In February, Alex Gibney took home the Academy Award for best documentary feature for “Taxi to the Dark Side,” his eerie investigation into charges of prisoner abuse by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
It’s grim stuff, and Gibney thwarted the worst kind of despair during the lengthy production and editing process by, yes, making another movie - simultaneously.
“It was loony,” recalls the director, describing a setup where two separate editing operations were going at once. “I walked from one world to another in something like 10 steps.”
That other world was “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson,” in which Gibney offers a portrait of the crazed journalist of “Fear and Loathing” fame, a guy who basically invented the so-called New Journalism that combined old-style reportage with a subjective, subversive approach. Thompson wrote about a wild, whacked-out weekend in Las Vegas, and covered the 1972 presidential campaign, filing his reports for Jann Wenner’s upstart music mag, Rolling Stone.
Thompson’s writings from the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s upended the journalistic status quo, and turned the bug-eyed, chain-smoking reporter into a star. Gibney’s film features a wealth of Thompson footage and archival material, plus scenes from “Where the Buffalo Roam” (Bill Murray as Thompson), “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (Johnny Depp as Thompson), and interviews with Pat Buchanan, Jimmy Buffet, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Tom Wolfe, Thompson’s first and second wives, and his son.
Thompson committed suicide in February 2005, but not before planning his own giant wake, which Depp in large part paid for. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” superstar narrates Gibney’s film.
“Johnny had gone and lived with him in his house, and shadowed him when he was preparing to play Hunter in the ‘Fear and Loathing’ film,” says Gibney. “He really was, and still is, psychically connected to him.”
Still, it wasn’t easy getting Depp involved. Gibney had to track him down and show him a rough cut.
“After that, he was on board,” says the director. “He heard it with my voice (doing the narration). So he probably took pity on us. You know: ‘You can’t have that.’”