BRUCE DERN (actor): [Roger] Corman was the first guy to let any of us in our generation have starring kinds of roles in B movies.

ROGER CORMAN (director): I was giving them an opportunity to make their first film, which hopefully I would make a profit from, and hopefully their career would take off.

JACK NICHOLSON (actor): The great thing about Roger’s movies is that you do play different things: costume stuff, which I do as badly as possibly can be done, gangster pictures. In those days, there were a lot of insane murders being done, which I’ve always been partial to. That was great....

I always knew what was bad about them, but I always also knew what was good about them. Roger and [director] Monte [Hellman] and all the people that I’ve worked with are totally free. They can’t afford creative pretension or bullshit. They just don’t have the time for it. It just can’t go wild. It can’t be done. They’re really trying to make the best with what they have. If you’re making a horror movie for [American International Pictures], there’s no need to get upset if you’ve got to do some weird screaming or have a lot of blood all over you.

ROGER CORMAN: I started as a writer and sold a screenplay for Writers Guild minimum, which, I think, was $3,000 at the time. I tried to get more from the producer, so we compromised, and he agreed to give me an associate producer credit and another $3,000. On the basis that I had $6,000 in my hand and I was an official associate producer, I raised $5,000 more, which made $11,000. I felt if I could get a total of $15,000, I’d make the film. A fellow came in to direct it because I wasn’t directing at that time. This was around 1954. He asked me how much I would pay him, and I said, “If you can raise $4,000 more, you can direct this picture.” He did, and we made the picture for $15,000 in cash and a series of deferments. We shot it in six days, all on natural locations, including Malibu. If you look closely, you can see trucks moving down the Pacific Coast Highway as the voice-over says, “Deep in the uncharted jungle of South America … ” It was a science fiction film that I called It Stopped the Ocean Floor. We made a deal with Robert Lippert, who had a small distribution company at the time. He felt that was too arty a title and said, “You’re going for the high-class market, kid, and It Stopped the Ocean Floor won’t do it.” So he changed the title to Monster from the Ocean Floor. He said, “You’ve got to tell them what the picture is about.” He may well have been right, because the picture did reasonably well, and we went from there. Then it was simply a matter of taking profits from that one and putting them into another picture.

BRUCE DERN: You knew you were going to be ripped off by everybody. The gaffers knew it, and the prop people knew it, and the electricians knew it, and everybody knew it. Transportation knew it. Roger knew it. But he’d say, “We’re making movies.” He knew what he was doing. He was making movies.

Nicholson and Fonda in Easy Rider, 1969.

ROGER CORMAN: It’s an even trade on the first film. [The first-time director] gets a small amount of money and makes his film. I get the profit off the film, and he gets the opportunity to start his career.

SAM ARKOFF (producer): I think there will always be a market for the ingenious young filmmaker who has a really bright idea who can call on all his friends.

ROGER CORMAN: Generally, I’ll pick the subject matter. I’ll say, “Okay, we’ll go with the bike picture” or “I think we need a contemporary horror story.” Then I’ll turn it over to the guy to see what he can come up with.

DENNIS HOPPER (actor): Corman, if he trusted you, would give you a film and let you go out and shoot on weekends, second-unit stuff. He wouldn’t pay you, but he’d give you the camera.

ROGER CORMAN: When I backed Francis Coppola, he had been my assistant for something like 8 or 10 months and already learned what was necessary.

BRUCE DERN: Corman was the champion of the good actor and the good writer and the good director.

DENNIS HOPPER: That was a big thing for us, man. I had starred in a picture called The Glory Stompers. And Jack Nicholson had starred in a picture called Hells Angels on Wheels. And Peter [Fonda] was the big star. He had made one called The Wild Angels, and he was big, man.

NED TANEN (producer): You’re always dealing with the mood of the public at the moment you put that picture out. Does anyone really think that [today] Easy Rider would be a hit movie? I don’t presume to know what a general feeling in America is. I don’t presume to know what a general feeling in my office is.

