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  • Writer's pictureWayne Ewing

The Premiere

Updated: 6 days ago

The May, 1998 New York premiere of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was of course filled with both fear and loathing for Hunter. He feared the film would be panned, and he loathed Terry Gilliam.

Hunter had already seen the film at an unusual screening in Aspen two weeks earlier. Universal sent a 35mm “double system” print of the film in which the sound is separate from the film. Only in Aspen could you find a 35mm projector capable of playing two monstrous rolls of 35mm picture and sound together in sync. The screening room of an Owl Creek mansion owned by a women’s clothing magnate had just the right equipment, including luxurious sofas and an elaborate bar in the back. Sheriff Bob drove me, Hunter, and Heidi – his assistant and girlfriend at the time – to the screening and stayed to see the show.

“This is better than I thought. I’m pleasantly surprised,” hollered Hunter, as the credits rolled and the Stones played “Sympathy for the Devil. ”

“It is ugly,” Hunter then added, a bit begrudgingly.

“It’s your life. What do you expect?” Heidi countered.

“Like a drug survival trip,” Hunter admitted.

“We survived,” the Sheriff concluded.

But, surviving the actual premiere in New York was another matter. For some reason Terry Gilliam seemed intent on insulting Hunter while publicizing the film, and Ralph Steadman joined him. The two of them sat down for two and a half hours together to talk about the film and Hunter. Ralph taped their session, and then gave the tape to The New York Times. Amidst what is actually an interesting conversation about film making and Gilliam’s career, they went out of their way to disparage Hunter:

GILLIAM. He is an outrageous romanticist, a huge romantic about America, and a hugely self-absorbed person as well. That’s why he thinks he’s the Messiah in a strange way. He’s God, he’s God.

STEADMAN. He’s a Messiah of a kind.

GILLIAM. And they come to the mountain all the time, and he’s stuck in there. I think that’s a sad side of Hunter’s: he’s stuck in time. I keep saying the guy died around 1974, and the guy that’s here is this mummified version of him. He has to keep living a life, and being here.

The ending of The New York Times piece was particularly offensive to Hunter:

GILLIAM. When I first met Hunter, there was a bottle of Chivas, a bottle of wine, a can of beer, I think. There was a tin of coke. He had his hash — what else did he have?

STEADMAN. He snorts whiskey, too. Have you seen him clean his nose with whiskey?

In a FAX to Depp on the day the piece was published Hunter wrote, “Well, Mr. Gilliam has done his version of Pearl Harbor on me in the NY Times (May 3, ’98)…Chatting intimately about his Personal Access to me puts him on the same level as a Police Informant, like some crab-ridden slut on the street who sells tips to cops and mendacious gossip to Tabloids – some kind of failed whore who turns in her customers.” At the premiere in New York, a confrontation with Gilliam seemed inevitable, and could easily result in real violence.

The Carlyle Hotel at 76th and Madison was one of Hunter’s favorites, and mine as well. The staff at the Carlyle was discrete and understanding of their guests’ needs. Once, after being nominated for an Emmy Award for “The Bloods of ‘Nam”, I returned to the Carlyle with my girlfriend and in despair we drank every bottle in the mini-bar. Upon checkout I discovered a $445 dollar charge for the binge on my bill, and complained that it must be in error.

“How could anyone drink the entire mini-bar in one night?” I protested to the cashier.

“Of course, you’re right, Sir. I’ll remove the charge completely,” said the cashier with a look that still shames me today to remember. The man knew I was lying, but was too polite to argue. Just the kind of slack Hunter would require when he checked in under the name “Omar Gray” switching from his first choice of “Victor Suave” at the last minute since it had been used before. I see from my notes that Depp was checked in at the Four Seasons under the name “Mr. Stench.”

A taxi strike was in the offing, but that worried me more than it did Hunter who would hardly settle for anything less than a stretch limo. A mere town car could be a source of immense dissatisfaction (the Beast did have long legs and a bad back), and I made sure a stretch would be there courtesy of Universal to get us to the premiere. We charged Hunter’s rental tux to Omar Gray’s account at the Carlyle so that Universal would also end up paying for the monkey suit along with thousands of dollars in room service.

The night before the premiere Ed Bradley dropped by the Carlyle for a visit. Hunter was highly agitated, wondering what to say to the press about the movie. Ed had a good answer which I wrote down in my notebook and would repeat for Hunter over the next 24 hours like a mantra:

“I hope people who have read the book will see the movie, and I hope people who have seen the movie will read the book.”

I was staying at the New York Hilton courtesy of my sister Kathleen who had connections there for a rate far less than the Carlyle. Even though I worked as the Road Manager off and on for years, I usually paid my own expenses. Making my self “useful,” as Hunter put it, enabled me to make my film along the way. Kathleen and her assistant Sara Lyons came up from Washington, DC to help me wrangle the Beast through the city. But that meant I had to take taxis (provided they weren’t on strike) which could take a half hour from the Hilton to the Carlyle. So I moved my dress clothes into a large closet off of the living room of Hunter’s suite at the Carlyle to change for the premiere.

When I emerged from the closet in my coat and tie, George Plimpton was standing in the middle of the living room making notes while Hunter dressed in the bedroom. Plimpton was everything you expected him to be and more – quite the gentlemen with a wry sense of humor and great patience and respect for Hunter. He later wrote that “Everyone seemed involved in getting Hunter ready for his premiere like preparing a somewhat balky float for a parade.” Later, Hunter complimented Plimpton that the writing was a “good lick” just as he would have said to Keith Richards about his guitar playing.

