It's winter in Woody Creek, Colo. and Hunter S. Thompson is dragging a blow-up doll across his snow-packed property named Owl Farm. Cigarette teetering on the edge of his bottom lip, Thompson is positioning the plastic blonde near the road to welcome expected visitors.
Legend has it that unexpected visitors to the "heavily fortified compound" are subject to a considerably less genteel greeting. But in these whiteout conditions Thompson's Southern upbringing demands a salutation appropriate to the circumstances. After all, the journey to Owl Farm is somewhat perilous, and nothing says "Welcome" like the ruby stained lips of a life-size sex toy.
A vehicle approaches and a gentleman with teeth as British as Princess Diana tea towels shouts, "Is this the violence against women center?"
It's director Alex Cox (Sid & Nancy) and his collaborator Tod Davies, who've arrived to discuss their script for the screen adaptation of Thompson's opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Davies immediately claims the doll as a souvenir, blissfully unaware that the visit is doomed.
This private moment is brought to you by Chivas Regal and documentary filmmaker Wayne Ewing, who for the better part of 18 years risked life, limb and incarceration to document the charmed life of outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
Recently released on DVD and available exclusively online, Breakfast with Hunter was not actually subsidized by the Scottish distillery, but the Scotch whiskey's perpetual presence in the film did present certain challenges. Namely, as Ewing puts it, "staying sober and not getting arrested."
Thompson, who birthed "gonzo" journalism when he wrote, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," for Scanlan's magazine in 1970, has since authored more than a dozen books, including Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 and, most recently, Kingdom of Fear. The same year he shaped new journalism into gonzo from the residue of untold acid trips, his iconic stature as counterculture godhead was cemented when he ran for Pitkin County sheriff on the "Freak Power" ticket, a movement he's planning to resurrect in time to oust Bush.
In the early '80s, Ewing, a Woody Creek resident, was working as an independent producer for the PBS series Frontline and sniffing around for a new subject when it occurred to him that the story he sought might be as close as his own backyard. Though neighbors, he and Thompson had yet to meet and Ewing figured his camera could serve as the ideal icebreaker.
At the time, Thompson was moonlighting as night manager at the infamous O'Farrell Theater in San Francisco, which he referred to as the "Carnegie Hall of public sex in America." Ewing thought it was a "great hook" and quickly pitched the idea to Frontline's executive producer, who expressed equal enthusiasm. Ewing spent a "fascinating" weekend with Thompson, and the rest is history-even what they don't remember.
Ultimately and quite predictably, Frontline backed out and Ewing understood that "it would take a long time and I'd have to do it on my own if I was to make a documentary about Hunter Thompson," he says.
The title was conceived by Jack Nicholson when they were conceptualizing a Hunter Thompson talk show. The thought was to make it like one of those mid-century morning shows gone awry.
That idea never took, but the name did. According to Ewing, the joke is that in life, breakfast with Hunter doesn't start until midnight.
The documentary debuted last summer at the CineVegas film festival, where it received a standing ovation from a full house. But for Ewing, victory after "18 years alone in the wilderness" came courtesy of actor Benecio del Toro when he said, "It plays, man, it really plays."
It's a testament to Ewing's deft use of cinema verité, or "free cinema," an approach that allows unscripted action and dialogue instead of talking heads to tell the story.
"It's very biographical," Ewing explains, "but it's not like anything you're gonna see on the Biography Channel."
Largely centered on the period between 1995-97, Ewing weaves a vivid tapestry of a life seemingly dependent on drama, chaos and lots of ice. The documentary is threaded together from three distinct storylines: the 25th anniversary of the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; a "vague, chickenshit" DUI charge that Thompson swears was politically motivated; and his gnarly artistic dispute with Cox and Davies.
While adapting a story like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to film is without question a brave and nearly impossible undertaking, Breakfast with Hunter portrays Cox and Davies' ill-fated attempt to engage Thompson in a creative wrestling match as surprisingly naïve; he's got more ammo.
The fracas begins when Thompson learns of their plan to use animation in conjunction with live action as some kind of literal translation of the book's metaphorical content and hallucination sequences. Of particular concern is a well-loved passage from the book that describes a generation riding a cresting wave. It's vintage Thompson.
When Cox proposes using animation to depict the wave, Thompson responds, "that eats shit and I hate it." The argument devolves rapidly when Cox tries to lay blame for the wretched idea on Ralph Steadman, Thompson's illustrator, then justifies it by claiming that Fear and Loathing is already "associated with cartoons in the popular mind."
To which Thompson eloquently replies, "fuck the popular mind."
