ALONG FOR THE RIDE Interview: Nick Ebeling Talks Dennis Hopper
Watching the documentary, The American Dreamer, in the year of its completion, 1971, would’ve made for a very different experience than watching it today.
In its day, the film depicted only what it captured; an American artist given free reign to manifest and cinematically realize his dream in the most indulgently exploratory fashion possible. Watching footage of Dennis Hopper directing his sophomoric follow up to one of the most important films of the 20th century is like watching an American Fellini, the holy clown who dares to dream big at all costs, sacrificing everything in the name of the vision. Divorced from the context of history, it’s a beautiful thing.
To watch The American Dreamer today is to watch a making-of doc coloured by all that came after; the dissolution of an artist’s american dream. If one were to make a documentary on all the years of hard living that followed in Hopper’s life, a good title might be “An American Reality Check”. As Easy Riders, Raging Bulls teaches (though I feel compelled to quote Peter Bogdanovich: “Easy Riders, Raging Bullshit”), the comedown of American New Wave cinema was a depressing truth, and The Last Movie is today regarded less as the masterpiece Hopper believed he was making, than it was the first hard nail in the coffin of a beautiful movement.
Off the heals of the profoundly disappointing reception of The (ironically titled) Last Movie, Hopper entered a period of hard blues, when after being deprived of his voice, he was left to deal with the Dionysian excesses that fanned his aesthetic flame. His tools to help him see beauty began yielding only ugliness and Hopper slipped “out of the blue and into the black”. As David Lynch teaches us, with every dream lurks a nightmare, and Hopper would spend many years staring at his demons, reconciling them with his better angels.
All this to say, the Dennis Hopper story and all its highs and lows, is about as good a story as one can tell about what it meant to dream big during the most pivotal cornerstone of American counterculture of our times. It’s such a sadness that Hopper, the man who lived so many riveting lives, is no longer with us to tell his tale firsthand, but there are many key players in his story still regaling us with his legend. One such person is Satya de la Manitou, a right hand man and dear friend to Hopper from The Last Movie onwards, through all of his glories, trials, and tribulations. Not unlike the chauffeur protagonist of S is for Stanley, Satya was there for everything and is forever touched as a result. Perhaps he is one of the last great storytellers in Hopper’s life still left to do his tale justice. I hope not.
The other breed of storyteller still around to spread Hopper’s gospel are folks like you, me, and director, Nick Ebeling; admirers united in having been touched by Hopper’s work - from the idealistic freedom politics of Easy Rider to the stark ugliness exposed by films like Out Of The Blue - and his personal biography, which serves as a reminder that perhaps the greatest artwork of all is your life. It is, after all, the responsibility of those aware of unjustly obscure artists to keep aesthetic relics alive. As an actor, Hopper was anything but obscure. As a filmmaker, it is a crime how underseen his films like The Last Movie, Out of the Blue, Colors, and on, are in respect to what we think of as ‘the canon’.
In this latter category of second-hand storyteller, Director, Nick Ebeling is certainly a cut above the rest. With his new film, Along For The Ride, Ebeling joins forces with de la Manitou, not to mention other close friends and collaborators of Hopper’s, to bring us the fullest, most comprehensive, most fittingly poetic account of the Dennis Hopper story that exists. In many ways, the entire epilogue of Easy Rider, with all of Hopper’s largely unseen masterpieces, is that of an unsung hero. Thus, in this dying age of film, when one can actually comprehend a dystopia consisting of a ‘last movie’, portraits like Along For The Ride are essential reminders, not just of the souls that once shone, but a practical tap on the shoulder reminding us that these meaningful works are, in fact, still alive, eternally brimming with significance and value, waiting to inspire onwards.
Along For The Ride opens tomorrow (Friday, December 8), in Los Angeles at the Laemmle NoHo & TCL Chinese Theatre.
