6 Filmmaking Tips From Dennis Hopper

By  · Published on March 27th, 2013

Dennis Hopper is fucking awesome. I use the present tense there because the man, though gone, is eternal. At least when it comes to his art.

He definitely had some experiences. Several that no one could be proud of, but he also came to represent a free wheeling sensibility that came with defying the establishment while learning from it. The man’s resume remains formidable (and it will only continue to grow with more “Very Special Thanks” entries). So instead of listing his best movies, take your pick. You can probably name 10 you love just off the top of your head. There are a ton of them.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a real easy rider.

Be Prepared to Clean Some Toilets

From the “Interview Magazine” interview:

“HOPPER: I was. I was at the Old Globe Theatre. When I was at Nelson-Atkins back in Kansas City, we’dbe there for five hours on a Saturday, but we would have an hour to go around the museum. They had a theater in the museum, and during my hour, I used to go in and sketch the actors. So I startedacting when we moved to San Diego at the Old GlobeTheatre in Balboa Park. The first play I did was [Charles] Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I played the urchin who comes at the beginning asking for alms and gets run out. At the end, he gets a turkey. So I had to sit from the first act to the last act. [laughs] But I got through it. And then I started playing Shakespeare during the summer. They’d bring over English directors because the Old Globe in San Diego was a duplicate of Shakespeare’s Globe in England, which had burned down. The one in San Diego wasa duplicate they made for the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935. But I worked with some really good English directors. I worked with these guys from time to time during the summer, because you really had to be in college to do that, but there were a lot of parts that they let me play.

BRANT: What do you consider your big break in terms of getting parts?

HOPPER: Well, when I was about 16, I got a job working as an apprentice at La Jolla Playhouse. I worked for a guy named Hank Milam. Hank lived in the guesthouse at Vincent and Mary Price’s house near Beverly Hills ‐ he did interior design. Hank was my boss, so I cleaned toilets, cleaned dressing rooms. And Vincent Price had actors over all the time, so I’d pick them up and drive them. But [actress] Susan Kohner, [agent] Paul Kohner’s daughter, was the other apprentice. We were around the same age, and they’d let us do backstage stuff until finally they gave me a couple of walk-ons.”

Granted, a few things have changed since then. In fact, the filmmaking world is different today directly because of Hopper and his work outside of the system. So maybe you won’t actually have to clean toilets, but if you get a chance to labor while being paid in access to wisdom and aid, it’s a good idea to get your latex gloves on and get to work.

Make a Pitch for Posterity

If there’s one movie that Hopper will be connected with forever, what is it?

That’s easy.

“Easy Rider is the film by which he must stand or fall. He says it is his masterpiece, his pitch for posterity, and it is his, all his. He wrote, directed, acted in it. No matter that the writing credits read Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern ‐ ‘Terry Southern never wrote one fucking word of Easy Rider. Only the title Easy Rider came from him. He broke his hip; he couldn’t write. I used his office and I dictated the whole fucking thing in 10 days.’ Surely Peter Fonda made some contribution? ‘He did. He had a name. He had a credit card. And he loved motorcycles [Hopper hates them]. But Jack Nicholson was the one who put the deal together, he went in and told them there was no way they could lose money on a motorbike picture.’”

That’s Lynn Barber speaking with Hopper for a fantastic feature that looks back on his insane personal behavior and his artistic attempts at immortality. It’s fascinating to know how self-aware he was, especially when it came to the largeness of the undertaking, but there’s a lot to learn from his active role in striving for a lasting cultural impact.

For one, maybe it’s important to strive for a lasting cultural impact. For two, maybe we should remember that Hopper had already been in the industry for 14 years when Easy Rider was released. That didn’t make its creation all that easy considering, but there’s no doubt that he had connections, talent, experience and street smarts to guide him.

Make something that will outlive you, but don’t worry if that doesn’t happen the first time you check the gate.

Take Your Own Trip

Keep Working

“Work is fun to me. All those years of being an actor and a director and not being able to get a job ‐ two weeks is too long to not know what my next job will be.”

Obviously this is a tough one if no one is beating down your door to give you big, fat contracts, but the sentiment is the same. Keep working. Don’t stop just because you’ve finished one project. Have your next one lined up as you try to sell the one you’ve just wrapped. Jot down ideas every day so that when you get done celebrating your last day in the editing bay, you can put that rest to good use.

Show Your Time

“Would I make [Easy Rider] now? It was about then. And I think a filmmaker’s responsibility is to show his time. Brueghel, I think, was the first artist to show his time.”

A knowledge of the Dutch masters also helps (although it’s unclear which Brueghel he meant). Jokes aside, Hopper acted, wrote, directed and painted. How much do you think each informed the other?

Let James Dean Teach You How to Smoke

What Have We Learned

The simplest things can be become very difficult. Filmmaking is about details (even when that detail is how much of a cigarette has been smoked), but it’s also about experimenting with big ideas and dangerous freedoms. Not the least of which is telling your own story or the story of your generation.

So maybe the two parallel ideas here are 1) to aim high and 2) to remember the small stuff. And to never slow down. And to grow a sweet mustache.

And to see a motorcycle movie as a political statement. And to be okay living and working as an outsider.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.