DENNIS HOPPER: Anyway, so Easy Rider.

PETER BOGDANOVICH (director): Peter [Fonda] and Dennis Hopper came to Roger Corman and asked if he wanted to make Easy Rider, but Roger turned it down because they wanted half a million dollars.

“Corman, if he trusted you, would give you a film and let you go out and shoot on weekends, second-unit stuff. He wouldn’t pay you, but he’d give you the camera.”

DENNIS HOPPER: It’s very complicated. We were all at AIP now. We all, I mean, Jack Nicholson was writing screenplays and acting. Peter Fonda was the big star at AIP.

ROGER CORMAN: On the bike thing, I just wanted to make one picture. I wanted to make what was eventually called The Wild Angels. And I didn’t make a second [motorcycle picture] because I said that I didn’t want to get into the same trap that I did on the [Edgar Allan] Poe pictures [House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Premature Burial, The Raven, The Tomb of Ligeia, The Masque of the Red Death], so I said what I’d do, I’d be executive producer, whatever that means, on another bike picture, and Danny Haller directed that, and it was called Devil’s Angels. It did well, and all these other ones came along, and I figured, Okay, I’ve started the damn cycle, maybe I’ll end it, so I backed Bruce Clark with Naked Angels, and that was successful, and I’d begin to think they’d go forever.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: Easy Rider really began with The Wild Angels. Peter Fonda basically plays the same character in both films. Brando in The Wild One hadn’t done well, and The Wild Angels was the first really successful biker picture. It started a whole genre, and without it there would be no Easy Rider.

“I just felt very strongly that Dennis could make this film and that it was important for him to make it,” producer Bob Rafelson said of the first-time director.

DENNIS HOPPER: So we promised that we’d never make a motorcycle picture. Because what we were becoming were these, like, you know, if we had a guitar, we’d be singing motorcycle guys, you know? I mean, we could see ourselves becoming these singing cowboys. It was sort of a nightmare scenario. So we promised that we wanted to make a movie but we’d never make a motorcycle picture. So we went around, Peter went around, with The Last Movie and tried to get it made and tried to do this and tried to do that. And nothing ever happened. So finally, he calls me from Canada, and he’s with Sam Arkoff and [executive] James Nicholson, and they’re selling The Trip or something up in Canada. And he calls me and wakes me up in the middle of the night and he says, “Look, man, Hoppy,” he says, “they’re going to give us the money to make a movie. And they’re going to let you direct and they’re going to let us both act in the picture, and I’m going to produce it. The only one drawback is, it is a motorcycle picture. But, like, you know, I got this great idea. See, we smuggle all these drugs, and then, like, we get on these gleaming bikes. We sell the drugs, and we get on these big bikes, and we go to Mardi Gras. And then, like, a couple of duck hunters shoot us in Florida.” He said, “What do you think about that as an idea?” And I said, “Peter, are you sure you have the money?” And he said, “Yeah, I got the money.” I said, “It sounds like a hell of an idea to me.” So that was the beginning of Easy Rider.

PETER BOGDANOVICH: The deal was about to go through, but AIP got skittish about Hopper directing. So Dennis went to Bert and Bob.

DENNIS HOPPER: Since Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson [of BBS Productions], who were old friends, had just made the Monkees series and were about to do their film Head, which is about the rise and fall of the Monkees, I knew they’d have a lot of bread.

BOB RAFELSON (director): The Monkees were all over the world, so they thought we were some sort of experts in the youth market. Columbia figured we knew something.

BRUCE DERN: They had a setup at Columbia that was very good. Bert Schneider was the first B in BBS, and his brother Stanley was the president of Columbia Pictures, and their father, Abe, was the chairman of the board of directors. They had a very good setup. It wasn’t that they were wired, but they had carte blanche. Any picture they made, as long as it stayed at a million dollars, they never had to show a foot of film to anybody. When it came time to put it out, they got the money they needed for publicity and everything else. So they weren’t shucked.

