Dennis Hopper followed the success of Easy Rider (1969), which he directed and claims to have co-written, with the abject failure of The Last Movie (1971), a shambling, incoherent, drug-fueled epic set in Peru. He then spent the next decade as Hollywood’s leading pariah, finally falling into a project in Canada that eventually became Out of the Blue (1980). The film has since attracted its share of admirers and has recently been restored for a 40th anniversary reissue. David Stewart provides the back story.
Burning out and fading away was never Dennis Hopper’s style. Fittingly, then, his career, and film legacy, may be getting another jumpstart ten years after his death with Out of the Blue. The 1980 film, which Hopper directed and in which he starred alongside (of all people), Raymond Burr, has recently undergone a 4K restoration—that is, a scan of the old 35mm film for digital presentation in theaters and TV screens. The newly enhanced version made its world premiere to a sold-out audience at the Venice Film Festival last fall. It was expected to make its American debut at the SXSW festival in March- along with anticipated theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles in the fall – before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the screenings.
With a Kickstarter and Slacker Backer campaign (http://outofthebluedennishopper.com) to help underwrite the restoration and 40th-anniversary re-release of the cult film admired by Chloë Sevigny, Jack Nicholson, Natasha Lyonne, and Sean Penn, Out of the Blue epitomizes Hopper at both the nadir of his career and the height of his excessive behavior. Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne are supporters and official presenters of the film.
Cut to: The Canadian Border, 1980. He blew it. For the actor/director who prided himself on the success of Easy Rider in 1969—even though it was co-written with Peter Fonda and Terry Southern—Dennis Hopper spent the next ten years as the enfant terrible of the New Hollywood. Despite some notable performances in Apocalypse Now and The American Friend, Hopper was known more for his eight-day marriage to Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and Papas, a penchant for LSD and firearms, along with the notoriety he shouldered with the failure of his 1971 directorial follow-up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie.
Additionally, his publicized regular regimen of rum, 28 beers and three grams of cocaine distanced him from getting steady acting work in Hollywood. In early 1980, when he was given the chance from friend and producer Paul Lewis to act in a made-for-TV movie in Canada starring Raymond Burr titled The Case of Cindy Barnes, Hopper took the role as Don Barnes, a delinquent father and truck driver who had just finished serving five years in jail for driving drunk into a school bus.
Canada seemed like the perfect place for Hopper. He was on the heels of a pending lawsuit filed by Sally Kirkland, after he allegedly (accidentally?) stabbed her on the set of Neil Young’s toxic nuclear comedy, Human Highway. Mark Mothersbaugh, who was in the film with his band Devo, recalled Hopper’s drug-induced mania on the set in a 2010 Rolling Stone interview: “He couldn’t say his lines. He couldn’t speak a sentence. He just ignored every direction he got. He was a short-order cook in the movie and he was playing with a knife and he ended up cutting Sally Kirkland really bad.” Hopper’s wild antics would carry across into Vancouver.
When Hopper arrived in Vancouver and looked at the dailies for what was already shot by Leonard Yakir, the co-screenwriter for The Case of Cindy Barnes, he decided to take over as director after watching two and a half hours of unusable footage. The plot of an Elvis-obsessed teenage girl named Cebe, played by Linda Manz, rebelling against her family after her father molests her wasn’t dark enough for Hopper; especially with a film title that sounded like an afterschool special. It was on the radio that Hopper heard his old friend, Neil Young, that he was inspired to rename the movie Out of the Blue.
Sharon Farrell had her share of fun on film sets: she was wooed by a young Che Guevara when she was in Cuba making her film debut in Kiss Her Goodbye (1959); dated Bruce Lee on the set of Marlowe (1969); and enjoyed the hellraising revelry of Peter O’Toole on the set of The Stunt Man (1980). For Sharon, being directed by Dennis Hopper would be as dark as her performance in the role of a heroin-addicted mother in Out of the Blue. When talking about life on the set, Sharon recalled how the morning brainstorm sessions in Hopper’s trailer would be anything but productive: “First, we started with a beer and a joint. Everybody’s stoned, everybody’s drunk, everybody partied, but that was back when everyone was doing it, too. It was like today with crews carrying bottled water.”
He was a short-order cook in the movie and he was playing with a knife and he ended up cutting Sally Kirkland really bad.
