When Oscar-nominated screenwriter Bruce Robinson turned to directing (Withnail & I ), he created an enduring classic by satirizing the drunk and doleful thespian’s life he’d been living during swinging 1960s London. But his dealings with Hollywood in the subsequent decade, as he tells it, were a tragicomic debacle—and he swore off the biz to write books. Thankfully, Johnny Depp came along with his pal Hunter S. Thompson and changed all that. On the eve of his first movie premiere in 17 years, Mr. Robinson told us about going gonzo for The Rum Diary, his wine habit, and a twelve-year obsession with Jack the Ripper.
This has been an epic adventure, from inception until now.
It has been a long time brewing, this one. I started working on the screenplay in 2005.
How did it all come about?
Both Johnny and Hunter had seen a tiny little English film I made called Withnail & I. And they both really liked it, a lot, so they decided I’d be a good writer for this thing. When I turned in the screenplay Johnny starting bullying me to direct it, but I had a disastrous experience in Hollywood 17 years ago and vowed to never direct again. Ultimately, the confidence he invested in me—if he was prepared to take that kind of risk with me—I thought, well all right, I’ll give it a try.
Whatever Johnny says, we all do.
Whatever Johnny says, in every department of life, people tend to do, yes.
So has this process changed your mind about directing again?
If I could work with people like Johnny… sure I would do it again.
You have one of the funniest stories about Hollywood I have ever heard: Here you are, at a party, chatting with this nice fellow for a good long while, until he turns to you and asks the inevitable, “So what do you do?” At which point you have to remind him that he is your agent.
[laughs] That is true. Isn’t that astonishing?
What is that like, adapting or translating Hunter?
All writers who are halfway good have a unique voice, but Hunter had a very, very unique voice. There was no way I was going to try to write like Hunter, I could only write like me. So I read the book twice, took some notes, and then threw the book away. [I] made some fairly radical narrative changes on the story to make it work as a movie.
In reading the book ten or so years ago I was really upset by the dancing scene. It has stayed with me and kind of haunted me ever since. I was glad to see you had it in there, but that must have been… well, difficult.
I must say that I thought the dance scene in the novel was really vulgar and sort of misogynistic. It was one of the things I didn’t like about the book. The dancing in the movie now is actually an abbreviated version of what we shot. It was much more sexual in the first assembly—ruder, if you like. But in watching it we realized we could tear it down so that she maintains her dignity…And it’s a pretty indelible scene, isn’t it?
It is, it is. I’ve also really enjoyed your novels and I can’t wait for this Jack the Ripper book.
Yeah. I’ve been working on that for twelve years. A remarkable story—the most extraordinary story I’ve ever come across actually. It might sound facetious, or even stupid, but I think it is going to change everyone’s perception of what this thing was about.
When do we get to read it?
Well, I’ve written 800 pages of it. But it is so time consuming and so expensive. I’m researching out of South Africa, bizarrely. When you get the book you’ll see why South Africa—the person in the book had some connections there.
Okay, I’ve wanted to ask you about this for maybe 15 years, since I first read about your discovery of almost 1000 bottles of the best wine…
[Quoting Withnail] “The finest wines available to humanity.”
Exactly. And here was a bounty you could have turned and sold for a zillion dollar profit.
It is a once in a lifetime event, that, but it really did happen: This hotel was shut down and boarded up and they were going to demolish it, and just when we were going to the bar to get a glass of wine, the guy said, “I can’t sell you a glass, but I can sell you a bottle for a pound.” “Oh really,” we said, “what is it?” You know, expecting, like, expecting some gruesome Beaujolais or something. He took us down into the cellar of this hotel where someone knew how to buy wine, and there it was, Aladdin’s cave. We only have 200 quid on us so we bought 200 bottles. I was an actor on 45 pounds a week, so I phoned up my father and said, “Send me some money, quick.” And he did. We went back the next day and they wouldn’t sell us a cork. It wasn’t that they knew what it was, they just couldn’t figure out why we were so interested in having it. And then we were drinking—literally, literally—Petrus with fish and chips in Camden Town. It was just ludicrous. Because we had no money, we wanted to sell them in Sotheby’s, but we drank the lot in two weeks.
But you were sober for a while, so how did Johnny get you to fall off the wagon?
Yeah, yeah, I didn’t drink for six years. Writing and drinking wine were synonymous for me and I just decided that I’d had enough. You know, I’d had a hillside of the stuff.
But you started up again during the course of the film.
My grandmother said, “you’re a long time dead,” so we’ve been sharing wine throughout the process. But [Johnny and I] do have a pact to, after we finish the film tour in Paris, get back to reality.