Chasers

On December 21, 1994, interviewer Charlie Rose devoted the entire hour’s length of his PBS talk show  to a conversation with Dennis Hopper. Among the many topics they covered was his gratitude for  being a highly-demanded actor of the day, and how it occasionally conflicted with his desire for greater creativity.

Charlie Rose: [Do] you love acting more than you love directing?

Dennis Hopper: [They’re] really totally two different jobs…The director has the full responsibility of the show – It’s control and decisions. And he’s also there every second. I mean, it’s a never-ending process, and it’s usually a couple years or at least a year of his time, whereas you come in as an actor, you’re on the film the duration of the shooting of the film, not the pre-production and the post-production of the film, which a director is involved in. So it’s a totally different world. But I love both, and it’s much harder for me to get a job as a director than it is for me to get a job as an actor. I can work all the time as an actor… As a director…you know, ”You’re as good as your last movie” is still appropriate, you know, unfortunately. So my last movie as a director was not a successful film.

Charlie Rose: And your last movie as an actor was brilliant.

Dennis Hopper: A big success. Big success.

The acting performance being referenced was his energetic appearance as a crafty bomber in Jan DeBont’s Speed. The directorial outing being referenced was what turned out to be his final feature directing credit, Chasers.

 

 

Amidst a body of work that can hardly be called conventional, Chasers has always stood out as the odd entry in Hopper’s resume, precisely because its light-hearted storyline is in direct contrast with his more ambitious films. As such, it has been mostly described with that most damning of film scholar terms, as a “paycheck” job. The circumstances certainly feed the narrative. Hopper’s previous directing project in 1990, The Hot Spot, had been beset by the underwhelming public support of stars Don Johnson and Virginia Madsen, and the money woes of Orion Pictures hampering its release and promotion. Mini-studio Morgan Creek, generally known for moderately-budgeted fare with occasional event projects like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, had produced Tony Scott’s True Romance, which featured a well-reviewed performance by Hopper, and likely used the occasion to pitch the $15 million Chasers package to him.

In a 1996 interview with San Francisco Chronicle writer Mick LaSalle, Hopper described the peculiarity of seeming more desirable for hiring if he not only had mixed feelings about the material he was provided, but openly said so. “You know, if you say, ‘I found this script, I don’t really like it, it needs a rewrite,’ you might get a deal. But if you come in and say you love it, they say, ‘Uh-oh. He loves it.'” This may well be an apt approximation of his dealings with Morgan Creek that led to making the film. And there are many elements within the finished story that a student of his work would see as familiar territory.

Multiple reviews have pointed out its blatant similarities to Hal Ashby’s 1973 The Last Detail with Jack Nicholson, particularly in that both films involve their Naval protagonists’ dislike of onerous regulations and machismo, their rivalry with the even more rules-and-bravado demeanor of the Marines, and their disenchantment with the harsh sentence to be imposed on their prisoner. One scene, in which Tom Berenger’s character gets into a fight with a BBQ restaurant’s mascot over menu items, carries memories of another Nicholson moment, his immortal “Hold the chicken between your knees” exchange in Five Easy Pieces from 1970. For that matter, there is also common ground with Franco Amurri’s 1990 comedy Flashback written by David Loughery, which starred Hopper as an Abbie Hoffman-esque radical prankster apprehended by the FBI after decades of hiding, who creates trouble for the young agent attempting to escort him to trial, in the same manner the female prisoner repeatedly tries to escape her guardians. Furthermore, consider the tension between a sassy rookie and a hardened elder (Colors), long distance travel (Backtrack), references to broken families (Out of the Blue), and giving in to impulses that backfire (The Hot Spot), and in effect, the script is almost a mediation on Hopper’s entire post-sobriety creative output.

 

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How much thematic detail can be attributed to the screenplay as conceived by the team of Joe Batteer & John Rice and Nightcrawler creator Dan Gilroy, and how much can be credited to Hopper can be debated. For example, the irony of taking a prisoner to an eight-year sentence on Independence Day was likely a political point made by the writers, but Hopper as a lifelong collector of paintings is surely responsible for naming a supporting character after acclaimed naive artist Howard Finster. The extended cameos by close friends Seymour Cassel, Dean Stockwell, Frederic Forrest, and jazz singer Bob Dorough are definitely his doing. More importantly, select visual cues suggest that the director definitely injected detail personal to his spirit.

As noted in an essay by Senses of Cinema writer Joanna Elena Batsakis, Hopper had stated in 1994, “From 1961 onwards I carried my camera everywhere. All my friends teased me about being a tourist.” Batakis uses this “tourism” concept to analyze his entire body of films, and Chasers stands as a most literal version of that. Multiple shots of highway markers, family-owned restaurants, and other tourist traps are given a lengthy amount of screen time, to offer retort to the no-frills business the escorts are expected to conduct on their way to the prison, to say look at all the simple pleasures being passed over in the name of duty. Consequently, the film and the characters truly open up once they are in those leisure environments.

The past also hovers over the proceedings: the Shore Patrol travel in an outdated van; Eleniak attempts to escape in an AMC Pacer, then hitchhikes using the leg strategy from It Happened One Night; old battered TVs pop up showing all manner of old movies – Japanese  monsters, gladiators, cowboys, WWII drama – that by 1994 had fallen out of favor. And in a climactic fight between McNamara and Berenger at a putt-putt golf course, they slug it out in front of a grandfather clock (time), a little red school house (education), a ghost (history), and a totem pole (religion, blind allegiance to higher powers), the implication being these men are not just working out their own differences, but also their rage against forces that dominate their lives. In a quietly subversive manner, Hopper makes his argument that for all the changes since his ‘70s heyday, the same institutions dominate and the urge for rebellion remains.

