Depp discusses journalism, film at SAC

Jody Serrano

Renowned actor Johnny Depp said journalism has become a big business based on selling a product instead of telling the truth at an exclusive screening of his new film, “The Rum Diary.”

Moderated by radio-television-film professor John Pierson, the Saturday screening took place at the Student Activity Center and included a discussion with Depp, who produced and starred in the film, and director Bruce Robinson. Depp has been working on the film, based on a book of the same name by the novelist and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, for more than 10 years. He said he hopes students will understand the struggle Thompson went through to find his own voice against big corporations.

“The voice he found was one of rage,” Depp said. “[Here] was a guy that cared so much that he had to rail against the authority that pushed the world into its corner.”

Thompson’s legacy includes the creation of a new style of writing called gonzo journalism in the 1960s, a subjective style of reporting often told in first-person narrative. He wrote “The Rum Diary” in 1959 based on his own experiences with American capitalism in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and published it in 1998.

Depp said the core of the film was what enraged Thompson after the U.S. embargoed Cuban goods and began commercializing Puerto Rico. When asked about what Thompson would think about the current Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Austin protests, Depp said Thompson would probably be supportive and doing “Snoopy dances.”

In relation to the film, which exposes the influence of American corporations in Puerto Rico and on the news media, Depp said Thompson would say journalism is in a bad place today.

“[Journalism] is on par with the [corporations] on Wall Street,” Depp said. “It’s about selling the truth but really selling something people want to buy.”

Depp first came to Austin in 1993 for his lead role in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” He came into town for the Austin Film Festival and won the festival’s first award for extraordinary contribution to film in acting.

“I don’t really recognize the place anymore,” Depp said. “When you go around Sixth Street you go, ‘Okay, this looks familiar.’ I had great experiences here, and I love this joint.”

Robinson, who came out of retirement to make the film, said he believed journalism had become a business of people shouting fear and horror in his ears. Robinson said when he was a child in the United Kingdom there were two competing newspapers in Russia. When he asked his schoolteacher who was telling the truth, his teacher said neither told the truth.

Robinson said that all the media covers nowadays is fear and that the first time he read Thompson’s book, he felt enraged at the relationship corporations have with the media.

“The only time you ever feel comfortable [in media] is in the [advertising universe], where you see people cuddling with their kids in the living room,” Robinson said. “It worries me — the ads are the one great thing, and everything else is terrible.”

More than 400 students and faculty attended the screening. The film was also shown at universities in Kansas, Washington, Arizona, Indiana and Illinois, where students were allowed to text in questions for Depp and Robinson.

Bob Berney, UT alumnus and president of the film’s distributor FilmDistrict, said Depp pushed to show the film at UT because he felt students would be able to identify with Thompson and his work. He also said it was very important for Depp to make the film after Thompson’s suicide in 2005. Berney graduated from UT with a radio-television-film degree in 1977.

Berney said the screening was FilmDistrict’s first satellite tour, and the company will continue to partner with UT in the future.

Radio-television-film junior Alexandra Prather was the first in line to see Depp at the screening. Prather showed up at the SAC at 8 a.m. for the 6:30 p.m. program because she was afraid she wouldn’t get a seat. Prather said that the first time she saw Depp was in “Edward Scissorhands” and that she loved seeing him portray a character that was a little darker but was normal at the core.

“He’s been one of my idols since I was little, and I never thought a person like Johnny Depp would come to Austin,” Prather said. “I’ve never met a celebrity before, but I’d like to be respectful because he’s a human being just like everybody else.”

Printed on Monday, October 24m 2011 as: Depp screens 'Rum Diary' for students