Douglas Brinkley gives an exclusive glimpse into the making of The Rum Diary and unveils a mentorship documented in Johnny’s own tattoos.

When Johnny Depp strapped on his strat guitar at the Hiro Ballroom in New York City on October 25, the midnight crowd roared. Cell phone cameras were lifted like candles at a vigil; people wanted proof that they saw the real Captain Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, and Edward Scissorhands, to show off to friends.


Just a few hours earlier Depp had attended the premiere of his hijinks film The Rum Diary—in which he plays the young Hunter S. Thompson in late 1950s-early 1960s Puerto Rico—at the Museum of Modern Art. The movie is based on the debut novel of Thompson in his pre-Gonzo days. Depp was set to jam with a group of his favorite all-star musicians, when suddenly Keith Richards hopped on stage. Depp grinned and the two launched into Jazz Gillum’s expansive “Key to the Highway.” Undergirded with a slow-tempo beat, the Richards-Depp deep-muddy blues session began. Bringing the Rolling Stones guitarist on stage was all part of Depp’s ongoing mission to honor the legacy of Gonzo journalism’s high priest.

A Promise Kept
“Making The Rum Diary was my fulfillment of a promise I had made to Hunter,” Depp explains. “I had found the novel before it was published at Owl Farm. Hunter had it in his basement archive—The War Room—just lying around. I was floored by the elegant prose. I couldn’t believe he wrote it when he was only 22! And together we decided to make a motion picture out of Rum. From the start it was collaborative. Now I’ve fulfilled the deal.”

For the past week Depp had stormed around America with director-screenwriter Bruce Robinson promoting The Rum Diary and talking about Thompson’s literary legacy. In recent appearances at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Texas at Austin, Depp was embraced by diehard fans as a one-man Beatles band and the reincarnation of Elvis Presley (only with his fingernails painted blue). Depp’s assistants have started calendaring the exact time on the schedule when The Scream (the gleeful anarchy and frenzied kiss-blowing that now greets their boss in every town) could be expected, as if Old Faithful spouting at Yellowstone.

After the Austin event I talked to Depp at some length about all things Thompson. Dressed in five different shades of blue—pants, shirt, vest, hat, socks—Depp looked like a cross between a male model and a drug dealer on the run. But the warmth of his eyes always gives him away as the boy next door. His overriding concern was whether Hunter would have liked The Rum Diary. “I just wish the bastard was here to see all of this commotion,” he says. “Can you imagine him realizing that all these people are honoring him? In 2011? If there is a movement afoot to anoint Hunter as the greatest nonfiction writer of the 20th century. Sign me up.”

Ever since Depp first met Hunter at the Woody Creek Tavern in 1994, he’s been on an artistic mission to introduce the non-initiated to the ribald humor, idiopathic anger, moral rectitude, and drug-induced zaniness of Thompson’s work. As their friendship developed Depp flirted with doom many times on behalf of the Gonzo cause, including backyard bombs; smoking near dynamite; and going through airport security as a drug mule. Once the two Kentuckians decided to turn Thompson’s semi-autobiographical “The Rum Diary” manuscript into first a novel and then a film, they went to Cuba together in full-blown Keystone Kops mode, hoping to smoke cigars all night with Fidel Castro and see Ernest Hemingway’s boat, El Pilar. “Hunter was supposed to pick me up at the Havana airport,” Depp recalled. “But I retrieved my luggage, looked around and no Hunter. I made my way to the Hotel Nacional and no sooner did I get into my room and the telephone rang.

‘Colonel Depp, where are you?’

‘Why, I’m in the room you just called.’

‘I’m at the airport waiting for you.’

‘Well, I’m not there.’”

That was the inauspicious beginning of the hilarious high-humidity romp Thompson and Depp shared tooling around the island nation, looking for action. “I had a break after filming Sleepy Hollow in London and decided to go scouting the Caribbean with Hunter,” Depp recalls. “My Cuban memories are rum, rum, and a crazy guy who thought he was Beethoven. I filmed some of our adventures… it’s somewhere in my archive.”

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