Fall 2018

Dennis Hopper, the Director

As the 50th anniversary of Easy Rider nears, Hollywood's eternal bad boy is examined in a new light


Dennis Hopper. (Photo: Photofest)

Dennis Hopper spent much of his adult life figuratively flipping the bird at the Hollywood establishment. Blackballed more than once over the course of his storied career, he became a modern-day Lazarus, achieving a full measure of redemption as an actor in the mid-'80s with acclaimed roles in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. The jury is still out, however, on his reputation as a director.

And yet regardless of where you stand on Hopper the filmmaker, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his directorial debut, Easy Rider, nobody can deny the seismic impact of that release on the industry at large and the New Hollywood/indie film movement of the ensuing decades.

The film that launched a thousand road trips, if not countless road movies, was independently produced and ended up as the third highest grossing release of 1969, earning $60 million worldwide, even though it was made for roughly $400,000, a fraction of the budget of its competitors at the box office.

The film's lightning-in-a-bottle appeal might have had to do with Hopper's free-wheeling methodology as much as the times in which it was made—when the hippie dream began to curdle, and the Vietnam War fomented a counter-culture starved for movies that spoke to a generation in conflict. Given that Hopper's subsequent directorial efforts did not galvanize audiences and critics in quite the same way, the success of Easy Rider has been considered a lark by many skeptics.

"I think there were different moments when people tried to discredit Dennis, or take away his authorship of that film," says director Julian Schnabel, who worked with the late actor-director on his own directorial debut, Basquiat (1996). "I can tell you that you can't make that stuff up; you don't dial that in. It's a physical and mental activity and you have to be in the spontaneous present in order to grab that out of air. It's Method directing."

Easy Rider chronicles the exploits of two chopper-riding outsiders, bankrolled by a cocaine deal, as they search for meaning in America. The whole thing was filmed in seven weeks with a 12-person crew, using mostly found locations and making frequent use of non-actors to add local color. Two five-ton trucks were utilized, one to haul the motorcycles and the other for equipment, including a 750-amp generator. They rigged a '68 Chevy Impala convertible with an Arriflex camera for the traveling shots.

For the film's Mardi Gras sequences in New Orleans, Hopper rented 10 Bolex 16mm cameras and "gave them to the actors and asked them to shoot the street scenes with color positive films," recalled the film's late DP, Laszlo Kovacs, in a 2004 interview with MovieMaker Magazine. "It doesn't match the rest of the footage, but it's Mardi Gras and kind of psychedelic, so no one notices."

Regarding that footage, Hopper told the late journalist-turned-screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (who also co-directed the 1971 Hopper-focused documentary, The American Dreamer), about embracing what nature gives you: "One day it was raining and another day not—so, different light. But I believe what Cocteau said: 'Ninety-eight percent of all creation is accident, one percent intellect, and one percent logic.' I believe that you must keep free for things to happen, for the accident—and then learn how to use the accident."

That first big blast across the bow of Hollywood's aging infrastructure continues to resonate. Upon Hopper's death at age 74 in 2010, film critic Owen Gleiberman noted: "Watch Easy Rider today and you'll see that every glinting panorama shot, every toked-up dialogue rhythm, every situation and jagged dramatic back alley dovetails as only the work of a born filmmaker can."

Schnabel, who came to fame as an abstract impressionist painter before directing, calls Easy Rider "as important an event to the American people at that moment in art as were the flag paintings by Jasper Johns."

In its "Great Director" series, the quarterly online film journal Senses of Cinema stated: "With his knowledge of art history, Hopper possessed enough information to recognize when an object was worthy of being labeled as 'new art.' This in itself is a radical mentality, as it displays how Hopper simultaneously assumed the role of an artist, art-maker and curator in a single moment." (Or, as Schnabel labeled him, a "fluxist artist"—an anarchic experimentalist who worked in many mediums and emphasized process over the finished product.)

The rambunctious nature of Hopper's directorial art was arrived at from a variety of disciplines: He was a Shakespearean and, later, Strasberg-trained Method actor; studio contract player; painter; sculptor; photographer whose pictures appeared in Vogue and other magazines; and early collector of Warhol, Ruscha, Rauschenberg and Johns.

"The subjects Hopper filmed throughout his career," Senses of Cinema continued, "were chosen by the filmmaker for the purpose of communicating the unheard voices of the American public (with all its confused and raging social and political developments) back to the Hollywood elite so that it could be seen, in a Duchampian sense, as high art."

