Bruce Robinson: 'I started drinking again because of The Rum Diary'

Falling off houses, terrifying his wife's horses – Bruce Robinson had put all the tragic consequences of the alcoholism that rippled through Withnail and I behind him. Then came his adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's bestseller...

Interview,Robert Chalmers
Sunday 20 February 2011 01:00 GMT

The private jet was approaching Los Angeles, en route from Puerta Vallarta in Mexico, Bruce Robinson recalls, when it lost power to both engines. "Everything on the plane switched off," he says. "So now we're losing altitude, over San Diego. Johnny and I are looking out of the window, in silence, at the horizon coming up to meet us. We are both thinking: this is it. We look at each other and – possibly because of the amount of Château Haut-Brion we've drunk – we just start laughing. Laughing to the point that we are out of our seats, with our knees on the floor."

I'm not sure, I tell him, that this would be my response to impending death.

"I never imagined it could be mine," Robinson replies. "And we really did think we were going to die, right there in that stinking Gulfstream off the West Coast. Then, after about two minutes, the engines started again. It really was a rite of passage. My main thought," Robinson says, "was: I REALLY LIKE THIS GUY."

Robinson and Depp had been location scouting for their forthcoming film The Rum Diary, an adaptation of the novel by the actor's late friend, Hunter S Thompson, self-proclaimed doctor of Gonzo journalism and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Film productions of Dr Thompson's life and work have traditionally been plagued with difficulty. It's hard, though, to imagine a more appropriate pair of collaborators than Robinson – whose tormented imagination produced the definitive vision of British hedonism, Withnail and I (the 1987 classic starring Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) – and Depp, whose abilities are familiar to a somewhat wider audience. The actor had a close association with Thompson, who shot himself in the kitchen of his Colorado home, six years ago today.

Yet Robinson, who swore he would never make another Hollywood movie after the miserable experience of working on his thriller Jennifer Eight, which sank without trace following its release in 1992, could hardly have been an obvious choice for the studio executives.

"Johnny called me up," he says. "I was in Spain at the time – God only knows how he found me – and he asked if I knew The Rum Diary. I didn't. He asked if I'd mind if he sent it to me. Our next conversation went like this: 'Do you want to write it?' 'Yes.' 'Do you want to direct?' 'Sure.' There was no hassle at any point. The wonderful thing about working with Johnny," he adds, "was that I didn't have to do anything. The whole process was a joy."

Where my own contact with Bruce Robinson has been concerned, that last sentence has limited relevance. I began trying to set up a meeting almost two years ago, when he was filming in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Proposed dates came and went, including one appointment which I had mistakenly believed to be firm enough to justify flying from London to Los Angeles. As I wait for him on the approach to his local train station, one question recurs: after that misunderstanding in Hollywood, why should I assume that he'll show up in Hereford?

But he arrives on time, at the wheel of a mud-splattered four by four. On the forecourt, he says goodbye to a friend who is helping him research a long-standing project on Jack the Ripper. "About that hepatitis C test," Robinson tells his colleague, as he's walking towards the platform – this in a voice that is some way from being a whisper – "Don't forget. Just get it done."

There are some people, as the late writer William Donaldson once remarked, who are in the mental condition of elderly tax clerk from the time they are 16, and others who, by virtue of their imagination, humour and curiosity, remain curiously ageless. Robinson, 64, is in the latter category: effortlessly elegant in a sheepskin jacket, jeans, and an unpolished pair of what I will discover are Tricker's Malton boots with commando sole.

I remind him of the time it has taken to get to this point.

"The thing is," he says, "I don't think I have much to yack on about. And there's always this terrible fear that you'll end up on a page next to Ann Widdecombe."

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In fact, Robinson, though he has given very few interviews in the past 10 years, is a candid and entertaining talker, as demonstrated by Smoking in Bed, a transcription, published in 2000, of 30 hours of exchanges with the writer Alistair Owen. It's true that the robust nature of his observations is not for everyone: we've hardly left the station approach when he is telling me a story about a man who derives sexual pleasure from eating faeces he obtains by disabling cisterns in a public lavatory; but his thought processes, whatever topic they're applied to, are compelling, animated and brilliant.

Bruce Robinson is a living rebuttal to the notion that swearing is a mark of inarticulacy. The F word occurs with such frequency that an extraterrestrial, presented with a transcript of his conversation, might assume it was the verb "to be". I have generally omitted it from the passages that follow, on the grounds that, as Robinson himself says, the word has lost its power. "Although," he adds, "a perfectly placed 'cunt' is still very effective."

Robinson's voice resonates magnificently from the shooting script of The Rum Diary. Even on the page, it shines – something which, to be frank, is less true of the original novel, based on Hunter Thompson's experience as a young journalist in Puerto Rico in 1960. (Written in the early 1960s, it was published in 1998.) The film is finished but will not be released until September, to fit in with Depp's schedule.

The Rum Diary has been one of those rarest of Hollywood projects: a film completed with no interference by committee. That was the main problem that afflicted Jennifer Eight – so painful a memory, Robinson says, he can hardly bring himself to mention its name.

"Isn't that the definition of a star?" he asks. "Someone who can get a film made? Since this was Johnny's project, we were able simply to shoot the script. He asked for a couple of changes, I made them, then we just did it. He's so handsome and famous that you can lose sight of how phenomenally talented an actor he is."

I've spent a little time with Depp, I tell him, first at Hunter Thompson's home at Owl Farm, then over a couple of very long lunches with Thompson's friend and illustrator, the artist Ralph Steadman. I always found the actor to be – somewhat enervatingly, given his many other prodigious gifts – modest, intelligent and very funny.

"He hones in on things with such speed," Robinson says. "He has a cast-iron bullshit detector. And he's extremely generous; we landed in LA one time, on his plane and I'm thinking: now I have to sit on a commercial flight for 11 hours, back to Heathrow. There's another small jet on the runway. He points at it and says: 'That one's yours.' I said: 'Mine? Where's it going?' He said, 'Bristol.'"

Our eulogy to the man from Kentucky is interrupted as Robinson pulls in to the grounds of his 16th-century farmhouse on the Welsh border. The property is of the kind that Country Life cover photographers dream about. There are horses, dogs and chickens in the yard, and you reach the front door via a wooden bridge that spans his private stretch of stream. He lives here with his wife Sophie and son Willoughby. (The couple's daughter Lily is exploring an acting career in Hollywood.) Robinson, whose practised world-weariness is part of his charm, says he's tired of the place. It's too cold. He'd like to move back to LA.

"I wake up most days," he says, not without irony, "with a vague feeling of doom – 'Dear God. Here I am again.' Then, when I read about politicians in the newspaper, the vengefulness starts. By mid-morning, the anxiety is kicking in."

Bruce Robinson has been writing for more than 40 years, and the great majority of his scripts have never been made. He remains best-known for three projects: his screenplay for The Killing Fields (directed by Roland Joffé, 1984); and two movies which he wrote and directed: his vicious satire on the Thatcher years, How To Get Ahead in Advertising (1989) and, above all, Withnail and I. That last film, with a life-altering performance from Grant as the duplicitous, permanently parched fop, superbly assisted by McGann as his innocent, mesmerised companion, draws on Robinson's experiences as a chronic alcoholic and resting actor, living in squalor in Camden Town.

Withnail and I embodies the popular (if misguided) British belief that there is a curious nobility to the art of remaining permanently hammered. It embodies that perverse sense of heroism much in the way that The Great Escape has come to symbolise a more orthodox form of bravery. The obsession Withnail and I inspires in every new generation of aspirant bohemians has led to its being called "the definitive cult movie", a description unworthy of his masterpiece, whose dialogue – driven by what the writer Kevin Jackson called its "ferocious verbal inventiveness" – verges, as Bruce Robinson's writing often does, on the poetic.

Robinson himself stopped abusing alcohol eight years ago. "I was drinking so much that it was threatening the most important thing in my life – my family. I would be over there..." Robinson gestures towards his writing-room and library, in a separate building across the courtyard, "...and I'd have finished the first bottle of red by 10 in the morning. I was drinking four or five bottles a day."

"If I've understood their guidelines correctly, that slightly exceeds the Government's recommended weekly..."

"It does," Robinson interrupts, "by about 17,000 fucking units. I'd come in here like some greasy ghost, completely wasted, every night. I went to the AA. I was totally without alcohol for six-and-a-half years." Over the past couple of years he has drunk a little wine. "The reason I started again," he says, "was The Rum Diary."

Robinson disappears and returns with a bag full of logs. He makes a fire in the kitchen, where we'll talk for several hours, over two days. The director who, as a boy, was beaten to the point that he believed he would be killed, checks every piece of wood he puts on, for fear of incinerating a spider.

Where the production history of The Rum Diary is concerned, the word "troubled" is a useful one. Hunter Thompson had grown increasingly frustrated, in his later years, at its slow progress, and a degree of disappointment is detectable in a letter he wrote to a woman heading the production team, in 2001, long before Depp took charge.

"OK, you lazy bitch, I'm getting tired of this waterhead fuckaround that you're doing with The Rum Diary... Nobody needs to hear any more of that Gibberish about yr. New Mercedes and yr. Ski Trips... all you are is a goddamn Bystander, jabbering like some half bright Kid with no k focus except on yr. own tits... I'd much rather deal with a Live asshole than a dead worm with No Light in his Eyes... I'm in the mood to chop yr. Fucking hands off. RSVP. Hunter."

Thompson and Robinson met just once, in a suite at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, where the American focused on his "industrial cocaine-grinder, his Dunhills and his Chivas Regal. Apart from 'Hi'," the English writer says, "he didn't say a word to me in two hours."

Robinson's first meeting with Depp, in Hollywood in 1991, was a little more encouraging. "I got this message saying that an actor wanted to see me. He told me how much he liked Withnail. He was very charming. I remember thinking: my GOD, you're small. You're minute."

When he began the screenplay for The Rum Diary, Robinson says, "I was struggling for the piquancy I believe I'd found in Withnail. I was sitting in front of the typewriter with six-and-a-half years of sobriety under my belt. And because of that title – The Rum Diary – the creative side of me is saying: 'GO THERE.' The AA side is saying: 'DON'T.' The result was that I couldn't write a fucking line. Nothing, nothing, nothing."

In desperation, he explains, "I said to Sophie, 'I can't get there. Maybe – this may be the deviousness of alcohol, but... maybe I can't write this unless I have some wine.' And, God bless her, she said, 'Well, you'll have to have some then.' I wrote the script pretty quickly after that. But I stuck to wine as a medicine. I drank a bottle a day. When I finished the script, I went back to total sobriety."

Once production began, he was away for a year, in Puerto Rico, Mexico and Hollywood. "When I started filming with Johnny, he said, 'Do you mind me drinking?' I said, 'No, but I'm not going to, so why don't you try not drinking on the movie?' Johnny didn't drink at all, on the film. He looks the best you've ever seen him – radiantly handsome."

Then one day, Robinson recalls, "We were in a place called Fajardo. It was 100 degrees at two in the morning and very humid. Everyone's drenched in sweat. One of the prop guys goes by with a barrow-load of ice and Coronas. I said: 'Johnny, this doesn't mean anything.' And reached for a Corona."

"And then?"

"Some savage drinking took place. When I was no longer in Johnny's environment I went back to sobriety."

"In the days when you were drinking heavily," I ask, "did you come close to death?"

"I fell five storeys from the house in Camden Town; I bounced off the bottom roof and the gutter slashed my leg, just south of the... three inches higher and the whole lot would have been gone. I still have this enormous scar. I collapsed, pumping blood. And in cars. I have," Robinson adds, "done some terrible things in cars."

Some years ago, here at the farmhouse, he ran out of wine. "I set off in the car to get some more. In the mirror I saw this silver van, close behind me. I accelerated and so did he. We get over the hill and he's on me quite badly now, so I slam on my brakes to freak him out. He braked as well, but he was still aggressing me. I thought, 'I've had it with you, you cunt.' I stopped and got out, effing and blinding. That's when I realised I had Sophie's horse-trailer on the back. Carrying two very frightened horses, in total shock. They didn't like it at all."

You can hear in Robinson's voice a recognition that such episodes are at least as tragic as they are funny.

"I'll have a glass of wine very occasionally, at the moment. I will go back to the AA. But I do quite enjoy having a glass without freaking out."

The only mood-altering substances Robinson will ingest in my time with him are coffee and tobacco.

There are few hard and fast rules in life, but it's probably wise, on balance, to avoid individuals who own more whips than they do horses. Such a man was Rob Robinson, who kept no horses at all, but carried a riding crop and beat his only son on a regular basis. "When you say 'beat'," I ask Robinson, "you mean smacked?"

"I mean punched in the face."

Bruce Robinson's childhood, in Broadstairs, Kent, inspired his remarkable 1998 novel The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. In conversation, he refers to Rob variously as "my stepfather", "my father" and "the father". "He was a navigator when my mother was in the land army. Then he fucks off to bomb Tripoli. This American serviceman meets my mother. So when my stepfather returns, she has to tell him: 'Here is the baby.'"

He has no idea of the identity of his American birth father.

"The rumour is that he was a lawyer. My mother took the secret into the earth with her."

One or two writers I know might regard this sort of experience as, artistically speaking, three bells on their fruit machine.

"My early life has given me a great deal to draw on, certainly – but would I have swapped a happy childhood for the writing? Yes. Hemingway said the only thing a writer needs is an unhappy childhood. Many of the writers I admire are or were alcoholics. But the drink doesn't cause the writing. And the childhood doesn't cause the writing."

Unlike his older sister Elly, who was the child of both his parents, Robinson grew up in "an environment of neat rage, all the time. As it says in Thomas Penman, I was a 'walking affirmation of her guilt'. And because of the guilt she was suffering, she cut the emotion of love out of her life. He was in a state of permanent fury. He had the riding crop, two Dobermans, and guns. Until I was 10, he was often away. If I knew he was coming back I'd be paranoid with fear for a week."

"With all due disrespect for that exam – how on earth did you fail the 11-plus?"

Robinson says his father, educated at Rugby, "was constantly telling me I was stupid. If you are a junkyard dog, you assume that that's what life is: chained up, barking all day. Like I thought it was normal to hear my mother scream 'Stop it, you'll kill him' while I was being bashed. I went into the lowest stream of the worst secondary modern available. I had chronic asthma. I was a really fucked-up kid."

Elly went to grammar school.

"I was so jealous because she did A-level French and German. I was so desperate to learn French. I used to make her teach me what she was learning. That way I managed to learn it myself."

Robinson's creative facility with words was a quality no system could eradicate. When he left Charles Dickens Secondary Modern, aged 16, he had played the lead in four dramas. For years he spent all of his pocket money on books.

"Once, when I had really bad asthma, this teacher Mr Vincent dropped off a copy of Oliver Twist. I was instantly hooked."

"I can see how you might relate to Charles Dickens."

"Dickens carried that burden throughout his whole life, the resentment that his parents had done him ill as he perceived it. So many of those books deal with the same thing: the child victim. I could hear him taking directly to me, telling me how to cope."

One night Robinson told his father that he considered private education unjust. "He turned – this is verbatim – and said: 'Shut up. You are just a loud-mouthed little cunt.' I was 14. It was the most shattering thing; far worse than being hit by him. Because he'd picked on the one quality emerging in me that might be out of keeping with the life that he'd designated."

Bruce Robinson gained a place at the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, where he met friends such as musician David Dundas and actor Mickey Feast.

Robinson wound up living in Dundas's house in Camden; another tenant was Vivian Mackerrell, loosely the model for Withnail. Mackerrell's death from cancer, prior to which he was asking friends to pour sherry down a tube into his stomach, is described in some detail in Vivian and I, a memoir by Colin Bacon, published last year. It's a work which, to put it mildly, lacks any hint of Robinson's wit, humanity, and lightness of touch.

"Viv was an utter cunt," Robinson says. "He hated me writing. At the same time we had this intensely strong relationship. We were so poor, grubbing around for vegetables when Camden Market packed up. No furniture, just a mattress and one lightbulb. One night I was in there with the tangerine light of the streetlight coming in. I remember praying: 'Please let me get a job, please, PLEASE.' I had my head on the floorboards, crying tears of self-pity that turned into hysterical laughter at my predicament. The next day I started writing Withnail and I."

He was encouraged and funded as a writer by the actress Lesley-Anne Down, his girlfriend for 11 years, from 1969 k onwards. "She was off making movies with people like Peter Sellers," Robinson says, "and then she'd come back to this miserable disaster. But she never ever lost faith in me. I owe her a great deal."

Robinson's own film career began promisingly enough, when he was cast as Benvolio in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968). The Italian asked him to report to his apartment in Rome. "Within an hour he was hitting on me. He asked me – it's the one line I didn't make up in Withnail and I – 'Are you a sponge or a stone?' The next minute, his kaftan's up."

"And then?"

"Well... he didn't bum me." But his unsolicited intimacy with Zeffirelli was sufficient, Robinson says, to leave him "completely traumatised, because getting the part seemed to be so important and I am not a homosexual. The next day his producer arrives, wearing a white belt and pink jeans. I said, 'You are not going to BELIEVE what happened to me tonight.' He said, [camp intonation] 'Really?'"

Probably Robinson's best performance as an actor is in François Truffaut's 1975 film The Story of Adèle H, the tragic life story of Victor Hugo's daughter, in which he spends 90 minutes spurning Isabelle Adjani, a woman who, Robinson admits, he found rather trickier to resist off set. There are moments when, in profile, he resembles a young Alain Delon. As a performance it is, nevertheless, adequate rather than stunning. "I was never happy as an actor," he says. "I was always a writer."

Every artistic work, Albert Camus wrote, is a confession. In Bruce Robinson's case it's also possible – unsurprisingly, after a childhood which must have made any achievement feel like payback – to see every new piece of writing as an act of revenge. A recurring theme in his work is passionate empathy with the underdog: characters such as the boy in Thomas Penman, or Paul McGann's bewildered "I" character in Withnail. David Puttnam had the courage to commission him to write The Killing Fields even though, as Robinson recalls, "The studio didn't want an unknown writer. They wanted William Goldman."

Bruce Robinson might have been born to write The Killing Fields. The screenplay, as he delivered it, explored the imbalance in the relationship between a powerful man of ambition [Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times] and his more modest Cambodian guide Dith Pran who, having helped Schanberg get his stories and enhance his reputation, had to be left behind where he suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. (Robinson's reflections on the two men are compellingly presented in Alistair Owen's Smoking in Bed.) When he met Schanberg, Robinson recalls, "I didn't enjoy his presence at all. I found him very intimidating." Of the late Dith Pran: "He was small, maybe 5ft 3in."

"You're defending a victim again."

Bruce Robinson is "eternally grateful to Puttnam for saying 'I think this bloke can do it.'" Robinson has 40 unproduced scripts in his study. Each of his successes has had the help of a powerful maverick prepared to gamble on its worth: Puttnam with The Killing Fields, Depp for The Rum Diary, and, in the case of Withnail and I, George Harrison.

"Denis O'Brien, the producer running the operation, hated Withnail," he recalls. "It got made because a colleague slipped the script to George on a New York flight. He landed, picked up the phone and said: 'We're doing it.'"

While the fate of Withnail and I was in the balance, Robinson enlisted the support of Ralph Steadman, who provided the artwork for the film. Robinson, who was rarely in need of an excuse to drink, entered the grounds of Steadman's house near Maidstone a couple of days after the death of his stepfather, Rob. He was in emotional mood.

"As I remember, he arrived unannounced," says Steadman, "though he'd sent me the script, which I loved. Bruce had a bottle of red wine strapped into his belt, in the way that some people might carry a gun. He passed out under my horse-chestnut tree."

The artist, according to Robinson, had said: "'Take a look at my trees.' Afterwards he told me I'd said: 'Not YOUR trees, Ralph. EVERYBODY's trees.'"

His friendship with Steadman has been "a privilege. Because he is a supreme talent who has the power of fucking Goya. He helped get Withnail made because his phenomenal artwork captured the essence of those characters more powerfully than anything, except possibly the movie itself."

The film version of The Rum Diary could be seen as a final link in a chain – adapted as it was from a novel by Thompson, a man whose prose was given its unique imprint by Ralph Steadman's illustrations. Hunter Thompson is dead; Johnny Depp will move on; for Bruce Robinson, though, The Rum Diary has enduring implications. "When we started filming, my first dictum was to say, 'I am not going near a studio. If the camera doesn't fit, we'll knock the wall down.' The whole experience was like a dream. The producer of the film is Johnny. Which means that, so long as he is on the set, smiling, with his arm around me, I am fucking safe."

It's just as well, I suggest, that they got on.

"The worst thing that could have happened in an intense situation like that would have been if we'd disliked each other. He'd have been going back to his trailer every night, thinking, 'Why did I choose this cunt? I could have had any director in Hollywood.' I'm sure his advisers said: 'Johnny – are you SURE? This guy hasn't made a film in 17 years. And the last one he made,'" he adds, referring to Jennifer Eight, "'was shit.'"

Robinson pauses.

"If I make another movie," he says, "would that it could happen that way again."

"Another movie? I thought you said you were finished with American film."

"The Rum Diary," Robinson says, "has de-innoculated me. I now have this real desire to do it again."

After we've spent two days together, Robinson feels relaxed enough to be discursive.

"Truman Capote," he observes at one point, "said that anyone who owns a frying pan owns death. I could more easily murder you now with a frying pan than with a firearm, say. First I would have to procure a gun, then load it, by which time you would be halfway to Abergavenny. But once I whip out my frying pan, you have no choice but to die. The frenzied attack would leave you with shattered bone and vermillion blood spurting into the kilim. Then Sophie comes home. 'Where's Robert?' 'I killed him.' 'Oh. Why?' 'He went too far.' 'What now?' 'I'll put him next to Harold the dog. In the orchard.'"

This is not the sort of conversation that, in French, would require use of the formal "vous" pronoun. But we haven't got on quite well enough for Bruce Robinson to give me his impressive boots even though, as I remind him more than once, he is very wealthy, has two pairs, and takes size eight, just like I do. Instead, Robinson drives us to FW Golesworthy & Sons, gents' outfitters, in Hay-on-Wye. Not the most practical man with money, he thinks they'll cost "about £60". Two elderly women customers wait as the owner examines the scriptwriter's footwear, then consults his catalogue. "Out of stock... £325," he says. An audible gasp from both women. Robinson turns to them. "I'll leave you one each," he says, "in my will."

He drives on to Hereford station, first suggesting I might find my journey more entertaining if I let him buy me "a bottle of rum for the train" then tail-gating a police car, which slows down to 15mph until he reluctantly backs off. These are, at last, exhilarating times for Bruce Robinson. He's almost completed his book on Jack the Ripper or, as he prefers to call him, the Whitechapel Murderer. Distilling 10 years' research into 15 minutes' conversation, he makes a very convincing case for his suspect, an individual previously unconnected with the case. As we say goodbye he hands me a new screenplay: The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman. It's a remarkable adaptation of an extraordinary book. The promise in its first sentence: "Let us now prepare ourselves for some utterly unhygienic cinema" is more than fulfilled by a superb opening scene which contains the line: "Ethel has just found something horrible in the clock."

As I turn and walk towards the station I brace myself for some loud advice relating to sexually related disease, but it never comes. Instead, Bruce Robinson gets back in the car and heads off, just a little too quickly, into the sunset, eager to get back to his library, his typewriter, and another magnificent act of revenge.

'The Rum Diary' is due for release this autumn

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