Peter Fonda and Laszlo Kovacs

Laszlo Kovacs, ASC was born and raised on a farm some 60 miles from Budapest, Hungary. He studied at the Academy of Drama and Film Art in Budapest and in 1956, documented on 35mm film an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the communist government. The Soviet Army crushed the revolt, and Kovacs’ teachers advised him to leave the country immediately. He made a perilous journey to Austria, carrying his documentary footage and little else. The following year Kovacs arrived in the United States as a political refugee. He had no resources and spoke very little English. His early jobs included taking Polaroid photos for identification cards and collecting pails of syrup draining from maple trees. When he had time he also took odd jobs at a news film lab and shot industrial movies. Eventually, he found a niche shooting low-budget biker films that targeted the drive-in movie theater crowd, including A Man Called Dagger, The Savage Seven and Hell’s Angels on Wheels. Dennis Hopper took notice and, in 1968, approached Kovacs about shooting an offbeat little movie for him called Easy Rider. The rest is cinematic history.

Bob Fisher (MM): Do you recall your first reaction when Dennis Hopper contacted you?

Laszlo Kovacs (LK): My first instinct was to turn him down, because I had had my fill of biker films. I went to the meeting, and Dennis tossed the script aside and acted out all the parts. It was a story about two hippies, played by Dennis and Peter Fonda, who search for freedom by making money selling dope. They travel to New Orleans by motorcycle and meet Jack Nicholson, a small-town lawyer. I realized it was a great story about my adopted land. At the end of that meeting, I asked Dennis when we were going to begin.

Kovacs with Dennis Hopper

MM:When did you get started?

LK: Dennis already did some homework. He had traveled to some of the locations and taken still photos. The next morning, four of us got into a station wagon and began a three-week scouting trip. It was Dennis, [production manager] Paul Lewis, [art director] Jeremy Kay and myself. We basically traveled on Route 66, occasionally branching off. We drove to Taos, New Mexico and headed for Texas. We found magnificent backgrounds, including the Painted Desert, Monument Valley and a commune in Taos. They wouldn’t let us film there, so our art director took some stills and made sketches. Later, we built the commune in the mountains of Santa Monica overlooking Malibu Canyon. After that scouting trip, we made a plan and I organized a small crew.

MM:How small was the crew?

LK: We had a 12-person crew, including my gaffer, Richmond Aguilar. We all knew each other from Hell’s Angels, Savage Seven and other biker films. We had two five-ton trucks. One of them carried the bikes and the other hauled our equipment, including some new portable halogen lights, Mickey and Minnie Moles, from Mole-Richardson. They were especially handy for the campfire scenes. The truck also pulled a 750-amp generator.

Most of the cast and crew rode in a motor home. We couldn’t afford to rent a camera car, because it cost around $200 a day. I took a 1968 Chevy Impala convertible on a test drive. It was sturdy and seemed to glide over the bumps. It was too expensive to rent, so I suggested buying it and selling it as a used car at the end. When we were shooting, we had the top down and put a half sheet of 4×4 plywood in the pen space. On the board we mounted an Arriflex camera with a zoom lens on a high hat, and used a sandbag to hold everything in place. That’s how we shot all of the traveling motorcycle shots. We had hand signals to indicate two-shots and singles.

Jack Nicholson and Fonda on the cross-country set of Easy Rider.

MM:How did you select places for the motorcycle shots?

LK: Peter was in the car, along with my key grip and my assistant cameraman. The motor home and two trucks followed us. If I saw something interesting that wasn’t in the plan, we pulled over to the side, which was a signal that we were going to be shooting. They’d get the bikes ready. Peter and Dennis were always in wardrobe; there was no makeup. My assistant helped me hold the camera, because I was doing the zooming and the focus. Everything was improvised. I just shot what felt right.

MM:What was the film you were using like in those days?

LK: It was a 50-speed Kodak negative, and you had to use an 85 filter to correct for daylight. That brought it down to about ASA 30. Kodak gave me four rolls of a new film they were about to introduce; it was a stop faster. I protected that film, because I never knew when I’d need that extra stop. When we arrived in Monument Valley it was late in the day. I told my assistant to load two magazines of the new film, because it was past the magic hour. Dennis wanted to do a big pan shot while the sun was [setting in] a dark, indigo blue sky. It’s in the movie.

"…one of them says, ‘This used to be a great country.’ It was incredible writing by Terry Southern and superb performances by Jack, Peter and Dennis. I knew something important was happening… and I didn’t want to mess it up.”

MM:Which Arri camera were you using?