DENNIS HOPPER: Bert’s sitting there and Rafelson’s sitting there, and I think Jack Nicholson came in at one point and is sitting there. Because Jack Nicholson is now producing with Bob Rafelson and writing Head, see. Bob says, “Call Bert tonight at home.” So I call Bert. Now, this is the son of Abe Schneider, who was there the day I told Harry Cohn to go fuck himself. Abe Schneider is now chairman of the board. Harry Cohn is dead. And this is Columbia Pictures. And Bert’s brother was then head of production. And Bert had been, at twenty-five, treasurer of Columbia Pictures. So anyway, I call him at home, and he says, “I don’t care if you act and direct in this movie if you want to do this movie with us.” So anyway, that was the beginning of it.

150,000 Feet of Film

BOB RAFELSON: Easy Rider was nonunion. That picture cost about $300,000, and Bert and I financed it. It was a little bit like taking all the money we made on the Monkees and putting it on red. There wasn’t even a 50-50 chance. I just felt very strongly that Dennis could make this film and that it was important for him to make it.

NED TANEN: The only thing you can ever go on, doing this, is a gut reaction. All the research in the world won’t help you, and the basics don’t change: people are isolated, people are lonely, people want involvement, people want to feel something.

BOB RAFELSON: I always believed there was the possibility in Hollywood and in America for directors to make pictures with some autonomy. We discussed this as a concept, and Bert felt that was true. I guess the first person to join the company and make a picture was Dennis Hopper, who is no easy kitten. Neither Bert nor myself, to give you an idea of the company, ever visited the set of a picture that was made for BBS. The directors made the pictures on location and came back.

LÁSZLÓ KOVÁCS (cinematographer): I’m happy filming a location [as on Easy Rider], practical location shooting. It’s very difficult and it creates a lot of compromise, but it also gives you something, something I can’t really explain. Some kind of an atmosphere, some freshness, that you can’t really get on a soundstage. You walk into a big soundstage, and you start to be slick and you’re putting lights where it doesn’t really belong, over the head. It’s a different kind of a thing. If it’s possible to do something on location and there is a choice and they ask me, “Which way would you rather go?” I would say, “Let’s go to the location,” because you get something. You get something through the window, if you just see one seagull flying by.

“It was a little bit like taking all the money we made on the Monkees and putting it on red. There wasn’t even a 50-50 chance.”

DONN CAMBERN (film editor): At that time, Easy Rider seemed like an enormous amount of film. It was actually only about 135,000, 150,000 feet of film, but at that time it seemed like it would never stop. Excluding, of course, the film for the trip [to Mardi Gras], which had been shot prior to even beginning production on the film. The previous February, Dennis and Peter and company went down to New Orleans and shot in 16mm, shot close to 30,000 feet of—they were stoned out of their minds. They shot everything they could point the camera at. So we’d been working on the picture for about 11 months. We’d gone through several stages. The first cut was four hours.

FRANK PIERSON (screenwriter): Excuse me, editing for 11 months, or does that include the shooting?

