Today, May 29th, marks five years since Dennis Hopper shucked his mortal coil. Hopper had been on my short list of "dream interviews" during my tenure at Venice Magazine. When I was lucky enough to finally sit down with him in November of 2008, I was thrilled, and didn't know quite what to expect.
What I found while smoking cigars with Hopper in his Venice home-studio, was a thoughtful man with a gentle demeanor, who spoke in measured tones and loved telling stories. Gone was the wild-eyed, cannabis-toking "enfant terrible" that Hopper had made his name playing, and sometimes living. What I saw instead was a man who seemed to be at peace with himself and his life, who loved his children, art, film and new ideas. Sometimes when you have seen life at its ugliest, as Hopper surely had, you're able to come out the other side and drink in its beauty. I hope this was true.
Rest in peace, and thanks for it all.
DENNIS HOPPER IS RIDING EASY
The Hollywood landscape is littered with tragedies, broken promise and self-destruction. Many promising artists stumble once and never recover from that initial fall. In the history of American film, there has never been a phoenix-like story of survival and rebirth quite like that of Dennis Hopper, who has gone from Warner Bros. contract player in his late teens, to Hollywood outcast, to renowned artist, photographer and art collector, to the man who brought independent cinema into the mainstream with Easy Rider, to being outcast again and nearly destroyed during a period of heavy drug and alcohol abuse. There are single incidents of self-destruction in Dennis Hopper's life that most human beings could never walk away from in one piece, and by his own admission, Hopper repeated these incidents dozens of times over decades, until getting sober for good in 1985.
Hopper has also had a Zelig-like ability to have been surrounded by some of the film, art and political world's most significant players: James Dean, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Martin Luther King, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Miles Davis and dozens of other legendary names that could fill every page of this blog and turn it into a history book. Few Hollywood players have led as rich and varied a life as that of Dennis Lee Hopper, who was born May 17, 1936 in Dodge City, Kansas. Hopper has appeared in 200 films and television productions since 1955, with 2008 showcasing Dennis the Menace, as he was nicknamed in his enfant terrible days, in no less than eight feature films, the best being Isabel Coixet's superb Elegy, with Hopper in a masterful turn as Sir Ben Kingsley's best friend and confidant, and the lead in the Starz network's first original series, Crash, based on Paul Haggis' Oscar-winning film, telling a tableaux of tales about the disparate denizens of Los Angeles. Hopper scores big again with his manic portrait of a legendary record producer who seems to be constantly teetering on the precipice of madness or epiphany.
A long-time Venice resident, Dennis Hopper has been named one of the top 100 collectors of modern art in the world, and was recently honored by the Cinematheque Francais in Paris with a retrospective of his work. Mr. Hopper sat down with Venice Senior Editor Alex Simon recently over a cigar, and discussed his life as Hollywood's greatest survivor. Read on...
You've had a busy year. Let's start by talking about Crash.
Dennis Hopper: I had just gotten back from the Cannes Film Festival, and my agent called and asked if I'd like to do a TV series. They said it was an incredible part and based on the film Crash, which won all the Academy Awards. The kicker was I had two days to decide! (laughs) But I'm glad I did it. It's been a lot of fun and we're working very hard: Sometimes working 16-hour days, but nobody's complaining because the scripts are so good. We have no restrictions in terms of what we can say or do, and in many ways, we have more freedom than we would on film, because we had a commitment for 13 episodes. Then two days after I shot the first episode, I was in France where the cinematheque in Paris had spent three and a half years working on a retrospective of my work and some of my art collection and took the fifth floor of the Frank Gehry building, where the cinematheque is located and built this virtual reality installation with twenty different screens that showed all the films I'd made, commercials I'd done, experimental films I'd made with Andy Warhol and Bruce Conner. It covered my entire career up till now, and it was really amazing.
Every time I've been in Paris, Easy Rider seems to be playing somewhere.
Yeah, it played in one theater on the Left Bank for twenty years. It was a very narrow, long little theater. I kept seeing this woman who grew older and older over the years at all these film festivals. She'd walk up to me and say "It's still playing!" (laughs) I felt like a jazz musician in France, when jazz went sour in the States, the Europeans all sort of took over the jazz movement. I guess if you're a big enough failure, they really take you to heart! (laughs)
You really do have the greatest Hollywood survival story, ever.
