Here at TORO, we're counting down the days until Sons of Anarchy launches its fifth season, the transition of power to the next generation complete. What's next for SAMCO with Jax Teller at the helm? We'll have to wait and see.
Until then, we spend the next 12 days examining elements of biker culture, beginning with this chat with Peter Fonda about his film Easy Rider, arguably the most iconic motorcycle movie of all time. The film was actually conceived in a seedy Toronto motel room on Lakeshore. Fonda, its writer, producer and star, shared the story of the script’s origins with Thom Ernst in advance of its 2010 release on DVD.
In the spirit of Sons of Anarchy, we revisit Fonda’s tales of Easy Rider…
Q: Easy Rider was written in a Toronto motel room?
A: I was there promoting The Trip. The first big lunch I went to, in this huge exhibition hall in Toronto was really remarkable, 1,200 to 1,300 people in the room. I was down at the American international pictures table. Jack Valenti, who had just been appointed to this new bullshit position got up and said to this huge gathering of exhibitors, “My friends, and you are my friends" ... and like a TV evangelist, “It’s time we stop making movies about sex, motorcycles and drugs,” looking right at me. “And more movies like Doctor Dolittle, which cost $27 million.”
That was it, man, that was my lesson for the day. I went back to my red-flecked room of the Lakeshore Motel and sat down, thinking, Sex, drugs and motorcycles – he didn’t add rock and roll to that, hmm, far out, what can I do with rock and roll that doesn’t involve sex and drugs? Nothing … And then I started signing photographs where it looks like I’m riding this big chopped Harley-Davidson on the sand. I’m actually on this cement path that snakes its way along the beach in Venice. And I thought, That’s great, it’s not the 100 Hells Angels going to a funeral, it’s two guys riding across John Ford's West.
I had it pretty well done out as a storyline. I didn’t go to sleep – you don't go to sleep when you just come across an idea for a story like Easy Rider.
Q: In other films, the biker community was outside of America, but in Easy Rider these guys were the sons of America.
A: Yeah. We were not the Hells Angels or any motorcycle club. In the story, we were part of a show that would go on at halftime between demolition derbies. The halftime show showed me as Captain America, riding through burning houses, one long tunnel. And [in the original script] I’m riding the bike through and it just collapses behind me all the way but doesn’t get me. With Captain America’s final trick, I would blow myself up in a coffin with 26 sticks of dynamite in a circle around the coffin painted with the American flag. I’ll be getting in it, wave to the crowd, close the coffin down. We knew we could shoot it but I thought, This is rather daring. I could blow myself right out of existence at the beginning of my career as an independent filmmaker. Filmmaker, not just actor.
That was never shot and we just made it an assumption that people would go along with us because they can’t quite figure out what we’re up to at first. What are they doing? What is that white powder? And I never said this is cocaine. I wanted the moralists to be really upset. So maybe it was smack. What about heroine? Maybe it was something like that. We don’t know. It's just stuff. Bad stuff. And that’s how we get our money....
First time you see the bikes, it’s this great [shot]. Laszlo [Kovacs]’s wonderful camera rack focuses over Dennis’s tank and stuff, over to my tank and then you see this hole with this tube and it’s a clear plastic tube and there’s money in it. And he pans up the tube and you see me at the top, rolling up bills and stuffing them down the tube. Then I put a cork in it, stuff it down in the hole and turn the cap on the tank. I did that out of camera range, but anyway, what have I just done ... in symbolism? … There was a hole in the flag and I was doing something with money. I guess you would say I was F-ing the flag with money.
Q: Perhaps it was missed by me because Canadians don’t have the same sense of nationalism as America does?
A: It wasn’t something that people were supposed to say, “Wow, he’s F-ing the flag with money.” No, that would be too much then, it would be overboard. Very few people noticed that I was wearing spurs. But I was wearing spurs, because it was a western but we had a different kind of horse.
Q: Usually the American outlaw has redeeming qualities. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are outlaws my parents could like. Wyatt and Billy, not so much.
A: Definitely [laughs]. My parent, because I only had one by that time, he didn’t think this was going anywhere. He said, “Oh, I’m really worried for you, son. I know you have all of your eggs in this basket but, you know, we don’t know where you’re going.” “What do you mean, Dad?” “Well, I mean, we just don’t know what trip you’re going on – where are you bound on your trip?” I said, “Well, Dennis is there at the first campfire, he says, 'I’m going down to Mardi Gras, gonna get myself a Mardi Gras queen...'" He said, “Well, that’s a little thin.” I said, “Well, Dad, why don’t you just watch the film and take the trip with us, and discover what we discovered because this is what the film is going to do. We’re going to discover stuff. We’re going to discover all this beautiful stuff and start defining it down and down, until we get to the real ugly stuff, the real bad stuff.
