Juxtapoz Magazine Classics—Dennis Hopper

Juxtapoz // Friday, 14 Jan 2011
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One of our all-time favorite interviews was the February 2007 feature with the late photographer, actor, filmmaker, and fine artist, Dennis Hopper, performed by Scott Caan and Estevan Oriol. Occasionally on the website, we are going to revisit these features, in full.Juxtapoz Editors

Portrait by Estevan Oriol
Interview by Scott Caan


Scott Caan: You have studying acting with some of the best, and been involved in the movie business with some of the best, and there is such a solid craft that you live by; your moment to moment acting style, and your directing style. Can you talk to us a little about the craft of painting, because it seems that it’s the least inhibited form of art that you do.


Dennis Hopper: Well, you know, I’m 70-years old. When I was in high school in the 1940s, and that was the beginning of abstract expressionism. And abstract expressionism was the first time that the United States had an art form of its own, and we had always emulated the Europeans. By the time I came along, we were third generation abstract expressionists, and everybody was talking about the return to reality, and what was the return to reality going to look like? One day, Irvine Blum from Ferus Gallery came to me and said, “Tell me what you think of these two pieces?” And he showed me a photograph of a soup can by Andy Warhol, and cartoon by Roy Lichtenstein. And I flipped out, “There we go, the return to reality.” Everybody thought the return to reality would be Nathan Oliveira and David Parks, who were fine painters that we coming out abstract expressionism, but using abstract expressionists terms. I thought this had already been done. When I saw the soup can and the comic I thought, this is our reality; our consumer reality. So I went to New York in ‘62, and I saw Andy Warhol’s studio and his work before he ever had a show, and I went to Lichtenstein’s studio and I saw his work. And Irvine gave Andy his first show, Ferus Gallery, 1962.


In 1963, Marcel Duchamp had his first retrospective in Pasadena, and that was important to all the artists in the area to see, because Duchamp had said that the artist of the future will be the person who points his finger at something and says this is art, and that will be art. That was the beginning of our conceptual thinking about conceptual art.


SC: You had been painting a bunch before that?


DH: Oh yeah, I have been painting through the whole thing, making assemblages, and using found objects.


SC: And you weren’t shooting pictures at that point?


DH: No, most of this was photo-based. I had a show in 1961.


SC: Did you stop painting after that?


DH: I stop painting in ’61, and I started assembling objects with photographs. I didn’t paint again until the 1980s.  I wasn’t nice about quitting painting. I would say, “Paintings for cavemen. They should take their paintbrushes and stick them up their ass. The machine is here, don’t be afraid, and its another instrument that we should learn how to use.” So when I learned to paint again, and I had friends ask how I was going to explain it, since I had made those comments. My idea was this piece called, “Life After Death,” on canvas, and I would blow myself up. And well, I made the piece.




SC: You didn’t shoot pictures for a long time, too?


DH: After I started directing
Easy Rider in 1968, and after it was released in 1969, I didn’t take any more photographs until the early 1990s.


SC: For artists, how important do you thing it is to take breaks and long pauses?  For me, I want to work so much before I’m gone, but also we forget to just live and not try to make art. How important was that for your career as an artist being able to stop?



DH: Well, I didn’t really stop deliberately (ha ha).  When I starting making
Easy Rider, I thought well I’m acting, writing, and directing in this movie, where am I going to put the still camera? Directing a film was photography; it was all the arts as I knew it. I thought I would continue to make movies. So I made a film called The Last Movie, in Peru, and Universal said they would not distribute the movie. I owned 50% of the movie, and it won at the Venice Film Festival.


SC: How long after Easy Rider was that?


DH: It was the next year. So I ended my directing career, and yet, I did not go back to making stills; I was still hung up on the fact I was going to make movies. So I lived in Mexico City for a couple years, and I tried to make films there, but I couldn’t get the financing. And I lived in Paris trying to get financing for films, but all this time, like an idiot, I didn’t have a still camera. I was going to be a movie director. You get stuck, I got stuck. So I didn’t stop working; I thought I was writing scripts and doing movies, doing other things.


SC: Do you think it’s important to stop instead of constantly working?


DH: I don’t think there is any way to separate your life from you work, unless you make a dichotomy or something. Because when you are dealing in art, and this kind of craft, its just part of something you are thinking about all the time, whether you are on holiday or not, you’re thinking “When am I going to get my next gig?” or “If I had enough money to this . . .” It’s a constant, it’s part of you. And I think the idea of experiencing life is part of your creative path.


SC: What about the balance of that? Do you like to do some stuff more than others, whether it’s directing, or taking photos? Or is it all your art?


DH: I like to play golf. That was later in life. I didn’t start playing until I was 50. It gets me moving around.





SC: You didn’t shoot pictures for a long time, too?


DH: After I started directing
Easy Rider in 1968, and after it was released in 1969, I didn’t take any more photographs until the early 1990s.


SC: For artists, how important do you thing it is to take breaks and long pauses?  For me, I want to work so much before I’m gone, but also we forget to just live and not try to make art. How important was that for your career as an artist being able to stop?


