Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda did not write a full script for the movie, and made most of it up as they went along. They didn't hire a crew, but instead picked up hippies at communes across the country, and used friends and passers-by to hold the cameras, and were drunk and stoned most of the time.
During Jack Nicholson's "UFO" speech, Dennis Hopper was intent on getting him very stoned on marijuana. The laughing that eventually broke up his speech was not planned, and when Nicholson repeats the line "it . . . it . . . would be devastating . . . " it was the next take. However, Jack Nicholson was largely able to stick to the script as written, much to the crew's amazement. This is stark contrast to the other cast members, who improvised most of their lines.
Peter Fonda wore the Captain America jacket and rode his chopper a week around Los Angeles before shooting began, to give them a broken-in look, and to get used to riding the radically designed bike. The American flag on the back of the jacket, and on the gas tank of the bike, caused him to be pulled over several times by the police.
Dennis Hopper was going through a very bad time during production (something he later put down to marijuana not being his "creative drug of choice"). He was in a state of drug-induced paranoia and he screamed at everyone. Crew members secretly recorded his tirades and sent the tapes to the production company in Los Angeles to explain why so many of them quit the film.
It was one of the first films to make extensive use of previously released musical tracks, rather than a specially written film score. This is common with films now, but was quite unusual at the time (the exception being The Beatles films and some other special cases).
Captain America's (Peter Fonda's) chopper was so "squirrely" to ride, that at one point Jack Nicholson (who was on the back) squeezed his knees on Fonda's side to balance himself, and broke one of Fonda's ribs.
Peter Fonda got the idea for this movie after seeing a picture of he and Bruce Dern on their motorcycles. He got Dennis Hopper (who was planning to get out of the acting business and become a teacher at the time) involved when he promised him he could direct the film.
For the famous soliloquy that Peter Fonda does in the cemetery while tripping on acid, Director Dennis Hopper asked Peter to talk to the statue as if he were talking to his mother, who died via suicide when Peter was ten-years-old. Peter didn't want to do it, as he had never confronted his feelings about his mother. But Hopper insisted, which is why you hear Peter call the statue "Mother", and he states that he both loves her and hates her, which expresses his conflicted emotions. This scene persuaded Bob Dylan to allow the use of his song "It's Alright Ma" in one of the final scenes, which contains lyrics referencing suicide. Peter told Dylan, "I need to hear those words", and he agreed to its use.
The rednecks in the Louisiana coffee shop who taunt the boys, and the two in the pickup truck at the end of the movie, were all local residents recruited by the filmmakers. In the case of the coffee shop denizens, the filmmakers were preparing to audition a group of local theater people, when Dennis Hopper saw Buddy Causey, Jr., Duffy Lafont, and several others watching them, and making wisecracks, and decided to use them instead.
Peter Fonda was an experienced motorcycle rider, and the chopper he rides in the movie is seriously stretched and raked, and has tall "apehanger" style handlebars. Dennis Hopper was not as experienced a rider, therefore his bike is less radically chopped.
The swimming scene, where Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) go swimming with two commune girls, was shot at two different times. When they shot the scene, Peter Fonda was in the hospital. You can't see him together with Dennis Hopper, or one of the girls in the entire scene. The legs you see are from a stand-in. The images of Fonda were shot separately, several weeks later.
Rip Torn was originally cast in the role of George Hanson. According to Torn, Dennis Hopper pulled a knife on him during a pre-production meeting. On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (1992), Hopper claimed it was Torn who pulled the knife. Torn sued Hopper for defamation, and won.
The New Orleans cemetery is St. Louis #1, a Catholic cemetery. They didn't have permission to shoot there, and Catholic audience members were shocked that the church had allowed it. Since then, no other films have been allowed to shoot at St. Louis #1, unless it's a documentary, and you have permission. Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994), Double Jeopardy (1999), and other films since then have all used the Lafayette Cemetery, which is Protestant.
The 1962 1200 cc Harley's driven by the main characters in the film, were purchased from the Los Angeles Police department. Harley-Davidson refused to provide free bikes for the film, because "The protagonists were outlaws, and they thought it was bad for their image", according to an article that appeared in the June 2005 edition of the History Channel Magazine.
Peter Fonda wanted Crosby Stills & Nash to do the soundtrack. Dennis Hopper refused, telling the band that anyone who drove around in limos as they did, had no comprehension of the film, telling them, "If you guys try to get into the studio again, I may have to cause you some bodily harm."
Despite being filmed in the first half of 1968, roughly between Mardi Gras and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, with production starting on February 22, the film did not have a U.S. premiere until July 1969, after having won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The delay was partially due to a protracted editing process. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), one of Dennis Hopper's proposed cuts was three hours and forty minutes long, including extensive use of the "flash-forward" narrative device, wherein scenes from later in the movie are inserted into the current scene. But only one flash-forward survives in the final edit: when Wyatt in the New Orleans brothel has a premonition of the final scene.
The bridge, seen in the opening credits, the Old Trails Arch Bridge in Topock, Arizona, is the same bridge Peter Fonda's father, Henry, playing Tom Joad, crossed with the Joad family when entering California in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
There are various reports about exact running time of original rough cut of the movie; Four hours, four and a half hours, or five hours. All deleted footage is believed to be lost. Some of the scenes which were in the original cut, but got deleted are: The original opening showing Wyatt and Billy performing in a Los Angeles stunt show (their real jobs), the two of them being ripped off by the promoter, getting in a biker fight, picking up women at a drive-in, cruising to, and escaping from Mexico to score the cocaine they sell, an elaborate police and helicopter chase that took place at the beginning after the dope deal, with police chasing Wyatt and Billy over mountains, and across the Mexican border, the road trip out of Los Angeles, edited to the full length of Steppenwolf's ''Born to Be Wild'' with billboards along the way offering wry commentary, Wyatt and Billy being pulled over by a cop while driving their motorcycles across highway, two of them encountering the black motorcycle gang, ten additional minutes for the volatile café scene in Louisiana, where George deftly keeps the peace, Wyatt and Billy checking in a hotel before going over to Madam Tinkertoy's, extended and much longer Madam Tinkertoy sequence, extended versions of all of the campfire scenes, including the enigmatic finale in which Wyatt says ''We blew it, Billy.''
While filming in the South, the crew were intimidated by locals. Dennis Hopper entered a bar and a man took a swing at him. Behind him was the Sheriff. As a joke, Hopper said, "Hi there, I'm hitchhiking to the peace march", whereupon eight men jumped him.
Dennis Hopper asked reclusive supermarket tycoon Huntingdon Hartford to finance the film. Hartford replied that he would give him the money on the condition that they levitate. He said, "A man with your kind of passion should be able to levitate". A dumbfounded Hopper stood there for a few seconds and briefly thought he could do it. He eventually turned to Peter Fonda and said, "Let's get the fuck outta here".
In total, four former police bikes were used in the film. The 1949, 1950, and 1952 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide bikes were purchased at an auction for five hundred dollars, the equivalent to about thirty-four hundred dollars in 2015. Each bike had a back-up, to make sure that shooting could continue in case one of the old machines failed or got wrecked accidentally. One "Captain America" was demolished in the final scene, while the other three were stolen, and probably taken apart before their significance as movie props became known. The demolished bike was rebuilt by Dan Haggerty, and shown in a museum. He sold it at an auction in 2001. It now resides at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. Many replicas have been built since the film's release.
In an interview with Daily Camera, Peter Fonda described his father Henry's reaction to the film: "I had him come down and look at an early cut. We had to get Dennis out of the room to get it below four hours. My dad watched it and then I went over the next day to his house. He was very serious. He said, 'Look son, I know you have all your eggs in this basket, and I'm worried about it, because the film is inaccessible. We don't see where you're going and why? I just don't think many people will get it.' Even after (it was successful), he thought I was just a loose cannon, until he worked for me for one day."
Stephen Stills wrote the song "Find the Cost of Freedom" at Dennis Hopper's request, for use with the final scene (when the camera pans up into the sky). Hopper ended up not using it, and the song was eventually released as the B-side to Crosby Stills Nash & Young's single "Ohio". Crosby Stills Nash & Young often used it to close their concerts.
At the request of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Henry Jaglom was brought in to edit the film into its current form, while Schneider purchased Dennis Hopper a trip to Taos so he would not interfere with the recut. Upon seeing the final cut, Hopper was originally displeased, saying that his movie was "turned into a TV show", but he eventually accepted, claiming that Jaglom had crafted the film the way Hopper had originally intended. Despite the large part he played in shaping the film, Jaglom only received credit as an "Editorial Consultant".
During test shooting on-location in New Orleans, Dennis Hopper fought with the production's ad hoc crew for control. At one point, he entered into a physical confrontation with Photographer Barry Feinstein, who was one of the camera operators for the shoot. After this turmoil, Hopper and Peter Fonda decided to assemble a proper crew for the rest of the film.
There were two bikes used for Captain America, one was stolen, and the other was burned in the end of the movie. The burned bike was later restored by Peter Fonda, and was sold to John Parham, and can be seen in the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa.
Bob Rafelson had previously encountered Dennis Hopper at a party, where he almost tripped over him as he lay perlaxed on the floor. He told Bert Schneider, "This guy is fucking crazy. But I totally believe in him, and I think he'll make a brilliant film for us".
