"Tell Me We Haven't Blown It": Peter Fonda Reflects on 'Easy Rider' and Its Unanswered Question
Fifty years later, the filmmaker and those involved and close to the groundbreaking biker movie (and soundtrack) look back at the wild ride: "I knew how it was going to end when I started writing it."
If 1939 was cinema's golden year, 1969 was its watershed. Though Hollywood was still producing big-budget films (Hello, Dolly!) and features starring such veterans as John Wayne (True Grit), the counterculture was quickly taking root. That year heralded the arrival of such new filmmakers as Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice) and three X-rated dramas — John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool and Frank Perry's Last Summer — which all became critical and commercial successes. Midnight Cowboy even claimed the best picture Oscar at the 42nd Academy Awards over relatively lighter fare like Dolly! and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
But in a year packed with classics, the film that made the biggest impact was a deceptively simple biker flick, Easy Rider. Ahead of the film's 50th anniversary on July 14, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with those involved and close to the making of the project, including producer-writer-star Peter Fonda, veteran filmmaker Henry Jaglom, actress Toni Basil and singer-songwriter Roger McGuinn as well as Roger Corman, who was originally set to executive produce but was replaced ahead of the shoot. When the film rode full-tilt-boogie into theaters, the entire landscape changed and dozens of movies looked to emulate the spirit of the drama.
The movie, which was made for around $375,000 and grossed $60 million worldwide, stars Fonda and director Dennis Hopper as two biker buddies — Wyatt, aka Captain America (Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) — who travel through the Southwest and South with the money they made from their last cocaine deal. Audiences are still trying to figure out what Wyatt means when he is sitting with Billy at a campfire near the film's end and tells him, "We blew it." Fonda didn't explain then and he won't explain now. "I never intended to answer that question," he tells THR by email, adding, "I intended it to be enigmatic and applicable to all kinds of things. When asked today if it's still relevant, go look out the window and tell me we haven't blown it."
During Easy Rider, Wyatt and Billy smoke copious amounts of dope, pepper their conversations with "man," visit a commune, befriend an alcoholic ACLU attorney named George (Jack Nicholson), encounter rednecks who kill George, and trip out in New Orleans during Mardi Gras with two prostitutes (Karen Black, Basil) only to be shot to death by good old boys on the road.
It was a journey that Corman hoped to take also. "Because they had never made a picture before and we had all worked together in previous films, they asked me to join them as executive producer," recalled Corman by email. "I accepted, and with their approval took the project to American International for financing and distribution. Because I had previously produced and directed two pictures for American International, The Wild Angels, starring Peter Fonda and Bruce Dern, and The Trip, starring Peter and Dennis, which were highly successful, American International accepted immediately. We all came to terms quickly and started preproduction."
At that point things hit a snag. Corman says they had a clause to the contract stating that because Hopper had never directed before, American International Pictures could replace him if he fell more than one day behind schedule. "This angered Peter and me and infuriated Dennis," he recalls. "Bert Schneider and his partner Bob Rafelson heard about what had happened. Bert's father was a senior executive at Columbia and agreed Columbia would finance and distribute the picture with no restrictions on Dennis. Bert Schneider replaced me as executive producer."
Independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom (Eating, Festival in Cannes), who was a young actor then under contract at Screen Gems, was good friends with Nicholson when he was cast as George. The late Rip Torn was set to play George until there was an incident between him and Hopper involving knives. Torn sued Hopper for defamation and won after Hopper went on The Tonight Show and said Torn pulled a six-inch knife on him and threatened his life.
Jaglom — who is credited as editorial consultant and worked with Nicholson and editor Donn Cambern on the film — recalled that Nicholson didn't want to cut his long hair to play George. "We went down to [the] executive barbershop [at] Columbia," he says. "I said to Jack, you've got to cut your hair. To play this part you really have to be a country guy. We got into arguments about how long the hair could be. Hair was really important to us in those days. Bert sent me to see that Jack really got a proper '50s haircut. And Jack was complaining and terribly unhappy about it."
