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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: 20 Years Later

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When Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas debuted in May of 1998, the film flopped. Not many went to see it in theatres while others came away confused and uncomfortable.
Critics didn’t know what to do with the fanciful, bright world that Terry Gilliam created to reproduce the great novel by Hunter S. Thompson. Some admitted that the film was a valiant effort, but ultimately a failure. Others enjoyed the aesthetic of it, but couldn’t glean enough from the narrative because of the free-wheeling dialogue and the quirky visual journey.
Rhino Films and Summit Entertainment lost around $5 million because of the film’s poor performance at the box office. Benicio del Toro, who played Dr. Gonzo, had gained fifty pounds only to be condemned with a lackluster performance by critics. 
Meanwhile, cameos by the likes of Christopher Meloni, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself didn’t help. However, the film had a staying power due to its cult classic status.
What it lacked in box office glory, it made up for with at-home entertainment sales. Since its release on VHS and DVD in 2001, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has become a staple amongst other American classics like The Princess Bride, Clerks, and Fight Club.
For those who may not know, the film is based closely on the semi-autobiographical book by the enigmatic and controversial journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. The narrative focuses on a 1970s dream trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, with plenty of mishaps in-between.
Today, this trip may not have happened given the availability of free bets and sign-up bonuses for online sites that offer everything the city of Lights is famous for. In fact, a 2020 retelling would mean Duke and Gonzo wouldn’t need to leave their living room to set off on their grand adventure—though we’re not sure who we’d trust with that screenplay.
Twenty years after the film’s release, it's time to take a look at what Gilliam and his motley crew got right with this experimental, visual feast.




Journey to Find a Director  
One staple characteristic of Thompson’s writing style is its surrealism. Despite making his career as a journalist and novelist, Thompson is known for a style of writing filled with heavy imagery. In many ways, this made adapting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for the big screen a nightmare.
Before Terry Gilliam accepted the role as director, many others attempted to co-write a screenplay with Thompson. Directors from Martin Scorsese to Oliver Stone took a swing at adapting the author's topsy-turvy world to a big-screen masterpiece only to be intimidated by the nature of the content as well as the madman who had created the world of Dr. Gonzo and Raoul Duke.
Originally, Terry Gilliam undertook a supporting role in producing the film. However, after a major dispute between the author and the original director, Alex Cox of Repo Man, Terry Gilliam was left in the director’s chair.
Gilliam, famous for his work on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was fit for the job. It also helped that he admired the book—and the author. In fact, Gilliam was such a fan that the film retains entire pages of dialogue taken straight from the book.

Visual Appeal: Hallucinatory
Terry Gilliam notoriously hired cinematographer Nicola Pecorini after learning he had only one eye. Apparently, Gilliam found Pecorini’s mention of his missing eye hilarious and beneficial for the role the cinematographer would be undertaking. After all, Gilliam was going for a visual appeal that would require a unique perspective. 
Pecorini utilized psychedelic and surreal paintings from Robert Yarber to help influence the film’s hallucinatory tone and style. The result is a one-hour-and-fifty-nine-minute sequence that can be both maddening and stunning.
Light sources can’t be clearly identified in the film, neon colors are used to create an overwhelming visual effect, and constant movement (from Depp’s character Raoul Duke to fifteen animatronic lizards) adds to a truly unique experience.
The film moves between desert scenes to compact club scenes, but Pecorini and Gilliam manage to maintain the same thread of kinesthetic tone. In terms of shading and saturation, the pair utilized various filmstock to overwhelm scenes with rich shades of color.
The result is an unforgettable sequence of madness. For some, that madness is genius. It’s uncomfortable and overwhelming, but it’s also atmospheric and moving. And for others, the visuals weren’t the issue with the film—it was the narrative that was lacking.



Depp & Del Toro Go Gonzo & Duke
Benicio del Toro’s performance was ill-received by most critics. In fact, the actor still considers his role as Dr. Gonzo to be one of his most difficult undertakings. Not only was it physically difficult to pack on fifty pounds for a role, but it was morally disheartening to then be criticized for that performance.
On the other hand, Johnny Depp seemed to have a hey-day with his on-screen adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson. In one of the interviews, he revealed that he spent several months living in Thompson’s basement to prepare for the role.
The two became fast friends as Depp spent time in the author's Aspen, Colorado estate prior to filming. Following the wrap of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp would go on to reprise other roles for Thompson following the author’s death in 2005. 
In 2008, Depp narrated a piece called Gonzo: the Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. In 2011, he played a character named Kemp in The Rum Diary, which was an adaptation of the author’s earliest works. And finally, Depp voice acted for Thompson in a 2017 documentary by Rolling Stone called Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge.
Since Thompson passed away, Depp has become one of the most trusted voices regarding the author’s character and legacy. He’s been interviewed many times to convey the startling genius of the father of Gonzo journalism.
Though many point to Gilliam’s artistic dedication to Thompson’s vision, as well as Pecorini’s eclectic tastes, as the main reasons for the film’s cult success, many others point to Depp.
He plays a fantastical version of the author and carries this role so thoroughly in front of the camera that any true fan of Thompson has to admire his efforts.

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The Movie Bit: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: 20 Years Later
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