Behind-The-Scenes Stories From 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'
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.
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Johnny Depp And Hunter S. Thompson Bonded By Taking Shots At A Propane Tank
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.
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Johnny Depp Lived In Hunter S. Thompson's Basement
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.
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Benicio del Toro's Performance Cost Him Future Job Opportunities
In order to better resemble the fictional Dr. Gonzo, Benicio del Toro ate 16 donuts a day over an eight-week period to gain a lot of weight rapidly. "I didn't get a trainer. I did it macho style, stupid-style. I gained the weight really quick and it took a while to get it off," the actor recalled.
After production on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas finished, del Toro struggled to find more work. He explained:
In between work, I had meetings and people saw me and said, "Oh my God, this guy went off the rails"...
People in Hollywood can be as gullible as anywhere. Just because they’re in the world of make-believe doesn’t mean they don’t believe it. After I tried to get a couple of jobs, the feedback I got was that people didn’t want to see me because, "We know he’s got a drinking problem..." And the only reason for that was because they had seen Fear and Loathing. Maybe it was a compliment.
The actor managed to lose the weight, but didn't appear in a movie for another two years.
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Hunter S. Thompson Shaved Johnny Depp's Head
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.
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The Filmmakers Used Different Techniques For Different Substances
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.
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Many Las Vegas Casinos Refused To Work With The Filmmakers
Due to the unflattering image the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas paints of the infamous city, many casinos and hotels refused to work with the film's producers. That forced director Terry Gilliam to get creative. Once Circus Circus turned Gilliam down, he invented a faux establishment named Bazooka Circus to avoid any legal issues.
The filmmaker used a 20-foot clown head with an open mouth as the casino's entrance and re-created the actual venue's carousel bar - though in the film, it rotates in the opposite direction.
A few smaller casinos, like the Binions, the Riviera, and the Palace Hotel, agreed to allow filming, but remained open to the public. The crew could use two lanes of the Palace Hotel's six and had to work around visitors' cars and actual gamblers. Filming occurred between 2 am to 6 am, and the set lights couldn't be bright enough to blind patrons. Gilliam remembered:
We could control six tables that were close to camera. So we had our extras there and the rest of the scene was the casino running as normal... The strange thing was we couldn't use phony money at the tables; we had to gamble with real money, and the dealers are their dealers! So we had a chance of either losing the budget or doubling the budget.
Re-creating the Las Vegas of the 1970s also proved to difficult, requiring computer generated imagery as well as footage from the '70s television show Vega$ projected behind the actors.