Dreams: Fear and Loathing Production Notes
Following the completion of location work, the company returned to Los Angeles for several weeks of filming in and around the city, as well as elaborate interiors constructed at Warner Hollywood Studios. A bewildering number of locations were required to re-invent both Las Vegas and L.A., including a magnificent, abandoned luxury hotel where Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo's odyssey begins. "The design for the Beverly Hills hotel is metaphoric and symbolic," notes McDowell. "Basically, it begins in this lush, tropical, green Garden of Eden -- heaven -- and descends into the arid desert, which is closer to hell. Henri Rousseau was my real reference point for these sets."
The abandoned hotel also provided basic settings for other McDowell designs, including the large convention room where Duke and Gonzo attend a District Attorney's anti-drug meeting, and the nautically-themed bar which Duke perceives to be inhabited by (literally) lounge lizards, one of many sequences that required the expertise of visual effects supervisor Kent Houston, whose work on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen earned an Oscar® nomination for visual effects.
Houston, with assistance from coordinator Michael Cooper, was to call upon the full panoply of state-of-the-art digital and miniature effects to add yet another dimension to Fear and Loathing, but are quick to point out that their work serves to support the film and not the other way around. "The effects are about as cutting-edge as they can be without being insane," notes Houston, an associate of Gilliam since Monty Python days, "but our work is meant to enhance the film and not call a great deal of attention to itself. The trickery is only to aid Terry's aims."
An example of this is the establishing shot of Duke and Gonzo driving down Fremont Street to the main entrance of the Mint Hotel in downtown Vegas, which looks vastly different today than it did in 1971. "That's been done as a composite of live action and a computer-generated matte," notes Cooper, "with animated lights, more people and a very stylized sky at sundown."
The production brought in famed creature effects horrormeister Rob Bottin to create, build and operate the human-sized lizards that (in Duke's addled mind) occupy a Las Vegas lounge, duplicating their number with complex motion control camera and CGI techniques. Another tasty L.A. location was the evocative Bahooka Ribs & Grog in the San Gabriel Valley town of Rosemead, featuring classic, extraordinary "tiki bar" decor that was little altered for the film.
It was on the Warner Hollywood soundstages that production designer McDowell's and costume designer Weiss' imaginations were really unleashed. On two adjoining stages, McDowell designed a number of remarkable sets, including the dark and somewhat dreary downtown Las Vegas hotel suite, and then the fantastically tasteless Las Vegas strip hotel suite where more madness ensues. McDowell is quick to point out, however, that his designs for both the downtown and strip hotel suites bear no similarity to reality.
"The hotel suites represent two different ends of the spectrum, with the strip suite representing every high roller's idea of what the perfect Vegas suite would be in 1971," explains McDowell. The downtown suite's carpet was notorious for its enormous, psychedelic print, which Terry wanted to bring literally alive by having it crawl up the walls. By the time you get to the strip, all hope is lost for Duke and Gonzo, and there's no escape. The proportions are slightly off, with a longer wet bar than you'd ever see in a real suite, and we developed a two-inch deep pile carpet, like living pink worms, with clashing, garish wallpaper."
The most ambitious set, however, was the expansive performance and midway area of the phantasmagoric Bazooko Circus, an ingenious, hilarious and terrifying creation of color and light. "It's a casino that has a circus theme," explains McDowell, "and the real inferno of the story. On one level it has to be attractive, as any fun fair would be, but there's seething ugliness beneath the surface."
