You know, this used to be a helluva good country
The star was a drunken hippy. One of the writers was an acid-fried biker. And the director was a paranoid control freak. But the really bad news was that all three of them were Dennis Hopper
It isn't the huge drug intake - both on and off-screen - that links Easy Rider inextricably to the late '60s. Or the sex. Or even the music. What really marks the film out as a product of that fractured, uncertain age was that it got made at all. And, in particular, that it got made by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
Certainly, when the pair announced their intention of making the ultimate biker movie, few sane punters would have wagered on them finding the finance - let along producing a film that not only became one of the biggest box-office hits of 1969 but also completely changed the way major studios treated their burgeoning baby-boomer generation. If the film's proposed subject matter - two doped-up philosophising hippies (Hopper and Fonda) use the proceeds from a drug deal to ride across America in search of 'freedom' - wasn't enough to put off potential investors then Hopper and Fonda's Hollywood reputations undoubtedly were.
Hopper was a Dean generation character actor who had been blacklisted following a bust-up with director Henry Hathaway. Kicked out of mainstream pictures, he was reduced to working with underground filmmakers like Roger Corman. It was while shooting Corman's The Trip that Hopper got to know Peter Fonda. The son of Hollywood legend Henry, Peter had thrown away a promising career in respectable cinema to appear in zero-budget exploitation movies like The Wild Angels.
Starring roles in The Trip did little to improve either man's standing. Far more helpful was their decision to hook up with satirical author and screenwriter Terry Southern. Southern's involvement provided them with a title, Easy Rider, and a backer in the shape of Bert Schneider. The latter was a fledgling film producer who had just hit the big time courtesy of his kit-form boy band The Monkees and was happy not only to provide money but to let Hopper and Fonda become director and producer respectively.
Hopper would fill his time forcing Fonda to relive memories of his mother's suicide
As it turned out, any problems the production may have had over finance were as nothing compared with the trauma of the Easy Rider shoot. During most productions, on-set drug-taking and a leading man breaking his ribs would constitute major concerns. In the case of Easy Rider, these seemed minor inconveniences when weighed against the bizarre antics of Hopper himself. A heavy drinker, famed for his to-the-edge performances and confrontational manner, the director's instability and paranoia resulted in clashes with everyone from Fonda downwards. When he wasn't picking fights, Hopper would fill his time forcing Fonda to relive memories of his mother's suicide and dragging actress Karen Black through the streets of New Orleans in search of inspiration.
Hopper justified his behaviour on the grounds that he wanted to make a special film. And he did. The massive commercial success of Easy Rider ensured that for a couple of years major studios were happy to throw money at any wild-eyed auteur capable of capturing some of that youth buck - a period that Hopper himself brought to the close with 1971's The Last Movie. Even 30 years later, the film's effect on subsequent generations of directors cannot be underestimated. As Hopper recalled, "Before 1969, there were no real independent filmmakers in America. Easy Rider changed all that."
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."
we just settled for the straight score of dope and selling it and leaving the rat race
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.
Laszlo Kovacs (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.
"This is my fucking movie and nobody's going to take my fucking movie away from me"
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.
Laszlo Kovacs: 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.
The story about me smoking 155 joints - that's a little exaggerated.
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.
Laszlo Kovacs: 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.
Laszlo Kovacs: 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.
Easy Rider is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.