By Sven Mikulec
Every period of American history and culture has at least one quintessential movie that represents everything about that specific zeitgeist. For the end of the sixties, it’s difficult to find a more significant picture than Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, an unusual biker film about two freedom-loving guys and their trip from California to Florida. The intrinsic core value of this film lies not exclusively in its time-capsule quality, even though witnesses of the period state it succeeded in authentically portraying America of that moment. As Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride across the United States, partly accompanied by Jack Nicholson, and with their journey present us with a collage of landscape, historical landmarks, customs, politics, cultural groups and their dominant emotions, Easy Rider grows into a vicious critique of the self-proclaimed great nation’s hypocrisy, insecurity and xenophobic hostility, turning into a staple of counterculture and a cautioning tale for all those who still believed America lived and breathed according to its “City Upon a Hill” sacred mission. The sixties, famous for their free-loving, drug-induced hippie optimism and idealism, witnessed the murder of the Kennedys, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the arrival of Richard Nixon and the consequential shift in reigning socio-political spirit. Easy Rider brilliantly simply showed the country for what it really was: a land of surreal natural beauties plagued by the narrow-mindedness and paradoxical fear of the formally revered notion of true freedom. The film was more than enthusiastically embraced by young Americans all over the country, becoming a symbol of anti-Establishment struggle and a cinematic epitome of cultural rebellion that ensued. This led to a fantastic result at the box office, which then triggered a vital change in the film industry, as it was revealed that serious money could be made on low-budget movies made by talented, ambitious young filmmakers with daring ideas and original techniques. The film therefore helped usher a new Hollywood era of fresh filmmaking faces with strong individual voices who took creative control out of the hands of the studios.
The idea for Easy Rider was conceived by Peter Fonda while he was in Canada promoting Roger Corman’s The Trip. As he was signing a still photograph from The Wild Angels, he had a vision of what kind of a movie he should make. He jotted down his idea and called Dennis Hopper in the middle of the night, telling him what he came up with and offering him to direct. Thrilled and excited, Hopper immediately hopped on board and started brainstorming. Fonda continued to carve out the story, adding meat to the bone, and then told it to Doctor Strangelove’s writer Terry Southern, who loved it and joined the creative team, giving the project its title and bringing to the film both his literary prowess and, given his reputation, a certain degree of credibility. Giving their characters the names of two famous gunslingers (Wyatt and Billy), their story was some sort of a reverse, modernized Western: instead of two heroes travelling on horseback to the West, they had two biker antiheroes going the opposite direction. Rip Torn was the main candidate for the supporting role of an alcoholic lawyer who joins them on the trip, but after an allegedly nasty altercation with temperamental Hopper at a restaurant, he pulled out of the project and Jack Nicholson was given a chance to shine. The film was shot on location, mostly utilizing natural light as Hopper claimed “God is a great gaffer,” with expert cinematographer László Kovács making the picture visually stunning.
The music was a whole other story: since the crew was on the road for twelve weeks, the footage was sent to Los Angeles, where the editor Donn Cambern watched it every morning. Simply to make the material more interesting, he pasted contemporary rock and roll songs to it. The music fit so well that, in the end, they decided to license the songs Cambern used, making Easy Rider even more unique for its usage of already published songs and the decision to avoid classical music and special compositions. It was a sort of a precedent that numerous mimicked after its release. After all the filming was done, Hopper spent twenty-two weeks editing the footage down to only two hours and forty-five minutes. Against his will, however, but spurred by Fonda and the producing team, editor Cambern and newly-appointed “editorial consultant” Henry Jaglom cut the film further to its 95 minutes.