Yeah, and this is not a place where you want to try and survive. (laughs)
Well, one could argue that Hollywood is a living metaphor for social Darwinism at its most twisted.
True, very true.
Watching your character in the first episode of Crash, I thought to myself "So, Frank Booth survived the gunshot to the head in Blue Velvet and became a record producer."
(laughs) Yeah, right!
Who else would call someone an "eyeless fuck" but Frank Booth?
(laughs) Yeah, yeah. My first conversation with my penis in the limo with the young woman driver, it's pretty hairy. When I hire the new driver, who's black, and say, "Gorillas in the mist, that's what the LAPD call you," he has no stop switch, my character. He says everything and insults everybody. He just goes for it.
Which at one time could have described you.
Yeah, probably. I guess so. It was so long ago now, I can't remember. (laughs) Phil Spector and I had an office together for ten years, and people have asked me if I'm doing Phil Spector in this and I said "No. I'm doing me!" (laughs) The office was right up on Sunset before you go into Beverly Hills. David Geffen was in there for a while, too.
I know you've done TV work before, going back to its infancy in the 1950s. How is working in TV a different process from doing a film, or is it?
Well, you have more time to develop a character, first of all. Instead of an hour and a half, you have thirteen hours, in this instance. Doing regular television you have lots of restrictions, but doing cable you have no restrictions and can push the envelope a lot farther. That said, you have more time to do a feature than you do a television series itself, because we're constantly under the gun, working twice a week with sixteen hour days. I have so much dialogue, though. I have all these speeches to memorize which really, if you look at them, mean nothing at all! (laughs) They're just these stream-of-consciousness rants. I'm like a little kid sitting in the corner memorizing this stuff all day and all night. We're shooting it all in Albuquerque because (Governor) Bill Richardson is giving us such a good deal to film there. There's probably more movies being shot in New Mexico than anywhere else in the States. It's a drag because I have to leave my family, but the work is good.
You also have a terrific part in one of the year's best films, Isabel Coixet's Elegy.
That's a brilliant film. I hope they get some awards so they'll mass distribute it. Penelope Cruz gives one of the best female performances I've ever seen. I'm very proud to have been part of that.
How was working with Sir Ben Kingsley?
Sir Ben is great, man. All my scenes were with him, really. He's so comfortable to be with. He's such a good actor, you could just play moment-to-moment reality with him all day long. It's a pleasure to work with an actor who's that good. I had a ball with him, and he's very funny. He just gives and never pushes and is really there for you, has a great rhythm.
Let's start at the beginning: You were born in Kansas.
Dodge City, Kansas, 1936, which makes me 72 years old. A guy who never thought he'd live to be 30, who had a real shock when he made it to 31.
Is there a secret to being a survivor? Does it come down to genetics, to luck, to having a specific outlook?
I think it's probably a combination of all three. I had such a bad drinking problem, and it took a lot to get me sober.
And you knew from a young age that you liked mind-altering experiences. I remember hearing you tell a story about snorting gasoline from your grandfather's truck...
Yeah, and I looked up at the clouds and saw clowns, until I OD-ed on the fumes and smashed up his truck with a baseball bat, thinking it was a monster, smashing out the lights. (laughs) I was about seven. (laughs) Not good, but that was the end of my gas-sniffing.
What did your parents do?
My father served in the OSS during World War II and came back and went to work for the railway mail. So we moved from Dodge City when I was nine, and moved to Kansas City, where I lived until I was 13, then we moved to San Diego. My father ended up managing the San Diego post office, and my mother, who had managed one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in the country -- she was the backstroke champion of Kansas, and was on her way to the Olympics when she became pregnant with me -- and then she managed a swimming pool in a suburb of San Diego called El Cajon. I started acting at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego when I was 13.
When did you know you were an actor?
I wanted to be an actor from the time I saw my first films, which I think were singing cowboy pictures like Roy Rogers.
What else do you remember about that time?
It was the dustbowl, so I had to wear a gas mask to school five days a week, and my grandmother would open the door and five inches of dust would blow inside. There were bread lines and soup lines, and it was really bad. The whole middle of the country had blown away. My grandmother used to fill her apron full of eggs and we'd go into town. She'd sell the eggs and we'd go to the movies, while my grandfather would be out working on his wheat farm. I got my first Sheep Dog from the Clutters, the family that was murdered years later that Capote wrote about in In Cold Blood. When I was 18 years old, I came to Los Angeles, went under contract to Warner Bros. and did Rebel Without a Cause, my second movie.
I know both Nicholas Ray and James Dean were profound influences on you.
Yeah, Dean made a real impression on me. I thought I was the best young actor around, and then I saw him. I'd never seen anybody improvise before. I'd always been doing Shakespeare and other plays where everything was a preconceived idea, preconceived gestures, how I said a line... and here he was differently every scene, adding things to the script. It was really confusing to me, initially. I grabbed him one night, and said "What are you doing?" And we talked for a while, and I asked "Should I go back and study with (Lee) Strasberg?" He said, "No, no, no. Just start doing things, but don't show them. Don't indicate, or presuppose what you're going to do. Live in moment-to-moment reality. Instead of playing drinking your coffee, just drink your coffee. Just smoke your cigar, don't play smoking the cigar. You'll find the simplest things become very difficult the first time you get onstage or in front of the camera, but eventually you'll get through all that. Just live in the moment." So that was the beginning of it. We did Giant together next, and he used to watch me on that picture and critique me afterward. When his character got older, he started asking me to watch him in those scenes and to tell him if I thought he seemed old. That was basically our relationship. We weren't great buddies who went out drinking or anything like that. He was five years older than me. That was quite an age difference at that point. Also, we thought of him as a kid because he'd done Rebel, but in point of fact, he was older than Elizabeth Taylor, who was considered an "adult."
Didn't he also encourage you to pursue photography?
No, but he saw me taking pictures and said "If you're going to take pictures, don't crop them." I said "Why not?" He said, "Because you're probably going to want to direct films someday, and you can't crop film, so learn how to frame full-frame, full negative." So from that day on, I didn't crop my photographs.
Had Dean lived, would he have survived the '60s?
Oh yeah, I mean he was... first of all, Paul Newman, who was a good friend of mine and a great man, had made a film called The Silver Chalice, which Paul took out an ad apologizing for, because it was so terrible, the two parts that made Paul a star: Somebody Up There Likes Me and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, had both been cast with James Dean before he died.
Do you know the book Suspects by the film critic and historian David Thomson?
He takes famous movie characters and tells you what happened to them after the credits rolled. He did a similar piece on what happened after James Dean "survived" his car crash, with one of the punch lines being that Paul Newman kept losing parts to him and eventually moved back to Cleveland, where he became a successful car dealer.
(laughs) That's so cool! Wow...
What are some of your memories of Mr. Newman?
Well, I'd been friends with Paul since I was 18 years old. When they lived out here in California, he and Joanne (Woodward), I'd be at their house a couple times a week, then when they moved back East, we lost touch for a little while, but there was a five year period where I was with them every week. He was a terrific guy, very generous with all his charity work, and just had a huge heart, from day one. He was one of the most unselfish people I've ever known.
The two of you were in Cool Hand Luke which, like Rebel, had a who's-who of young talent that went onto bigger things.
Stuart Rosenberg directed that, his first feature, and he'd had us all in various television shows he'd directed for years. I'd starred in about five different shows he'd directed. I don't think I had one line of dialogue in that whole picture. I had some interesting physical business I did. Babalugats was the character's name. I just sort of mumbled a lot. (laughs)
What was the atmosphere like on the set? I've heard that you all became pretty tight.
We did. We shot it all up in Stockton, California. We wore our chains and prison clothes all night. We'd go to sleep in this motel with our chains on, go into the restaurant and this little nightclub there, and we'd all be in our chains. (laughs) If a lady wanted to dance with a "prisoner" she could. (laughs) It was a fun shoot. Rosenberg was always fun to work with.
And back to Rebel. What about Nicholas Ray?