And Truman Capote got very upset with me because he thought I was making a comment on the South. I said, “Oh no, it’s got nothing to do with the South. We had to go through the South to get to Florida, to retire. But if we decided to retire in Buffalo, we would have been killed outside of Detroit. We would have never gotten to Buffalo [laughs]. It would have been out of the question.”
We started filming Easy Rider on Friday, the 23rd of February, 1968, my 28th birthday. Far out.
Q: I love that you say "far out" [laughs].
A: Far out is what it is.
Q: Most of us didn’t know who Jack Nicholson was until Easy Rider.
A: Jack was one of the first actors I had met out here, other than Warren Beatty, who was very nice, very sociable and very smart. He was well read, he was interesting and he had an appreciation of art, and I liked all of these qualities about Jack. Jack had given up acting; he didn’t want to do this anymore. But I wanted Jack. And it saved us in that film. Jack’s performance was so brilliant because this was the first time a motion picture was dealing with the use of drugs, if you want to call marijuana a drug.
Anyway [laughs], this was the first movie where prime actors in a scene were casually passing a joint back and forth [pretends to smoke] ... We pick up Jack. Dennis, in a move that was brilliant, writes Jack’s as an alcoholic – or George Hanson, rather, is an alcoholic. Very, very acceptable to be an alcoholic, not a pothead but an alcoholic. You can be an alcoholic; we accept that, it’s no problem.
OK, so what do I do? I turn the alcoholic on [laughs]. I say, “Here, George, try this.” And he says, “No thanks, I got some tobacco right here in my pocket.” “ No man, this is grass.” “Grass? You mean marijuana?” See, Jack is so cool because him and Harry Dean Stanton were pushing out the back door to pay their rent of their house up in Rural Canyon [laughs]. So his character not knowing anything about it was brilliant. “Well, let me see that" [pretends to smell]. “Go ahead, George, light it up.” “Oh no, I’ve got enough trouble with the booze and everything, I don’t need to get hooked.” “Oh, you ain’t get hooked.” He looks at me, “Well, you say it’s alright then?” And it just cuts to me and I don’t say anything, I just look at him. Well then, OK.
The great reaction of this scene – the first match breaks, the second match lights and he gets it going, tastes real good. “You’ve got to hold it in your lungs a little longer, George.” So Jack takes the hit and we do the scene, right? Well, the way Dennis designed the scene, the genius of the start of the character is he put him in jail with us, as the alcoholic, and when this scene happens, at the first campfire with Jack, all those people that are hanging out at the edge, not sure if they want to engage in Easy Rider, are suddenly sucked right in by George Hanson’s character. They cannot escape it.
He is so dynamic and demanding that when he says, “Hey, man, I just saw this thing, it blinked three times on me, it zigzagged, it took off, you know, man, I mean, you know, man, you know, man? Dig it? Can you dig it?” “You’re stoned.” "Oh, I’m stoned alright but I saw it. It blinked three times, zigzagged and took off." And Jack goes, "That was a UFO beaming back at you" [laughs]. Just insane dialogue. It was just brilliant.
Q: Plus he’s wearing a white shirt and a tie.
A: Jack chose his costume. Jack’s in that thing of being the character. Now, we’re using real pot and it was really strong pot. There were two policemen on the set. They were there to be sure that nobody got crazy on the road or we weren’t interrupted, because we were out in the middle of nowhere, shooting. And they were just watching a movie. They had never seen a movie being shot before, so the whole system to them is fantastic and I’m thinking, I wonder if they can smell the pot. And I said, "What do you guys call it, a green leafy substance resembling oregano? Props, I want more of those things. We need some more out here, right away. Roll them up. Here you go, Jack.” All the time, I’m passing this joint to Jack, who’s now on autopilot. He just takes it and automatically takes a hit of it. Poor guy [laughs].
And then normally we shoot one side of the scene, we light from that direction and that’s the master ... Then we turn around and do the other side, the reverses. And that relight takes a little time. All the time, I’m feeding Jack, off camera, because I’m camera left and he’s camera right, from the looks of Hopper, and I’m feeding him the pot and he’s just hitting it because he’s on autopilot. He just forgot. He’s totally ripped. And now we shoot Jack’s [scene]. And Jack gets in, he was working so hard. I have a mimeograph of his script with his notes about the character and everything, it’s hysterical. But I watched him working really hard. And as the producer of the show, and a fellow actor in the scene, this is great stuff.
So, if you watch the film again, spend some time looking at Jack during that scene because just before the “meeting people from all walks of life” line comes out, you see his eyes go up. “Go up” is a phrase in acting, means you’ve lost the line. So Jack goes up and he starts to laugh; Dennis says cut. So now we have Jack in a printed pick-up situation, which means he’s going to continue where he started goofing up and finish the scene. And he is begging Dennis to please start it from the top, let him do it from the top. But no, Dennis has got the camera rolling and Jack’s just caught flat out there, stoned out of his gourd. He goes on and he finishes this hysterical bit of business. Absolutely hysterical.