Many filmmakers over the years have tried to make films out of Hunter S. Thompson’s books but the first completed effort did not surface until 1980 with Where The Buffalo Roam. It is not a good film. And yet, I find myself oddly fascinated by this deeply flawed effort. Perhaps it is Bill Murray’s truly inspired one-note performance and the stories of his deep immersion into the role. So deep that he has never fully been able to shake Thompson’s persona since. From articles that appeared at the time of its release, the project seemed doomed from the get-go with a first-time director clearly out of his depth and a problematic screenplay that Murray and Thompson tried in vain to improve during filming. The end result speaks for itself.
The film begins with a situation familiar to anyone who’s read Thompson’s work – under pressure to get an article done by a strict deadline for Blast magazine (aka Rolling Stone) for his long-suffering editor Marty Lewis (Bruno Kirby wasted in a thankless role). Up against it, he decides to write about his friend and attorney at law Carl Lazlo, Esq. (Peter Boyle). The film proceeds to flash back to San Francisco, 1968 and Thompson is holed up in a hospital room with a Wild Turkey I.V. drip (nice touch) and his own private nurse. Lazlo shows up (through the window no less) and springs his client for a road trip in a muscle car that bears more than a passing resemblance to the one James Taylor and Dennis Wilson drove in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971).
After this promising start, the film stalls with a bit where Thompson pretends to draw a lady’s blood which is pointless and painfully unfunny. Although, things perk up slightly in the next scene where he attends a court case that Lazlo is working. In the courtroom, he proceeds to mix up a Bloody Mary while he waits for the proceedings to begin, which is fairly amusing. Lazlo’s defense of four hippies stops the film cold. It is supposed to show his righteous fight for the underdog and the futility of working within the system. It is supposed to set up the struggle between the counterculture and the establishment, which epitomized the 1960s. Instead, it just comes across as dull and preachy.
Where the Buffalo Roam jumps to Los Angeles, 1972 as Thompson covers the Superbowl as depicted in the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. After a tedious bit where he checks in, the film reaches its funniest point (not a hard feat, mind you) as Thompson stages his own Superbowl in his hotel room. He corrals a maid and a room service waiter into playing an impromptu game and, in the process, trash the room in a humorous scene that is the closest this film gets to realizing Thompson’s writing that was often filled with absurdly comical passages.
However, the film stalls yet again when, surprise, Lazlo shows up to take Thompson (and us) away from fun and sidetracks the narrative with painfully obvious political and social commentary as the crazy attorney tries to get his client to join a band of revolutionaries. The whole sequence makes no sense and is a total bore but does make you thankful for the fast-forward button. At this point, I really appreciated what a great job Terry Gilliam and Johnny Depp did adapting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) to the big screen.
Fortunately, Thompson doesn’t have much time for Lazlo’s revolution and splits. The film segues into an amusing example of one of Thompson’s infamous college lecture appearances where he conducts a rowdy Q&A session to an adoring crowd of students. It is here where he utters one of his most famous pearls of wisdom: “I hate to advocate weird chemicals or insanity to anyone but they’ve always worked for me.” For anyone who has seen vintage footage of Thompson at one of these college campus appearances, the film’s recreation is spot on – a rare moment of verisimilitude.
Where the Buffalo Roams ends on a high note as it traces Thompson’s misadventures on the campaign trail, pitting him against the elite press corp. as he invades the plane carrying respectable journalists from newspapers like the Washington Post, much to the consternation of a White House representative (played by Animal House alumni Mark Metcalf). Not surprisingly, Thompson gets banished to the “zoo” plane with all of the technicians. It’s a chaotic, noisy crowd where Thompson fits right in. He proceeds to get a straight-laced journalist (played wonderfully by Rene Auberjonois) whacked out of his skull on prescription drugs (he’s later found in the plane bathroom singing, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”). This allows Thompson to steal his press credentials, which he uses to meet President Richard Nixon in a bathroom where he proceeds to freak the man out with his Gonzo behavior.
Bill Murray certainly has Thompson’s distinctive voice and unique physical mannerisms down cold. In the opening scene, he nails the man’s tendency to sudden outbursts of anger and conveys his love and use of guns. Thompson also had a tendency to mutter to himself, often dictating into a tape recorder, which Murray does quite well. Best of all, the comedian spouts many Thompson-erisms at certain points that make you wonder if they were the parts that Murray and Thompson rewrote or that Murray, channeling Thompson, improvised. But for all of this hard work it still feels like a caricature of Thompson, or rather his public persona, like the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury, but it is still fun to watch. Murray’s performance does contain moments of inspired lunacy, like the hospital room scene and the hotel Superbowl sequence. He does the best with what he has to work with but it’s an uphill battle and he’s constantly thwarted by the unorganized screenplay and ho-hum direction.
