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Interviews, SXSW 2020

SXSW 2020 Preview – Interview: John Alan Simon Talks “Out of the Blue” 4K Restoration, & the Genius of Dennis Hopper

By: Curtis Sindrey –

John Alan Simon.

Dennis Hopper’s 1980s masterpiece Out of the Blue has been given the 4K restoration treatment and will be screened at this year’s SXSW. Discovery Productions, Inc. (John Alan Simon and Elizabeth Karr) finished the 4K digital restoration in August 2019, and have since organized a successful Kickstarter helped fund the project.

Simon and Karr undertook the project to preserve Hopper’s landmark film and to make it available to new audiences. Previously in 2008, Discovery completed a 35 mm restoration of the film’s negative and struck two new 35mm prints, funded with support from Cinémathèque Française and Thomson Film & TV Heritage Fund. These are the only two prints of the movie in existence – Discovery’s U.S. print and the print given by Discovery to the Cinémathèque for the premiere event in their month-long Dennis Hopper retrospective in 2008 – attended by Dennis Hopper less than two years before his death in 2010.

Because Out of the Blue existed only on 35mm and last century standard-def masters, its audience has been limited to those fortunate enough to see the rare (and irreplaceable) prints at “event” screenings like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center Film Society, British Film Institute, Cinémathèque Française, Anthology Film Archives, Danish Film Institute, Eastman House and other special bookings at The Roxie, Metrograph and 35mm equipped art house / indie cinemas. What might be the last 35mm screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn quickly sold out in late 2019.

In a new interview, Simon details the 4K restoration process, his close friendship with Dennis Hopper, and more!

In terms of the 4k digital restoration process, what kind of work goes into that?

The main intent is to try to do as great a reproduction of the movie from the original negative as possible. So in terms of the equipment being used, it’s a question of a scanner taking the original negative and scanning frame by frame.

I’m really transferring the image to digitizing it to 4K and then working with it from there. When you’re dealing with a 35 millimeter negative, you’ve got a pretty big area that you’re working with so you’ve got to figure out how you want to matte it. And if there are reasons why you need to adjust the matting of it then you’re really looking at an image that doesn’t have much color because you’re capturing the raw image. So, from that point onward, you’re really dealing with small imperfections like dust, or dirt that may have been embedded in with the image.

35 millimeter really no longer exists in terms of a lot of things. Some people still shoot on it, but it’s immediately digitized. And from there on they never go back to the negative. They’re just working with the digital image, even if they output to 35 millimeter later. Technicolor closed down their film division a couple of years ago, so we were unable to strike any new 35 millimeter prints and the ones we had were starting to get damaged just from handling and from showings. So we thought it would be a great time, particularly with the 40th anniversary of the movie coming up, to do a really first-class restoration job.

I felt very confident doing it because even when Dennis was alive, he trusted me to do transfers for a standard definition television and standard definition home video that we had done in the 90s and the early 2000s. So I felt good about doing it and was really impressed with the latitude and range of things that we’re able to do in post. Now I’m primarily a filmmaker and a lot of that’s in part to Dennis’s inspiration, influence and venturing, particularly during the time, early in my career where we were taking Out of the Blue around the country together.

Linda Manz (L) and Dennis Hopper in Out of the Blue (1980).

Speaking your about your relationship with Dennis when you are traveling and screening the film across the U.S., how would you describe your relationship with him?

The journey was really intense in many ways. I’d been a film critic and a journalist and I had started a little company in New Orleans where I’d been a staff writer for the Times-Picayune and then editor of New Orleans Magazine to kind of rescue lost films. I was delusioned with movies, most of which were justifiably unreleased and unreleasable. But one of them was Out of the Blue that one of the producers had sent me after there had been a falling out between the producers and the financiers over the circumstances of the movie getting made.

The movie had been done as a Canadian tax shelter deal, which back in the 80s, was kind of a scheme. Not in the sense of being nefarious or sinister, but a tax scheme that allowed investors to invest in movies and write off substantially more than they invested. But it had to qualify as a Canadian film because the whole point of it was to help the Canadian film industry. So when the original director of the movie was fired, Dennis Hopper had just been hired to act in it. It was a very conventional kind of family drama about a troubled girl who gets rescued by a psychiatrist from delinquency. When the director was fired, Dennis took over. We completely rewrote the script over the weekend and turned it into this punk rock epic that was like nothing anyone had ever seen.

