NEW YORK -- In a fedora and sunglasses, Johnny Depp, one of Hunter S. Thompson's closest friends and star of "The Rum Diary," the new film adapted from Thompson's novel of the same name, took his place at one end of a long table.
Next to him sat Porter Bibb, an old friend of Thompson’s; Douglas Brinkley, his literary executor; Bruce Robinson, the director of "The Rum Diary"; and Alex Gibney, who helmed the Thompson documentary "Gonzo." The group was assembled at the Columbia School of Journalism for a panel discussion about “The Rum Diary" that played out almost like one of the late author's own stories -- with screams and jeers from the audience, extended riffs on life from the panelists, and intimate tales about the writer himself.
Thompson's unpublished first novel had a circuitous route to the screen. Depp said he remembered sitting with Thompson on the floor of a room filled with his manuscripts in the late 1990s. Depp reached into a box and pulled out "The Rum Diary."
"'Good God, man, we should make this into a film!'" Depp recalled Thompson saying.
"We should publish it first," Depp replied.
But it took many years for the book, finally published in 1998, to hit the big screen.
For some time it was "pathetically, the two of us waving whiskey bottles at people with thick wallets trying to get their money,” said Depp, who played Thompson in 1998’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
The film version of "The Rum Diary" will finally be released on Friday, more than six years after Thompson's death. Director Robinson explained that his adaptation was faithful to the spirit, not the letter, of Thompson's semi-autobiographical book, which follows journalist Paul Kemp (a Thompson proxy, played by Depp) on a series of madcap adventures through Puerto Rico. Only two sentences of the novel remain in the screenplay -- Robinson read the book twice, then threw it away to write "in the vernacular" of Thompson.
Thompson's spirit, his friends agreed, was angry. His major concern in his work and life, they said, was the collapse of the American dream. As a teenager, Thompson would type the full text of books by Hemingway and Fitzgerald out on his typewriter just "to get the feel of what it was like to write great literature," according to Bibb.
"He wanted people to see him as an artist, not just some drug-induced clown," Brinkley said.
But his faith in, and disappointment with, America resulted in what Depp described as a "bubbling oozing rage," especially during the Bush era. Thompson "cared far too much," Depp said, and was "hypersensitive" and "incredibly moral."
Hunter was "so rageful at these horrible fucking people who run our lives,” Robinson said. “I'm 65 years old and angry as shit at these people who run our lives, and that's my contact with him."
At this, the audience broke into applause.
Thompson, who had been suffering from a variety of medical ailments, shot himself in 2005, an event that "devastated" but did not surprise his friends.
"He was not going to be the guy to melt into a bowl of clam chowder. He was going to dictate the way he lived, the way he died," said Depp. "But all of us are beat up about it.”
Depp carried out Thompson's last wishes -- to have his ashes shot out of a 150-foot cannon in the shape of a fist clutching a peyote button.
"He probably knew I was the only one stupid enough and insane enough to make it happen," he said. "He kept us all busy."
Thompson's presence was felt on the "Rum Diary" set as well, where a pack of Dunhills and a bottle of Chivas Regal were kept in his memory.
"We stuck fingers in scotch every morning and rubbed it behind our ears like fucking perfume," said Robinson.
"He stays in your brain," Depp added. "I wake up with the bastard. I lay my head on the pillow and he's in my thoughts. He's always there."
Watch a trailer for "The Rum Diary" below: