The ‘true nature’s child’ that is Easy Rider sits just two-years shy of its 50th anniversary, after blazing a trail for independent film, with a counter-culture-message that captivated audiences in its theatrical debut back in 1969. As America was falling deeper into the big muddy of the Vietnam war, and the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy shocked the nation, Easy Rider spoke to movie going audiences who were confused about the country they loved, and were no longer willing to show blind patriotism, or accept their government’s answers with no questions asked. The film presents a rather existential question, “what is freedom?” and as the tagline on the poster declares: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.” Hopper and Fonda boldly stepped outside of the studio system and showed how difficult it was for people with a different take on the American dream who looked differently than the societal norm, to travel and live amongst people who want to shape “freedom” to fit their own prejudices – irrespective of whether or not that tramples under-foot the rights of fellow Americans.
Directed by Dennis Hopper and co-written by Hopper, Peter Fonda & Terry Southern, Rider’s two central characters – Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt (Fonda) – in a not so subtle parallel to Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp – use a cocaine deal with roots in Mexico to bankroll their journey across the southwest, with plans to sell the stashed contraband hidden in the gas tank of Wyatt’s Harley during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Make no mistake, the two men are modern day cowboys, clad in suede and leather as they hit the wide-open spaces – riding chrome instead of horses – they set out to live their version of the American dream with a frontiersmen’s optimism. Billy with his moustache and long haired “Hey man…” skeptical paranoia and Wyatt with his Captain America cool persona, complete with his leather jacket that sports the American flag on the back, and his matching stars and stripes gas tank and helmet paint job – the two men soon discover that the further they get from Los Angeles, the less accepting people are and the American dream has a fine print that is written in blood.
Despite my profound appreciation of the film (I wrote a screenplay that was produced about two brothers on a road trip in a Winnebago), what could I possibly write about Easy Rider that hasn’t been covered in some form or another over the last 48 years? I was fortunate enough to discuss the iconic film with actress, writer, producer and director – Illeana Douglas – who worked with Dennis Hopper in the film Search & Destroy and is the host of the podcast I Blame Dennis Hopper and penned the book I Blame Dennis Hopper and Other Stories from a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies.
GM: You have a rather unique connection to Easy Rider, in that it really captivated and spoke to your parents. They gave up their upper-middle-class lifestyle and set up a commune of sorts in their backyard. Do you think that’s what influenced you in becoming an artist, that kind of nurture vs. nature, or were you eventually headed down that path to become the actor, writer, producer, director you are now?
ID: Oh, that’s why I wrote the book [I Blame Dennis Hopper…] in the sense that my parents were kind of this post war, 50’s generation, that moved to Connecticut to have this kind of upper-middle class life and then they saw Easy Rider. I think that obviously, my father being the son of a famous movie star probably had some implications, too – but they threw it all away. It was like: “money is evil,” “we have to live off the land,” “have a commune and a band…” I was only four when they saw the movie, but we became poor because they saw this film and we became hippies. What I talk about in the book was that in meeting Dennis Hopper and having this kind of mystical experience with him, was God bless Dennis Hopper, because of course all of my rebellious nature towards films and independent films – I find the root of that from Dennis Hopper. There are so many parallels in my own life to his, minus of course the drugs and the women and Taos New Mexico. [laughs]
GM: I saw Easy Rider when I was 17, and I’m not embarrassed to say that I missed the bigger picture of what the film had to say. I got the counter-culture cool of Hopper and Fonda hitting the wide-open spaces on motorcycles and living life on your own terms, but the film spoke to me on such a deeper level as I got older. Did the movie speak to you the first time you saw it and how has the movie evolved for you?
ID: No, no. Not at all. The first time I saw the film I was probably in high school, and it aired on television… highly edited on CBS… and I remember watching it and thinking, “This is the movie that ruined my life?” I didn’t even understand it. The whole ending of course was cut out and it went way, way over my head. Then over the years I started to watch it, and as I read about its place in film history, I had a much greater understanding of it. You know, when it was made, 1969 – you’ve got Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider just busting open the studio system and how they made movies in a completely different way. That really impressed me. Then of course there’s the message of the film, and this thing my parents were doing was kind of a romantic idea in rejecting capitalism. That was the enemy – plastics and fancy cars. In fact, when I met Dennis Hopper I kind of teased him, “How many lives did you ruin? There must be thousands and thousands of people.” I wrote in the book that I feel like we’re all sort of children of Dennis Hopper in some way.
GM: The children of people who rejected capitalism?
ID: Or the people that found him to be a disciple.
GM: Given the soundtrack, the cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs, Fonda and Hopper as modern day cowboys setting out to make a movie, Nicholson’s performance and the film’s message, would you say Easy Rider is the most influential independent film of all time?
