‘Easy Rider’ returns, with an Aspen angle
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – While filming the 1969 counterculture classic “Easy Rider,” in the late ’60s, director Dennis Hopper walked into a cafe in a small Louisiana town that was filled with actors, ready to shoot a scene. On the other side of the cafe were a bunch of local residents, taking in the rare sight of a movie being made on their turf. Hopper turned his camera away from the hired actors, and focused on the local folks. Hopper told them to relax and play their parts, that he was just doing some test shots for the scene. The non-actors did just as Hopper expected, adding another element of gritty reality that helped make “Easy Rider” an icon not only of the ’60s youth culture, but of American cinema.
“Dennis said, ‘I want those guys – the real guys, the sheriff – not actors. He said, ‘I can get the performance,'” Phil Pitzer said.
Pitzer, a part-time Aspenite who has been at work for nine years on the sequel “Easy Rider – The Ride Back,” has tried to take a lot of lessons from the original – including the idea that genuine characters can sometimes trump character actors in adding flavor to a movie.
“What Dennis did, what I learned from him, was, don’t cast two-bit actors – get real people who fit the part,” said Pitzer, who produced, co-wrote and co-stars in the sequel. “That’s what Dennis did, and it became one of the most memorable scenes in the original film. Whenever I had a chance, I followed his advice.”
“Easy Rider – The Ride Back” has a screening on Saturday, Jan. 7 at the Wheeler Opera House, and Aspenites should recognize one of those real people that Pitzer cast. Pitzer’s longtime friend Bil Rieger, the late owner of Kenichi restaurant, is featured in two scenes as the operator of a food truck.
In fact, Pitzer went one better than Hopper; he picked Rieger specifically, believing Rieger was a perfect fit for the role. While scouting locations south of Palm Springs, Pitzer and his crew came upon a group of hippies traveling in a school bus that had been converted into a kitchen on wheels; they had recently been to the Gulf Coast, feeding victims of Hurricane Katrina. The “Easy Rider – The Ride Back” production company gave the do-gooders money to fix a blown transmission – and the hippies gave Pitzer an idea for a scene that would fit nicely into his film.
The story for “Easy Rider – The Ride Back” focused on the family lineage of Wyatt, the biker played by Peter Fonda in the original film. But Pitzer wove the traveling kitchen into his screenplay. “It fit just like a glove. It was perfect,” he said.
And while Pitzer didn’t have an actor in mind at the time to play the cook, he came to see that a non-actor had all the qualities the role called for: big-heartedness, a knack for serving food, “the rough, cool vibe going on,” as Pitzer put it. Pitzer gave the character the name Rieger Reynolds, and cast Bil Rieger in the part; in one of his scenes, Rieger wears a Kenichi T-shirt.
When shooting the scenes of Rieger, Pitzer and director Dustin Rikert soon came to realize they were not dealing with someone accustomed to making movies. To put Rieger at ease, Rikert told him to do a run-through with Jeff Fahey, who plays a character named Wes Coast, while the crew surreptitiously rolled the cameras. Rieger nailed his part on the first take – then walked off-camera before the take was done, ruining the scene. But eventually Rieger did the part, and Pitzer was satisfied with the choice he had made. When Pitzer handed off his footage to a company that specializes in making trailers, the company used the scenes featuring Rieger.
“I don’t think everybody subscribed to my Dennis Hopper approach, because if you have to replace him, and reshoot, it’s expensive,” Pitzer said. “But Billy to me, he had this aura and this energy that was infectious. That’s the kind of thing not everybody has. You can go to an acting class your entire life, but you’re not going to learn that. And Billy had that look, that younger Mickey Rourke look, rugged and unshaved, but with a great smile. It comes through on film; you can’t miss it.”
“Easy Rider – The Ride Back” has had just a few screenings – mainly for military veterans and veterans organizations, given the film’s emphasis on the Vietnam War era, and the inter-generational sparring over the war. The film brings into the story Morgan Williams (played by Pitzer), Wyatt’s brother who had split for Mexico; their father Hitchcock, who had been a motorcycle scout in Gen. Patton’s Third Army and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder; and Wes, a motorcycle champion.
“It’s the history of Peter Fonda’s character’s family, and how it all came to be,” said Pitzer, who has made his first film with “Easy Rider – The Ride Back,” and whose main career has been as an attorney. “I wanted to take the Peter character mythology and expand it into a family.”
The plan is to screen the film at first in concert venues instead of movie theaters, and to show it in conjunction with biker events – “in true, untraditional ‘Easy Rider’ fashion,” Pitzer said. The film features two original songs by Alan Parsons, a version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing,” and in the final sequence, a version of Marc Cohn’s “Old Soldier.”
Pitzer understands that a couple of small scenes are bound to get the most attention at the Aspen screening. The event is being billed as a memorial screening for Rieger, and all proceeds from the screening will be given in Rieger’s name to USO Wounded Warrior, a project that assists injured vets and their families.
“It’s going to be a bittersweet experience,” Pitzer said regarding Rieger, who died in September. “On the one hand, I really miss this guy. On the other hand, to have him preserved in this way – when you’re on film, you have a legacy. And he would like this legacy – he did a great job.”
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