Well Nick and I had a long, long relationship. He came and lived with me for a while. He showed up at the Cannes Film Festival when I was showing Easy Rider and asked to borrow $500, which I didn't have at the time. He said "C'mon, you can get $500." I said "I've been sleeping on the floor of a borrowed pool house for the last year editing this movie, being paid $140 dollars a month. I don't have any money." He said, "Well go to (Bert) Schneider and ask for the money." So I went to Schneider and borrowed the money and gave it to Nick, who came back an hour later and said "I need another 500." I said 'What you talking about?' He said "I lost it in the casino across the street." So he ended up living at my house in Taos, New Mexico for about six months, until I got him a job teaching. He ran up a phone bill that was unbelievable, looking for Howard Hughes to convince him to back his next movie. But during Rebel, Nick was very open to what were then, in the '50s, very new techniques of acting.
You became one of the first collectors of pop art. When did you first discover Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ruscha and the pop art movement?
I met a lot of the key figures at a place called Stone Brothers Printers, which was a place where they made mailers and did a magazine called Semina, which Wallace Berman put out. There was an old Chinese man named Mr. Chang who would dress in a Confederate General's uniform and perform Shakespeare, very badly, in a heavy Chinese accent out on Hollywood Boulevard, and would put his hat out. James Dean was a big fan of this guy, and would throw quarters at him. (laughs) He was having a poetry reading at Stone Brothers, so we went there, and that night I met Walter Hopps, and later, he and Ed Kienholz started The Ferus Gallery on La Cienega, which is where Andy Warhol had his first show, and he then went to the Pasadena Museum where he gave Marcel Duchamp his first retrospective in 1963.
So, in 1962 everybody was talking about "the return to reality." I was a third generation abstract expressionist, which we all were, really. We were looking at a lot of the Bay Area painters, but really felt that they were just rehashing a lot of the old stuff, it wasn't a return to reality. It was nothing new. I walked into the Ferus Gallery one day, and Irving Blum, who was running the gallery said "Dennis, I want to show you something." He showed me two slides, one of which was of a soup can, and the other was a cartoon. It was Andy and Roy Lichtenstein. I went crazy, started jumping up and down and said "That's it! That's it!" Irving said "That's what?" I said "That's the return to reality!" Irving said "What are you doing tomorrow?" So we went to New York the next day, went to Andy Warhol's studio and met Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, I saw the whole thing. That was it. I bought a Roy Lichtenstein called "Sinking Sun" for $1,100, which I later lost in a divorce. A year and a half ago, it sold for $17,870,000. I bought one of Andy's soup cans out here, and I've been collecting since. That was a very exciting time in Los Angeles, in the early '60s, and that's when I had my first shows.
It's interesting, because I think most people view pop art as an East Coast movement, not that it was born here.
Yeah, and all the East Coast guys came out here for the Duchamp retrospective. We were all so backward; we had a great thing to fight against: around 1965, the Los Angeles County Museum, one of the curators bought a Jackson Pollock. The board of directors got together and were furious, and refused to show it in the main museum, calling it "Communist propaganda."
Where the hell did they get that?
Who knows? That's how backward we were! Then Kienholtz did "Backseat Dodge" which was this sculpture made out of wire, of two people that looked like they might be making it in the back seat, and they closed down the whole L.A. County Museum because of this. Around the same time, the LAPD came in and busted Wallace Berman's show at The Ferus Gallery and destroyed all his pieces out in the alley because he had a nude picture of his wife on display. But it was a great thing if you were an artist to be sort of underground.
When you paint a picture, or shoot a photograph, is it a different process from when you act, or are you tapping into the same vein?
I think they're all different disciplines, but working with Strasberg, we worked with our senses, and brought back emotional recall and so forth. So I think you work with the same instrument, and just apply it to different disciplines. I was born in Dodge City, Kansas and am really just a middle class farm boy at heart. I really thought acting, painting, music, writing were all part of being an artist. I never thought of them as being separate. I could never play music, but I'd always loved music, and I tried to apply that. Easy Rider was the first film to use "found" music that was popular at the time. Prior to that, most movies were scored with an orchestra. Colors was the first million-selling rap album, and I produced Miles Davis' last album for The Hot Spot. When I went under contract to Warner Bros., it allowed me to have a cultural life, instead of having to get a "normal" job bussing tables, or putting on a suit and tie and going into the office. I just never stopped painting, taking photographs, writing. There was no pressure to "put that childish stuff away." It allowed me to continue to be a child.
