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Introduction to The Rum Diary, A Screenplay

by Johnny Depp
August 2011


The year was 1997. Pre-production on the film version of the HST classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was at full gallop. Having had the opportunity to know Hunter for a few years prior, he most generously welcomed me into his home and his life. Access all areas. We were good friends, but I had a job to do. I was there to sponge, to steal, thieve and/or pilfer as much of his soul as I could, and although, at times, it made him somewhat uncomfortable, he understood what I needed to do. He continued to give, and I continued to take. I was with him for months, day and night, night and day. I lived with him. Simply staying with Hunter was never an option. You had to live. And fortunately, since I loved the bastard so much, it suited me just fine. There was a mutual trust that ran deep. I even let the fucker shave my head.

One very late night, or perhaps, a very early morning (one never quite knew or cared for time when hunkered down in his fortified compound) we were rifling through all manner of treasures in what he would charmingly refer to as ‘The War Room’ (which was right across the hallway from my bedroom, where unbeknownst to me and my highly utilized ashtray, a full keg of gunpowder masqueraded as my bedside table), when I came across another old cardboard box, billowing with scruffy looking documents, submerged beneath a seemingly infinite sum of papers, books and general paraphernalia garnered from a life spent flirting precariously with the abyss.

The battered typescript was bound together by rubber bands, loosely housed amongst various worn and fatigued folders. On the cover of one, in Hunter’s own hand, was scribbled The Rum Diary, the title of his unpublished novel from 1959. He wrote the book in his early twenties. And then stuffed it away. For all these years, the manuscript lay sequestered in a humble cardboard box, in the depths of Owl Farm. I was aware of the novel’s existence, but thought it destined to sleep forever, along with other misplaced Hunter titles, most notably; Prince Jellyfish and Polo Is My Life. I was intrigued. We began to thumb through it, there and then, on the floor of ‘The War Room,’ exchanging stacks of manuscripts, reading it to one another.

The Rum Diary was simply too good to remain lost.

As we read on, Hunter’s enthusiasm got the better of both of us, and we were now officially riled up. Soon enough, such trusted friends and colleagues as Douglas Brinkley, the literary executor of HST’s estate, and Warren Zevon, joined us in revisiting the juvenescent mayhem of those pages.

The novel was finally released in 1998 to rapturous acclaim, some forty years after it was originally conceived. Almost immediately, the subject of a film was broached, which was Hunter’s idea. ‘Hot damn . . . yessir, let’s you and I produce this fucking caper together, Colonel! We’ll have Hollywood groveling at our feet! They will crawl over a road of bones to get to us. Yessir! Fuck them! We need to have some fun!’ And we did. Though Hunter’s ardent prediction did not come to fruition quite as easily as we had hoped. Fiery hoops of all dimensions, covert bear-traps, woefully obstinate billfolds which neither Hunter or I, were remotely experienced in battling; such grueling corporate foreplay was certainly not our forte. But, as we had always practiced, together and individually, we were going to do this on our own terms. We set up a bar, the Tiki Hut, at my L.A. abode and held meetings well into the night. Many nights. Many meetings. We had no director attached, we had no screenwriter either, but we fought on, feverishly trying to get the ball rolling, while at every turn, found ourselves hindered by endless red tape, all manner of nefarious legal bindings, and still no money; in short, we were taking a fucking pounding. And then of course, there was Hunter’s temper, which occasionally manifested itself thusly:

Dear Holly, Okay, you lazy bitch, I’m getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround that you’re doing with The Rum Diary. We are not even spinning our wheels aggressively. It’s like the whole Project got turned over to Zombies who live in cardboard boxes under the Hollywood Freeway . . . I seem to be the only person who’s doing anything about getting this movie Made. What the hell do you think Making a Movie is all about? Nobody needs to hear any more of that Gibberish about yr. New Mercedes & yr. Ski Trips & how Hopelessly Broke the Shooting Gallery is . . . If you’re that fucking Poor you should get out of the Movie Business. It is no place for Amateurs & Dilletants who don’t want to do anything by “take lunch” & Waste serious people’s Time. Fuck this. All you are is a goddamn Bystander, making stupid suggestions & jabbering now & then like some half-bright Kid with No Money & No Energy & no focus except on yr. own tits . . . I’m sick of hearing about Cuba & Japs & yr. Yo-yo partners who want to change the story because the violence makes them Queasy. Shit on them. I’d much rather deal with a Live asshole than a Dead worm with No Light in his Eyes . . . If you people don’t want to Do Anything with this movie, just cough up the Option & I’ll talk to someone else. The only thing You’re going to get by quitting and curling up in a Fetal position is relentless Grief and Embarrassment. And the one thing you won’t have is Fun . . . Okay, That’s my Outburst for today. Let’s hope that it gets Somebody off the dime. And if you don’t Do Something QUICK you’re going to Destroy a very good idea. I’m in the mood to chop yr. fucking hands off. R.S.V.P HUNTER.

Needless to say, that episode didn’t work out too well, and our project lay dormant for some time. But we weren’t giving up.

There was one writer/director that we were mutually obsessed with. I had known Bruce Robinson casually for a number of years, having spent a few evenings with him, hunched determinedly over various bars from Los Angeles to London, whilst Hunter was well aware of his masterpiece, Withnail & I. He was our Holy Grail. Only one problem, I told Hunter. ‘You do remember that we had approached him with Fear & Loathing . . . But he’d already left the ugly business of filmmaking behind, so it might take some coaxing to reel him back in.’

And some coaxing it did take, but we got Bruce in 2005. I was ecstatic. We had our man. However, I was no longer in a position to deliver the great news to my beloved brother of the dark and bloody ground, who would have fully shared in my joy. As we all know, Hunter had made his remarkably abrupt exit from our tumultuous sphere earlier that year. I had lost my dear friend and co-conspirator. Sure as fuck wasn’t going to give up now.

Bruce proceeded to take the book, expertly morphing Hunter’s work into one of the finest, funniest screenplays that I’ve ever had the honor to be associated with. He was effortlessly able to tap into Hunter’s mind, tap into Hunter’s sense of anarchy, harness that distinct Thompson vernacular, preserving the never more pertinent themes of the book in this ever more capitalist, homogenized world. I know Hunter would be proud of what Bruce managed to achieve, both on the page and on the screen. He perfectly retained that humor, that magic, and most of all, that vital, ebullient, HST spirit.

And it was that very spirit to which we paid our daily respects to each morning. Our ritual consisted of Chivas Regal, one generous dose of; a highball glass filled to the brim with ice and place upon the arm of HST’s designated director’s chair, complete with script and smokes, into which forefingers would be immersed, and the clinging whiskey dabbed behind the ears as a token of good luck which succeeded in guiding us triumphantly throughout the shoot.

It would be impossible for me to try and encapsulate my love for this work, or its authors, by the poor use of some mawkish, cack-handed phrase. Instead, I’ll simply state that there is something beautiful, something forlorn, something dangerous, something fiercely veracious about The Rum Diary; a tale of misspent youth, searching for a voice amid the sun and free-flowing rum of late ‘50’s Puerto Rico that everyone should taste.

I did and am proud to have partaken, if not only for the experience of finally realizing the dream of working with the genius that is Bruce Robinson, our new brother in the struggle, but also for the road travelled with The Good Doctor, and to have played some part in bringing a lost sliver of his formative existence back to life.

Hunter, we fucking did it.

Johnny Depp
London, August 2011

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors