Peter Biskind managed a rare feat with his 1998 book 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood'. He wrote a film book that became a bestseller, and one that also opened up further discussion on the New Hollywood movement that began in the late '60s and had ended by the end of the following decade. By not turning away from the personal lives of major directors like Scorsese and Spielberg, the book caused ripples in Hollywood and the gossip columns. It's an immensely readable, fascinating and fun book, and I spoke to Peter about its inception, creation, release and aftermath.     

How did you come to write the book?
I had just finished an article on Martin Scorsese for Premiere Magazine at the time he was making CAPE FEAR (1991). I had spoken with him on the set of the film in Fort Lauderdale and had written a huge profile on him. I was trying to turn the profile into a book and had even got Scorsese's grudging co-operation. Unfortunately, nobody was interested in publishing another book on Scorsese, at least not for any decent amount of money. I went to a meeting at Simon & Schuster with a bunch of editors, including Alice Mayhew, and somehow out of the conversation, someone came up with the idea of doing a book about the New Hollywood movement. In all the interviews I had conducted for the stories I had written for Premiere, I would constantly hear people like Warren Beatty, Paul Schrader, Scorsese and Coppola talk about how great it was in the '70s and how those were the golden years, how people were invested in making good movies and how now nobody gives a shit. I started to think that this would in fact be the basis for a book.

Was your intention to demythologise the era and people?
I did want to demythologise it all, yeah. I think I ended up mythologising the era, although not the people. I've always hated the books that treat filmmakers and stars as gods and not flesh and blood human beings with strengths and weaknesses. I wanted a warts-and-all approach.

I had seen all the important movies when they came out but when you are in the middle of an era you don't exactly appreciate how great or unique it is. I wasn't really conscious that there was a New Hollywood movement at the time. It wasn't until I got into writing the book that it became clear to me that this was a movement that had a clear beginning and end. Nevertheless, once the book came out there was a backlash to the notion that the '70s was a Golden Age for Hollywood from people like A.O. Scott in The New York Times, who is actually a very smart writer whose writing I respect.

Did you begin the project with a hypothesis?
Not really, no. I only really knew the movies, I didn't know all the background. I didn't know, for example, that Hollywood was in dire straits in the late '50s and the studios were in constant flux, being bought and sold. That a lot of production had closed down. I didn't understand the dynamic of why the New Hollywood had arisen and how the Movie Brats had gotten control, or quite the importance of films such as BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and EASY RIDER (1969). Conversely, I didn't understand why the movement ended. I didn't realise the great impact of pictures like JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977) had on the New Hollywood filmmakers. The real historical snapshot emerged as I was writing and researching the book.

How long did it take to research the book?
I had a full-time job at Premiere writing my own stories and editing other people's, so it took me a good six or seven years to research and write the book.

How many people do you estimate you spoke to?

I interviewed hundreds of people, some of them peripheral who didn't end up in the book. I tend to over-research anyway, but I found all the interviewees so interesting that I became obsessed to the extent of doing things like calling Bob Rafelson's old girlfriend in Mexico. When I go back over the research I did I am amazed at the number of people I spoke to. It was like a daisy chain. Once you spoke to one person it led to another person and it just spread. Despite the great amount of research I did, I feel now that I under-researched people like Spielberg and Malick. I would have liked to have done more on them. I did do a lengthy piece on Malick for Vanity Fair once the book was done, which I found really interesting to research.

Did you hand in the book because the money ran out and a deadline was looming? It seems like you could have gone on forever with the research.
During the time I was writing the book, I went through three different editors at Simon & Schuster. There was no great anticipation for the book. I don't even know if they even expected a book anymore. The people that had been initially excited by it weren't even there.

I'd been doing celebrity journalism in Hollywood for a long time, so I knew people were not reporting this kind of material, and the book was going to be something unique, but neither the publishers or I really knew what we had. They wanted to put the book out, but they didn't really put much pressure on me. I think they forgot they had it. At a certain point I felt it was almost done so I sent in. Once it gets accepted, then you get put on a treadmill and you have to meet various deadlines. They set a date with the printer and then work backwards. 

Was your first draft much lengthier than the finished book?
I always like to write long so I had to do a bit of cutting, but not as much as I had to do on some of the other books.

Who was the most difficult person to get access to?

That would have to be Bert Schneider. He had made himself a recluse because it was his belief that if you didn't do interviews then you weren't considered a public figure. And if you weren't a public figure then it was easier to win lawsuits. And he loved to sue people! He turned me down innumerable times. I inundated him with letters, I had people call him and I went up to Ojai in Northern California to interview one of his brothers. I interviewed everyone around him and I finally got him. He started the interview by saying "I'm not going to talk to you" and then he proceeded to actually give me a good interview. I would have liked to have spoken to him more but I simply didn't have the time to go through the whole process again.

How willing did you find most people were to speak?
Almost everybody was willing to speak and were easy to get to. They were talking about a period a long time ago, and one that they loved. Many of their careers had gone downhill, such as Friedkin and Bogdanovich's, and so they had nothing to be careful about. People like Spielberg and Lucas DID have things to be careful about because their careers were still thriving. I once flew out to interview Spielberg on my own dime, and he cancelled at the last minute. Which was very irritating! I did interview him later and got some great stuff from him for the book.

Quite a few of the people I interviewed were now in drug rehab where they were encouraged to talk about their past. Another thing was that it was my first book in this genre so nobody was particularly on their guard. I remember when I contacted Billy Friedkin, he got back to me on the same day! He was incredibly forthcoming, and most of them were like that, including Polly Platt and Scorsese, who loves to talk. Beatty was always difficult, but that's the way he is and I had good access to him because I already knew him. After 'Easy Riders' came out, I obviously had more trouble with subsequent books.

Did you anticipate controversy before the book came out?
Yes, I was very concerned because I knew that there was a lot of stuff in the book that was off the map compared to what writers usually report. Few writers or historians covered the drug aspect of the period or the personal lives of filmmakers as heavily as I did. I believe it was appropriate because in the '70s, filmmakers were making very personal films that were informed by their own experiences, and in their personal lives they acted like the normal rules of behaviour did not apply to them. In the end people like Bert Schneider went off the rails, and it was important to understand why. I hadn't intended to go so far down that road, but I kept hearing all these fantastic stories that led to even more fantastic stories and so on.

How do you feel about the criticisms levelled against you by some of the subjects of your book? For example Paul Schrader complained that you were unwilling to accept anything that contradicted your hypotheses.
I don't know what he meant by that. I wasn't working from a hypothesis. From my research it became pretty self-evident that a lot of filmmakers got strung-out on drugs and it was a major factor in ending the movement. Some people went berserk, with or without drugs, after becoming rich and famous. Quite a few of them, although they had begun their careers being very scrupulous about making low-budget movies, had gone over-budget and had lost touch with whatever was the source of their genius by the time of their third or fourth hit.

What about the accusations that the book missed the fun, the camaraderie and the joy of filmmaking of the era?
It's hard to know exactly where to place the emphasis when writing. You can't see the forest for the trees. They could be right. But it sounded like fun and joy to me! They all had a great time until it ended. But the reality is that some of the filmmakers struggled during the era. Coppola did not enjoy making THE GODFATHER (1972). Some enjoy the shooting of the movies more than others. Some prefer the editing stage and believe it is where the film is made, others find it boring. It varies.

You spoke about being stuck with an angry Coppola on a yacht in the EASY RIDERS documentary. Do you have any other interesting anecdotes about running into some of the people you wrote about or them responding to the book?
Robert Altman was furious and said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that he wished I would die. Which was pretty extreme! Oliver Stone told me that he and Friedkin were standing side by side at the urinal at some L.A. restaurant and that he said to Friedkin "I read in this Biskind book that you were a real motherfucker in the '70s. How do you feel about that? ". Friedkin turned and said "Ah, it's just a book. " Which is sort of how I felt. I kept thinking "Why is Coppola so angry?". If I had made the two GODFATHER films, THE CONVERSATION (1974) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), I wouldn't care what anyone wrote about me. People are people and they get pissed off easily, especially when you write about their personal lives, but when push comes to shove, the filmmakers will be remembered for their films and not my book. They are historical figures, and if they can't take the heat, they should get out of the kitchen.