You had a seminal experience with the director Henry Hathaway on a picture called From Hell to Texas.
(laughs) Yeah, that was in 1958, with Don Murray, Diane Varsi and Chill Wills. I got into a lot of trouble on that. I was loaned out from Warner Bros. to Fox, and I didn't want to do the part, but Hathaway kept insisting. We had the most wonderful dinners, just a delightful, wonderful guy at dinner, and a screaming, yelling maniac on the set. (laughs) But I ended up working for him more than any other director, did three films for him by the end.
But he was the antithesis of what you responded to: an old-school director who carried a riding crop.
Yeah, yeah, and he'd tell you exactly where to move, how to walk, how to talk. He'd give you line readings. I was now trying to "live in the moment" and doing things without preconceived ideas, and I walked off the picture three times on location. He'd beg me to come back, and we'd have a wonderful dinner where he'd be utterly charming and I'd say, "Mr. Hathaway, tomorrow I'd like to try the scene this way." And he'd say "Sure, sure kid. Whatever you say." And the next day on the set, he'd be screaming and yelling again, and I'd say "Mr. Hathaway, last night at dinner, you said I could try this." He'd scream "That was just dinner talk, kid, dinner talk! We're makin' a movie here, now get the fuck over there and hit your mark and say your lines like I tell ya!" (laughs) If you really wanted to drive him crazy, you'd put a paper cup in the scene: "Paper cup in a fuckin' western! They didn't have fuckin' paper cups in the old west, goddammit!" So the last day on the picture, I came on the set at 20th Century Fox, and he said "Hey, good morning. See that over there? Know what those are?" I said "Well, those are stacks of film cans, Henry." He said "That's right. I've got enough film there to shoot for four and a half months. Did you know that I owned 40 percent of 20th Century Fox?" "No, I didn't know that, Henry." "Well, I do. See that over there?" "Yeah, those are sleeping bags." "That's right. We're gonna do this scene 'til you do it my way," and it was a ten line scene, "and we'll send out for lunch, for dinner, we'll sleep here for four and a half months, then we'll send out for more!" So we started about eight o'clock in the morning. Around eleven at night, after 85 takes, I finally cracked, and said "Okay, tell me what you want to do." I did it, then I walked out. It wasn't like somebody sent a black ball around after that, but word got around that I wasn't somebody you wanted to work with. Soon after that, I was dropped from my contract at Warner Bros. I went back to New York, and I studied with Strasberg for five years. I didn't have another major role in a studio picture for nearly ten years, until Hathaway hired me again for The Sons of Katie Elder in '65.
Around the same time, you cut your teeth directing for Roger Corman, directing second unit on The Trip. What was it like stepping behind the camera for the first time?
Well, Roger was the kind of guy who wouldn't give us any money, but would let us take cameras and equipment out on the weekends and shoot. Jack Nicholson had written the screenplay for that picture, and it was a wonderful screenplay. The stuff on Sunset Boulevard, and the acid trip and the stuff in the desert was all stuff that I shot, because we didn't feel that Roger would have the inclination to shoot that stuff, so we did it all on weekends.
You got to work with some of the great directors throughout your career, from day one. Who are some of your greatest influences behind the camera?
I'd say George Stevens and Henry Hathaway, strangely enough. (laughs) Even though I fought with him a lot, he had a great leanness to his work. Nick Ray, on Rebel, was a big influence, just watching him allow Dean to do what he did on that film. I've worked with so many top directors, John Sturges was another great one. You learn something from everyone, even if they're terrible directors. A lot of directing is really like being a floor manager of a department store, where you're just managing all these different divisions, and time is your worst enemy.
I heard that during the filming of True Grit that John Wayne chased you around Paramount with a loaded gun?
(laughs) No, that's not quite how it happened. He used to arrive on the lot via helicopter from his mine sweeper that he had moored in Newport Beach. He'd have a .45 strapped on his side, wearing army fatigues, and that's the way he'd arrive to work every day. This one day he arrived, and he wanted to know where "that Pinko Hopper was hiding." I was actually in Glen Campbell's trailer, hiding from him. He was screaming "My daughter was out at UCLA last night and heard (Black Panther) Eldridge Cleaver cussing, and I know he must be a friend of that Pinko Hopper! Where is he? I want to talk to him!" So he wasn't literally running around with a gun looking for me. He was walking around with a gun at his hip, but I think he wanted to have a political discussion, as opposed to committing actual manslaughter! (laughs) Anyway, nothing ever came of it. That was just Duke.
The legendary opening sequence of Easy Rider.
Let's talk about how Easy Rider was born.
Peter Fonda and I were doing motorcycle movies: I did one called The Glory Stompers and Peter did one called The Wild Angels. Jack Nicholson did one called Hell's Angels on Wheels, all at American International Pictures. Peter had read I thing I wrote with Stewart Stern called The Last Movie, and I'd wanted to make it as my first film. Peter loved it and went around trying to raise money to make it, but wasn't successful. We'd promised each other that if we were going to do a movie, that it wasn't going to be a motorcycle movie. So we wrote a screenplay together with a standup comic named Don Sherman called The Yin and the Yang, a comedy, and we couldn't find financing for that, either. Around three o'clock in the morning, Peter called me. He was up in Toronto promoting The Trip at the film festival up there. So Peter says that he's just talked with James Nicholson, no relation to Jack, and Sam Arkoff, who ran AIP, and I told them this idea for a movie: These two guys sell a bunch of marijuana in Mexico, then buy these two beautiful, gleaming bikes and ride cross-country to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, where they have a great time, then they go into Florida to retire, and are shot by a couple of duck hunters. Peter says "They said we could both act in it, and you could direct. What do you think?" (laughs) I said, "They actually said they'd give you money for that?" "Yeah." So, I said, "Terrific, man. If they really said they'd give you the money, it sounds great to me." So that's how it started. Then when it came time to really do it, they pulled back and said I could act or direct, but not both. So we went to see Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, because they'd just finished doing The Monkees and our friend Michael McClure, a poet from San Francisco, he had a project called The Queens he wanted to do which was a satire about LBJ and Dean Rusk, and all these powerful Washington insiders dressed in drag, eating live lobsters, talking about how they assassinated President Kennedy. It was going to be a 20 minute short. We decided to pitch it to Rafelson and Schneider, Peter couldn't help but talk about what was then called The Loners, and by then we had a full outline. Schneider left the room, the Rafelson left, who came back and said, "Can I see you in my office?" So we went in and he said, "Call Schneider at home tonight. I think he's going to give you the money and let you act in it and direct it." And Schneider said "Yeah, it's a go."
And it was groundbreaking on so many levels: the first movie to really address the counterculture seriously, not in an exploitative way. The first to show people openly using drugs. The first to show some of the serious social problems that were happening in the country, particularly in the Deep South, where you actually shot some of it.
Yeah, and like I said before, it was the first time found music was ever used. At that time it was so much cheaper. All I had to do was go the artist and ask their permission to use the music.
So was the decision one that was based more on economics than on creativity?
No. I went out and shot the movie in five and a half weeks. Laszlo Kovacs said it was the best-organized picture he'd ever shot. When we spoke at AFI a few years before he died, he said, "People talk about how crazy the shoot was, but there was nothing crazy about that shoot." The thing was, after shooting the film I came back to eighty hours of footage that I hadn't seen, because in those days there was no way for me to see my dailies out on the road. I had an editing job that was just horrendous, took me over a year. And driving on the way to the studio to cut the picture, I'd hear all this great music on the radio: Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds. I heard all these songs and cut the picture to picture, and not to sound. Then when I put in a song like "Born to be Wild" it just fit perfectly. But when you see the movie, the story is told through the music, not the dialogue. It was just one of those things that worked.
Has MTV ever acknowledged you of being an early inventor of music video?
