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1969 marked a turning point in American cinema and the way movies were made in Hollywood. And the movie that changed it all was Easy Rider, a low budget film made for $555,000 that ended up grossing more than $60,000,000 worldwide. It was shot outside the studio in real locations over a seven week period, much of the dialogue and narrative were improvised, it featured no major stars and cast non-professional actors in several key scenes, it prefigured the MTV generation by twelve years with its inclusion of numerous music video-like vignettes featuring popular rock songs, and it presented an authentic view of the counterculture from inside it because the young cast and crew were a part of it. They were the new Hollywood rebels.
On the surface, Easy Rider appears to be nothing more than the story of two drug dealers who become rich from a cocaine deal and travel from the California-Mexico border to New Orleans in time to celebrate Mardi Gras. But the film is much more than that and shows a diverse cross section of American culture that encompasses lifestyle experimentation (the hippie commune), intolerance (the hostile locals at a backwater Louisiana diner), and wanderlust (the motorcycle becomes a symbol for freedom). It is the ultimate "road trip" movie and even though it ends in tragedy the movie celebrates the natural beauty of rural America in a startlingly fresh way, juxtaposing the two cyclists against stunning landscapes and ever-changing vistas on their journey.
According to producer Peter Fonda, the idea for Easy Rider came to him during a publicity tour in Toronto where he was promoting Roger Corman's The Trip (1967). While autographing photographs, a still from The Wild Angels (1966) triggered an epiphany. "I understood immediately just what kind of motorcycle, sex, and drug movie I should make next," Fonda wrote in his autobiography. "It would not be about one hundred Hell's angels on their way to a funeral. It would be about the Duke and Jeffrey Hunter looking for Natalie Wood. I would be the Duke and [Dennis] Hopper would be my Ward Bond; America would be our Natalie Wood. And after a long journey to the East across John Ford's America, what would become of us? We would be blasted to bits by narrow-minded, redneck poachers at dawn, just outside of Heaven, Florida, and the bed of their pickup would be full of ducks. I mean really full of ducks."
In his excitement, Fonda called his friend Dennis Hopper in the middle of the night, waking him up to pitch the idea. "You direct, I'll produce, we'll both write and star in it," Fonda announced, and Hopper happily agreed, his mind already racing with ideas. Then Fonda went on location to France to shoot "Metzengerstein," a segment of the three-part fantasy film Spirits of the Dead (1968), directed by Roger Vadim and co-starring his sister Jane. It was during production that he met writer Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove , Candy ), who was visiting Jane and Vadim, and their conversation led to Peter's project. Southern told him "It's the most commercial story I have ever heard. And a real pip of an ending! I'm your man!"
With Southern on board to help fashion and write the screenplay, Fonda returned to Los Angeles where Hopper had been developing story ideas and gotten a commitment from Rip Torn to play a pivotal role in the film, an alcoholic Texas lawyer the two bikers meet in jail. A recording session was soon set up by Southern, Hopper described the story in detail and the tape was transcribed and edited down to a twenty-one page treatment.
Fonda and Hopper initially pitched the project to American International Pictures with Roger Corman as executive producer but the studio responded with too many restrictions and changes for their liking. Instead, Fonda decided to attempt another project in the interim, a political fantasy entitled The Queen, which he, Hopper, and poet-playwright Michael McClure presented to director/producer Bob Rafelson, who had a creative partnership with Bert Schneider entitled Raybert Productions. The two producers, who became wealthy off their hit TV series The Monkees, passed on The Queen but inquired about Fonda's undeveloped motorcycle film. Before Fonda and Hopper left the office they had a production deal with a set budget but a limited time to shoot it since Mardi Gras was fast approaching and figured prominently in their movie.
Fonda and Hopper quickly pulled a film crew together and along with two actresses, Karen Black and dancer/choreographer Toni Basil playing prostitutes, traveled to New Orleans to shoot the first footage of Easy Rider. It was a chaotic and undisciplined shoot not helped by the easy availability of drugs and alcohol during filming. Hopper, in particular, grew increasingly paranoid and controlling, screaming at one point, "This is my f*cking movie, and nobody is going to take it away from me!" He even got into a brawl with Barry Feinstein, the main cinematographer, over filming some neon lights in the rain and in the shuffle Hopper broke a guitar over Barry and threw a TV set at him. As a result, Laszlo Kovacs became the head cinematographer on the movie.
Hopper's manic behavior began to put a strain on his relationship with Fonda who felt particularly manipulated by him while filming the LSD freakout scene in the New Orleans cemetery. "Dennis asked me to get up on a statue and ask my mother why she abandoned me by suicide. I told him that simply because he had personal knowledge of my family's darkness-at-the-break-of-noon, he didn't have the right to make me take it so public....Dennis told me I had to speak to her. I kept insisting it didn't fit, that it was wrong, that it wasn't fair of him to ask me to do it. I finally demanded that he give me one good reason to do it. "'Cause I'm the director! he shouted, wiping the tears from his cheeks."