The midway area, perched atop an impossibly steep ramp from the casino area, features game and attraction booths straight from the combined and heavily surrealistic imaginations of Gilliam, Thompson, McDowell and his team, including art director Chris Gorak and set decorator Nancy Haigh, as well as property master Will C. Blount. Patrons of Bazooko can engage in such delightful attractions as Shoot the Vital Organs (with darts resembling hypodermic needles); a toss game called Knock the Kid's Teeth Out; a shooting gallery featuring M16 rifles and moving ducks wearing conical Vietnamese farmer's hats (in 1971 the war was still in full swing); or sit in front of a television camera and be projected five hundred feet tall over the Las Vegas cityscape. Above, bizarre trapeze artists perform daring stunts with each other, and a terrified wolverine as well (another Rob Bottin contribution). Just below, Americans gamble their money away at roulette, craps or slot machines. Patrons, barkers and casino employees were outrageously garbed by Weiss in some of her most perverse ensembles taking the circus concept several steps beyond even the wildest of such motifs.
The centerpiece of the set was an elaborate carousel bar designed by McDowell and constructed by special effects coordinator Steve Galich to revolve at speeds which exceed "reality." More sets would be built in a North Hollywood studio, including an exceedingly odd fantasy scene courtroom (with a 20-foot-high judge's bench) and the re-created dance floor of San Francisco's famed Matrix Club for a Summer of Love flashback scene featuring the younger Raoul Duke.
It was for this scene that Hunter Thompson finally made his sole and long-awaited on-set appearance, presenting Gilliam the opportunity of getting him on film in a suitably ingenious and surrealistic manner. Explains the director, "The idea is that the younger Duke -- that is, a younger version of Hunter -- would pass the real Hunter as he is today. There's a moment of recognition, with the younger Duke looking at the Ghost of Christmas Future through a kind of time warp opened up in this club."
For Depp, "Having Hunter on set for the first time seeing me as him was very intimidating. It was scary because I was afraid that it might be upsetting for him. But he was great. He's been very supportive through the entire project, to allow me to, in a way, become his shadow in his home and on the road, 24 hours a day for months. I was very blessed to have that time with him."
In the end, everyone involved had their own interpretation of the 50-odd shooting days that resulted in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- days that occasionally and appropriately matched Thompson's Gonzo Journalism with its cinematic equivalent.
Comments Cassavetti, "Although the spirit of Fear and Loathing is Gonzo moviemaking, the production, despite the very moderate budget, was actually well organized. I mean, it's not General Patton's campaign into the Ardennes, but we embarked in the spirit of doing something fast and dangerous, and we never suffered any major setbacks."
"Fear and Loathing is finally about the American Spirit," says Nabulsi. "We are adventurers and outlaws, forging new territory all the time in a free country. There's been a lot of clamping down on such creativity in recent years, and this movie offers an antidote to that state of mind. I would like audiences to have a lot of fun, and a good laugh, but take away with them a sense that we have a tradition in this country of not being afraid to say whatever the truth is of that time or moment in spite of what's going on."
"I think Terry is a dreamer," offers Del Toro, "and his movies are about dreamers. He's a visionary, and it was quite amazing to see him take everything to another level. That motivates us as actors and everybody around him to do the best they can. I worked very hard on this film because Terry was right there with a big stick. He's definitely the captain." Adds Depp, "Terry came in, grabbed it, shook it around and did it right. He's one of the best directors I've ever worked with, one of the most inventive, pure, organic experiences that I've had. He'll give you a piece of direction, it sparks something in you, and boom. There's a huge explosion, or flurry of creativity.
"No one has enough money to pay for the experience I've had on this movie," concludes the actor. "To be able to spend the amount of time I did with Hunter, and then to work with Terry, Benicio and the incredible company of actors and crew. Going into the project, I knew that this would be our one time, and one time only, to make it happen right. I think the whole crew felt that, so every day was like a kind of odd celebration."
Terry Gilliam has his own typically unorthodox take of what he hoped to accomplish with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. "My guess is that today's audience wants this film desperately. I think they need it. That's why I've been referring to Fear and Loathing as a cinematic enema for the '90s -- just clean out the system. "There's a lot of shame attached to this movie, and we're all very sorry," concludes Gilliam with a characteristic Cheshire Cat grin. "We want to apologize in advance for whatever it is that we've done..."
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