BEHIND THE CAMERA: ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ escaped being a cartoon, gambled its production budget at the tables and earned Johnny Depp praise from Russians
Regarding this flick as one of the great cinematic portraits of Las Vegas confirms one indisputable fact: You’re stoned — which aligns nicely with the movie itself, a surreal, drug-fueled journey into hallucinogenic hell.
Yet despite its critical failure — not to mention being a box-office flop-e-roo — the 1998 film translation of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s trippy, iconic novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, morphed into an enduring cult fave. And Johnny Depp’s star wattage (as Thompson) and co-star Benicio Del Toro’s acting chops (as Dr. Gonzo) powering their portrayals of perpetually wasted traveling companions, didn’t hurt.
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So daunting was the challenge of adapting Thompson’s bizarre, incendiary literature to the screen that both Martin Scorsese’s and Oliver Stone’s attempts foundered. Director Terry Gilliam finally tackled it.
After Thompson initially gave the rights to his novel to his girlfriend, animator/moviemaker Ralph Bakshi tried to convince her to let him turn it into an animated feature, claiming that Vegas as viewed through drug-addled eyes would have appeared more authentic in a cartoon. Oh — and that a live-action version would look like a bad cartoon. (Should we have been insulted?) His persuasions fell short.
Though it inspired the film’s Bazooko Circus Casino, Circus Circus refused to be associated with the movie, so the Boardwalk, Riviera (specifically, its Le Bistro Lounge), Stardust, Plaza and Binion’s Horseshoe played the part in various capacities. Yet the film crew semi-re-created the Circus Circus Horse-a-Round carousel bar, but set it rotating in the opposite direction to avoid suspicion that it might have been filmed there, thereby dodging lawsuits.
Credit the former Riviera’s retro-chic style for its inclusion in the movie, as the resort’s publicity manager, Fred Kosik, explained to the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “We’ve been here since ’55 … we look like what a casino should look like. When Mom and Pop see a picture of a casino … this is what they think of.”
Inspiration was provided to the film’s director of photography, whose depiction of the 1998 movie’s setting of 1970s Vegas was prodded by a visit before filming began to the classic signs at the Neon Boneyard.
Supplementing that period style, the cinematographer deployed rear-projection footage of the TV show Vega$ (series co-star Tony Curtis not included).
Casting calls for extras were particularly colorful, the call sheets advertising for blackjack, craps and roulette dealers, little people, contortionists, fire-eaters, circus sideshow types, showgirls, dirt-bike riders and Dean Martin/Frank Sinatra look-alikes.
Lensing the flick at Binion’s hemmed in the filmmakers, as the production was only allowed to film between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., could only scatter extras around six gaming tables, and had to limit the use of lights to avoid blinding gamblers. “The strange thing was we couldn’t use phony money at the tables,” Gilliam told interviewer David Morgan. “We had to gamble with real money, and the dealers were their dealers. So, we had a chance of either losing the budget or doubling the budget. That was strange.”
While neither he (nor the movie) were flattering of Vegas, Gilliam also noted that “it’s a totally democratic place because the people think they own it — they paid for that town,” he told Morgan. We assume he means with the greenbacks that tourists arrive with, then leave without.
Though it wasn’t used for filming, the Fear and Loathing production set up headquarters at the Tropicana hotel-casino.
Despite a savaging by movie reviewers, Depp’s performance earned him a “best foreign actor” award — from the Russian Guild of Film Critics. Da, it’s true!
Embodying Thompson’s persona, Depp went deep, including shearing his noggin. “I shaved the top of my head bald,” he told The Insider. “And then I had this hideous chinchilla around the edge, this horseshoe of fuzz.”
Method acting-wise, Del Toro made a bid to out-De Niro Robert De Niro — who famously added 60 pounds to his frame to play a late-in-life Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull — by packing on pounds in a hurry to play the physical wreck, Dr. Gonzo. Over eight weeks, he scarfed down 16 — that’s 16! — doughnuts a day. “I gained weight stupidly,” Del Toro told the British newspaper, The Guardian. “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.”
Ballooning to jumbo size strained not only Del Toro’s body, but his career. Another two years passed after Fear and Loathing before he popped up again on film, in 2000’s Traffic — which snared him an Oscar. “In between work, I had meetings and people saw me and said, ‘Oh my God, this guy went off the rails,’” Del Toro told The Guardian.
“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 we know he’s got a drug problem.’ And the only reason for that was because they had seen Fear and Loathing. Maybe it was a compliment.”
While he may have lost work because of his slob-to-the-max performance in Vegas, Del Toro also gained something here: two huge pet tortoises. “Pet shops in Vegas are like going to the zoo,” he told Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. “They’ll sell anything.”
Fear and Loathing was a cameo-spotters delight. Among those briefly dropping into town to flicker across the screen in fleeting roles: Mark Harmon, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, Flea, Lyle Lovett, Harry Dean Stanton, Ellen Barkin, Tobey Maguire, Thompson himself — and our own Penn Jillette.
Rock music dominated the Fear and Loathing soundtrack, though several performers heavily identified with Vegas were featured: Wayne Newton singing “Strangers in the Night,” Tom Jones belting out “She’s a Lady” and “It’s Not Unusual,” Debbie Reynolds vocalizing on “Tammy,” Robert Goulet performing “My Love, Forgive Me” and — in an ironic nod to the drug theme that permeates the movie — Frank Sinatra crooning “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me.”
Critical opinion of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Whoa …
USA Today: “Simply unwatchable.”
Roger Ebert: “A horrible mess of a movie without shape, trajectory or purpose.”
The Washington Post: “Watching it is like being forced to listen to bad heavy metal music turned up to 11 while fat guys in Bermuda shorts compete in a puking contest in the john.” (That’s one heck of a word picture, we’ll admit.)
And yet, The Guardian took the contrarian — very contrarian — view: “No, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not breathtakingly self-indulgent and just plain awful. It is actually jaw-droppingly great. Those of you who do not share this opinion are idiots.”