ALONG FOR THE RIDE: DENNIS HOPPER AND SATYA DE LA MANITOU
illustration by bijou karman
Along For The Ride is a documentary about Dennis Hopper, but it’s just as much about someone else: the engimatic Satya De La Manitou, who met Hopper on a commune—he was part of the commune—and who spent the next forty years of his life as Hopper’s right-hand man. Think of him as not just a witness to but a part of film history, or think of him—as director Nick Ebeling does—as a psychedelic Sancho Panza. (Or think of him as Ebeling’s many interview subjects obviously do: an old friend.) With Satya as guide, interviewer, narrator and wit, Along For The Ride follows Hopper from his just-post-Easy Rider career heights to his unjustly doomed-to-obscurity passion project The Last Movie, and through the decades after that saw him fight against everyone and everything—including himself, sometimes—on his way back to making films. It’s an intimate and charismatic documentary, dedicated fully—like Satya—to the integrity and vision of its subject. Along For The Ride screens on Wed., Sept. 26, at the Regent Theater with an extensive Q&A including Ebeling, Satya De La Manitou, Linda Manz and more—get tickets here! Hat And Beard Press will be releasing the film with a companion book shortly—more info on that here. This interview by Tom Child.
Who was Satya De La Manitou and how did you find him?
Nick Ebeling (director): Satya De La Manitou is kind of a mystery man, and he was Hopper’s right hand man from The Last Movie in 1970 all the way to Dennis’ death in 2010. They had actually met when Satya was on the commune when they were shooting Easy Rider and they were trying to shoot in a commune in 67 and Satya was a part of that. [Satya was on the New Buffalo commune that Dennis wanted to film for the commune scene in Easy Rider but the commune refused and Dennis had to recreate it back in the Malibu Hills.—ed. via Hat & Beard.] That was the first time they crossed paths. Then when Dennis moved to Taos, Satya went to work for Dennis when he got there permanently during post production of The Last Movie. The way I met Satya was … it was about four years ago but the story for me goes way back. I think it was about 1994, around around the time of True Romance. I was an actor. Or I was trying to be an actor, I should say, and I was a not-so-good actor. But I grew up in Hollywood with parents who were sort of on the periphery of the industry and so I had a chance to see all these really cool movies, really before most people get to the see them. I think I saw Blue Velvet when I was about five years old, if that gives you any idea. Might be a little early for me but Dennis would have liked that. They just exposed me to all kinds of things. I saw that film and later—when I went back de-traumatized from it, years later when I was trying to be an actor—that was one of the movies that really stood out to me. That was really the movie that got me into understanding who Dennis was, essentially, and I was learning about acting [from] those type of films like David Lynch’s, Bad Lieutenant and all these great kind of edgy dark films that were happening in the 80s and early 90s. When I saw Hopper, I was at that very good age when you’re kind of learning about smoking cigarettes and records and getting into really cool movies. My parents had taken me to a racetrack in Pasadena called Santa Anita Racetrack and we were walking into this place called the Chandelier Room. It’s like this old bar and it was built, I think, in the 30s so it’s a remnant of old Hollywood. Like a great Raymond Chandler-type place to be. I walked in there and then I had to go get something and my parents were off watching the horses and Hopper was standing there smoking a cigar in the center of the room. I was like, ‘This is Dennis Hopper. I’ve got to work up the courage to go talk to Frank Booth.’ So I did and Dennis, he gave me a minute, you know? that was incredible. And because of that, when I got back, I got on the bus—because this is pre-driving days—and I went to this great video store, which is no longer there, but which you may know if you’ve been in Los Angeles for a while. It was called Rocket Video. That was the place where I was discovering stuff so I went in and asked, ‘Do you have any other Dennis Hopper movies?’ I didn’t know he was a director. I didn’t know he had directed Easy Rider. I didn’t even know Easy Rider except for cultural references and other movies like making fun of the idea, like Albert Brooks in Lost in America or something. I found this movie and it was this obscure beat-up VHS tape and it was The Last Movie. I picked that up and I watched this amazing visual deconstructed look at Hollywood and Hollywood’s impact on culture and it paralleled so many great things that were happening in my life that it became this gateway drug, in a sense, like a good band can be a gateway into other music. A great book can do that, you know—when you start asking questions? For me, it wasn’t like a Steven Spielberg movie like it is for so many people in film school. It was The Last Movie! And that movie didn’t go back to Rocket Video. The delinquent charges from taking that movie were still on my credit report seven years ago and I had to pay them off. That became the mantra for me. The Last Movie got me to look at things differently and after seeing that film I knew I didn’t want to act. I pretty much quit because I was auditioning for… You know, I had seen Bad Lieutenant. I wanted to be in stuff like that but there weren’t parts for 14-year-old kids in stuff like that. It was like Saved By the Bell. It wasn’t doing it for me. So I picked up a Super 8, then I got a 16—a still camera—and I got into art and I got myself into art school and really it’s all because of that meeting with Dennis. So fast forward to about 2009. I was in a place where I was trying to figure out what to do with my career and I had written some scripts and directed some music videos. I had done some commercial work and I was looking for, ‘OK, what am I really here to do?’ Getting back in touch with the original reason that I started doing this can get lost in the film business. I was thinking about The Last Movie a lot and I was talking to a producer named Nina Yang Bongiovi who did a movie called Fruitvale Station—but she hadn’t done that film yet—and we were thinking about working together. She asked, ‘Well, what do you really want to do?’ ‘Well, there’s this movie and I can’t find anybody who’s seen it. A lot of people are very opinionated about it, but nobody’s seen it, and I think it’s brilliant and it was directed by Dennis Hopper.’ ‘Oh, well, Dennis gave me my start in the business. We were on a movie together for like six months and I love him.’ Not romantically—but he’s had that effect on a lot of people and that’s where she started. So she goes, ‘OK, let’s try to set something up. We should bring you guys together and maybe we can just have a talk about this.’ Well, Dennis was very ill with cancer at the time. I didn’t know. I wasn’t an insider or in his inner circle and he passed away, so sadly that meeting never got to happen. So let’s move even more forward. About four years ago, I’m doing my thing, she’s doing her thing and she gives me a call and says, ‘Dennis’ right hand man just called me. I think you need to meet.’ I set up that meeting in, like, an eighth of a second. He picked out Musso and Franks’ so we were all there together. He had a seafood salad, I had a cup of coffee, and he started giving me the greatest hits of Dennis Hopper. ‘Dennis Hopper made Easy Rider and it changed Hollywood. And then he was in Speed.’ And I was, like, ‘Wait a second, that’s a lot of fucking time.’ There’s a lot of great work that was happening—amazing stuff like Wim Wender’s The American Friend—so I started talking about The Last Movie and he was shocked. He said, ‘You’re one of the very few people who has ever asked me about this. Whenever I’ve been in a Hollywood meeting about anything about Dennis, it’s never gone there. Unless you were part of The Last Movie like I was. That’s the reason I worked for Dennis for four years. Seeing that movie in a rough cut in Taos, New Mexico. That’s what kept me there.’ You know, Satya is almost like this psychedelic Sancho Panza to Dennis Hopper. His right-hand man. He’s Billy and Dennis is Captain America in this story. And that was our bond. I said, ‘Hey, you know, meeting Dennis… I found The Last Movie, I stopped acting and I picked up a camera.’ We just understood each other. I literally just went to work the next week. I borrowed every dollar, took everything I had, and called in every favor I had left and we started shooting a week later and that was the genesis of it. It was a three-and-a-half year adventure together. It a road movie in itself.
So the documentary’s story starts with Dennis Hopper as he’s just finished Easy Rider. He’s the hottest director in Hollywood, he gets a million dollars to do anything he wants so he makes The Last Movie which obviously is nowhere near is as famous as Easy Rider. What is The Last Movie and why is it so unknown?
