it repaired.
The film was in the can before the pandemic hit. But as with so many others, COVID-19 devastated the marketing roll-out. Kennedy had scheduled a splashy premiere at the 2020 South by Southwest festival, renting out a 1,000-person theater and spending $25,000 on hotel rooms for cast and crew. He had gassed up his 1960s school bus and was planning to throw a massive party at the Austin, Texas, festival.
“During production, we were always running from the boulder rolling downhill, Indiana Jones-style,” Kennedy said. “With (the pandemic), I was banging my head against the wall.”
Luckily, Kennedy ended up securing a release with Shout! Factory, which is distributing the film theatrically and digitally, thanks in part to Stephen Nemeth, a producer on Terry Gilliam’s iconic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Shout! Factory’s wide reach will give it the platform it deserves, Kennedy said.
“Politics is the art of controlling your environment, and Hunter knew that,” he said. “In that way, I’m glad this turned out as an independent film instead of a studio feature. I also think the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson might have beaten my ass had I done that to him.”
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