In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado and came within 300 votes of winning! That campaign was cast as the culmination of the ‘Freak Power’ movement that was part libertarian and part eco-crusade against those engaged in “land rape.” While writing about his campaign, Thompson introduced the term “fear and loathing” into his reportage, which carried over into his future writings. A new documentary has arrived, just in time for Election Day, about that campaign, Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb. Gregory Daurer spoke with the filmmakers for PKM.
Imagine working on a book about a historic event and then finding out – only after you’d published your work – that a documentary’s worth of unseen film footage exists on the very same subject. In fact, of the approximately eight hours of material, five of the reels hadn’t even been processed yet. And the illuminating visuals were filmed by a distinguished local director.
That’s the intriguing situation that Daniel Joseph (“DJ”) Watkins and Ajax Phillips found themselves in, after publishing their book Freak Power about gonzo journalist and Hell’s Angels author Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado (which includes the picturesque ski town of Aspen). During his campaign, Thompson spearheaded the “Freak Power” movement – a political uprising consisting of disenfranchised young voters, local oddballs, and crazed gnarly stoners, who were an existential threat to the town’s established players – redneck ranchers, fascistic burgermeisters, and violent lawmen, keen on using intimidation and voter suppression in order to maintain control.
Thompson wrote about Aspen’s “Freak Power” politics for Rolling Stone, which published his article prior to the climax of the election that Thompson would lose by around 300 votes (out of approximately 2200 cast). It was Thompson’s first article for Rolling Stone, which would later run his famed “Fear and Loathing” articles about Las Vegas and the ’72 campaign for the U.S. presidency. Within Thompson’s “Freak Power” reporting, Thompson even uses the phrase “fear and loathing” in reference to how the town’s political mainstream viewed his candidacy – especially, since they, and Thompson – suspected that he might have a chance of actually winning, as opposed to other longshot, countercultural campaigns of the era – e.g., Norman Mailer running for mayor in New York City; Stew Albert running for sheriff of Alameda County, California; and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas partner-in-crime Oscar Acosta running for sheriff in Los Angeles
Thompson spearheaded the “Freak Power” movement – a political uprising consisting of disenfranchised young voters, local oddballs, and crazed gnarly stoners, who were an existential threat to the town’s established players
The year before, Thompson had been the campaign manager for Joe Edwards, a young attorney who lost his bid to become the mayor of Aspen by a mere six votes. Thompson’s main thrust within the Rolling Stone article? If an insurgent campaign – featuring, as its symbol, a two-thumbed fist holding a peyote button, and, as its public face, a shaven-headed, self-described “drug-addled, egomaniacal writer from Woody Creek” – can actually seize political power here, maybe something similar can succeed in your town.
Watkins and Phillips have subsequently assembled Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb, an affecting, briskly-paced documentary about Thompson’s candidacy. It incorporates filmmaker Robert Fulton‘s original 1970 footage, as well as contemporary interviews with several key players. The film covers Thompson’s controversial “Freak Power” platform, which called for: ripping up the downtown streets in Aspen and replacing them with sod, in order to make them pedestrian-friendly and auto-free; having a vote on whether to change the name of Aspen to Fat City – which would serve as a direct, psychic monkey wrench against the gentrifiers, who were paving the way towards overdevelopment by playing off of Aspen’s glittery reputation; freely allowing the use of cannabis and other psychotropics, while forcing dishonest drug dealers to occupy stocks outside the county courthouse; disarming the police department [“Every urban riot, shoot-out and blood-bath (involving guns) in recent years has been set off by some trigger-happy cop in a fear frenzy,” Thompson wrote back then]; and punishing any entity engaging in, as he puts it, ecological “land rape.”
What did Thompson and campaign volunteers garner as a result of his candidacy? Death threats galore. For his part, Thompson addressed his detractors, often enough, in a civil manner. For instance, there’s the man who confronts Thompson by saying that if anyone ever read any of Thompson’s unthinkable writings aloud to his wife or his daughter, he’d attack that person with a baseball bat. “Well, I can see your point,” says Thompson empathetically, while puffing on his ever-present cigarette in its holder.
