Dennis Hopper’s 1980 Directorial Masterpiece, Out of the Blue, Returns to Theaters

In 1980 Dennis Hopper wrote, directed, and starred in Out of the Blue. Often described as the spiritual sequel to Easy Rider (1969) also co-written by, directed, and starring Hopper, it was hailed as a winner, critically acclaimed for its brilliant performances and gripping story.

The film’s origins were as a family story, something akin to an afternoon special. Hopper was hired to act in it, but the production wasn’t going well. Hopper recalled, “I was hired as an actor for Out of the Blue. Two weeks in, I took over as director with full autonomy – because the 2 ½ hours of film in the can was unusable. I rewrote the entire screenplay over the weekend and started shooting on Monday.”

The resulting film was a far cry from a typical family drama. Hopper described it, “In many ways, it’s maybe my best film. It’s about the society of North America; the family unit falling apart.”

Out of the Blue competed for the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival. Lauded by critics as an extraordinary film, it sadly was a film without a home. Filmed in Vancouver, Canada, the film’s Canadian backers struggled to put together a distribution deal. Out of the Blue simply didn’t make it to theaters and became a little-seen orphan movie.

Enter John Alan Simon current president and chief executive officer of Discovery Productions. A former film critic, Simon has been involved with the financing, production, sales, and marketing of many successful independent features. Simon and Hopper connected and before too long paired up to promote Out of the Blue in 1982, two years after the film’s release.

Simon says of the experience, “Well, I adopted the film 40 years ago, and Dennis Hopper and I took it around the country. And it played very successfully in the places it played, but it’s very hard to get people to play it. It broke the house record in Boston when it premiered there at the Coolidge Corner.

“The movie had been in official selection at Cannes, but it fell into a kind of legal morass. Because when Dennis Hopper took over as the director, and started from scratch, it lost its Canadian certification. Dennis liked to say it was the only movie ever to play Cannes without a flag or an anthem, a national anthem,” he continued.

Simon and Hopper toured the country with Out of the Blue, arranging runs in independent theaters around the country. Eventually Simon was asked by the producers who wanted out of the film to take over the international sales. He assumed stewardship of the underlying copyright and set out on a career in film distribution that eventually led to producing.

Adopting Out of the Blue and befriending Dennis Hopper were potentially career-limiting moves at the time. Simon recalls, “Dennis was in movie jail as a director, because after Easy Rider, he done a movie called The Last Movie, which was even more of an orphan movie. Dennis asked me to help him on that, and I couldn’t get anyone to play it. No one liked it or wanted to see it, with rare exception.”

Simon and Hopper enjoyed a professional collaboration and friendship that lasted over 30 years. But indeed, his association with Hopper wasn’t always viewed positively for his own career. Hopper was renowned as an unreliable drug user, and The Last Movie (1970) was considered a disaster.

Elizabeth Karr and John Alan Simon, Discovery Productions, Inc.

Simon recalls the impact Hopper’s reputation had on his own career, “I had a producing and writing deal at Universal at the time, and unbeknownst to me, the head of the studio had been an executive on The Last Movie. And I remember Dennis and I were talking about projects we might like to do together. We had very similar taste in literature and films. I remember at a breakfast meeting with the head of the studio, talking about a couple things Dennis Hopper and I were working on and talking about I’m releasing this little movie of his. The look on his face became stricken, as he turned ashen white, and put down his cup of coffee, and said, ‘John, if you ever say the words Dennis Hopper in my presence again, you will never set foot on the Universal lot.’ And I thought he was very nice man—I got along with him famously. And I was waiting for the smile that never came. He was deadly serious.”

Despite the warning, Simon continued to work with Hopper and remembers him fondly, “Dennis was always very gracious, giving me some credit for resurrecting his career as a filmmaker. Over the years, he would always review any script I sent him. He would say, ‘Yeah, come on board as Director and I’ll act in it.’ He was just so gracious. And such a mentor.”