The pair were eventually relieved of their duties and replaced by visionary director Terry Gilliam. The film, which starred Johnny Depp as Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke, wasn't a critical or box-office success, but remains a cult classic.
Depp embraced the role with signature gusto, spending lots of time with Thompson, participating in deviant recreation and smoking Dunhill cigarettes. In Breakfast, the simpatico is evident, but the similarities between the Kentucky natives are downright eerie.
"They just became blood brothers instantaneously," says Ewing. Depp told Ewing that Bill Murray, who played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam, warned him that he'd be stuck with Thompson's, um, speech anomalies for 10 or 12 years.
Ewing's friendship with Thompson certainly gained him rare access to Planet Gonzo, but it was his willingness to assist the surly writer with everything from driving to editing that continually landed him in the right place at the right time-with a DV camera in hand.
And while the camera certainly delighted in Thompson's antics, Breakfast isn't a film about a liquor-soaked madman with a gun collection as much as it's an acknowledgment of his literary prowess.
"The thing about Hunter," says Ewing, "is he has this wild man public persona-but he's also one of America's great writers."
For all his cult creds, Thompson is loved and respected by the unlikeliest characters, including George McGovern, whose presidential campaign Thompson immortalized in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.
When Thompson's colleagues at Rolling Stone honored Thompson with a swank celebration, conservative humorist PJ O'Rourke got the party started with a toast: "We're here to do something we've never done," he said, "and that is to take Hunter seriously. Something he richly deserves."
Thompson and O'Rourke may be viciously opposed politically, but when it comes to matters literary, they're on the same page.
While food is rarely consumed in Thompson's kitchen-cum-office (at least on film), words are devoured at all hours. In the supplementary footage that accompanies the Breakfast with Hunter DVD, O'Rourke and Thompson discuss the origins of gonzo as O'Rourke reads from Thompson's absurdly lascivious short story, Screwjack.
"He runs a terrific literary salon in the kitchen," Ewing explains. "It's such a crossroads."
In explaining gonzo, a mutation of new journalism that Thompson didn't actually coin, he confesses to O'Rourke that writing was the only career he really could pursue.
"I was a juvenile delinquent..." he says, "I knew I had to be a writer. I survive by making literature out of what might otherwise be seen as craziness."
For fans, Breakfast with Hunter is a voyeuristic thrill ride that's a long time coming. Though he's interviewed regularly on radio and television and has a column at ESPN online titled "Hey Rube," Thompson's private life boasts a mythology to rival Hemingway's.
One of the best-known Thompson fables has him taking shots at neighbor John Denver as the passive singer-songwriter played his guitar from his front porch.
"He is heavily armed, that's a known fact," says Ewing-who contends the story is just not true. "He would never really shoot someone intentionally unless they deserved it."
Early in their relationship, Ewing found himself uncomfortably close to one of Thompson's bullets. In retrospect, he views the incident as a joke, "an early test to see if I would call 911." But when it happened, it shook him up.
"He lured me into the kitchen on the basis that I had a camera he wanted to borrow," explains Ewing. Thompson asked Ewing to bring it over immediately, but warned, "I may be in the bathroom or taking a bath, so just come on in." Ewing found this suspicious, so he made some noise outside to announce his arrival, not wanting to surprise Thompson. "He's a great gentleman and a wonderful host... if you're invited," Ewing says.
Ewing stood at the door waiting when he thought he heard someone grunt inside. "So I stepped into the doorway to the kitchen," he recounts "and [Hunter] was standing there in the doorway in a bathrobe, dripping wet with a shotgun pistol in his hand and this twisted smile on his face. And he shot out the door frame I was standing in."
Were it anyone else, Ewing may never have returned. But, coming from Hunter he said, "I had to take it as sort of a hug."
Indeed, Hunter Thompson has a soft side; it's just disguised as something else. On film, Thompson comes across boyish, even loveable. More important, there's a loyalty and honor to the man that one senses through the integrity of his work that's validated on film.
They say you can judge a man by his fruits and it's through Thompson's grown child Juan-at a gathering in Louisville, Ken. to honor native son Thompson-that we finally get to the heart of Hunter S. Thompson and the essence of gonzo.
"He demands in everything he does that you set aside your habits of perception," says Juan, "and pay attention to what is happening right now, and deal with it."
The DVD edition of Breakfast with Hunter is not currently being distributed in stores for the usual reasons, but is available at www.breakfast withhunter.com. The feature-length documentary will be screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 16, where Thompson will make a rare personal appearance. www.newportbeachfilmfest.com.