Terry Gilliam Retrospective Part 7: An Arrogant and Drug Fuelled Road Trip

Paul Risker continues his Terry Gilliam retrospective….

This retrospective series appears to have laid out Gilliam’s career so far as a series of chapters from a book. In this current chapter which has spanned The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys, we now arrive in Las Vegas in search of the American Dream, before Gilliam steps away from directing for what would be an eight year hiatus. This so-called search for the American Dream would come in the form of a psychedelic road-trip, guided by Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary prose and the drawings of British artist Ralph Steadman that have become as much a part of the story as Thompson’s words.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could be perceived as Gilliam’s destiny, as ten years earlier he had been approached to adapt Thompson’s novel for the screen. Rumours have it that even Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone were unsuccessful in marrying the flickering image with the words and art of the source material. At various points in times different duos have been rumoured to have courted the prospect of playing Duke and Gonzo, from Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, to Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi.

By the time Gilliam came onto the project he was successor to director Alex Cox who had co-written a script with Thompson scholar Tod Davies. Foolishly Cox entered into creative differences with producer Laila Nabulsi, who had just so happened to have bought the rights to adapt the book from Thompson. Needless to say, when one of them had to go, it was inevitably Cox disembarking the project.

As one door closes, another one opens and on through this door walked Terry Gilliam. From the very outset Gilliam had the support of Thompson, who only agreed to extend the rights, on the condition that Gilliam directed the picture.

Coming off Munchausen, if Gilliam felt isolated, depressed and was even willing to offer his directorial services for food, then The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas showed him there were those willing to offer him their support or open up doors of opportunity, which could even stretch to the truly ironic. But then Hollywood is the “Dream Factory” and should it be so surprising that life can find a way to imitate the absurdity of fictional narratives? Probably not would be the answer.

If the Universal connection was ironic in the case of Twelve Monkeys, then Universal’s involvement in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was equally ironic. With the film facing constant delays and Rhino’s threat to make the film with Cox, Universal Pictures stepped in to distribute the film, with Gilliam finding himself in bed with his mortal enemy once again. But then was Universal the enemy or the people running it back in the 80s? Probably the latter!

We will most likely never know the answer, but Gilliam’s compromise to work within the system, to deliver two successful films both of which were the thirty-first highest grossing films of their respective years, may have compelled Universal to intercede. However, one suspects Johnny Depp’s involvement in the project may have also sweetened the prospect of distributing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After all, stars equal success – well, at least in the eyes of the studios.

Despite his change of approach to filmmaking, it is difficult to conceive that The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were commercial films. Fear and Loathing would go on to become a box office disappointment, taking just over half its budget in the domestic market. One might argue that Gilliam’s courtship with box office success was over. In hindsight The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys represent a short spell of success at the box office in his career to date. Albeit a short spell of success, it was nonetheless timely following the Munchausen disaster, showing Hollywood he could turn out profitable films.

Gilliam fundamentally remained an auteur within the system. Fear and Loathing exhibits Gilliam as the outsider, bucking traditional lines of thought. He told Elizabeth McCracken: “I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time.” At its premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, Gilliam told Bruce Kirkland of the Toronto Sun, “I’m curious about the reaction…If I’m going to be disappointed, it’s because it doesn’t make any waves, that people are not outraged.”

These are not the words of a commercial filmmaker. Rather they are the antithesis of the commercial mind-set, and perhaps there is a tentative link back to Jeffrey Goines’ (Brad Pitt) “There’s no right, there’s no wrong, there’s only popular opinion.” If Fear and Loathing was to be considered one of the greatest films, then it was not to become so through popular opinion. If it was to attain the status hoped for by Gilliam in the first part of his quote, it needed to become so whilst existing outside of commercial cinema.

After the financial success of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam’s perception of the idea of an intelligent audience was dismissed by studio executives. Success for the moneymen is not a product of the sum of its parts, but sometimes a single part. Fear and Loathing is a fitting film for Gilliam to have successfully undertaken following his sci-fi time travel drama. Following preview screenings he was asked to contextualise the film to give it meaning. For Gilliam, an artist, a storyteller, a filmmaker must trust the intelligence of his or her audience to understand a film, to independently explore its subtext, to decipher the meaning of the film and hopefully discover an individual appreciation for the film.

In response to the studios request to update the film to the 1990s, Gilliam explained to Douglas Rowe, “I looked at the film and said, “No, that’s apologizing. I don’t want to apologize for this thing. It is what it is.” It’s an artefact. If it’s an accurate representation of that book, which I thought was an accurate representation of a particular time and place and people.”

In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the costumes are intended to imbue the various film’s set-pieces as thematic reflections on various times, places and events as they pertained to America. Essentially through the costumes Gilliam was creating a time capsule, though more of a time capsule constructed after the fact.

Any meaning is distorted by Gilliam who creates an experience that resembles a drug induced 118 minute spell for his audience. For those able to peel away the veneer they will observe the true meaning of the film. If it is about the search for the “American Dream” then one can only imagine Gilliam’s joy of imbuing it with a drug-induced distortion of ugliness.

This is Gilliam’s ability to trust his audience, and to not pander to an audience who are destined to be unable to take part in these wonderful Gillamesque excursions.

His refusal to contextualise Fear and Loathing led Gilliam to describe the film as arrogant. Well then I say it is an arrogant masterpiece.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas features at #26 on Flickering Myth contributor DJ Haza’s ‘Films to Watch Before You Die.’

Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.