TIFF 2023 'Gonzo Girl': Willem Dafoe says Patricia Arquette's directorial debut is a 'little miracle'

Dafoe and Camila Morrone star in the movie based on Cheryl Della Pietra’s semi-autobiographical novel on working as Hunter S. Thompson’s personal assistant

Camila Morrone, Willem Dafoe and Patricia Arquette at the
Camila Morrone, Willem Dafoe and Patricia Arquette at the "Gonzo Girl" screening at the 48th Annual Toronto International Film Festival held at the Roy Thomson Hall on September 7, 2023 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Variety via Getty Images)

Patricia Arquette's directorial debut film, Gonzo Girl, premiered to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), starring Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone.

The movie is based on Cheryl Della Pietra’s semi-autobiographical novel on her time as Hunter S. Thompson’s personal assistant.

In Gonzo Girl Morrone plays Alley Russo who takes on the job of being gonzo journalist Walker Reade's (Dafoe) assistant, tasked with keeping him on track with his writing in the evening hours, his "prime" time for writing. When he actually finishes his manuscripts, Alley gets paid $25,000.

But Walker spends most of his time drinking, doing drugs and shooting guns, not writing at all, which makes Alley's job particularly complicated.

Alley starts channelling her personal writing into writing as Walker. She also ends up completely diving into Walker's world, the chaos of acid, cocaine and booze, as she get closer to Walker.

At the premiere, Arquette explained that there were a number of themes in Della Pietra’s book that connected with her personally. In fact, Arquette was initially approached to just play Claudia in the movie, Walker's long-term manager. She didn't feel it was the right fit at the time but when the opportunity to also direct the film came up, she took the opportunity.

"Growing up in the '90s, knowing celebrities, what it's like when you're kind of in their orbit," Arquette explained. "What is the commodity of beauty."

"I wanted to look at the kind of nebulous nature of addiction and codependence. ... How you move through your boundaries. ... This is the theme of my life."

Arquette added that she was also attracted to tackling the concept of an artist being "trapped" in their own celebrity, while for her character Claudia specifically, Arquette was attracted to this idea of codependency.

"When does codependency go all the way to Ghislaine Maxwell?" she said. "When do you sell out yourself so much that you've done so many years of self abandonment that you end up in that place?"

Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone in Patricia Arquette's film
Willem Dafoe and Camila Morrone in Patricia Arquette's film "Gonzo Girl" (Courtesy of TIFF)

'Why am I trying to say, you just get to be pretty, that's all you can be'

Much of what really succeeds in Gonzo Girl is Dafoe and Morrone's commitment to their characters.

Of course, in Dafoe's case, seeing the famed actor be big and brash with a character is something we'd expect, but absolutely adore watching.

"I think that what you see, his performance in this movie, you'll agree with me that it's one of his greatest performances of his life," Arquette said at the premiere.

Dafoe's was given Thompson’s robe to wear in the movie, with Arquette revealing that when he received it there was a bullet in the pocket.

"It was kind of a baptism," the director said.

Morrone brings significant nuance to Alley. There's a tenderness throughout her portrayal of the character who's trying to find her footing as an aspiring writer herself, even in the chaotic mess that's Walker's life.

Gladly, the film does not shy away from depicting the complexities of Alley's decision to work for Walker and become a fixture in his lifestyle.

While Arquette praised Morrone's performance, the director also realized her own bias in casting the actor.

"When I first saw her audition it was so incredible but I thought, 'is she too pretty?'" Arquette said. "And then I thought, 'Wait a minute. I have my own self-conscious bias. Why am I trying to say, you just get to be pretty, that's all you can be.' That's not right."

"You gave this incredible performance. You have this gift to give and this thing in your heart that you want to share. No, I'm not going to hold her back."

'Patricia did a little miracle'

The film's stars praised Arquette for her directorial debut, with Dafoe stating that this project was "a promise to discover something" during the 21-day shoot

"Patricia did a little miracle, I think," he said.

Morrone, getting emotional at the premiere, stressed that Arquette really threw herself into all aspects of the film.

"She had like mom hawk eyes on everyone at all times to make sure that we were comfortable, that we were safe that we had space to rehearse, that we had a space to get comfortable," Morrone said. "And also, she offered to do my laundry. So Patricia did every single thing on this movie, literally."

While Gonzo Girl can feel a bit tangled at times, with an extensive supporting cast of characters, it's clear that Arquette took on the project with style and perspective, making a real mark as a first-time director.