In the late 1970s, Thompson’s agent Lynn Nesbit called him one day and told him that movie producer Thom Mount wanted to pay $100,000 for the rights to “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” a eulogy for his attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, which appeared in the October 1977 issue Rolling Stone magazine. Thompson agreed to have it optioned without seeing a script figuring that the film would never get made because Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had been optioned several times and never made. He remembers, “Then all of a sudden there was some moment of terrible horror when I realized they were going to make the movie.” In 1978, illustrator Ralph Steadman (who had worked with Thompson on numerous occasions) was asked to create a poster for the film. He used a drawing entitled, Spirit of Gonzo as the basis but this incarnation disappeared and in 1979 he created a completely different poster.
Thompson met with the film’s screenwriter John Kaye but felt that the man understood more than what was in the script. “I was very disappointed in the script. It sucks — a bad, dumb, low-level, low-rent script.” By his own admission, Thompson admitted that he signed away having any control so that he couldn’t be blamed for the end result. In the early drafts, Lazlo’s surname was Mendoza but this was changed after Nosotros, a group of Chicano actors and filmmakers, threatened to generate controversy if the character was played by Anglo actor Peter Boyle.
Before principal photography began, director Art Linson took a four-month crash course on directing. Steadman observed the first-time filmmaker on the set and said that it was “pretty obvious that he was in no frame of mind to catch the abandoned pure essence of Gonzo madness, which can only happen in uncontrolled conditions.” However, Steadman also felt that Linson’s “fanaticism for the subject he was trying to portray was undoubtedly there, and his sincerity, too,” but that the director was under the impression that the film was going to be a runaway hit before he’d even begun filming it and therefore refused to take any chances with the material.
While making Where the Buffalo Roam, Murray hung out frequently with Thompson. They were known to pull some wild stunts, like the time, at Thompson’s Aspen, Colorado home, after many drinks and arguing about who was the better escape artist, the writer tied the comedian to a chair and threw him into the swimming pool. Murray nearly drowned before Thompson pulled him out. The comedian also hung out with Steadman, who gave Murray his impressions and observations of Thompson’s mannerisms. According to Steadman, within two weeks of Thompson being on set, Murray had transformed into him.
Just before principal photography began, Murray became apprehensive because of the shortcomings of the script. Kaye claims that Thompson and Murray changed parts of it during filming and, at that point, he chose to no longer be involved. Linson did allow Murray, with Thompson’s help, to add lines on the set. Years later, Thompson said that he and Murray wrote and they shot several different beginnings and endings for the film but none of them were used. Murray and Thompson continued to be concerned with the film’s lack of continuity and in early 1980 added voiceover narration. Where the Buffalo Roam was sneak-previewed in late March and the last two scenes and most of the narration were missing. Murray was reportedly furious. Universal ended up shooting a new ending and three days before release, a press screening was canceled because of editing problems.
Thompson even served as a consultant on Where the Buffalo Roam but this did little to translate the author’s warped vision to the big screen. While watching the film, it becomes readily evident that, despite Murray’s inspired performance, Kaye and Linson had no idea what Thompson’s books were trying to say. The film seems more like a collection of rather tame highlights from the man’s work, including Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Great Shark Hunt and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Where the Buffalo Roam owes more to the sensibilities of Animal House (1978), with its goofy humor, than Thompson’s savage political satire. Mount also produced Animal House and ended up casting a few of the supporting actors from that film in this one. With Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we laugh along with Thompson and his attorney but at a certain point the film makes it a point to show that these guys aren’t very nice and are quite destructive – to themselves and those around them. It is this darkness that is missing from Linson’s film, which is a light-hearted romp, a slob comedy.
In an interesting post-script, Murray had a tough time shaking Thompson’s persona after filming. Murray made the film between the fourth and fifth seasons of Saturday Night Live. When the fifth season began, the comedian was still channeling Thompson, showing up to meetings with the long black cigarette holder and sunglasses. One of the show’s writers said, “Billy was not Bill Murray, he was Hunter Thompson. You couldn’t talk to him without talking to Hunter Thompson.” Early in the fifth season of the show, Murray sometimes looked bored on-air and was described as acting like “a tyrant” backstage by some. He seemed to be angry at everyone and very uncooperative. After the film was released and tanked at the box office, as well as being trashed by the critics, the studio quickly pulled it from theaters. Murray started to act more like himself and no one brought up the strange period where he acted like Thompson. Years later, Murray reflected on the film: “I rented a house in L.A. with a guest house that Hunter lived in. I’d work all day and stay up all night with him; I was strong in those days. I took on another persona and that was tough to shake. I still have Hunter in me.”
After the film’s dismal reception, no other adaptations were completed. It took actor Johnny Depp and his friendship with Thompson to get any kind of serious attempt at an adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas even considered. In the end, I think that the problems I have with Where the Buffalo Roam are best summed up in a speech Thompson gives at the end of the film where he says, “it just never got weird enough for me.” Amen, my brother.