5 minutes with … a (‘gonzo’) documentarian
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Name: Alex Gibney
Lives in: New Jersey (born in New York, grew up in various locales around the East Coast, went to school at University of California in Los Angeles)
Occupation: Documentary film director
Well-known projects include: “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Taxi to the Dark Side” (which won an Oscar for Best Documentary)
Most recent piece: “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”
At its most philosophical, what do you think the point of documentary filmmaking is? I would say to embrace the contradictions of everyday life. At the same time, sometimes, it’s sort of a cultural vivisection of what’s going on in a certain moment in time. So, you know, films like “Enron” or “Taxi to the Dark Side,” they look at something that’s going on and try and understand it … I happen to be interested a lot in corruption and, to some extent, truth seekers. So, you know, those are the kind of films that interest me. It’s hard to say what’s the role of a documentary. There are so many different kinds.
Why choose Hunter S. Thompson as a subject? Well, this was one what was actually brought to me. When it was, I immediately jumped at it, because it seemed to me that ” first of all, I’ve always loved Hunter’s writing. He was a lot of fun, and I also thought that, as a journalist, that he was a funny kind of journalist. He was a “gonzo journalist.” He was breaking all the rules, and, you know, when I was offered this film, it came at a time when people in power were using their “rules” of objective journalism in a way to kind of put journalists in a box, you know, demanding a kind of phony balance and that kind of thing. Hunter was more playful, and sometimes he got at the truth better than the straight journalists that were around him. So I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to look at that?
In your research, what most surprised you about him? Two things. One was that he was a guy who had very high highs and very low lows. I didn’t really understand that about him before, but I think that was one of the reasons he was peculiarly able to kind of grapple with these issues of American culture. And, you know, I was just reminded again, how much people ” he charmed a lot of people, a lot of different kinds of people, from George McGovern to Pat Buchanan. It’s kind of amazing that he would have that kind of a range. And also, he was just so funny. Just going back and reading the writing just makes you laugh out loud.
What most impressed you about him? He lived this wild and crazy life … He ingested more drugs than, you know, more than some pharmacies. But at the same time, he never took his eye off the ball. I mean, was working like a madman and, particularly from ’65 to ’75, he had this output of rather extraordinary writing that holds up today as great literature. So it’s pretty impressive.
Did anything make you sad about him? Well, I do think that he was overcome by the drugs and, I think, ultimately, the alcohol, especially, and I think [he got] lost in his own creation. And he became more and more reclusive and more and more depressed. I say this as somebody who didn’t actually know him, but just from what I heard from people, you know, who knew him. I think that was tough to see, but we certainly included it.
When this was all wrapped up for you, did you have a sense of what kind of a legacy he left people? I think, on the one hand, he was a great patriot who wanted to make a difference. I think that’s something to remember. I think he was a great writer, but he was also a very angry man, who used that anger to produce some of the funniest writing you’ll ever read. And he didn’t play by the rules, in ways that were ultimately valuable and in the service of trying to make a difference. So all those things, I think, are important legacies of Hunter. You know, the drugs, the alcohol, the wild and crazy guy, Uncle Duke, it’s all amusing, but I think, at the end of the day, that’s not the important thing about Hunter.
What did you walk away with, personally, from this experience? I walked away thinking that this guy, both by his own design and in part because he couldn’t help himself, really represented the contradictions of the American character. That’s what makes him great. … You know, I was making the film at the same time I was making a film on torture, the American policy of torture, and you know, in conjoining cutting rooms. But interestingly enough, the film on Hunter took much more of a toll on me physically than the other one did. Maybe that was Hunter’s revenge: “I’ll show you, trying to make a film about me.”
Favorite piece of Thompson writing: “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72”
Favorite documentary: “The Sorrow and the Pity”
Favorite feature film: “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Once Upon a Time in the West,” among others
Favorite place you’ve ever filmed: Afghanistan
Least favorite: Guantanamo
Description of your films, in a word: Curious (not weird, but inquisitive)
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