Film gives Hunter memorial a new life
November 13, 2005
Friends, neighbors and fans of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson flocked to Denver in unexpected numbers to see a new film by Thompson chronicler Wayne Ewing this weekend.In fact, the world premiere of “When I Die,” an hour-long examination of the making of the “Gonzo Monument” cannon that shot Thompson’s ashes skyward on Aug. 20, was so popular that the Starz Denver International Film Festival added two late-night screenings that were not originally scheduled at the Nov. 12 event.The film opens with a 1978 clip of Thompson at Owl Farm, his home in Woody Creek near Aspen, describing in detail how he wanted to be memorialized by cannonfire and fireworks, and pointing to the location where it ultimately did take place.The film then launches into an informative and tantalizing look behind the scenes of the making of the 183-foot tower, topped by a double-thumbed fist clutching a green peyote button that flashed with different colors, and concealing a “cannon” similar to a fireworks launching mechanism to fire Thompson’s ashes into the sky amid a blaze of pyrotechnics by the Zambelli fireworks family.
The film reveals, for example, that the builders used a special water-jet cutting technique, involving water pressurized to 55,000 pounds per square inch and loaded with sand to do the actual cutting, to fashion the steel plates that became the shell of the supporting tower.The famed double-thumbed fist was first created as a foam mold, from which the two-and-a-half-ton steel fist, measuring 17 feet by 16 feet by 12 feet, ultimately was cast.The peyote button was created by an English expert in lighting design who said that the first book he read when he moved to the U.S. 16 years ago was Thompson’s seminal work “Hell’s Angels.”And the construction of the tower, from the steel scaffolding support structure to the 10-section steel sheath and a platform for the “cannon” placed within the fist, all involved a combination of precise engineering and the display of daredevil strength and agility by men working at dizzying heights. Viewers get to watch the process in a time-lapse frenzy punctuated by interviews with those involved.
Even the decision about how many cannisters containing Thompson’s ashes would be fired into the air was not an easy one. It was noted that a normal-sized human might require up to a dozen such cannisters. But for Thompson, who was described as a large, “big-boned man,” the ultimate number was 34 cannisters, which were shot hundreds of feet into the air.Actor Johnny Depp, the friend of Thompson’s who bankrolled the $2.6 million project, did not appear in the film. The crew that construction manager Steve Cohn and event producer Jon Equis put together are the stars.Also prominent were numerous local fire and safety officials whose job it was to make sure the project did not endanger local livestock (Equis had to move all the horses out of the Woody Creek valley for the day of the event), the local grasslands (identifying and taking steps to prevent a wildland fire took up considerable discussion and work) or local air traffic. (Several scenes show Equis talking with air transportation officials and adjusting the heights of the pyrotechnical display to avoid creating an air traffic hazard, as well as trying to rent every helicopter in the area to keep paparazzi from buzzing Owl Farm during the ceremonies.)The Denver Press Club, a venerable institution in a normally staid building just off the 16th Street Mall, was festooned with Gonzo gear for the event, including life-sized inflatable love dolls, a typewriter riddled with bullet holes, a fire extinguisher, flags and banners, and a large photographic portrait of the Good Doctor by celebrity shooter Lynn Goldsmith.
Immediately preceding the screening was the showing of a “work in progress” by filmmaker Tom Thurman, showing interviews with a number of celebrities and others, talking about their memories of Thompson’s life.After the screening, Thompson’s widow, Anita, and a panel of friends took turns remembering Hunter with tales and jokes.Copies of Ewing’s film are available at his Website, breakfastwithhunter.org, or he can be reached at Wayne Ewing Films, P.O. Box 1751, Aspen, CO 81612.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org