In making a film about Dennis Hopper, Nick Ebeling quickly realized he might not ever know when to stop.
“This movie could be shot for another 12 years and we would probably just scratch the surface as to how deep you could get into Dennis Hopper,” says Ebeling. “You start to find out about the photography, realize he’s in “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” and he’s got this incredible, incredible history also as a fine artist, I’ve never found an actor/director/icon/maverick/visionary… like there really aren’t many guys like that.”
Yet somehow Ebeling covers all the bases in “Along for the Ride,” a profile of Hopper that, like the artist, is distinctive and off the beaten path. Joining Satya de la Manitou, one of Hopper’s closest confidants (or “El Hombre Indivisible,” as he anoints himself in the film), the film retraces the artist/auteur’s treacherous journey through the making of “The Last Movie,” following the groundbreaking success of “Easy Rider,” and his subsequent exile from Hollywood when his fight with studio bosses made it impossible to work within the system again. However, as Ebeling finds, those frustrations only led Hopper into more unusual realms, spreading his wings both geographically and artistically with work in a variety of different mediums in places ranging from Taos, New Mexico to the bushlands of Australia. In stark black-and-white, the film captures all the lives Hopper touched along the way, visiting with a diverse array of friends and collaborators such as Ed Ruscha, Wim Wenders, Frank Gehry, Michael Madsen and Russ Tamblyn, among others, with the brusque Satya cutting to the quick of any conversation to get unvarnished yet truly unbelievable stories. Ebeling also draws on a wealth of largely unseen archival material from the sets Hopper was on to bring the recollections of the past into the present tense, showing how Hopper’s legacy continues to endure in his influence on so many.
A year removed from its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, “Along for the Ride” arrives in America and Ebeling spoke of finally letting go of the project, doing his incredibly prolific subject justice and how he was initially inspired to be a filmmaker by “The Last Movie,” with plans to put it back into circulation.
How did this come together?
This is probably something that’s been rolling around in my head since the early ‘90s when I was a teenager.
I’ve heard you were actually able to snag a copy of “The Last Movie” pre-Internet, which seems unimaginable, given how scarce it is.
Oh, are you familiar with “The Last Movie”?
Yeah, there was a screening of it in Los Angeles a few years ago.
Nice. You’re in the cult. [laughs] Well, I’ll tell you how it happened. Around the early ‘90s, I thought I wanted to be an actor and I started doing some commercials and I was in an AFI student film. I was studying other actors and I met Dennis at that time when I was 14 at Santa Anita Racetrack, and I had known about “Blue Velvet” because my parents showed me a lot of movies I shouldn’t have seen at an uncomfortably young age, like four and five years old. [laughs] Which I thanked them for because I saw all kinds of great movies that really helped me out, but because of that meeting [with Hopper], I went out and had to go and find other movies with him to go look at. I walk into a store called Rocket Video, which was like an indie record store for movies [where] the guys all knew about movies and lead you around and turn you onto great stuff. They had this completely dog-eared, baked VHS copy of “The Last Movie” there and I took it and I don’t think I ever returned it — or I kept checking it out. It was on my credit report as delinquent until six years ago and it changed my life. It just sent me in a million directions because it was so experimental, so different, so cool, so stylish and it just resonated with me. I quit acting immediately and picked up a still camera, a Super-8 camera and a Bolex and started making my own movies at that point, so that’s how close that movie is to me.
Did you always think you’d then make a film about Dennis?
He became as important to me as guys like John Cassavetes and [Jean-Luc] Godard and [Roy] Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha and after years of not finding anybody who had ever seen this film “The Last Movie” and not being able to ever get anybody to watch it with me — that’s why I’m so happy to hear you have — I was just sitting there thinking I would love to do something about this. I was introduced to Dennis’ right-hand man Satya de la Mantou because a mutual friend knew how much I loved Dennis Hopper and “The Last Movie” and he wanted to meet at Musso & Frank’s. I was there in about 15 seconds to meet him. And he started to give me the rundown of stuff everybody knows, like [how] “Easy Rider” was a cultural phenomenon and then he did “Speed.” And I’m like, “Wait, I need to know about that 16 years in between ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Blue Velvet.’ And we’ve got to talk about ‘The Last Movie.’” He was kind of shocked because nobody ever asked him about “The Last Movie.”
That was the immediate connection between me and [Satya] because the entire reason that he spent all those years at Dennis’ side, helping him through the good times and bad, was because of seeing that movie in the Taos Theater that Dennis owned in 1970. He saw a very rough cut — 15 hours — and decided, “I have to work for that guy. He’s a genius.” And I completely agreed with him. We just connected and I said, “Well, let’s start rolling” because you’re this amazing guy, like a psychedelic John Huston character and let’s just see what happens.” And the film never knew that it was going to be a 90-minute documentary. It grew over time and then somebody would hear that we were doing something and then all of a sudden, Wim Wenders is in the movie and then Ed Ruscha was in the movie and then David Lynch was in the movie. It just was a very special experience.
Even though you can feel it wasn’t too prescribed, you shoot the film in a very particular way. Did the style of it come immediately?