ID: Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt. First of all, I’m fascinated by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to a certain extent, in that Dennis Hopper came out of the studio system. He had worked with Nick Ray and George Stevens and he was a studio contract player, but he didn’t really fit in. Then he meets James Dean and discovers a new type of acting. Peter Fonda was the son of a major Hollywood movie star and the two just broke the mold with that film. They just picked up cameras and of course behind the scenes Burt Schneider had a lot of artistic things going on and they just made this movie. It was very fluid and they put in the music they were listening to at the time and they caught lighting in a bottle. I always thought it was kind of ironic that Dennis ended his career by going back to studio movies and playing a caricature of himself from Easy Rider.
GM: You mentioned irony – I always thought the great irony of Easy Rider was that it made a massive amount of money for Colombia. It took a 360K budget and grossed 60 million dollars. Is it even possible in today’s market place for an independent film to have that kind of success given how small films seem to go directly to Netflix or Amazon?
ID: No. That’s not even in the realm of possibility. You have to understand that it was a statement against Hollywood. There’s a story of Henry Fonda attending one of the screenings and walking out, “I don’t get it.” He didn’t know what to make of the film. It was depicting this divide, not just in American films, but in American culture. That’s why the film has always been so personal to me, you know my grandfather was a movie star, and he was like a Henry Fonda – so I could see my father sort of seeing himself in this role of rejecting the finer things in order to live this sort of pure life. I know he related to Peter Fonda.
GM: The Wild and Bunch and Easy Rider were both released in 1969, and both films kind of fired a shot across the bow about where cinema was headed in the 1970’s, with protagonists who had an incongruent way of life for the direction society was headed, and in both films the characters meet a violent end. Do you think Easy Rider would have held up the same after all these years if Wyatt and Billy would’ve rode off into the sunset on their Harleys, or were their deaths necessary to become martyrs for the counter culture movement?
ID: I think it has to have the ending it has. They had the perfect actor in Jack Nicholson, and they really captured the anxiety of that time. It’s a movie about these two-alienated-people who are searching for America, and that was my parents experience also. That post war search. “We’re not going to be the middle-class American family.” It was a break from the sort of Eisenhower 50’s and becoming a part of this sort of new generation. It’s cliché, but it really was anti-establishment, and of course the Vietnam war plays into all of this. Nobody’s going to see the movie today and quit their job, start a commune and live off the land. That’s the cultural phenomenon of what people saw in the film and why film is so powerful.
GM: Nicholson’s freedom monologue, is sadly as relevant today, as the day it was written. We need to be wary of people who want to co-opt freedom and frame it into their own narrative. Is that the hallmark of a great film, the staying power of its themes?
ID: When I did the book tour I always played that monologue, because it’s the heart and soul of the movie, and then right after that I would play the scene from Grapes of Wrath with Henry Fonda talking about a sense of dignity, and a sense of value as an American and that’s what freedom is. There’s a through line from Henry Fonda’s monologue that extends to Nicholson and Hopper talking about freedom. That’s what Nicholson is expressing and that’s what connected to my parents. Freedom wasn’t about house payments and cars and working a 9-5 job. Freedom is about expressing yourself and becoming the best human being you can possibly be. Somewhere along the way Republicans co-opted freedom, and freedom became about owning guns. It’s a shame Dennis Hopper isn’t alive to comment on what’s going on today.
GM: Hopper is the only actor that’s ever appeared onscreen with John Wayne, James Dean, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. Having worked with some legends in the industry yourself, can you distill what the great directors have in common?
ID: Oh, boy… that’s so tough. I guess I go back to a kind of psychic sense of seeing something in you and bringing it to the surface and understanding that they need to create an environment that makes you feel safe. Dennis and I had lengthy discussions about James Dean and how that changed his style of acting, this sort of digging deeper and exposing the person underneath. But again, Dennis was not only an actor and director, he was a great photographer and art collector – a true artist – and when I would see him at events he never really seemed to quite fit in with new Hollywood. He seemed trapped between two worlds. Easy Rider is a landmark film that changed my parent’s life, and in doing so, changed my life. How often do you get to have an experience of working with an actor whose work so personally touched your life and tell them that?
GM: I don’t want to embarrass you, but you’ve got a lot going on – you’re the host of the Trailblazing Women series on TCM, you have the podcast I Blame Dennis Hopper with Illeana Douglas, and your book I Blame Dennis Hopper and Other Stories from a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies and you’re producing and acting. Is the key to success in Hollywood creating your own content?
ID: Yeah, you have to. You really have to dig from your own kind of art box and come up with personal stories. To me making a movie or telling a story is like Show and Tell. Everybody has their own personal and unique story and it’s the way they tell it that makes it compelling. Obviously, every story has been told, but if you can find some unique spin on it, that’s the way to go. People talk about “presence” and with Dennis, I think what that means is truth. He’d been through a lot. He’d certainly had his ups and downs and from that, there’s a certain acceptance of life, and I think in the end that’s what makes him a Stradivarius.