It was certainly like nothing I’d ever seen when I finally saw the movie. But the problem was that they got it disqualified as Canadian because Dennis was American. It was an official selection at Cannes, but screened as the only picture not to have a country, so there was no flag, and no national Anthem, but it got very good reviews. The financiers were kind of understandably very unhappy that instead of having a guaranteed profit, they almost assuredly were going to have a total loss of their investment, so I stepped in and negotiated between them and contacted Dennis because of what we had done with The Wicker Man, which had been shelved by EMI.

And I thought that I can do the same thing with Out of the Blue with Dennis. The first thing that happened was that he came over to my little office and he goes, “this is where we did Easy Rider. Did you know that?” We hit it off right away and started having conversations about what we do with the movie. And one of the things we did was Dennis would keep telling me how much Jack [Nicholson] and Warren [Beatty] loved the movie, and finally I said, “well, how’s that gonna help us?” And because Jack has this little book and if you ask him a favor, if you’re a friend of his, he takes it out right in front of you and your name is in it and he takes a pen and crosses your name out right in front of you and then does you the favor.

I said, “well, it’s time to call it in,” and so Dennis and I went up to Aspen and spent the weekend at Nicholson’s house. I recorded a couple of hours of conversation about movies and Out of the Blue and edited it into a radio spot that we were able to use to open Boston. We went to Boston and the movie broke the house record there, where it played for 12 weeks at the Coolidge Corner Cinema. It was really interesting to travel with Dennis because he had such an amazing wealth of stories about the movie business. I had really kind of forgotten his early career working with James Dean and doing Giant and Rebel Without a Cause. He had great stories to tell about being about how they would go up to the Hills above UCLA and kind of watch the college kids. And even though they were the envy of teenagers and college kids for being under film contract, they envied the kids who were going to college and having a normal life. Dennis at the low end of his career at that point when we met, where he had done that Easy Rider, which was one of the most successful directorial debuts, and afterwards he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted and he did a movie for Universal called The Last Movie. This title proved prophetic because it took him a really long time to edit it. A documentary was made about that process called American Dreamer, which shows this drug-fueled crazy process that he went through in Taos, New Mexico. That enraged the executives at Universal and the movie very much became this deconstructed European-influenced movie that even though it won a prize at Venice, it destroyed Dennis’s career as a director.

He wasn’t really able to get anything together to direct for 10 years. So when Out of the Blue came along, it was this opportunity to do something really unique. And I think the fact that it was so focused as he only had a weekend to write it and four weeks to shoot it and six weeks to edit it, he really worked from the gut and produced what I really think is his masterpiece as a movie. I think I convinced him of that, and by the time we were done working together, he’s on record saying that maybe it’s his best film.

One of the things I’d always wanted to do was to make movies not just distribute and review them. In fact, I ended up with a producing deal at Universal, and the executive who was head of the studio at the time was still the guy who had done The Last Movie, which I didn’t really realize. Dennis and I were talking about doing a couple of things together, and I said to this executive, “I’ve got this project that Dennis Hopper and I are talking about doing.” And he put his cup of coffee down and looked me in the eye and said, “if you ever mention the name Dennis Hopper again, you will never step foot on the Universal lot again.”

The little girl [in Out of the Blue] was so influenced by Elvis, but Dennis turned it more into her rebellion and her love of punk rock and what music means to her. Dennis was good friends with Neil Young and got Neil to give him “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” for the movie and really thematically based the story around that, the thing that’s gone but not forgotten. This is a story about Johnny rotten, sort of a conflation of the Elvis and rebellion and early rock and roll with punk rock. In many ways the movie is a spiritual successor to Easy Rider. I think the children of Easy Rider was how it was, how it was marketed. And at least I think in Germany that was the subtitle. It’s a very interesting commentary on the kind of collapse of sixties idealism into the decadent and nihilism of the 80s.

Linda Manz (L) and Dennis Hopper in Out of the Blue (1980).

What other films do you think should get the 4k respiration treatment?

