Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind such documentary hits as Taxi to the Dark Side, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Who Killed the Electric Car? has finished up his latest project, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, which will be released in selected theaters this Friday, July 4 (catch it locally at the Esquire Theatre, 590 Downing Street, 303-352-1992). We caught up with Gibney to ask him about the making of Gonzo and how he tackled the infamous Thompson.
Westword (Amber Taufen): What were your feelings toward the beginning of taking on this immense project?
Alex Gibney: I felt -- it is wide, but the way you can focus it is because it's about one guy, really, so focusing on Hunter and his work in particular was how to narrow it, and deciding that his work was the best from '65 to '75, when he was really in the zone. Then you can focus the story on those ten years and try to find the right parts of the rest of the story to fill it in. But we always knew that the concentration was going to be in that period. And then we found kind of a framing structure, where you begin and end more in the present.
WW: What point did you want to make about Hunter?
AG: I don't know if I said, "Okay, here's exactly what we're going to say." I think it was more a process of discovery. I knew two things: I knew I loved his writing, and I never met the man. So part of my job was to discover who he was and why he meant something to us all -- I think it was kind of about discovery.
WW: And did that change throughout the making of the film?
AG: I think we ended up getting depeer into the person than we originally thought, and that was satisfying. As always in these things, you’re aware of how long you’re getting and you want to cut stuff back. We kept finding more and more material that you want to get into. The hardest part was finding just the right balance to his life, and in order to do that, we had to make some pretty big jumps. We jump from dolphins off the coast of Florida in the '80s to dolphins in a pool in hawaii in 2002. That’s a pretty big jump, but we just felt it was necessary to kind of short-circuit that material.
WW: Given the immense access you had to Hunter's friends, family, private writings and never-before-seen film, how did you go about selecting what you would include in Gonzo?
AG: That’s just a long and mysterious process. There’s some stuff that just jumps out at you, there’s other stuff that comes back around and feels right later and sometimes there’s material you need to make connections. It’s the hardest part of the process, it’s why these things take so long. You have this massive amount of material and you want to get the best bits, your favorite parts in, but you have to pay attention to the story and keep advancing the story, so there’s a tension between the two.
WW: Was there any material that didn't make it into Gonzo that you could tell us about?
AG: There's some great stuff -- many, many, many audiotapes of Hunter, sometimes ruminating at night, sometimes recording things on the fly. And in the case there’s a happy ending, we’re going to release those in a five-CD box set. There were many, many photographs, a lot of movies and a lot of writing. I wish I could have done something on The Curse of Lono, which is not a political book but is a very funny book. There are a lot of stories that people told that are just hilarious, and I think we’ll see many of those on the DVD extras. There’s great stuff. Jimmy Carter told us a story about how Hunter, after he was granted extraordinary access for a very long interview, then lost the interview, and he tried to get the access again. But Carter was travelling, and they weren’t sure if they wanted Hunter to be the one they gave that kind of access to anymore. And Hunter was furious! He went to wherever Carter was at the time and went to Jody Powell's hotel room, and Jody wouldn’t answer the door, so Hunter went and got some kindling and lit a fire beneath the door, and Carter came down to see what was going on. I thought, this is a guy who’s literally playing with fire.
WW: What are some of your favorite scenes or segments in Gonzo?
AG: It’s hard. Probably one of my favorite areas is the Ibogaine section, I find that so hilarious. There’s something very moving about some of the war material in the '72 campaign stuff -- the idea that we’re fighting over a war in 1972, we’re stll fighting over one and arguing about our role in the world and what it’s supposed to be. Oddly enough, there’s something very powerful, and one of the very inspiring sections of the film to me was about him running for Sheriff in Pitkin County. It’s hilarious but there’s also a sense of idealism. It started off as a joke and then it was really supposed to be something special. And that home movie that Anita takes of him at the typewriter -- and it’s almost unbelievable, if you put it in a script it would seem unbelievable -- he’s sitting at the typewriter listening to Elton John’s "Candle in the Wind," laughing at himself as Elton John says, "Oh, she flames out long ago." He kind of claps his hands and laughs at himself. "Oh, that’s me, ha ha."
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WW: What did you learn about Hunter (if anything) that surprised you?
AG: How disciplined he was, particularly when he was in that zone, that ten-year period, just how disciplined he was and how much he produced.
WW: What was the reaction at Sundance to the film?
AG: I thought it was pretty good. We had one big screening in the library, and that screening was pretty positive, and so were the others. It seemed to stir people at Sundance. It’s a funny audience, they’re very much a funny insiders audience. My favorite reaction was the True/False film festival in Columbia, Missouri. People there just went berzerk, coming up to you on the streets.