Beware the Gonzo, the directorial debut of Bryan Goluboff (writer of The Basketball Diaries), stars Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Amy Sedaris, and Judah Friedlander, and opens at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday. The movie follows seventeen-year-old Eddie “Gonzo” Gilman, a budding investigative journalist, whose unfailing belief in the power of print media to protect the voiceless leads him to produce an underground newspaper at his suburban public high school. Gonzo bands together with a coterie of misfits and outcasts, among them a kid who aspires to be the Don Juan of physically deformed females, and the web-savvy, badass Evie, who is rumored to be a prostitute. With Hunter S. Thompson as his (shaky) moral compass, Gonzo sets out to expose the despicable state of the school cafeteria and the dark underbelly of the school’s popular ruling class.
High school newspapers may be among the least-read publications on the planet, but Beware the Gonzo makes a compelling argument for high school as a microcosm of our current media environment—in which we’re grappling with the relevancy of print media, the tricky relationship between editorial and advertising, and the amount of influence any single media outlet or editor should have.
Beware the Gonzo was inspired by your own adolescent newspaper wars. How does the movie parallel your life?
I wrote for my high school newspaper, and my editor wouldn’t assign me any articles, so I put out an underground paper like the kids in the movie. I found an ugly picture of the editor taken back in sixth grade and made it look like she was having a boxing match with this other kid. I included a fake interview. It was the only deliberate act of cruelty I’d ever done. Twenty years later, I called her up to apologize. “Bryan fucking Goluboff,” she said. “Are you in AA?” She thought I was calling as part of a twelve-step plan.
In addition to running investigative reports, the underground paper in Gonzo has a gossip column. That’s not exactly hard-hitting news. What about the content of your own renegade paper?
We had a music column, restaurant reviews, and editorials. We wanted the paper to be the voice of the people who didn’t have one. We also put teachers’ heads on naked people’s bodies.
In the movie, Eddie Gonzo’s principal offers to fund his underground paper in exchange for full editorial oversight. Is that something you grappled with in high school?
That scene in the movie was verbatim to what happened with my principal. I told him, “Once you pay for it, you own me.” And he said: “If you put out another issue, I’ll suspend you.” We did and the cover had me and my best friend in tuxedo cummerbunds and no pants.
Were you suspended?
Do the characters in Beware the Gonzo represent actual media personalities?
Gavin Riley, the editor of the school’s official newspaper, is a Murdoch type. His family is connected. They endowed the school. I wrote him because I believe the system is rigged and you have to scream very loud to get something personal through the machine.
Eddie Gonzo seems to be part Woodward and Bernstein and part Hunter S. Thompson. How do you reconcile those very different approaches to journalism in the same character?
When you first see Gonzo, he’s a Woodward and Bernstein type. He’s wearing a suit; he’s pitching Gavin Riley, trying to work through traditional channels. After he’s shut down, he puts on an army jacket. He resorts to working outside the system, which is the Gonzo way. He becomes obsessed with power and wants to destroy Gavin. He’s confused.
Joseph Pulitzer had a newspaper war with William Randolph Hearst, and then he turned around and became a champion of responsible journalism. Is Eddie Gonzo Pulitzer or Hearst?
Nothing Gonzo puts in his last issue is a lie, but the bonds you make with people are sometimes more important than the truth. So at what cost do you reveal certain information? This is especially important now with the Internet—something Gonzo has to learn.
Gonzo’s successors plan to take the paper fully online, telling him, “There ain’t no principals in cyberspace.” With all the cyber-bullying we’ve seen recently, isn’t this attitude dangerous?
This movie is very much a response against how kids are hurting each other. The new editors won’t be bullying people online. They want to do what Gonzo did, only smarter. But it’s a double-edged sword. Bullies used to send a nasty note to ten people. Now you can post that note and it will follow you for the rest of your life.
Do high schools today prefer blogs and websites over print newspapers?
We researched high school newspapers in making this film and found that they almost all have print components, along with the web. Students are trying to affect the community in a real way and it means something to see kids holding a newspaper and reading it. Papers are also keepsakes. People who went to high school with me have kept old issues of the paper in plastic. We want a talisman of these times, even in a digital age.