Easy Rider was made for less than half a million dollars, earning unbelievable sixty million worldwide, the great majority of which came from the American theaters. In Cannes, Hopper won the award for the best first work of a filmmaker, while the Academy awarded it with two nominations (Nicholson’s supporting acting and Fonda, Hopper and Southern’s screenplay). Unfortunately, the unpleasant dispute over the authorship of the film caused by egos, temperaments and stubbornness of the creators created a rift between Fonda and Hopper that lasted until Hopper’s death in 2010, when Fonda was not even allowed to attend the funeral. But despite this, Easy Rider is still held in the greatest esteem, enjoying the reputation of one of the first indie films that created a bang that echoed around Hollywood for years. Fonda and Nicholson transformed into big stars, Hopper became an authorial force to be reckoned with and a new role model for thousands of independent filmmakers around the country, and whole generations had their lifestyles shaped by the immortal story of the non-conformist bikers. Easy Rider is a film America of the late sixties needed. What we offer you today is the rare script by Fonda, Hopper and Southern that gained almost a mythological value over the years, unearthed from a book that has been out-of-print for decades. Dear readers, examine it, study it, learn from it. For education purposes only, we give you the basis for one of the most important American films ever made.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper & Terry Southern’s screenplay for Easy Rider [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Fifty years later, the filmmaker and those involved and close to the groundbreaking biker movie (and soundtrack) look back at the wild ride: “I knew how it was going to end when I started writing it.” —“Tell Me We Haven’t Blown It”: Peter Fonda Reflects on ‘Easy Rider’ and Its Unanswered Question
Terry Southern explains who really wrote Easy Rider in an interview by Creative Screenwriting’s Mike Golden.
What was the real story of writing Easy Rider, and Dennis Hopper’s writing credit? There are so many versions of how and who created it going around, maybe you can set it straight.
[Laughs] You know if Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines and six of them survive the cutting room floor he’ll put in for screenplay credit. Now it would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the film—but, by George, he manages to do it every time. The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter Fonda came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded Peter to let him direct the next one and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler, they would make something interesting and worthwhile—which I would write. So they came to my place on 36th Street in New York, with an idea for a story—a sort of hippie/dope caper. Peter was to be the actor/producer, Dennis the actor/director, and a certain yours truly, the writer. I was able to put them up there—in a room, incidentally, later immortalized by the sojourn of Dr. W. S. Benway [Burroughs].
So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a non-stop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score, and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and that was slated to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus, so she would talk about this. Finally, I started taping her and then had her rap about it transcribed—how they were everywhere. Jack Nicholson’s thing was based on that.
During these conferences the hippie/dope caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit. Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension—when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred and intolerance for anything remotely different from himself—somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper [imitates Hopper in Apocalypse Now]: “You mean kill ’em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!?” I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system and sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that their death was more or less mandatory.
Are you saying there was no improvisation in the film?
No, no; I’m saying that the improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene—a scene which already existed.
Then how did Dennis and Peter get included in the screenplay credits?
After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted. And even then they said there was supposed to be a ‘compulsory arbitration’ because too often producers and directors will muscle themselves into a screenplay credit through some under-the-table deal with the writer.
The WGA said I would be crazy to allow it and wanted to be assured I wasn’t being coerced or bribed in any way. Because they hate the idea of these ‘hyphenates’—you know, writer-producer, director-producer. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie. They said they could use it, and it would help them out, so I just went along. [Hopper’s] always been extremely insecure, and I gave him credit because I wanted to pull him out. In Interview he pretty much claimed credit for the whole script. I called him, and I called the woman who interviewed him. He said he didn’t remember saying it. Then I heard he said it somewhere else. —Terry Southern: Writing to His Own Beat
Interview with Dennis Hopper about Easy Rider in the Seattle underground newspaper Helix in 1969. Courtesy of Babylon Falling.
Interview’s chairman Peter M. Brant, who knew Dennis Hopper for more than 40 years, and gallerist Tony Shafrazi, who first met Hopper in London in 1963—and who represents Hopper as an artist and was integral to initiating and coordinating the MOCA show with the museum’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch—sat down with Hopper shortly before his death at Shafrazi’s gallery in Chelsea for a wide-ranging conversation about the ups and downs and prizes and punches of his one-of-a-kind, mind-bending journey. Read the entire interview with Dennis Hopper here.
