In the world of print journalism, few writers loom larger than the outsized character Hunter S. Thompson.
A pop-culture icon as well as an immensely respected essayist, Thompson coined the term “Gonzo Journalism” to describe his own peculiar and mesmerizing blend of drug-fueled fantasy and intensely critical investigative reportage that has often been imitated since, but never equaled.
From his heyday (the mid-’60s through the mid-’80s) to his death in early 2005 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the author’s wicked sense of satire, his widely-touted proclivity for reckless, hallucinatory abandon, and colorful first-person takes on sociopolitical issues endeared him to both disaffected youth, the Hollywood elite and intellectual thinkers worldwide.
The new feature-length documentary Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride: Hunter S. Thompson On Film is the first major documentary ever produced on the notoriously private man, and the only one to be fully sanctioned by Thompson’s family and heirs. Shot for approximately half a million dollars on high definition video by director Tom Thurman (an esteemed non-fiction filmmaker whose previous efforts have included profiles of other classic American counterculture figures like actor Warren Oates and director Sam Peckinpah), the movie will be screened twice during the 2006 Savannah Film Festival. Thurman himself will be on hand for the second screening.
The documentary features candid interviews with many of Thompson’s closest friends and family members, as well as former Senators George McGovern and Gary Hart, and the only two actors to have ever portrayed the journalist in narrative films, Bill Murray and Johnny Depp.
We caught up with Thurman by phone at his Kentucky home:
Connect Savannah: When exactly did you finish the film?
Tom Thurman: Less than 24 hours ago. The ink is not yet even dry!
Connect Savannah: You must be very bleary-eyed.
Tom Thurman: I’ve been bleary-eyed and out of my mind since two Augusts ago! But you know, it’s a documentary on Hunter Thompson. What do you expect? (laughs) You gotta buy the ticket to take the ride.
Connect Savannah: Do you in any way regret buying this particular ticket?
Tom Thurman: No, not at all. Not at all. No one said it was gonna be easy when I signed on for this cattle drive. If it had been easy, that’d have been a sure sign that I wasn’t doing it the right way.
Connect Savannah: Were you into Thompson before this project came your way?
Tom Thurman: Oh yeah. Long before. I taught writing and literature and film studies in colleges and universities around the country for 15 years before making any of films of my own, although there was some overlap I suppose. So, I’ve been interested in those capacities for a great while. But, even before I taught his work, I was a fan like so many others, simply as a reader.
Connect Savannah: What sort of contact did you have with him while he was alive?
Tom Thurman: Absolutely none, other than simply being a reader and catching him on the lecture circuit about 25 years ago. We had no contact at all face-to-face, and I don’t know if that’s a detraction, a disadvantage or a benefit to this movie. I’m sure he probably appreciated me not sticking my camera in his face for year. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: How comprehensive is your film in regards to Thompson’s life?
Tom Thurman: We cover the entire arc of his life. We talk about his growing up in Louisville, Ky., his home situation, what he was like as a child and a teen. We talk about the circumstances of his forced departure from Louisville. He was essentially invited by a local judge to either stay in jail or join the armed services. He chose the latter! We cover things as varied as his political writings, the persona he created, and his vast influence on journalism. We delve into how that persona absorbed him to a certain degree, and we talk about his demise and his legacy. Plus, we cover 2 kinds of pop culture benchmarks in his life: Bill Murray playing him in Where The Buffalo Roam and Johnny Depp playing him in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
Connect Savannah: Was there anyone that you actively pursued for an interview who simply would not agree to take part?
Tom Thurman: I would have liked to talk to Jack Nicholson. I mean, one knows that Jack —I shouldn’t phrase that like I know him, ‘cause I don’t— just doesn’t do things like this. Then again, if he made an exception for me and Thompson, would he then feel compelled to make an exception for his good friend Marlon Brando? Or, what if someone does a piece on his neighbor across Mullholland, Harry Dean Stanton? So, I knew in advance what his response would be, but in a way, I’m always honored when Jack says no. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Which interviewees most surprised you with how forthcoming they were?
Tom Thurman: I really enjoyed speaking with John Cusack. He was very articulate and forthcoming. Completely lacking in pretense, and funny, too. I enjoyed that one. I also enjoyed talking to William F. Buckley, Jr. a great deal. Just because Hunter S. Thompson and he shared very little along their political views, yet, because Buckley is so enamored with the written word, he had an immense amount of respect for Thompson, and that came across very clearly.
Connect Savannah: Did making this film alter your own conception of what sort of person Hunter S. Thompson was?
Tom Thurman: Making this documentary has deepened my appreciation and respect for Thompson and his work. It has also as a by-product made me question my own sanity and choice of professions, but that’s another matter altogether.
Connect Savannah: What led you to choose Nick Nolte to narrate the film.
Tom Thurman: I thought about who Thompson was and what he stood for, and when you think about a voice to help illustrate that... I mean, a half-century’s worth of hard drink and cigarettes... Come on. Nolte’s perfect. Plus, they were friends.
Connect Savannah: have you ever attended the Savannah Film Fest before? What do you know of the city?
Tom Thurman: I have been to Savannah. I was on Tybee Island a few years ago. I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back to Savannah, and this was it. I live in Lexington, Ky., and I’m just hoping somebody down there figures out a way to give me a job and not let me leave.
Connect Savannah: As you look around today, are there any writers you feel may one day be viewed as something akin to “The Hunter S. Thompson” of this generation?
Tom Thurman: The landscape has changed so much. When I look at journalism now, whether electronic or print or otherwise, the landscape seems pretty bare and bland. Occasionally you’ll run across somebody that I think might have a little bit of that Thompson spirit embodied in them. Maybe Christopher Hitchens. He seems to be a little bit of a wild card. He did go on record one time as criticizing Mother Theresa. (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Looking back, what’s the main thing you’ll take with you from making this film?
Tom Thurman: Well, it really has been a great ride for me on this project. You just feel honored to spend this much time coming into contact with Sean Penn one day and William F. Buckley, Jr. the next, and then incorporating them both into one film. Only Hunter S. Thompson can offer you that realm of possibilities. ç
Buy The Ticket, Take The Ride: Hunter S. Thompson On Film screens at 9:30 am on Tuesday, October 31 at the Trustees Theater and again at 2:30 pm, Friday, November 3 at the Lucas Theatre.