 

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As another anomaly to Hopper’s legend, Chasers’ filming is bereft of any sort of behind-the-scenes intrigue; it did not have the political blowback of Colors, the editing fights of Backtrack, or the movie-star-power-play antics of The Hot Spot. The most reported aspect of the production was that stars Erika Eleniak and William McNamara became romantically involved afterward, and in an October 2012 podcast interview with Eleniak which McNamera phoned into, the performers talked positively about the experience, describing their enjoyment of visiting the colorful North Carolina locations, but offering no further specific details. Archival and present-day interviews with Batteer & Rice or Gilroy almost never mention their involvement. Hopper himself rarely spoke about it at all; the closest he came to making a statement was in a 1996 follow-up interview with Charlie Rose, when just as he was about to address it, Rose derailed him with a question about his rumored friction with Jodie Foster on Backtrack, and no further conversation about it took place. While this earlier statement from his 1994 Rose interview was in specific reference to his involvement in the troubled and expensive production of Kevin Reynolds’ sci-fi epic Waterworld, he could just as well have been speaking for him own film:

“You know, it’s just as hard to make a bad movie as it is to make a good movie. It’s just as much work, and like, you know, I wish I had some magic kind of formula that I could say, ”Oh, this is going to be a great movie,” but I, I can’t really tell. I know that my work is really good, and the rushes and the dailies that I [see] is really good work. Now, how it all comes together and fits together and comes out, and how an audience perceives of it, that’s another story that I don’t have the answer to.”

While the making of the film may have proved a generally pleasant affair, the release was much less so. With no advance screenings, promotion or media support, Warner Bros. effectively gave Chasers a contractual obligation release on April 22, 1994. There were some fans – the Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “There’s a lot of screwball humor in Chasers‘ classically amoral plot, yet adding to the film’s freshness is that visually it’s an affectionate running commentary on the amusing tackiness of roadside Americana,” and the Austin Chronicle’s Robert Faires colorfully opined, “[Doggone] it, everybody looks to be havin’ a big time, and it’s easy to [go] along for the ride. Berenger does Warren Oates, sporting a puss like he got a whiff of rancid cat and growling lines like he’s gargling ball bearings…as it ended, I could swear I heard Sam Peckinpah’s ghost chuckling away.” But overall, reviews were mostly harsh – Entertainment Weekly rated the movie a D+, while curiously, in a separate column, its soundtrack album of modern country hits was given an A-. The film grossed just over $1.5 million in national release, just slightly more than The Hot Spot’s $1.2 million in select cities.

To indulge one last bit of deep interpretive diving: As designer Michael Rock once said, Every Film Is About Filmmaking, and the entirety of Hopper’s directorial career can definitely be read as mediations on that process from various stages of his life, from the blatant obviousness of The Last Movie to the initial inscrutability of Backtrack. In Chasers then, Hopper uses the familiar Ashby-esque storyline to dwell on an if-I-knew-then reverie. McNamara is young Hopper – handsome, charming, reckless, pulling a profitable scam on a deep-pocketed employer, only to lose it to an associate whom he did not fully involve in the process, and now facing a future with no foundation underneath. Berenger is old Hopper – worn, tired, wearily playing along with the rules and taking abuse from those in power, staying in an organization he’s lost interest in because he’s lost domestic opportunities. Eleniak represents a screenplay, a movie project, something that the bosses tell them is a simple job to execute and finish. Both sides of Hopper recognize there’s more to the story, and that the men in power so blind in their perceived rightness would ruin it, but can’t agree how to deal with it, and periodically, the story gets away from them. And only by looking at their own failures, and recognizing each other’s strengths, can they not only hold onto the story, but give it the ending it deserves. And for the real Hopper’s cameo appearance, he stands in for those guys who try to get in on a good looking project in the hope of getting material gain or pleasure for themselves, and deservedly get left behind quickly.

Hopper continued to seek out and initiate directing projects for himself into the last years of his life. But as he entered the noughts, his belief in that likelihood grew shakier. During a press junket for Land of the Dead, he wavered between hope and resignation, observing about his creative drought, “It was unfortunate as I was – am – a really talented director. I should have been allowed to make more films. Hopefully, during my three months off next year, I’ll direct one,” but then ruefully summarizing, “I bullshitted everybody, told them all the dreams, all the things I was going to do. Now I’m a total failure. I was full of shit and that’s the end of it.”

To borrow the words of one of his controversial commercials for Ameriprise, “See, the thing about dreams is, they don’t retire.”

 

 

The Last Detail was widely acclaimed for the fact that it did not have a happy ending. How could it? It’s primary message was that people are only comfortable with so much rebellion before they yield to power to preserve themselves. That was the right message for the ‘70s, and Hopper lived it the hard way. In 1994, Hopper likely knew that on a large philosophical level that was still the truth, but on a personal level, it was time to enjoy a happy ending, and depict a couple of guys bucking that system, symbolically get one last shot over the bow against those he could not appease for years by taking their scraps and making a good meal out of it. The solution is first uttered by young Hopper, but as he loses his way and gets unconstructively headstrong, the elder Hopper, who bears the scars of lost fights, reminds him of his own words: “Use the back door.”

Chasers should not have been the finish of Hopper’s directing career. But for a life known for fights and excess and premature death and redemption, remembering that the last time he sat in control yelling action, it was among harmonious people and close friends and sun and good food, maybe it was a happy enough memory to wrap on.

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