PKM spoke with Freak Power co-writers and directors Watkins and Phillips; the film’s co-producer Mimi Polk Gitlin (who previously brought the world Thelma & Louise, as well at the animated feature The Breadwinner); and Hunter Thompson’s longtime friend and onetime Pitkin County sheriff Bob Braudis, who’s interviewed within the film and assisted with the production–and whose long law enforcement career happened as a direct result of Thompson’s earlier run for office. The conversation covers why Thompson’s run for sheriff proved to be such a crucial juncture within his literary and professional history, as well as touching on the election’s aftermath and repercussions.
There’s the man who confronts Thompson by saying that if anyone ever read any of Thompson’s unthinkable writings aloud to his wife or his daughter, he’d attack that person with a baseball bat. “Well, I can see your point,” says Thompson empathetically, while puffing on his ever-present cigarette in its holder.
PKM: How did you encounter – either in the flesh or through his work – Hunter S. Thompson for the first time?
Bob Braudis: Through his work – I read Hell’s Angels. I liked it. And then I read everything he wrote for Rolling Stone. And a lot of his rhetoric was printed in the local newspapers [in Aspen]. So, in 1970, I lived in Aspen for less than a year. I volunteered to serve on his campaign. And, over the next 35 years, we became very close friends.
Mimi Polk Gitlin: I’m a producer who lives part time in Los Angles and part time in Aspen, and didn’t know as much about him; I knew more the Johnny Depp version. I had met him in person – I was close friends with [film director] Bob Rafaelson, who lives up here and was also friends with him. Actually, that’s how I met Bob [Braudis], years ago, when he was sheriff. I was definitely afraid of Hunter. Bob Rafaelson, a little bit afraid of – but I was really afraid of Hunter! I was quite intimidated by Hunter because he was a formidable, empowering figure, I have to say, even in his most drugged-up, alcoholic state.
Bob Braudis: I wasn’t afraid of Hunter. Hunter was afraid of me! I grew up as a punk in South Boston, Massachusetts. I got a college degree, I worked in Manhattan, I got sick of the corporate military syndicates, and all the travel. I moved to Aspen, and Hunter and I became friends.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: Neither Ajax nor I met Hunter personally. My introduction to Hunter was through the artwork of Tom Benton and his political posters. And my first book, Thomas W. Benton: Artist/Activist, won the Colorado Book Award and I wanted to focus on Tom’s work in that book, but I kept finding out about Hunter’s campaign. And that really inspired me to write [Freak Power]. And then when we found the [film] footage, even more gaps were filled. I thought we had written the comprehensive book about what happened – and the film and the footage and the audio filled in so many [more] details. And there were so many things that weren’t in the book that happened [in the film footage]. And Ajax wrote the book with me, she was the editor.
Ajax Phillips: I found out about Hunter, initially, because I was trekking in the Himalayas when I was 18 with a kid from Aspen, and he had a “Hunter S. Thompson for Sheriff” T-shirt. I said, “Who’s Hunter Thompson?” He said, “You don’t know who Hunter Thompson is?! What’s wrong with you?!” So, of course, as an 18-year-old I went home and looked up Hunter and I started reading Hunter. I also come from a writing background – and he’s such a funny writer, he’s so clever. But, I was just a fan for a long time. And then I came to Aspen in 2010 for the writers conference and I fell in love with Aspen. And I came back here again in 2012, and that’s when I met DJ. And DJ already had the Gonzo Gallery [showcasing the works of Ralph Steadman, William S. Burroughs, Hunter Thompson and Tom Benton] at that point and I was intrigued. I said, “What is this Gonzo Gallery? I want to see this.” So I went and I checked it out and that’s when we met. And then we wrote the book Freak Power together in 2014.
PKM: I understand DJ that you were presented with this film footage, or at least one container’s worth of film footage, and then you located the rest within the archive of the local director and onetime Harvard professor Robert E. Fulton III. What was the purpose of him filming all this? Was Fulton’s intention to show, well, this is how a Freak Power candidate won in Aspen – and then when Hunter didn’t win, the documentary didn’t pan out?
