On Feb. 23, 1968 — almost exactly 45 years ago — in the midst of the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, Dennis Hopper began shooting a low-budget film about two drug-dealing bikers who hit the road for the Big Easy and take an acid trip.
“Easy Rider” promised to be a moneymaker. The producer and star, Peter Fonda, was fresh off of his turn in Roger Corman’s breakaway hit, “The Wild Angels,” about a Hell’s Angels-type motorcycle gang leader who just wants to “get loaded.” Fonda followed that up with “The Trip,” Corman’s psychedelic LSD romp. The two films were megahits, making $16 million on a combined budget of around $700,000, and turning Fonda, the lanky scion of Hollywood royalty, into a bonafide countercultural icon. Combining both plots of these quintessential Corman flicks, “Easy Rider” promised to be B-movie gold.
And who was attached as the screenwriter of this tale? The hippest scribe around, Terry Southern of “Dr. Strangelove” fame — hot off of “Barbarella.” As Jack Nicholson, the no-name screenwriter of “The Trip” and struggling actor on the Hollywood scene, put it, “I knew ‘Easy Rider’ was gonna be a big money-maker right from the beginning, you know what I mean?”
The only weak link, apparently, was Hopper, a down on his luck one-time Warner Bros. contract player who’d been on the fast track to nowhere until this opportunity landed in his lap. He’d gotten a call in the middle of the night from his best pal Fonda, who was in a cheap hotel in Toronto promoting “The Trip.” In the midst of a few Heinekens and joints, Fonda had a vision of these two bikers riding across John Ford’s West, ala “The Searchers.” He wanted Hopper to direct, man.
Fonda was faced with the reality of his choice at the New Orleans Airport Hilton in the early morning of Feb. 23, with unnaturally cold temperatures and Hopper screaming at the top of his lungs to his cast and crew how nobody was going to take his movie away from him. Hopper was paranoid that he’d turn out like Orson Welles, the boy genius who’d been in Rio shooting Mardi Gras while his would-be masterpiece, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was being chopped up in the editing room by conspiratorial forces.
The tales from Hopper’s week-long chaotic shoot sounded like dispatches from a warzone. Apart from the drugs — pot, speed, red wine, martinis, probably acid — the sound of screaming fits emerged from the Clark-Cortez motor home production vehicle bumping through the maddening streets of New Orleans. There were reports of Hopper’s loaded handguns, Hopper literally wrestling with his cameraman over reels of shot film, and ultimately, a thrown television set. Actress Karen Black told me she simply couldn’t believe that she was stuck down in New Orleans with all these crazy people.
“I’m sorry,” Hopper shouted to a crowd of noisy drunks who were making it difficult to shoot. “I’m trying to shoot a major motion picture here.” The crowd threw beer cans at him.
After the shoot, Peter Fonda was ready to replace his director and give back the money to his backers. Who could blame him? The dailies were abysmal. The camerawork was manic, out-of-focus, and littered with light-leaks, lens flares. “An endless parade of shit,” someone remarked in the screening room.
The rest of course, is history, with “Easy Rider” hailed as movie milestone, making $40 million on a budget of $300,000, and sparking the indie revolution. Now at Oscar time, it’s worth revisiting Hopper’s wild shoot in Mardi Gras in light of the question — where is the madness in today’s movies? Certainly not in the lens flare option for Adobe After Effects in post-production, where the grit of an edgy film can be highly produced and digitized to the last frame.
Why is “Easy Rider” relevant today? What matters is the spirit, the idea of using the medium of film to truly create something revolutionary.
As documentarian Les Blank, one of the “underground” filmmakers who was on the New Orleans shoot, put it to me of those Mardi Gras days: “Were we onto something special? We had that feeling. Dennis had a vision of this being new ground. This was going to express something that he felt the world really needed getting in tune with. And it was gonna be major, like he told the crowd of drunks. He made us all feel like we were a part of something exciting and something new, something adventurous and something that would be meaningful in the future. We all got fired.”
Tom Folsom is the author of the Dennis Hopper biography “HOPPER: A Journey into the American Dream” (HarperCollins/It Books, on sale March 5). Follow him @tomfolsomauthor, on Facebook and at his personal site.