Nicholson, Jack – The Making of Easy Rider – This used to be a helluva good country
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
From Jack Nicholson the Biography by John Parker
BBS seriously considered firing Hopper; the pressure of moving a production team of twenty-three people from state to state, writing the script on the run and persuading innocent citizens of the United States of America, who just happened to be passing at the time to appear in the movie, was a heavy burden for all.
Hopper would probably agree that he - and the movie – were saved by Nicholson, who was sent down by Rafelson as a trouble-shooter in the role of executive producer and ended up playing the third man, the part reserved for Rip Torn.
Nicholson brought instant stability to the production and introduced some of the rigid controls he had learned from Corman. He was also responsible for bringing in Laszlo Kovacs, the cinematographer whose filming of the American landscape brought untold dimensions to the movie itself; he also joined later in the selection of another of the film's major plus points – the magnificent scoring and numbers performed by Steppenwolf, the Byrds, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Electric Prunes, Electric Flag, the Band, the Holy Modal Rounders, Fraternity of Man, Little Eva and Roger McGuinn.
Easy Rider set a lot of things in motion and, for those not familiar with the story, it features free love, excessive drugs and a vision of American society as perceived by Hopper in 1968, with some moralistic warnings about drug use and undertones about the consequences of such a lifestyle - but only if you were actually looking for them, otherwise, any tendency towards moralizing was overshadowed by the exciting, humorous, tragic and horrifically violent elements.
The two central characters played by Hopper and Fonda are Wyatt, nicknamed Captain America, and Billy - Billy the Kid - who embark on a drugs deal, selling cocaine in California to provide the finance to purchase a pair of magnificent Harley-Davidsons for a journey across America and to the Mardi Gras at New Orleans…………
Nicholson entered the scheme of things after captain America and Billy the Kid are put into jail when a police force regards them as undesirables. There, they meet a naive, alcoholic young lawyer named George Hanson, played by Jack, a once well-intentioned liberal who is now equally at odds with the heartland of American society. He awakes from a bender, slow and bleary, and introduces a sardonic charm that jolts the film to a sudden halt and he is a star instantly.
He decides to join them as he springs them from jail and they continue their journey. That night, they filmed the most memorable and supposedly dramatic scene in the picture, the one in which Nicholson does his monologue on what is wrong with American society, for which he became famous. If only the great wide world of cinema audiences knew exactly what happened...
It was the campfire scene where the three of them were sitting around talking, discussing the problems of the world and they introduce Hanson to marijuana. It started well, but Hopper, who was acting, directing and smoking, could not get the take he required. Did anyone out there, when they saw the movie, realize that they were smoking for real? And could anyone imagine that in order to get those few minutes of screen imagery in the can, the three of them inhaled 105 real joints of excellent-quality Mexican grass?
Each time they did a take, or reshot to get an angle, it was necessary to smoke almost an entire joint. This in itself created a double problem because the action of this scene moves from a point where Nicholson is talking normally right through to the point where he is stoned and slurred through smoking marijuana. There were so many takes and retakes for angles that the reverse situation was occurring for Nicholson, the actor.
Because by then he was stoned before the scene began and, instead of having to play normal and act stoned, he was having to act normal and play stoned. There was an added difficulty that the three of them would break into convulsions of laughter, verging on hysterics, with Hopper somewhere off camera rolling around in the bushes and, according to Nicholson, 'totally freaked out' while Jack was forcing himself to be relatively straight, do his serious acting and hold the whole thing together:
'This used to be a helluva good country...'