So, Dennis, as we come to the end of the ’60s, with you having just recently returned to making movies after a period where you weren’t working in film as much, you come to make Easy Rider—which, of course, goes on to become a major classic. But as you were going to make the film, it was against the backdrop of a very interesting time in America. The Vietnam War is exploding—there are demonstrations everywhere. The Democratic National Convention is happening in Chicago, and William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern, and Jean Genet have all been sent there to cover it for Esquire—and this is all happening just as you’re conceiving the film. Originally, Southern was supposed to write Easy Rider, right?
He didn’t write anything. Peter [Fonda] and I just talked out the story as we walked around on his tennis court in L.A. for about two-and-a-half weeks. I’d asked Peter and Terry to write it because I didn’t want to write a screenplay. But I had a total outline, and I knew where the scenes had to be and how long they had to be.
What was the total budget for Easy Rider?
Around $340,000. [Production manager] Paul Lewis and I were going cross-country to find locations, and I’d sent Peter to New York to work with Terry on the screenplay because [executive producer] Bert Schneider was saying, “I’ve got to have a screenplay! I’ve got to show the producers a document. You don’t understand. Just trust me!” So as Paul and I were scouting locations, we discovered that Peter got the date wrong for Mardi Gras: He was two months off. It was actually only two weeks away! Now, everybody who has tried to make a movie at Mardi Gras—including Orson Welles—has failed miserably. And as we’re getting further and further into figuring out the film, I’m turning more and more into Henry Hathaway. I’m worse than Henry Hathaway because I’ve waited so long to direct a movie like this. But then I discovered that we only have two weeks, so even though we didn’t have a go-project yet, we rushed and got a bunch of friends together and went to shoot it in New Orleans on 16mm. The whole acid trip and all of the New Orleans stuff was all shot on 16mm over four days. I shot the entire movie in four-and-a-half weeks. So that’s how it started. It actually wound up taking me a year to edit Easy Rider because I was going cross-country as we were making it and couldn’t see the footage. But I came back with 80 hours of film.
So the Mardi Gras sequence was the first thing that was shot.
Yeah, and everybody left me before the part in the cemetery, except a cameraman, a sound man, Peter, and the girls. So I shot that whole thing, the whole acid trip. It was raining that day… It’s beautiful. So then I came back from that trip and it turns out that Peter and [associate producer and brother of Hopper’s first wife, Brooke Hayward] Bill Hayward are recording me. Every time I turn around they’re filming me—and I’m not sure why—but I’m saying things like, “We’re going to win Cannes, man! We’re young! We’re going to take our energy and our strength and we’re going to take this thing all the way! Just trust me and do what I’m saying! Nobody shoot any film until I tell them to!” I mean, we were all in open fights with one another at the time, I didn’t find this out until Bert called me into his office after the movie was released, but Peter and Bill apparently wanted to pay him back the money he’d given us for Easy Rider and fire me. This is Peter and my brother-in-law, okay? This is before we’ve written a screenplay. So apparently they went in to see Bert and made him listen to everything they’d recorded of me, and Bert listened to it and sounded really excited. He said, “All I’m asking you guys to do is bring a red light, a green light, and a blue light, so you can make white light. They’ll all mix together so you get color on the outside, but they’ll make white light in the middle. And then I want to use that in the cemetery sequence. You guys never bothered to do that?” So they said, “Well, we didn’t… You know, we think it was…” So Bert said, “Well, Hopper sounds really excited. He says he’s going to win Cannes. That sounds like a hell of an idea.” And then Bert said, “I’ve got to tell you one other thing: I hired Hopper to direct this movie, and he’s going to direct this movie.”
Schneider said that?
Yeah. He didn’t tell me about it until after the film was done, but I knew we were having problems. Paul and I had gone off to find locations and places where the crew could live. When we got to New Orleans it was really dangerous because there were these marines who wanted to take me apart because I had long hair. You’d hear a lot of stories at that time of guys getting cut with razors and things. It was so bad that we skipped going to Texas. We went from New Mexico over to New Orleans, and when we got there—it had been two-and-a-half weeks or something—I called New York to see how Peter and Terry were doing on the screenplay. They hadn’t started writing it! I said, “But we’re shooting in a week-and-a-half!” So I got on a plane and went to New York. I went to Henry Fonda’s house, where Peter was staying, but he wasn’t there. I found them all having dinner with Rip Torn and a bunch of people at an Italian restaurant around a big Last Supper–kind of a table. I went up and said to Peter, “What the fuck is going on, man? Do you know how rough it is out there? We had to bypass Texas because of all these guys…” Rip said, “Terry and I are from Texas! I don’t like what you’re saying.” Anyway, we get in a big hassle. I later got sued and had to pay Rip $1 million for saying that I cut him out of the picture because he pulled a knife on me. But I hired a secretary and wrote the fucking thing in 10 days. It wasn’t a great screenplay, but I wrote it so they had a document. Terry never did anything. He broke his hip, so he couldn’t come on the shoot. He let me use his office. But later they all sued me. I paid them more money than I made on Easy Rider.
How did Jack Nicholson get involved in Easy Rider?
Well, I had this guy, Jack Starrett, who became a director. He had played football in Texas, and was a really good actor. He was the guy I wanted. So Bert Schneider called me into his office. Bert never wanted to see anything until the first cut. That’s the way he worked—after he saw the first cut, he got involved. But he calls me into his office and says, “I haven’t asked you to do anything, but I want you to use Jack Nicholson.” I said, “But Nicholson is not right for the part. Starrett is.” He said, “Right or wrong, I want you to use Jack.” I said, “Okay, Bert, but you’re fucking up my movie!” [all laugh] You know? That was it! And then, of course, Jack was brilliant. Jack was great.
And you had a great time doing the film.
Oh, wonderful. We had a great time on the shoot. I didn’t know this at the time, but Jack was also sent as a watchdog to see if I was okay. [laughs] I was into making the movie, man.
You and Jack have stayed friends ever since.
Yeah, absolutely. Close friends. Old friends. I don’t see him very much. I don’t see anybody very much.
One of the other interesting things about Easy Rider is the fact that about a decade before the advent of MTV and the music video, you did something radical with the music in the movie: The music in Easy Rider is not orchestra music. It’s not a score. It’s this music by bands and artists who were contemporary for the time. The music in Easy Rider is pop music—and you were one of the first filmmakers to use music in film in that way.
I think Easy Rider might have been the first time that someone made a film using found music instead of an orchestral score. No one had really used found music in a movie before, except to play on radios or when someone was singing in a scene. But I wanted Easy Rider to be kind of a time capsule for that period, so while I was editing the film I would listen to the radio. That’s where I got “Born to Be Wild” and “The Pusher” and all those songs. Orson Welles told me, “Don’t get confused. Use your best shots, and if the music works, it works, if not, then it doesn’t. But always cut to the image.” So I didn’t cut the film to the music—I cut it to the picture. But later, when I put “Born to be Wild” on there, it just worked, man.
Fonda, Hopper and co reveal how their counter-culture opus changed the face of modern cinema. Courtesy of Sabotage Times’ Richard Luck.
Peter Fonda (producer/actor, Captain America): The idea for Easy Rider came to me while I was in Toronto promoting The Trip. I’d taken a couple of aspirins and was lying on the bed looking at a picture of Marlon Brando in his Wild One get-up. And then it came to me: a modern western set on motorbikes! The next day, I called Dennis.
Dennis Hopper (director/writer/actor, Billy The Kid): Peter and I talked out the outline of the story on Peter’s tennis court.
Peter Fonda: We discussed everything: who’d play what, what characters we’d need. Halfway through that process, we realised that we might have a motion picture. Then later, I was out in Italy to see Jane who was completing Barbarella, and I got talking to Terry Southern, who was doing some rewriters for [brother-in-law and Barbarella director] Roger Vadim. So Terry asks me what I was doing ad we got talking about the idea Dennis and I were developing. When I was through, he said, “Wow, that’s the most amazing story I’ve ever heard. What are you going to do next?” So I said we were looking for a writer to turn it into script form. “I’m your man!” he replied. “But Terry,” I said, “your fee is the budget of the film.” “No,” he said, “you don’t understand. I’m your guy.”
Jack Nicholson (actor, George Hanson): Terry Southern was brought in as one of the writers so people wouldn’t think it was just another Peter Fonda motorcycle flick.
Terry Southern (writer): The first notion was that there would be all these barnstorming stunts, but that just seemed unnecessarily complicated. So we just settled for the straight score of dope and selling it and leaving the rat race.
Peter Fonda: Terry gave us the title, Easy Rider. That was fabulous. That title alone is cool. Easy Rider is a term for a whore’s old man; not a pimp, but a dude who lives with a chick. Because he’s got the easy ride. Well, that’s what happened to America—Liberty became a whore and the whole country took an easy ride.
Terry Southern: The idea of meeting a kind of straight guy, which turned out to the Jack Nicholson role, was entirely down to me. I thought of this William Faulkner character, Gavin Stevens, who was a lawyer in this small town. He had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and had come back to this little town to do whatever he could there. So I automatically gave the George Hanson character a similar sympathetic aura. I wrote the part for Rip Torn, who I thought would be ideal for it, but he couldn’t get out of a stage commitment. So we got Jack.
Henry Jaglom (editorial consultant): Jack said to me, “They want me to cut my hair to be in this biker movie.” He wasn’t happy because in the ’60s this was a significant sacrifice
Peter Fonda: Dennis and I had our offices in Beverly Hills. Nobody wanted to see us around there. We were wearing our costumes to break them in, so the two of us were walking around looking like a couple of hippies. When we were on the street, people would run away from us!
Dennis Hopper: The money for Easy Rider came from Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson. They’d created The Monkees and got very rich and they had enough to give us $365,000.
László Kovács (cinematographer): The film’s production manager Paul Lewis called me and said, “Dennis Hopper wants to meet with you. He’s got a motorcycle picture to shoot.” And I said, “Paul, I don’t want to do another motorcycle movie. Let’s move on.” Then I heard Dennis’s voice in the hallway. He comes in and kicks the door wide open and says, “Here it is!” and then he threw the script pages in the air and they came down like snowflakes. And he says, “I don’t want you to worry about the script. I’m going to tell you what the movie is about.” And so he begins to act out the film for us. When he was through I looked at Paul and said, “When do we start?”
Peter Fonda: The first $40,000 was for the first week in New Orleans. Producer that I am, I was a month late in my prediction of when Mardi Gras was, so we had to scramble pretty fast.
Dennis Hopper: I went to New Orleans knowing that Orson Welles had failed to make a movie there and a lot of other people had failed to make films there, and I was very determined to succeed.
Peter Fonda: It was our first morning and Dennis was out in the parking lot talking to all of us, yelling at the top of his lungs, “This is my fucking movie and nobody’s going to take my fucking movie away from me” repeatedly for two-and-a-half hours.
Bert Schneider (executive producer): Of all the scenes in the movie, the acid scene is the one most people remember and the one that most people were freaked out by.
Peter Fonda: The graveyard acid scene was Dennis’s idea. He had come up to me with tears streaming down his cheeks because he was to film in a cemetery. “Oh man, you gotta get up to the statue now. I want you to get up there and ask your old lady why she copped out on you.” “Come on, Hoppy,” I replied. “I’m hip to Captain America having a mother complex, but you want to take Peter Fonda’s complex and put it up there on screen!” “Nobody will know.” “Everybody will know, man! They all know what happened!”
Dennis Hopper: When you’re riding motorcycles for as long as we were, you’re going to fall off occasionally. I had a couple of spills. Peter had a couple of spills. Someone crashed the camera car. A few cuts, a few bruises. Nobody died.
Peter Fonda: We bought four bikes from the LAPD and I had the crazy idea to stretch my front-end and rake it out 45 degrees. Looked great. The problem is the seat is just on the frame; there’s no padding. Jack knew how to ride motorcycles, but riding behind someone is always difficult and when that front-end got a little squirrely, his knees dug straight into my back. He broke three ribs on my left side. I didn’t know until later that evening when I was trying not to exhale some substance.
László Kovács: There were a lot of drugs around the set. There’s no secret about that.
Peter Fonda: Everyone had their drug of choice on Easy Rider. Dennis had his drink, Jack smoked joints and the crew dabbled with acid and dope. When we were shooting, I said that if the film made enough money, I would quit acting and buy a farm in Madagascar and grow grass and smoke it all day. That didn’t quite happen, although the film did make me real rich.
Dennis Hopper: I smoked a little, but it wasn’t my drug of choice for acting. I was more of a drinker in those days. I could control the drinking. The smoking made me too paranoid.
Jack Nicholson: We were all stoned the night we shot the campfire scene. The speech about the UFOs looks improvised, but it was actually almost verbatim from the script. The story about me smoking 155 joints—that’s a little exaggerated. But each time I did a take or an angle, it involved smoking almost an entire joint. After the first take or two, the acting job became reversed. Instead of being straight and having to act stoned at the end, I was now stoned at the beginning and having to act straight, and then gradually letting myself return to where I was—which was very stoned.
László Kovács: It was so amazing when we were shooting that campfire scene how much Jack was in control. He was so stoned, but he was so great. He remembered every word.
Peter Fonda: If there are mistakes in Easy Rider, they’re my mistakes and Dennis’s mistakes. Nobody foisted anything on us. It’s exactly the way we wanted it.
László Kovács: When shooting finished we couldn’t wait to see the film in the theatre, because we knew we had created something special. Unfortunately, Easy Rider took five months to cut, so were kept waiting a long time.
Jack Nicholson: The film changed more in the editing room that from script to film.
Henry Jaglom: Bert Schneider called me and said, “Dennis has completed Easy Rider and it’s still nearly three hours long. Dennis likes it the way it is. We can’t release a three-hour biker film. Can you come and take a look at it?” So I went to a screening of Easy Rider and, for reasons I still don’t understand, I was the only one who wasn’t stoned. So, for me, it was a little boring.
Bert Schneider: After 22 weeks of editing, Easy Rider was still three hours long. At that point I sent Dennis Hopper on vacation and got Bob Rafelson, Henry Jaglom and Jack Nicholson to take a look at the picture.
Henry Jaglom: Jack worked in one suite with his editor and I worked in another. They took the film from the front, I took it from the back and we met up somewhere in the middle.
Jack Nicholson: I got to edit my part, so I picked the best shots and everything.
Dennis Hopper: When I looked at it and saw what they had done, I said, “Well, you did it. You finally made it look like a TV show. You ruined my movie.”
Peter Fonda: Dennis was very upset because he thought we’d ruined his movie. And I thought, “His movie! I thought it was ours?” But that’s the way Dennis is. I once received a fax from him asking me to sign a statement declaring that he and he alone wrote the script for Easy Rider.
Dennis Hopper: I wrote every word of the script. I directed every scene of the film. You can hear what you like. Here it is: I made that fucking movie, period.
Peter Fonda: Easy Rider really was a trip. Back when I was making studio pictures like Tammy And The Doctor, I got a lot of fan mail—thousands of letters a week asking for my autography and my picture. When I did Easy Rider, I got letters from people saying, “What do I do?”, “How do I speak to my father?”, “How do I keep myself from committing suicide?”, “How do I live?”. Nobody was asking me for my picture and my autograph any more.
LÁSZLÓ KOVÁCS ON THE 35TH ANNIVERSARY OF ‘EASY RIDER’
In a retrospective written years after its release, Leonard Maltin called Easy Rider a landmark that changed the art of moviemaking. Legendary cinematographer László Kovács says that it was the film that made him feel he had a future in Hollywood. Since Easy Rider, Kovács has gone on to shoot more than 60 features, including such classics as The King of Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo and Paper Moon, Ghostbusters, Mask, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Two Weeks Notice. He has received four Lifetime Achievement Awards. Courtesy of MovieMaker Magazine’s Bob Fisher.