The party atmosphere on the set would shift when Hopper started urinating on the floors of the rented house used for the shoot. As the film wore on, so did the nerves of the crew when Hopper would spend time trying to score drugs. “We wanted to respect him,” Sharon recalled in 2011, “But how do you respect somebody who is running around on a motorcycle, late for every scene, because he’s shooting somewhere or shooting up somewhere? Then, he comes in, he’s all excited that he’s late, but he’s got a great big pile of cocaine, so we all go in, we’d give him $100 for a gram. He was our director, our writer, and our dealer.”
Hopper sought out Vancouver punk band, The Pointed Sticks, to perform in Out of the Blue to a loaded audience of punks. In a 2011 interview for Northern Transmissions, lead singer Nick Jones remembers Hopper filming a live show at the Vancouver punk venue, Viking Hall. “The band started playing around 6 pm. Hopper never showed up until after midnight with his camera crew, so people have been there for twelve hours in this place, so you can imagine how tense the whole thing was at that point: kids were drunk, passed out, and everybody was like ‘I thought we were going to be in a movie. Where’s the cameras?’ Then, he bursts through the doors with his cameras and got exactly what he wanted.”
Hopper’s old friend, Don Gordon, who plays a career criminal who tries to have his way with Cebe when her sexuality comes into question, was shocked when Hopper was directing the scenes of Sharon shooting heroin in front of him. “Don Gordon got so nervous that he got a fever blister,” Sharon recalled, “he was just beside himself. This is the guy who worked with Steve McQueen and all kinds of tough guys, but Dennis was scary because you just didn’t know what he was going to do.”
As for Raymond Burr, who played Cebe’s court-appointed psychiatrist, Hopper cut most of his scenes out, including his narration that was in the original script. The Canadian financiers for Out of the Blue who agreed to let Hopper get creative control over the project were adamant to have Canadian-born Burr on screen, but Hopper would get into heated arguments with the Perry Mason star. Out of the fifteen scenes Hopper shot of Burr, he would only appear on the screen twice. In between takes, Linda Manz recalled in the 2018 documentary, Along for the Ride, Burr inviting her to visit his island resort in Fiji, “He told me I could go down there anytime I want, but I didn’t,” she laughed nostalgically.
In May 1980, Out of the Blue premiered at the Cannes Film festival to a glowing review from Vincent Canby of the New York Times, yet the film played without a country of national origin. John Alan Simon, who released and promoted the film in America and has undertaken the 4K restoration and 40th-anniversary release, explains that “because Dennis was an American, the movie lost its Canadian status and the investors went from the position of being assured a profit to being almost assured a total financial loss on the movie.” It would take three years for Out of the Blue to be released in America; by that time, Hopper was still considered a pariah to Hollywood.
Cut to: Rice University, Houston, Texas, 1983. Four hundred people are treated to a screening of Out of the Blue, including a film student named Richard Linklater. After the screening, a monitor is rolled onto the stage with distorted music and bloopers of Ronald Reagan blaring in the theater. An hour into this post-screening chaos with 19 people left in the nearly-abandoned theater, a disheveled Dennis Hopper appears on-screen inviting his audience to the Big H Racetrack, 20 miles north of Rice University. “We get on this school bus and we head to North Houston.” Linklater remembers, “Dennis Hopper is with Terry Southern and Wim Wenders in a separate car. We end up at this racetrack- they had just had this demolition derby, it was a Saturday night with a bunch of rednecks and we’re just all standing there, the freaks (Linklater and Rice students) and then surrounded by rednecks.”
Hopper emerges in the middle of the racetrack strapped to a chair surrounded by dynamite. “It’s a stunt he saw as a kid,” Linklater said, “where you encircle yourself in dynamite, you light the fuse and if they all go off creating a vacuum…if all the sticks went off.” A local Texan taps Richard’s shoulder tells him, “That’s that ol’ boy that got shot off his motorcycle in Easy Rider!” Seconds later, the dynamite went off with hushed silence in the air. Hopper emerges from the ash and smoke screaming that he felt like he just got punched by Muhammad Ali. Weeks later, Hopper is found wandering naked through the Mexican jungle before he is institutionalized and enters rehab.
At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Linklater met up with the now aging Hopper on the beaches of the French Rivera. Hopper would spend the last years of his life either in commercials selling retirement plans to Baby-Boomers, making appearances in indie films like Elegy, or soldiering through his prostate cancer diagnosis before his death in 2010. Linklater reminded Hopper of seeing his stunt at the Big H Racetrack and asked him what it was like working after all that. “He takes a drag on a joint,” said Linklater, “and says, ‘Well, it is a little different because I’m sober now’ and he hands the joint off.”