What came first: wanting to make a film about Dennis Hopper or becoming aware of Satya de la Manitou as a storytelling vehicle?
As a teenager, I found a copy of The Last Movie on VHS at an Hollywood underground video store shortly after meeting Dennis Hopper around the time of True Romance. Hopper was my acting hero but became my directing hero after seeing his studio shelved 1971 followup to Easy Rider. The Last Movie had been his passion project and had destroyed him during his meteoric rise as a filmmaker in the wake of the cultural/financial explosion that was Easy Rider. A film that changed everything for Hollywood. The Last Movie would destroy him after clashing with studio heads to maintain his final cut while battling his own personal demons causing his legendary self destruction out there in the New Mexico desert. I felt Dennis had made a brilliant film. I was in the minority and I could find almost no one who had seen it.
Seeing The Last Movie is the reason I quit acting, picked up a camera and became an artist. It took hold of me and never let go like Breathless or Faces or Blow up or 8 1/2 grabs people. That was the film is the one that did it for me. I may be the only person who saw The Last Movie before Easy Rider.
I had this idea rolling around in my head that I wanted to do something, like a narrative film that dealt with Hopper making The Last Movie but I would have even settled to just to talk to Dennis about the film. To tell him "thank you" for sending me on my path because it had been like discovering a great band. It led to other discoveries not just in film but also into art, books, photography. This is a film that inspired and kept inspiring me. Then in 2010 he passed away. I had been crushed thinking that there was no way now to ever get the full story from Hopper's side. One of the people I had been bothering about Dennis for years was Producer Nina Yang Bongiovi because she had worked closely with Dennis on a film abroad for about six months . She knew how much of an influence he was on me and about three and a half years ago she called me and said "Dennis had a right-hand man and I think you need to meet him.". We set it up and I was in a red booth at Musso & Frank in Hollywood in about 12 seconds.
Cue - Satya de la Manitou a.k.a. El Hombre Indivisible. Hopper's right-hand man for over four decades. A street smart psychedelic Sancho Panza in a vest.
Over his seafood salad at Musso & Frank in Hollywood, I stalked him about The Last Movie. I think I had the corned beef and he was recording our conversation for some reason with a legal tape recorder. He was really shocked because rarely outside of Dennis' inner circle had ever asked him about the film. Most people just wanted The Greatest Hits of Dennis Hopper from him. He told me that that The Last Movie was the reason he worked for Dennis all these years. He saw a 15 hour rough cut in Taos, New Mexico in 71' and was converted to aiding Dennis with whatever he needed. Satya felt that he was in the presence of a great artist.
We had felt the same way about The Last Move. That was the initial bond between us.
In the credits, it says the film is based on stories as told to you over coffee - how did these coffee meetings come about? Did you know Satya prior to filming?
After our initial meeting, Satya got my number and I owe his persistence and calls to our coffee meetings. He’d call often and suggest, "Let's work!" and if I was busy he would say "Then give me a window." That persistence is part of why he was Dennis' right-hand man for so long. He will push to get things done. Luckily, Satya and I see eye to eye on institutional drip coffee and donuts and he just happens to live near one of the best donut shops on the planet that also makes a great cup of coffee. We'd get the coffee and a Boston Cream going and talk Dennis Hopper...talk The Last Movie......talk The American Friend.....talk Out of the Blue.....talk Blue Velvet. Then we would take the coffee to his storage locker which appears in the film. We would also brew coffee at my house and go over the research and things I had found.
Hundreds of cups of coffee helped will this film into existence. He rolled joints and I had quit smoking ten years ago. Near completion we started rolling joints together with our coffee.
You dedicate the film not only to Hopper but also to THE LAST MOVIE - what does that film represent for you?
I love all the interviews you conduct - my favorites were Michael Madsen and Linda Manz. Did you have a favorite interview from your shoot?
