Bruce Robinson’s first movie, “Withnail & I,” succeeded on a scale matched by few debuts: Cult status. Entertainment Weekly named his 1987 comedy starring Richard E. Grant as one of the 25 funniest films of all time. In its native Britain, it’s number three in Total Film’s 2000 all-time comedies. And by 2009, The Observer declared it No. 2 among British films made since 1985.
“Withnail” wasn’t Robinson’s first accomplishment; as a screenwriter, he received a 1984 Oscar nomination for “The Killing Fields.” Post-“Withnail,” he directed “How to Get Ahead in Advertising” in 1989 (also staring Grant, and sometimes seen as a “Withnail” companion piece) and 1992’s “Jennifer Eight,” starring Uma Thurman. And then — outside of screenplays for “Return to Paradise” (1998) and “In Dreams” (1999) — it seemed like Robinson gave up on movies altogether.
Fortunately, Johnny Depp had the power of persuasion to correct this course. He enlisted Robinson to write and direct “The Rum Diary,” based on Hunter S. Thompson’s then-unpublished memoir of his days as a reporter in Puerto Rico. The film hits theaters October 28, 2011, 19 years after the release of “Jennifer Eight.”
indieWIRE spoke with Robinson about his return to filmmaking and the bonds that he and Depp share with Thompson. And, despite feeling connected to Thompson, Robinson reveals he used only two lines of the master’s dialogue from the book, meanwhile nicking a bit of his own “Withnail” for “The Rum Diary.”
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“Ex-pat in a third-world country”is a weird little subgenre — “Year of Living Dangerously,” “Salvador.” You have a country where there’s a war, there’s corruption. Obviously, you did “The Killing Fields.” Did you draw on that for this?
No, not really. I’ve been to the Caribbean, but I’d never been to Puerto Rico. So I was lucky enough in a secondhand bookstore to find a 1960s tourist guidebook of Puerto Rico. I used that and National Geographic magazines over the years that have done features on Puerto Rico. I cut out the photos and put them into my workbook and used them as a guidebook to give me a sense of the place.
I was always touched by something that Ernest Hemingway said to some other writer 50 years ago, “The most important thing you must establish in any novel is the weather. What does it feel like? How does the weather feel?” So I’ve always followed that rule. I wanted to know how the streets felt, how the heat felt and all that, which I was able to get out of the National Geographics plus a lot of pictures of these early-1960s hotels and motels that were popping up in Puerto Rico, Candado. It became a little bit of a subplot to the movie that actually isn’t in the book.
One of the themes in the film is finding your voice, Hunter’s voice. As I watched the movie, there were great lines with that tart Bruce Robinson touch to them. Yet all of the characters did not just feel like they were versions of you. From a writing standpoint, how do you differentiate character?
I read the book twice, literally twice, made my notes as I was reading, then threw the book away because it would have been absolute death to keep trying to refer back to the book as a writing manual for the movie. So I’m not dissimilar — I don’t mean this in any way facetiously — but I’m not dissimilar in a sense in my writing to Hunter in that I’ve got a lot of rage about things and a lot of anger about things, as did he.
So I have to write this in my voice, but I’m writing in what I hope would be the same vernacular as him. He’s all over it, but there are only two lines from the novel in the entire screenplay. One of which is, “Have some fun with the fucking loser.” And the other is Sala’s line, “We’ll be lucky to find an oil spot,” referring to the car. Other than that it’s all me, but in Hunter’s vernacular, hopefully.
It was weird sitting down and setting out to write the thing. I decided as a kind of strategy that Kemp [the character based on Thompson] was going to be involved in what I hope was going to be some very humorous sequences — but I purposely didn’t give him any fireworks in the dialogue because he’s learning, he’s watching and waiting.
The [“Rum Diary”] characters in terms of “Withnail and I” — there are great similarities, you notice, about male bonding and raging and ranting and madness. But I ripped off two scenes from “Withnail and I” and put them in “The Rum Diary.” One of them is the guy who’s cooking up the ethanol who gets challenged. That was a direct lift from Danny the dealer in Withnail, where Withnail says “I could take double any of what you could.” Danny the dealer says, “Very very foolish words, man.” Moberg does exactly the same thing where Johnny says “There’s no such thing as 400-proof alcohol.” Moberg does that slow burn, looking up, “With certainty, you might be required to moderate” or whatever the line is. So that was kinda straight out of Withnail. Also, the cafe scene where they’re being threatened by…
The Penrith tearoom.
