Arriving in theaters this Friday, The Rum Diary represents two major big-screen returns. First, the project brings back Johnny Depp as a literary alter-ego of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (which he first tackled in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). This time, Depp plays Paul Kemp, a much younger man looking to find himself as a writer, working as a journalist for the San Juan Star in late 1950’s Puerto Rico. Second, the film marks the first directing project from Bruce Robinson in nearly 20 years. His debut, 1987’s Withnail and I, is heralded as one of England’s top cult films and it is said that Thompson himself was an admirer.
Going up against Kemp is Sanderson, an American businessman played by Aaron Eckhart as the polar opposite of everything that Kemp stands for. He joins an ensemble cast that also includes Amber Heard, Michael Rispoli, Richard Jenkins and Giovanni Ribisi.
ComingSoon.net caught up with Robinson and Eckhart to talk about the film, its long time coming and the challenges of bringing both Thompson’s real life and literary fiction together on-screen. First up, here is our interview with Robinson:
CS: The world of Hunter S. Thompson seems to bleed into your most famous film, “Withnail and I.” Was that a big part of what made you interested in directing “The Rum Diary”?
Bruce Robinson: Yeah, it’s the only reason I think I got asked to do this. Both Johnny and Hunter used to screen “Withnail and I” and they liked it. Then I read, completely in an abstract way, a quote in, I think, “The Proud Highway” from Hunter that references it. He says, “The only guy I know who could ever write like me is this weird English guy.” Obviously, that’s incredibly flattering to me because he’s iconic. He’s very famous in England, as he is here. For a certain type that is. I don’t think old ladies with cats like him. But guys like us, who have been out on one or two rough evenings, understand Hunter’s vernacular.
CS: Where do you begin with the book? Some of the characters are condensed and there are elements of the plot that are new for the screen.
Robinson: Retroactively, you can see it very clearly, but I didn’t see it very clearly when I first got the book. Johnny sent the thing and asked if I’d write the script. I had six really rough weeks of it, trying to see how I could make this into a screenplay. Then the lightbulb went off one night and I realized, as obvious as it is, retrospectively, that Hunter had split himself into two different characters. Into Yeoman and into Kemp. I though, “Oh, you f–er, that’s what you’ve done! You’ve split yourself down the middle.” I don’t need two leads in this film. This is for Johnny Depp. As soon as I could throw Yeoman overboard, I could see how to develop a narrative through the story. The second thing I think Hunter did wrong in the book — and I don’t say that in a facetious way, but I believe it was a wrong move — was to have the girl on the side of Yeamon and Kemp. I moved her over and made her Sanderson’s girlfriend. You get that sexual tension and lusting for this amazing looking girl. I remember my agent saying — God, five years ago — “Who do you want for this girl?” I told him I wanted Catherine Deneuve when she was 21. And we got it. We got Amber Heard, who is an amazing female.
CS: One of the interesting things about the book is that, while Thompson wrote it very, very early on, it wasn’t actually published until the 1990s. Part of the charm is that it’s very rough and the writing, frankly, isn’t as good as later works.
Robinson: No, but there are flickers of what he would become later in “The Rum Diary.” It’s the reason — and I don’t say it in an insulting way — that I only used two lines out of the whole book. I threw it away completely and, hopefully, had Hunter’s spirit driving whatever I was writing. I didn’t really use anything from the book at all. They’re two very different animals. The Hunter masturbators will probably be standing outside the movie with signs and torches saying, “It ain’t like the book!”
CS: Having said that, there are a couple of nods not just to this book but to other Thompson works.
Robinson: Exactly. And that sense is in the book, but how did Hunter know it? He wasn’t Hunter Thompson yet. He wasn’t Gonzo yet. That thing I brought into the script of, “I don’t know how to write like me,” is kind of evident. If you read “The Rum Diary” and then read “Fear and Loathing” or one of his later works, you’d see that he didn’t yet write like him. But then there are slips a bit. One of those two lines was him talking about going to pick up the car and saying, “We’ll be lucky to find an oil spot.” That’s a f–ing total Hunter line. The other one was, “Have some fun with the f–ing luger!” That’s a Hunter line.
CS: Tell me about Johnny Depp’s approach to you. Was there anything he specifically wanted to see in the movie, either from himself or that he relayed through Hunter?
Robinson: No, not at all. He said, “Here’s the book. Do you want to write it?” I said yeah and he never said a word to me until I delivered the script. Then he said, “Okay, this is it. We’re making this movie.” He talks a little like Hunter sometimes. [Doing an impression:] “Err, yeah. You can do that.” Hunter talked very, very quickly. He said, “You’re going to direct this,” and I hadn’t directed for 17 f–ing years. I said, “No, I’m not!” The last time I had spoken to him was back during “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and he very kindly asked if I’d have a go at that. I had said no and I never wanted to do it again. But he’s the world’s number one film star. If he’s got that kind of confidence in someone who lives on a f–ing farm in the middle of nowhere in England…” I just said, “Alright, I’ll have a go.” But he is the guy responsible for this. He’s the drive. He got this movie made. He wanted it made and he chose me to have a go at it. He could have anyone he wants. I was very flattered.