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda hosted a wrap party for the movie, and then realized they had not yet shot the final campfire scene. Thus, it was shot after the bikes had already been stolen, which is why they are not visible in the background as in the other campfire scenes.
According to Terry Southern, the original ending had Billy and Wyatt use the money from their deal to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset. It was then decided to go with the darker ending, about which Dennis Hopper was initially hesitant.
Dennis Hopper wanted ownership of the writing credits, demanding Peter Fonda to take his name from it even though it was Fonda's idea and was responsible for most of the writing. Hopper then sued Fonda, which was then thrown out of court.
The Captain America bike and the Billy bike were designed and built by an African-American bike builder named Ben Hardy. Peter Fonda met Hardy when Hardy built the bike he rode in The Wild Angels (1966). Dennis Hopper was interviewed in the documentary "History of the Chopper" and confirms that it was Hardy who built the bikes. One of the people who worked on the bikes was Dan Haggerty, who later starred in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1977).
Tom Mankiewicz was in New Orleans at the same time, working on a television music special. "I ran into Dennis and Peter by accident. Nobody had any idea that Easy Rider (1969) would become some kind of classic. But, my God, if I had the money, I wouldn't have given it to them. They were loaded all day long".
Bob Rafelson, after agreeing to finance the film, wrote a check for forty thousand dollars on the spot, and told Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda to go to New Orleans and shoot the Mardi Gras sequence. If they could do it, he would bankroll the film.
The badge on Peter Fonda's jacket is the Secretary of Defense Identification Badge. It is worn by military personnel on the right pocket of their uniform when assigned to the U.S. Secretary of Defense Staff.
A short clip near the beginning of the film shows Wyatt and Billy on Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona, passing a large figure of a lumberjack. That lumberjack statue, once situated in front of the Lumberjack Café, remains in Flagstaff, but now stands inside the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University. A second, very similar statue was also moved from the Lumberjack Café to the exterior of the Skydome.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dennis Hopper claimed that Terry Southern wrote nothing in the film besides contributing the title, as he broke his hip in a fall. In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, Southern claimed, "Peter was to be the actor and producer, Dennis the actor and director, and a certain yours truly, the writer", Southern told Creative Screenwriting. "After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much, they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and other was the director, so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted." Not listening to the WGA, Southern allowed them to have their credits on the film, which was largely improvised. Peter Fonda said of Southern's contributions, "He gave us dark humor and a literary panache that Dennis and I did not have. "Having him with us as a writer on the script put it above periscope depth. People would say, 'Wow, Terry Southern co-wrote that. I wonder what that's about?'"
The demolished Captain America bike was rebuilt by Dan Haggerty and shown in a museum. He sold it at an auction in 2001. It now resides at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. Many replicas have been built since the film's release.
Peter Fonda originally approached Terry Southern, asking if he knew someone who could turn his and Dennis Hopper's ideas into a script. After reading their work, Southern responded by simply saying, "I'm your man". Fonda declined, saying they could never afford his fee, to which he replied, "No, you don't understand, I'm your man".
Audio sample of Billy's line "All we represent to them, man, is somebody needs a haircut." is used as an opening for the 1991 song "Loser Cop" by Therapy? (the question mark is part of the band's unusual name), the classic grunge band from Larne, Northern Ireland.
The motorcycles for the film, based on hardtail frames and panhead engines, were designed and built by two African-American chopper builders, Cliff Vaughs and Ben Hardy, following ideas of Peter Fonda, and handled by Tex Hall and Dan Haggerty during shooting.
A paranoid Dennis Hopper demanded that cameraman Barry Feinstein hand over all the footage he'd shot, so he could keep it safe in his room. An enraged Fernstein hurled the film cans at him, and the two got into a brawl and fell through the door of one of the motel rooms. They got up and stared at the sight of Peter Fonda in bed with Karen Black and Toni Basil (though Black denied this). Fernstein wasn't distracted for long, and threw a television set at Hopper.
There are numerous stories as to how the screenplay was written. Some say that Fonda and Hopper merely wrote stories as to how the screenplay was written. Some say that Fonda and Hopper merely wrote a twelve-page outline, and just ad-libbed the rest of the film from there. Hopper says Terry Southern broke his hip, and he personally dictated the entire thing into a tape recorder. Fonda says they all went to a basement in Southern's home and they all smoked marijuana while they talked into the tape recorder. Southern says he wrote the entire screenplay himself, and when both Fonda and Hopper saw the film, they loved it so much, they asked to be in on the screenplay credits as a "thank you".
The film's driving sequences were among the first to deliberately use of lens flare to add atmosphere. Initially derided because they had failed to keep the shots 'clean', the technique went on to become commonplace in cinematography.