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Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Director Alex Gibney talks to Dazed Digital about his new documentary on the notorious wildman of journalism.

The Oscar award winning director Alex Gibney delved into a concoction of unseen home movies, audiotapes and manuscript passages from 1965-1975 to put together a documentary on Hunter S. Thompson, the creator of Gonzo journalism, who took as many risks has he possibly could cram into his life in order to get a good story. Dazed Digital spoke to Gibney about Gonzo, Hunter's appeal and his Oscar statue.

Dazed Digital: The term ‘gonzo’ has its own life now but where does it come from?
Alex Gibney: It first popped up for Hunter as a way of describing something that was indescribable. The title itself came from an instrumental song played twice in the film, a kind of wacky tune on Hammond organ, by James Booker a New Orleans R’nB guy and the tune is ‘Gonzo’.

DD: So not from The Muppets…
AG: It definitely predates the Muppets! I think the definition is on the one hand this sense of first-person journalism – Hunter wasn’t the first person to write in first person, but you become this larger-than-life character but also in which you freely mix fiction and fact in some kind of amalgam, which you hope will be more truthful than just “the facts”.

DD: What do you think is Hunter’s appeal?
AG: I think what he did really well was he turned his righteous anger into humour in a way that was entertaining for everybody, even people who disagreed with him. That’s important because it allows everybody to share a laugh. And as a journalist he didn’t play by the rules.

DD: Is there a difference between being ‘balanced’ and being ‘fair’?
AG: Yes. Hunter was not always fair and I don’t think he was that interested in being so. I generally think it is important to be fair. I think I was fair to Hunter and fair to his critics by including a lot of stuff that was not always flattering. At the same time what saves him though is that he’s always curious.

DD: The film has some illustrious contributors – were they easy to get onboard?
AG: Johnny Depp was happy to do it but we couldn’t get it on his schedule until three days before the online [edit] - way beyond the final deadline but we believed and in this case it came off. Most people were fine. [Jimmy] Carter said yes right away.

DD: You never met Hunter – do you feel you would have gotten along?
AG: I think I would have gotten along with the younger Hunter. I’m not sure about the older Hunter. He had very close friends right up to the very end, but sometimes I lose patience with people who, you know, don’t show up because they get drunk and decide “fuck it”. He was prone to a lot of that by the end.

DD: What do you imagine his reaction would be to a film about his life?
AG: I think he’d be ambivalent about it as usual. I think he’d love it and at the same time want to control it and be pissed off about it.  

DD: You won an Oscar for your previous documentary Taxi To The Darkside – how was your Oscar night experience?
AG: I’d been there once before and I’d already had my comeuppance, I’d lost to the [March of the] Penguins! So I was prepared for anything but when I won it was magical. Terrifying – you go up there and have 45 seconds from the moment you touch the statue and this deafening silence starts. All you can see are these big fucking numbers counting you down – 38…37…36…

DD: Did you get played off?
AG: No, I came in right on time, at zero. I had a message and it’s hard to get used to conveying that with a certain élan, but I think I did pretty well. Afterwards you walk around that night with that award in that town and it’s like Gandalf and his staff – “You shall not pass!”

DD: So where’s the statue now?
AG: He’s in our downstairs washroom. People come visit and the deal is, there’s a mirror in there, so they can do their speech, but they only get 45 seconds and then the music starts…!

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson out on 19th December.