Yeah, it’s very similar stuff.
I’ve read is that you had to fight various people to keep their acting choices less broad. Giovanni Ribisi as Moberg made some big choices. Were you OK with that? He did a big voice.
Yeah, I was fascinated by this character Moberg. I can’t remember what he does in the book, frankly. But I remember thinking, “Oh, he’s got to be brought into the trio here.” They’re very different characters. Like Sanderson, he hasn’t got a common voice. And I think Aaron Eckhart really pulled that one. Really excellent.
He was fantastic. There’s a famous quote you said about “Withnail.” You said, “It’s like playing poker when you don’t know how to do it. I was winning all the time.” What was it like to come back to the table again?
To be the director again? It was a pretty fabulous experience, frankly, because of Johnny’s power in this industry. Before I said yes, I was extremely lucky to have another go at this. He said, “I’ll protect you. I promise you, you’ve got the freedom to do what you want. I’ve chosen you.” Which was incredibly flattering to hear from a superstar like him. “I’ve chosen you, I will protect you. There’s no studio coming down on your neck and second-guessing you. This is you and me doing this together and I want you to do it.” Hearing a guy in his position in this industry say that to you gives you an incredible sense of confidence.
Was this your biggest budget as a director?
Probably. I think it was about $45 million, somewhere in that arena. I think it would have been a lot higher if Johnny had taken a fee. He did this film for himself and for Hunter, obviously. He wanted to make this movie. So, if the film does really well, which I hope it does, the money is Johnny’s. And good luck to him, he took a big risk there.
Why do you think Johnny has such an affinity for Hunter?
He genuinely has a deep love for him and I think it’s, what can one say – without getting into a crummy, sort of Freudian arena — it seems to replicate the same relationship as he had with Marlon Brando and I think it’s a powerful dad. That’s what I think and I don’t want to say anything that could be upsetting to anybody. Hunter dealt in an arena that Johnny loves being in. He’s an anarchist in many, many ways and having an anarchistic father figure is, I think, the thing that Johnny loved about him and, of course, his great talent. He’s going to last, Hunter S. Thompson. He really is of an importance in American literature. I don’t want to say Mark Twain, but it ain’t far off.
Johnny wore a lot of hats for the production. Did you have to keep him focused on the acting?
We just got in there and did it. Again, because it’s Johnny, we had this magnificent cameraman, director of photography, Dariusz Wolski, who shoots the “Pirates” pictures and all the really big movies. So we had Dariusz and his team of technicians. And it doesn’t get better than that. You just can’t get better quality technicians.
Everything on the technical side of the movie, my maxim is — I’ve only done a few films, but — “I want to shoot this movie without a camera.” I don’t want the camera to be a performer in the film at all, to just be an observer. I talked to Dariusz about that and that’s how he shot it. It’s pretty well all shot handheld, just like someone looking in on the story.
Was there any scene in the movie that provided difficulty for the actors, where your acting background could come in and shape it?
The hardest scene in the whole movie to shoot, unquestionably, was the car chase because it was in a swamp that stank of sulfur dioxide. It was really unpleasant, hot as hell, and three nights it took to shoot it. So at the end of it, we were dripping with sweat and loathing and horror. I vowed I would never write another night scene in my life. The hardest scene to get right in the whole film.
The most difficult mood to attain was the acid scene. It had to be filled with that comedic expectation. It’s very hard to do drug scenes. I think they’re not really successful, so I was really tongue-in-cheek all the time, thinking, “Are we getting this right?” It was very hard to shoot that one. The only special effect in the movie is that tongue coming out. But then, to get out of the acid scene into that amazing pier we found where all these tugs were rolling around.
That was gorgeous.
Yeah, it was beautiful. Then Lippy Lobster, if you like — the talking lobster. It never works for me in cinema when people try and show subjectively what it’s like to have taken a drug. That’s why I was really worried all the time about that scene. That was the hardest one for me.
When one suddenly leaves reality, you’re altered and if you do it too quickly – it’s jarring. I thought you had a nice ramp-up.