Daniel Joseph Watkins: That’s a pretty good narrative of what happened. Hunter and Bob Fulton were pretty good friends. And Hunter, I think, even married Bob Fulton and his first wife. [EDITOR: Thompson sometimes called himself a Doctor of Divinity.] They were real close friends. You know Hunter was cagey about journalists and camera people, and he and Bob Fulton seemed to have a really good rapport, and [he granted] kind of an all-access pass for Bob. And I think you touched on it there. And it’s really interesting the idea that Hunter lost, and maybe that caused it to be in their eyes not as valuable a project. And then Hunter skyrocketing to fame shortly after the sheriff’s race – writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, writing Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, becoming a world-famous journalist – I think overshadowed this initial project.
The real genesis, though, really had to do with Bob Braudis, because Bob was close with Florence Fulton, Robert’s daughter, and we all connected at [the late Hunter’s local watering hole] the Woody Creek Tavern. We met for the first time and Bob said, “Hey Flo, you’ve got to meet DJ. DJ meet Flo.” And that discussion then allowed us to look into Fulton Archives where we found more material and the audiotapes and the video reels. And that led to the process of digitizing it all and then syncing it all which was a huge project in itself. And then meeting Mimi and bringing on a talented team to try to make something special out of it.
PKM: Mimi, you’ve produced other films. How does this fit into your body of work? Why did you choose to take on this project?
Mimi Polk Gitlin: I started working on documentaries starting with The Square, which was about the Egyptian Revolution that was nominated [for an Academy Award], and then I helped with The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground. And I was working with the Associated Press, as well, trying to mine their IP. I sort of became very involved in telling either documentaries or scripted series and films inspired by true stories. And so, when I met DJ – and [since] I lived half of the time in this town, and I’d met Hunter – it was obviously close to home for me. And, also, it was such an incredible story that involved a lot of people that I knew, as well as the voluminous amount of footage and photographs.
They had this eight hours of footage, and these incredible photographs. That’s obviously what it takes to make a documentary. You have to have the footage. And, at the time, they were going to go out and look for other directors. But I basically felt that both DJ and Ajax knew the story better than anybody, because they’d written the book, that they should direct. And so that’s how we launched on our journey. And then it was about putting a great team around them to tell this incredible story, so people could see a side of Hunter that they didn’t know.
PKM: Tell me how you got a two-time Oscar winner to do the musical score?
Mimi Polk Gitlin: Gustavo [Santaolalla] just connected with the material. He’s from Argentina and [as] a young musician, long hair, came to Los Angeles at 27. He was run out of Argentina, because all his friends – including himself – were thrown in jail for doing nothing. So he really connected with the material. And because of COVID, he was able to squeeze us in. And he just became more and more impassioned by it. For the end song, he got Paul Williams to write the lyrics, and then I pulled in Gary Clark Jr. virtually to do the electric lead guitar and vocals.
The theme song for Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb:
I’m just finishing a music video this week with this incredible editor. And we’re using the music video to be able to bring the movie, and bring the song – as a protest song – into now. So we’re going to be using more contemporary film footage mixed in with the [documentary’s] film footage – which of course we didn’t want to do in the trailer. But, in the music video, we’ll be doing some of that. Obviously, it’s sad that our country is going through [political turmoil] again. But it’s good for young people to be engaged – and young people [have] really responded to the movie, inspired to go out and do something.
PKM: I’m not the first one who has commented this, upon seeing this film: It’s amazing how – despite whatever booze or chemicals or cannabis were going through his system throughout this whole process – how sane and sober Hunter appeared. And we really don’t get a sense of that popular conception of Hunter until he loses – and then there’s just a flash of it – where he brings out the “Pigfuckers!” and [parodying Nixon], “You’re not going to have Hunter Thompson to kick around anymore!” Can you comment on his demeanor and bearing and presence?
It’s amazing how – despite whatever booze or chemicals or cannabis were going through his system throughout this whole process – how sane and sober Hunter appeared.