DH: Well, I didn’t really stop deliberately (ha ha).  When I starting making
Easy Rider, I thought well I’m acting, writing, and directing in this movie, where am I going to put the still camera? Directing a film was photography; it was all the arts as I knew it. I thought I would continue to make movies. So I made a film called The Last Movie, in Peru, and Universal said they would not distribute the movie. I owned 50% of the movie, and it won at the Venice Film Festival.


SC: How long after Easy Rider was that?


DH: It was the next year. So I ended my directing career, and yet, I did not go back to making stills; I was still hung up on the fact I was going to make movies. So I lived in Mexico City for a couple years, and I tried to make films there, but I couldn’t get the financing. And I lived in Paris trying to get financing for films, but all this time, like an idiot, I didn’t have a still camera. I was going to be a movie director. You get stuck, I got stuck. So I didn’t stop working; I thought I was writing scripts and doing movies, doing other things.


SC: Do you think it’s important to stop instead of constantly working?



DH: I don’t think there is any way to separate your life from you work, unless you make a dichotomy or something. Because when you are dealing in art, and this kind of craft, its just part of something you are thinking about all the time, whether you are on holiday or not, you’re thinking “When am I going to get my next gig?” or “If I had enough money to this . . .” It’s a constant, it’s part of you. And I think the idea of experiencing life is part of your creative path.


SC: What about the balance of that? Do you like to do some stuff more than others, whether it’s directing, or taking photos? Or is it all your art?


DH: I like to play golf. That was later in life. I didn’t start playing until I was 50. It gets me moving around.




SC: How about actors today, who don’t come from that same school? What do you think of them?


DH: Most of their lives is learning to relax. But there are a lot of good actors. And a lot of good schools today. We only had a few at that time. But you’re not seeing Brando or Dean for the first time, whom you had never seen anything like them before.


Its like art now, when you have never seen an abstract painting, you’re like, “Wow what was that?” When you have seen a soup can painting for the first time, and nobody had ever thought about that in the fine arts, you either go with it or get the fuck away from it.


I bought Andy Warhol’s first soup can painting for $75. My agent at the time came and saw me once, and said, “You better get rid of that stuff, or I’m leaving because I’m not going to represent somebody who has that stuff in their house.” And I said goodbye to him. Unbelievable.



SC: When you made
Easy Rider, it was one of the original American art movies. It was different from other films because it was made by people who shot it the way they wanted it shot, and done by people who didn’t care what others thought.


Today, filmmaking struggles to be shot in the
Easy Rider method because the industry is such a business, and it’s so important to make money, and they don’t care about good product as much. That seems to be detrimental to art . . .


DH: It always was about making money. I mean, they don’t give you that kind of money to make a movie for your friends. The money for
Easy Rider was given to us by the people who made the “Monkees” TV series. And they gave us the money as a tax write-off, because they really thought we were probably going to lose money.

But Peter Fonda and I talked the outline out, and Paul Lewis, my production manager, and I went across the country to scout all the locations out. And I came back to NYC after scouting, and Peter and Terry Southern hadn’t written a fucking word. So I went and hired a secretary and dictated for two weeks for a script. I didn’t want a script, but we got a script anyway.


We shot first in New Orleans, and we shot the acid trip in 16 mm. I shot more footage there then I did for the rest of the movie. And I got Paul together, I got Jack Nicholson, and we went out and made the film in five weeks across the country.



A lot of it was improvised. I knew how much time I had, I knew what drove the story to go on the next point, but really everything was set so I could create on the spot. We moved quickly.


It took me over a year to edit the movie, because I had not seen any of my dailies. I think I came home with over 40 hours of film.


But I always thought the idea was, unless you are just going to make art films for your friends and show them in a little rooms somewhere, if you’re going to make a movie and spend that kind of money (we spent $360,000, which was a lot of money), then you should have some sort of responsibility to get that back. And if you are going to make art, and you are trying to change people’s minds about things, you want as many people as possible to see the film. So, if you want a lot of people to see it, and you want it to become commercially successful, that just means you have to put it into some sort of emotional framework so it works for people.














SC: When I’m out taking pictures, for example, I try to take pictures of things that I want to see. But in the back of my head I’m thinking, “I can’t wait to show somebody this picture.” I never took an art class, I don’t know what the rules are, but it would seem like the idea is to do it the way you want to do it, and not think about showing to people. But in the movie business today, you have to tell people why this project will make money.


DH: You have to do a lot of bullshit . . .


Estevan Oriol: When you were the photographer in Apocalypse Now, did you have film in that camera?


DH: No, he (Francis Ford Coppola) wouldn’t let me. Francis thought I was going to get the pictures out before he got the film out. And you couldn’t buy film out there anyway (ha-ha).


But what a great experience that was, though.


SC: I was looking for the one original questions that nobody has asked you, but this is not it: Was there anything about Easy Rider that you have never said that you wanted to say?


DH: (Long pause) Thank god for
Easy Rider.






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