"cinéma vérité (literally: cinema truth). A style of filmmaking. Practitioners of cinéma vérité attempt to capture truth on film by observing, recording, and presenting reality without excercising directorial control or otherwise utilizing conventional film techniques to affect the veracity of a situation... Passivity is a key characteristic of the method that seeks to arrive at the truth by allowing people to reveal themselves in unguarded moments."
(The Film Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition)
First spawned in the late 1910’s by Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertoz, cinéma vérité flourished as it is now known in the 60’s and 70’s, from the works of cats like Richard Leacock, Robert Drew, and D.A. Pennebaker. Pennebaker is credited with one of the purest examples of this genre, as his 1967 film Don’t Look Back has for a long time been considered the epitome of cinéma vérité, an extremely intimate look at Bob Dylan seemingly unaffected by the camera recording him.
Despite the remarkable film that it is, however, there are many times in Don’t Look Back where it feels like Dylan is playing things up for the camera. Which seems almost a given, since it would be hard to act “normal” if somebody was filming your every move.
This feeling is rarely (if ever) apparent in Breakfast with Hunter, a masterpiece of cinéma vérité that truly gives viewers the feeling of being the proverbial Fly On The Wall in the life of Hunter S. Thompson. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that filmmaker Wayne Ewing spent over 18 years putting the movie together...or maybe Thompson just didn’t give a damn. Either way, Breakfast with Hunter is superior to Don’t Look Back (and most other attempts at cinéma vérité for that matter), as it feels truly raw and authentic, yet all the while ferociously entertaining.
Breakfast with Hunter gives a powerful insight into the heart of Hunter Thompson, and further portrays him as the great American writer that he was. Ewing manages to present greater access than any other biographical project on Thompson, and as opposed to the BBC documentary Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, Breakfast with Hunter focuses on Thompson as a person, and not so much the rowdy legend usually expected of Thompson.
A great example of this can be found within the supplemental features on the Breakfast with Hunter DVD, where he talks about the demise of Oscar Zeta Acosta. Up to that point, Thompson always seemed to avoid discussing what happened to his good friend Oscar, but for reasons undefined, Ewing somehow gets Thompson confiding the Truth of Oscar’s death.
And that’s just a tiny taste. Breakfast with Hunter also has footage of Thompson shooting the breeze with the late Warren Zevon and George Plimpton, as well as Ralph Steadman, Benicio Del Toro, Johnny Depp, P.J. O’Rourke, John Cusak, and even Don Johnson, among others.
In short, Breakfast with Hunter has set a high new standard for those aspiring to create cinéma vérité.
Throughout the course of his career, Ewing has directed numerous films, covering all sorts of social aspects, from media consolidation to water pollution; his work has appeared on NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, PBS, and so on. He’s also acted as director of photography for the television show "Homicide," where he developed the signature hand-held camera and jump-cut style that many people consider his invention.
Below, Ewing talks about Breakfast with Hunter, and graciously takes the time to answer other questions I pelted his way:
What got you into making movies with such a strong social consciousness (Breakfast with Hunter, as well as things likePointless Pollution, etc.)?
Wayne Ewing: Making documentaries is never easy, and it always seemed to me that there should be a compelling reason for all that effort and for asking an audience to give you their time to watch your work. As a result, films that reveal a social issue and point to a solution always seemed to me to be the most worthwhile.
How did you first become interested in Hunter S. Thompson?
WE: In the early seventies I read everything by Hunter that I could find. When “Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail” was serialized by Rolling Stone in 1972, it inspired my first film- If Elected… Hunter had always been one of my heroes and when I found myself living next door to him in the early eighties I made it a point to get to know him.
When/how did you first meet Thompson?
WE: I first met Hunter at the O’Farrell Theater in San Francisco. I was looking for a new subject for a doc for “Frontline” (PBS) for whom I had been producing, and heard that Hunter was working as the “night manager.” Thinking that was a great hook for a film about Hunter, I contacted him and spent a weekend at what he called “the Carnegie Hall of public sex in America,” hanging out with Hunter, Jim & Artie Mitchell (the owners of the O’Farrell and producers of Behind the Green Door) and the girls. When I got home on Monday and called “Frontline” to say there was a great story to be shot, they chickened out, afraid of what Congress might say about their use of public money for a film about Hunter, and I realized that if I were to make the film it would have to be on my own. Thus, Breakfast with Hunter was born.
Is the “gonzo pilot” that you shot with him in the 80’s on the DVD, or otherwise available?
WE: The “Gonzo Pilot,” which is the first material that I shot with Hunter in 16mm in 1985, is not available anywhere at this time. At about ten minutes, the short film was meant to sell the idea of a TV series with Hunter that I called the “Gonzo Tour.” Back in the Reagan era that turned out to be a hard sell. However, some of that footage forms the credit sequence at the end of Breakfast with Hunter where he goes to Florida and is surrounded by dolphins at sea.
Being that it took you 18+ years to shoot this film, how did your style(s) of filming change throughout the duration?
WE: In the very beginning, 1985, I shot 16mm film with Hunter, but it was too expensive to continue in that format. In the late eighties and early nineties, I used Hi-8 video, but knew it would never transfer very well to film or for broadcast. When small format digital video was introduced to the prosumer market, I jumped on it as a way to shoot a huge amount of material at minimal cost and produce images that might even transfer nicely to 35mm film even though there was no way to do it at that time. In the end most of the film was shot with two Sony DCRVX-1000’s, and the mini-digital video transferred very well to 35mm film for a theatrical print.
Thus, the technical style of the film evolved over the years. The shooting style evolved as well, as I got to know Hunter better, and I was able to become more and more a “fly on the wall.” The decreasing size of the equipment also helped to make me less and less intrusive, so that I was able to capture some very classic cinéma vérité moments.
You mentioned in the commentary that you don’t like tripods. Why don’t you like them?
WE: Tripods get in the way and slow you down. To shoot cinéma vérité you need to constantly adjust your position to follow the unpredictable action. Much of Breakfast with Hunter was shot by crouching on the couch or sitting on the counter in Hunter’s kitchen.
What were some of the hazards of making Breakfast with Hunter?
WE: Brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, getting shot, arrested or otherwise mutilated.
Even though you knew Hunter, did he ever surprise you in the course of filming the movie?
WE: Life with Hunter was always surprising. He had the uncanny ability to turn the most mundane moments of life into dramatic scenes.
Was there ever a point where filming Breakfast with Hunter felt mundane?
WE: Making the film was never mundane but it did take incredible amounts of patience. For every one night I filmed with Hunter in the kitchen there might be ten where we just worked on books and articles. It was a master class in writing, but Hunter wrote very, very slowly.
Did you know Alex Cox and Tod Davies were in trouble before they arrived that fateful day?
WE: No one had any inkling of what was about to happen that football playoff Sunday in January, other than that they were going to visit to discuss the script. Hunter was very positive and excited, and even cooked them breakfast.
Did you receive any animosity (police or anyone else) from further publicizing things like the DUI case?
WE: There have been no repercussions so far, but the same cop who busted Hunter is still on the Aspen City Police force.
At what point did you realize you had a masterpiece?
WE: I’m not sure I would characterize the film as a masterpiece, but I knew it would be a good film after I shot the Viper Room scenes with Hunter and Johnny Depp in 1996.
Did Johnny Depp ever get so into his portrayal of Thompson that you got confused?
WE: I was more amused than confused by Johnny’s uncanny ability to mimic Hunter.
Are you still planning on releasing another edition of the DVD, and if so, what else is going to be on it?
WE: Hopefully, there will be a second edition one day. Possible new supplements would be the story of Hunter’s efforts to free Lisl Auman- a young girl in prison in Colorado for life without parole for a murder she did not commit. Hunter organized a rally for her in Denver which I filmed in 2001 and got a number of big time lawyers involved in her appeal.
The Colorado Supreme Court recently ordered a new trial for Lisl. Hunter was totally responsible for the dramatic reversal in Lisl’s fortune and he would have been extremely pleased to know that she will one day walk out of prison.
Another scene might be the cannon shot of Hunter’s ashes, when and if that happens. The early stages of making The Rum Diary might also be a scene. There are so many possibilities given hundreds of hours of footage it is hard to list them all.
Why is it only available through the website?
WE: The internet is the perfect marketing tool for the independent filmmaker. While the DVD is available in a few smart retail stores that have contacted us at www.breakfastwithhunter.com, primarily we sell directly to individuals through the website. The DVD is readily available there to anyone anywhere in the world 24/7 and generally they have it in hand within a few days via the mail. If they don’t have a credit card to use in our Paypal shopping cart, a buyer can send a check or money order to Wayne Ewing Films, PO Box 4723, Basalt, Colorado 81621.
Compared to other work you’ve done, how does Breakfast with Hunter rate?
WE: That would be for others to say, but I am very proud of Breakfast with Hunter. It was truly a labor of love.
You made a film about the consolidation of film studios (The New Hollywood); what are your thoughts on the current climate of Media Consolidation?
WE: Consolidation in the media business has reached a level that I could never have imagined possible when I made The New Hollywood for Tom Brokaw back in 1989. The abolition of the FCC’s financial syndication rules in 1993 have allowed the networks to own the programming they broadcast, resulting in the few giant, multi-national vertical monopolies that now own the major film studios and networks – Murdoch’s News Corp (Fox), Disney (ABC), General Electric (NBC), Viacom (CBS), Time Warner (CNN/TBS).
All of this has helped considerably in what Hunter called “the dumbing down of America.”
You’ve mentioned that you might do a film on the 2004 Presidential “Election.” Did you?
WE: I have two new documentaries coming out this spring, both about politics in 2004 and both about state Supreme Court races. The Last Campaign covers the race for re-election of Justice Warren McGraw in West Virginia. McGraw was also the subject of my very first film- If Elected...(1972)- and this new film incorporates scenes from the 1972 film. McGraw was the target of a multi-million dollar smear campaign – first by the US Chamber of Commerce and second by the head of the largest coal company in West Virginia, and he was defeated by the big money.
The second film is Benched: the Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary, and it covers the same issues as The Last Campaign but in a different style and place. Benched examines the Illinois state Supreme Court election where the US Chamber of Commerce also funneled millions of dollars in multi-national corporate money into what became the most expensive judicial race in history. The surface issue was “tort reform” and the allegation that an out of control civil justice system was driving doctors out of the state (similar charges were made in West Virginia). In fact, what I found is that the insurance industry has unfairly targeted doctors with artificially inflated insurance rates in order to get them to lobby on the insurance companies’ behalf for a $240K “cap” on non-economic damages. Furthermore, in Illinois the other agenda may have been to get the Republican elected to the bench in order to overturn a pending 10.1 Billion Dollar judgment against the Philip Morris Tobacco Company. The Republican won.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers, especially those without unlimited funds?
WE: Digital technology makes it possible to make films with very limited funds. The key is to find a subject that is exciting and interesting enough for you to spend a couple years of your life making and promoting it.
Do you still doubt that Owl Farm will make a good tourist attraction?
WE: Depending on how the monument turns out, it could be a hell of a theme park.