Meeting the real Dennis Hopper

Featuring an exclusive clip from forthcoming documentary ‘The American Dreamer’, we speak to director Lawrence Schiller about his time with the legendary actor

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Dennis Hopper in the bath with friends

In 1971 Dennis Hopper was coasting a wave of success following the success of the film Easy Rider. In it, he’d played the original counter-culture icon – and captured the imagination of a generation. Hollywood’s shaggy-haired free-spirited hero could do no wrong, and Hopper was surrounded by acolytes everywhere he went – keen to absorb the spirit of counterculture or even just inhale the testosterone fug that enveloped him.

Hopper, for his part, was on grandiose form. Not for him another leading role in a big-studio backed film, with the moneymen and the suits. Hopper had grander plans. He’d already proved himself as a director once, on Easy Rider. Now he wanted to do it again – directing himself in The Last Movie, a film he’d written the screenplay for years before he became famous. The Last Movie tells the story of a stunt coordinator on a film being shot in a remote Peruvian village, where the actors don’t realise that the violence they see in Hollywood is staged, not real – hence the stunt coordinator’s struggle to stop them from killing each other. Like a neat stack of Russian dolls, the film-within-the-film unfolds to raise questions about the relationship between fiction and reality in movie making.

If this wasn’t meta enough for you, enter documentary filmmakers Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson. They were given access to Hopper throughout the making of The Last Movie, and the resulting film – The American Dreamer – follows Hopper as the project begins to unravel, with Hopper sinking deeper into a drug-induced funk as he struggles to edit The Last Movie for public release. Despite Hopper’s star power, The Last Movie tanked – and he didn’t direct a film again for over a decade. Audiences couldn’t understand the film’s unconventional story-telling techniques. They wanted to see Dennis Hopper on a motorbike, wind in his hair – they didn’t want to unpick the nature of truth and reality through non-linear story-telling and cinematic experimentation. 

A film about the world’s biggest actor making a film about a film, The American Dreamer drowns you in a wash of not-quite-reality where the boundaries between fact and fiction blur and it’s never quite clear what is truth and what is falsehood. It begins with a naked Dennis Hopper, fresh out of the bath, but what becomes clear that this is an illusion of intimacy. The American Dreamer depicts Dennis Hopper playing a version of Dennis Hopper – a masterful performance, but a performance nonetheless. A film about the pressures of celebrity; the limits of documentary filmmaking; and how you can never really know someone fully, The American Dreamer is saturated with more questions than answers. Who was Dennis Hopper really? Did Dennis Hopper even know?

The American Dreamer was barely released in the USA, shown only to a handful of film students on university campuses. Now it’s finally being released, and Dazed has been given an exclusive clip from the film. We spoke to director Lawrence Schiller to find out why The American Dreamer is a film about all of the things we’ll never really know.

The American Dreamer has been well-known in film circles for many years now, but it’s never been released. Is it gratifying to finally see it get a wider audience? 

Lawrence Schiller: The film is being released now because I want its profits to go towards preserving other documentaries. To me, it’s so interesting how we in the 21st century look at the second half of the 20th century, especially from a filmmaking point of view. Because here’s the story of a young director, Dennis Hopper, and he’s coming out of Easy Rider and he’s climbed to the top of Mount Olympus, and then he just falls off the mountain entirely. It took him over a decade to regain his footing, and he never really came back as a director again, although of course he comes back as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century. So The American Dreamer is about how we relate to the history of the 20th century.

Watching the film, there’s a sense of freedom, of being on the road – in fact, so much of the film is spent watching Hopper drive. Was this intentional?

Lawrence Schiller: If you live in California everything is a drive! His whole life was spent driving, and we didn’t want to lose that sense of Hopper going from one place to another, one meeting to another. It was important for us to show how much time he spent in his car.

There’s a scene where Hopper talks about Charles Manson, and he’s fascinated by the reason Manson gave for committing his murders – he said he felt like he was acting all the time, even though there were no cameras on him. Is this sense of always acting – even when you’re not actually being filmed – something you observed in Hopper?

Lawrence Schiller: The most important thing to understand about The American Dreamer is that this is not a pure documentary. This is a documentary in which an actor is playing an actor. Dennis Hopper is playing Dennis Hopper in the film, and that’s the uniqueness of it. Hopper actually wanted to meet Charles Manson, and I knew one of his attorneys so I arranged for them to meet before we began filming The American Dreamer. So that’s why the Manson influence is there. You know that Hopper is playing a role, he’s playing this character who’s losing it all and he can’t even edit his film properly. And he gets lost in this world around him, with all the money, and the popularity, and the status, and all the people saying yes yes yes. And no one ever stands up to him and says no no no.

Hopper’s always seen talking to these big groups of people; holding court. And the attention is always on him. He’ll ask people questions, but everyone really just wants to hear what he thinks. Is that something you saw in real life also?

Lawrence Schiller: Hopper was hyper-aware of his celebrity status. He played it to the hilt. But no one knows what happens in the loneliness of your bedroom at night. Look at Marilyn Monroe. She escaped from the darkness into her own safe haven, and tragically she never came out. Dennis was the same way, he found his own ways of escaping from the world that we saw him in. And no one knows who the real Dennis Hopper was. The question is, did Dennis Hopper really know who he is?

You’ve worked with so many interesting celebrities in your career, like Marilyn Monroe (Schiller is best known for his intimate pictures of the actress). Do you feel like you ever saw their true selves, or were they just acting?

Lawrence Schiller: There have been some occasions. Jack Lemmon was a wonderful person and I saw him struggle with the celebrity. Betty Davis I had some real-person time with and I think I did see the real Betty Davis struggling. But then does anyone know who the real Larry Schiller is? Maybe my children do, and maybe they don’t, and maybe even I don’t know who I really am. It’s more difficult for celebrities nowadays, I think, because the media has become so big in this world we live in. 

What I loved about the film was watching the cast of minor characters surrounding Hopper – they’re all drifters, just coming and going.

Lawrence Schiller: People just came and went, and we filmed them. But we were like that! We [Carson and Schiller] came and went!

There’s a lot of naked women in the film. Was Hopper always surrounded by women?

Lawrence Schiller: That comes off Hopper always wanting to live out his fantasy. And Hopper’s fantasies were always women. He was in the middle of a divorce when the film was being made, he was splitting up his art collection.

What do you think about the state of film-making today? 

Lawrence Schiller: I think today’s documentary film-makers are extraordinary. They’re the long-form writers of the 21st century. Long-form writing now doesn’t exist, it’s all 600 words for the internet. But documentary film-makers, they’re the great storytellers of our age.

You can catch a trailer for 'The American Dreamer' below. The film plays at Dochouse from Friday 5th February, and then as an on-demand exclusive with MUBI from Friday 12th February. 

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