ALONG FOR THE RIDE: DENNIS HOPPER AND SATYA DE LA MANITOU
Nick Ebeling: I think they had an awareness that he was a rebel because Hopper had gotten blacklisted before that. When he was over at Warner Brothers in the 50s—around the time he was in Giant and all that—he had told another studio head to go fuck himself. He had told the director to go fuck himself. He learned a lot of that stuff from James Dean. James Dean did that to all the executives and Elia Kazan during East of Eden. He put his middle finger up in the air. ‘Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, I’m doing this.’ These guys were tremendous explorers and Dean somehow got away with it a little bit better than Dennis. So Hopper had to work in television in the late 50s. That’s why he’s in The Twilight Zone. He’s on Petticoat Junction or The Beverly Hillbillies. Weird credits. He basically decided when he got blacklisted the second time that he was not going to do television. That’s why there’s no Colombo episodes with Dennis Hopper as a guest star in the 1970s. He pretty much was on a mission. ‘I’m going to direct again and figure this out.’
My initial introduction to Dennis Hopper was from the film Speed. I was probably in middle school when it came out and I found him such a magnetic presence. It’s funny that was my initial introduction and from that I went looking more into him and realized what a crazy and long career he’d had already at that point.
Nick Ebeling: It’s like that for a lot of people from our generation. Then you start peeling back these layers and you’re, like, ‘Oh my God!’ Like, his photos? These are some of the best photos in the 1960s. He did an art installation at Bilbao! There’s almost nobody like him.
Do you think Hopper was surprised by the rejection by the studio? Or do you think part of him kind of knew that it was going to be this contentious? Do you think he was crestfallen when it was not received well?
Nick Ebeling: There are a lot of stories. It’s like Rashomon. There’s three sides to every story. You move around and see who says what. But there’s a thing in L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s film The American Dreamer, which we use a little bit of in the movie—it’s that footage of Dennis in Taos editing his movie and shooting guns—where he says something like, ‘God, I may just become Orson Welles at the end of this. Poor bastard.’ I think he knew what he wanted to do and he knew there was resistance. I just watched Easy Rider again in a screening and, God, there is so much of what we’re even still dealing with now. That still resonates. Especially what Jack Nicholson is talking about at the campfire, and the ending, and it’s just quite remarkable. I think that how that middle finger went up to the establishment—I guess that’s the word they use—as a fuck you to a lot of conventions that were part of America at the time. I think The Last Movie was a ‘fuck you’ to Hollywood. There’s a great quote with Dennis that I found where he said what he was doing with The Last Movie was using film as paint, like Jackson Pollock. Film is not film—film is paint, you know? I’ve always loved that idea of exploring what is this whole medium? Let’s deconstruct it and play with it and take a look at it. I think he was severely ahead of his time.
Satya at one point talks about how right hand men and women are a vital part of culture because they keep the engine running. They help these tortured geniuses stay alive to do what they do. Do you think that’s how it really works? Do certain creative people need people like Satya to reach their potential? What what do you think Hopper’s life would have been like without him?
Nick Ebeling: Quite a few people pulled me aside privately and told me he would have never made it out of the 1970s alive. He was on that trajectory. Without Satya there … because he really cared and he recognized Dennis’ genius even in the darkest hours… There was so much great stuff that we wanted to include but our movie probably would have been as long as the 15 hour rough cut of The Last Movie at the El Cortez. You see Satya in The American Friend. He’s in the film, you know? And you look at that performance of Dennis in The American Friend and it’s one of the best Dennis Hopper performances of all time. I think Satya had a major, major hand in that even though he never would really even want to admit it—[he was] keeping Dennis on the path. One more thing I should add—the thing in the end of the film which perfectly sums it up because I was born and bred in this town and I know what he’s talking about—the difference between Satya De La Manitou and most of the assistants is most of the assistants are just there for a couple of years and they just do their thing and they’re looking to move to become a producer or they’re looking to become something else. Satya dedicated his life to watching out for Dennis. I think that’s the difference with Satya De La Manitou.
Someone in your film mentions that Hopper suffered from a disease called self-destruction—where did that come from?
Nick Ebeling: I think when you have a point of view… It’s rare for people to have a real point of view in Hollywood. It is very prevalent for them to have it in the fine art world. So many people are willing to concede just to be a part of that circle in Hollywood. For Dennis, it was about what he was putting out, what he was creating. The Last Movie, he felt, was his best piece of work that he was going to leave the world. He was more proud of that award he won at CIDALC than he was of Easy Rider or the award from Cannes or any of the other films he was part of. The Last Movie was the culmination of all of those aspects of him. This is what I was told later by people who were part of the circle. I never knew that so for me, that was incredible to hear. You get so many versions but it was so rad to go visit with the real people who were part of the story.
Symbolically, I think there’s an idea in your film that I think in some ways defines it. Satya says, like, The Last Movie is about how Hollywood goes to places and does what it does. And when it leaves, it leaves the ghost behind and that ghost is a destructive force, and that’s actually literalized in the movie. But in some ways it seems to be part of Hopper’s life too, in the way that the ghost of The Last Movie lingered in his life long after the film was finished. Do you think it was a destructive force for him in the same way?
Nick Ebeling: Yeah—but you know what? He kept his integrity through that period and he landed so perfectly when he got to Blue Velvet. It’s like the culmination of all that. I think the reason we’re still talking about him is because of that. Maybe it was the right path because now you look at him and it’s this very prolific career. Of course, you know, the 90s got a little ‘cash out’ and spotty but hey, I always think, ‘You paid your dues, man. Enjoy it now. Go buy Basquiats before anyone knows what they are.’ I think that was the thing that was missing. I’ve talked to so many people about this and still, he got a little video tape release, he got the rights back together on The Last Movie. And that was even followed by problems. I think the distributor—I was told—went to jail the same year that happened and that’s why it’s still so rare. I was lucky enough to find one and I took it. But he was never able to rectify that thing—that ghost you’re talking about. Satya brought it up too. He showed The Last Movie, you know. Dennis would take it around and show it at art houses and talk about it, but I think it never got its its proper just due. Hopefully we’ve helped a little bit to get some awareness there.
At the beginning of your film, Satya mentions the quote from Tolstoy that art is the effective transmission of experience. Would Hopper have agreed with that? What kind of experiences was he attempting to transmit? What experience are you transmitting with your film?