George Plimpton was a wise, soothing companion for Hunter on the way to the premiere, first in the elevator of the Carlyle and then in the stretch going downtown, as you can see in Breakfast with Hunter.

Plimpton’s line, “How is any filmmaker going to get into your head? It’s impossible,” is a keen observation about both Hunter and the film, even though George hadn’t seen the movie yet; the interior, drug-fueled monologues throughout FLLV are what made it so hard to translate to the screen.

Always caught between my dual role as filmmaker and Road Manager, I neglected the latter when we arrived at the theater. Hunter wanted a plan before we got out of the car so I said “let’s jump” like paratroopers. Kathleen and Sara were waiting at the curb, and they led Hunter quickly inside, rushing by the mob of mostly amateur paparazzi behind the barriers and into the theater too quickly. For some stupid reason I thought Hunter wanted to avoid the mob, forgetting that the press, even if it was a mob, is the whole purpose of a premiere. Naturally, we were booed heavily by the photogs behind the barricades for running by so quickly, leading to bitter complaints from Hunter. Once Plimpton was by his side, Hunter calmed down like a nervous thoroughbred with his favorite stable mate.

Hunter lumbered down the red carpet and then onto the escalator to the lobby of the theater below, leaving the gauntlet of A-list press upstairs also unsatisfied, even though they had gotten Hunter to stand still for a few shots, unlike those outside. Perhaps Hunter and I thought there was more press downstairs in the theater lobby, but once we got down the escalator he refused to go back up the stairs.

Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner joined Fear & Loathing producer Laila Nabulsi in pestering Hunter to go back up for more photos. They seemed to think he was being a diva, and then Hunter sadly whispered in my ear, “My legs are giving out. I can’t walk back up the steps.”

I pulled Plimpton aside and told him the real problem Hunter was too embarrassed to admit. George instantly thought of a solution. “We’ll make the escalator go up rather than down,” George declared and hurried to find the manager to reverse the escalator.

Unfortunately, no one could find the key for the escalator control so we stayed in the lower lobby where Hunter began to get even more agitated. I spied a door off to the side with a combination lock on it and got the manager to give me the code. Now we had a more private place to retreat. Fortuitously, that was where they stored the popcorn in tall, clear plastic bags. When Hunter saw the popcorn, his eyes brightened in the same way they would at the sight of a fire extinguisher. A prank was in the making.

Johnny stopped by to hang with Hunter who gave him the calla lilies he had been carrying since leaving the Carlyle. Universal’s publicists also came to his hideout off the lobby, saying that they had brought the press into the downstairs lobby. But Hunter could see that Gilliam was now posing with Depp and Benicio del Toro and refused to have his picture taken with Gilliam. Hunter waited until Gilliam was pulled away by a savvy publicist and then pounced with the popcorn.

The rest of the evening was a blast, and I concentrated on enjoying it while still taking care of the Beast and shooting a bit along the way. The official premiere party was at the China Club where Hunter contrarily insisted he wanted to watch basketball on television. I found a television set in the manager’s office, which became Hunter’s headquarters and the new VIP room of the China Club for the night. All the right people stopped by to knock on the door and see if we would let them in.

The next event was even more discreet – a dinner hosted by Depp at Jezebel’s, a fancy, lace-curtained restaurant without a sign outside, but inside there was to be NO SMOKING in the days when this was not a law but rather a rarity in New York. I think Johnny must have pleaded Hunter’s case to Jezebel since she grudgingly allowed Hunter, and only Hunter, to smoke. Years later, one of the reasons Hunter rarely ventured from the kitchen at Owl Farm was the escalation of the war against smoking. Even the Woody Creek Tavern became a No Smoking Zone, and he rarely went there and then only after closing time.

I wrote about my experience with Jimmy Buffett that night leaving Jezebel’s earlier in my vodcast “The Gonzo Pilot” so I won’t repeat the story here except to say moments like that justified the difficulties of life on the road with Hunter.

The night ended with George Plimpton about 3am at Elaine’s – the fashionable writers’ watering hole on the East Side often identified with George. While we guzzled a bottle of Cristal Champagne compliments of Hunter’s old friend and lawyer John Clancy (look for a fascinating piece by John Clancy in Warren Hinckle’s soon-to-be-released book Who Killed Hunter S. Thompson), I eyed the two NYPD cruisers parked directly in front of Elaine’s window, the two cops sitting together in the front car, just staring back at me through the window. Paranoia started to creep up my spine, and I thought about how many possible missteps it was from the front door of Elaine’s to our limo sitting a few yards in front of the cops. Fortunately, Hunter behaved himself on the sidewalk as we left; he could see the obvious danger as well as I. He hated cops, and though he had no fear, he would never taunt them.

Back at the Carlyle I gathered up my dirty clothes from the closet and packed up my camera. Hunter was as pleased as I ever saw him in twenty years, and spontaneously inscribed a blad of The Rum Diary to me. Blads are pre-publication sales tools for books that usually have only a chapter or two. They are often considered highly collectible, especially if signed by the author, but I would never part with mine in a million years.

On the street outside the Carlyle at 4am I wandered helplessly, clutching my dirty clothes and the blad, searching for a taxi. “Did they strike,” I wondered. It certainly seemed so that morning in Manhattan. But, I didn’t care; we had shot the gap.

Copyright 2010 By Wayne Ewing

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