After the New Orleans filming was finished the company returned to Los Angeles and Hopper completed the casting process, hiring familiar character actors such as Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke , The Green Berets ) and Warren Finnerty (The Pawnbroker ) and fellow players from AIP and other exploitation films - Luana Anders (The Trip), Robert Walker, Jr. (The Savage Seven ), Sabrina Scharf (Hell's Angels on Wheels ). Hopper also replaced Rip Torn (who either refused to do the role for scale or had a falling out with Hopper, according to varying sources) with Jack Nicholson in the role of George Hanson. Hopper wanted to hire an actor from Texas at first but Fonda convinced him that Nicholson would inhabit the role completely. And of course, George Hanson turns out to be the most completely developed and memorable character in Easy Rider. Nicholson embroidered his role with little touches that brought George to life such as the ni-ck, ni-ck, ni-ck gesture he displays after taking a swig of booze; that was stolen from a friend of his who was nicknamed Reddog.
Nicholson later confessed in an interview in Time magazine that the cast had smoked 155 joints while filming the scenes around the campfire. "Each time I did a take or angle," Nicholson told Playboy magazine afterward, "it involved smoking almost an entire joint...Now, the main portion of this sequence is the transition from not being stoned to being stoned. So that after the first take or two the acting job becomes reversed. Instead of being straight and having to act stoned at the end, I'm not stoned at the beginning and having to act straight - and then gradually let myself return to where I was - which was very stoned. It was an unusual reverse acting problem. And Dennis was hysterical off-camera most of the time this was happening; in fact, some of the things that you see in the film - like my looking away and trying to keep myself from breaking up - were caused by my looking at Dennis off-camera over in the bushes, totally freaked out of his bird, laughing his head off while I'm in there trying to do my Lyndon Johnson and keep everything together."
After filming was completed on Easy Rider, Hopper worked for twenty-two weeks on editing the footage down from a four hour version to two hours and forty five minutes. Then editor Donn Cambern, working with Fonda and the executive producers, over Hopper's objections, reduced the film to its current 95 minute running time which was the version that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Hopper received the "Best First Work" award at Cannes and the wildly enthusiastic reception the film received there set the tone for the movie's reception in the U.S.
Unlike previous films about the counterculture that were dismissed or ignored by the mainstream critical establishment, Easy Rider enjoyed widespread praise. Howard Smith of The Village Voice wrote, "Terry Southern wrote the script which will do for Fonda what none of his other roles did. That is, make him an enormous hero-star. He comes off like a combination of Clint Eastwood and James Dean. Hopper....somehow got his head together enough to pull off one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen." Archer Winsten in the New York Post said, "Individual scenes are so well and truly made that they remain in the mind like your own experience....It's happening. It's not a movie." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times noted, "From its deceptively amusing beginnings to its swift and terrible end, Easy Rider is an astonishing work of art and an overpowering motion picture experience." Almost everyone seemed to concur since the movie went on to become the fourth most profitable movie of the year - falling in line behind Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Love Bug and Midnight Cowboy - and it even received two Oscar® nominations, one for Jack Nicholson (Best Supporting Actor) and one for the screenplay by Terry Southern, Fonda and Hopper.
Most importantly, Easy Rider represented a crossroads in the film industry, one where the old Hollywood system had become stagnant while young filmmakers were revitalizing the medium with fresh, creative ideas that were having a real impact on the culture and their generation. The movie was responsible for launching Jack Nicholson's career at a time when he was about to give up acting for producing. And it certainly enabled Fonda and Hopper to pursue their own separate visions on film while maintaining creative control.
Unfortunately, the tensions that arose between Fonda and Hopper during the making of Easy Rider erupted into an ongoing dispute over the "authorship" of the movie with Hopper claiming solo credit for the story idea and script in a lawsuit. Hopper, in turn, was later sued by Rip Torn for spreading lies about a physical confrontation the two had in a public restaurant, which may have been the reason Torn was replaced by Jack Nicholson in the film. None of this matters much to fans of the movie who return to it repeatedly for its iconic soundtrack featuring songs by Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix and others, the innovative, freewheeling cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs, Nicholson's scene-stealing performance and the movie's fresh take on two young nonconformists looking for the real America.
"There are so many people around the world who come up to me and tell me that Easy Rider changed their lives," Peter Fonda wrote in his autobiography. "Most of the long-distance riders I meet tell me that I started the whole thing. I didn't start it at all. I just put it on film."
Producer: Peter Fonda
Director: Dennis Hopper
Screenplay: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Art Direction: Jerry Kay
Film Editing: Donn Cambern
Cast: Wyatt (Peter Fonda), Billy (Dennis Hopper), Connection (Phil Spector), Bodyguard (Mac Mashourian), Rancher (Warren Finnerty), Rancher's wife (Tita Colorado), George Hanson (Jack Nicholson), Karen (Karen Black).
by Jeff Stafford
Don't Tell Dad: A Memoir by Peter Fonda
Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson by Patrick McGilligan
The Fondas: The Films and Careers of Henry, Jane & Peter Fonda by John Shipman Springer
The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett
The Making of Easy Rider featurette on the 35th Anniversary Deluxe DVD Edition