It was only following the success of his era-defining 1969 directorial debut, Easy Rider, that Dennis Hopper was able to secure funding for his passion project, The Last Movie. The premise for the 1971 film, which Hopper wrote long before he ever had the money to produce it, was, indeed, a bizarre one—it was a drama about a stunt coordinator who attempts to stop actors on the set of a Peruvian Western from killing each other for the camera. The final cut played with mixed results: The film was critically praised yet financially disastrous, a toxic combination that set back Hopper’s Hollywood career for well over a decade.
That same year, photojournalist Lawrence Schiller and actor-screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson made a film about Hopper's creative process. The directors followed Hopper around Los Angeles and Taos, New Mexico, during post-production and ended up with The American Dreamer, a quasi-documentary released at the same time as The Last Movie at film festivals and on college campuses (but never theatrically). This fall, The American Dreamer will finally be widely available thanks to a newly restored DVD edition from Etiquette Pictures.
Schiller’s original concept was to reveal the truth behind an actor’s mythic persona. He originally wanted to focus on Paul Newman, whom he'd worked with while producing a photo sequence for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. But Newman declined and Carson introduced Schiller to Hopper, who was apparently motivated to take part because of his desire to be taken seriously as a real filmmaker.
The American Dreamer presents a startling, candid portrait of a unique personality intersecting with a critical moment in cultural history: New Hollywood. It is not, however, a documentary—following a benefit screening of the film at New York’s Lincoln Center, Schiller told me that although the style pays homage to the genre—especially the 1922 staged silent documentary Nanook of the North—Hopper was always performing. “An actor playing an actor,” Schiller says. According to the director, there isn’t a moment in the film when his subject doesn’t understand he’s being filmed: In fact, Hopper is even credited onscreen as a co-writer.
The narrative backbone, according to Schiller, “was Hopper’s transition from first-time director to serious director. And my transition from a magazine still photographer [to] a movie director.” The period-specific film also unintentionally presaged Hopper’s future as an artist: In the film he conspicuously references Orson Welles’ late-career Hollywood travails, in part predicting his own failure.
A few years ago, Schiller, also known for his intimate photo shoots of Marilyn Monroe and for directing the TV miniseries The Executioner’s Song, donated The American Dreamer to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN and gave the institute unlimited rights to exhibit the film for further film-restoration fundraising. It was a fitting step towards providing the work with greater exposure: Though The American Dreamer has become a textbook example of how a documentary’s aura can propagate both myth and anti-myth, its viewings had previously been restricted to student audiences only. Hopper, who Schiller says had a strong desire to build a brand through this documentary, originally mandated that the film could only be shown on college campuses. Today's museum audience dovetails nicely with the movie's early, educationally minded viewership.
The final cut of The American Dreamer represents a highly-constructed group effort that pushes the limits of documentary. In one portion of the film, Hopper—a great contemporaneous speaker—confronts Schiller about his invasive techniques. The scene was apparently contrived by the filmmakers to achieve narrative tension. (The mildly raunchy sex scenes were deliberately staged.)
Nonetheless, Schiller says he approached making the film “like a sponge,” soaking up and preserving as much as he could from his on-the-ground, 30-day shoot with Hopper. One lesson he claims to have learned was the importance of collaboration, in this case with Kit Carson: “We were different sides of the [same] coin,” Schiller recalled. “Kit is an intellectual … He was deep into the meaning of the scenes. I was interested in the body language.” He also singles out Nick Venet, the composer responsible for the impressive soundtrack.
It's clear throughout American Dreamer, however, that Hopper never learned to collaborate. All the way through, the film rides on his appeal as a performative genius who's both a control freak and who suffers deeply from feeling so alone.