High above the busy streets of Hollywood, Universal head Lew Wasserman is puzzled. His research team has come back to him with data telling the sad truth about the current movie business. Young people no longer want the flashy musicals, Westerns, and gangster movies that ruled the 1950s and early ’60s, and they especially don’t want movie stars. They want reality.
It’s 1969 and “Easy Rider” is the latest counterculture movie to be a hit (it was made for $500,000 and grossed $60 million). Kids are flocking to see movies that are different and more relatable to them, like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” in 1967. In this case, the movie is about a pair of long-haired hippies on motorcycles who get high and spout about how the country is going to hell.
Wasserman can no longer ignore it. If the elderly studio head doesn’t act fast, Universal is going to be in worse shape than it is right now.
With the “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude that’s a Hollywood hallmark, Universal quickly creates a division dedicated to the youth market. It green-lights movies with a max budget of $1 million each, with the cast paid scale and the director getting final cut.
But the new division needs stories. It so happens that Dennis Hopper, the director, star, and cowriter of “Easy Rider,” has an idea for a movie he’s been trying to make for the last decade called “The Last Movie.”
It’s been 45 years since “The Last Movie” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the festival’s Critics Prize. It was the only highlight for the film, which by the time of its theatrical release a month later in New York City became an infamous box-office bomb.
To this day, “The Last Movie” has never been available to audiences beyond its initial run and a VHS release in 1993. Instead, following Hopper’s death in 2010, it’s best known for the tales of drug use and partying that went on throughout the creation of it.
Business Insider recently talked to some of the people who were around Hopper during the making of “The Last Movie,” as well as Marin Hopper, daughter of the legendary actor/filmmaker, who is one of the trustees of the Hopper estate and current rights holder of “The Last Movie.” We wanted to uncover what really led to the demise of this lost classic and if it will ever see the light of day again.
A risky bet on New Hollywood’s rebel
Dennis Hopper, 34, was struggling with his ultimate personal vision, “The Last Movie,” when Universal came calling.
Though Hopper was suddenly a player in Hollywood thanks to “Easy Rider” tapping into the counterculture, he couldn’t get the production company behind the movie to green-light his passion project. A big reason: Hopper had decided not just to direct but also to play the lead in the movie after he couldn’t find the right actor during a series of auditions.
Universal had heard all the stories of Hopper’s erratic behaviour over the years, first as an up-and-coming actor who had small parts in the James Dean movies “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant” (he admired Dean immensely), then as a bit player on a slew of TV shows, where he got little respect and gave even less back. And then there were his off-set antics involving drugs, fights, and firearms.
But the studio was willing to gamble and agreed to make the picture on an $850,000 budget. Hopper got paid just $500 a week, according to the book about ’70s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” but he retained complete control of the making of “The Last Movie.”
Hopper lost 30 pounds and cleaned up his look for “The Last Movie” by shaving his mustache and cutting his long hair, the memorable traits from his “Easy Rider” role.
In the movie, written by Stewart Stern, Hopper plays Kansas, a stuntman from the Midwest working on a Billy the Kid Western shot in Peru. But after a tragedy on the set, Kansas decides to give up on movies and stays behind in the foreign country. With dreams of finding gold in the mountains, his life becomes complicated when he’s told by the village priest that natives are “filming” a movie with a camera made of sticks and causing violence because they aren’t aware that movies are fake. Eventually Kansas becomes their next victim.
The baby-faced Hopper informed Universal that he would be making the movie in Peru. What that studio didn’t know was the region had become the cocaine capital of the world.
“Every coke head in LA wanted to work on the picture in order to smuggle drugs back up north,” author Peter Biskind wrote in “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.”
‘It was one long sex-and-drugs orgy’
The cast touched down in the small Peruvian town of Chinchero in January of 1970, and needless to say, none of the locals knew what they were about to witness.
Suddenly the town was crawling with stars like Peter Fonda, Dean Stockwell, Michele Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas (who was briefly married to Hopper), legendary director Samuel Fuller, and Kris Kristofferson, many of whom were indulging in the region’s healthy supply of cocaine.
