Dennis Hopper’s fleeting success with Easy Rider in the late sixties famously came undone with his 1971 follow-up, The Last Movie. A critical and commercial failure, the rambling, chaotic nature on screen mirrored that of the behind-the-scenes production.
Into the fray came directors Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson, who captured an unbalanced and tormented Hopper (or a heightened version of the real thing) during the editing period, where he decamped to Taos, New Mexico in virtual isolation and away from the Hollywood suits. In the process, both filmmakers managed to put a meta-spin on an actor’s life decades before that term was even recognised with their documentary The American Dreamer.
The film receives a worldwide launch on MUBI from 12th February and is in selected cinemas from tomorrow (read our review here), and we recently had the opportunity to chat over the phone with Schiller (now approaching 80 and still working in the industry) about the origins and development of his unique project.
HeyUGuys: How did you end up entering the wild and crazy world of Dennis Hopper?
Lawrence Schiller: At that time in my life I was a photojournalist. It was not difficult to find myself in other people’s lives because it was my job to become a fly-on-the-wall.
Was the concept for the film Hopper’s idea or did you pitch it to him?
It came from me. Originally, I wanted to make a film with Paul Newman whom I knew very well, having photographed him on the set of five of his movies. I wanted to make a film about an actor who submerges himself into the myth of a character he may, or may not have, played. Paul didn’t want to do that, unfortunately.
When Kit and I were making another film I discussed this idea and he suggested that we try and do it with Dennis, as he knew him. Both Kit and I went out to visit Dennis to talk about it and took part of the original conception and reworked it around the myth and character Dennis had played in Easy Rider.
The situation became stranger because Dennis was in his own reality. He could never be entirely authentic. He knew what our camera did and what moments we shot would look like on screen because not only was he an actor, but he was also a director. The film took on a different life of its own because it became a documentary where an actor is playing another actor.
It definitely has a weird Russian doll-like vibe. Were there any moments when it felt like you’d captured Hopper with his guard down and his ‘real’ persona was on display?
I think it’s hard to differentiate between the two worlds. You can’t know when he’s real and when he’s not. I think that’s what is most interesting about the film. Maybe the whole fill is real and Hopper is real because it’s Hopper playing Hopper. It’s a documentary on top of a documentary.
It looks like it was a frustrating experience at times for you and your co-director. Was that the case?
We were in confrontation with Dennis on many occasions. He wanted to do something a certain way, we felt it should be done differently. We would constantly discuss when we wanted to achieve each day. The very last thing we shot was Dennis in the bathtub and that ended up being the first scene in the film. We didn’t have a good opening, originally. We all came up with the idea of knocking on the door with Dennis, partially-nude, opening it. Kit asks him to act natural but that’s an example of a scene which was totally dramatised, thought-out and planned beforehand, yet looks like it was shot in the moment. You even hear the cameraman’s voice saying we should follow Dennis down the hall. That was all planned out in advance.
You must have shot loads of footage. Did it take a long time to shape?
We shot for about three weeks and had a look at what we’d captured. We then went back about a month later. There was a lot of time waiting to capture a particular moment and Dennis was in the middle of editing The Last Movie almost every day.
All those scenes of Hopper in the middle of the edit really give you the genuine sense of a frustrated artist. Is that fair to say?
Yeah. I think it shows him very confused and that he’s lost control of the project. He was struggling with what he wanted to say. He’s trying to follow the script but do something different but he’s predicting his failure. His situation is very similar to the Orson Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons metaphor he actually uses in the documentary.
What was Hopper’s reaction to the film when you screened it for him for the first time?
He didn’t see it until after it had been shown to the public. He didn’t want to. It was shown at a couple of college campuses first. When Dennis eventually got around to seeing it he liked it very much. In later years, when The Last Movie was shown at various film festivals, he insisted this film be screened alongside it.
Do you think his initial reluctance in seeing it was because he was a little too close to it all and may have asked the two of you to change some aspects of it?
He didn’t want any artistic control and we didn’t want to give him any. In the background I came from the subject has no control over how you present the work. That was the condition we laid down here and Dennis accepted it.
The film has been a little under the radar over here in the UK.
The film has been in Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center and has also been shown in a number of film festivals over the years. A fund-raising campaign was started at the Walker recently where profits from The American Dreamer screenings go towards the restoration of other documentary films.
Did you remain friendly with Hopper throughout his career?
I was more an acquaintance, not a close friend. We would see each other periodically, every year or two.
What were his thoughts on The American Dreamer as he got older and there were a few decades distance between him and that period in his life?
I think he saw it as part of the fabric of his life. That’s where he was at in that time and that was the kind of world he lived in. He embraced the film.