LK: It was the ARRI 2-C. Actually, it was Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera. He also had a zoom lens, but I had to rent a blimp from Birns & Sawyer. During the day, it was all MOS (without sound) shots. At night, we shot scenes motivated by a campfire. The scenes with Jack, Dennis and Peter in the woods at night are so strong, we didn’t want to distract the audience with a tree blowing in the wind in the background, so I let it go dark. It worked beautifully, simply isolating the characters.

MM:How did you create the campfire light? There were no flicker lights.

LK: We had kind of a handmade flicker in those days. We used a stick with a piece of cloth on it. We ripped the cloth into strips and tore out every other one. Then, we put it in front of the light and started shaking it a bit. That gave us a little flicker effect. The other thing we used was a branch with leaves. When we got it real close to the lens it gave us a very soft flicker effect. I didn’t want it to be too distracting. Some of the campfire scenes were lit with a single light and no fill; I just let the shadow side go black. I used an amber gel on the lights, which was exactly the color temperature of a fire.

MM:What did you do with the exposed film while you were traveling?

LK: In the beginning, I worried about seeing dailies, because we were on the road for 12 weeks. We sent the film to CFI in Los Angeles. The editor, Donn Cambern, watched the film every morning. I tried to call him every day, though sometimes there were no phones. Donn was looking at thousands of feet of running shots of the bikes, which translated to hours. He transferred contemporary rock and roll songs to magnetic tape, and synched it randomly to the film, so every shot had music behind it. Originally, he was just making it more interesting, but the music became inseparable from the pictures. When the film was cut there was a discussion about who was going to score it. They ended up licensing the music that Donn was using. They spent $1 million licensing music, which was about three times the budget for shooting the rest of the film.

MM:How were the scenes filmed at Mardi Gras in New Orleans?

LK: They filmed those before the movie. They used the footage to raise the money for production. Dennis rented 10 Bolex 16mm cameras. He gave them to the actors and asked them to shoot street scenes with color positive film. It doesn’t match the rest of the footage, but it’s Mardi Gras and kind of psychedelic, so no one notices. A documentary camera­man filmed the actors.

MM:What about the scenes in the whorehouse in New Orleans?

LK: We filmed those in an old mansion that actress Norma Talmadge used to own on Los Feliz Boulevard in Hollywood. It was a perfect setting, and we were able to cast people in Los Angeles to play the different parts.

MM:What about the confrontation scenes in the cafe, and on the street in front of it with the high school girl and the local thugs?

LK: Those scenes were filmed in
Morgan City, Louisiana. We used locals in those bit roles, and they were all terrific. We drew crowds everywhere. At one location in Texas, a young woman came up to me. She told me that she was a film student and had decided to specialize in cinematography after watching me work. It was Sandi Sissel, who has since become a very talented cinematographer.

I took a 1968 Chevy Impala convertible… and put a half sheet of 4×4 plywood in the open space. On the board we mounted an Arriflex camera with a zoom lens on a high hat, and used sandbags to hold everything in place. That’s how we shot all of our traveling motorcycle shots…”

MM:Do you have a favorite scene?

LK: One of my favorite scenes was the last campfire, where the three main characters are talking about their dreams, and how stupid it is that long hair is a problem. That’s the scene where one of them says, “This used to be a great country.” It was incredible writing by Terry Southern and superb performances by Jack, Peter and Dennis. I knew something important was happening and didn’t want to mess it up.

I also loved the last scene where Wyatt and Billy are murdered on the road. Dennis wanted to distance the audience from the tragedy and give them a glimpse of something beautiful and hopeful on the horizon. He envisioned a helicopter shot pulling away from the fiery crash after Wyatt is run down on the road. We could only afford a low-powered helicopter without a camera mount. We put the camera on one side of a skid with counter-weights on the other side, and prayed the wind would give the copter the lift it needed. We recently showed a print of Easy Rider to students at UCLA, and it still shocks people when Billy and Wyatt are killed at the end. The last shot still makes an impression.

MM:Did you get interesting questions from the students?

LK: Like most people, they were surprised to learn that we didn’t shoot in documentary style, because the film has that feeling of freedom. You can’t just point the camera and shoot. You need an eye and a sense of what the story is about. We planned all the dialogue shots and everything was lit to create the right sense of time, place and mood. Someone asked if I would shoot this on digital today, because it is supposed to be cheaper and easier. I told them film and digital see light differently. You can get beautiful pictures with both, but it’s a different emotional effect. It’s very important for the audience to like Jack and these two long-haired hippies; otherwise, no one cares when they die. MM

In a retrospective written years after its release, Leonard Maltin called Easy Rider a landmark that changed the art of moviemaking. Kovacs says that it was the film that made him feel he had a future in Hollywood. Since Easy Rider, Kovacs has gone on to shoot more than 60 features, including such classics as The King of Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo and Paper Moon, Ghostbusters, Mask, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Two Weeks Notice. He has received four Lifetime Achievement Awards.