Hunter’s six days at the Chateau Marmont in March, 1997 developed into an odd routine. Mid-morning I would wake up in Marina del Rey on the Barney Google – a 1960s wooden motor yacht that served as my LA base – and head out for Hollywood after calling ahead to order the first round of breakfast for Mr. Green – two Bloody Marys, two Heinekens, a pot of coffee, and a pitcher of ice. The tray would be waiting by the time I got to the front desk at noon. The Beast no longer dead-locked the door after that first morning, and I used my key to enter, always anticipating some new weirdness on the other side.
Yet on this journey to replace the director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter stayed quite focused. ”We are professionals after all,” he would say. The “start date” for production on the movie was less than two months away, and unless Hunter could get Johnny to agree to change his schedule and delay production, the train would inevitably leave the station with Alex Cox as the conductor.
The Chateau Marmont was literally crawling with out of work film directors like Abel Ferrara, helmer of The Bad Lieutenant, the story of a drugged out cop gone wild. Hunter had spoken to Ferrara on the phone before we left Woody Creek, and the first time we went downstairs at the Chateau, there Ferrara was in the lobby, glad-handing Hunter with a strange, crackling laugh. Hunter took an instant dislike to Ferrara, as he did ironically with most folks who were sloppy when chemically altered. Drunken women were especially repugnant to Hunter. That chance encounter in the lobby of the Chateau ended any hope for Ferrara to direct the movie.
Depp was the key, even without a replacement director. Johnny was finishing post-production on his first directing attempt – The Brave – and we didn’t see him until the fifth night in town. Hunter’s old girlfriend, now Producer, Laila Nabulsi arranged a party in the Hollywood Hills in Hunter’s honor, and Johnny was to be there. This was a time before Johnny came to Woody Creek to live in the basement of Owl Farm and study Hunter’s habits. They were yet to become fast friends, and Hunter was nervous about seeing him at the party that fifth night.
Time was running out, both for getting rid of Cox and staying at the Chateau, since I had only made reservations for five nights. The Marmont Manager ignored my pleas for an extended stay, insisting that Suite 69 had been promised for many months to another guest. I suspected that even hundred dollar tips were not compensating for the weirdness, and thought of another plan: get Johnny to invite Hunter to stay at his mansion above Sunset the next night. Hunter would not be homeless in Hollywood and they would have the whole night to scheme about the movie.
The Beast was in a foul mood as we got ready to leave the Chateau for the party, accusing sweet Jennifer of stealing his Mont Blanc pen since she had a similar model to his which we could not find. “It’s mine, but please take it anyway,” Jennifer said graciously offering him her $150 pen. And he took it without hesitation. Later I found his pen in a shirt hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Hunter was most chagrined and made a huge show of returning Jennifer’s pen months later at Owl Farm. The Beast had a charming way of making up for his transgressions, which also made it possible for him to keep misbehaving and still not lose his friends completely.
The reckless ride to party in the Mustang appears in Breakfast with Hunter to the tune of Robert Mitchum’s “Thunder Road.” Mitchum, one of Hunter’s true heroes, having been busted for marijuana with a starlet in 1948 both wrote and sings the tune. [See Hunter’s liner notes for his album “Where Were You When The Fun Stopped” for more about his respect for Mitchum, as well as a scene in my upcoming Breakfast with Hunter, Volume Two where Hunter talks about “Thunder Road” and Mitchum.]
At the party in the Hollywood Hills, Hunter swept into the garden, making a grand, late as expected entrance. His old pollster buddy from the McGovern days, Pat Caddell immediately glommed onto him. I spent some time talking with Warren Zevon who wasn’t an easy guy to get to know (until years later) and then got a chance to speak to Depp about our being kicked out of the Chateau.
“He may have to leave early tomorrow unless we find someplace else acceptable to move for just one night,” I explained.
“No problem. He can stay at my house,” said the star with an endearing grin soon to be worth tens of millions per picture.
Mission accomplished, I left the Beast and his Brooke Shields in the Hollywood Hills and retreated to the boat with Jennifer who had followed with our own car. “Always have your own wheels” was one of Hunter’s wisest rules of the road.
With Hunter, checking out of a hotel never happened by the official “check out time” unless we headed out at dawn after staying up all night. At first the Chateau management agrees to a late check out of 2pm. I arrive by noon, as usual with the Bloody Marys, but clearly this is going to be a difficult move, even though Johnny’s mansion is only a few blocks away. You could only pester Hunter so much before rousing his ire and insuring he would do the exact opposite.