Bob Braudis: From my perspective, as a 35-year friend of Hunter until his suicide in 2005, I saw in that movie, number one, a synopsis of the state of Aspen in 1970. It encapsulates the rifts largely to do with community policing and wholesale growth – real estate growth and development. Hunter was very articulate, thoughtful. He was quite intelligent. And he wrote very well.
The Hunter who left the planet in February of ’05 was a product of huge abuse, chemical abuse. He’s a testament to the human organism that he lived until 67. He didn’t go gonzo dope fiend overnight. He was always a professional at balancing the chemicals. [Later,] I used to review videotapes of him speaking at universities. He did a lot of college talks in the ’80s. He would show me by watching the video where the whiskey was overtaken by the cocaine, or vice versa. He got very sharp when he was on the stimulant. As he got onto the depressive alcohol, he gets slow. And we warned him – you don’t want to do this in public. But he didn’t listen.
But in 1970, when Hunter spoke, everyone listened, and he hit all the main points of the day that are still relevant today and the movie brings that out.
Ajax Phillips: For [DJ and I], we had already written the book, so we had already gone through all of Hunter’s writing on “Freak Power in the Rockies.” And so we had already realized “Wow, this is so cogent, so clear.” We had a sense that Hunter really had a vision when he had this campaign. And so we knew he was really clear-headed at the time when he ran. It was so magical, the first time we saw the footage. It was the strangest thing to see these things that we’d read about, and to see this actual footage. And to hear Hunter actually speak was just incredible. I think Hunter’s sense of political theater, his ability to make these incredibly boring local issues into something that got everybody energized and excited was part of his political genius. He really was – and this is why Hunter has survived as a writer – a brilliant thinker. He was a great writer. He was capable of distilling things down in a way that made them intriguing. He was able to get at the heart of what was really exciting as an issue. And I think that’s the Hunter you see in the film.
He was really clear-headed at the time when he ran. It was so magical, the first time we saw the footage. It was the strangest thing to see these things that we’d read about, and to see this actual footage. And to hear Hunter actually speak was just incredible.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: Part of why I wrote the book was that while I was running the Gonzo Gallery people would come in and say, “Oh my God, I love Hunter Thompson!” And then I’d say, “Oh, what’s your favorite book or article?” And they’d say, “Oh, I actually never read his work, but I saw [the film] Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas!” So the original inspiration for the book was to fill in some gaps in his life story, but then also to focus on a more serious and fun side of Hunter, where he was really doing some meaningful work.
Ajax Phillips: I think Hunter – I’ve heard from a number of people – really hated the portrayal of himself in Hollywood, later on. He really hated this caricature of himself that became sort of the mainstream idea of what he was like. And I think nobody’s ever done a film that portrays Hunter just letting Hunter be Hunter without trying to slap that caricature on top of him. And so, we were really mindful and we were trying to be really conscious in making this film to not let that sort of caricature of him be the only thing that came through in the film. We really wanted to go in a different direction.
PKM: He scared a lot of people with his campaign and with his talking points, his platform. And there’s stuff in the film that really stands out to me that I didn’t know about, like the Colorado Bureau of Investigation having identified six plots against him. And it’s crazy, because he was talking about how we still have the ballot, so we don’t need to be like the Weathermen and the underground people who are blowing things up. Yet, there were people who were planning to blow him up! And it was pretty incredible for me to hear a guy who was the Democratic Chairman of the county for a while and a longtime county commissioner say if Hunter gets elected, and he follows through with his platform, there are going to be “murders” in this valley. How do you think Hunter was able to maintain under those circumstances? How was able to keep his cool or his sanity?
Daniel Joseph Watkins: You know, I think there’s a great quote by Hunter when he talks about the safety of Owl Farm and it being a place he could take the hairpin turn and go up Woody Creek and feel safe. I think it’s interesting. We touched on a little bit of it: He kind of fled to Colorado from the Hells Angels and from his whole experience in the Bay Area – and, then, to be, sort of, in the crosshairs again of a kind of danger and fear.