CS: There’s something about the film that winds up making you nostalgic for a time and place that you’ve never experienced, in this case late 1950’s Puerto Rico.
Robinson: I had never been to Puerto Rico. When I started, I went out and got all the National Geographic magazines ever written that featured articles on Puerto Rico. I found a wonderful issue from February, 1959 with photographs of the new hotels that had been popping up. Then I read quite a bit about the politics. We know f–k all about the politics back then. I didn’t know what the whole political structure was. I read that, not because I wanted to use it, but just because I wanted to know what it was. I wanted to know why “West Side Story” existed. It existed because the United Fruit Corporation went into this country, mechanized everything to grow the f–ing pineapples and threw everyone in Puerto Rico out of work. All the Puerto Ricans then went to New York and many formed gangs. All of that was pretty interesting to me and I didn’t know anything about it. You don’t use it in the film, but you need to know it. Have you been there?
CS: I have. I actually re-read “The Rum Diary” during my visit a few years ago.
Robinson: Isn’t the place amazing? I’d gladly go again just with my wife for a sort of weekend. Not in the Hilton, I’d have to say, but somewhere else.
CS: There’s a post-script at the end of the movie that, frankly, feels a bit out of tune with the ending.
Robinson: You know, going back to “Withnail and I,” there’s a moment at the end where he preaches to the wolves and does the “Hamlet” scene before walking across the park. You could put, “Withnail lived in isolation and drunk himself to death, dying of throat cancer seven years later.” It wouldn’t hurt the film, but it wouldn’t help it, either. I personally wouldn’t have done it, you know? But there are a lot of compromises in making a movie. A few people had apparently seen the flick and said, “What happened to Chenault? What happened to Kemp?” In reality, Hunter went back to America and married her, his Chenault. Everyone felt that it would help those who aren’t necessarily fans of Hunter S. Thompson to know that he became this very famous, aggressive journalist. But then the movie was test-screened in Phoenix, Arizona. There’s that shot of Richard Nixon on the TV and six out of ten people in the audience didn’t know who that was! They didn’t know who Nixon was! You ask, “Do you know who Hunter S. Thompson was?” and five out of ten didn’t know who he was. So it was considered a good idea to kind of wrap it up. But I wouldn’t necessarily have done it.
CS: One of the interesting aspects of the book is that he’s constantly trying to capture this world that he’s living in in Puerto Rico and feeling like he’s not doing it justice. In some ways, that feels like the filmmaking could be driven a sort of devoted nobility to Hunter S. Thompson rather than the end result. You need to do justice more to the intention of the novel than the final product.
Robinson: He f–ks up many, many times throughout the novel and Johnny certainly had to go back to a place he hasn’t been in a long, long time, especially to find that virgin Hunter. He’s out there with his d-ck hanging out and it’s incredibly brave of him to do it. We had our little moment before we started shooting the movie where we talked about the safety that would be having the bald head and the shades and being Gonzo. We concluded — one rough night, actually, on his boat with a lot of wine involved — when he went, “So who am I, then?” I said, “You’re you, Johnny. You’re you. This isn’t Hunter yet.” To his great credit, he did that. He went out there and played Cary Grant. And he’s so f–ing handsome, it’s unbelievable. We had a pact that we weren’t going to drink or do any of that kind of stuff and we didn’t until one fateful night on the hill when the Coronas came by. But for the majority of the film, we were pretty good boys.
CS: You mentioned that it has been some time since you last directed. Do you think you’re going to stick around now that you’re back?
Robinson: I have no idea. I’m a writer. Someone asked me the other day, “Is it writing or directing?” I can tell you, if Satan walked into this f–ing hotel room and said to me, “You can choose. You can either never write again or never direct again.” I wouldn’t give a f–k about the directing. But if I couldn’t write anymore, I would be devastated. I’m a writer. But I do love the process of directing. I enjoy it. I love actors. I was an actor. I love being around them. I love the anxiety of performance when I don’t have to do it.
CS: “Withnail” was very much autobiographical, right?
Robinson: Very much so. As a matter of fact, when you talk about directing again, I wrote a novel ten years ago about my childhood. I think I would probably direct that. I’ve written a screenplay. It’s a weird, weird story.
Next, here is our interview with Aaron Eckhart about playing Sanderson in the film:
CS: One of your real talents as an actor is that you can play the leading man with a lot of charisma or, in a case like this, you can push that charisma to the point of becoming unlikeable. Is that something that you control as an actor or do you let the reactions of your co-stars help deliver the performance?
Aaron Eckhart: It’s really all the same, those kind of characters and it’s about how it’s written. This character of Sanderson is written to play a certain way. I mean, he’s the antagonist. All the other characters are meant to help define Paul Kemp. Paul Kemp needs a foil and that’s Sanderson. There’s no alternative to playing him but to try and get the audience on your side no matter what. But it’s an impossibility because it’s not written that way. But you have to play it that way or else there’s no reason to play it and there’s no reason for you to exist in the movie. Sanderson is there to make Kemp even more likeable than he already is and I willingly go along with that.