I don't really run into these people anymore. A lot of them aren't working a lot, some of them have died, others have retired. Beatty has been trying to get a project going for a long time. Spielberg, Scorsese and Lucas are the only ones really working. Lucas's recent output is an embarassment. I did go to a party for 'The Sopranos' about five years ago and met Peter Bogdanovich. We chatted and buried the hatchet.

How much was the audience in your mind when writing the book?

Not much really. You never know how a book is going to do. A lot of it is luck or timing. I sometimes dreamed of it being a great success, but I tried to put it out of my mind to avoid disappointment. I had no idea it was going to make such a splash. I thought some of the shocking stuff in the book was going to grab some attention. But there was similar stuff in my Beatty book ('Star - How Warren Beatty Seduced America', 2010), and it didn't do very well.

Did you come up with the full title?
Yes, I did. Initially I fooled around with 'Sex, Lies and Videotape' kind of titles, but people felt such titles had been used up.

How long did it take to come up with the structure of the book?
It took time and a lot of trial and error. I had never written a book like this before. The book was long with a lot of characters, and I wanted to bring people to life as if it were a novel. I certainly had enough detailed information so I could describe what people were wearing and what their offices looked like and so on. It was hard to know when to leave a particular story and then come back to it or how long to stay with one specific story. I worried readers might lose the thread. If it hadn't been for word processors, which allowed me to experiment, I would still be writing it now!

How did you decide who to include and who to leave out?
Partly it was my own taste, for example I don't like De Palma's films so I didn't really cover him. Partly I tried to focus on the group that went to UCLA and USC and were roughly the same age, and their friends. Concentric circles that overlapped if you will. Some like Nicholson, Hopper and Rafelson were older, and some like Friedkin were off by themselves. They were too important to leave out. I didn't do much on Woody Allen because he was in New York and he wasn't part of that group. Altman wasn't a part of the group but he was in L.A. and interacted with them to some degree. I didn't do Kubrick because he was from New York and lived in England. He was also from another generation, which was the same reason I didn't cover Sam Peckinpah.

Would you be interested in doing another book on the same period?
When I wrote the Beatty book I revisited the period a little and I didn't enjoy it. If you put the two books together, I have still only just scratched the surface. You could write a great biography of any one of the '70s filmmakers because they're so interesting.

Is there anything you wished you could change about 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls'?
Yeah, I didn't pay much attention to mainstream movies or agents. Subsequently I wrote a number of lengthy pieces on the powerful agents like Freddie Fields, and they were fascinating to write. I learned a lot more about the business and the importance of agents. I didn't give them the prominence they deserved in the book. Mark Harris wrote a wonderful book called 'Scenes from a Revolution - The Birth of the New Hollywood' (2009) that focussed on 1967 and turned up all sorts of stuff and spoke to quite a few people that I didn't. There's a lot of stuff to mine. One always regrets not talking to people you meant to talk to - especially when they turn up in a great book! You're never satisfied with your own books, and I was never happy even when I was proofreading 'Easy Riders'. I was still trying to call people up! You're so used to forward momentum that it's hard to drop it.

Who were some of the people that you interviewed that you really warmed to personally?
I liked pretty much all of them. They were all incredibly entertaining and smart. As a journalist you tend to favour those who are easy to reach, are forthcoming, and have the best stories and sense of humour. I was already fairly good friends with Beatty and had interviewed Scorsese and found him fascinating. Friedkin was wonderful. There are some that I didn't like much, but they shall remain nameless.

What are some of the overlooked New Hollywood films that you love?
There are so many. Films by Arthur Penn (especially NIGHT MOVES, 1975), Michael Ritchie and Monte Hellman for example. There were so many great films produced that they overshadowed a lot of other interesting work.

What was the immediate impact on your career once the book came out?
It was great, it made a big difference and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. I was just about to leave Premiere, and the book's success made it very easy to get subsequent projects off the ground. These were the days when you didn't have to show publishers sixty pages in order to get your book sold and I was able to sell 'Down and Dirty Pictures' (2004), my book about Sundance, Miramax and the 'indie' scene off of a verbal pitch.

