Bruce Robinson is advocating restraint. Withnail & I, his tragicomic 1987 masterpiece, might have inspired a drinking game in which participants attempt to match the heroic quantities consumed in the film by Richard E Grant and Paul McGann but it would be foolish to try the same for his new movie, The Rum Diary. “You’d be dead,” he says. “You could live Withnail but you wouldn’t survive The Rum. I wouldn’t try.”
But even restraint should be exercised in moderation and, when we meet in London’s Corinthia Hotel, Robinson immediately offers me a glass of wine. Dressed in a linen shirt, silk scarf and purple-tinted shades, at 65 Robinson has the weathered good looks of an ageing 1960s rocker, a disarming charm and wit, and he smokes and swears copiously.
Robinson has had what he calls “a lifetime of being fascinated by red wine” but he had given up drinking – and, indeed, directing – until Johnny Depp enticed him back to adapt Hunter S Thompson’s novel, The Rum Diary, for the screen. “I was in Spain on holiday with my family and I hadn’t spoken to Johnny for 10 years and then I got this phone call. He said ‘Have you read The Rum Diary?’ No. ‘Can I send it to you?’ Yes. He sent it to me, I read it and didn’t think an awful lot of it. ‘Would you write it as a screenplay?’ So I did. ‘Would you have a go at directing it?’ So I did.”
If it now all sounds seductively simple, it might not have been. Robinson’s most recent previous directing credit was on 1992’s ill-fated Jennifer Eight, a convoluted crime drama starring Andy Garcia and Uma Thurman that was afflicted by studio interference and which Robinson now refers to only as “the unmentionable film”. “After that, I swore I’d never try to be a film director again and I think I kept the promise in terms of 18 years of not doing it. When Johnny came along with this, it was him saying ‘I’ll take care of that, so don’t worry’ and he kept saying it and I kept saying ‘no’ and he kept saying, ‘Don’t worry’, so I finally said, ‘If you’re the number one screen star in the world and you’re prepared to take the rap if I f**k this up, then, all right, I’ll do it.’ ”
In the interim Robinson had continued to write screenplays and books but given this long directing hiatus, I can’t help wondering what compelled Depp to seek out Robinson. “I have no idea,” Robinson confesses. “He could have had Scorsese. He’s the most important film actor on the planet. Why did he ask me? Oh, he was a great fan of Withnail. That was it.”
Depp, who was a close friend of Thompson, starred in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Rum Diary was a labour of love. In it, Depp plays Paul Kemp, a reporter who lands in Puerto Rico to work on an English-language paper that has fallen into decline, its management and staff corrupted by their debauched surroundings, a booze-soaked playground for American tourists and entrepreneurs. But, this being Thompson, the mood is far from sombre. The story is filled with anarchic humour, larger-than-life characters and a narrative arc that frequently bends in unexpected directions.
Thompson, who died in 2005, was still alive at the outset of the project but was not what one could call actively engaged. “I only ever met him once,” Robinson recalls. “He loved drugs, Hunter, and he’d taken quite a lot of them that night. We just sat there and said nothing for two hours – and then I f**ked off. It was enigmatic.”
As anyone who has read the novel will notice, however, this is a far from faithful adaptation. “There are only two or three lines of Hunter’s in the whole film,” says Robinson. “I’m not Hunter S Thompson, I didn’t write that story. I’m me and I wrote the script that I could write. I read the book two or three times and then I threw it away and never looked at it again. I wrote my version. The purists of The Rum Diary are going to find that very annoying – but f**k them.”
This prompts one of Robinson’s frequent rants, clearly heartfelt but often also very entertaining: “It’s the thing that always annoys me beyond belief,” he says. “Shakespeare – and please don’t think there’s any equation here – writes Romeo and Juliet. Two hundred years later Tchaikovsky sits there watching the play and writes Romeo and Juliet as a symphony and no one would dream of saying to Tchaikovsky ‘Well, it’s not like the book.’ ”
There is much of Robinson’s voice in the new film and part of that is a darker subtext about the corrupting power of capitalism. But he was wary not to repeat mistakes he felt he had made with How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), his second film, in which Richard E Grant sprouts a second head that frequently vents its spleen.
“I was engorged with rage about Margaret Thatcher and the time she’d imposed on us and I wrote that film,” recalls Robinson. “But the trouble with ‘the boil’ [from which the head emerges] was that I was didactic. So when I got to The Rum Diary the lesson I’d learnt was ‘Don’t preach to people’. But I did try to lay that thing in about how awful rampant capital was to the people who had to suffer it.”
Another theme with unsettling contemporary resonance – especially for a journalist – is the decline of the press. “That was quite intentional, I must say – that that side of things is dying. There is a line in Withnail & I where Monty says ‘The old order changeth yielding place to new’ and that was quite in my head when I was writing it.”
But as well as this fin de siècle atmosphere, The Rum Diary also shares a healthy amount of Withnail’s profane and bathetic humour, the kind that drew Depp to Robinson in the first place. “He likes that slightly more sophisticated, black, bleak British humour and there’s a lot of that in the film. Johnny is a great Anglophile. His secretary and his assistant are both English and his best pal is Keith Richards.”
The mention of Richards brings us back to booze, naturally. Was it necessary to be a drinker to do The Rum Diary? “It was for me because I was completely sober for years before I wrote it and then you get into that environment of ‘How am I going to do this?’ I need to go back into the madness, in a sense. That was the only way I could write it. And then I stopped drinking again, completely, until we started making the film. And we were completely sober on the film because,” he adds with a twinkle, “Johnny is very fond of red wine too.” This sounds like a potentially lethal combination. “It would have been, so we didn’t drink – and at the end of the film we did.”
But, Robinson insists, his days as “a neanderthal” are behind him. “I actually love now, at the latter end of my life, being sober,” he says. “I really, genuinely love being straight.” And with that we order another bottle of wine.
‘The Rum Diary’ is on release in the US and opens in UK cinemas on November 11