CS: It’s interesting though that, to someone other than Kemp, the Sanderson character could have been a hero. He takes him in and gives him money and a car.
Eckhart: He does. He befriends him. He ingratiates him. He lets him into his home. It’s all leading to, “Wow, this is an unusual relationship or an unusual partnership.” But the other shoe drops and that’s necessary in drama. It has to be set up that way. My job is to be as interesting a person as I can to make people believe that I want to develop this island for all the right reasons. So people can come and enjoy themselves. The problem is that there’s an undercurrent and an underbelly to that. Plus, just look at Johnny and I physically. I’m fairer, he’s darker. He’s got the dark hair, I’ve got the light hair. All that stuff. Look at how we’re dressed. I’ve got the light, breezy clothes. We’re set up to conflict.
CS: There’s a moment with your character that I’m not sure if it’s intentional or not, but he’s looking to build this hotel and he mentions looking at the future “with the right kind of eyes.” That’s the same phrase that’s used in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” but from Depp’s character’s point of view.
Eckhart: I didn’t know that. I really didn’t know anything about that. That’s one you’ll need to ask Johnny about.
CS: Do find period films particularly accessible? Just physically, you’re someone that’s very easy to buy as being part of that era.
Eckhart: Yeah, I could do period that way. I could play a German. I think there’s a charm. I grew up on Cary Grant movies. I grew up on Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. I grew up on Katharine Hepburn. I grew up with Alfred Hitchcock. Those are all very American, archetypical sort of things. I’m more comfortable with that. I’m a very traditional kind of guy. I don’t like flair. I don’t like the limelight. I’m uncomfortable with jewelry and all that sort of stuff. I think that’s why I go towards those roles. But, on the other hand, I think I could play anything. I’m playing Frankenstein in my next movie. I was just thinking about that and how Giovanni [Ribisi] has a really hard part in this movie. I was wondering if I had had his part, what would I have looked like? What would I have done? Or any of the parts. I feel like I can do anything. You just pour yourself into that mold and see what happens.
CS: Does it help you in terms of transformative roles to don makeup or a costume?
Eckhart: Always. Even in rehearsals. Finding a prop or a voice or just talking to yourself. All of those externals are important while you work on your internals. But you have to be able to say to yourself, “Look, I’m going to start here and I don’t know where I’m going to end up. But I’m going to start here as crazy and as weird and as stupid as it sounds.” And it may not be the right voice. It might not be the right prop. Think of Johnny’s character in “Pirates” or Heath [Ledger] as the Joker. They all had to start somewhere. As for where they end up, everything about that is important. The question really is, “Do you have the guts to do it?” And that’s the real question. Because it takes guts. Because inevitably, when you show it to your director or producer, they’re going to go, “What the f–k is that?” They’re going to go, “What’s going on here? Just play it like this.” So you really need to go the whole way and commit yourself totally or you’re not going to be able to do it.
CS: This was shot almost three years ago and you’ve had a huge boost in your career since.
Eckhart: Well, I don’t know. I’ve been up and down. But I did this movie and the week after I wrapped on this, I did “Rabbit Hole.” And then I went right into “Battle: Los Angeles.” All in the same year. That was a big year. I worked my ass off for really what I thought were very different roles.
CS: Absoultely. And is that something that you go after? That blend of genre and character?
Eckhart: I was doing “Battle: Los Angeles.” I was happy to do that. I knew what I was doing and didn’t give a sh-t. It was a popcorn movie and I was totally into that. I trained for that for months and months. Inevitably, nature abhors a vacuum and in comes this one. I said, “I’ll do it. Johnny Depp? I’ll do it.” So I do this one and then Nicole Kidman calls. “Okay, I’ll do it!”. All I really wanted to do was “Battle: Los Angeles.” Luckily these things fell and we worked them out.
CS: I get how “Battle: Los Angeles” is such a great role because it’s like playing John Wayne. How do you wind up saying, “I’d like to play Frankenstein.”
Eckhart: I don’t. Somebody says, ‘Do you want to play Frankenstein?’ and I was like, ‘Well, I haven’t thought about it. Then I read the script. Whenever you read a script that you want to do, you start feeling yourself in that character. All of a sudden your juices start flowing. That’s how you know you should do a movie. Now I’m gonna be Frankenstein and I’m kind of worried about it, actually. I’ve gotta go and figure out how the hell I’m gonna play Frankenstein.
CS: Is this the full-on bolts-in-the-neck Frankenstein we know? I know he’s a private detective in this one.
Eckhart: I think bolts came later. I’m not finding bolts in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” I think all that sort of stuff is an invention of Hollywood. I don’t know where it came from. Even the lightning isn’t a big part of [her book]. “Frankenstein” the book deals more with the subjective. The feelings of the creature and less about the making of. But it’ll be interesting.
CS: Is there a very distinct make-up to it all?
Eckhart: Oh yeah!
The Rum Diary hits theaters on October 28th.