Mention of ‘Hunter S. Thompson’ and ‘cinema’ in close proximity will likely bring to mind Johnny Depp’s manic interpretation of the famous journalist in Terry Gilliam’s flawed but interesting late-1990s adaptation of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. However it was Bill Murray who first portrayed Thompson on the big screen, in Art Linson’s Where The Buffalo Roam, a semi-biographical comedy from 1980 that draws on several of Thompson’s articles, principally The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat and Strange Rumblings in Aztlan.
The film loosely charts Thompson’s relationship with his attorney and friend Oscar Zeta Acosta (aka ‘Dr Gonzo’ in Thompson’s work, renamed ‘Carl Lazlo’ in this film and played by Peter Boyle) between the years of 1968 and 1974, the year in which Acosta told his son he was ‘about to board a boat full of white snow’ before promptly disappearing in Mexico. (This decision was presumably made to avoid any litigation by Acosta’s estate; at one point Acosta had refused clearance permission for the Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas book, but eventually relented after the publishers agreed to include his name and picture on the dust jacket. In an early draft of Where The Buffalo Roam the character was called Mendoza, but this had to be changed after Nosotros, a group of Chicano actors and filmmakers, threatened to create controversy if the character was played by a white (Anglo) actor.) The friendship is shown in an episodic flashback format which explores Thompson and Lazlo’s involvement with three events: court cases that saw young San Franciscans receiving harsh penalties after being caught with marijuana, the 1971 Super Bowl (which somehow ends up incorporating a spot of impromptu arms smuggling) and finally the 1972 presidential election campaign. This is all bookended by two scenes of Thompson writing an obituary for Lazlo in his Colorado home.
Thompson was paid $100,000 for the film rights to The Banshee Screams… and optioned it without actually seeing a screenplay; in the 1970s he believed a film would never be made, as he had already optioned out the far more popular Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas several times, with no resultant movie on the horizon. Thompson met with screenwriter John Kaye and felt that Kaye’s script was ‘bad, dumb, low-level, low rent’, but as he had signed away the rights he had no control over the end result. Instead he attached himself to the project as ‘executive consultant’. (Edit: See the comments section below for John Kaye’s side of the story.)
In 1980 Murray’s star was on the rise, thanks in part to Saturday Night Live and his appearance a year earlier in Ivan Reitman’s comedy Meatballs, which was his first major role. Thompson and Murray became fast friends prior to the production, which boded well, although Murray almost pulled out of the project on the eve of filming as he too had reservations about the quality of Kaye’s work. Kaye believed that Thompson and Murray re-wrote parts of his script during filming and as a result he decided he wanted nothing further to do with the project.
According to Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s book Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, the friendship between Thompson and Murray was peppered with a dangerous series of one-upmanship contests. After one heavy session at Thompson’s home in Aspen, Colorado, the pair argued as to whom was the better escapologist out of the two, an issue eventually settled by Thompson tying Murray to a chair before throwing him into a swimming pool. Murray almost drowned before Thompson pulled him out of the water.
Those close to Murray spoke at the time of a ‘transformation’, and were amazed that in little over two weeks he managed to become a facsimile of Thompson, copying his mannerisms, dress sense and lifestyle to an almost obsessive extent. When filming had finished Murray returned to the SNL studio but remained in character, and it was a long time before he ditched his interpretation of Thompson, persevering with the author’s manner of speech and continuing with his adoption of a Thompson-esque cigarette holder. Colleagues at the time suggested it was extremely difficult to talk to ‘Bill’. (In the late 1990s Murray rang Depp to offer some advice: ‘Make your next role drastically different from Thompson, otherwise you’ll find yourself ten years from now still doing him.’)
Though today the idea of Murray playing the mumbling, irreverent Thompson looks on paper like some kind of dream ticket, his performance in Where The Buffalo Roam is a little too close in tone to the Saturday Night Live sketches that earned him fame on television, and as such certain segments – particularly the opening and closing scenes – feel as though they have been lifted straight from that show. It doesn’t feel quite as loose or as effortless as Depp’s later performance (or as realistic as Depp’s take on Thompson in The Rum Diary), but Murray avoids total buffoonery, and instead shows signs of the typically-deadpan acting that quickly became his signature. He is undoubtedly the highlight of this safe-and-botched attempt to transform Thompson’s writing to the big screen, and the actor’s efforts in immersing himself in the role deserve to be applauded.
Unfortunately, the reservations held by Murray and Thompson about the script were not without reason. Where The Buffalo Roam sets itself up as a comedy but fails spectacularly, and I don’t recall a single smirk throughout my viewing of the film, let alone a laugh. Kaye and director Linson rely too much on the notion of humour coming from the absurdity of the situations Thompson ends up in, as per the original source material, but unfortunately in this movie it all falls flat, and the episodic nature makes for an experience that is disjointed and unintelligible.
There are apparently several versions of the movie in existence, but (I think) I was watching the same one released originally in 1980. Murray and Thompson were both concerned about the film’s lack of continuity, and they added a voice-over narration a short while before the scheduled release date. When the film was shown to test audiences the last two scenes and the narration had been cut out. Murray was apparently outraged and the studio ended up shooting a new ending; the film was still being hastily edited three days before it was due for release into theatres.
Linson took a four-month crash course in directing before making this film, and his lack of experience, lack of verve and lack of daring is telling, particularly given the contents of the source material. Where The Buffalo Roam is crying out for a director who is unafraid of bending the rules or releasing control, but Linson doesn’t seem to be attuned to Thompson’s gonzo spirit at all. It’s a film that purports to be about a writer’s penchant for anarchy and mayhem, but someone seems to have forgotten to tell the director, unfortunately.
Ultimately, Where The Buffalo Roam is a botch job all round. It fails to really get to grips with the author’s personality, it doesn’t offer any real insight into his craft and like Gilliam’s take on Fear And Loathing… the celebration of casual drug use becomes boring after a while. I’m not sure that the distillation of several years’ worth of madcap experience is best served by the medium of film, either; reducing Thompson’s zanier moments to 90 minutes ends up making the guy look like a tedious, irritating wanker rather than a visionary, one-of-a-kind writer. The relationship between Lazlo and Thompson isn’t explored adequately enough (read: hardly at all) and the barely-linked scenes mean that there is no coherent flow to the picture. So not exactly a ringing endorsement, then. If you are a fan of Bill Murray’s appearances on Saturday Night Live – or the actor generally – then you might enjoy it, and there are some nice moments on the soundtrack by Neil Young, but sadly it doesn’t do justice to Thompson’s work at all.
Directed by: Art Linson
Written by: John Kaye, Hunter S. Thompson
Starring: Bill Murray, Peter Boyle, Bruno Kirby, René Auberjonois
Running Time: 95 minutes