Entertainment & Arts

Rum Diary director nonchalant about box office takings

Image caption The film stars Johnny Depp (centre) as an American journalist who crosses paths with property developers in the rum-soaked Puerto Rico of the early 60s

Withnail & I director Bruce Robinson's latest work, a booze-soaked adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp, has stumbled at the US box office and is about to open in the UK.

But the ebullient film-maker tells the BBC he "couldn't give a toss" about cinema receipts.

Fifteen years after abandoning Hollywood, British writer and director Bruce Robinson has been wrenched out of semi-retirement by Johnny Depp to help complete the actor's second film - after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - based on a novel by the late American gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, who killed himself in 2005.

"I got to the point, once you've cleared 60, well, what are you going to do except dig the manure on your vegetable garden," says the still youthful, laid-back 65-year-old.

In 1984, Robinson's screenplay for The Killing Fields was Oscar-nominated. Two years later, he made his directorial debut Withnail & I, a semi-autobiographical tale of two jobless actors on a disastrous jaunt to the country.

Twenty-five years on, it has attained cult status, beloved of students and packed to the gunnels with eminently quotable dialogue.

But his last film, 1992's thriller Jennifer 8 was a commercial flop, released straight to video in the UK after much meddling from the studio.

"I had such a terrible time," says Robinson. "It was the classic Hollywood horror story. I said to my wife: 'That's it, I'm never ever going to do that again in my life,' and I kept that promise for a long time."

But when Depp approached him, not only as a fan of Withnail but with the information that he had been Thompson's first choice to direct his novel, Robinson was interested.

The pair met and found they had much in common - in particular their literary tastes. "The difference is, I've got a first edition and he's got he original manuscript," jokes Robinson.

But they also shared "a deep affection for quality wine".

"It's genuinely true that had it not been for Johnny, there's no way I'd have done it," he says.

The novel, written partly from Thompson's own experience as a young journalist on his travels to the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico was one of his first works, though was not published until 1998 - a year after the film adaptation of one of his most famous books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Image caption Robinson (left) wrote his own take on Thompson's prose

Directed by former Monty Python star Terry Gilliam, that film has gained something of a cult following in the past two decades.

Yet, it was certainly criticised in its attempts to lift faithfully Thompson's muscular, frequently surreal, often vitriolic prose and take it from the page to the screen.

To sidestep similar criticism, Robinson read The Rum Diary twice, made notes, then threw it away and never looked at it again.

"There's not a line of Hunter's in it, I had to write in his vernacular," he says. "Some of the reviews in America have quoted some of the lines, saying 'This is a typical archetypal Hunter'. The only difference is I wrote it and he didn't.

"It's a great compliment and I'll take it but I can't write like Hunter Thompson."

The film, co-produced by Depp's Infinitum Nihil production company and British Oscar-winner Graham King, has indeed divided critics and much has been made in the press about the film's failure to find an audience when it was released at the US box office last month.

It took just £3m - making it one of Depp's worst film openings, something the press have seized upon with a bizarre relish.

But Robinson doesn't put much stock in figures, or as he puts it: "If you cook a great dinner with fine wines and your guests don't turn up, it doesn't mean it ain't a great dinner, it doesn't affect the quality of the gravy."

Image caption Heard also starred in an adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's The Informers

"I couldn't give a toss about that, it's not my problem."

It is not he says, as some papers have suggested, "a bomb".

"A bomb is when you make $25m on the first weekend and tuppence on the second. Nobody turned up for this film."

Starring opposite Johnny Depp is rising star Amber Heard - who plays Chenault, the mysterious subject of Kemp's affections.

She bristles a little over mention of the poor box office figures: "You can't watch our movie and think that we expect it to be a big blockbuster sensation.

"Watch the movie. It's a special film. Not meant for mass consumption perhaps."

Which, in the end, is perhaps fitting for an adaptation of a Thompson novel, a writer who represented the fringes of society better than most.

The Rum Diary opens in UK cinemas on Friday 11 November.

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