Nick Ebeling: The Last Movie was Hoppers’ passion project. He had this idea way before Easy Rider came along. In fact, he made Easy Rider because it was a chance to direct a film but he really wanted to make The Last Movie. The Last Movie goes all the way back to the late 50s. Dennis Hopper’s in an art gallery and he sees a film called A Movie by a great fine artist named Bruce Connor, an experimental filmmaker. He’s part of this incredible art movement which includes Dennis’ fine art and photography, Ed Ruscha, Baldessari, George Herms, the actor Dean Stockwell, the actor Russ Tamblyn. It’s a great gang of West Coast beatniks that started turning things around for the rest of us. So he sees his film, which is this deconstructed approach, and he loves Bruce Connors’ editing style. It’s a dissection of ‘What is a film? What does it really mean?’ That had a big influence on him. Then around the same time Hopper was in a film called The Sons of Katie Elder and they were shooting down in Durango, Mexico, and there was a stuntman who was a part of the production—because they went down and they built a bunch of set—and the natives were down there living around them and Hollywood came down and invaded, built this place and then left it behind. Anyway, this stuntman … I believe his name was Whitey and I’m forgetting his last name, but he stayed there. What he wanted to do was bring other productions from Hollywood down and then he could be the coordinator for everybody on this great set that a studio had paid a lot of money to build. So it was ready to go. He became the point man down there and the story I’ve been told is that he was murdered by the locals. Hopper was fascinated by that story and he was fascinated by what Hollywood was doing to other cultures—not just a movie production coming down somewhere but also what were Hollywood films doing to people all over the world? He enlisted Stewart Stern who was the writer of Rebel Without a Cause and who was a very old friend of his from back in his days working with James Dean at Warner Brothers. James Dean was Hopper’s acting mentor—not a lot of people know that. James Dean also bought Dennis Hopper’s first camera, which was a Leica, and encouraged him to work on fine art. That’s what Dean was on the road to doing at that time. So Hopper brought in Stewart Stern to help him pen this and they put it together and they tried to get it made and they couldn’t get the money. I think Phil Spector was going to give him the money at some point. That’s what Dennis’ brother told me. But they couldn’t make it happen. Then this film Easy Rider came around, which was this little biker movie for $300,000 that kind of changed everything with. Like, culturally, financially, it opened the door for so many other filmmakers. BBS … I don’t know if you’re familiar with that [BBS was the daring production company that made Easy Rider and more—ed.] but that movie basically is the reason you get Bogdanovich and Bob Rafelson, Monte Hellman, a whole slew. So what happened next was that Universal wanted to create their own version of BBS and they wanted Dennis to try to capitalize on that that thing that was happening that they didn’t have their finger on the pulse of—that youth counterculture whatever-you-want-to-call-it. They figured that they would mirror what BBS was doing but they would give filmmakers a million dollars and final cut—starting with Dennis. The mythology of this movie is that a million dollars was a lot of money to make a movie. Like sometimes people go, ‘It’s the Heaven’s Gate of the early 70s.’ No, not actually. Heaven’s Gate cost a hell of a lot more money. It put a studio out of business! The Last Movie was considered very, very low budget for the studio. I think a million dollars was the lowest budget that they were granting at that time within Universal. They were making movies like Airport, you know? Like Doris Day movies, musicals—but they put this little unit together to try to champion this idea of what Easy Rider had done and these other films that were now competing against bigger movies. Dennis signed on with the idea that he’d get a million dollars and do whatever he wanted to do and then they would distribute the film and promote it, etc. Then they brought in Peter Fonda as part of this experiment to do a film called The Hired Hand, which is Vilmos’ first movie, and then you have Two Lane Blacktop, Monte Hellman’s great amazing film, you have Silent Running by Douglas Trumbull with Bruce Dern, and then I think it was Minnie and Moskowitz and Diary of a Mad Housewife. They put a bunch of movies together and kind of the