“Of course there was plenty of good cocaine,” Dean Stockwell, who played Billy the Kid in “Last Movie’s” film-within-a-film, told Uncut. “The natives there would happily give you leaves to chew on, and there was this little type of rock that’s got certain minerals in it, that precipitates the effect out of the leaves, and they all chew it. There was what you’d call processed coke as well. Was I aware of the amount of drugs being consumed out there? Yeah, oh yeah. But we kept it to ourselves, apart from the leaves, which everyone was doing. We weren’t stupid, we were just stoned.”
But reporting from the set for Life magazine, Brad Darrach described a more raucous environment:
“Somebody made a cocaine connection and a number of actors laid in a large supply at bargain prices — $7 for a packet that costs $70 in the States. By 10 p.m. almost 30 members of the company were sniffing coke or had turned on with grass, acid, or speed. By midnight, much of the cast had drifted off to bed by twos and threes. At 2 a.m. I was awakened by screams. A young actress had taken LSD and was ‘having a bummer.’ At 3 a.m., I heard a rapping on the window beside my bed. A young woman I hadn’t met was standing on a wide ledge that ran along the side of the hotel just below the windowsill. It was raining and her nightgown was drenched. ‘Do you mind if I come in?’ she asked vaguely.”
And things only got crazier as the production went on.
Darrach wrote that one night a group threw a “whipping party” in which an actor chained a girl to a porch post and thinking she looked like Joan of Arc, lit a fire at her feet. Another actor swallowed five peyote buds too quickly and almost died.
“It was one long sex-and-drugs orgy,” Hopper admitted to Uncut about the production of “The Last Movie.” “Wherever you looked there were naked people out of their f—ing minds. But I wouldn’t say it got in the way. It helped us get the movie done. We might have been drug addicts but we were drug addicts with a work ethic… The drugs, the drink, the insane sex, they all fuelled our creativity.”
According to Darrach’s reporting, most of the shooting was improvised. Hopper’s drive to tell something real and un-Hollywood led to little structure. Hopper and other key crew members would talk out scenes on-set and then shoot them immediately.
But Hopper also showed his genuine talents as a director — albeit not always responsibly. When he wasn’t getting the performances that he wanted, Darrach wrote that Hopper would halt production and put on a performance of his own to evoke the emotion he sought. In one instance, he got an actress worked up to the point of hysterics and then put the camera right on her as she cried uncontrollably.
“If I foul up now, they will say ‘Easy Rider’ was a fluke,” Hopper said on the set of the movie. “But I’ve got to take chances to do what I want.”
After production wrapped in Peru, Hopper notified Universal executives that he was headed to Taos, New Mexico, to edit the movie. He told them it would take a year to complete.
The moment that ‘destroyed the film’
If “Easy Rider” was any indication, the editing of “The Last Movie” would not be a smooth experience. And to distract Hopper even more from the task at hand, he agreed to be the subject of a faux-documentary about himself.
For “The American Dreamer,” directors Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson filmed Hopper in Taos while he was in postproduction on “The Last Movie,” though this was hardly a nonfiction work.
“This is an actor playing an actor in a film that’s supposed to be a documentary,” Schiller told Business Insider.
According to the codirector, the idea was to make something that could play on the college circuit leading up to the release of “The Last Movie,” further building up Hopper as an icon for a new generation.
Now with a beard and long hair, Hopper seemed more interested in living the life of a vagabond than finishing a major movie.
“The thing I remember most is the strong smell Dennis had,” filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky told Business Insider via email when asked about his memories of visiting Hopper at that time. “He was drugged up, as he always was, and he slept fully clothed. Ugh, the smell!”
Though Hopper put on a face of control and confidence among his hangers-on in Taos, internally he was struggling to find “The Last Movie” in the editing room. Hopper asked Jodorowsky, among many others, to see a cut of the movie. The Chilean director, known for cult surrealist classics “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” did and gave Hopper a harsh criticism.
Legend has it that after watching “The Last Movie,” Jodorowsky told Hopper that he had failed and only made a conventional Hollywood movie. This motivated Hopper to destroy that cut of the movie and completely redo it with a more experimental eye.
But Jodorowsky told Business Insider that isn’t the whole story. He didn’t just give advice to Hopper — he got involved in the cutting, too.