(Top) On location in Peru for The Last Movie, Hopper, in cowboy hat, won the Critics Prize at Venice for the polarizing film; (Bottom) Scenes from the 1971 film. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Screenpulls) Arbelos Films )

Hopper's work as a photographer ranged from echoing the stark candor of Robert Frank to the celebrity portraiture of Irving Penn, and his insistence on using actual locations and non-actors gave works like Easy Rider, The Last Movie (1971) and Colors (1988) a richness and authenticity that was immeasurable by Hollywood standards.

"He used everything," says Robert Duvall, who co-starred in Colors as a senior LAPD gang unit officer alongside Sean Penn's hot-headed young recruit. "You'd go into a neighborhood, the real barrio, and there were actors—they appeared as if they were not actors but they were actually actors, maybe for the first time—but you take from them. And it's good to take from guys that are the real thing."

Adds Penn, who was both directed by Hopper (in Colors) and directed him in turn (on The Indian Runner, 1991): "His films are so diverse as a director. He was an endlessly creative guy in ways that were not tied specifically to filmmaking. So you had the photographer very present in some of the movies. And [directing] was also a kind of stylistic stage for him. It was Dennis who decided to make [one of the gangs in Colors], which in most real circumstances would have been of one race, a mixed-race gang. And this for him was a more interesting palette. So it wasn't really the kind of naturalistic stuff that dominated some of his strongest films, like Easy Rider, and for me, Out of the Blue, which I thought was an extraordinary movie."

Hopper was nothing if not a man of contradictions. In the early part of his career as a filmmaker, he could be both insufferably boastful and charmingly humble; capable of great sensitivity one moment and blind rage at another. He once admitted an antipathy to reading books, but reportedly wrote thousands of poems in his formative years. He made a film about Hollywood's corrupting influence on a remote Peruvian community (1971's The Last Movie) while introducing the very licentiousness and ugly Americanism that the film deplores to his South American hosts.

"The Last Movie was Hopper, in effect, trashing the Hollywood-meets-the-new-youth-generation alliance that he helped bring about," observed Gleiberman of the film that won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival and yet was neglected by the studio (Universal) that bankrolled it. It would take almost a decade for Hopper to be given the director's reins on another film, 1980's Out of the Blue.

Out of the Blue, which vied for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, underscored Hopper's predilection for telling polarizing stories about lives on the margins, in this case a nihilistic teenager (played by Linda Manz) drawn to Elvis Presley and punk rock, and her parents, an alcoholic, sexually abusive ex-con father (played by Hopper) and a junkie mom who can't protect her daughter.

"He knew his topic," says Schnabel of Hopper and his approach to Out of the Blue. "He pushed himself. When you think of Linda Manz's dynamic with the father, and his relationship with his daughter, and the kind of loneliness [they experience], I think there was a narrative about the despondency of society, on what life in America is like."

As a young actor Hopper idolized James Dean, with whom he worked on Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), and inherited Dean's tendency to chafe at authority and insist on approaching a role in his own way. The most infamous case of Hopper clashing with the industry establishment was on From Hell to Texas (1958), when Henry Hathaway reportedly forced Hopper to do 80 takes of a scene before the actor acquiesced to his direction. (Hopper worked mostly in television for the following decade.)

If Hopper could be stubborn, he was also capable of learning from his transgressions. "Henry Hathaway taught me a great lesson," he told journalist Edwin Miller in 1970, "a lesson I don't think I was able to accept until that point in my life, but one I've never forgotten: Don't fool around with the director! He's the man in charge and he gets what he wants. Just imagine what a mixture of styles and effects you would get if everyone was doing his own thing as an actor in a movie. What confusion!"

Hopper was also honest about his self-destructive ways. He once admitted to David Letterman that for a five-year period of his life he was drinking more than a case of beer and a half gallon of rum a day, "and about three grams of coke to sober up." Hopper did not conceal his substance abuse from journalists who visited the set of The Last Movie. Tom Burke's piece for Esquire magazine was particularly damning, confirming reports that the shoot was unmoored at the very least.

And yet at the root of it all was a man who insisted that his excesses did not impede his creative progress, driven solely by a desire to make movies, and convinced that he was changing the language of cinema as he went along.

By the time Penn collaborated with the director on Colors, Hopper was clean and sober, and eager to prove to Hollywood that he could bring a movie in on time and within budget. As an actor who aspired to direct, Penn sensed a kindred spirit. "He asked me very early on who I was as an actor," Penn tells DGA Quarterly. "He asked me how I liked to work, what my approach was, to inform the way he would support me."

In terms of improvisation during production, something Hopper had encouraged from early on in his role behind the camera, Penn is hazy on the details. "I don't really remember how much improvisation there was," he says, "but I have no memory of being restricted by Dennis on that. If I would feel there was a better way for something to be said or behave, I might offer that up to Dennis or (screenwriter) Michael (Schiffer) and probably more often it would have ended up in the script before we got to the set."

