Lawrence Schiller is a legendary photojournalist, film director and author. His photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton and Paul Newman are instantly recognisable as iconic pieces of Hollywood history, and his other works include the OJ Simpson book American Tragedy and the classic film, The Executioner's Song. Along with Kit Carson, he captured Dennis Hopper editing The Last Movie in the spellbinding documentary, The American Dreamer. I spoke to him on the phone at his office in New York.
How did you come up with this idea, to make a film on Dennis Hopper while he was editing his own film?
Well the original idea was to make a film about Paul Newman, about an actor who submerges himself in the myth of his characters. And Paul, who I had photographed many times, felt it wasn't the time to do that. So Kit Carson and I were working on a little documentary and I told Kit about this idea, and he said 'why don't we go to talk to Dennis Hopper, because he submerged himself in the myth of the character from Easy Rider. So we went up and spoke to Dennis, and of course within ten minutes it was a different film. Might even be a better film. That was to do a documentary about an actor-director editing his film. The fact that the subject was an actor, you could never make a true documentary, so it wound up being a film with an actor who plays an actor in a documentary about himself. A little like Nanno of the North, when an actor plays an Eskimo with all the real Eskimos. So that was the concept of the film. That's why Dennis, myself and Kit all have writing credits on it. That's because each day's shooting was thought out, not necessarily scripted words, but the concept was like how John Cassavetes directed films. They would sit and discuss the beginning and the end of the scene, they know where they start and end, then everything inside was improvisation. And here, what was interesting was that Dennis plays the actor-director in a documentary. It's not a true documentary. like photographing events as they are happening and everything is real. Here Dennis is always thinking about the documentary.
So the Dennis Hopper before the camera and sound is running is drastically different from the Dennis on film?
No, I think they were maybe very similar at that point in his life. But he knew what the camera lens was doing and he knew how to relate and interact with other people. So his actions are not always natural, not always documentary.
You've really captured the essence of the frustrated artist here though. He was editing this masterpiece and people were on his back about it. Do you think it maybe turned out to be the perfect film about a frustrated artist?
Well, let me say this. He had a very good film going into the editing process. It's not for me to judge, I've made good films and bad films. I made a film which I thought was very good called The Executioner's Song. You should see it, because you'' understand things. This film on Dennis Hopper is a transition film for me. It says as much about me as it does about Dennis Hopper. I was in a transition from being a photojournalist to being a film producer and director. The film I did after this, I won on Oscar for. So the thing is, this captured Dennis in the struggle to find his film in the editing process., and he loses control. He's in the chariot race in Ben Hur and he loses his control of the horses. A filmmaker that visited him early on was Jodorowsky, who a lot of people believe put crazy ideas inside Dennis's head. After that Dennis couldn't get it straight about the film. He destroyed his own film. The story at the beginning was very, very good, but he destroyed it by procrastinating too long. And that's what the film is about and he finally realises it in American Dreamer, because he predicts his own downfall when he compares himself to Orson Welles and the Magnificent Ambersons. I'd met Dennis Hopper years before at a small party for a film called Cool Hand Luke which I photographed for Paul Newman. So The Last Movie destroyed his career for many years. It took him about twenty years to recover from this devastation.
I think in that lost period, through the 1970s and early 1980s, he did a lot of his best work. When you track those films down, which aren't that easy to get in the UK, you see these were magnificent films. I also think The American Dreamer is hypnotically good. You get pulled into that world.
I think he did do a lot of his best work after that. Do you know why? Because he was struggling to survive. Sometimes you do your best work when you lose everything and you want to make sure that you're not knocked out on the canvas.
When you're hungry...
Yeah. He was coming out of a divorce, he was losing half of his art collection which he had to sell, and luckily he kept his photographs.
I think his photographs were just as amazing as his performances.
Yeah, I mean being a photojournalist myself, I understood his photography and I think he was a great, great photojournalist. He captured the scene, where he lived and the people he knew quite extraordinarily.
Did you bond at all on photography?
No, I don't believe so. He collected a few of my pictures and we traded a couple, but I didn't have that kind of a relationship with him. You can see he and I argue during The American Dreamer, and I'm very strong like he is. Norman Mailer and I did a lot of books together and won Pulitzer prizes. But you need to see The Executioner's Song to see how I went from a photojournalist, through American Dreamer and into being a filmmaker. In all my films I deal with anti-social behaviour, and American Dreamer deals with anti-social behaviour.
So what did Dennis think of the film, American Dreamer, when he finally saw it?
I think he liked it and in years gone by he liked it even more. When he was able to buy The Last Movie back from Universal, and he started to show it at film festivals, he insisted that The American Dreamer be shown as a companion to The Last Movie. That to me was kind of like Hopper saying 'I'm really proud of what you did,' because it's another window to look through at Dennis and his life at that point.
Yeah, I think the two films are inseparable myself. I know they are very different films and different visions, but I do think you need to see them both together.
Yeah, the question is which comes first? The chicken or the egg?
Yeah, exactly. Did you continue to stay in touch with Dennis and have any wishes to work again with him on anything?
We stayed in touch. My son lived across the street from him in Venice, so I used to see him from time to time, but we never did anything else professionally.
Very different careers I suppose.
Yeah, different careers. Dennis was an incredible actor. He wound up being a fine director. I mean, he's a great artist. He's a great, great artist.
He was always saying he wanted to make the perfect film. Do you believe he was frustrated that he never felt he did make the perfect film and get his chance to get his true vision on the screen?
Of course, but all great artists never achieve it, that's what makes them great. I don't think any artist in his own mind achieves what he wants.
I guess that if he thinks he's achieved it, he's doing something wrong.
Yeah. exactly. I include myself in this. When you look at great artists, you as a viewer may think there isn't anything more that artist could have done. But many of these artists may not even think they got half way down the road. The only one that maybe did feel like he'd achieved it was Picasso.
Yeah, Picasso definitely. Dali was close but he became too commercial in the end. A parody of himself.
Yes. Dali became a factory.
So, The American Dreamer, what I find very interesting about it is how you captured that era when Dennis Hopper was briefly the hippy guru, people came to him, like if you were passing through you had to go see Dennis Hopper for the answer or something. Did you find all that exciting to be around?
Yeah of course. I took Dennis to meet Charlie Manson. I knew Charlie. So to prepare for that part of the film I arranged for him to visit Charlie in jail.
Wow. Did they get along well?
I wasn't sitting there next to them, so I don't know, because Charlie could only have one visitor at a time. I knew one of Charlie's attorneys, so I was able to arrange that.
He quotes Manson in the film doesn't he? You know, there's that scene where he's quoting him and there is a similarity between them both for sure.
Yeah. Dennis wanted to get that into the film. We shot, took a break to look at the footage. And then we suggested to Dennis that 'maybe you should go meet Charlie, so you can see what the face of evil looks like.'
Wow. That's pretty amazing. I suppose a lot of people knew Charles Manson was odd, but no one had any idea how odd and evil he really was.
Yeah, I'm not sure where that evil came from. No one could figure that out. Now we're trying to figure out Trump.
Charles Manson to Donald Trump. It's not that big of a leap.
No it's not...
PRAISE FOR DENNIS HOPPER ON SCREEN
"Loved the book. You captured Dennis better than anyone else has. Terrific!"
_ Director Henry Jaglom (worked with Hopper on Easy Rider, Last Movie and Tracks)
"A great book. Dennis would have been proud."
- Director James Frawley (Kid Blue)
Get the book here: