The writer-director of comedy classic Withnail and I explains how Johnny Depp got him out of retirement to adapt Hunter S Thompson’s The Rum Diary
Bruce, where are you today?
I’m on a farm about four hours west of London. It’s incredibly cold here. I wish I was in Sydney.
So you’ve gone on holiday by mistake? …Sorry, Withnail gag there.
I live here. I’m not a farmer, but there are animals hanging about [laughs].
You haven’t directed a film since 1992. Why not?
The experience of my Hollywood adventure, Jennifer 8, was so utterly revolting and repugnant to me that I swore that I would never, ever go and do it again. Then I was in Spain on vacation with my family and I got this call at the hotel. “Hi, it’s Johnny Depp here. Do you know this book?” I said, "No." “Can I send it to you?” So it turns up the next day.
I did it like a screenwriting commission. And then Johnny got the thumbscrews out for me to have a go at directing it. So I said: "Oh fuck it, all right." And it was great; it was really enjoyable. I got on really well with Johnny.
Withnail and I (1987) is the classic comedy of young actors in '60s London hoping to achieve great things but stuck in a mire of alcohol and drugs. The Rum Diary is about the young Hunter S Thompson, starting out as a journalist in Puerto Rico and getting wasted a lot. Are you like the go-to guy for 1960s over-indulgence? Johnny’s a big Withnail and I fan and he wanted some of that kind of feel in The Rum Diary. I wasn’t blown away by the book: I do like Hunter’s work but I didn’t really care for this too much.
So how did you approach the adaptation?
Hunter split himself into two in the book and you can’t have two leads in a movie, so one of them had to go. That has attracted much criticism from Hunter fanatics! There’s an acid scene in the film that isn’t in the book and I put that in there to suggest what was coming with the Gonzo period.
Did you know Thompson?
I met him once years ago at the Chateau Marmont in LA. We sat in the same room for two hours and didn’t say a word to each other. He was pretty well upholstered with various items. He just sat there with the table in front of him with all of these ingredients for the evening which he kind of went through one by one. I said “I’m going” and he grunted, so I got up and left.
A poll by Time Out London places Withnail as the 15th greatest British film of all time. The cult just keeps on growing....
It’s weird – the film doesn’t seem to age. I originally wrote it as a novel and people used to photocopy it and hand it around. Then a rich guy read it and gave me five thousand pounds to turn it into a screenplay. Then nothing happened for 16 years. After The Killing Fields [Robinson’s screenplay was Oscar-nominated in 1985] my friend [producer] Paul Heller said, “If I get the money will you do it?” And fuck me, he got the money. The next thing I’m up a hill with 50 people.
There was no intention for me to be a filmmaker and indeed the same thing pertained when The Rum Diary came up. The only reason the movie got made was Johnny. God bless him, he wanted me for it, and I gave it my best shot.
Hunter S Thompson cheat sheet
1937 Born Louisville, Kentucky
1959 Fired from job as Time copy boy
1960 Takes a job on Puerto Rico sports paper Il Sportivo. Writes novel The Rum Diary (unpublished till 1998)
1966 Publishes non-fiction book Hell’s Angels
1971 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas births Gonzo journalism – subjective, drugged-up, anti-establishment, quasi-fictional
1980 Movie Where the Buffalo Roam released starring Bill Murray as HST
1990 Accused of sexual assault. Raided by police, who seize drugs and dynamite. Charges dismissed pre-trial
1998 Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing released, starring Johnny Depp
2005 Commits suicide by shotgun. Note says: “67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted... relax. This won’t hurt”