unofficial final one was American Graffiti. What happens is that Dennis kicks it off and he goes down to Peru and he makes the film he wants to make. I think they went to Peru because there were censors in Mexico so if you shot down in Durango the government could censor your film. Of course, Dennis wasn’t fucking having any of that so he went location scouting with Paul Lewis, his producer, and they found this beautiful village in the mountains of Peru, not too far from Machu Picchu, called Chinchero, which is about 13,000 feet up so the air is really thin. I’ve been there and I don’t know how they shot a movie. It’s just a testament to the talent of these people. So he shoots this film. I think they spent about three months out there and he comes back and takes everything to Taos, New Mexico. He buys this house called the Mabel Dodge Luhan house, which was an artist retreat from the early 1900s that was falling apart in disrepair. He bought that place and preserved it and saved it. The place is incredible. Like … D.H. Lawrence painted the bathroom there. That great eye that you always hear about Dennis recognizing things or people? Well, he was one of the first people like that in Taos and he spent his Easy Rider money buying and restoring that place up there. And he bought himself a movie theater called The El Cortez, which is a great old adobe movie house from, I think, the 30s. Just a beautiful place. And he brought his whole team up there to start editing and they started letting Universal see the cuts. They didn’t really like what Hopper was doing or where he was going. And he was like, ‘Well, I have final cut. This is what you promised me.’ So it got extremely contentious. And it’s 1971. I think kid of a lot of people don’t realize this but in the late 60s and early 70s this old guard from Hollywood that had been making the movies that we were talking about earlier … you know, these are guys that had been working in the 40s, and they were battling this new regime of what they saw as freaks. And Hopper is in this totally exploratory self-destructive artist mode. There was a lot of cocaine, there was a lot of acid, marijuana—everything that these people didn’t want their daughters corrupted by. And Hopper is an iconoclast so he’s not going to recut his movie and he’s fighting them. So he goes to the Venice Film Festival and he wins the only award given that year, called CIDALC. Fellini was on the jury. De Sica was on the jury. Passolini was on the jury that year. He comes back to Hollywood and they say, ‘Oh, you must have paid for that award. Recut the move.’ So long story longer, he locks the head of Universal—which nobody would tell me on camera—in an elevator. Lew Wasserman. Probably the most powerful man in Hollywood that time. I mean, there’s a book about him called The Last Mogul. A major, major, major guy. Hopper locks him in an elevator and tells him to go fuck himself and Ned Tanen, who was notoriously difficult with a lot of filmmakers … I don’t know if you know the lore of Ned Tanen but Danny Selznick, who is in our film, was trying to walk the line and get Dennis through it. He was a great, great guy—he helped Bogdanovich and he also helped George Lucas because Ned Tanen wanted to shelve American Graffiti because he said it wasn’t even good enough to be a television movie. You know, Robert Zemeckis? Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is his ‘fuck you’ to Ned Tanen. I kind of love that Dennis told them to go fuck themselves. He was at the height of his fame and he’s a real artist—he’s the real thing. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that. I’d be talking to so many people about Easy Rider, which is another film I love which I discovered later—which is a very experimental road movie. It’s got all kinds of stuff. The acid sequence, to me, is better than the best Stan Brakhage movie. I mean, it’s great. But people don’t give Dennis any credit as a filmmaker and that’s a little fucked up to me because he is very special. So that’s kind of the lore of The Last Movie. And then basically, the calls went out on Hopper. ‘You’ll never work in this town again.’ And that drove him deeper into his demons at the time and that’s where Satya’s really left with him—one of the only people around the film world who was still fighting for him and watching out for him and working for him daily even without any money being paid to him. I mean, that is a real rarity in a town like Hollywood, where I come from.
How much did the studio understand about Dennis Hopper’s before starting The Last Movie? Did the studios know how headstrong he was?