I think basically every movie is going to have to be preserved. The sad fact is that almost half the movies ever made on cellulite are lost forever. There’s a lot of good work being done by Scorsese’s film preservation society and by Cinematheque, and by UCLA and other companies, but we couldn’t get anybody to help us to restore Out of the Blue and do the 4K image harvesting and transfer.

We were able to really create a lot of community and ended up having the the world premiere at Venice in competition at the festival last fall. And now we’ll be doing the U.S. festival premiere at South by Southwest, which we think because of the amalgam of music and film, it’s so integral to South by Southwest so it’s the perfect venue for it. We’re just amazed by the number of fans that Out of the Blue has. It’s a little bit, I like to say like The Velvet Underground, you know, they may have only sold 1,500 albums when they first came out, but half the people who heard it started rock bands. So it’s one of those works of art that just has enormous influence.

It’s one of Richard Linklater’s favorite movies. The director of Dr. Strange, Scott Derrickson, just contacted us because he was hoping to go to South by Southwest to introduce the movie just as a fan of it. And you know, Jack Nicholson in his radio spot called the movie “a masterpiece”, Natasha Lyonne was heard on the radio last year talking about how much she loved the movie. Yeah, it’s one of those movies that when people see it it’s so raw. It’s so alive. It’s so real. And the performances, especially Linda Manz, this little alienated girl whose father is in prison and whose trouble resonates the same way as Truffaut’s 400 Blows did for people who see it when they’re young.

I’d like to see another movie that we were involved with distributing called The Haunting of Julia be restored, but the rights are very troubled on that. One of the things is that there is this kind of snobbishness about 35 millimeter. But the truth is that I really prefer the image of the 4K restoration of Out of the Blue to the 35 millimeter projection. I think that it’s just another chance for the filmmaker from a photographic point of view to have a real chance to manipulate the image and do what he wants with it.

There was this great photographer named Vivian Maier who really wasn’t discovered until after she died. All of her negatives were auctioned in a storage locker and she was discovered as this sort of Diane Arbus kind of a street photographer. She never really printed any of her any of her negatives because she just didn’t have the funds or the time, so people have come in and they’ve done the prints of her 35 millimeter still photography. But in movies you can create a look now that you never could in digital post-production, which is why nobody goes back to work with the negative even after you’ve shot the movie in 35 millimetre since all of the work is done digitally. Even the Coen Brothers, who really started digital post-production with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, got this amazing color work in post. So that’s what everyone does and the look is getting better and better and you’re able to bring out details. There was a scene in Out of the Blue, which I know Dennis was unhappy with, where it was so dark the way it was printed where you really couldn’t see anything. We were able to bring out a little bit in it so you get a sense of, you know, people moving around, but otherwise it was just like this black cat at midnight kind of shot. It just didn’t photographically turn out that great, so you get a really another chance to make the movie as I think most filmmakers know you make the movie three times when you write it, when you shoot it, and then in post and now with 4K digital files and restoration, you can reframe shots. You can get a color book that you didn’t see when you shot it, so you can have another whole suite of amazing tools at your disposal to express yourself.

What I really tried to do is make it the best possible version of the movie that the director wanted to make. At the time, there was a shot in Out of the Blue that I thought was too centered, and I always found it distracting and I was tempted to skew it very slightly, which I could have easily done with the image and in the 4K restoration. But you know, I decided that I wasn’t gonna do it with one shot that we would just stick with the way Dennis had framed it. But if it was my movie, if I had directed it, I would’ve I would’ve reframed it in a heartbeat. But since it was Dennis’s movie, I was really trying to channel his spirit in making the movie.

He was just such an extraordinary human being, apart from being a great filmmaker. I think he was a great artist who listened to people better than almost anyone I’ve ever met. When we would travel, people would really open up to him and he really had a facility for getting performances out of actors. One of the things I remember was that he thought I should direct. And one of the things I told him was that I didn’t really think I knew how to work with actors. He very generously spent a lot of time talking with me and about directing.

We became good friends for a period of time, almost like family. And Dennis was very generous as a teacher and as a human doing this project since restoring the movie is kind of payback for that. I would’ve been happier if we could have done it with someone other than ourselves being so hands on, but I’ve enjoyed doing it and we really look forward to open the movie in the fall in theaters doing the 40th anniversary re-release and letting audiences who’ve never gotten a chance to see it discover it.

For more information on Out of the Blue and SXSW, click here.


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