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  • Writer's pictureWayne Ewing

The Gonzo Pilot

Updated: 6 days ago

In the late winter of 1986 I began filming with Hunter for the first time. The idea was to make a short, entertaining pilot to prove to the right television programmer that Dr. Hunter S. Thompson could actually host his own, regular television series.  We were going to call the show either the “Gonzo Tour” or “Breakfast with Hunter” – the latter being Jack Nicholson’s clever idea spoofing morning television talk shows.

These were the days before cheap, digital video. Shooting 16mm film was expensive. We planned to travel to Key West, and Hunter demanded to be paid so I found a producer in Ross Milloy of Austin, Texas who financed the deal, and I handled the filmmaking.

We began shooting in Woody Creek on a snowy day.  Hunter was a natural performer; he loved the camera, and the camera loved him. You can see some of the results here in the credit sequence of “Breakfast with Hunter.”

Notice how Hunter ad libs coming out onto the porch. All I told him was “pretend you’re on your way to Florida” and he emerged in his shorts in the snow with all sorts of “business” to do, even ironically checking the time on his wristwatch in the end.  Hunter never cared about the time and was habitually late to everything.

Once in Key West among his old friends – drug smugglers, drunks, and Jimmy Buffett – he was much less forthcoming. We all stayed in Hunter’s favorite Florida motel – the Sugar Loaf Lodge on Sugar Loaf Key, about 15 minutes from Key West proper.  His girlfriend Maria (who is on the boat with him in the credit sequence above) was there, along with his secretary Deborah, my girlfriend Lynn, the patient soundman John McCormick and our money man Ross.  A captive, one-eyed dolphin named Sugar swam endlessly in circles in the motel lagoon while we waited for Hunter to perform for the camera each day.

After a week at the Sugar Loaf, I figured Hunter was actually in front of my camera for a total of about two hours. He never arose until well after noon, no matter what plan we made the night before, and when I went to beat on his door he would mumble that he needed to take a shower. The water would go on, and it could still be heard running when I returned a half hour later. Of course, Hunter had gone back to bed (“I never turn on the hot water,” he would say in defense of the ruse).

After two days, the Sugar Loaf Lodge Management (who actually were rather fond of Hunter from his previous stays) threatened to kick us all out, unless one of us moved in next door to him. The loud sounds in the middle of the night – light bulbs exploding, Maria gurgling as if she were being strangled – were upsetting the guests next door who checked out complaining bitterly. So Lynn and I moved in next door, and hoped every night that the screams were from pleasure and not pain.

The cinematic breakthrough came with the boat ride which plays throughout the credit sequence.  Hunter had bought a boat on an earlier trip to Key West and he was keen to take it out of storage and race around the Keys. An old buddy of Hunter’s supplied the second boat for my camera, and part of the time I would shoot boat to boat and sometimes on board with Hunter and Maria.

At one point, as you can see in the film, a school of dolphins gracefully surfaced and began to swim in formation with Hunter.  “I’m back, Boys,” Hunter called out.

“What did you mean by that?” I later asked in the bar at the Sugar Loaf.

“I’m Lono and I’m back with my people,” declared Hunter.

(Lono was a mythical Hawaiian figure featured in “The Curse of Lono” who Ralph Steadman concludes is reincarnated as Hunter)

After the boating sequence I figured we were on a roll, so I suggested to Hunter in the bar that we continue filming and shoot an interview to tie the whole pilot together. He agreed, and I left him with Maria and three Bloody Marys while soundman McCormick and I lit a set in McCormack’s motel room. In less than a half hour I went back to the bar to get Hunter.

“I’m feeling too dumb to do the interview,” mumbled Hunter, now sipping Scotch.

“Okay. We’ll just keep the set ready in McCormack’s room until you are,” I suggested amiably.  Hunter said he’d call and retreated to his room with Maria…for over two days, until I got the call at three am on the third night.

“I’m ready for my interview now,” the Beast said.

So we all scrambled awake and shot until dawn. Not the greatest interview he ever did, but it sufficed.  You can see part of it in the clip above.  Note the jacket, advertising the “Cigarette” boats used for speedy purposes in Florida.

Jimmy Buffett provided another high point, agreeing to be filmed in conversation with Hunter in his backyard at the beach in Key West.   Years later in New York City at 3am as I was leading Hunter out of Elaine’s after the premiere of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” I heard a voice call out, “Your film is still the best, Wayne.” I looked up to see Jimmy smiling from the back of a black SUV, and knew he was referring to the “Gonzo Pilot.” For that I will forever be grateful.

But the programmers at HBO weren’t of the same opinion. Producer Milloy reported that their head of documentary programming at the time threatened to call Security if he ever mentioned Hunter’s name again. These were the days of Reagan and a middle aged dope fiend was not welcome on the air waves.

The best of the Gonzo Pilot is to be found either in the credits of my film “Breakfast with Hunter” (above) or in Alex Gibney’s “Gonzo” which has the scene we gave him with Buffett. Someday we may find the right use for the rest.

That winter of ’86, I left Hunter with Maria in Key West, and returned to Aspen, not hearing anything for about a week and then he called.

“You’ve got to help get us out of here. I’ve spent all the money you gave me and have no credit cards to get a plane ticket,” he pleaded. “If you will pre-pay our plane tickets home, I promise I’ll pay you back the minute I’m at Owl Farm.”

American Express and every other credit card company known to man had long before cancelled any card in the name of Hunter S. Thompson or anything similar.

What else could I do, but pay for the tickets and hope for reimbursement from my new television star?  In fact, when they returned, Hunter immediately wrote me a check, saying “Let this be a lesson to you, Wayne. Never lose your credit cards.”

Copyright 2009 By Wayne Ewing

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