Johnny Depp's work on the TV show 21 Jump Street made him an instant heartthrob, but every film he's made since has further eroded that fluffy image. Beginning with John Waters' Cry-Baby in 1990, Depp has spent the decade systematically eliminating any remnants of his TV stint through risky film choices: Edward Scissorhands, Dead Man, Ed Wood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, even the anti-gangster-film gangster film Donnie Brasco, which won Depp some of his most ardent praise. Depp now tackles infamous journalist and iconoclast Hunter S. Thompson in the film adaptation of Thompson's legendary, semi-fictional, drug-induced 1971 novel Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Helming the film is director Terry Gilliam, who first came to prominence as a member of Monty Python, and who has since directed such widely beloved and visually magnificent films as Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys's met up with both actor and director to talk about the mad ride that is Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, the studio system, and how people today just don't seem to care.
The Onion: Did your friendship with Hunter S. Thompson make you apprehensive about tackling his persona?
Johnny Depp: I was apprehensive only up until I got his blessing. I wanted to make sure that Hunter wanted me to do the role, because Hunter has relationships with other actors. You know, [John] Cusack is an old friend of Hunter's, and I didn't want to tread on anything that might be uncomfortable for anybody. They told me that Hunter wanted me to do it, so I went to him and said, "Are you sure that I'm the guy for this role?" And he said, "Yeah, I'm absolutely positive; you can have my blessing." At that point, all I really felt… It wasn't intimidation. I felt responsible. I just wanted to do a good job for him, to do it right. I even told him when he gave me his blessing, "If I do anywhere near a good job, you'll probably hate me for the rest of your life."
O: [To Gilliam] Do you think that at this point in your career, studios know what they're getting into when you're hired on as director?
Terry Gilliam: They probably don't know what they're getting in for, but the warning signs are there. I hope they never know what they're getting in for, because I don't know what I'm getting in for when I do things. I leap into projects. There are things I want to do for whatever reason at that moment. This film felt that way: We had a road map, we knew what the destination was, but very quickly we got lost in the forest. There's no way out of this thing! It's scary, but it's also exhilarating at the same time. So the studios, now they've all been forewarned. What confuses them is making films that make money. These films should not make money because they're not like the films that make money. And that's part of the reason I do these kinds of films, to show that yeah, there are audiences for this stuff out there. I mean, 12 Monkeys, even though you've got Bruce [Willis] and Brad [Pitt] in it, they did a lot of films that fell flat on their face. I remember having a meeting with one of the executives after we made it, and he said, "Great, really great movie, and it'll work." And I said, "Why's that?" And he said, "Two words: Brad Pitt." They try to reduce everything. It's not about Brad Pitt! What about Bruce Willis, what about Madeleine Stowe, what about the script, what about everything?! It's a totality. And that's why I think it worked. Clearly it helps to lure people in when you've got Brad and Bruce, but what was the one with Harrison Ford and Brad? [The Devil's Own. —ed.] Did that work? It's a really hard battle to get the studios to think in terms of the film. It's easy to think in terms of a star, or a concept.
O: It's taken a really long time to bring Thompson's book to the screen. Do you think there's something in Fear And Loathing that's distinctly contemporary, as opposed to 1971?
TG: I think it helped to have some distance from that time. I just think it's relevant now, because people are feeling that this totally materialistic society we live in is not the end-all. And I think it's harder to know who the enemies are now. Back then, it was easy. There was a war going on that was clearly wrong; there were so many things wrong—you know, basically, criminals running the country. And that's what the book was about, this loss. The hope of the '60s, the dreams of the '60s, had all sort of faded away. I think we've now gone down that road for so long that I don't know what dreams are left, but you need them. I get the feeling that especially younger people want something to get involved with. Now, I don't know if this film does that or not, but at least it says that there was a time when you did that. You could behave "badly." Maybe what I'm talking about is that things have become so constricted, people are frightened to say anything because someone [whispers] might take offense. You can't use words because [gasps]. Everything is looked at in a negative way, that someone may be hurt. Which is fine, but at a certain point, it becomes ridiculous. We stop thinking because one person might be disturbed by it. What those characters in the film are, these are people reacting to the world around them, and they're angry, and they're trying to deal with it. And I think we've got to break through the caution of the past few years. I know what the results will be; usually, it'll be chaos. But at least people will start to think again. I think people have just gone numb, stopped questioning, stopped making noise, stopped behaving badly in a sense. I think some of the rappers are pushing it, but that's kind of marginalized out there.
O: Do you think it's even possible to buck the system without the tacit approval of the system itself?
TG: Yeah, you just do it. A lot of independent filmmakers are doing some very good work. Their problem is getting the film exhibited, and that's where the difficulty lies. The exhibition in this country is so controlled, and so you're left with the only chance to see those films being film festivals. Which is another form of distribution, but it reaches a much smaller audience. They get these films made, but I don't see how they get their money back. It's important. You have to get your money back to encourage the next guy to do it. Even if it's only a dollar, just break even. The Hollywood system is what it is, and it's always been that way. I was reading Lillian Ross' book Picture [a 1952 account of John Huston's struggles to make The Red Badge Of Courage], and it was identical to this. You know, market screenings, having people walk out. The people saying you have to change this and that. The difference was I wasn't off shooting The African Queen: I stayed behind and made sure they didn't touch this film. But it was extraordinary to read that nothing had changed in almost 50 years. And then you go back to Irving Thalberg, who instituted market-research screenings, and it was really easy then, because the director was already off doing something else. If the audience didn't like it, he would get some writers to change it, get another director, shoot that stuff, and out it goes. So it's been going on for a long while. There was an interesting period in the '60s and early '70s: The studios had hiccuped with Cleopatra and lost their confidence, and there were all these baby boomers coming up who were interested in different things. And some really wonderful films got made. And then the studios became solid again. I've been really lucky because I'm just so pig-headed and difficult to deal with that I've gotten away with it.