After Hopper died in 2010 Simon and his wife and producing partner Elizabeth Karr engaged in a 35-millimeter restoration of Out of the Blue. Faced with prints of the film that were deteriorating, Simon and Karr decided it was time to do a digital restoration. They set about funding a 4K restoration through a Kickstarter campaign to garner support for the restoration and subsequent theatrical release.

Out of the Blue is a passion for the couple, a part of the family. Asked about the film Karr said, “I love your analogy about the film being an orphan. It was adopted first by John, and then when I came into the family, I treat it as my own. Out of the Blue to me is as important as the films that we’ve produced, and that John has written and directed.”

After a pandemic stall, the new 4K restoration and re-release of Out of the Blue is now making its way to theaters. Asked about the return to theaters Karr says, “People having the experience of seeing this movie on a big screen is everything to us. And we made that very clear when we were doing the fundraising—that this was for the 4K restoration and the theatrical release. Because for us, that is still how film is meant to be seen. We are big supporters of art house cinemas, archive cinemas, local cinemas. I love to see people in the theater experiencing a film with an audience; I still think there’s something so special about that connection.”

Out of the Blue opens at New York City’s Metrograph starting Wednesday, November 17 for a two-week run—just what Simon and Karr wanted for the film. The film is presented by Chloë Sevigny and Natasha Lyonne, both avid fans of the film and its performances.

The quality of the 4K restoration surprised even Simon. He shares, “I have to tell you having seen the movie hundreds of times, literally both on 35-millimeter print and various transfers over the years before the technology that exists now to do a 4K scan, you can see in this restoration details that you could never see in the 35-millimeter film going back to the original negative. There’s a scene that I remember when Dennis and I would watch it together, he would kind of bury his head, because it’s so dark and came out so black, that it’s like the movie goes to black. But using today’s technology, I was able bring out some detail in it. You can kind of see what’s going on, which is pretty interesting actually for a few seconds in the film. You’re seeing it like it’s never been seen before.”

He continues, “There’s a scene in Raymond Burr’s office. He’s the shrink treating CeBe after she runs away from home. It was done in this office, and you can hardly see anything out the window in the 35-millimeter version of the movie. But clearly it was selected because of this great view of Vancouver out the window. And now in the digital restoration, you see detail like that. I’m seeing things I never saw before and it’s so amazing. I know how pleased Dennis as an avid photographer would have been that the film is able to show the detail of what he found on frame in this way. I tried to do the 4K restoration really in the spirit of Dennis like he had entrusted me to do on the 35-millimeter restoration.”

Simon and Karr truly consider themselves stewards of Out of the Blue who want to bring the film to new audiences. Karr says, “One of the main reasons why John and I did this film is because we wanted a new generation, people who had never seen this film, to experience it because it is so powerful. It is bleak and raw, and dark and harrowing. And it’s also beautiful, and has some of the most startling, powerful, authentic performances that I’ve ever seen on screen. Dennis Hopper, Linda Manz and Sharon Farrell are a trifecta. You almost feel like you’re eavesdropping when you watch the movie. It’s almost uncomfortable because it’s so raw and real.”

Simon adds, “I think for young people who see Out of the Blue, maybe I can’t necessarily say it’s going to change them for the better, but it will impact them. They’ll see what artistry there is in the ordinariness of everyday life.”

Classic Couple Recommends: Out of the Blue

Don Barnes (Dennis Hopper) is a truck driver in prison for drunkenly smashing his rig into a school bus. CeBe (Linda Manz) is his daughter, a young teen rebel and outsider obsessed with Elvis and the Sex Pistols. Her mother Kathy, (Sharon Farrell) waitresses, shoots up drugs and takes refuge in the arms of other men, including her husband’s best friend, Charlie (Don Gordon).

CeBe runs away to Vancouver’s punk rock scene and ends up on juvenile probation under the care of well-meaning psychiatrist Dr. Brean (Raymond Burr). After Don’s release from prison, the family struggles to re-connect and start over before the revelation of dark secrets leads to a harrowing conclusion.

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Watch the trailer.