Absolutely. I grew up in Los Angeles and around Hollywood and I notice that there’s so little reverence for the people that are so important and changed the rules for the rest of us, so [this] needed a unique vibe and feel. I was so influenced by Dennis’ editing style and visual style, but I also threw a bit of myself into it as well and looking at Satya, looking at Ed Rusha, looking at Wim Wenders, looking at Dean Stockwell, looking at Russ Tamblyn, I mean, Linda Manz, it’s all in their faces – these are amazing characters — that I wanted to give them the respect that they deserved. So I lit it like a film out of the 1950s or ‘60s and we just took the time with it. If I could’ve shot this on film, I would’ve.
Did you do a master interview with Satya at the start or at the end?
Satya’s interviews were ongoing. Like it says in the movie, we had coffee probably 150 times, so we’d hang out and we’d dig deeper. We’d go into his storage unit and all of a sudden, there would be Dennis’ AmEx from Taos in 1971, ’72 [or] we looked in attics and literally in log cabins in New Mexico with old editors from the film, like Amsterdam, Czechoslovakia, Japan. I was just getting leads on things. I had heard about things. I did the research to figure out [when to ask] was there a photographer hanging out with you guys ever? Do you remember the name? We became detectives at the same time and I wanted that discovery to come through to the viewer.
We’re going back 40 years, so sometimes it takes a minute to trigger some of these things, [but] getting [Satya and] these guys talking to each other would be part of that story, so it was really an ongoing thing. We were still shooting stuff when we played in Venice, and we’re still sticking stuff in that we’ve been uncovering during the process — and we open in New York on Friday. [laughs] It turned out that the sound mixer worked with Dennis on “Colors” and “Hot Spot,” so it’s kind of funny that way. We just keep finding stuff and we just keep trying to get stuff in the film. But I’ve finally been…stopped. [laughs] I have to hand it over. There’s a book in the works too that’ll feature all the cutting room floor material because it’s about 98 hours’ [worth], and there’s also awesome news partially due to us shedding light on the subject, that “The Last Movie” is now being restored and will be released next year.
Oh my gosh. That is exciting.
Yeah, and I’m going to get “Out of the Blue” done next. I’m on a mission. We’re working on that too. It’s such a great film.
Being a megafan, was there anything that came as a major revelation?
So many things would synch up. [Initially] it was like Robert Evans’ “The Kid Stays in the Picture” — “There’s three sides to every story and everybody’s lying,” so you’d hear these things and you’re like, “That’s too fucking crazy. That didn’t happen, right?” And then I’d be standing with the Native American that Dennis helped so much in New Mexico out on the reservation that’s featured in the film and that guy would mention another part of that story and it all kind of just started coming into focus that way. It was incredible.
The greatest revelation for me during this process was that I had read articles that have said Dennis was unhappy with “The Last Movie” or disowned it. So when I heard from so many people connected with Dennis that he felt it was his greatest achievement as an artist — and we kept that hearing again and again — that was very special to me because “The Last Movie” really is what inspired me and that film has been forgotten about. Even in the wake of Dennis’ passing [where] so many things about him have been remembered, that film has largely not been and has never really been in proper distribution, so part of my mission was to tell that story.
Not many people realize how much he paid the price for fighting for that movie and fighting for his cut and fighting for his integrity. It was a very special art film and wasn’t understood by the studio. He basically career-suicided himself at the height [of his career] because he had made “Easy Rider,” which opened the door for everybody else to walk in – Francis Ford Coppola, Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman – “Two Lane Blacktop” was part of the same program at Universal, which made “The Last Movie.” And a lot of people have said, “Oh, this is kind of like a ‘Heaven’s Gate’ situation” and it’s not. This was a million-dollar film, which was a very low-budget film at Universal and Dennis’ fight with the studio got him blacklisted. He didn’t work really in America for 16 years and he struggled to work in the places he did work and he couldn’t get a movie made. That was his passion, and I think most people don’t understand what it ultimately cost him to get to “Blue Velvet” in that 16 years, with Satya with him every step of the way. It’s an incredible story.
The film premiered in Venice, as did “The Last Movie.” Did your own experience actually filter into the movie itself, having all these parallels with Dennis’ life?
I think you hit the nail on the head because as the film was coming together, I would say, “God, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we were able to show this as tribute to come full circle in Venice, the only festival that recognized him [for “The Last Movie”] and really loved the film?Wouldn’t that be a really poetic touch to this story? We were connected by Samuel Fuller’s family to one of the programmers there and they sent somebody to come into the editing room while we were working on it and they completely understood what we were doing. They embraced the film and said, “Yeah, you have to bring this to us,” so for me that was really incredible.
With all the far-flung places you went and all the interesting people you were talking to, was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Most of them on this. [laughs] But I will say this, when we got to Chinchero [Peru where “The Last Movie” was filmed], which was near the end of our shooting, that’s at 14,000-feet altitude. You can barely breathe up there if you’re not acclimated to it and I have no idea how he made the movie up there. Those guys were all fired up on cocaine and fury, and were pretty tough. [laughs] But it was amazing to be there and when we got out of the jeep up there with our guide, I literally walked into Dennis’ guide from “The Last Movie.” I don’t even know how to express what are the odds of that happening, but he took us in and to all the spots that are seen in the film and being with him with an interpreter was the most incredible [experience] for me and Satya, because Satya didn’t go to Peru. He stayed in Taos. So that was his first time there.
“Along for the Ride” opens on November 3rd in New York at the Metrograph and December 8th in Los Angeles.
Photo credit (top photo): Dennis Hopper and Satya de la Manitou photographed by Wim Wenders in Taos, 1978 (c) Wim Wenders Stiftung 2016