I think his experience traveling the world as a journalist in South America, and, you know, his life on the edge, and San Francisco – as someone who was rolling with the Hells Angels – I think his sort of demeanor is amazing to see, his sort of steel resolve amidst all this chaos. And I think he was well-prepared for what was happening, because of his previous life experiences. But, how can you be prepared for six separate death threats? And I think in the movie it says, at one point in time, even Hunter was scared. You can see in those photos that David Hiser and Bob Krueger took, the dude was scared.
Ajax Phillips: I think Alex Sweetman actually talked about it. He’s one of our main characters throughout the film. Alex said Hunter didn’t react to death threats the way the rest of us would react to death threats. He would always keep it pretty cool, and [Alex is] the one who says towards the end of the campaign even [Hunter] was starting to get a little rattled by what was happening – and that was why we brought in [footage of] some of the other political assassinations that happened the previous few years before Hunter ran, because it was a time when people were really being assassinated for running for office. And so that fear and that paranoia was very much grounded in reality.
PKM: What stands out to you today about his platform, the Freak Power platform?
Bob Braudis: I’d like to answer that. Several of the larger planks in that platform had to do with community policing, drug enforcement, the penal system, the jail. Most of those issues are still on the table today. Community policing: After Hunter lost [to Sheriff Carrol D. Whitmire, Whitmire] was replaced by a man name Dick Kienast. Kienast was my mentor and he hired me as a new deputy in the mid-’70s. Dick Kienast took most of Hunter’s platform and pushed it forward – as did I.
But community policing: I made the point that in Minneapolis, 96% of the Minneapolis policemen live outside the city limits. That’s not community policing. A national police force is not community policing. So Dick Kienast got rid of the redneck, tough, sadistic deputies [in Pitkin County] that Carrol Whitmire had hired over the years. He didn’t fire them en masse, but he replaced them one at a time with freaks. I was a deputy with not only guys who had PhDs or JD’s and practiced law, but some bartenders. Community deputies. Nothing’s better in a town than a happy cop. Prison reform: that’s still way [overdue]. That needs to be followed through. We have prisons for profit, these days. Profiting from human misery is sick. Hunter and Dick Kienast and I helped take a hundred year old jail, which was merely a cast iron cage in the basement of the courthouse [and turn it] into a modern humanitarian jail in the early ’80s.
Drug enforcement: I figured we lost the War on Drugs the minute we entered it. The “Just Say No,” the zero tolerance programs that you may have lived through, were miserable failures. Hunter’s platform was legalize weed, but if anyone’s selling bad drugs put them in stocks on the courthouse lawn. (Which DJ did over the weekend. We all got into stocks to see what if felt like.) But Hunter’s visionary platform I’ve said was prescient. He saw the future and it wasn’t good.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: At the time, Hunter’s ideas might have sounded radical to some, but over time these ideas came to be commonplace. Hunter said sodding the streets isn’t so radical. I mean they’ve got a pedestrian mall in [the conservative Western Slope town of] Grand Junction. It’s one of the most desirable things we can do. Limiting the height of buildings; I mean, that’s what’s preserved Aspen. Bob likes to say Vail is like Plastic Bavaria. Well, we have an authentic historic community here. Obviously, things have changed.
We like to say, although Hunter lost the battle, that he won the war, because a lot of his ideas were implemented by far-sighted political leaders [like Joe Edwards and Dwight Shellman] that came to power afterwards. And, you know, the lasting legacy of Hunter’s campaign was all the young people got registered to vote, all the young people got involved.
PKM: When we think of Hunter Thompson and an artistic collaborator, those who have followed his career oftentimes think of Ralph Steadman. But it was great to see Tom Benton within the film. Can you speak to the artistic collaboration between Hunter Thompson and Tom Benton?
Bob Braudis: Tom Benton was a local artist, mainly silkscreener, before I moved here. I think I bought my first ounce of weed from him in 1969 at the Benton Gallery. During the years I was hanging with Benton and Hunter and other friends, we all realized Tom Benton was about the only person Hunter listened to. Especially if Hunter would go off on a huge tangent, off of the grid, Tom Benton would talk him back to reality.
