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March 19, 2007

When the Doctor Was In

Doc highlighting Hunter Thompson's last crusade gets NYC premiere

Hunter Thompson rallies on behalf on Lisl Auman in Free Lisl: Fear and Loathing in Denver, screening tonight in Brooklyn

Two weeks after journalist and Gonzo culture godhead Dr. Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide at his home near Aspen, Colo., in February 2005, an epilogue of sorts unfolded in Denver, where the Colorado Supreme Court threw out the first-degree murder conviction 29-year-old Lisl Auman. Seven years into a life sentence for the killing of Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt in 1997, Auman had Thompson (and his friends Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro among others) rallying in support of her ongoing legal appeal; she was handcuffed in the back of a squad car when skinhead Matthaeus Jaehnig, whose help she had enlisted to retrieve her belongings from her ex-boyfriend's apartment, shot and killed VanderJagt and then himself after a break-in was reported and a 30-mile car pursuit ensued.

Aspen-based filmmaker Wayne Ewing, whose Thompson documentary Breakfast With Hunter premiered in 2003 (and whose making-of doc chronicling the author's literally explosive funeral, When I Die, debuted in late 2005), assembled another piece in 2006 around footage of Thompson's speeches on Auman's behalf at the Denver Capitol. Free Lisl: Fear and Loathing in Denver, also featuring interviews with a newly freed Auman and contrite observers from the Denver press, has its New York premiere tonight at Barbes as part of the Brooklyn Independent Cinema Series. Ewing recently spoke with The Reeler about Thompson, Auman and the Doctor's last crusade.

This is your third documentary in four years about Hunter S. Thompson. How did you get started making films about him, and how did they all fall in line up to this point?

I found myself in the early to mid 1980s living next door to hunter in Woody Creek, Colorado, right outside of Aspen. And he'd always been one of my heroes, and at the time I was working as an independent producer on Frontline. I thought, 'Well, you can't pass up this opportunity.' I was always looking for interesting projects for Frontline. Then I heard that Hunter was working as the night manager at the O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco -- what he referred to as the "Carnegie Hall of public sex in America," run by the Mitchell brothers. I thought, 'Well there's a good hook.' I made a point of getting in touch with him while he was out there in San Francisco. So ironically, even though he lived next door, I traveled out to San Francisco and spent a weekend with him at the O'Farrell to get to know him; I thought it would be a great film. By the time I got back to Colorado, Frontline had chickened out: They were like, 'How could we explain spending public money on the night manager of the O'Farrell Theater to Congress?' But at as a result, Hunter and I became good friends and over the next 20 years, I set out to make my own film about Hunter, and that became Breakfast with Hunter when I finally pulled it together.

When Hunter died in February 2005, I started to make a film about the monument that he had laid out for everybody to do in his will -- the funeral. That became When I Die. And then the third film, Free Lisl, started about a year ago; I was going through a lot of the material I hadn't used that I had collected with Hunter over the years, and one story I always meant to do was about the trial and then the freeing, ultimately, of Lisl Auman by Hunter, because I think it's the most significant thing he did over the last few years of his life.

The mythology of Hunter Thompson as this countercultural folk hero has always overshadowed his later career in so many ways -- to some degree, even something like Breakfast With Hunter perpetuates that. The Lisl Auman case totally altered those dynamics.

(Cultural critic) Dave Hickey, who spoke at the one of the seminars we had at the Breakfast with Hunter premiere at CineVegas, said that to be an icon, you have to relatively opaque, meaning that people can read into your personality and identity whatever they really want to and make you their own personal icon. That was certainly true of Hunter. I saw it on a daily basis: People would meet him, but they would bring to his character a tremendous amount of baggage and expectations. For many people he was the Outlaw God; for other people, he was the greatest American writer that ever lived. The reality was that Hunter, most of all, was a highly principled person who was really upset whenever he saw an abuse of power. From the very beginning -- he went to jail when he was 17 for a crime he didn't commit. And I think that scarred him forever and gave him a real distaste for abusive authority. He writes about it in Kingdom of Fear in the opening story, called "The Mailbox," about a confrontation he had with the FBI when he was 9 years old. And he faced down the FBI, which he refused to be intimidated or cowed by.

So that was a strong element of Hunter's personality that some people knew and other people didn't, but it expressed itself in the reality of his unrelenting campaign to free this young girl Lisl Auman from a life sentence without parole in prison for the murder of a police officer that she didn't commit. Few people in this country have ever single-handedly virtually gotten a convicted cop-killer out of jail. And Hunter did.

Lisl wrote to Hunter after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in prison. It's an interesting parallel how their discoveries of each other gave them renewed traction in a mainstream culture that had resigned itself to more cynical, preconceived notions of each of them.

It's true. Her whole case was seen in a different light, and I think for many people, Hunter's activism in the Lisl Auman case caused them to realign their thinking about the kind of person he is or was. So many people look at the myth of Hunter being drunk and high on drugs -- that nut from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But the smart ones in the crowd realize that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the great pieces of American literature. It's really about many things besides drugs and craziness.

And arguably, here's a guy who had been pretty much meandering professionally. He's doing a column for ESPN.com. How did you see the Lisl Auman case reestablishing his own sense of purpose as a journalist?

In the last years, Hunter had a tremendously renewed sense of his responsibility as an American journalist. It wasn't just the Lisl Auman case; that was certainly part of it. But it was just about that time the Bush Administration was beginning to go crazy, and that brought a renewed vigor to Hunter's writing that you can see in the book Hey Rube, which is the best of his ESPN "Hey Rube" columns. From the first 24 hours after 9/11, Hunter predicted what's happened over the last four or five years -- that the Bush Administration would violate civil liberties in the name of the endless War on Terror. He even predicted anthrax attacks -- it's uncanny. For Hunter, it was a return to the Nixonian era; it brought back all the characters for the '70s. Rumsfeld, Cheney -- these were all Nixon people. Hunter thought of it as this huge challenge: this monster from the conservative right that had risen like an ugly phoenix over the land.

In your film you illustrate how the Denver media helped convict Lisl, but when Hunter comes along -- a formidable media institution in his own right -- his energy and his legend virtually pulls his peers in line behind him.

It's so ironic. The Denver Post was unrelenting in the prejudice it displayed toward Lisl's case, and in all the local television news, from the very beginning she was described as "the skinhead's girlfriend." They just took all of the fabricated police stories -- that she had allegedly handed the gun to the skinhead, which he then used to kill the police officer -- without questioning them. When Hunter came into the case with his notoriety and his skillful use of the media, they turned around completely and began to take Lisl's side. The piece that Hunter co-wrote with Mark Seal in Vanity Fair really (boosted) her public image in the case after everything that happened in Denver. I mean, it was subtitled "Lynching in Denver."

Did you get the sense that he knew it would happen and that, when he died, he was content his work was done?

He wasn't certain by any means, but maybe he felt so deeply he thought he could finally let go. I think he had great hopes, but his son and daughter-in-law told me in an interview they had given that if this didn't work -- if the Colorado Supreme Court had not reversed his conviction -- he wasn't going to give up. He would figure out some other way to get that poor girl out of jail.



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