LOS ANGELES — Johnny Depp vividly recalls the first time he met Hunter S. Thompson, sparks flying as the author parted a bar crowd with a cattle prod and a Taser.
Seventeen years later, Depp is making good on one of his close friend's last wishes, producing and starring in a film adaptation of Thompson's "The Rum Diary," written in the early 1960s but not published until Depp stumbled on the manuscript a quarter-century after.
Depp and Thompson, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2005, bonded instantly at that first meeting in 1994, when the actor was spending Christmas in Aspen, Colo., near the author's home. A fan of Thompson's since reading the gonzo journalist's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" in his late teens, Depp jumped at the chance when a mutual friend asked if he wanted to meet him.
Depp was told to turn up at the tavern at midnight. Soon after, Thompson entered brandishing his cattle prod and Taser.
"People were hurling their bodies, leaping out of the way to try and save themselves from this maniac," Depp said in an interview. "Then he made his way to me. The sparks had died down, he just walked right up to me and put his hand out and said, `How do you do? My name is Hunter.'"
Thompson and Depp quickly discovered they both were born in Kentucky and shared many literary heroes, among them Ernest Hemingway and Nathaniel West. Around 2:30 that morning, they were at Thompson's house, where Depp admired a nickel-plated shotgun on the wall.
"'Would you like to fire it?'" Depp recalled Thompson saying. "I said, `Yeah. Great, man.' He says, `All right, great. We must build bombs.' So we built bombs in his sink out of propane tanks and nitroglycerin. Then we took them out back and he said, `All right, you get first crack.' So I leveled that 12-gauge and I blew it up – 80-foot fireball.
"I think that was my kind of rite of passage with Hunter. I think that was my test that I was OK."
Depp went on to play Thompson's alter ego in the 1998 movie adaptation of "Fear and Loathing." While preparing for that role, Depp spent time in the basement of Thompson's home, sorting through boxes of "Fear and Loathing" artifacts – "cherry stems and cocktail napkins and all these weird notations, and photographs of monkeys. Who knew what was in there?" Depp recalled.
Then he opened another box and found a manuscript titled "The Rum Diary" in red letters. He figured Thompson had not looked at it since writing it decades earlier, the story based on the author's experiences as a young reporter in Puerto Rico.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Depp and Thompson passed pages back and forth. Within about half an hour, Depp had persuaded Thompson to publish the novel. In return, Thompson insisted they should do a film version.
They developed the project together for years, and Depp became even more committed to bringing the story to the screen after Thompson killed himself amid assorted maladies and declining health.
"There's nothing more delightful than to see an actor play a role that he puts everything into," said Graham King, a producer on "The Rum Diary."
"I'm not saying he doesn't put everything into every movie, but this was different. This was something that was so close to his heart. It wasn't a gig. It wasn't a job for him."
"Johnny is Hunter in many ways. Hunter set out to do something that no one else had done before, and I feel like Johnny does that in many things," said co-star Amber Heard. "He's doing exactly what he wants to do, and I think it's wonderful and important to fight to make projects that he feels have artistic integrity."
A box-office risk early in his career for oddball films that rarely made money, Depp has been able to call his own shots in the years since he became a Hollywood breadwinner with hits such as the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
Still, it was a challenge to find backers for "The Rum Diary," which stars Depp as Paul Kemp, a Thompson alter ego in his formative years, arriving in San Juan as an aimless tenderfoot who encounters corrupt developers despoiling an island paradise and discovers his purpose – to take on "the bastards" wherever he finds them.
Aaron Eckhart co-stars as a slimy public relations man whose girlfriend (Heard) becomes Kemp's object of lust. The cast also includes Giovanni Ribisi, Richard Jenkins and Michael Rispoli.
To write the screenplay and direct, Depp and Thompson enlisted Bruce Robinson ("Withnail & I"), a filmmaker who recognized himself and Thompson as kindred spirits.
"We were writing in the same vernacular, a voice of comedic rage," Robinson said. "What are you going to have, a hand grenade or a word? Hunter chose the word."
Though Thompson was gone, Depp made him a spectral producer from beyond, insisting there be a chair with Thompson's name on the set, beside it an ashtray, a packet of Dunhill cigarettes, a bottle of Chivas Regal and a highball glass.
Each morning, Depp and Robinson would pour a drink for Thompson.
"Everybody was there for Johnny, and Johnny was there for the love of the man," Eckhart said. "That was palpable on the set, between Hunter's chair and their sacrament to him each day."
If Thompson were around to review his performance, Depp figures he would "come up with some unbelievably witty, clever remark that would just sort of chop me off at the ankles. ... And then seconds later, he would have praised it, I believe.
"When I called him for `Fear and Loathing,' I was scared that was the end of our friendship, because I had played him, I think, pretty close to the bone," Depp said. "I told him early on, `If I do this right, you might hate me forever.' He said, `Well it's a chance you've got to take, isn't it?' So I did it, but after `Fear and Loathing,' I called him and I said, `All right, you saw it? Do you hate me?'"And I think by me saying, `Do you hate me?' he knew I was in pain. He couldn't stand the idea of (messing) with me, and he said, `No, no, man. It was like an eerie trumpet call over a lost battlefield.' I mean, that just came out of his mouth on the telephone. ... It doesn't get better."