After his unpleasant, studio-meddling directing the flop-thriller Jennifer Eight in 1992, British filmmaker Bruce Robinson vowed he’d never work on a Hollywood film again.
Seventeen years later, he broke that vow when Johnny Depp called, asking him to both write and direct The Rum Diary, based on his good pal Hunter S. Thompson’s first novel. The film opened in theatres on Friday.
In an interview, the 65-year-old Robinson, who earned cult status with his revered 1987 film Withnail and I, chats about why he slipped back into the director’s chair, why it drove him to drink, and his gratitude for being asked to participate in a project that has restored his love of making movies.
What did Depp do to entice you?
I was very resistant to being a film director ever again, but if you’re sort of being bullied by the number-one box office star – and he has that kind of confidence in you – it’s hard to say no. Plus, Johnny’s incredible enthusiasm and love for Hunter was so evident, it was infectious. So I said yes, and we had a pretty glorious time making it.
How was this experience different from Jennifer Eight?
At first, I was worried I’d have a studio second-guessing me all the time, like in Jennifer Eight. But the first thing Johnny pointed out was that The Rum Diary isn’t a studio [film] It’s him. The second great thing was that it was Hunter. I didn’t know him like Johnny, but I’ve always been an incredible fan. So there were lots of positives. The only negative was thinking: ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’ But it really is the clichéd thing of riding a bike. Once you start pedalling, it all comes back to you. So it went on like an old shoe.
Most of the screenplay is your own words, so how did you stay true to Thompson’s distinctive voice?
In a very curious sort of way I couldn’t stay true to his voice. I could be in his vernacular, but I had to make it my voice. Otherwise, if you aim at two targets with one arrow, you end up missing both. I knew I couldn’t write like him because I’m not him. I can only write like me. So I read the book twice, threw it away, and never looked at it again.
After many years of abusing booze, you stopped cold turkey for six years, only to reach for the red wine when it came time to write The Rum Diary. Why?
I’ve been a writer for 40 years and it’s a very lonely occupation. I’d gotten into the habit over the years of literally drinking wine all day while I worked. I’d finally gotten to the point where I was tired of doing that every day, seven days a week, so I cut the booze out of my life completely. But I was paralyzed for the first few weeks working on The Rum Diary, and couldn’t write a thing. One day I said to my wife, ‘You know I’m just going to have to drink some wine for this. To immerse myself in Hunter’s madness.’ So I had one bottle of red wine a day – every day – for the three months it took me to write the story. Then I stopped again. Johnny is a great connoisseur of wine, so I can’t deny we shared a few fantastic Bordeaux in his trailer. But I’m back into non-drinking mode. I just feel better.
Flying from Mexico to Los Angeles, both engines suddenly cut out and you and Depp were plunging to the ground. How did you react?
We started laughing hysterically. And I think we reacted that way because it was at that juncture of our relationship where we were both so relieved that we really liked each other. Rather than having anything to do with the plane, it was kind of nervous relief. But I can’t imagine ever doing anything so insane again. I’m not a great fan of the iron bird anyway, and I can’t think of anything more frightening than being on a plane going down. Thank God the engines kicked back in.
You met Hunter S. Thompson once briefly in Los Angeles? How was that?
It was about 20 years ago, and my wife was a friend of Hunter’s girlfriend at the time. She called up, and said Hunter’s in town, would you like to meet him? So we went to the Chateau Marmont Hotel. We sat with him for two hours, and we didn’t exchange a single word with him. Then we got up and left. You know that horrible saying – if you meet the Queen of England, don’t speak unless you’re spoken to? Well, what am I supposed to say to Hunter? If he doesn’t want to talk, that’s his prerogative. Also, he was a little worse for wear I think, and he just wasn’t in the mood to talk.
What was the most impressive thing about working with Depp?
I admire the consummate artist in him. I knew Johnny to be a very fine screen actor, but he’s also an amazing musician and a fabulous oil painter. At the end of the movie he gave me this portrait he’d done, about six feet by six feet, of Keith Richard. It now hangs very proudly in my home. And his literary interests are also very similar to mine. We both love [Charles] Baudelaire, Dylan Thomas and [T.S.]Elliot. All the books I have in my library, he has in his. The only difference is that his are usually the original manuscripts.
Will you direct another film?
I’m basically a writer. That’s what I care most about. But we’ll see how The Rum Diary does, and if it does really well, it would be the inspiration to have another go at one.
This interview has been condensed and edited.