Do you recall your first reaction when Dennis Hopper contacted you?
My first instinct was to turn him down, because I had had my fill of biker films. I went to the meeting, and Dennis tossed the script aside and acted out all the parts. It was a story about two hippies, played by Dennis and Peter Fonda, who search for freedom by making money selling dope. They travel to New Orleans by motorcycle and meet Jack Nicholson, a small-town lawyer. I realized it was a great story about my adopted land. At the end of that meeting, I asked Dennis when we were going to begin.
When did you get started?
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. It was Dennis, [production manager] Paul Lewis, [art director] Jeremy Kay and myself. We basically traveled on Route 66, occasionally branching off. We drove to Taos, New Mexico and headed for Texas. We found magnificent backgrounds, including the Painted Desert, Monument Valley and a commune in Taos. They wouldn’t let us film there, so our art director took some stills and made sketches. Later, we built the commune in the mountains of Santa Monica overlooking Malibu Canyon. After that scouting trip, we made a plan and I organized a small crew.
How small was the crew?
We had a 12-person crew, including my gaffer, Richmond Aguilar. We all knew each other from Hell’s Angels, Savage Seven and other biker films. We had two five-ton trucks. One of them carried the bikes and the other hauled our equipment, including some new portable halogen lights, Mickey and Minnie Moles, from Mole-Richardson. They were especially handy for the campfire scenes. The truck also pulled a 750-amp generator. Most of the cast and crew rode in a motor home. We couldn’t afford to rent a camera car, because it cost around $200 a day. I took a 1968 Chevy Impala convertible on a test drive. It was sturdy and seemed to glide over the bumps. It was too expensive to rent, so I suggested buying it and selling it as a used car at the end. When we were shooting, we had the top down and put a half sheet of 4×4 plywood in the pen space. On the board we mounted an Arriflex camera with a zoom lens on a high hat, and used a sandbag to hold everything in place. That’s how we shot all of the traveling motorcycle shots. We had hand signals to indicate two-shots and singles.
How did you select places for the motorcycle shots?
Peter was in the car, along with my key grip and my assistant cameraman. The motor home and two trucks followed us. If I saw something interesting that wasn’t in the plan, we pulled over to the side, which was a signal that we were going to be shooting. They’d get the bikes ready. Peter and Dennis were always in wardrobe; there was no makeup. My assistant helped me hold the camera, because I was doing the zooming and the focus. Everything was improvised. I just shot what felt right.
What was the film you were using like in those days?
It was a 50-speed Kodak negative, and you had to use an 85 filter to correct for daylight. That brought it down to about ASA 30. Kodak gave me four rolls of a new film they were about to introduce; it was a stop faster. I protected that film, because I never knew when I’d need that extra stop. When we arrived in Monument Valley it was late in the day. I told my assistant to load two magazines of the new film, because it was past the magic hour. Dennis wanted to do a big pan shot while the sun was [setting in] a dark, indigo blue sky. It’s in the movie.
Which Arri camera were you using?
It was the ARRI 2-C. Actually, it was Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera. He also had a zoom lens, but I had to rent a blimp from Birns & Sawyer. During the day, it was all MOS (without sound) shots. At night, we shot scenes motivated by a campfire. The scenes with Jack, Dennis and Peter in the woods at night are so strong, we didn’t want to distract the audience with a tree blowing in the wind in the background, so I let it go dark. It worked beautifully, simply isolating the characters.
How did you create the campfire light? There were no flicker lights.
We had kind of a handmade flicker in those days. We used a stick with a piece of cloth on it. We ripped the cloth into strips and tore out every other one. Then, we put it in front of the light and started shaking it a bit. That gave us a little flicker effect. The other thing we used was a branch with leaves. When we got it real close to the lens it gave us a very soft flicker effect. I didn’t want it to be too distracting. Some of the campfire scenes were lit with a single light and no fill; I just let the shadow side go black. I used an amber gel on the lights, which was exactly the color temperature of a fire.
What did you do with the exposed film while you were traveling?
