5 Screenwriting Takeaways: ‘Fear and Loathing in Aspen’ focuses on that time Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff
July 30, 2021
In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. The same Thompson who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and was known for his drug use, new style of journalism and libertarian points of view put himself into an election that fought the establishment and could put him in charge of law enforcement at a county level.
Located within Pitkin County is the town of Aspen, which is the focus of Fear and Loathing in Aspen. Unlike the similarly titled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this film doesn’t follow the paranoia of drug use as the 1998 Terry Gilliam, but rather the fear of generational and political change and the loathing of authority and freak culture.
Written and directed by Bobby Kennedy III and starring Jay Bulger as Thompson and Cheryl Hines as Aspen Mayor Eve Homeyer, Fear and Loathing in Aspen is a bizarre and intriguing look at the political divides and cultural revolution in the Colorado small town.
Here are five screenwriting takeaways from Fear and Loathing in Aspen:
1. Set the stage
When we first open up on Fear and Loathing in Aspen, the audience sees the world at the end of the 1960s when there was a volatile political climate, raging war in Vietnam, and mass protests and unrest in the streets. There is fear, especially in the small, conservative town of Aspen where “hippies,” “freeloaders,” “druggies,” and “drifters” are finding their place in the streets.
And then we meet our hero of the story: Hunter S. Thompson. A journalist and author living in Aspen enjoying his life in the woods with his family; fishing for his dinner, drinking, and partying with the local “freaks.”
Although this is a true story, writers can see the importance of setting up the scene and the characters, what the world is like both inside a community and the world at large, and how the two are poised to clash.
2. The hero's catalyst
What throws the character into the movie? What’s the inciting incident?
We know that Thompson believes in the importance of nature, so when his wife becomes sick, he suspects that it could be due to the fish he caught and the waterways in which he captured it.
Thompson, with rifle in hand and the investigative itch, tries to find the source and discovers that a mining company is dumping into the river. He approaches an already hostile town hall meeting to tell them but finds the mayor and the sheriff are unwilling to help out.
Writers can see the catalyst that sends the hero on his journey and the conflict that caused it. If hippies hadn’t overrun Aspen and Thompson didn’t find the injustice of a mining company polluting the waters, he never would have faced the backlash at the town hall and wouldn’t have been compelled to run for sheriff. Catalysts don’t necessarily need to be sudden or violent, but can be someone compelled to make a difference or prompt a change.
3. A new take on a political movie
Naturally, there are plenty of politics running through Fear and Loathing in Aspen. Whether fiction or nonfiction, there are plenty of politics-based films out there, and there has been for decades. There are even movies about campaigns both serious and humorous; including The Candidate, Election, Our Brand Is Crisis, The Campaign, and Irresistible.
What makes this different? Why tell this story?
There are a few takeaways here for writers:
- Based on a true story. Many political films are fiction but elections and campaigns literally happen everywhere, all the time. There are plenty of local stories that writers can investigate with considerable amounts of source material. Fear and Loathing in Aspen was simply a snapshot of a single election for sheriff in 1970.
- What are the parallels to today? One key aspect of telling a historical story is to show its relevance to the modern time. Fear and Loathing in Aspen does this in many ways, including using fear as a motivator, promoting an “us vs. them” mentality, environmental rights, etc.
- There is also a celebrity factor. Thompson was a fascinating character of the time and his relevance in pop culture plays a role in what makes this a great story to share.
4. The enemy of good intentions
A good protagonist needs a better antagonist. In Fear and Loathing in Aspen, the fight is against the way things are. Mayor Homeyer and Sheriff Whitmire believe that the key to progression in Aspen is to get rid of the counterculture hippies overrunning the streets and turn the city into a tourist spot like nearby Vail.
Thompson comes in to upend their vision.
What makes the mayor and sheriff good antagonists is their belief in doing what’s best. They aren’t really corrupt or villainous; they see the way things are across the country and want to keep their city safe and sound so they can promote economic growth.
Writers can see how the supposed “bad guy” in a movie doesn’t have to be evil, but rather they want something that the protagonist doesn’t.
5. Cause suspense in a true story
This story wasn’t well known and, while dramatized, the ultimate conclusion never changed. In fact, does Thompson become the sheriff of Pitkin County? You’ll have to watch the movie or research it to find out.
It can be hard to create suspense in a true story, especially if one is popular. We all know how Titanic ends — the boat sinks. How do you make the event suspenseful and intriguing?
That will vary depending on the story. With Fear and Loathing in Aspen, the writer could hold onto the audience as votes are coming in, knowing that many won’t know how it ends.
But it’s not about the destination, rather the journey. The viewer wouldn’t care unless they were invested in the characters and their journey. We knew the boat sank, but there were stories crafted around Titanic that added intrigue. We knew Lincoln passed the 13th Amendment and guided the Union through the Civil War, but Lincoln shows how he did it.
This film asks how the wacky and unpredictable Hunter S. Thompson ran his campaign to be sheriff of Pitkin County.
Fear and Loathing in Aspen is playing in theaters.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures, where he was the assistant to the director of development. His screenplays have placed in a variety of competitions including 'Fatty Arbuckle', which was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.