Animals, Whores & Dialogue; The Resurrection of Dr Hunter S Thompson
Charles Thomson speaks to filmmaker Wayne Ewing about his latest documentary on gonzo legend Hunter Thompson.
July 2010 , Huffington Post
It is almost ten years since the twin towers came down and more than five since Hunter S. Thompson took his own life but his words remain chillingly prophetic to this day.
"The towers are gone now," he wrote just hours after the first plane hit on September 11th 2001, "reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for peace in our time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are at war now -- with somebody -- and we will stay at war with that mysterious enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be a religious war, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare with no front lines and no identifiable enemy...
"We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it, is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once... This is going to be a very expensive war, and victory is not guaranteed -- for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by fate and the global oil industry to finish it now."
With so much emphasis put on Hunter S. Thompson's eccentric lifestyle, it is easy to forget that at his best he was arguably the most astute political commentator of the last century. Tales of Thompson's debauched lifestyle overshadowed his work for much of his career and this has continued to be the case in the years since his death. But it is Thompson's prose that takes centre stage in Animals, Whores & Dialogue, Wayne Ewing's new vérité documentary about the late author.
The film, Ewing's fourth about the gonzo legend, documents a night at the kitchen table of Thompson's Woody Creek home as the writer puts together one of his Hey Rube columns for ESPN, which used sports as a metaphor for the American political landscape in the early years of the 21st century. Intercut with scenes from a Louisville tribute to the author, the editing of Thompson's letters compilations, book signings, local political rallies and more, the film offers a unique insight into Thompson's working process.
The title, Animals, Whores & Dialogue, is borrowed from a piece of paper taped to Thompson's electric typewriter -- a mantra he would read aloud for inspiration when he sat down to write.
In Thompson's journalism he often used animals to as a metaphor for the ugly side of humanity. In Fear and Loathing at the Watergate he writes of a 'drooling red-eyed beast' crawling out of its bedroom in the South Wing of the White House, while in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the drunken inhabitants of his hotel become giant lizards. Whores were a self-explanatory metaphor for cheating politicians and corporate shills. Dialogue was simply a structural element, says Ewing.
"There's a scene in the movie where Hunter talks about the writing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and how he originally meant that to be written as a movie, believe it or not," Ewing explains. "And he thought he did it properly because the dialogue snapped. But he admitted that he made one fatal error, which is that much of the novel is internal dialogue. It's all in the characters' heads, the distorted experiences they're having because of the drugs."
Ewing first met Thompson in the 1980s, where Thompson was working as night manager of San Francisco's O'Farrell Theatre. The writer described the theatre as 'the Carnegie Hall of live sex in America'.
A producer for documentary TV series Frontline, Ewing thought he'd struck gold; a documentary about the famed 'outlaw journalist' managing an adult theatre was a surefire hit. He pitched the concept to his bosses, who appeared keen, and paid his own way to San Francisco to get Thompson onboard. But by the time he returned, he found his story had been spiked.
"Unfortunately, when I got back on the Monday morning David Fanning, executive producer of Frontline, totally chickened out," says Ewing. "He told me, 'I must have been crazy! How could I explain to Congress that I was spending public money on the night manager of a sex emporium?' So I realized then that I was going to have to do it on my own."
Over the next 20 years Ewing would make the transition from television filmmaker to Thompson's personal videographer, documenting both his work and his famed hijinks. His first documentary about the writer, Breakfast with Hunter, was released in 2002 and became one of the first DVDs to be sold independently online.
"Hunter hated the internet," chuckles Ewing. "He saw it as a means of surveillance. He was fascinated by the way we distributed the film but he was very much old school.
"We tried to set him up with an internet terminal at the kitchen stool where he worked but we'd always end up sending it back within 30 days to get our money back, or else he'd beat it up too badly. There was always a danger if you left the equipment there for too long. Dell Computers weren't going to take it back with a bullet hole in it."
Breakfast with Hunter documented Thompson's battle with local law enforcement when he was arrested on a bogus DUI charge after delivering a speech at a controversial political rally, as well as following the writer's quest to have Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas turned into a Hollywood film.
Animals, Whores & Dialogue aside, Thompson has been the subject of four other feature length documentaries since his suicide in 2005, of which two were produced by Ewing. Free Lisl documented Thompson's campaign for the release of Lisl Auman, a young lady jailed for the murder of a policeman even though she was handcuffed in the back of a police car when the crime was committed, while When I Die chronicled Johnny Depp's efforts to arrange Thompson's unconventional funeral.