(laughs) No, I don't think so.
Easy Rider changed Hollywood.
Yeah, it certainly showed them that they could make independent films. You had to get an I.A. union stamp on your film to get released in those days, and we didn't have that stamp. Bert Schneider's father Abe was Chairman of Columbia Pictures and paid off the unions, gave them $25,000 so we could release the movie, which broke the code, and other studios saw that they could do the same thing: make a non-union film and then make a deal with the union to distribute it. Cassavetes was really the only person in the U.S. who'd been making independent films up to that point, because he was a from a well-to-do Greek shipping family that allowed him to finance his own low budget films. But he could never really get them distributed, because the majors wouldn't distribute them.
I read a quote attributed to you, and maybe you can tell me if it's accurate: "There are moments that I've had some real brilliance, you know. But I think they are moments. And sometimes, in a career, moments are enough. I never felt I played the great part. I never felt that I directed the great movie. And I can't say that it's anybody's fault but my own."
Well, I could agree with everything but the last part. It wasn't all my fault.
You don't feel that Easy Rider is a great film?
I do. I do, but after that I should have made another great movie and Colors is an alright film, but I don't know, I just never felt I directed the film I really wanted to direct after Easy Rider. I know I never did. But I don't think it was my fault that I wasn't allowed to. I had a lot of help on this end. It may have been my behavior that caused the rift to happen, but once it happened, it wasn't my fault. I could've brought them a ship full of gold, and they wouldn't have let me direct a picture after my fallout with Lew Wasserman over The Last Movie. He wanted me to re-edit it after The Venice Film Festival. I had final cut and said, "no." He said "Then it will never be distributed."
Let's talk about Apocalypse Now. What are some of your memories of being in the Philippines doing that?
I was there for four or five months. When I arrived I was signed to play a CIA agent. There was no script. So I started out in a clean uniform being told by Francis (Coppola) that I was going to be second-in-charge to Marlon Brando's army he had in the jungle. I was with these guys about three weeks and we were training with these Green Beret guys who'd just gotten out of Vietnam, playing war games. We had mortars that we'd play with that were full of powder, and if you got any of the powder on you, that meant you were dead. We had all these war toys we'd play with at night. We'd be assigned to hold a bridge. Would they be coming by the sea? Would they be coming through the jungle? We'd play these incredible war games and just had a ball. Finally Marlon arrived and everything was shut down for a week because he realized Marlon hadn't read Heart of Darkness, so Francis went out to read Marlon Heart of Darkness and 900 people, the cast and crew, just sat and waited! (laughs) We called it "the million dollar week" because Marlon was getting paid a million dollars a week. When he came back he said, "Marlon and I agreed that your part should be as large as his, or maybe larger." When you read "Heart of Darkness" you never actually see the Kurtz character, you only hear about him being talked about by this Russian-Jewish trader, who comes out with shrunken heads and thinks he's such a great man. So Francis wanted me to play that part, and made him a photojournalist who carried a lot of cameras instead of shrunken heads. So we started there, and wrote a little bit in the morning and then would just improvise off of that.
So those scenes between you and Martin Sheen, when he was locked in the bamboo cage, were largely improvised?
Yeah. I mean, it was improv that came out of writing.
And you and Brando were never actually on the set together, right?
Yeah, he'd shoot one night, then I'd do another. I came in one night and Francis said, "Marlon called you a 'sniveling dog' and threw bananas at you." So I had this prop man throwing bananas at me all night long. (laughs) And that's how we worked for a couple weeks. It was Marlon's decision for us to work separately and at the time, I was sort of offended by it, but looking back, I think Marlon did me a big favor. If you're improvising something, and he suddenly started reading "Hollow Man" by D.H. Lawrence, you really can't get something going if you have two people vying for (the director's) time. In the end, it worked out really well.
In 1986 you had a renaissance in your career with three amazing movies: River's Edge, Blue Velvet and Hoosiers, the last of which earned you an Oscar nomination. It marked a real comeback in your career, and you haven't stopped working since.
