Mr. Hopper, in 1969 you won the Best First Film Award in Cannes for Easy Rider. How did that moment change your life?
I bullshitted everybody and told them all my dreams and things I was going to do. And what happened afterwards? I became a total failure. I was full of shit and that’s the end of it.
What went wrong?
After Easy Rider I made The Last Movie and won the Venice Film Festival. But Universal Pictures wouldn’t distribute my movie, and that whole fight was the reason that I didn’t direct another movie for twelve years. That is unfortunate and I never really got back to mainstream Hollywood.
But you are still considered an icon.
I am honored at a lot of places for the work that I did in the ’60s.
Didn’t David Lynch’s Blue Velvet re-establish your career?
The year that I made Blue Velvet I also made Hoosiers, for which I got nominated for an Academy Award. And the same year I made a film called River’s Edge, which is a wonderful film. But none of those films were studio films.
Do you still hold a grudge against Universal?
What caused the fight originally?
It was a personal thing between Lew Wasserman and me. He was the head of Universal and the most powerful man in Hollywood. I directed The Last Movie, but somehow he did not like the result.
Even though it won at the Venice Film Festival?
They wanted me to re-edit it and I refused to re-edit it after I had won in Venice. Wasserman said, “Look, if you don’t re-edit it, I am only going to show it for two weeks in New York, two weeks in Los Angeles, 3 days in San Francisco, it will never be seen in Europe and then we are going to shut it down.” I said, “That’s ridiculous! Come on, you can’t do that to me!”
So what did you do?
I went on all the talk shows. I went all over the world trying to get financing. I lived in Paris for two years trying to get financing. I lived in Mexico City for two years trying to get financing. I was young and thought I had power. But I had no power at all. I just had a big mouth! Henri Langlois put it well. He said, “When Rembrandt fucked the maid and all of his paintings were taken down, it took three hundred years to rediscover him. Dennis Hopper fucked Hollywood and we may never see his films!” (Laughs)
Would you still be so stubborn now?
If I won the Venice Film Festival, I think probably. But I have knowledge now. But anyway, it is an old story. Mr. Wasserman is dead and he did a lot of great things and I don’t have any grudges against these people. It is unfortunate because I was a really talented director. I was a forerunner and should have been allowed to make films.
After such difficulty as a director, was there ever a time when you considered giving up on acting and getting out of the business?
No. My work still keeps me happy, as limited as it is at times. I have continued to work. I have done over 150 movies, most of them independent films, most of them in different countries, living in a trailer somewhere.
Would you still like to direct?
I wanted to start directing when I was 20 years old. I was 31 when I directed Easy Rider and 33 when I directed The Last Movie, and every year since then I’ve had a film, every year I’ve tried to get them done, every year I’ve not been able to get them financed. I have directed seven movies over that period though…
Some people say that your drug abuse was the reason you never made it big as a director.
Drugs never interfered with our filmmaking. If somebody had said drugs are interfering with the filmmaking we would have stopped. I’m probably in denial… but at the time drinking and doing some cocaine to work and smoking a little grass, it was all about the work, it wasn’t about the drugs. The drugs were something we did to keep going. You could have cut off my legs and I still would have been directing movies.
What about the years after The Last Movie when you had difficulty financing any of your projects?
I think later, when one is not allowed to work and can’t get jobs or writes screenplays and no one will give you financing, then the drugs and alcohol are no longer about the work. They are about wallowing in self-pity and anger – that’s a different story.
Is it true that Wim Wenders helped you step away from drugs?
I came from Apocalypse Now to do The American Friend with Wim and when I came out of the jungles in the Philippines, Wim described me as having jungle sores all over my body. So he gave me a haircut and put me in a homburg. It was like being in a blizzard – you’re lost, you’re going to die, and suddenly this St. Bernard dog called Wim comes with cognac around his neck and saves your life. And that’s the way I felt about the situation at the time.
How bad was it at that point?
At that time I was doing probably three grams of cocaine a day and half a gallon of rum and twenty-eight beers. And I had a fifth of rum on the side in the case I ran out. (Laughs) So I started drinking beer all day long and I would drink mixed drinks, thinking I would get through the day and I’d do coke to drink more. So I was really out on the edge.
It sounds like it. Most people couldn’t function at all under those circumstances.
I lost a lot of work and a lot of opportunities because of the drugs and alcohol. It was certainly a wasted time in my opinion. I didn’t think of my life as being bad when I was using and drinking, I just thought it was out of control. I mean, when you wake up in blackouts and you don’t remember what you’ve done, that’s not a good sign.
But you must have wanted that in some way, too…
In my naïve kind of way I thought that artists had the right to drink and use drugs and to experiment and to lead a life that embraces that kind of experience. Because reading wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to experience things. I wanted to know what van Gogh felt when he cut his ear off. I wanted to know what those things, those intense kind of extremes were like. And I found out.