Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Terry Southern on Easy Rider

Easy Rider (Directed by Dennis Hopper)
Terry Southern was an influential American short story writer, novelist and screenwriter noted for his distinctive satirical style. Southern collaborated on screenplays for several popular movies of the 1960s, including Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Loved One (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1966), Barbarella (1968), Easy Rider (1968), and End of the Road (1969). The success of these films helped define the 1960s youth counterculture.

In the following excerpt from an interview conducted with Southern that appeared in the Paris Review in 1996 Terry Southern discusses making Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper.

What was the real story of Easy Rider? There are so many versions of how, and who created it.

If Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines and six of them survive the cutting-room floor, he’ll put in for screenplay credit. That’s the name of the game for Den Hopper. Now it would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the film – but, by George, he manages to do it every time. The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter (Fonda) came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded him to let him (Denis) direct the next one, and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler they would make something interesting and worthwhile – which I would write. So they came to my place on Thirty-sixth Street in New York, with an idea for a story – a sort of hippy dope-caper. Peter was to be the actor-producer. Dennis the actor-director, and a certain yours truly, the writer.


I was able to put them up there – in a room, incidentally, later immortalized by the sojourn of Dr. W.S. Benway (Burroughs). So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a nonstop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and indeed already salted to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival, and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus; so she would talk about this. Finally I started taping her and then had her rap about it, how they were everywhere – Jack Nicholson’s thing with Easy Rider was based on that.


So you can see that during these conferences the hippy dope-caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit. Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember that Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension. . . when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred for anything that is remotely different from himself… and then somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper (imitates Hopper in Apocalypse Now): ‘You mean kill ‘em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!’ I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system. Sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that it (their death) was more or less mandatory.

Are you saying that there was no improvisation in the film?

No, no, I’m, saying that the improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene – a scene which already existed.


Then how did Dennis and Peter get included in the screenplay credits?

After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and the other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted. Even then they said there was supposed to be a “compulsory arbitration” because too often producers and directors will muscle themselves into a screenplay credit through some under-the-table deal with the writer. They (the WGA) said I would be crazy to allow it and wanted to be assured that I wasn’t being coerced or bribed in any way, because they hate the idea of these “hyphenates” – you know, writer-producer, director-producer… because of that history of muscle. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie. Recently, in Interview, Dennis pretty much claimed credit for the whole script.

Writers appear to be treated like the lowest of the breed in the film biz.

Yes. Except we still have persuasion.


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