It was at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 that Linda Yellen met Dennis Hopper. Yellen is a producer with twenty credits, including such well-regarded low budget movies as Jacobo Timerman: Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number and Liberace, and she and Hopper were soon deep in movie-talk.
A crowd coagulated around them.
“It became so absurd that I said to Dennis, ‘This is one of the best film festivals in the world. I wonder what it’s like at the worst?”
Hopper’s reaction was unexpected.
“He said, ‘That’s a very funny idea. If you like I’ll do it.’
“I said, ‘Seriously?’”
“He said, ‘Of course! If I like the script.’”
It took Yellen two months. She called the movie The Last Movie Festival and the character she created for Hopper was a movie producer called Nick Twain.
“He’s a once-great producer,” Yellen said. “He knows all the tricks and has to turn around the greatest failure of his career. Otherwise he’ll never work again”.
This was, as Yellen knew, a provocative role to offer Hopper. He had well and truly been there—and less than a year and a half after their first meeting he would die, at the age of 74.
Hopper was born in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1936 and was still a child when the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. As a child he liked painting but determined to become an actor, so moved in LA in his teens and shortly got cast in Rebel Without A Cause with James Dean in 1955. He was in another Dean movie, Giant, the following year.
In 1961 he married Brooke Hayward, who he had met while playing opposite her on Broadway. His youthful interest in art resurfaced and he became a collector of contemporary art, as he revealed in a 1999 interview.
He bought a Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can print off the wall of the dealer, Virginia Dwan, for $75 and posed for one of Warhol’s Screen Tests series in New York. He also bought a camera became an excellent photographer.
In 1963 Hopper shot a youthful Warhol, David Hockney, Henry Geldzahler and Jeff Goodman as a foursome and would shoot portraits of the artists Ed Ruscha and Roy Lichtenstein.
Brooke, the daughter of the producer Leland Hayward, was the first of Hopper’s five wives. They divorced in 1969, which was a busy time for Hopper, because being also when he directed Easy Rider, the movie in which he co-starred with Peter Fonda, and which he credited with introducing cocaine to America.
The overwhelming success of Easy Rider enabled Hopper to lay back. “He partied for about four years” said Yellen. He was producer and director on his next project, The Last Movie, and starred in it as “Kansas”.
It was released in 1971, got a prize at the Cannes Film Festival but was trashed by the critics, and you’ll find it listed as one of 20 Banned or Otherwise Unavailable Movies You Can Only Watch Online where it is described as “such a flop, the studio tried to erase its memory from the face of the earth.”
Hopper abandoned Hollywood and spent much of the 70s in a haze of drugs and alcohol.
The rebuilding of Hopper’s movie career began when he played a pothead photojournalist in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.It continued with such movies as Blue Velvet.
He and Yellen’s project was greenly and they began shooting in 2009. It should be noted that, as with The Last Movie, an impending divorce darkened the shoot, but Hopper’s divorce from his fifth wife, Victoria, was way uglier, with her questioning his mental balance and Hopper accusing her of stealing his art.
The shoot nonetheless was tranquil.
“He was extremely polite,” says Jacqueline Bisset, one of the co-stars, a Brit, and longtime Los Angeleno. “He kept to himself. There was a certain tension about him.”
“None at all. He could be a little testy. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
The shoot was close to the part of Forest Hills, Queens, where Yellen grew up.
“We would walk around my old neighborhood and talk about anything but the film,” she said. “I once asked him if there was anything ‘that you never did that you wished you had done.’ He said, ‘I’ve never gotten relationships.’”
She confirmed Hopper had occasional spurts of ill-humor, one occasioned by the fact that it was a low budget movie, and she wanted to work quickly.
“I had given him eight pages of dialog. And he was furious,” she said. She added wistfully, “He was shooting pictures all the time. He had so many pictures and so many rolls of film. We all long for those pictures.”
The Last Movie Festival, is appropriately replete with sly movie references, as when the ”baby agent”, as played by Joseph Cross, somewhat channels the Tim Robbins character in Robert Altman’s The Player, the movie which shattered the industry wisdom that movies-about-movies always cratered.
But the most striking such reference has an eerily unintended reference and that is when ”Nick Twain,” played by a gleaming and robust-looking Dennis Hopper, is talking about his beginnings in Hollywood, which included work on King Vidor’s movie, Solomon and Sheba, and how the star, Tyrone Power, had died during the shoot.
The baby agent asks the Hopper character whether Solomon and Sheba was a hit?
“No. It was a flop,” he says.
Dennis Hopper took a break before the shoot was finished to do a commercial in Italy. He returned very unwell. ”He thought he had SARS virus,” Yellen said.
Hopper still had scenes to shoot but wasn’t up to it and left to recuperate in Taos, New Mexico, where he shared a house with his children. “He lived in a rebuilt cinema,” Yellen says. “How appropriate is that? We were in touch all through his illness which was three months, four months at most.”
Hopper died on May 29, 2010, at his home in Venice, Los Angeles.
The cause, Yellen learned, was a recurrence of prostate cancer.
Yellen, who had recently lost her father and a couple of close friends, one being Lynn Redgrave, was so stricken that she decided the movie was a goner.
The death of a star affects each movie project differently, Tyrone Power vanished from Solomon and Sheba and was replaced by his friend, Yul Brynner.
Natalie Wood, who drowned before shooting had finished on Brainstorm she was replaced by a stand-in on a few scenes and by sound-alikes for voice.
Bela Lugosi overdosed on formaldehyde after Ed Wood had only shot a few reels of Plan 9 from Outer Space. The lore is that Wood replaced him with his dentist to whom he owed money, ignoring the fact that he was a foot taller.
When Heath Ledger died, The Dark Knight was already being edited and when Philip Seymour Hoffman died most of his part on The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2 had been shot.
“But you can kinda see in the last scenes that there’s something missing from his performance,” Yellen said.
Her down mood on The Last Film Festival dissipated. This was in part because of frequent inquiries about “what was happening to Dennis Hopper’s last movie” and mostly because so much material existed.
Other actors on the project, who included Bissett, Donnell Rawlings and Leelee Sobieski, supported a Kickstarter campaign, which raised the necessary moolah, and Yellen settled down to post-production. “There were plenty of out-takes with Dennis,” she said. “And there’s so much else going on in the movie. I don’t think you ever do not feel his presence.” It is seamless, also sexual and rowdily funny—so much so that I rather wondered what the reaction has been from the circuitry of film festivals. Had there been any resistance, I asked.
As it happens, yes. “We have found great sensitivity,” Yellen said. “Some of the bigger film festivals have felt it was indecorous to make fun of a smaller film festivals and have privately told us that. Rather than just join in the fun of it they have felt it was politically incorrect. And some of the smaller film festivals have felt that it maybe it shows too much. Because most film festivals are in the business of bringing business to that community, they don’t want anything that shows that it might be anything less than grand.”
That said, The Last Film Festival will be in the Santa Fe festival at the end of October.
“Dennis spent a lot of time in Santa Fe and Taos. And Taos is where he is buried,” Yellen said. The movie just opened in Los Angeles and Chicago.
“Dennis was buried in an American-Indian graveyard,” Yellen said. “You know what happens at Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise [the famous Parisian cemetery]. I can see that happening with Dennis. People will bring bandanas from Apocalypse Now, bottles of Jim Beam—things that reference that extraordinary career.”