In ’68 or ’69, I forget when, Tom Benton led a gang of peaceniks to the home of Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense; he had a home in Snowmass, here. The Secret Service or his protective detail would only allow one of the peaceniks in, and Tom Benton went in and begged the Secretary of Defense to end the war in Vietnam. And throughout the whole political life, when I was here, most liberal candidates, most freaks had a Tom Benton political poster. They were beautiful works of art. I do believe that art and politics go together. Politicians need some music, some graphic art, to get the message out. I wasn’t thinking along those lines as a young man, but it has proven to be very important to our small local community. Tip O’Neill, in 1947, said, “All politics are local.”
And I think that’s very important today. You can elect your own sheriff, you can elect your own mayor, or you can elect your own governor. Tom Benton pitched in and worked on the campaigns of local candidates like me and Hunter, but also presidential candidates, gubernatorial candidates, and he did a poster in 1976 urging Colorado to deny the Olympic Games – and that succeeded. So yeah, art and politics go together. Tom Benton: not only an artist, he was an opinionated, articulate, liberal freak.
PKM: Well, I noticed they’re conjoined in one of the reports in Hunter’s FBI file, which I did look at online at the Freak Power web site. It talks about Hunter’s disparaging remarks about J. Edgar Hoover and about Benton’s “Impeach Nixon” with a swastika instead of the “x” in Nixon [within one of the issues of the Aspen Wall Paper that Benton published].
Daniel Joseph Watkins: That was something also we discovered in our research on this film: Hunter and Tom were very much on the radar of J. Edgar Hoover. In one of the pages of that FBI file, you can see handwritten notes by J. Edgar Hoover.
Ajax Phillips: Hoover was not excited about that photo of Hunter [standing next to a poster of] Hoover that was in the Washington Post. Hoover saw that, because it was in the Washington Post and he wrote a handwritten note inside Hunter’s FBI file after that article came out.
PKM: What did it say?
Daniel Joseph Watkins: Keep an eye on these guys.
PKM: I want to point something out about that iconic photo. Hunter could apparently get under the skin of opponents in ways he wasn’t even aware of. He probably knew he was tweaking J. Edgar Hoover’s sensibilities by having himself smoking a cigarette in front of that photo of Hoover. But the fact that, in this campaign, Hunter’s head was completely shaved – I don’t know if you know this, but J. Edgar Hoover, reportedly, would not allow any of his FBI agents to be bald. So without even Hunter knowing about it, he was doing something that tweaked J. Edgar Hoover potentially to the core.
Ajax Phillips: [Laughs.] That’s great. I actually didn’t know that.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: And Hoover was scary. We talk about the political assassinations in the country. They stopped when Hoover left.
Ajax Phillips: COINTELPRO was going on the year that Hunter was running. That was when COINTELPRO was the most active.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: And there was a lot of Hunter’s FBI file that was redacted and not even released. I think Alex [Sweetman] says it best in the film that Hunter was a threat to Hoover and Nixon at the idea level – and that’s where it really hurts. And I think with [Sheriff] Whitmire, during the debate, there are times he unnecessarily ridicules Whitmire by running circles around him so fast that some undecided voters said if Hunter would have been less divisive or less incisive in his comments about Whitmire, maybe he could have had broader support. But I also think Hunter couldn’t help himself. It was too funny and it was too easy.
PKM: Well, Hunter certainly brings up in their debate how a bound man was kicked in his jail cell by one of the sheriff’s deputies and supposedly Whitmire was right there, but claimed he didn’t see it.
But is there a more cool iconic photo or look that Hunter had?! I know he was supposed to be parodying the image of a sheriff, but that is so proto-punk rock the way he looks!
Ajax Phillips: He was ahead of his time with his style, for sure.
PKM: People are going to see this film and he comes across really sane, really sober. What’s one of the craziest things he ever did in your recollection, Bob?