That was my first year of sobriety, too. I'd been out of rehab like two months when I went into do Blue Velvet, then I went straight to Indiana and did Hoosiers. I didn't do anything but get a haircut and put on some different wardrobe, then came back to Los Angeles and did River's Edge. It's funny because I play a drug addict in one, an alcoholic in the other and a drug dealer in the third! (laughs) So my first year of sobriety was a test. (laughs)
We have to talk about the character of Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. I read an interview with David Lynch where he said you called him after reading the script and said "David, you have to let me play this part because I am Frank Booth."
Well, actually, he'd already cast me, but I did call him after he'd cast me, and we'd never met at that point, and said, "You haven't made a mistake, because I am Frank Booth." So, supposedly he went back to the table with Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini and Laura Dern, they were all having lunch together, and said, "I just got off the phone with Dennis Hopper, and he said that he was Frank Booth, which I guess is really good for the picture, but I don't know how we'll ever have lunch with him." (laughs)
How were you Frank Booth?
I'd come out of a heavy drug life, and had known a lot of people like Frank. I didn't mean that I was literally Frank Booth, but I'd certainly run into characters like Frank, and understood him. A big discrepancy came the first day we were shooting the big scene where Kyle is hiding in the closet and I come in demanding my bourbon and tell Isabella to spread her legs, and then this sort of horrendous rape scene occurs against her. None of us had met at this point, and that was our first scene. (laughs) David had helium on the set, because in the script, the tank that Frank was constantly taking hits from was written as helium, which makes your voice really high, like Donald Duck. But it doesn't disorient you in any way, it just makes you talk funny. So, I said to David, "You know I always thought of this as being nitrous oxide or amyl nitrate or something." He said, "What is that?" I said, "Something that disorients your mind for a few minutes. I'm also having trouble acting with my voice sounding like this. So could I just show you what it would look like with the other stuff?" And I did, and David said, "Oh, that's great!" So we went with that, and I said, "If you want to put the (helium) voice in later, in post, we can," and of course, we didn't. So that was the only real contribution I made to that film, I guess. (laughs) David had written a great screenplay, and there wasn't any reason to change anything else. Years later I was sitting, thinking about it, and I thought how really weird it would be if Frank Booth had only used the gas to change the sound of his voice, that it didn't affect his mind at all, and what a cold, calculating kind of guy that would be. The Observer, in England, and Film Quarterly gave me an award in Paris as the outstanding villain of all-time for that film, which is pretty heavy, because that means I beat out Sir Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. (laughs)
Which brings us to True Romance and the scene between you and Christopher Walken, which has gone down as one of the great scenes in movie history. At the time, Quentin Tarantino was unknown. Did you know upon reading the script that a completely original voice had arrived?
Oh yeah, that was apparent immediately. I thought it was a terrific script and terrific movie, and it just died at the box office. All the buzz came out of tape and DVD. It was strange because I never saw it with an audience where it didn't get a standing ovation at the end, at Toronto and other places. It just didn't connect with mainstream audiences. Maybe it was the title, who knows? It's such a great, popcorn eating movie, you know? (laughs) Tony Scott is a terrific director. The day we did that scene, we did the whole interior of my trailer here at the studio in Los Angeles. First of all, you don't see speeches like this as an actor in film anymore. It was just pages and pages of this great dialogue. Tony started lighting, was going to shoot with two cameras, and was going to shoot Chris Walken first. Chris came in and saw it, and Tony approached me and said, "Chris just said he didn't want to go first. Would you mind going first?" I said, "I don't mind going first, but you've been lighting for two and a half hours, man!" (laughs) Tony said he didn't mind, and reversed all the lighting and went on me first, and that's how we did it and it was just wonderful. The only improvisation in the whole thing, because Tarantino's script was so good, was the bit about the eggplant and the cantaloupe. Walken and I went out later, selling the piece as a team. And someone said to us, "Oh, you guys are great actors!" And Walken says, "I don't know if we're great actors or not, but I started out as a dancer, and Hopper and I partner real well together." (laughs) And I thought that was a great line.
We touched earlier on your being a survivor.
I think it was genetics. I think it was luck. I think it was attitude that got me through a lot of it. I believe in miracles. It's a miracle that I'm still here. And I plan on being here a while longer.