Renowned for writing and directing the cult hit film Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson has made a return to the world of filmmaking after a ten year absence to direct an adaptation of the Hunter S Thompson novel, The Rum Diary.
Here he talks to View’s Matthew Turner about the inevitable comparisons with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, how Johnny Depp bullied him back into the director’s chair, and why Withnail and I is eternally popular.
Can you tell us a bit about how you were tempted back to Hollywood with this project?
Not Hollywood at all, but tempted 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 as a matter of fact that I'd never do it again and kept the promise 17 years. Then I was on vacation in Spain and I got a phone call and it was Depp. It was, "Oh, it's Johnny here, have you read The Rum Diary? Well I'm getting a copy to you tomorrow." And tomorrow The Rum Diary turns up and "Do you want to write it?" Well, I'm a screenwriter basically so I said "Yeah, sure, I'll have a go at it", and I did, 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.
I mean I did say no in the beginning, but he was so confident about it and kept on about it, so I thought "Well, its not my chops on the screen, the risk isn't mine, 'cos if I fuck this up, so what?" So his confidence in the material and in me having a go was the thing that kind of snapped it. It was his risk really, not mine.
How reassuring was it to have his protection that your vision would be the one that ...?
Well, enormously so. There's a lot of Hunter S. Thompson disciples carping about the movie in the States, I'm told. The reality is that there's an enormous difference between a book and a movie, you know, if you're so in love with the book take the fucking book into the cinema - 600 people reading a book, it's a ridiculous thing to say.
The fact is, is that the book firstly is a very early piece of Hunter-esque writing and you see these seeds of what is going to come out of this book, and secondly there are two lead characters, and that might work as a narrative 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 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. What am I to do? You can't win.
There's an enormous difference between a book and a movie, if you're so in love with the book take the fucking book into the cinema...
Have you spoken to Johnny since it opened?
I thought you were going to say "Have I spoken to Shrek?"! [Laughs] Have I spoken to Johnny? Yes, yes I have, he's great. He's honestly a wonderful, brilliant guy. The only loss is the financial loss but that's not my department anyway, my department is trying to make the best film I could.
Can we talk about Johnny's performance in the film? He's not playing Hunter S. Thompson, obviously, but there are elements of his Hunter S. Thompson performances in there. How difficult was it keeping him from going the full Hunter if you like?
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. "Oh, Robinson's trying to remake 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'", you know? Er, Terry Gilliam is a friend of mine, he's an extremely talented man. I didn't want to remake that, what would be the point? Plus, in the period this film was set in 59/60, Hunter Thompson was a very handsome young man. He used to model clothes to get money and stuff in Puerto Rico. So my interest was pre-Gonzo.
I wanted to try and have a look at this guy - it's a key line in the film for me certainly, where he says "I don't know how to write like me" and that's the great problem that anyone who writes has. "Where is my voice?" A writer I don't enjoy, Bernard Shaw, said "When you start writing like yourself, you've got a style." And 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 in here, and I think one of the poisonous elements of 'The Rum Diary' in terms of the few criticisms I've read of it is this constant harping on Hunter fucking S. Thompson, and that it's not like 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'. I mean, put that in another context and say "'Hamlet'? Well it's not like 'Romeo and Juliet'!" Well of course if isn't!
You know, 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 I think 15 years before he got to 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', and it's always bringing it back to that central fulcrum of Hunter Thompson. This is a fiction written by Hunter S. Thompson, and you don't need Johnny with a false bald head and shorts and machine gunning everybody and blowing things up, 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, that.