One of Johnny Depp’s greatest performances in his career came in 1998 when he portrayed the trailblazing journalist Hunter S. Thompson in a beautifully bizarre film adaptation of Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Directed by none other than Terry Gilliam, the film is a surreal masterpiece that was dismissed as “a horrible mess of a movie” when it first came out.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ended up having an abysmal performance at the box office, but in the subsequent years, it has been rediscovered and re-evaluated which has generated a significant cult following. The combination of Depp and Benicio del Toro in such a wild, hallucinatory ride has lost none of its magic even after all these years, contributing to the legacies of both Gilliam and Thompson.
In addition to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas being a critical and commercial failure, the production was an especially difficult process for Gilliam and his team. The director once revealed that there was no proper budget when he had started working on the project and that there was a lot of chaos surrounding the making of the film, including disputes with the Writers Guild of America over screenplay credits.
One interesting source of disruption was Thompson himself who came to the set for his cameo as an older version of his own semi-fictionalised, semi-autobiographical protagonist Raoul Duke. Gilliam claimed that after Thompson entered, he wanted to take everyone’s attention away from the making of the film and towards himself.
The director also stated that Thompson only came on set once but even that was hell because he allegedly threw bread rolls everywhere during filming and refused to go on for his part. According to Gilliam, the only way that Thompson ended up listening was when they got the “best looking female extra” to persuade him to do the acting bit.
Gilliam recalled that he had to team up with Depp and the producer to be able to manage Thompson, calling him a “recalcitrant sheep” that had to be corralled. “On the first take he didn’t even look up when he was supposed to because he was too busy talking to her,” Gilliam said. “He was such a fucking pain in the ass, but we got there in the end. That’s the price you pay when dealing with Hunter Thompson”.