Filmmaker Lawrence Schiller recalls directing his profile of the movie icon

Legendarily eccentric actor-director Dennis Hopper would seem a terrific, audience-attracting subject for a documentary. And the 1971 film The American Dreamer — which tracks a maniacally loquacious Hopper as he edits his infamously doomed post-Easy Rider project The Last Movie in Taos, New Mexico — is a fascinating watch. So, why has the doc been so difficult to see over the past four decades?

“It was made for college audiences,” says Lawrence Schiller, who directed The American Dreamer with the late L.M. Kit Carson. “Dennis wanted a following on the college campuses, he wanted to reach that younger audience. The audience of Easy Rider was not the college campus audience — it was the people that were half-stoned, or dropped-out, whatever. So, now, he wants to develop another audience. Students saw it in, like, 60 colleges across the country. Then The Last Movie came out, and it didn’t find an audience, and American Dreamer kind of faded away like The Last Movie faded away. But then Dennis purchased The Last Movie back from Universal and started having the film shown at film festivals. To my surprise, he insisted that every time they show The Last Movie at a film festival, he wanted American Dreamer shown at the same time. He wanted the audience to understand what was going on in his life while he was making that film. So, the film has been shown over the last 30 years [but] very limited, only at film festivals.”

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These days, the ability to screen this former Holy Grail of cult docs is anything but limited. Last year, the film was finally released on DVD and Blu-ray and, from March 29, the movie will be available to watch via iTunes and on VOD, with profits benefiting the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. American Dreamer has also been digitally restored, although the new version isn’t quite the same as the one screened on college campuses back in the ’70s. “I insisted that they leave the scratches and dust marks,” says Schiller, whose other credits include directing 1982’s Tommy Lee Jones-starring The Executioner’s Song. “I didn’t want the film to be perfectly clean, like it originally was. I wanted it to have a feeling of age. I wanted the feeling that we were looking back at history.”

Then again, by Schiller’s own admittance, “history” may not be quite the right word. While The American Dreamer looks like a documentary, and is routinely described as such, the director says Hopper was as much collaborator as he was a subject. “The film is not a documentary,” insists Schiller. “This is Dennis Hopper playing ‘Dennis Hopper.’ We would discuss in the morning, ‘What do we want to achieve today?’ In between the discussions everything is extemporaneous — but that’s why Dennis has a writing credit, because he was part of the creative process. Everybody else is [in] a documentary but Dennis is a very shrewd, smart capable actor-director and he is acting the role that he wants depicted in this film. Now, in some instances, he might be a little too stoned, and he’s just going with it. But basically that’s what he’s doing.”

The directors also helped set up “scenes” — in every sense of the word — including the lengthy concluding sequence which finds Hopper surrounded by a small army of young women. “Well, that wasn’t difficult.” says Schiller. “We sent Dennis’ brother down to the airport. When he’d see girls coming off the plane that weren’t being greeted by somebody he would go up to them and say, ‘How would you like to be in a film with Dennis Hopper?’ And, of course. nobody said, ‘No’.”

Schiller says he has been amazed by the reaction to The American Dreamer since its long-delayed release. “In L.A., when we showed it at the Cinefamily, it was sold out, with people standing in the street,” he recalls. “The response has been absolutely extraordinary. They’ve just asked for the film to be shown in Kathmandu. I can’t believe it!”

You can seen a clip from The American Dreamer, above.