On this page is the story of Terry Gilliam’s battle against the Writers’ Guild of America and exclusive pictures of him burning his WGA membership card.
Gilliam’s dispute with the WGA started when it declared that the writing credit for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas should be attributed to Alex Cox and Tod Davies, whereas Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni asserted that they wrote their own script direct from Hunter S. Thompson’s classic book. After Gilliam complained to the WGA, the script writing credit in the movie was given to Gilliam, Grisoni, Cox, and Davies.
The Fear and Loathing script has been published by Applause books, and at a book signing at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in the Lincoln Center in NYC on May 20 1998, a still seething Gilliam burned his WGA card. Below the pictures is a commentary on the event by David Morgan, and a background to the dispute as told by Gilliam to the Fear and Loathing Cannes press conference. Plus, there are further quotes from Gilliam, Grisoni, Cox and Davies made when the movie was released in the UK. Many thanks to Alley (creator of A Fistful of Spikes), who has provided photos of this event to Dreams.
Gilliam’s WGA card… about to be burned
Up in flames it goes…
Ouch! This man may never play the piano again…
“I attended the book signing at Barnes & Noble”, writes David Morgan, author of The Terry Gilliam Files, “in which a packed – but not exactly hushed – crowd heard from Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni about the indecipherable machinations backstage at the Writers Guild re: attribution for their screenplay to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (because it appeared at first that the WGA would not grant credit to Gilliam & Grisoni, in favor of Alex Cox and Tod Davies, the jacket of the newly-published Applause edition of the Fear & Loathing script reads “NOT the screenplay by TG & TG.” Unfortunately, now that their film credits have been won on appeal, it’s too late to change the book’s cover).
“He also played a tape of a short film starring Ray Cooper which he was prepared to attach to the F&L print explaining how – thanks to the WGA’s reasoning – the film that people were about to see had not actually been written by anybody. Of course that was now irrelevant, too.
“But to prove there was no love lost between himself and the WGA (whose by-laws are effectively prejudiced against writer-director hyphenates when it comes to doling out credit), Terry ended the evening by leading a BBC camera crew outside to Broadway where he proceeded to burn his WGA membership card (and his middle finger!). Call it gonzo book-signing.”
Gilliam signing books with Tony Grisoni earlier in the evening
At Cannes, Gilliam said: “It’s a rather long and tedious nightmare. This particular incarnation of this film was started with Alex Cox directing and writing the screenplay. Johnny and Benny came on board and Alex fell overboard somehow. This was before my time. I don’t know the ugly details. But Laila sent me a script that Alex had written when he was directing it and got me interested in the project. I had to read the book again to realize how much of the book was not in that script.
“I went out to LA, met Johnny, Benicio, Laila and Hunter and decided, Yes, let’s do this project. I came back to London and got a good friend of mine, Tony Grisoni, to sit down and write this thing. So we basically started from scratch, dived into the book, underlined all the good bits, ignored all the bad bits, tried to assemble this thing. We did it in record time like we’ve done the entire film. The whole thing was to be done as fast and furiously and energetically and crazed as one could, and we managed to write it in 8 days. And then we read it. It was a piece of crap.
“So we rewrote in 2 days and were quite pleased with what we had done. We had to make very quick and definite decisions about what to do and what not to do. The book is so dense. There’s so much great stuff in it. There’s so much great stuff in it that whatever you do, when you’re given enough time, you start realising how much you left out of the book or out of the screenplay. It was very depressing when you realise that you’re not able to incorporate all of that book on screen. So we made some very definite decisions and went forward.
“We then went about making this film. Now everybody in the course of making this film has added to that script. Added to what’s on that screen. Everybody – the actors, the sound guys – everybody contributes. It’s one of the things that I like about making films: it’s a collaborative effort. Everybody works. We rehearse, we talk, we argue and the thing eventually becomes the film. But somebody has got to take the credit or the blame for writing it. And Tony and I got that. Universal Pictures submitted it to the Writers Guild, with screenplay by Gilliam and Grisoni. Now there’s a very complicated procedure that takes place. It’s really long and boring. But here goes. Let’s get down to basics here. The Writers Guild of America has a problem with directors who go off and write. If you’re a director who writes, you become known in their terms as a “production executive” and you’re thrown immediately into arbitration.
“It’s a very complex process. But basically, if you happen to be directing a film, you and your co-writer who wasn’t a director have to produce significantly more than 50% of the script while any other writers involved only have to produce 30% of the script. So the Writers Guild determined, much to our chagrin, surprise, horror, shock, that we had not written the film. We’d spent a year on this and this was indeed a surprise. That all of us – the actors, the crew had been working on the wrong script. So, on one of the original posters, you’ll see screenplay by Alex Cox.