Bob Braudis: In the mid-’90s, Hunter took a machine gun up to a neighbor’s home, Floyd Watkins (no relation to DJ). Floyd Watkins had bought a beautiful ranch and transformed it into a Kentucky bluegrass mansion. He altered the course of the river. That was an environmental invasion.
Hunter went out there with a new girlfriend in his red convertible and fired about 200 rounds out of a machine gun at two in the morning over Floyd Watkins house. Little did Hunter know that Floyd was in his car and his driveway waiting for such an event. So, as Hunter gathered up his brass and left, out comes a big black Suburban with Floyd Watkins and his son, and they chased Hunter down the road to another neighbor, George and Patti Stranahan. George Stranahan wouldn’t get out of bed; it was three in the morning, and Hunter was yelling for help. Patti came out and ran Floyd Watkins way.
The district attorney and federal authorities had no respect for me – they thought, since I was light on drugs, I was in on the commerce of drugs. However, an investigation ensued and Hunter was charged with the crime of discharging a fully-automatic weapon over a neighbor’s house. There were technical terms. His lawyer worked out a plea bargain with the local DA. They would slap Hunter’s wrist if Hunter “surrendered” the machine gun, cut in half. So, Hunter was miserable: He loved his Schmeisser, WWII, full-auto 9mm machine gun. And he sawed it in half and put it in a bag filled with naval jelly and dropped it on the district attorney’s desk. I said, “Hunter, I can be your friend and I can be your sheriff, but when you do stuff like this, it makes it hard to be a friend.” And he said, “Well, Bob. I don’t do crazy shit, unless I can write about it and get paid for it.” I understood that.
He was [truly paranoid]. He was always afraid of everything. If you came to his house after dark wearing a gun, chances are you’re going to be met with fire. I didn’t like it: I didn’t think there were a lot of threats – especially after the election – but Hunter never dropped his guard. Woody Creek, his Owl Farm, was a fortified place to hide in the wilderness. And he stayed out of local politics, after that. We worked on an anti-airport expansion thing – in ’94, I think – but he detested, as he said, fouling his own nest. He didn’t want to do anything in Pitkin County that might upset his equilibrium.
PKM: What was the role of women in the campaign? Was this just a macho endeavor or were there women who were helping throughout?
Bob Braudis: There were hundreds of hippie chicks on the campaign!
Ajax Phillips: There were a lot of women involved in the campaign. I mean, you can see in the footage that there are a lot of women working on the campaign. We tried to find some of these women to interview. And I was absolutely adamant we had to find one of these women. And we kept trying and trying, and just coming up blank in terms of finding these women who were directly involved in the campaign. And that’s why we didn’t wind up interviewing any of them.
PKM: Can you talk about the appearance in the movie of Oscar Acosta [who was the inspiration for the Dr. Gonzo character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the author of Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo]? Oscar writes that when he first came to Aspen in, like, 1967, people were a little too tuned-out – that they weren’t listening to the news on the radio or reading the newspapers. Oscar thought there was kind of a drop-out mentality. Hunter noted how there were a large number of people who’d fled the Haight-Ashbury, it was a summer of dope and orgy. Since Oscar seems to be one of the people of color that Hunter respected, and he makes a brief appearance in the film, can you say something about him and his role?
Daniel Joseph Watkins: One thing I’ll just briefly mention is that he did run for sheriff in Los Angeles County. His platform, rather than reform the sheriff’s department, was let’s call for the dissolution of the sheriff’s department, because of inherent racism. And his press release, which was in the Freak Power book, was really an amazing document. We had a ten-minute video interview with Oscar that we never found the audio for. And it was…
Ajax Phillips: Devastating.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: We also had an interview with [Hunter’s opponent, Sheriff] Whitmire that we had no audio for, and we had an interview with [Hunter’s wife] Sandy Thompson. If all the film footage had been well organized – or if it had been put together – this film probably would have happened before [us]. But, we faced a lot of limitations in terms of the archival material.
The thing I would like say about Oscar is I love that line where he tells Hunter: “You’re just a writer, I’m a revolutionary.” And I think that’s a really powerful line, because Oscar was fighting for social change. And I think in Aspen, it did lack that racial element. It wasn’t Watts, it wasn’t Detroit, it wasn’t the Bronx.