2 PM comes and I call the Manager and negotiate a 4pm check out. Hunter is still reading the paper and just beginning to eat a real breakfast. 4 PM comes and the Manager now insists we have to pay for this day, and still leave by 6 PM. Hunter orders more room service, and continues to read the newspaper. At 6 PM the Manager seems resigned to our continued occupation of Suite 69. I try and pack up camp at the Chateau. Finally, I get him into the Mustang convertible with his Brooke Shields at 9pm, promising the Chateau front desk, that I will be back to finish packing.
At the Mansion Johnny’s still out working on editing The Brave – a film about a man who agrees to be killed on camera for money to save his family – while his entourage waits. The house man feeds me some lightly fried flounder, and I notice there is an actual electric chair, just like those used for capital punishment, in a room just off the kitchen. Inspiration or a prop for The Brave perhaps? Hard to tell if it’s plugged in or not.
Benicio del Toro drops by and the two of us have to eject a drunken, and now unwelcome visitor. Benicio’s not a bad guy to have as backup. But after we get rid of the weirdo, Benicio takes off as well. I figure he must have a day job.
Finally, sometime after 2am, Johnny comes home from work, and Hunter swings into high gear as a lobbyist. They disappear in the darkness of a gazebo outside to talk where I cannot film. When they return about 4am, I can see from Hunter’s mood that he is successful: Johnny has agreed to delay the start date of the movie while they replace Cox.
Now I get a chance to bring out my camera and start to shoot in the kitchen. Sweating profusely, I record this scene at the kitchen table in Breakfast with Hunter. The subtitles are a bit of a cheat since the conversation described has already occurred in the gazebo too dark to film. What Hunter is really talking about is his obsession with the 15,000 copies of the first hardcover edition of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” that he believed were lost by Jann Wenner (a story for another time).
On the other side of the kitchen from the electric chair room is an elegant barroom where Johnny keeps his mynah bird named Edward in honor of Hunter’s mynah by the same name who appears in the 1978 BBC documentary. Johnny asks Hunter to teach the bird to say his name, so we move into the barroom which is lit only by the spill light coming from the kitchen. I dare not turn on any more lights for fear of squirreling the scene.
I was working with the first mini-digital video camera available from Sony. The DCR-VX1000 was revolutionary at the time, allowing me to shoot affordable video of a quality that ultimately would blow up to 35mm film, but that camera could not see into the dark like those today. I’m still amazed that I got anything, much less a priceless piece of cinema verite.
Making a large mistake, Hunter lets the small bird out of the cage, and a pursuit begins through Depp’s dark mansion.
This scene is the essence of what I tried to do with Breakfast with Hunter – create a cinema verite based portrait of Hunter, rather than a “clip show” like Alex Gibney’s post-mortem film Gonzo. Traditional biographical docs, like Gibney’s, rely on interviews and narration to tell the story of someone’s life. Instead, I relay that information through the words and actions of the subject as they occurred and were captured in reality.
Thus, rather than hearing an omniscient narrator tell you that Hunter was jailed for rape as a youth, Hunter himself says that to the bird who bites him when it’s caught. Then, when Hunter puts the bird back into the cage in the dawn light coming through Lugosi’s stained glass windows, he says “I’ll be back. You won’t be alone. You won’t be alone. You won’t be alone…” foreshadowing a comment at the end of the film from the Chateau Marmont more than a year later when Laila says to Hunter, “Hell for you would be…stuck in some place with no one else there.” You can get both historical and emotional truth with cinema verite, but it takes time. In the case of Breakfast with Hunter, it took almost twenty years.
Notice that the time is 5:50 am on Hunter’s wristwatch. The pursuit of Edward the Mynah actually took almost an hour, rather than the minute or so you see in the film. We were all afraid that Edward would have a heart attack, but before he keeled over in fright, Hunter grabbed him with a one-handed catch a gun fighter would envy. After the funny banter in the barroom you see in Breakfast, Johnny went to bed, and I took Hunter out to the waiting limo.
I walked back to the Chateau, too tired now to drive, and collapsed in the midst of the mess we had left. Fearing that I would be taken into custody at check out time, I called Jennifer, who left her day job to recover first the Mustang convertible from Johnny’s and then me from the Chateau. Looking now at the final $ 2957.38 bill, I see that they charged Hunter $1339.90 for room service along with a special $100 cleaning fee. But the real “cleaner” was Jennifer.
Copyright 2009 by Wayne Ewing