Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini heads to the American desert to help director Terry Gilliam unleash a long-awaited film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive... " And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
The opening paragraph of Hunter S. Thompsons Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Since its initial publication in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been the literary equivalent of a bottled genie begging for its cinematic release. The book's subtitle proclaims it to be "A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," and Hunter Thompson's drug-addled yarn delivers on that promise in spectacularly surreal fashion, whipping up a veritable tsunami of nightmare visions, paranoid rants and fire-and-brimstone diatribes that boil with an apoplectic political rage. Within its pages, readers accompany wired but world-weary journalist Raoul Duke and his equally overamped Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo, on a non-stop chemical bender through Vegas, the metaphorical nerve center of a nation that has lost touch with the liberating ideals of the 1960s. Rife with elegiacal overtones, the duo's frenzied expedition becomes a demonic cross between Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Dante's Inferno, rendered in a volcanic torrent of prose that erupts with the impact of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape.
Although Fear has inspired one previous feature film (the straightforward and largely ignored 1980 adaptation Where the Buffalo Roam), Thompson's cult following has persistently clamored for a definitive screen treatment. With the uncorking of Terry Gilliam's manic interpretation, the Freaks will finally have their day.
Universal Pictures' production of Fear and Loathing represents the culmination of a long and twisted industry saga. Over the past quarter century, the Hollywood rumor mill has rattled off a veritable roll-call of big-name directors (including Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone) in connection with various aborted attempts to animate Thompson's comically deranged opus. According to legend, the infamously mercurial and mercenary wordsmith helped to delay the undertaking by selling book rights to dozens of unsuspecting investors (some in perpetuity). After protracted bouts of legal wrangling, a go project was finally announced several years ago by producer Laila Nabulsi, with director Alex Cox (Repo Man) slated to take the helm. Cox eventually left the project, however, and was replaced by Gilliam, one of cinema's most inventive visualists (see interview on page 42).
Thompson's apocalyptic tale also lured in a stellar cast. The showy role of Raoul Duke (the writer's fictional alter ego) was awarded to Johnny Depp, who subsequently spent four months tracking the author's every move and mapping out his mannerisms. The part of Dr. Gonzo, Duke's unruly and overweight attorney, was fleshed out (literally) by Benicio Del Toro, who gained close to 50 pounds to approximate the character's slovenly girth. The picture's impressive array of supporting players includes Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Katherine Helmond and Harry Dean Stanton.
Given this assemblage of talent and the story's strong visual potential, most cinematographers would have given their eyeteeth to land such a plum assignment. As it turned out, director of photography Nicola Pecorini won the job by amiably acknowledging that he had already sacrificed an eye. Following up on a tip from Depp (whom he had met while shooting footage for the actor's directorial debut, The Brave), Pecorini sent Gilliam a highly unusual audition reel which made light of the fact that the cameraman has sight in just one of his sockets. "I've seen how people look at demo tapes," says Pecorini, who lost his left eye to retinal cancer when he was just 16 months old. "Usually someone will put the tape in, look at it for 30 seconds, and then start taking phone calls or typing on the computer. On my reel, the screen starts out half black. A friend of mine, director Tommy Schlamme, sits there speaking very highly of me, but he adds, 'I have to warn you, though, that what you're looking at right now is what Nicola Pecorini sees, because he has only one eye.' Then he stands up and takes a piece of black tape off the lens to show the difference. If you're watching the reel, you immediately say to yourself, 'Who is the jerk who sent me this tape?!' Now that I know Terry, I can understand why he liked it, because the first thing he wants to know about someone new is, 'Can he laugh?'"
Indeed, Pecorini's ability to spoof himself convinced Gilliam that he had found his man, despite the fact that the cameraman had previously served as lead cinematographer on only one feature film: the Sundance standout Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest (see festival coverage in AC April '97).
In reality, however, Pecorini's photographic pedigree was far more extensive than that. His grandfather, Fedele Toscani, had been a pioneering photojournalist in Italy during the 1920s, and young Nicola grew up in darkrooms. During his teens, he found work as a fashion photographer, but quickly grew bored with the repetitious shoots. His father, a journalist, introduced him to a friend who needed a cameraman to shoot 16mm news footage in Geneva, Switzerland, and Pecorini spent the next three years filming everything "from hockey games to short pieces about the lives of spiders."
The budding cameraman found these varied experiences to be invaluable, but soon sought bigger challenges. During a vacation to the U.S. in 1981, he picked up a copy of American Cinematographer, in which he spotted an ad for one of the first West Coast Steadicam workshops. Upon attending the classes, he instantly fell in love with the revolutionary new filmmaking rig. "All of a sudden I had one tool that would enrich my vocabulary in making motion pictures," he says. "The great thing about the Steadicam is that you don't need mediation with anyone else. The dolly is a great tool, and so is the crane, but you always have to rely on more than one man. With the Steadicam, you become one with the camera."
Pecorini soon purchased his own Steadicam, and over the next 16 years he found an abundance of work in Europe with many renowned cameramen, including ASC members Giuseppe Rotunno and Vittorio Storaro, as well as Tonino Delli Colli. He eventually became a trusted lieutenant to Storaro, who promoted him to B-camera operator and second-unit director of photography. "Little Buddha [AC May '94] was a bit of a turning point for me," says Pecorini. "The logistics of the shoot were very complicated, so Vittorio delegated quite a bit of work to the second unit. I learned that I could take responsibility, and that's when I decided to become a cinematographer."
His first job as a fully-fledged director of photographer was a collaboration with Schlamme on the first season of the HBO series Tracy Takes On in 1995. Pecorini then shot the low-budget Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest for Michael Haussman. He says that he accepted the assignment for two reasons: "First, I had worked with Michael before as an operator, and we'd gotten along very well; second, I was the only one who would take that little money! It was a small movie, with a budget of about $1.4 million, but the script was good and I thought it had a lot of potential. Creatively, it was a very rewarding experience."
Pecorini admits that he is still astounded to have landed the Fear and Loathing gig, but he reports that Gilliam's collaborative nature and team ethic made the transition to a major feature quite rewarding. "Terry is able to put his ego aside on the set, and that makes him a joy to work with," the cinematographer attests. "Let's say you have a complicated scene with 25 candles that need to be lit. If things are moving slowly, he may start clapping his hands and saying to the prop man, 'C'mon, c'mon, what are you doing?' And the prop guy might get mad and say, 'I'm lighting the candles for your movie!' But Terry will reply, 'Not my movie, our movie.' That's a big thing, because it's very rare to find people like that. When some directors walk onto the set, they won't even say 'Good morning.' But Terry constantly has his sensors attuned to the crew's mood and state of mind."
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