Dennis Hopper's American Dream

We talk to director—and most interesting man in the world candidate—Lawrence Schiller about the time he spent with the enigmatic acting legend, and the making of his underground classic that is being digitally re-released today.

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Dennis Hopper during the filming of The American Dreamer.
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Renaissance man is a phrase thrown around quite freely these days, but Lawrence Schiller—photographer, filmmaker, writer—is one in the truest sense of the word. A quick glance at his laundry list of accomplishments in the arts is proof enough: a series of unforgettable images of Marilyn Monroe exiting a pool in her birthday suit; his work on the rise of LSD for Life magazine that inspired Tom Wolfe's classic work of new journalism, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; photographing Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas; and scoring the final interview with Jack Ruby.

Lawrence Schiller, 1973. Photograph courtesy of Ray Fisher/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
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From his beginnings as a photojournalist, he went on to work in film, directing passages of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Lady Sings the Blues, and working on numerous film and book projects with literary lion Norman Mailer over the course of a 35-year collaboration.

The poster for The American Dreamer, which Schiller co-directed with L.M. Kit Carson. The movie, originally released in 1971, recently had another limited theatrical run and is out on iTunes and VOD today.

This is all to say that he may have been the perfect guy for the task of directing American Dreamer, a film following silver-screen legend Dennis Hopper—no slouch himself, with acting, directing, and photography under his belt—as he worked on The Last Movie, his directorial follow-up to 1969's classic Easy Rider.

Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in New Orleans during filming of Easy Rider, 1968.
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Hopper's acting career first started to gain traction with bit roles in classic films like Giant and Rebel Without a Cause, but came into his own with Easy Rider, his era-defining film about biker culture, drug use, and America as it entered the '70s. The movie helped usher in a new era of moviemaking, and crowned Hopper as the new weirdo king of Hollywood.

Hopper in one of his classic psychedelic cowboy looks.
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Part fact, part fiction, The American Dreamer is a film about an actor and filmmaker at a pivotal moment in his life—but it's by no means a traditional documentary. "The original idea I had," says Schiller, "was to do the story of Dennis Hopper: an actor who submerged himself in the myth of the character from Easy Rider. But it wasn't long till we realized that, really, it was the story of an actor on the top of Mt. Olympus who was going to fall off and crash."

Poster for The Last Movie which, thankfully, proved in fact not to be the very last movie.
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Schiller saw that, for whatever reason, Hopper was struggling to finish his second film, The Last Movie. "He originally had a cut that was very good," says Schiller, "but every time he worked on it, he just made it worse and worse and worse."

A clip from The American Dreamer.

That situation inspired a more compelling concept: Hopper would be an actor playing an actor. "For everyone in the film, it's a documentary," says Schiller. "Except for Hopper." The framework of each scene was to be mapped out, and then its participants would be given free reign to roam within that structure. "Kit, Dennis, and I would sit around and talk," Schiller explains. "How do we want to start this scene? What's it supposed to say? How do we leave this moment? And then, everything at the center was extemporaneous."

Hopper during preparations for Easy Rider, New Orleans, 1968.
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The result is a poetic glimpse into the life of an artist grappling with his standing in popular culture. The viewer can feel Hopper being pulled in two distinct directions: he wants to live freely, but he also can't fully quiet his inner control freak.

"There are points in which he obviously slips into reality," says Schiller, "but he's so fucking smart at this point in his life. He was always very smart. He knew the art of filmmaking inside-out. He knew what the camera was doing, and what the possibilities were." 

As befits a timeless symbol of cool, Hopper knew his way around a pool table.

To this day, Hopper looms large as a symbol of '70s counterculture, and Schiller has a theory as to why. "It's because he failed," he says. "Orson Welles is symbolic, too, because he failed. Dennis failed with his second film, just like Welles, and it took years and years before David Lynch saved his ass [by casting him in his 1986 cult classic, Blue Velvet]. But he never re-attained his stature as a director—and neither did Welles."

Even though Hopper himself may have struggled creatively at the time, it's still profoundly inspiring to watch this portrayal of a filmmaker searching relentlessly for meaning in life, and striving to make his next grand statement. Gene Clark, the former Byrd who penned the (original!) titular tune for the film's soundtrack, said it well in that song's lyrics:

The American Dreamer

Sometimes a thinker, sometimes a schemer

Sometimes a child, sometimes a wise man

A lonely soul, a great extremer,But nonetheless, the American Dreamer.

For more on The American Dreamer, see, or go watch it right now on iTunes for $13. 

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