Terry Does Vegas

Terry Giliam weathered months in America's least authentic city to capture the surreal reality of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Here, he describes how Johnny Depp "stole Hunter Thompson's soul" for Fear and Loathing, and explains why he's still upset years after The Adventures of Baron Munchausen that he wasn't the first director to present Uma Thurman naked on-screen.


"Do you think this is funny?" Terry Gilliam asks as he presses STOP on his editing machine and turns to me with a broad, open smile. With Johnny Depp's image frozen on the screen in front of us, he wants to know if I think a scene from his new film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is going to make people chuckle. He must somehow know I have an opinion about everything. But even I wouldn't dare tell Terry Gilliam what's funny. After all, this is the guy who cowrote Life of Brian, a film that's made me laugh dozens of times. On top of that, I've just taken the red-eye to London to do this interview, and I feel in no position to criticize anyone. But Gilliam won't quit.

"Oh, come on," he says, his American accent not at all Anglicized after 30 years of living in England. (Yes, Gilliam is American; he was raised in L.A., and went to the same high school as Mike Ovitz.) "Is it working or not? I've been with this film for so long I have no perspective."

"It's hysterical," I finally say. Gilliam smiles a killer smile as he hits the PLAY button. Depp is almost unrecognizable as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose drug-fueled rampage is the core of the film. With all of Thompson's herky-jerky motions, and not much hair on his head, Depp is not a particularly pretty sight. In the scene we're watching, he snorts some ether, smokes a joint and takes a few hits of acid.

Suddenly Gilliam lets out an infectious giggle that fills the editing room. "I always thought that when this film was over, I'd drop a hit of acid, because I never did it in the '60s."

I roll my eyes.

"No, really," Gilliam insists. "I didn't. I never did acid or mescaline or ether. I directed all the drug scenes in _Fear and Loathing _on total instinct. So I kept thinking that after this film was done, I'd reward myself with a really wild trip. But the more I watched Johnny on-screen, the more I saw how the drugs clouded Hunter S. Thompson's thinking, and the more I realized that I was too old for that shit."

Acid may not be quite the right idea, but some people are probably thinking that Gilliam deserves a reward of some kind. After all, rumors swirled around Hollywood like crazy that the shoot for Fear and Loathing was no walk in the park. When I ask Gilliam about this he shoots me a look. "It was hectic and crazy because there was so much to do," he says. "But it was the most fun I've had in a long time. This was the quickest and cheapest film I've ever done. We shot for 55 days, for less than $20 million." End of discussion.

Terry Gilliam is 57 years old now. He appears, in person, to be at least 10 years younger. He began his career as a cartoonist, and became Monty Python's resident animator after he met John Cleese in the late '60s. He cowrote and acted in all of the Python films, and then began his solo directing career in 1977 with Jabberwocky, a satire in the same vein as Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He went on to make Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, movies that were all full of gothic images, great leaps of faith and a twisted sense of humor.

One of the most interesting things about a Gilliam film, though, is that the actors he casts end up doing the kind of work no one expected them to do. Think of Robert De Niro in Brazil. Or better yet, Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys.

"You have a great eye for talent," I say, "and Fear and Loathing is full of it."

"Working with Johnny Depp was a dream," says Gilliam. "Here's a guy who has so much talent, and he's so easy to be with, so generous and sweet. He really stole Hunter S. Thompson's soul. Johnny's like this wonderful vampire sponge that just absorbs everything. He spent a lot of time with Hunter and was able to get his voice, mannerisms, everything. It became even stranger because we used Hunter's personal things in the movie. Like the jacket Hunter wore on the original Fear and Loathing book cover--Johnny wears it in the movie. And the interior shots of the red shark--that's Hunter's car. It started to get a little weird."

"What about Benicio Del Toro?" I ask.

"Benicio plays the Samoan lawyer. People will not recognize him, because he put 30 or 40 pounds on for the role. When he takes his shirt off, all of his fat jiggles. It's not a pretty sight.

"To fill out the little roles," Gilliam continues, "we got great people. Christina Ricci plays the girl they pick up, and she has a wicked sense of what's right and wrong. She is just perfect. Tobey Maguire, that kid who was in The Ice Storm, plays the hitchhiker. It's a great little role, and he's just terrific. We'll be watching him for a long time."

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