The Real Hunter S. Thompson By The Man Who Knew Him Best

As a friend, and neighbour, of Hunter S. Thompson, Wayne Ewing knew the good doctor better than most. Here he reveals what he thinks of the movies, and how he nearly shot his head off...
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As a friend, and neighbour, of Hunter S. Thompson, Wayne Ewing knew the good doctor better than most. Here he reveals what he thinks of the movies, and how he nearly shot his head off...

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With it being five years now since Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was released, it seemed appropriate to catch up with documentary maker Wayne Ewing who’s based in the US. His cinéma vérité-influenced works are based primarily around Hunter. He was his next-door neighbour, his road manager, and Hunter fired a shotgun shell six inches from his side in to a doorframe to test their trust. He also helped Hunter with writing the original book of The Rum Diary. You could say that Ewing certainly knew him personally enough to warrant making several documentaries on him, henceforth making him the ideal go-to-guy to discover the reality behind the indefinable genius that was Hunter S. Thompson. Why then, did he not get involved in the two major films green lit for the masses, which are based solely on Hunter?

Posed with this question, Ewing states “I witnessed the making of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas very closely, thinking how I would direct the movie. After finishing The Rum Diary book with Hunter I considered writing the screenplay and directing it as well, but he knew the movie business well enough to know that he needed a "name" along with Johnny Depp's to get the film made.” A very fair point. When somebody of Johnny Depp’s immense stance in Hollywood is involved, a similarly well-known director is needed too, in this case – Withnail & I’s Bruce Robinson. No amount of (to quote what Hunter might say) mindless optimism can reverse this necessity. But after living next door to the epitome of anthropomorphic insanity, you could be forgiven for thinking that documenting him is quite sufficient for Ewing.

When asked what specifically drew him to making films about Hunter over any other possible subject, Ewing admits: “Hunter had always been a hero of mine because he seemed to have the ability to produce unforgettable prose despite his lifestyle. When I found myself living next door to him in the early eighties, it was impossible to not pursue getting to know him and then make a film about him.” Indeed, Hunter is often credited by many sources as being the creator of Gonzo journalism, a form of journalism which sees the reporter immerse themselves as part of the subject in a way that blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. With a life as variable as Hunter’s, he cannot just be given the accolade of being the creator – but also the best. And this remains true to this day despite the fact that countless numbers of his texts stem from (and are actually potentially enhanced by) his incontrollable love of drugs and alcohol.

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Hunter’s narcotic and alcoholic fixations may (or may not) have contributed to his infamous fiery disposition. Either way, in both volumes of Ewing’s main documentaries Hunter is seen not for the partly comic Johnny Depp interpretation seen at the cinema, but for the ever-so-slightly more occasionally scary being that he was in real life. It never seemed to take very much at all to inflame his temper, and with his drug-infused behaviour’s unpredictability it’s impossible to tell who’s next in the firing line of his rage, or what the reason behind it was. When asked if Hunter’s actions ever scared or intimidated him, Ewing said as follows: “Early in our relationship Hunter scared me, but as I got to know him better I trusted that he would not hurt me. In the early years, he once fired a shotgun shell into the frame of the door in which I was standing, putting a six inch hole in the frame less than six inches from my side. I took it as a hug from Hunter and a test to see if I would call 911. But, the potential for violence was always there, either from Hunter or when we were on the road from some crazed fan who wanted to prove he was weirder than Hunter. Being the road manager was not a safe job by any means.”

There are a substantial proportion of people who, despite Hunter’s blatant literary genius, consider him to be nothing more than a drugged up lunatic. While he was indeed not exactly calm and reserved, his immeasurable global cult following is evidence that his extensive writings weren’t just a crazy person’s ramblings, but something of creative beauty.

“The drugs were an inescapable part of Hunter's life and writing. They also cut both ways in terms of his audience; some were turned off and could not see the great prose and others were simply attracted by the drugs and could not see the wonderful words. As time goes on I think Hunter will be seen more and more as the Mark Twain of his generation and the drugs will take on less importance.” Indeed, hopefully one day the memories of his consistent fights with the courts and authority, his misuse of illegal substances and his controversial suicide will fade and not taint certain people’s opinions of him, and his work in particular which will hopefully be influencing fans for many decades to come. Hunter’s own advice in one of Ewing’s documentaries is "Find that one thing you can do better than everybody else, doesn’t matter what it is, but find it, and do it." And for all the doubters out there – that is exactly what he stuck to in his own life as well.

With Ewing having known him so thoroughly, and with The Rum Diary coming out in the foreseeable future, getting his opinion on Johnny Depp’s previous portrayal of Hunter seems appropriate, so that fans and general cinema-goers alike can have an inkling of what to expect. “Johnny Depp truly loved Hunter in the same way I did and dedicated himself to doing a respectable job of portraying Hunter's life and work. Bill Murray also did a great job playing Hunter in Where the Buffalo Roam but Murray did more of a parody of Hunter's act, as opposed to Johnny's performance in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which was a homage. The difficulty Johnny (and Bruce Robinson) face in The Rum Diary is that the character of Paul Kemp was never meant by Hunter to be a self-portrait. Robinson takes the film more in the direction of being a portrait of a young Hunter than was originally intended in the book. Maybe the right choice, time will tell”.

Time will indeed tell. Until the release of The Rum Diary, Ewing has several films available to buy online at www.hunterthompsonfilms.com which follow Hunter S. Thompson’s extravagant life – which captivate the aforementioned literary hero in all his erratic glory. They truly are a must-see if you’re a fan of Hunter’s work and want to be educated, or if you just want to be able to tell if Johnny Depp’s as good an actor as his reputation suggests.

When asked to describe Hunter in just 3 words, Ewing states what is undeniably 100% agreeable – he was “A True Visionary”.