“Well, we then spent the next couple of months involving lawyers. Universal brought more scripts in to the mix. And at the end of this long, tedious procedure, we had to write a 25 page document which actually took longer to write than the script — to prove that we had written substantially more than 60% of the film. And in their wisdom or terror or shame, the Writers’ Guild reversed their decision and gave us credit. Now, the surprise was we didn’t get put in the second position of the credit, we were put in the first position which apparently has never happened before. So that’s the story. And here we are. And I think a lot of other people need to be credited.”
Cox & Davies speak out on Fear and Loathing writing credit
When Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was released in the UK at the end of 1998, Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies spoke about their experiences of writing the script and the ensuing battle over the final credit – what they said is featured below. Cox and Grisoni quotes are from BBC Radio Four’s Talking Pictures, and the Davies and Glliam quotes are from Channel Four’s movie show Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Alex Cox: I got this call – a sort of a frantic call that they had to make a film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas immediately or they would lose the rights – and they were in a desperate hurry to make the film and they wanted to make it very low budget.
I said “I think you’ve come to the right place, because desperation and speed are my specialities.” I’d always thought what a great project to do, but it would have to be done in a very subversive, underground way.
The woman I hired to write the script a woman called Tod Davies, she had actually been grappling with the problem of how do you turn Fear and Loathing into a film for several years, so the script was written quite swiftly, and at the beginning of 1997 we were in pre-production on a low budget, five million dollars, three million pound version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to be shot on the run in Las Vegas, in the desert around Las Vegas.
I think that then they started to think, “Oh, this could be a studio film – we could all earn a million dollars.” They gave me the golden handshake – well not really the golden handshake, more like the brass handshake – but announced actually in the pages of Variety, no less, that they were so pleased with our script that they were going to use our script which they did. So when we were involved there was that brief moment where it could have gone another way it didn’t have to be the Hollywood studio movie it could have been like a really really political, interesting, independent film. Boy, when that big finger comes out of the sky and starts to beckon and all that money starts to fall like rain on the producers and it’s difficult to keep them on track.
Tony Grisoni: He [Terry Gilliam] wanted to direct this film on the proviso that a new script was written from the book – that a fresh start was made. He said “When can you start?” I said, “Tomorrow”. He said “OK”. And ten days later we had a screenplay which he then took to the States with him to begin pre-production.
I’ve a friend that was talking about going through customs in the ’70s with this book in his back pocket and dumping the book, throwing the book away because carrying the book was tantamount to Rizla papers with the corner torn off. That’s how dangerous it felt at the time. I very much like in the book right at the beginning there’s a wonderful inventory of drugs that he’s got in the trunk of his car
We decided that we wouldn’t try and write Hunter S. Thompson and so we decided to do more what was a job of collage than trying to imitate him in any way. In fact we got to the point where, when we needed a line, we would look elsewhere in the book to try and pull it out and slot it in.
Well I remember him coming back from Vegas the first time and he was obsessed with the patterns on the carpet because everywhere you go in Vegas there is another even worse pattern threatening to crawl up your legs and engulf you. There a moment when Gonzo finally begins to literally metamorphose into a demon and I remember that notion came up while we were going through the script.
There is structure. You’ve spotted it. It’s a tricky balancing act where – for a feature length movie – you have to give it some kind of structure. You can’t overdo it, else you’re going to kick the guts out of the piece and it’s not going to be the piece we know and love.
Tod Davies: People were calling me every day – people who were living in England and saying, “Do you know that Terry Gilliam is really mad at you?”
Fear and Loathing is a really interesting problem for adaptation. There’s a very strong individual voice which is very hard to translate into dramatic form especially when the individual voice is conveyed by long literary very wordy sentences. It was a great, great pleasure to work on that adaptation. It was a tremendously satisfying piece of writing to do. To solve all those problems, to feel that you’ve remained faithful to the book.
We heard through the grapevine that he had decided to do his own script – which seemed very reasonable. He’s got a very individual vision and I knew it wasn’t going to be the same script that we had worked on together but it was going to be something that was very interesting so I was looking forward to seeing it.
Under Writers’ Guild rules, the script gets sent out to all previous writers on record so that they can look at it and make sure that their work hasn’t been used. I wasn’t reading it initially with an eye to “Where’s my credit, y’know have they used it?”
There were lines I had invented as bridge lines. Sometimes you have to write bridge lines – you can’t just take from the book. and I had done that in what I hoped was Hunter Thompson’s style. So you couldn’t tell – I’d hoped it was seamless well probably it was seamless because there they were as if they’d come from the book. At least the first 30 pages were not just similar to my 30 pages but had seemed to then written on top of my 30 pages and it seemed to me that we should have some credit for this because a lot of work had been put into this and at that point we filed the formal protest and wrote down all of those things, wrote down 25 pages of how it matched exactly and then it went into arbitration.
You know what the truth was? We didn’t think they’d let us keep it [sole credit to Cox and Davies]. It was a very nice feeling. But we both were aware that everybody was going to go crazy. They had already done a huge ad campaign where the writers credit said “by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni”. It never occured to them that any other writing credit would be awarded.
While of course I would have preferred to retain the sole credit. Of course I would have. I’m not a fool and I’m not without ego, but I was perfectly happy to submit to a process which I think is a really necessary one. I think that what the Writers’ Guild is doing is sticking up for the self respect of the writer and whether they go for you or against you in an individual arbitration, I dont think you can argue with that.
It very much surprised me that Terry Gilliam reacted as strongly and as violently as he did. It was like having a freight train coming at you when you didn’t realise there was any railroad track through your living room. It was quite surprising. I thought what did the man expect? Change my lines if you don’t want to have somebody arguing and saying I should have a credit. Just change ’em.
I had never seen him turning on fellow artists. The only thing I could think of is that the process of directing Fear and Loathing had driven him temporarily insane. This is a position I would have a lot of sympathy for. I really thought it might have happened to me and Alex if we’d stayed on much longer.
Terry Gilliam: I started reading the script by Alex and Tod and I started laughing and then thought it is great because it started exactly as the book and then it started drifting away from the book and by the end of it I really didn’t like it at all because I thought there no point to this. It’s two guys just running around making assholes of themselves basically. We decided to go back to the book and work from that and I then involved Tony Grisoni who was a writer I was working with on something else and decided to work in the style of the book, ie fast, furious and crazed.
As a member of the Writers’ Guild of America and being a director, any script I’m involved with has to go to automatic arbitration.
We just basically threw theirs aside and went to the book. I think in our script there were two things we’d pulled out of theirs because it worked.
One of the extraordinary things of the Writers’ Guild if you’re a writer/director, you have to prove that you and your co-writer have to prove that you’ve written substantally more than 60% of the script to get a credit. Any other writers involved only have to produce 33% to get a credit. So those were the rules of engagement and so we went and explained how we’d done this much and clearly we were well over 60%, in fact 90% lets say 95% was ours.
And a few weeks go past – we get a call from the lady from the Writers’ Guild who said, “Well they’ve come up with the arbitration and the results are…” and her voice trembled and we thought “Oh Jesus, we’ve got to share the credit with Tod and Alex”. And no, she said we don’t get any credit at all. Screenplay by Alex Cox and Tod Davies. And this was OUTRAGEOUS.
The studio was very embarrassed by the whole thing and so a lot of lawyers – a lot of people – all got together and somehow managed to reopen this arbitration. The second time around they became obsessed around the point: the beast must die. We spent in fact longer writing our second appeal than we did writing the screenplay and the result of that was that we did get credit at last and not only a credit but in first position – now this apparently had never happened before. It’s one thing to be suddenly credited having had no credit, but to get first position from that original postion is impossible. Well somehow it was done because clearly justice had not been served on this one.
The irony of all this is that Tony and I are members. Alex and Tod are not members but the Writers’ Guild had to bend over backwards to protect writers whether they’re members or not. And why am I paying 1.5% of my earnings to an organisation that treats me like a second class citizen that I’ve got to do twice the work as everybody else to get a credit. This is madness so that’s why I burnt my card, resigned, did everything.
I think maybe the mistake is thinking that we were fighting other filmmakers. Maybe we weren’t fighting other filmmakers, maybe we were fighting deranged egos.
[IRONICALLY] We’re guilty! We used all of our powers to smash these people; these fine upstanding desperately talented writers. We crushed them, crushed them, CRUSHED THEM and we will do it again and again and again until we control the entire planet!
Terry Gilliam disputes a great deal of Cox’s and Davies’s statements above. Speaking to Dreams, he said, “The posters had Tod and Alex’s credits on them, not ours. The studio was not happy to have to reprint them when Tony and I were at last credited. The Tod/Alex credit posters were constantly turning up at book signing events much to the embarrassment of the promoters – and much to Tony’s and my chagrin.”
Further, he added regarding Cox’s quote, “We had complete and total freedom – the money in no way influenced or limited the content….in fact there is more political comment in ours than his script.”
Gilliam with Alley, who kindly sent to Dreams all of the pictures on this page.
Alley adds… when Gilliam was being interviewed outside on Broadway by the BBC, someone ran up to him and said something to the effect of, “Mr Thompson, your book changed my life. Thank you so much”. He quickly shaked Terry’s hand, and ran off. Terry looks at me and Tony Grisoni and starts to say, “Did he think I was…?” And we both nodded yes.’