Talking With Alex Gibney
In "Taxi to the Dark Side," Alex Gibney explored the U.S. policy on torturing detainees in the war on terror. Earlier this year, that film received an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Now Gibney turns his attention to another subject. In "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," he focuses on the life and work of the late journalist and writer. The film will screen June 18 at the Silverdocs film festival in Silver Spring; it opens in select cities on July 4.
Gibney was online Wednesday, June 18 at 1 p.m. ET, to answer questions about "Gonzo," his career and the state of documentary filmmaking.
Gibney's other film credits include the Academy Award-nominated "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."
A transcript follows.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Before you approached your documentary of Hunter S. Thompson, what were your prior opinions of him, his writings, and his life?
Alex Gibney: I like Hunter's writing I remember reading it in college and being impressed and transported by it. It was so fresh and so new and so funny. I lost track of Hunter in his later years but I took note when he committed suicide and that haunted and intrigued me, so it seemed an interesting subject to take on.
Arlington, Va.: Why is there a fascination with the Good Doctor? I think there's at least two biographies on the man, two motion pictures based on his writings, a cartoon character inspired by him (Duke from "Doonesbury"). Is it because he was a character and a bit ... odd?
Alex Gibney: I think we're all fascinated by outlaws. And to some extent, I think we live vicariously through Hunter. On our behalf he can do all the drugs, shoot all the guns and gore all of our sacred cows.
At the same time, I think what our film does differently is to remind people that we only care about this outsized character because he was such a great writer, particularly in his hey day from about 1965 to 1975. He was a great political writer and one of our funniest writers. He combined the curiosity of a reporter with the style of a novelist and was infused with chemicals that helped drive him to bold hallucinations.
San Francisco, Calif.: I live in San Francisco. Will your film be shown here?
Alex Gibney: Yes. It opens there on the 4th of July. Check the Magnolia Pictures Web site for exact times and venues.
Halifax, Nova Scotia: There was some comment and question regarding HST at the time of his death that the author had been working on an apparent story about the events surrounding the 9/11 attacks. Did you find any evidence of this and if so can you elaborate?
Alex Gibney: I know that Hunter was looking into it, but we didn't find anything definitive in his writings.
Freising, Germany: I once read a description of Hunter S. Thompson's character by Ralph Steadman, and I was left with the impression that Thompson often treated people close to him quite terribly. What was it about Thompson that allowed him to be so abusive to those around him without any consequences?
Alex Gibney: I think Hunter had very high highs and very low lows. The people around him generally loved him, and so often allowed for moments when he was cruel to them. Again, I only know this because I talked to these people. I never met Hunter myself. I think, like many abusive characters, people put up with him because he could be so entertaining and so charming and so seductive when he was on a more generous high. This is not to excuse his behavior, but just to explain it.
Silver Spring, Md.: Your films tend to use a lot of mainstream music to further the storytelling. What advice would you offer a young, aspiring documentary filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about a cult celebrity, but who doesn't have the budget for a lot of music clearances?
Alex Gibney: There is always a way. You can either find a talented musician who wants to help you out, or go in the front door of some of the labels and the publishers. It never hurts to ask, and sometimes if you show the artist your film and they like it, you can strike a deal.
Even in "Gonzo" we had to make a deal with people for a relatively low license fee, but we made it work because it was a so-called favored nations deal. Everybody got exactly the same and we also offered them additional payments if the film were to become successful.
New Hampshire: Mr. Gibney, I want to thank you for your important truth-telling and resurrection of the memories of the mostly forgotten innocents and victims in Afghanistan.
I wonder if you heard the odious Inhofe during testimony at the Senate Armed Services Committee stating that he had seen "Taxi to the Dark Side", and that the last scene of torture was a "Hollywood set" and it betrayed our wonderful troops.
Have you been contacted by any of our elected politicians and, if so, what has been their reaction to your film?
Alex Gibney: I did hear about the comments of Sen. Inhofe. I haven't seen or heard them yet. I wonder if you could tell me during which witness Sen. Inhofe made those comments.
I have been contacted directly and indirectly by a number of congresspeople and Senators. Generally speaking, Sen. Inhofe excepted, they liked the film very much. This includes a good many Republicans as well as Democrats. After all, the most vociferous critics of President Bush's policy of cruelty and torture toward detainees in the movie were Republicans.
Calaveras County, Calif.: What's the biggest misconception people have about Dr. Hunter S. Thompson? MotherLodeBeth
Alex Gibney: The biggest misconcepttion that people have is that he always wrote while under the influence of drugs. For much of his career he was a very disciplined writer who paid great attention to his craft. While the drugs may have loosened him up and allowed him to free associate early on, like Charlie Parker, he generally wrote well despite the drugs rather than because of them.
Baltimore, Md.: During preparation in making this documentary, did you watch Ewing's "Breakfast with Hunter"? If so, how does yours' contrast?
Alex Gibney: I did watch Wayne Ewing's "Breakfast With Hunter." I liked it very much and we excerpted portions from it in our film.
As our title implies, we look more at Hunter's work and his lifestyle. Wayne's film chronicles what it's like to hang with Hunter. Our film tries to dig in to his skill as a writer. That having been said, we still have some fun hanging with Hunter.
New York City: How badly did Thompson cheat the Hell's Angels out of money, and how frightened was he for his life by threats from the motorcycle gang?
Alex Gibney: I don't believe Thompson cheated the Hell's Angels out of any money. He may have promised to buy them a case of beer.
Richmond, Va.: Many Hunter S. Thompson critics have argued that his later works, after his divorce with Sandy Thompson (now Sondi Wright) are not as good as his more popular, earlier works, such as "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail." The book, "Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson," seems to suggest that drug and alcohol abuse played a significant role in his writing's decline.
Having researched and done a documentary on HST, what do you believe led to this decline?
Alex Gibney: There is no easy answer to that question. I certainly think that the booze augmented or sped his decline. Over time, the booze really took its toll on Hunter. I also think that he had a hard time achieving that balance that he found in his hey day in which he was both character and observer.
That is tough to pull off over the long haul and I think Hunter's fame ended up getting in the way of his good work as a reporter. And he became too tempted to parody the excesses of his own character, which he had made up. So booze, fame and the problem of being inside and outside the material, all caused Hunter a problem as he lived on. Still, there were notable high points. I regret that in the film I wasn't able to spend more time on "The Curse of Lono." We did open the film with his blog for ESPN about 9/11, which I still find to be an extraordinary piece of writing. It's just so prescient.
Fairfax, Va.: Alex,
What's the status of the film you were/are making about lobbyists in D.C.?
Thanks - Bill
Alex Gibney: We're very close to being finished. I think it will have some surprises for a lot of people.
Washington, D.C.: Given the ability of an admitted multiple drug user to write insightful, poignant journalism, will we ever see mainstream media give individuals like Dr. Hunter a chance to write or are today's corporate dominated mediums it for this generation in terms of mainstream press? Blogs don't get the coverage or audience they deserve and what mainstream media outlet is gonna pay someone like me to go to Denver, drink to my gills, smoke reefer and get shot at with Pepper Balls by the Denver pigs?
Alex Gibney: What are you complaining about? Sounds like you're doing it exactly right. What do you care if NBC Nightly News doesn't pick up your story?
Let's not forget that Hunter wrote for Rolling Stone, which at the time was a kind of underground magazine in comparison to Time, Newsweek, Life and The Atlantic.
New Hampshire: Mr. Gibney,
It was during the 3rd panel of testimony with William Haynes, chief counsel for DOD (and now chief counsel for Chevron.)
Alex Gibney: Thank you very much for that. I am going to get a copy of it and put it on my Web site.
DC: The standard line was that HST killed himself because a hip transplant left him in constant pain and unable to be active. Did you find this to be more or less the case?
Alex Gibney: I don't think that's a sufficient explanation for why Hunter killed himself. A lot of people live in pain and don't shoot themselves with a gun. He may have been tired, he may have been depressed, he was certainly in ill health. But I also think his suicide deprived us of an important voice and was essentially a selfish act.
He was thinking about his legacy in addition to trying to end the pain. I don't see his suicide as having been heroic or necessary. Still, I don't think anybody knows exactly why someone commits suicide. We do know he talked about it a lot. We don't know exactly why he pulled the trigger on that particular day.
Western Alexandria: Near the end of his life, Thompson was quite angry about the Bush presidency. I kind of get the feeling that he would have been very pleased by the Obama run.
Alex Gibney: I do think you're right. I suspect that Hunter would have liked Obama. He seems to capture the same kind of idealism that Hunter responded to with Robert F. Kennedy and George McGovern.
New York, NY: Your polemic documentaries are decidedly left wing. Is the Hunter biopic another anti-establishement, praise for the counter-culture?
Alex Gibney: No. This film is a right-wing screed, a call to arms to elect Rush Limbaugh. Anybody who interprets it differently is probably using some of Hunter's pill stash.
Austin, Tex.: What was the most interesting HST-related thing that you encountered in making this film that didn't make it into the final cut?
Alex Gibney: There was a story that Jimmy Carter told me. He had done an extended interview with Carter long before anybody else just at the beginning of Carter's run for the President. But due to one thing or another he lost the audio tapes of that interview.
By the time he went back to Carter, he was already well on his way to getting the nomination and the people around Carter were more than a little nervous about giving Hunter so much time with the candidate. According to Carter, he was so furious st the lack of access that he went to Jody Powell's hotel room and when Powell didn't answer, he built a fire4 under his door and tried to burn it down. Carter had to come downstairs and try to put out the fire.
Nevis, West Indies: Please tell us who you interviewed for the film, if you used a lot of archival footage of Dr. Thompson and, after you were finished, what, if any, of your perceptions about HST were changed and how.
Alex Gibney: We interviewed a number of close friends and associates, many of whom knew him in the course of his work , not just hanging out. Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tim Krouse, Jann Wenner, George McGovern, both his wives and many others.
We also found fantastic arvhival materials, many of which have never been heard or seen before outside of Owl Farm, Hunter Thompson's Woody Creek compound.
One thing I was astounded by was just how prolific he was, and he was not a fast typer. Between his articles, books and extraordinary number of letters I don't know when the guy found time to sleep. Maybe the speed did come in handy after all.
Seattle WA: Will there be a showing in Seattle and when will it go to video?
Alex Gibney: The film will open in Seattle on the 4th of July as it will in many cities around the country. Check the Magnolia Pictures Web site for exact times and venues.
It will be released on DVD in November.
Washington, D.C.: Why do you think Dr. Thompson, a writer/journalist who took things to the absolute edge of reason and sanity, continued to have such a wide appeal to many mainstream Americans even after forty years in the business?
Alex Gibney: I think Hunter Thompson embodied the best and worst of America. Our highs and lows, our sense of possibility and the fear and loathing that lurks in all of us. But he chronicled those contradictions with such humor and fun, and he lived such a wild, outrageous life, that all of us were happy to watch his journey. As he said, buy the ticket, take the ride.
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