Ewing has been unimpressed by other documentaries about his friend. Starz Entertainment's Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride, says Ewing, was "an attempt to make a documentary about Hunter that would tie into the movie business so they could interview a lot of celebrities -- and many of them had only a passing acquaintance with him. There were a lot of people talking with great knowledge about Hunter who had barely met him."
Ewing was also left disappointed by Alex Gibney's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S. Thompson.
"I think that Alex Gibney unfortunately contradicted himself terribly within his own movie," he laments. "I mean, it was just absurd. He opened Gonzo with this lyrical example of how productive Hunter was on the very morning of 9/11... and then he ended the film saying he was an abject failure at the same time in 2001 and the last years of his life.
"I thought it was disappointing. It just shows the problem with doing what I call clip shows. Alex never knew Hunter and I don't think he had a very good understanding of him, unfortunately. Just because you've got the money to buy clips, doesn't mean that you have any real insight into your subject."
One certainly couldn't accuse Wayne Ewing of not knowing his subject. Throughout his two decades shooting Thompson he served as the author's road manager, helped edit his books and transcribed footage of Thompson's brainstorming sessions so that the text could be included in his articles. It is this side of Hunter Thompson - the hard-working side - that comes across in Ewing's latest film; an attempt the set the record straight and shift the focus away from Thompson's image and back towards his work.
"We worked tremendously hard on his writing and he did too, most of all," Ewing explains. "Sure we'd go out and set off a bunch of fireworks or a bomb when we got a great chapter finished or something like that, but Hunter was a very serious writer and I think now he's beginning to be considered properly, right up there with people like Mark Twain.
"Mark Twain, like Hunter, liked to dictate a lot of his words because they were more spontaneous - fresher for it. I was just reading that in a review of his autobiography and I thought, that's interesting, how similar that was to Hunter, them both being such wordsmiths and pundits and observers of culture."
The comparison with Mark Twain is an interesting one. Thompson was undoubtedly an insightful and influential writer, but if you tap his name into a search engine you'll likely have to wade through various fan pages and tribute blogs before you come across much serious discussion of his work. Many of those fan pages seem far more interested in Thompson's lifestyle than his writing; you'll come across plenty of videos of Thompson setting fire to Christmas trees or firing machine guns with Conan O'Brien - flooded with comments like 'Pure gonzo genius!' - before you find any in-depth textual analysis of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. This, says Ewing, is something Thompson battled for many years.
"That was a continual problem for Hunter. The lifestyle was something that he didn't do purposely -- that's just the way he lived. It was flamboyant and something that attracted people's attention so it was a good marketing element, certainly. But above all else, he really wanted to be considered as a writer. I think more and more these days people are looking seriously at Hunter's work and that's what I'm really trying to do with this film.
"With Breakfast with Hunter I tailored it to that image that people had -- that expectation. I didn't want to let people down and Hunter didn't either. So there are scenes where he takes a fire extinguisher and unleashes it on [Rolling Stone's] Jann Wenner -- that sort of thing. But that's one thing that's really been remarked about with the new film -- it focuses so clearly on Hunter's writing. That's the theme all the way through, what it took for him to become a great writer and how he was able to achieve that."
As well as documenting Thompson's work on one of his Hey Rube columns, Animals, Whores & Dialogue is peppered with references to other great gonzo efforts, from his scathing critique of the Ruben Salazar case in 1971, when an unarmed journalist was shot in the head in a quiet café by a police officer toting a tear gas bazooka, to a hilarious deconstruction of George Bush's presidency in 2002. Ewing says the author experienced a career renaissance in his final years when he discovered a new way to approach his craft.
Throughout the 1980s Thompson was considered by many, including friend Jann Wenner, to have become a self-parody, constantly striving to live up to the crazed image that the public associated him with. But when Thompson took a step away from participatory journalism, says Ewing, he hit his stride again.
"His fame made it really difficult for him to travel without being recognized so for the last ten or fifteen years of his life, I would say, he didn't do stories by participating in them as much. In terms of writing about politics and American culture, he did that based on sitting in his kitchen, watching the big screen TV and talking to a tremendous number of people. He would talk on his phone all night long, until the wee hours of the morning, to some of the most influential people in American politics.
"So he had a great grasp of the culture and the zeitgeist right from his kitchen. He didn't have to go out there into the fray because then he would become the story. If he went to the Superbowl, he would become the story, or if he went to a big fight or a political event. He shied away from that very much in the last years. I think he still did some great writing from his kitchen."
Ewing cites Thompson's work on September 11th 2001 as an example of this.