Everybody seemed terribly unhappy with Hopper's first edit of the film, which took 22 weeks and ran nearly three hours. "After 22 weeks, we sent Hopper and his girlfriend off to Taos," notes Fonda. "Myself, William Hayward, Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, Donn Cambern went to work in the editing room at Columbia and took the film down to 96 minutes." Jaglom was hired by his friend Schneider to shape the film. "Editing the film," says Jaglom, "was a gigantic job because much of it was just endless rides, rides, rides. I think there are now six rides on the film, maybe seven. There were 20 rides in the [Hopper cut]."
Nicholson had told Jaglom about shooting the scene at the campfire when George gets high and talks about aliens. "It had been cut in such a way that Peter had nothing to [say], Jack had very little. It was Dennis talking endlessly. I said to Bert, 'Is there more material on Jack?'" When he got the footage, says Jaglom, "it was magnificent. It was the magic of the film as far as I am concerned."
Because of the success of Easy Rider, remembers Jaglom, "Bert said to Jack and [me], you can each get to direct a movie for us. So, I did A Safe Place and he did Drive. He said, 'I do not know who I would be or what I would have done in this world if it hadn't been for this strange event where I got hired to work for seven or eight weeks.'"
Easy Rider had strong buzz surrounding its U.S. release after Hopper won best first work and a Palme d'Or nomination at Cannes that May. Perhaps for the first time, the dissatisfied youth of the '60s saw themselves on the screen. The film made a star out of Nicholson, who earned his first Oscar nomination as George, and the soundtrack was chock-a-block with popular rock songs including Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" and The Band's "The Weight." The album for the film — a collaboration among five record labels: Columbia, Warner/Reprise, Elektra, ABC and Dunhill — went through the roof, landing in the top 10 best-sellers of the year.
"We both came up with the idea to use rock music on the soundtrack," recalls Fonda. It was also Fonda who says he came up with the concept of the movie in 1967 while in Toronto promoting The Trip. (Hopper sued Fonda in 1992 over script credit; it was settled out of court.) "It was just my vision and voice writing it at the Lake Shore Motel in 1967," Fonda explains, adding that he was inspired by the vision of "John Ford's West, as we headed east to heaven [in] Florida. We never got there."
And 50 years later, the practice to use songs in movie soundtracks is still de rigueur. "Dennis was the first person to use a contemporary soundtrack," says Basil, a longtime choreographer, dancer, actress and singer who had one of her earlier roles in the film. "It wasn't just somebody up in the music department that thought, 'Hey, this song might be a hit."'
"It's interesting how the songs reflected what was going on [in the film]," adds veteran rock journalist Steve Hochman. "They all mirror and enhance what we are seeing. We had the phenomena as well that people bought the album and knew the songs from the album if they hadn't seen the movie. The music had an independent life spurred by the movie."
McGuinn, who came to fame as frontman for The Byrds, is featured three times on the Easy Rider soundtrack — in The Byrds' recording of "Wasn't Born to Follow," his rendition of Bob Dylan's "I'm Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and "Ballad of Easy Rider," which he co-wrote with an uncredited Dylan.
According to McGuinn, Dylan was shown the film in New York in hopes he'd write a new song for it. "He didn't like the ending," recalls McGuinn. "He thought, 'Oh man, they got killed at the end. They should not have been killed at the end.' But he did write some notes on a paper napkin in the screening room — 'the river flows, it flows to the sea. Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be. Flow, river flow.'"
Fonda took the napkin and gave it to McGuinn in Los Angeles. "I read it," McGuinn recalls. "It was just a verse and a chorus. I had to make up the tune. I got my guitar out and made up a melody for it. I wrote a second verse for it; 'All he wanted was to be free / And that's the way it turned out to be / Flow, river flow.'" McGuinn remembers Hopper saying to him,"'Hey, man! What's that supposed to mean?' I said to him, 'Think about it, Dennis.' He went, 'Oh, wow, man, that's heavy!'"
After the film was released, McGuinn received a call from Dylan at three in the morning, "He said, 'Hey what's this credit? I don't want a credit on this song — take it off.' I took it off."
