Sundance Features

January 21, 2008

Alex Gibney, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

"Like Hunter, I think I'm motivated as somebody who always wants to see the underdog have his or her day."

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

THE REELER: What's the back story on Gonzo? How and why did you decide to take this on now?

ALEX GIBNEY: It's funny -- Gonzo was brought to me a couple of years ago. I was turned on to the idea because I'd just read a piece by Frank Rich all about this guy Jeff Gannon -- the prostitute who was impersonating White House reporters with the collusion of this administration to ask softball questions. Basically Rich said, "At a time like this, when even the reporters are phony and the political process has become completely bowdlerized, we need a Hunter Thompson." This was right after Hunter committed suicide. So I thought, "That's interesting." I'd always liked his writing; I'd never known the guy personally, but I thought it would make an interesting movie. So I got into it. It's always hard to make to make a movie about a writer, yet this was a colorful character. At the same time, I didn't want to make a movie about what everybody was making a movie about -- this wild, drug-crazed character. Of course that was part of it, but I wanted to get back to what made him so interesting to us in the first place: How great a writer he was. That's why I took it on.

R: There's an increasingly fine line in documentary between breaking down a cultural mythology and exploring it under kind of a soft focus. How did you want to pay tribute to his work while staying honest about who he really was?

AG: The idea was to completely reverse the traditional roles of documentary discourse. Usually the narrator is the straight man, and the interview subjects provide the angled, opinionated commentary. In this case, we had the unreliable narrator at the center -- Hunter Thompson. Every word of narration in the film is from Hunter's writing, whether it be from letters, books, articles, whatever. And then people comment on it in ways that sometimes undermine what Hunter was saying; sometimes they're very direct and honest about what a prickly and sometimes hostile character he could be. I felt we got the best of both worlds, and in that way it's not a hagiography. But at the same time it digs deep into his writing, which was great.

R: What did you determine it was about him specifically that so captivated both his colleagues' imagination and a wider cultural imagination?

AG: He was a true "free lance," in the sense that he was an angry man willing to gore every sacred cow in his path. So he was fearless -- he went after people, and he did so with a wicked sense of humor that everybody appreciated. At the same time I think he had his finger so much on the pulse of the American character -- both what makes it great and what makes it horrible. He understood the tremendous idealism in America, and he always wore his heart on his sleeve. At the same time, he always understood the deep fear and loathing, as Hunter would have put it, at the heart of this society.

R: Your father was a journalist, and much of your work -- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and now Gonzo in particular -- closely observes the journalistic tradition. How personal to you is the relationship between journalists and society?

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AG: To me they're like private eyes; the best ones are determined to seek out the truth. They're very curious, and they perform a very valuable function -- at the best of times. Or, more particularly, in the worst of times. They're like the canary in the coal mine, and the good ones speak truth to power. They challenge the way things are but also ask uncomfortable questions and don't try to tidy things up. So much of what we see on TV today is this kind of cheap opinion. Good journalists embrace the contradictions of everyday life and are also deeply curious people who are trying to challenge the powerful and the mighty.

R: Where would you place yourself as a filmmaker on that continuum?

AG: I do something different than journalism. I'm a filmmaker, so I use the power of cinema to tell stories in a way that isn't like reporting or TV news, most of which I detest. But at the same time, I also look to embrace the contradictions of everyday life. I think I tilt at windmills in the sense that I tend to go after the mighty. And like Hunter, I think I'm motivated as somebody who always roots for the underdog and wants to see the underdog have his or her day. It's that interest in telling a good story, but telling it in a way that exposes uncomfortable truths. And, like one of the great things I enjoyed about Hunter, hopefully do that with a great and wicked sense of humor.

R: You've been super busy with three films in as many years. How have these projects and their wildly disparate subjects influenced you as a storyteller?

AG: I started out in the business for a long time as a fiction film editor. Then I made a lot of documentaries, and I executive produced The Blues, which was produced by Martin Scorsese. That was a real revelation for me -- to watch these other feature filmmakers tackle documentary. In a way it was very personal for all of them, stylistically innovative and also true to the material. So I think I was inspired by that, and I learned a lot from it. You go into each film trying to honor the material, and that accounts for different kinds of stylistic choices. But at the same time you want to be true to yourself personally. That makes a good movie. And, of course, being disciplined about storytelling: One of the things my editors and I always learn is that at a certain point, the story takes over. Even though there are so many ideas you might have about doing this or that or the other thing, the story almost demands that you tell it. You'd better pay attention; if you don't, you're in trouble.

R: You've been busy and successful at festivals for a while now. What are you looking forward to when screening Gonzo at Sundance?

AG: I guess having had as much experience with power as I've had, I always know the value of a well-placed bribe in the competition. Seriously, though: The competition? Whatever. The more important thing is that I like being in the festival atmosphere because there's a sense of curiosity about what's going on. Everybody's going from film to film with a sense of discovery. I love that, and I hope that people will come to Gonzo with that sense of discovery. And I hope they'll be surprised and excited.

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