With TIFF nearly back in town, we had to revisit one of our favourite interviews. Back in April 2010 before a special release of Easy Rider on DVD, Thom Ernst had a chance to talk to screen legend Peter Fonda and, as it turns out, Easy Rider had its roots in Toronto where the screen legend was promoting 1967 film, The Trip. What follows is part of that interview as Fonda talks about the movie business and Easy Rider...
Peter Fonda has but one request: keep the fridge full of Grolsch, not the cans but the tall green bottles with the ceramic swing cap. See to that and, he assures us, the interview will go fine. Still, when we present him with the first cold beer, he seems surprised. “You actually found one?”
In fact we found a few. I wouldn’t want this moment to pass without being able to tell people that I drank with Peter Fonda. I have one as well. Given Fonda’s reputation as one of the first bad-boy sons of Hollywood royalty (no doubt you have heard of his father, Henry, and his sister, Jane), the idea of merely sharing a beer with Fonda seems a mild legacy to strive towards.
Fonda is now in his sixties and still carries with him the bite of a privileged outcast. Through the rebel-outlaw films he and his gang brought to the screen like Easy Rider, The Hired Hand and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Fonda helped create the very culture of counterculture. He lived his creation by publicly endorsing the decriminalization of drugs, by criticizing his government and their involvement in Vietnam and by showing up to press conferences in bare feet.
He carries with him no evidence that the bygone days of recklessness and excess were the fabrication and design of an arrogant youth. Fonda clearly likes and respects the young man he once was. What’s more, he remembers his father, who may have been at odds with his son’s lifestyle and direction, but who cared for him deeply.
Fonda opens the Grolsch and takes a swig. “Great.” he says, waiting for the first question.
Q: In preparing for this interview I took another look at Crazy Mary, Dirty Larry.
A: You mean Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.
Q: I already blew my first question [laughs].
A: I’ve never been dirty. I’ve been nuts. I still am fucking nuts. But you can get great medications for it, so it’s good.
Q: Well, that’s why we brought the Grolsch, hope it’ll do.
A: As long as it’s cold.
Q: Your daughter, Bridget, became an actor. No concerns about the medications the business might have introduced to her?
A: When Bridget said, “I want to be an actor,” I said, “Don’t you ever say that again – it’s a verb, not a noun.” I said, “Where are you going to study acting?” She said, “UCLA.” I said, “No, no, no, no, that’s Tanning 101. And USC is the Theory of Tanning 101. If you want to know about filmmaking and acting, you go to NYU, Princeton or Yale. Period.” She went to NYU.
Q: So Juilliard was never an option?
A: You haven’t got the chance to get in as many student films. I advised her to get into every student film possible.
Q: And then she shows up in [Sam] Raimi’s A Simple Plan and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
A: I got paid for Jackie Brown. When [Bridget] was sitting there, staring at the television set, smoking joints, she’s watching Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, so since I’m in that film, every time Jackie Brown shows I get a couple of hundred bucks [laughs]. Great, I like that.
Q: You have a history with Toronto film festivals…
A: I was in Toronto in 1967, promoting The Trip, and after my second night there I wrote the story for Easy Rider in the Lakeshore Motel. Now that motel was pretty seedy then. I don’t know if it’s still standing.
Q: It’s still there.
A: [Laughs.] It’s got to be really seedy now. I was in the room that had red-fleck wallpaper; this is the hooker’s room obviously, so I threw the bolt open so the door wouldn’t close all the way and I began signing autographs, and eventually that’s how I came to the thought of these two guys riding across John Ford’s West but they’ll be riding East. I like that. Riding east because they are going to retire. They’ve made a lot of money, with pot, with dope and they’re going to retire in Florida.
It took me about three-and-a-half hours until ... at 4:30 in the morning, I called [Dennis] Hopper and I said, “Listen to this: you direct, I produce, we both act and write it, and we can save some money. This will be a very commercial film.”
Q: You couldn’t lose.
A: I knew this film couldn’t lose. So that next morning, after writing this thing which would become Easy Rider, I got myself dressed up, no shoes, no socks, and [at] this luncheon I was up at the big white table with all of the VIPs on it ... I was sitting with Jackie Bisset at my side, and Jacqueline was really a beautiful woman with a devastating smile. We’re elevated above the crowd. There’s this big white cloth. Of course, you don’t see our feet under the table so you can’t really catch that I’ve got no socks or shoes on. So with this devastating smile, Jackie said, “Peter, how come you don’t have any shoes or socks on?” And I’m smiling back: “It’s because I’ll put my foot up your dress.” And she says, “Stop that!” And I said, "You know what’s funny, I’m going to do [it], and I started putting my foot up her dress. And now everyone is watching Jacqueline Bisset, very few people are watching me. Why is she hitting him? Does it look like she’s saying stop? What’s going on? And you know, further up the leg goes the bare foot. Slap on the shoulder, stop that. “And gentlemen, Mr. Peter Fonda.” “Excuse me, Jackie, that’s me.” And I stood up and went to the desk and there this Canadian fella gave me this beautiful gold Zippo. It was one of the long ones and my initials were engraved on it and it said, "Thank you, Peter, Toronto Film industry, Toronto, Canada, September 27th, 1967." That was the date. So that was the day I wrote the story.
And I looked at [the Zippo] and said, “This is really cool, I don’t smoke ... cigarettes.” And there was a laugh, of course [laughs]. But I said, “I’m sure I can find something to do with this” and put it in my pocket. And I went on to say, you know, "You fellas that own the theatres, those are the galleries. That’s where you show my paintings. I’m not saying that I’m Pablo Picasso but I have to know what films to make that will fit into your theatres that will make your audiences interested. Because, you see, I feel that the only time $27 million should be mentioned is in the box office, never the budget. Well, 1,240 [people] jumped to their feet, cheering [laughs]. It was hysterical. Just so cool.
Q: They don’t want to know how much a film costs, they want to know how much it’s going to make.