Linda and Michael are the real thing. Those two are way up there for me as well but my absolute favorite was Dennis' brother David Hopper. We were in David's New Mexico cabin way away from anyone up in the mountains where he literally "dropped out" after working on The Last Movie and appearing in L.M. Kit Carson & Lawrence Schiller's doc. The American Dreamer. He had asked us to bring him a bottle of tequila and when we arrived he poured us all shots and he looked like this mountain man version of Dennis and he's a master carpenter and wood carver so there were these projects he was working on. It was surreal and extremely cool. It was early in production and I had encountered so many people not wanting to talk about all the things that had happened in the 70's concerning Dennis' blacklisting in Hollywood or working on The Last Movie so I thought we would just try to ease into it with a couple of "softball" generic questions.
When I rolled, David fired right into everything I had wanted and more like he had been waiting to tell his side of this story. He was so candid about Dennis' war with the studio that it even disarmed Satya. To help provide context, some of the people involved in this story are still scared of powerful studio execs that have been dead for ten or twenty years - that's how much power these people had wielded at the time. And what was happening was exactly what I had been after in my head. Getting to the truth of what it was like to be there with Dennis.
I love that conversation. They're like two old war buddies. Well....they really are in a way.
What are one or two of the best things that Satya said to you - or what are some of the most unforgettable moments from the production?
There were so many unforgettable moments! Satya had worked on around 70 films (almost exclusively assisting Dennis Hopper), acted in a play for John Cassavettes, scouted locations in New Mexico for Sam Peckinpah, played late night card games with Neil Young and Dean Stockwell, and accompanied Bob Dylan on a leg of the The Rolling Thunder Revue. As you might imagine, the stories were way, way, way above average. They were monumental. I have a favorite but I can't tell you as I’m sworn to secrecy - but it involves the bullet holes in one of Dennis' Andy Warhol paintings. He said and related so many things that happened in his life with Hopper that I felt truly lucky to hear. And it really helped me rethink exactly what I should be trying to achieve with my own work. I owe him so much for that. It's easy to get jaded in a place like Hollywood. Satya brought me back.
An unforgettable memory working with Satya was also my favorite day of working in my life. We were up in Chinchero, Peru, which is the remote village where Dennis filmed The Last Movie. It was are third and final day and we're at an extremely high elevation about 14,000 ft. so the air is really thin. If you're not acclimated and you walk a few steps it feels like being punched in the stomach as a kid by a bully. And Satya's working with us up there in - I have no idea how he did it at 75. He's a force of nature. We all had a newfound respect for the entire crew of The Last Movie. They were as tough as the people who made Lawrence of Arabia because all of us were having a tough time with limited gear and none of us were doing the things they were doing in 71' like LSD, piles of cocaine and chain smoking Marlboro Reds while lugging Mitchell's and 10ks.
So many things on this film weren't handled conventionally and that leg of filming was feeling conventional to all of us. I wasn't happy when the day started, and knew I needed to change that immediately. We're in this beautiful town square where my favorite scene of all time was filmed and our ending hit me like a bullet. I mapped it out then spoke to Satya and the crew. We all came together almost in a telepathic delirium. Then fantastic things just started happening all around us with nature, the weather and with the local villagers. I'm very proud of that day. It was electricity up there.
What did you learn about Hopper that you didn't know going in?
I had no idea that Hopper felt that The Last Movie was perhaps his greatest artistic achievement across all the mediums he worked in and his the thing that made him the most proud was the Cidalc Award he won for The Last Movie in Venice in 1971. And Dennis' main passion was directing film. I learned those two things from Satya and they kept being confirmed by their closest friends over and over again during our extensive shooting. Kind of incredible for a guy who was a more than accomplished in so many things. Hopper the actor / director / photographer / fine artist / art collector / visionary / maverick / icon . Can you name another one of those?
Hopper was genius and a visionary. And he was a visionary filmmaker. One of our best. Just watch Easy Rider, The Last Movie and Out of the Blue.