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.
Fisher (MM): Do you recall your first reaction when Dennis
Hopper contacted you?
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
MM:When did you
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
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.
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 4x4 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
the confrontation scenes in the cafe, and on the street in front of it with
the high school girl and the local thugs?
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
I took a 1968 Chevy Impala convertible… and put a half sheet of
4x4 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.
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.