That’s fantastic. It was a bit of a swing. It’s also obviously a metaphor, that scene for maybe five or 10 years of Hunter’s life being squeezed into that one scene. Clearly, at least I hope it’s clear, that’s the tipping point where Kemp finds his voice and articulates it through that lobster. He’s found out how to say it like him and he makes that promise to the reader: “I don’t know if I can do it today, the day after tomorrow or whatever, but I’m going to speak for you.” So that whole little sequence was a hard one.
In the press materials, it sounded like the cockfights were really managed by the animal cruelty people. Was it difficult to get what you wanted out of those?
Yeah, they were there watching the well-being of the goldfish and the lobsters.
The pullet in “Withnail and I” — did it have any animal cruelty people around it?
No. We just got out there and did it. The thing about “Withnail,” is the bull scene. If you can remember it, the bull had cardboard horns on it. [chuckles] And the bastards dropped off and dropped off and we were so pushed for time, having to move so fast. We only had 30 days of shoot. So ultimately, the bull in the finished movie hasn’t got any horns on him. Pretty loony.
Cockfighting is legal and permitted in Puerto Rico and these cocks — do it. [Editor’s note: The film was shot in Puerto Rico under ASPCA supervision.] That’s what they do for a living, they fight each other. There’s a line in the movie I cut, Sala’s line, which I thought was a remarkable message for all sorts of other things, which was, “If you tie two of these cockerels up, facing each other, with a bowl of food under them, they’ll starve to death before they’ll stop staring at each other.” So they all wore these sort of bras, these cockerels. And by carefully positioning the camera, etc., we hopefully made it look like they were attacking each other, but they were never ever allowed to touch each other and, indeed, did not. They never touched each other.
So was it worth it, to come out of retirement?
[chuckles] I don’t know yet. It depends how well the movie does. It was worth it to work with these wonderful people. That was worth it. Graham King’s a fine film producer. So yeah, I was working with great people. Johnny’s sister was a producer, Christi Dembrowski. It really was a kind of family environment. I had my whole family out there. Exhausting, of course, but it was an artistic experience.
Do you have anything up next? Was this a one-off?
I wrote a novel some years ago called “The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman.” Someone commissioned the screenplay of that, Film4 in England, so I’ve written the script and now they’re saying let’s make it. So this is a very little English movie that costs $10 million. So there’s a good chance of that. Again, it’s a very personal film in the vernacular of “Withnail.”
Do you think “Withnail” is still funny? Does it retain the same potency for you? Or has it gone into the cultural echo-chamber too much?
I still have people quoting lines back to me from that film, which is an extraordinary thing for a movie. One of the amazing things — it was by accident, not design — is that I hadn’t seen the film for maybe 10 years. And I watched it with my son, who’s now 17, who’s old enough to understand it. He said, “Let’s look at it, Dad.” So we did. And it hasn’t aged and that’s totally by accident. It doesn’t feel like one of those ’60s, ’70s, ’80s movies at all. It just hasn’t aged. Again, I think the acting in there is unbelievable. Richard E. Grant was just miraculous in that role.
One more question: It might be well-worn ground, but I’ve never heard it answered myself. What the heck, I’ve got Bruce Robinson on the phone, I’m gonna ask. When Withnail says “Nor woman neither” at the end of the film, is that in the actual Shakespeare monologue?
OK. And there’s a huge point in the film that, usually, when you have two guys together, they’ll talk about girls and there’s none of that. Was that a deliberate choice?
Obviously that’s one of the greatest bits of writing in the whole English spectrum of literature, that amazing Hamlet speech, but I added “nor woman neither, nor woman neither” not so much as to sort of suggest homosexuality between him and… but to suggest a disgust with humanity, which Withnail has, he does.
The guy it’s based on, Vivian MacKerrell, died of this appalling throat cancer and he was one of my closest friends and all we ever did was talk and talk and talk, day and night, talking and laughing and talking, and they took his voice out of his neck when he got this cancer and it was the most tragic thing. So it was about the disgust that the Withnail character feels for probably himself, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s weird that you should notice that.
I’m trying to be good about it, but I’m one of these people that’s seen it, oh, about 30 times. Obviously, there’s a point that women are just not an issue at all. Except for the scrubbers, I guess.
Scrubbers is a pejorative slang term for “slut.” Scrubbers! There are no ladies in there, but there is a predatory homosexual.