Why didn't you decide to cover the '80s for your next book? It would have made a natural sequel to 'Easy Rider, Raging Bulls'.
I think the '80s was kind of a dead zone. There were good filmmakers who emerged during the '80s like Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson and to some degree David Lynch but this was really the decade where the studios made their comeback and producers like Simpson and Bruckheimer and Lawrence Gordon flourished. These were certainly big personalities in their own right but it was a different kind of cinema. For me it was the decade of PORKY'S (1982). One could write an interesting book about the decade focusing on the studios, Paramount seguing into Disney for example. Diller and Eisner are fascinating guys, as are Simpson and Bruckheimer. I wrote a piece on Simpson for Premiere when he died. There's a good biography out there on him, but there's a lot of good stuff that nobody has written about.

What are you working on at the moment?
My friend, the filmmaker Henry Jaglom, used to be friends with Orson Welles and had lunch with him several times a month, from 1978 to 1985 when Welles died. From 1983 onwards, he had been taping the interviews. The tapes have been stored in a shoebox for thirty years, gathering dust! I persuaded Henry to get them transcribed and now I am editing the conversations into a book. What's unique about these interviews is that Welles is not being interviewed as 'the great man', it's just lunch conversations with a friend. Welles really lets his hair down and it's kind of like 'Welles Unplugged'! He feels free to be an asshole if he wants to. He's very politically incorrect, sexist and homophobic, all with a lot of ironic humour. Welles was a very smart guy who loved to shock, and he certainly shocked Jaglom, who is a traditional liberal. The book is very entertaining because it has a lot of anecdotes. Welles knew everybody from Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo to Selznick, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn to Franklin Roosevelt and Fidel Castro. He knew all the great writers such as Tennessee Williams and Graham Greene. It's been really fun to do. It should be out next year.

I have another book too, which is kind of a sequel to my first book, 'Seeing is Believing' (1983). That book concerned itself with American ideology in the '50s and how the decade's Hollywood genre films were inflected by it despite seemingly being totally non-ideological on the surface. The new book has the same premise but looks at modern genre films and television and how American ideology affects them. It should be out in about two years barring acts of God!

The publishing industry is a wreck at the moment but I have been lucky that I have managed to be able to keep working.

How do you feel about the EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS (2003) documentary?
I wasn't that involved. Kenneth Bowser optioned the rights and I acted as a consultant. I put him in touch with various people but he pretty much went off on his own, partly because a lot of the people I covered in the book were really angry with me and my involvement wouldn't have been a help. I like the documentary. He covered some figures that I didn't really cover, like Peckinpah, and interviewed some people I didn't really speak to, like Richard Dreyfuss.

I was pissed off about it! They just took my idea, which I guess they're perfectly entitled to do. I don't remember if I actually saw it though. I have to say that it was a great title and I wish I had used it!

Which modern filmmakers do you enjoy? Do you see any equivalents of the '70s filmmakers?
There are some wonderful filmmakers working today and some great films asre being made. With his first three films, which I thought were fantastic, I thought Tarantino was an equivalent, the heir to their thrones. After that, for me, it's like he has fallen off a cliff and I haven't liked anything since. Debra Granik's WINTER'S BONE (2010) and Oren Moverman's RAMPART (2011) were both wonderful, but those filmmakers are just starting their careers. Of the ones with established careers, James Cameron and Ridley Scott are talented, but I thought PROMETHEUS (2012) was a mess. I still like Woody Allen a lot. Paul Greengrass is really good. There are some promising Australian directors. But there are very few with the towering careers that the '70s guys had. I find Christopher Nolan overblown and pretentious. These days I enjoy and watch more TV than I do movies eg. 'Breaking Bad', 'True Blood' and 'Homeland'. They're all terrific and head and shoulders above most recent movies. I am continually disappointed with most movies these days.

Peter was interviewed by telephone on 10th July 2012. I would like to thank him for the generous use of his time and his candour.

Peter's books can be ordered here.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

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