Because the original book is so wild, one might assume Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas behind-the-scenes stories would be equally outlandish. And indeed, the filming process for the movie about Hunter S. Thompson's over-the-top adventures didn't lack drama. It took years to adapt, with Thompson and Johnny Depp's relationship only growing stronger - and odder - in the interim.
While covering a story about a late local journalist for Rolling Stone in 1971, Thompson met Oscar "Zeta" Acosta. Acosta accompanied the author on two separate road trips to Las Vegas, NV. Thompson merged these two trips into one longer story, creating the alter-ego Raoul Duke for himself and Dr. Gonzo for Acosta. The story that became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has no real narrative, but instead combines a massive quantity of illicit substances with the characters' search for the American dream.
More cult classic than critical success, the film version of the book offers another glimpse of Thompson's strange life.
Johnny Depp first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a teenage high school dropout and amateur band member. He recalled, "It was the most outrageous thing I'd ever read. F*ck, those guys were heroes, man. I mean, they had to be, out there, living that."
Depp got the chance to meet Hunter S. Thompson years later in 1995 while visiting Thompson's favorite local bar. Thompson walked in using two electrified cattle prods to maneuver through the crowd. Though he had only seen one of Depp's films, the two got along well and Thompson invited Depp to his house to continue the party. Around 2 am, Thompson taped a small package of nitroglycerin to a canister of propane and used it for target practice. Depp wasn't afraid, though, saying, "I trusted him... He's survived all these years."
The two men established a friendship, and the author asked the actor to play him in an early version of Fear and Loathing. Depp agreed, but worried creating an accurate portrayal of his friend might damage their relationship. Thompson brushed this off, noting he maintained a friendship with Bill Murray after Where the Buffalo Roam.
Prior to filming, Johnny Depp lived with Hunter S. Thompson to study him closely. The author put him to work editing letters, and Depp stayed in a basement room he referred to as "the dungeon." The actor explained:
It's a little room with makeshift bookshelves and a lot of spiders, and a small, little sofa thing that folds out into a bed, and this enormous keg of gunpowder, which they let me know about when I'd probably been there, smoking in bed, about five days.
The two men went to sleep around 10 am and woke for breakfast around 7 pm, spending their time watching television, visiting bars, or sitting around the house talking. Eventually, Thompson gave Depp access to boxes of his files. They held notes, drafts, and notebooks of his work.
Reading through the Vegas book box, Depp learned Thompson toned down his story for print. "It was probably more outrageous, and more insane, than he can write. I think the book is a calmer version of what actually happened," said Depp.
Eventually, the two became like brothers, looking out for one another. Thompson made sure Depp ate and never took more hallucinogens than he could handle.
According to director Terry Gilliam, the film recreates the effects of taking various psychoactive substances, "with all the uppers and downers in it. Both the most manic wonderful stuff and the really depressing stuff." To achieve this visual experience, the filmmakers used jump cuts, recorded scenes at odd angles, shot in slow-motion, and employed a wide-angle lens to make scenes uncomfortably disorientating.
To get the viewer into the characters' heads, director of photography Nicola Pecorini used a different film technique for each substance depicted in the film. Mescaline can create an altered sense of time and make colors seem more intense, so Pecorini shot those scenes with soft lighting and a similar color palette, causing colors to blend into one another. Acid scenes make use of the wide-angle lens, distorting the surroundings and creating a sense of expansion. Sections involving adrenochrome use closeups to imitate claustrophobia and disordered thoughts.
In order to fully transform into Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp shaved the top of his head. He did it just before traveling to Colorado to visit the real Thompson one last time before filming started. However, the writer didn't love the cut, and asked Depp to keep his hat on in public.
Eventually, Thompson decided to tweak the style himself, and with permission, he cropped Depp's hair to perfection. "He was very gentle. No cuts. No weirdness. He wore a mining light, so he could see. He's prepared for f*cking everything," Depp remembered.