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‘Gonzo’ Director Alex Gibney on Hunter S. Thompson, Torture, and Sundance

Alex GibneyPhoto: Getty Images

Vulture continues its Sundance coverage today with director Alex Gibney, who made his name with the Oscar-nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and blew at least one critic away with his torture documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, which hit theaters last week and was nominated for an Oscar this morning. At this year’s festival, Gibney will have two films showing: Gonzo, a documentary about the life of Hunter S. Thompson, and Love Comes Lately, a dramatic feature he executive-produced. He spoke to Vulture about Johnny Depp, Hunter’s personal files, and how he’s using drugs to help him get through Park City.

You’ve worked on movies about torture, corporate corruption, and war. How’d you get involved with a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson?
The project was brought to me by HDNet and Graydon Carter. They all had the same idea, and they wanted to know if I’d do it. I read a piece by Frank Rich not long after Hunter had killed himself about Jeff Gannon, the sometimes male prostitute–White House correspondent. I was just thinking about how all their reporters were phony, and wouldn’t it be great if Hunter were back? The estate ending up being enthusiastic about the project, and that was a huge boon because the materials we found were fantastic.

Such as…?
There’s a chapter in Fear and Loathing called “Taco Stand” with Hunter and Oscar [Zeta Acosta], and they tell a woman “We’re looking for the American Dream” and the woman — without any irony — says, “Yeah, there’s a place up a couple blocks and to the left.” We searched through some boxes and found an audio tape called “Taco Stand,” and sure enough, it’s Hunter and Oscar having that exact conversation!

And there’s footage of his actual funeral in the film, right?
Hunter imagined his ashes being blown out by a big shaft with two thumbs clutching a peyote button at the top. So they did it. We were there along with a whole bunch of others, like George McGovern and Bill Murray. Johnny Depp played music. And yes, they actually did shoot Hunter’s ashes out. It was unbelievable.

Johnny Depp also narrated. What was he like?
He became available at the eleventh hour, and he was just extraordinary as I sensed he would be. He and Hunter had formed this great bond — Johnny went up and lived with him for a period of time when he was preparing for Fear and Loathing. And if I recall correctly, there’s a room down in the basement of [Hunter’s] house with a tiny little bed called “Johnny’s room.”

Our critics love your other new film Taxi to the Dark Side, which tells the story of a wrongly accused Afghan man who died of torture at the hands of the American military. What do you think about the waterboarding debate?
Everybody speaks so blithely about whether or not it’s torture. To see Rudy Giuliani say it would be okay if “the right people do it” … and to hear Giuliani and Romney calling for a second Guantánamo to be built? That’s appealing to what Hunter would have called “the fear and loathing.”

You’re also working on a Jack Abramoff film and Magic Bus, about Ken Kesey, in addition to a bunch of other things. What’s your secret?
Luck is where opportunity meets the prepared mind. Things drop in my lap, or sometimes I see something that strikes my fancy. Sometimes my wife asks me, “Why don’t you go back to making those animal films?” Like, take those penguins after they defeated me in the Oscars. [Laughs.]

So how do you gear up for Sundance?
Well, right now I’m lying flat on my back, having displaced a few disks. I’m hoping that the mixture of painkillers and alcohol will create an appropriate effect when I stand up to talk about Hunter Thompson.
—Sadia Latifi

‘Gonzo’ Director Alex Gibney on Hunter S. Thompson, Torture, and Sundance