"In that one piece he wrote on the day of 9/11, Hunter pretty much predicts the major elements that happened in the world over the next two or three years," Ewing marvels. "That there will be a war with no end against an unnamed enemy, that everything will change, that they won't be able to build jails fast enough because of the Patriot Act that they're going to pass.
"All these things he predicted within a couple of hours of the planes hitting the twin towers. I mean, it's amazing. And if you go back to a year before, as you'll see in the film, he talks about terrorists doing anthrax attacks and hijacking planes a year before it actually happened. He was truly a visionary. He could really see the future."
But Thompson wasn't the only one who could see into the future. As the writer's body began to fail him, his friends and family began to suspect that he could take his own life.
"Hunter was certainly not well and a bit frail due to various health problems over the last few years," says Ewing. "He had hip surgery, back surgery, he fell and he broke both his legs. He had to re-learn to walk twice within 18 months in the last couple of years of his life because of all those surgeries. There is a tremendous amount of pain and rehabilitation and recovery involved in those kinds of operations.
"He wasn't going to be a man that ended up as an invalid. To be physically capable was very important to him. He'd always been a big strong man and I knew that when he began to lose control of his body, he wouldn't be able to stand that and he would make that decision. And he was clearly capable of doing that. You know, Hunter was a scary character. He was capable of really violent acts and I knew he could turn that violence on himself.
"I always figured that Hunter would probably kill himself, but I just always hoped it wouldn't be that day."
On 20th February 2005, Ewing was working on a film in New Orleans when he received a phone call from a journalist friend in Denver to say he'd heard Hunter Thompson was dead.
He sighs, "It was very traumatic for me. I called the sheriff and got him on his cell phone, standing over the body.
"I last saw Hunter a couple of weeks before he died. I was out there with my brother and we were watching football but I can't remember any specific final statements or anything like that. It just ended the way it always did, you know. Gambling on a football game.
"I think that's what I miss the most. I miss betting on sports with him. Most of all I miss... I miss... Sunday football games. That was what we would do all afternoon and into the evening before we would start working on his ESPN columns. We gambled on football and I just miss that fun and that camaraderie."
Now that Thompson is gone, Ewing says his mission with Animals, Whores & Dialogue is to get a new generation interested in his friend.
"What I hope people will take away from this film more than anything is that the kitchen at Owl Farm was one of the great literary salons of the 20th century, in America. You'd meet some of the most fascinating people in the world and we'd all gather together and generally we would just read out loud Hunter's writing. We'd read other things that he admired, too. It was a terrific experience. What led us to it was the magnetic personality of Hunter, but what he took us to was an appreciation of great writing."
Once he's finished promoting Animals, Whores & Dialogue, Ewing says he plans to return to drama. During the 1990s and early 2000s he worked as a cinematographer on shows like Crime and Punishment and Homicide: Life on the Street. The director says non-fiction movie-making is fast losing its appeal.
"You know, documentaries have changed," he muses. "I've been in this business for about 40 years now and it's a very crowded field. The influence of reality television has had a terrible effect on real, serious documentary filmmaking. Everyone's just performing for you nowadays. It's very hard to find a subject that's fresh or that's not tainted by media. Maybe I've got to find some lost, prehistoric tribe in the Amazon or something.
"When I made my first film in 1972, a political film called If Elected, the candidate and his campaign manager would have knock-down, drag-out arguments right in front of the camera and would forget the camera completely. That would never happen now, or if it did, it would be a put-on.
"I think a great example of that is the Obama documentary. In the end they got virtually nothing from Obama that was candid or behind the scenes or that was anything but guarded. They were only chipping away at the edges of the campaign. They got about as close to the centre of the solar system as Pluto."
But what of Ewing's 20 years' worth of Hunter Thompson footage? In between dramas, will we see more documentaries about the gonzo pioneer? Not in the same vein as Animals, Whores & Dialogue, says Ewing.
"I think if I do anymore they'll revolve around specific subject matters, for example, the Rum Diary. I have a tremendous amount of material that I shot while we were editing the Rum Diary and then over the years as he was trying to get it made into a movie. Right now the movie is scheduled to be released sometime next year so I might do something special that'll go along with the release. That kind of thing.
"I'm honoured that I've been able to add to Hunter's legacy," he says. "I think one of the main reasons Hunter wanted me there all those 20 years was so that one day when he was gone, the film would still exist and he would live on. Jennifer, my producer, said when she saw the first cut that 'he'll live forever now'. I think that's really true."
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