Rum Diary Depp
Credit: Peter Mountain

Johnny Depp remembers the day he first met Hunter S. Thompson. He was waiting at the back of a tavern when the author and journalist burst in, ordering people out of his way. “I just saw sparks, literally sparks,” Depp said of their first encounter. “In his left hand he had a three-foot cattle prod, and in his right hand a tazer.”

The memory was one of many shared Monday night by Johnny Depp and director Bruce Robinson at a Columbia University panel honoring the life and legacy of Thompson before a special screening of Depp’s upcoming film, The Rum Diary. In the film — adapted from a novel by Thompson — Depp plays Paul Kemp, a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Thompson who works as a young freelance journalist in Puerto Rico.

Rum Diary marks the second time Depp has portrayed Thompson — he first played the author in 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. At Monday’s panel, Depp spoke of the time he spent living in Thompson’s basement preparing for the Fear and Loathing role and the close bond that formed between the two men. Depp, who Thompson referred to as “Colonel,” said from that first bar room encounter until the writer’s death in 2005, the pair were almost inseparable.

Depp played a pivotal role in the publication of The Rum Diary and its transition to the big screen. He said one night, while living in Thompson’s basement, the two were going through old files in the “war room” where Thompson kept years of finished and unfinished writings and correspondence. They were sitting cross-legged on the floor “like a couple of teenagers” when Depp came across a box containing the manuscript for The Rum Diary, which Thompson had written decades earlier. It had been rejected for publication when it was first written but with Depp’s help and encouragement and idea to start “waving whiskey bottles at people with thick wallets,” the novel was published with a film adaptation in the works.

Monday’s panel also included Thompson’s literary executor Douglas Brinkley, Thompson’s childhood friend and former editor of Rolling Stone Porter Bibb, and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. One interesting tidbit revealed by the panel: Brinkley said that while the book was being published, Thompson was so concerned with people tampering with his work that he wrote “contaminated with semen” on each galley copy to dissuade people from touching the unfinished novel.

Thompson’s unflinching passion for his words was a recurring topic of conversation for the panel, as was the societal anger that permeated his work. Bibb described as a “voice of ink and rage,” a line lifted from The Rum Diary. During one of the film’s scenes, an angry Paul Kemp rants about Richard Nixon’s lies — a real life anger that Thompson held — and, during the panel, Depp remarked about the “bubbling oozing rage” that Thompson experienced during the Bush era and speculated on how the author would feel if he could see the state of American affairs today. “He’d be like a whirling dervish,” Depp said.

Brinkley described Thompson — who became renowned for “Gonzo” journalism, a style so immersive that the writer becomes a character in the story — as an outlaw, an artist and a revenge journalist. “He didn’t follow any school of thought,” Brinkley said.

In The Rum Diary, Thompson — or, more specifically, his fictional alter ego Paul Kemp — relocates to Puerto Rico for work at a nearly-bankrupt newspaper and has to outrun the local authorities after a spout of drunken escapades and spars with a local shady businessman. The panelists agreed that in real life, Thompson consumed as much alcohol as his fictional depictions suggest, and moderator Nicholas Lemann remarked that the novel and film are as “soaked and saturated in journalism as [they are] soaked and saturated in rum.”

When the subject of Thompson’s 2005 suicide came up, Depp said he was devastated but not surprised. “You always kind of knew that he was not the kind of guy that was going to melt into a bowl of clam chowder,” Depp said.

Immediately after his death, Depp went about making sure that Thompson’s last wish was realized: That his ashes would be shot out of a canon taller than the Statue of Liberty. Brinkley said it was important for Thompson to go out on his own terms. He recalled a conversation where Thompson said, “I’m gonna have Nurse Ratched taking care of me.” Still, fulfilling his wishes took a substantial effort. “The zoning laws to blast someone’s ashes out of the sky are fierce,” Brinkley said, laughing.

Even though Thompson did not live to see Rum Diary adapted for the big screen, his presence was felt on the set. Robinson said that each morning a tumbler of ice and a drink was placed by a chair with Thompson’s name on it and each morning he and Depp would ritualistically rub scotch behind their ears “like f—ing perfume” for good luck.

For the final question of the panel, Lemann asked Depp if he would ever consider playing Thompson for a third time. “Oh yeah,” Depp said. “I wake up with the bastard. He’s always there.”

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