"If they define gonzo journalism as journalism where the writer is an integral part of the story, then you guys are gonzo filmmakers," a Woody Creek Tavern patron told Haylar Garcia, Darcy Grabowski and Scott Baxendale -- the trio behind the documentaryDo It for Johnny
-- on August 20, hours before Hunter S. Thompson was blown into the sky. Though neither ether- nor cocaine-addled, the moviemakers had indeed become the story as they'd filmed their trials and tribulations trying to track down the elusive Johnny Depp. Little did they know on that Saturday night in Aspen that their documented ups and downs would soon give way to a new protagonist: Depp was about to take center stage.
The documentary Do It for Johnny grew out of a screenplay penned by Garcia titled Narcophonic: The Ballad of Bad Bax. A rock-and-roll tale, the script tells the story of Scott Baxendale, a legendary guitar maker whose life took a vicious turn toward drugs and crime before veering back on course, at which point he started making guitars in a shop on Colfax and playing in bands around town. Garcia, a fellow musician, wanted to make sure that if a movie were made of his script, the lead would be played by someone who not only appreciated the importance of music, but could actually play guitar. Johnny Depp, who did his own guitar work in Chocolat, quickly became the favorite ("Depp Charge," March 3).
This choice made, Baxendale spent 140 hours fashioning a masterpiece of a guitar worth around $5,000 and creating a special compartment in the back that could hold the script. It was to be a gift for Depp -- but how to get the guitar to him? You can't just FedEx something like that to a publicist and let it gather cobwebs in the corner. Garcia felt that the only proper thing to do would be to track Depp down and give him the guitar personally. Recognizing the heroic difficulties of this mission, he decided to film his attempt to actually talk to an uber-megastar, artist to artist, in today's Hollywood landscape of red tape and BlackBerry-laden assholes.
Eleven months, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of video footage later -- read all about it on www.doitforjohnny.com -- Garcia found himself sitting at the Woody Creek Tavern, guitar in tow, an artist still seeking discourse. Depp was in town to bankroll the good doctor's final sendoff. "We realized the gravity of the situation," Garcia explains. "We would never approach Depp and annoy him while he was mourning the loss of a friend. But at the same time, we'd come too far and done too much to pass up an opportunity to get the guitar to him when he's in our own back yard."
Garcia and company hung out at the tavern all day, mini-celebrities themselves with their guitar and their cameras. Baxendale jammed with Jimmy Ibbotson of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Garcia made friends with friends of Thompson, who were intrigued by his story. Thompson's electrician let them park their enormous RV in front of his place. They even befriended Johnny Depp's personal assistant, who was so impressed with the guitar that he told them he would do everything he could to get them a few minutes with Johnny. No promises, though.
Day led to night led to explosions of the author's ashes in the air -- and still no word from Depp or his people. "The only way I can describe it is that we were like a bunch of crack fiends, staring out the window, watching the cars pass by and just hoping that Depp would come," Garcia remembers.
Early Sunday morning, Depp's SUV rambled past the Woody Creek Tavern. Garcia, Grabowski and Baxendale -- exhausted from hours of waiting, their nerves frayed -- snapped to and followed Depp as well as they could in their lumbering dinosaur of an RV. They caught up with the actor at the Hotel Jerome, where the bar had been quartered off into sections -- essentially Depp's crew on one side, the public on the other. Still, they were only twenty feet away from the man they'd been chasing for the better part of a year, with just a velvet rope keeping them apart.
"Everyone was trying to do that play-it-cool-in-front-of-the-celebrity thing by pretending they were not looking at him but looking at him," Garcia says. "We were just staring."
Finally, Depp left his side of the bar to head to the bathroom. While several fans stalled his mission as they voiced their admiration, Garcia propped the guitar case on a few bar stools and popped open the top, while Grabowski approached Depp and said, "Johnny, we've been trying to get you this guitar for eleven months."
"I know," Depp replied. "To tell you the truth, I've been worshiping it from afar."
The star said he could not accept the instrument because the script in the back created a liability; for legal reasons, all submissions needed to go through the proper channels. So Garcia told Depp that the script was about the love of music, and while they would love for Depp to have a look at it, they'd rather he take the guitar. Then he removed the screenplay and handed Depp the guitar.
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Depp accepted it and told Garcia that he'd inform his people to take the script. And then he allowed the documentarians to film about forty seconds of footage with him -- before the Hotel Jerome staff shut them down.
Do It for Johnny finally had its Hollywood ending. Sort of.
"We were walking on sunshine after that," Garcia comments. "But it only took me about half an hour to start brooding again. In a way, that script and that guitar were meant to be together. There's a hole in the back of that guitar now; what we've done is split up this piece of art in my mind. There are people on this crew who think we should stop, that we have our ending. We're certainly out of money. I think that script needs to be back in that guitar. Depp gave us instructions on how to get the script to him, but who knows how that will turn out? We've had plenty of close calls that didn't pan out before. But we need to get this piece of art back together. I want to get that done."