In the beginning, I worried about seeing dailies, because we were on the road for 12 weeks. We sent the film to CFI in Los Angeles. The editor, Donn Cambern, watched the film every morning. I tried to call him every day, though sometimes there were no phones. Donn was looking at thousands of feet of running shots of the bikes, which translated to hours. He transferred contemporary rock and roll songs to magnetic tape, and synched it randomly to the film, so every shot had music behind it. Originally, he was just making it more interesting, but the music became inseparable from the pictures. When the film was cut there was a discussion about who was going to score it. They ended up licensing the music that Donn was using. They spent $1 million licensing music, which was about three times the budget for shooting the rest of the film.
How were the scenes filmed at Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
They filmed those before the movie. They used the footage to raise the money for production. Dennis rented 10 Bolex 16mm cameras. He gave them to the actors and asked them to shoot street scenes with color positive film. It doesn’t match the rest of the footage, but it’s Mardi Gras and kind of psychedelic, so no one notices. A documentary cameraman filmed the actors.
What about the scenes in the whorehouse in New Orleans?
We filmed those in an old mansion that actress Norma Talmadge used to own on Los Feliz Boulevard in Hollywood. It was a perfect setting, and we were able to cast people in Los Angeles to play the different parts.
What about the confrontation scenes in the cafe, and on the street in front of it with the high school girl and the local thugs?
Those scenes were filmed in Morgan City, Louisiana. We used locals in those bit roles, and they were all terrific. We drew crowds everywhere. At one location in Texas, a young woman came up to me. She told me that she was a film student and had decided to specialize in cinematography after watching me work. It was Sandi Sissel, who has since become a very talented cinematographer.
Do you have a favorite scene?
One of my favorite scenes was the last campfire, where the three main characters are talking about their dreams, and how stupid it is that long hair is a problem. That’s the scene where one of them says, “This used to be a great country.” It was incredible writing by Terry Southern and superb performances by Jack, Peter and Dennis. I knew something important was happening and didn’t want to mess it up. I also loved the last scene where Wyatt and Billy are murdered on the road. Dennis wanted to distance the audience from the tragedy and give them a glimpse of something beautiful and hopeful on the horizon. He envisioned a helicopter shot pulling away from the fiery crash after Wyatt is run down on the road. We could only afford a low-powered helicopter without a camera mount. We put the camera on one side of a skid with counter-weights on the other side, and prayed the wind would give the copter the lift it needed. We recently showed a print of Easy Rider to students at UCLA, and it still shocks people when Billy and Wyatt are killed at the end. The last shot still makes an impression.
Did you get interesting questions from the students?
Like most people, they were surprised to learn that we didn’t shoot in documentary style, because the film has that feeling of freedom. You can’t just point the camera and shoot. You need an eye and a sense of what the story is about. We planned all the dialogue shots and everything was lit to create the right sense of time, place and mood. Someone asked if I would shoot this on digital today, because it is supposed to be cheaper and easier. I told them film and digital see light differently. You can get beautiful pictures with both, but it’s a different emotional effect. It’s very important for the audience to like Jack and these two long-haired hippies; otherwise, no one cares when they die.
Review by Miller Francis Jr. Courtesy of Babylon Falling.
EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS: HOW THE SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL GENERATION SAVED HOLLYWOOD
Based upon Peter Biskind’s book of the same name, this BBC-produced documentary traces the rise of a generation of Hollywood filmmakers who briefly changed the face of movies with a more personal approach that pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on-screen. Influential directors who appear include Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), and Jonathan Demme (Crazy Mama). Narrated by William H. Macy, the documentary features vintage clips of Coppola, Scorsese, Beatty, George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman, and Pauline Kael. It also includes original interview material with Penn; Roger Corman; Bogdanovich; Hopper; David Picker; writer/directors John Milius and Paul Schrader; actresses Karen Black, Cybill Shepherd, Margot Kidder, and Jennifer Salt.
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. Photographed by Peter Sorel & Susan Wood © Pando Company Inc., Raybert Productions, Columbia Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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