DONN CAMBERN: That included the shooting as well, which was about ten weeks. The first cut on the movie was, like, four hours and 40 minutes. Dennis just wanted everything, so we tried everything. We went through a whole period of time where we were compressing the picture very, very slowly. We moved, we had started editing the picture off the lot, and then Bert wanted us on the studio lot at Columbia, so we were editing right there at Columbia. After a period of time it became apparent that Dennis was not going to let go of any more of the picture and it was still way long and it was unwieldy. There were—different people would come in and help. Jack Nicholson would come in and look at it. Dennis, of course. Peter would look at it and critique. Henry Jaglom would come in—this was an ongoing process. But Dennis, being the director, would not let go. He simply would not let go. So Bert at one point said to everybody, “I want everyone to leave,” and he said to Dennis, “Donn and I are just going to work for about three weeks. I want you to completely stay away, and then we’ll run it for you when you come back, and if something really disturbs you, we’ll talk it out and we’ll put it back. But this can’t just keep going on.” So we did, and at that time we had, by that time we probably sat down with a two-and-a-half-hour movie, and in terms of length we brought it down to somewhere in the mid-90s, which is just about where it is today. Dennis came back. He was disturbed by a couple of things, but basically we had the movie. And during the whole course of this, we kept bringing in albums of music and trying different songs, different pieces against all the different montages, looking and looking, and finally we settled on the songs and these choices and started to license them. Finally we got the whole thing put together and had a running for Columbia Pictures, and I must tell you that while we were working on the lot, because of the way we looked, we all had hair down to our shoulders, everybody gave us a wide berth. Nobody would really come close to us. They didn’t know what the hell we were going to do.

Phil Spector’s 1969 Christmas card featured an image from his cameo in the film. Inside, the inscription read, “A Little Snow At Christmas Never Hurt Anyone!!”

FRANK PIERSON: This was in the days when the producers on the lots still wore suits and ties.

DONN CAMBERN: That’s right. And editors wore suits and ties. Cameramen, everybody wore them. So we finally come to this day, it was on a Friday. At that time the man who was the head of physical production at Columbia, his name was John Veitch, and John’s office was in the front of the studio. As you walked in the entrance and walked through this maze that was Columbia at that time, you passed these windowed offices, and that’s where John Veitch worked.

FRANK PIERSON: And talk about a suit, he’s the ultimate.

DONN CAMBERN: The ultimate, absolutely. Absolutely. And on this particular Friday afternoon, we ran the picture for three people. There was Leo Jaffe, who was at that time president of Columbia, Stanley Schneider, who was vice president and Bert’s oldest brother, and a man named Robert Ferguson, who was their marketing man. And it was just Bert and myself and my assistant at this running in the one large screening room at the old Columbia studios. And we ran this picture with the music—it was not dubbed, the music was in, and it was in very, very good shape to the ear. Leo Jaffe was sitting in the second row by himself. Stanley Schneider was sitting about two rows back in the corner. Ferguson was sitting on the other side a couple of rows back, and Bert was sitting in front of me, and I was sitting by the console so I could ride the gain [adjust the volume] on the movie as we went through. We played the whole movie, and it ended, it was quiet, everyone was waiting for Jaffe, and there was a pause—it seemed like a year. Jaffe, who at that time was in his late sixties, stood up, turned around, and he looked at Bert, then he looked at Stanley and at Ferguson and me, and he said—this is a quote—he said, “I don’t know what the fuck this picture means, but I know we’re going to make a fuck of a lot of money.” And we’re all elated. I walk out, I go to the editing room, I get my jacket or something and I’m walking out, now, past John Veitch’s office, who flies out of his office, puts his arm around me, and says, “Donn, I understand we got ourselves a movie.” And I thought, Here we are. This is Hollywood.

SAM ARKOFF: Now, you’ve never been to one of those exhibitor conventions, God spare you. But in any event, we had this audience [for Easy Rider] of about a thousand exhibitors and their wives. And there was a stream of exits by these people as the picture wore on, and finally at that orgy scene in the church, the rest of the audience just filed out. As they came out, they said, “Sam, we know the picture will do well, but you can’t play in my theaters.” And I’ll tell you, we were really thinking we might get barred out of theaters. So we opened up in a number of theaters and crocked them.

GORDON STULBERG (executive): The picture opened in a theater in Boston which nobody could find. It was a Walter Reed theater that hadn’t done $6,000 a week since it opened. The picture opened at $40,000.

DONN CAMBERN: And of course it did turn out to be enormously successful. It played in many venues, it played for 24 hours a day for weeks on end.

