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Sex symbol goes gonzo in tale of early drug days

Cannes '98: A film festival premiere for the psychedelic world of a Seventies cult book - and the traditional Grande Gaffe strikes again
ONE OF the great cult novels of the past 30 years, Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, has finally been brought to the screen in a version unlikely to escape controversy.

Yesterday, the film's director, former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, defended its powerful drugs imagery and said it was time to take a more grown-up view of drugs.

The 1971 book told of journalist Thompson's journey with a friend to Las Vegas in an orgy of drug-taking as the dream of the Sixties faded. His reportage style, told through the device of fiction with heavy lacings of psychedelia, gave birth to a new genre, "gonzo journalism", and bequeathed the phrase "fear and loathing" to the language.

The movie, which had its world film premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last night, stars a shaven-headed Johnny Depp in the Thompson role. Several past attempts to make the film have failed partly because of its explicit passages relating to good and bad drug trips.

The making of this version has its own bizarre tales. Depp told yesterday how he had spent three months getting to know Thompson in the fortified compound where the latter lives. For five days he lived in Thompson's basement. Depp, a heavy smoker, only noticed after three days that there was a keg of gunpowder in the basement.

Describing his first meeting with Thompson (who has a small cameo in the film), Depp said: "I first met him in a bar. He came in with a cattle prod in one hand and a stun gun in the other. I went with him to his house. He had built a bomb in his kitchen. He took it outside and gave me a gun to fire at it. There was an 80ft fireball."

The film shows the use and abuse of every drug from the era, as well as allusions to violence, intimidation and under-age sex. Yet some critics found its unrelenting lack of variation in tone and pace tedious. But the presence of the popular actor and sex symbol Johnny Depp - who put in a good performance - should guarantee it wide distribution.

Yesterday, Terry Gilliam was asked whether he was worried that drugs in the Nineties have far more negative connotations than they had in 1971. He replied: "There's such hypocrisy about drugs. It's all shock horror. But as a world we're dependent on drugs. I drink very strong coffee. Prozac is acceptable.

"I think the drugs of the Sixties and Seventies were expansive drugs for better or worse. Yes it's dangerous, but driving a car is dangerous. We're so obsessed with avoiding danger and it can be avoiding life.

"It's nonsense the way people talk about drugs. People should talk about them openly ... I've been feeling, since the Eighties, that we've gone through such a constricted time when everything has kind of tightened up. Everybody is frightened to say what they feel, frightened to live in an extraordinary, outrageous way, and it's time to take off those chains."