Ajax Phillips: There wasn’t a lot of diversity.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: But there were a lot of women that were important to the campaign. And Oscar was a presence. And I think that Hunter listened to Oscar probably more than anyone else. I mean you can see him saying, “Oscar’s saying this…Oscar told me that…I’m telling Oscar this.” He was there at all those critical moments.
Ajax Phillips: Also, Oscar had just literally stopped running for sheriff [after garnering around 119,000 votes, compared with the over 1,400,000 for the winner of the June 1970 contest in Los Angeles] when he came to Aspen, right before Hunter’s election [race ended in November]. And so he was very much an adviser to Hunter on kind of how to maneuver and how to spin these things, because he had first-hand experience in a major county. I mean, Pitkin County is tiny; Los Angeles County – it was a pretty major campaign that he had been involved with. So, he was definitely helping to oversee what was happening, behind the scenes of the campaign.
PKM: Do you know how long Oscar was in Aspen, at that time?
Ajax Phillips: I think he was there for the whole month leading up to the election.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: Everyone when they think of Oscar thinks Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And I think that their little escapade in Aspen together is a really powerful thing, because I doubt they would have had the experience they had together in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without this connection.
Ajax Phillips: I mean how many people have ever run for sheriff?! That just, in and of itself, an incredibly odd thing to do! This is probably, in a lot of ways, what bonded them together. And Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was very shortly after Hunter’s campaign. I mean, [the events in that take place in] the Spring of ’71. And so it was basically right after Hunter’s campaign.
PKM: Yeah, it’s an amazing time period for Hunter, who’s already written Hell’s Angels, and he had written earlier in 1970 the article “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” – the earliest example of what’s considered “gonzo” journalism. And then he writes “The Battle of Aspen” [also called “Freak Power in the Rockies”] about politics in Aspen for Rolling Stone, which is his first piece for Rolling Stone. That eventually leads to his Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 work for Rolling Stone. And then he goes to LA in early ’71 to investigate for Rolling Stone the murder of Reuben Salazar [the Latino journalist who was killed by police] and joins Oscar Acosta there – and then they go off and do the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas trip, as well.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: And one thing I think is really powerful about this time period, and you mentioned how rich it was, I mean, Hunter met Ralph [Steadman] that summer. Then, Ralph sent drawings for the campaign. And then Ralph did [the drawings for] Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Jann [Wenner of Rolling Stone] is talking to Hunter, who writes “Freak Power in the Rockies,” which creates a decades long relationship. Ralph works with Hunter for decades. And Oscar works with Hunter until his untimely disappearance. So, I think you hit it on the head – it’s so fascinating. It’s this cauldron that brought people together.
Ajax Phillips: In one year.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: And what do they say? You are forged in the fire – those relationships. And William Kennedy [novelist, journalist, and the onetime editor of a English-language newspaper in Puerto Rico to which Thompson applied for a job] being there, too. Another fascinating thing.
Ajax Phillips: We didn’t get into that, because there were just too many people. William Kennedy was there throughout the whole campaign. You can see him in some of the photos.
PKM: Please remind me of what he was doing there. Just being a friend or serving some kind of role?
Daniel Joseph Watkins: No, he was working as a journalist and working on a story.
Ajax Phillips: But he never actually published it.
Daniel Joseph Watkins: His notebook was stolen, nights before the election. And we have some audio of him and Hunter [which isn’t in the film] and everyone freaking out, going, “What were you writing in the journal?!” And he’s saying, “Hey, I’m writing everything.” And they’re like, “Do you think the Feds stole your journal?!” And you can hear Hunter pissed at William Kennedy saying, “You know, this is frickin’ amateur hour! You’re making all these private notes and then you get your journal stolen?!” But it fed into that paranoia that was just running wild at that moment. And it wasn’t even necessarily paranoia! It was legitimate fear.
Freak Power campaign song – Herbie Mann’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” – used within a Hunter S. Thompson ad for sheriff narrated by James Salter.