“While we were working on the lot, because of the way we looked, we all had hair down to our shoulders, everybody gave us a wide berth. Nobody would really come close to us. They didn’t know what the hell we were going to do.”

DENNIS HOPPER: I won Best New Director at Cannes …

JOYCE SELZNICK (agent): … And Jack Nicholson …

DUSTIN HOFFMAN (actor): … I love Jack Nicholson’s work in Easy Rider. I love that performance …

SAM ARKOFF: And lo and behold, the exhibitors who had walked out and said they wouldn’t play the picture were all criticizing us for having sold it away from them. But the point about that picture was that in the last scene, when they buried their comrade and you hear the police sirens in the background and the other chap says to Fonda, “We have to get away, the police are coming,” or words to that effect, and Fonda says, “There’s no place to go,” this was the prevailing attitude in that part of the sixties, by a good many of the young people.

FRANK PIERSON: And for all of those people, this was the first movie that had come through the pipeline in any big way that gave voice to those feelings. And it was an astounding event. It really opened up so many doors for so many people so quickly. There’s never been quite that kind of, in my experience, in Hollywood.

DONN CAMBERN: No, mine, either.

SAM ARKOFF: I think we picked up something because we were aware of it. And we were aware of it in part because we needed to be aware of it. We didn’t have stars.

JEANINE BASINGER (film historian): No stars, a loose script, a modest budget, a first-time director. Overnight, the studios decided the Easy Rider formula was the new brass ring—the box-office answer to their identity crisis.

Nicholson, Fonda, and Hopper at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, where Hopper won best new director.

A. D. MURPHY (film critic): Film companies, distributors, and exhibitors woke up to the fact that people don’t go to films, they go to see a specific film. It’s an impulse purchase. There have been many studies. People make up their mind to see a film about six hours before, and they go that day. It’s literally an impulse purchase. It’s not like getting seats for a rock concert next month or something like that, it’s an impulse purchase, and when people want to go to see a film, they will pay the going rate. It’s the psyche of the impulse purchase: “I want it, and I want it now.” It’s only when you come out and don’t like it that you look at the price tag and bitch when we didn’t like it. But when we wanted it, we would have paid any price. It’s like a junkie that needs a fix—whatever the going rate is.

BOB RAFELSON: I’ve even read quite recently, for example, that some of the directors who are now among the younger generation of directors—and I don’t consider myself a part of that generation—say that we somehow single-handedly set out to destroy Hollywood. I think what they are saying is that there was a sort of pretentiousness involved with our concern, or our self-concern. We were accused of making nonentertainment movies and personal statement movies, a sort of perverse auteur approach to the Hollywood industry. Now, of course, immediately after a film like Easy Rider came out, hundreds of similar films were made by the studios in an effort to capture the youth market, as they called it. I would not say, in this particular instance, that flattery was a high form of sincerity or whatever they call that when you copy somebody. It was just rip-off time.

MICHAEL OVITZ (agent): Here’s something to think about: Steven Spielberg did Duel in 1971 for the ABC Movie of the Week. That was a watershed moment for the entertainment business. The whole concept of making theatrical-grade movies for a million or under was the absolute rampage of the time. The reaction to that was swift and pioneered by Ned Tanen at Universal. He went antithetical to everyone else. He put films together like Two-Lane Blacktop and a whole series of low-budget movies. They were all done on $1 million budgets.

BOB RAFELSON: Everybody was going out and trying to make an Easy Rider or a road movie or something like that. Then I think people really began to resent the fact that ours possibly succeeded and theirs didn’t. They couldn’t quite copy the impulse from which these pictures emanated. Basically, they emanated from the fact that Dennis Hopper was a crazed artist. You can’t just hire somebody to be that.

To hear Sam Wasson reveal more about this story, listen to him on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast

Jeanine Basinger is the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University and the author of several books, including I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies

Sam Wasson is the author of several books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood and Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art