Easy Rider is also a study in nihilism. Not only do the three protagonists die violently, the film's tagline is "A man went looking for America. And couldn't find it anywhere." One of the "beauties of the film," recalls Fonda, "is I knew how it was going to end when I started writing it. That the end would be mine and Dennis' death and nothing beyond that. People would wonder and ask themselves what was that? They would have to come back again to figure it out."
George, Fonda says, is Wyatt and Billy's "mouthpiece. I made George a lawyer. He explains Wyatt and Billy to the audience in a sweet and wacky way. George was the innocent. In all great Greek tragedies, the innocents die first. George is only killed because he is with us, not because he has done something wrong."
Basil recalled hearing about Easy Rider at a dinner at Hopper's house that Fonda attended. "I remember we were sitting around the dinner table and they started talking about doing the film. I remember them distinctly talking about how they wanted to shoot it," Basil recalls. Hopper, she says, "wanted to shoot it at eye-level and Peter wanted some helicopter shots. And then they called me up to read. I know other people read for it and I got it."
She joined Hopper, Fonda and Black in New Orleans during Mardi Gras of 1968 to shoot scenes of the festivities as well as the surreal set piece that takes place while all four are tripping on acid at a local cemetery.
"It was pretty amazing," says Basil. "I remember sitting next to Peter, I could see across the graveyard, Dennis and Karen Black. I could just tell by her body language what an actress she was. I thought, 'Oh Toni, you've got your work cut out for you.'"
The New Orleans scenes were the first to be shot for the film. Basil and Black returned at the end of production to shoot the traditionally scripted sequence in the brothel where Wyatt and Billy meet the prostitutes.
Hopper's paranoia during filming due to his substance abuse issues is the stuff of legend, but Basil doesn't remember him doing drugs or drinking on the set. "Dennis was an artist, an intense artist," she says. "When he was working, he was working. He was intense about things. His work ethic was very intense. We all came from the same place, so it was not far off the wall what he was asking for. I mean, it was part of his vision, you know?"
Fonda and Hopper are the stars of Easy Rider, but Nicholson is its heart and soul. "What about Nicholson's performance?" asks Basil. "It's a unique, unique, unique performance. Nobody had ever seen anything like Jack on the screen. I mean, Jack and Dennis and Peter were all so unique. They were movie stars."
The film made $40,422 in its first week at its premiere engagement at New York's Beekman Theatre, but reviews were initially mixed. The New York Times' Vincent Canby found the characters of Wyatt and Billy to be "bizarre comic strip characters." Roger Ebert differed, stating that Hopper "has told his story in cinematic shorthand, instead of spelling it out in dreary detail." THR critic John Mahoney praised the film as "very likely the clearest and most disturbing presentation of the angry estrangement of American youth to be brought to the screen."
And the industry recognized the tides were shifting. Fonda, Hopper and Terry Southern, who co-wrote the screenplay, went on to earn Oscar and WGA nominations, while Hopper received a DGA nom for his work. (They lost out on the Oscar to William Goldman's script for Butch Cassidy.) The film's impact was "tremendously important," reflects film historian and author Joseph McBride. "The old Hollywood was dying. The studio system was really collapsing by about 1966. The major studios were in big trouble and they seemed to be out of touch. The older guys around the studios didn't understand the youth market."
But Schneider did. "He deserves a lot of credit," says McBride. "He was a very kind of visionary producer. He comes along and makes this little film, which had political overtones, and it became this runaway hit and changed everything."
The film inspired a slew of films: 1970's Five Easy Pieces, starring Nicholson in his Oscar-nominated turn and directed by Rafelson; Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 The Last Picture Show; and Monte Hellman's 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop. But McBride notes that Hollywood, unfortunately, "began throwing money at young directors, sort of indiscriminately in my opinion. A lot of terrible films were made at the time. I saw most of them."
Easy Rider, says Corman, was a culmination of a trend "that started in the late '50s in which independent pictures proliferated and became increasingly successful at the box office. The film's huge success finally made the major studios aware of the box office potential of independently made films. They changed their production and distribution plans to include independent pictures and the mostly young producers, directors and writers who made them."
Adds Fonda, "I made Easy Rider for the same amount of money Roger Corman made Wild Angels, and [I knew] it would knock the audience's socks off."