“With the help of an assistant, I sat in font of an editing machine and in two days edited the entire movie,” Jodorowsky said. “What was left was a magnificent version.”
Hopper didn’t settle on Jodorowsky’s version. He continued to tinker with the edit, which is what Schiller and Carson found themselves walking into when they began filming Hopper for “The American Dreamer.”
“I have great regard for Jodorowsky,” Schiller said. “Don’t get me wrong, he does incredible experimental films, but I think that f—ed around with Dennis’ head. He felt all of a sudden here’s somebody I respect and he’s telling me I got to do it entirely different. I think that’s what destroyed the film.”
“A samurai never repents,” Jodorowsky said of his version of “The Last Movie. “This truth can hide but cannot ever hurt. One of these days someone will find my version, which I feel would have saved the movie.”
Though “The American Dreamer” isn’t a straight-up documentary, it’s honest when Hopper talks about how audiences will react to “The Last Movie.”
“If it’s nothing more than ‘The Magnificent Ambersons,’ Orson Welles’ second film that made no money, I’ll be a very happy man,” Hopper said in the movie. “If the audience doesn’t accept it then it will be a long, long, long time before we can dream about that audience that I thought was there.”
“In that scene he’s already telling us that he’s going to fail,” Schiller said, looking back on it now.
Following the award-winning Venice premiere in August of 1971, the movie played in New York City, and no one showed up. (Universal executives insisted on Hopper recutting the movie, but with his full control, he refused.) Hopper had made a film that even baffled his core hippie audience. In two weeks, it was gone from theatres.
A year after gracing the cover of Life magazine, Dennis Hopper was now an outcast in Hollywood. Though he’d find acting work, he wouldn’t direct another movie for close to a decade.
The rebirth of ‘The Last Movie’
“I think my movie, personally, is one of the most important films that have ever been made in America… I don’t know if anyone is going to see it, but I feel the film is going to take care of itself in time and be around as long as there are films.” — Dennis Hopper talking about “The Last Movie” on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1971
The failure of “The Last Movie” served as a lesson in what became known as “The New Hollywood” of the 1970s. Studios were willing to give control to bright filmmakers eager to tell new stories, but they also wanted to make a profit.
Wasserman’s strategy turned out to be flawed. Yes, young audiences rejected conventional stars and Westerns, but they also weren’t keen on movies that were too real and obtuse. Later, as the decade and “The New Hollywood” waned, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would pave the way for the new model that sustains the business to this day: the summer blockbuster.
But thanks to Hopper’s iconic career, “The Last Movie” has grown more fascinating to audiences who never got a chance to see it.
The movie is far from terrible. Though its jump cutting makes story structure a challenge, in the numerous times I’ve watched it (if you dig deep on the internet, you can find a bootleg copy), I see a powerful story about the death of the American Dream, though Hopper delivered that message better in “Easy Rider.”
The breaking of the fourth wall and improvisation (there are a few scenes that really shine) have a mix of comedy and pathos. And the beautiful cinematography of the Peruvian landscape by “Easy Rider” DP László Kovács and Kris Kristofferson’s original songs give off that unmistakable ’60s feel.
Hopper saw that the film could have a second life, so in the early 2000s he bought the rights to “The Last Movie” from Universal. For years he held private screenings of the movie (it’s also been shown at a few film festivals), and there was even a moment when he and Stern thought of remaking it with Hopper directing once more and a younger actor in the lead. But that idea never materialised into anything serious.
Marin Hopper told Business Insider there is currently no set plan to re-release “The Last Movie,” though she’s been working to get it off the ground. She said it was something her father was still striving for before dying of prostate cancer at the age of 74.
“It was an exciting time when he got the rights back,” Marin said. She recalls her father sending her a pouch of Peruvian blue opals while he was filming the movie when she was a young girl. “He thought it was such an important work.”
Hopper hopes to not just resurrect the movie, but also create something that crosses over into other mediums.
“It’s our desire to release it in a luxurious way, with an art book, as there are a lot of beautiful set photos, and then there’s Kris Kristofferson’s songs,” she said. “We want to celebrate all of that.”
It’s still in the “idea stage,” but there’s hope for this sex-and-drugs-fuelled vision yet.
“We’re moving along,” she adds. “It’s all coming soon.”
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