Duvall tells DGA Quarterly that his most gut-wrenching scene in the movie was the result of on-the-spot inspiration.

(Top) Hopper with actor Sean Penn on the set of Colors; (Bottom) Scenes from Easy Rider (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Screenpulls) Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment)

"We didn't rehearse, as I remember," recalls Duvall. "(Hopper) liked to improvise some. My death scene was not written. I totally improvised, as it happened. I've done maybe three death scenes that I feel good about, and that was one of them."

In her review of Colors, The New York Times' Janet Maslin wrote, "The look of this film, with its hard-edged, brilliantly sunlit urban settings and its constant threat of unanticipated motion, is genuinely three-dimensional and utterly enveloping."

Hopper's creative latitude with his actors was apparent early on. In talking about The Last Movie, Hopper told Miller: "In a sense, the movie is structured improvisation. The script is there, but the dialogue has been changed and improvised by the actors to express their own approach. Each actor you cast subtly affects the whole by the way he reacts to situations, or the way he gives his lines."

According to Penn, Hopper didn't impose his Method-trained process on his Colors cast. "The way the best directors bring that to bear if you kind of share a school of approach is just not getting in the way of it," Penn explains. "Any direction into the Method is going to fuck up an actor's performance. That's the private world of the actor, and I never felt Dennis intruded on that in any way. But he was certainly one who saw something in the actor—any of the actors in the [movie]—working towards something. He would certainly encourage whatever there was… he would environmentally support that. And he would recognize it."

What some viewed as a lack of discipline, others came to understand as Hopper's inherent understanding of what he wanted, making it look effortless. "From what I observed and what I dealt with, in a good way," recalls Duvall, "was he just seemed to come in with no shot list. It was just 'OK, we'll put the camera here,' and he seemed to make it up as it went along. But I'm sure at night, and during the day, he ruminated and thought about it. It was nice. He gave you freedom. I thought he knew what he was doing, even when it seemed like he didn't. You felt like you were in capable hands."

The freedom Duvall mentions was extended to the cinematographers Hopper worked with, and for whose gifts he possessed a keen eye. He recruited Kovacs for his first two films well before the DP became an established master on films like Paper Moon (1973) and Shampoo (1975). And, conversely, he convinced Haskell Wexler to shoot Colors at a time when Wexler, already a two-time Oscar winner for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976), could work on any project he wanted.

Kovacs said he joined Easy Rider reluctantly, as he had his "fill with biker films" at the time, having shot the B-movies Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) and The Savage Seven (1968). But Hopper convinced him otherwise. "I went to the meeting, and Dennis tossed the script aside and acted out all the parts," Kovacs, who died in 2007, told writer Bob Fisher of MovieMaker Magazine. "Dennis already did some homework. He had traveled to some of the locations and taken still photos. The next morning, four of us got into a station wagon and began a three-week scouting trip."

The use of pop music in place of score on Easy Rider is particularly notable, with songs by such artists as Steppenwolf, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Band included in its best-selling soundtrack. Granted, much of the music was introduced by editor Donn Cambern as temp tracks when he assembled the footage, but it was Hopper who insisted that the mix (the licensing of which amounted to more than twice the film's budget) suited the movie more than a planned original score by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Neil Young would end up supplying some of the music for Out of the Blue, the title of which is taken from a Young lyric, and the conspicuous score for Hopper's last film as a director, The Hot Spot (1990), consisted of a highly unusual collaboration among composer Jack Nitzsche, blues legend John Lee Hooker and jazz titan Miles Davis, among others.

"His perspective on art had a lot to do with the way he used music as part of the narrative," says Schnabel, "and he let things breathe in that kind of space. The music he used was as much a part of the script as the dialogue."

If Hopper's legacy has been marred by his anarchic spirit and early megalomania, he was later very supportive of the talents who looked up to him, many of whom were mavericks just like himself.

"The fact that I was known as a painter didn't necessarily give me any qualifications for being a movie director," recalls Schnabel about his directing debut on Basquiat. "So the one thing that [Hopper] did do was be the first person to sign up as an actor. And after he did it other people came onboard," including Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken.

Schnabel recalls being stymied by a key scene in Basquiat when the painter of the film's title is given his first show at the makeshift PS1 gallery space in Long Island. "Basically, I was thinking about how to shoot it, and (Hopper) said, 'Why don't you just take the camera and follow one character around for a while, and then take the camera and follow another character around, and then cut it together later.' And I think that was very useful.

"So he was willing to work with young people and lent himself to young directors to help them get their movies made. He was curious and extremely generous to other people."

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