This story is over 5 years old.


Deconstruct Dennis Hopper, Icon, in the Red-Band Trailer for ‘The American Dreamer’ [Exclusive]

We spoke with photojournalist and filmmaker Lawrence Schiller about his fragmented portrait of the Easy Rider and Blue Velvet actor/director, 'The American Dreamer.'
Image by Lawrence Schiller, courtesy of BOND

In 1971, filmmaker Lawrence Schiller took a tip from one of the documentary genre’s first hoodwinks, Nanook of the North, and applied it to one of the decade’s modern enigmas: actor, writer, and newly minted director Dennis Hopper. Having earned acclaim, trust, and a bit of studio-funded coin after the success of Easy Rider, Hopper followed it up by directing The Last Movie, an expensive, fragmented colonial tale about a stunt coordinator (played by Hopper) battling reality on a Peruvian Western film set.


No stranger to sets himself as a photojournalist, Schiller and co-director L.M. Kit Carson formed an idea to track an actor who “submerges himself in his own myth." The pair brought the concept to Hopper, who was at the time ravaged from divorce, drug addiction, and studio pressure to deliver a cut of The Last Movie to Universal. Hopper agreed, and the result, The American Dreamer, straddles a thin line between truth and fiction across editing bays, studio backlots, and the deserts of Los Angeles and New Mexico.

The Creators Project spoke over the phone with Schiller about his recently remastered film, and you can also find a red-band trailer for The American Dreamer below.

Image by Lawrence Schiller, courtesy of BOND

The Creators Project: Dennis Hopper says in the film that he doesn’t care what the outcome of the documentary is—good or bad. Do you think he actually meant that?

Lawrence Schiller: Yes. Several times when we were making the film I asked if he wanted to take a look at the film, and he'd say "No, no, no, it's yours, I'm messing with my own film." And then when it was done he still didn't want to see it, so we opened it in a couple schools on the East Coast. When he eventually saw it he liked it. Dennis is very smart. He didn't want to be guilty of the same thing that he would lay at somebody else's feet. He was saying, “Nobody should have the right to approve my film, so how could I as an artist ask for a cut on somebody else's film?”


You’ve said that making the film was the story of you becoming a filmmaker as well. What was your biggest takeaway from the experience?

The biggest thing I learned on The American Dreamer was how important music is to a film. When I saw the first cut of it I thought I'd failed, I thought it was dull and boring. And the editor turned to me and said, "Well Larry, I haven't put any music to it.” I'd never thought about music that way up to that point.

Image by Lawrence Schiller, courtesy of BOND

I’ve spoken about how I transitioned from a high school kid to a magazine photographer, shooting iconic images, making mistakes, taking chances. After that I became a filmmaker: not a director, a filmmaker. A director concentrates on telling a specific story in a specific way, and a filmmaker creates ideas as part of the fabric of their life. Directors have the skills of a filmmaker, don't get me wrong, but it's the collaborative aspect that’s the difference. I have a saying about filmmakers now, that they're the longform writers of yesterday. There are no Tom Wolfes or Gay Taleses writing for magazines anymore. Filmmakers have replaced them.

What was your relationship with your American Dreamer co-director, L.M. Kit Carson?

He and I had a great working relationship. I'm not an intellectual; Kit is. And therefore he could communicate while understanding my deeper intentions. It's the same thing with me working with Norman Mailer for 30 years, and the five books we've collaborated on [The Executioner’s Song, Oswald’s Tale]. I'm not an intellectual like Mailer, but there was something that Mailer saw in the way I do interviews; I can’t even explain what I do, they’re so organic.


Image by Lawrence Schiller, courtesy of BOND

The film repeatedly returns to Hopper firing pistols and assault rifles in the desert. Was this an added fictional element?

That's reality. He actually carried a loaded gun on an airplane, which I cut out of the film. I think we see him loading the gun in the car, but in those days you could just carry a gun on the plane. You just took the bullets out and handed it to the stewardess. That was real. I don't really know where this obsession came from, we never got into that. There are some things that as a photojournalist I let speak for themselves. People will sometimes think you're making a big point of their answer. They may think you’re hitting on something that you’re not at all.

You’ll find a screening schedule of The American Dreamer below. The film will also be available to watch via MUBI on February 12.

2/11/16: Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, San Francisco, CA

2/12 – 2/17/16: Picturehouse Central, London, UK

2/15 – 2/17: Clinton Street Theater, Portland, OR

2/25/16: The Cinema Museum, London, UK

2/29/16: Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, Austin, TX

3/8/16: Beacon Film Society, Beacon, NY


Ken Burns on Jackie Robinson, the Rose Parade, and Race in America

[NSFW] Inside Sweden's Feminist Porn Wave

This City Might Be the Most Overlooked Background Actor in the World