[Interview] John Alan Simon & Elizabeth Karr for OUT OF THE BLUE
OUT OF THE BLUE is Dennis Hopper’s return to directing after the unkind reception of his film The Last Movie. Producers John Alan Simon and Elizabeth Karr have made it their mission to see that the film was not lost to the ravages of time. My review of the heartbreaking but still hopeful film is here. I spoke to Simon and Karr about their mission to make sure that OUT OF THE BLUE got the chance to entrance a new generation of cinema fans and give it the restoration that it richly deserved. Roger Ebert said of the film, ‘Thumbs Up! Bitter, unforgettable. An unsung treasure.” and Jack Nicholson said, “If a masterpiece comes along, people ought to see it.”

Why did you want to restore OUT OF THE BLUE and was it a difficult process? What was the biggest challenge?

John Alan Simon: Restoring OUT OF THE BLUE was payback for the influence that Dennis Hopper had on me as a mentor during a very formative period of my life. I also felt it was a responsibility to try to bring this masterpiece to new audiences and to preserve it for future generations. I’ve been involved with OUT OF THE BLUE for 40 years now. The movie had been shelved after Dennis took over as the director. He had originally been hired just to act on a Canadian movie called CB.

The original director was fired, before Dennis had done any work as an actor on the movie. He hadn’t directed in 10 years. He seized the opportunity to rewrite the script over the weekend. He’d gotten to know the late Linda Manz during the week when he was on location and tailored the script to her personality, interest in punk, and her love of music. Dennis heard his friend Neil Young’s song ‘Out of the Blue’ on the radio and realized that this could be the thematic point for the film, literally and figuratively. “Better to burn out than to fade away. The king Elvis is Gone but not forgotten. This is the story of Johnny Rotten…” Punk rock.  What emerged from his taking the helm was an unforgettable, bleak poem of alienation, with indelible performances by Linda Manz, Hopper and Sharon Farrell.

I had been the original distributor of the film. Dennis and I took it on the road. He knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. I told him I knew nothing about acting. And he taught me a tremendous amount during the time we spent together on the road. One of the great adventures we had was getting Jack Nicholson to record a radio spot for the film, traveling up to Aspen for a weekend to visit him there. The radio spots resulted in breaking the house record when we opened the movie in Boston, but the film still remained underseen.

Simon Continued: And in 2010 Elizabeth Karr and I had the opportunity to restore the negative with the support of Cinematheque Francaise, and the ThompsonFoundation — OUT OF THE BLUE had been selected to be the centerpiece of a month-long Dennis Hopper Retrospective in Paris.  Dennis was able to attend, prior to his fatal illness. The two prints that were struck were 35-millimeter prints. We screened at museums, archives, and a few select theatrical playdates. But over the course of 10 years, these BEAUTIFUL PRISTINE prints were becoming worn and damaged. So I knew it was time to do a restoration. Technicolor, where we had struck the prints and done the restoration work, is no longer in the film business. So it was time to do a digital restoration. The biggest challenge was not technical, because we had done so much work on the negative during the 35-millimeter restoration. The 35 millimeter negative and soundtrack were scanned at a terrific post-production house called Roundabout Entertainment in Burbank. I spent an enormous amount of time researching what the possibilities were and the costs involved. I was aided immeasurably by my friend Robert Harris, one of the world’s foremost film preservationists who ultimately introduced me to Roundabout Entertainment. Roundabout is a very high-end post-production house that did the 4K version of “Apocalypse Now” and which we could never have afforded except for their willingness to work with us on this indie labor of love.  We did a Kickstarter, spearheaded by Elizabeth to raise a portion of the restoration and theatrical re-release funding and [to] build community.

The biggest challenge was our decision to rerelease the film theatrically.  The restoration was invited as an official selection for the Venice Film Festival in 2019. Chloë Sevigny joined Elizabeth and me for the Venice Premiere. It was an auspicious start – 800 seat sold-out theatre that erupted in applause when the credits rolled.

And then, of course, the pandemic hit.

Our OUT OF THE BLUE US premiere at South by Southwest 2020 was canceled. And just before the US Festival premiere, virtually at the AFI Fest 2020, Linda Manz passed away. So at that point, really the film became also a tribute to her.

Elizabeth and I had gotten the opportunity to see Linda just before the lockdown in February of 2020. Linda was so excited about OUT OF THE BLUE’s theatrical release and restoration and wanted to go to SXSW with us if she could (on a road trip!  Linda didn’t like to fly.)  The next day she was going in for a biopsy.  In a lovely gesture by Linda to support the restoration and theatrical re-release, Linda signed vintage OUT OF THE BLUE posters that I had saved from the original release I did with Dennis Hopper and I taking the film on the road. There are still a few available on our website.

So now the OUT OF THE BLUE 40th Anniversary Theatrical Rerelease is happening!  We created new posters, trailers.  The US theatrical premiere was at The Metrograph in November 2021 which was a tremendous success.  Los Angeles premiere was on January 6 for a month run at American Cinematheque.  Natasha Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny have helped Elizabeth and I get the word out.  They came on board as official presenters of the restoration. We also garnered support from Julian Schnabel actor Ethan Hawke and others.

I like to call OUT OF THE BLUE the “Velvet Underground” of indie films.  Because maybe only a thousand people bought their albums, but half of them became music critics or started a rock band.  ‘OUT OF THE BLUE has that same effect — its fans and admirers are many filmmakers and actors. Including OUT OF THE BLUE’s newest fan, Awkafina, who came to the Metrograph Opening, invited by Natasha Lyonne.

Linda Manz, a cult favorite actress, is the lead in the cast. Is her presence part of the reason for the restoration?

Elizabeth Karr: Linda Manz was another important reason why John Alan Simon and I undertook the 4K restoration and 40th-anniversary theatrical re-release of Dennis Hopper’s OUT OF THE BLUE.  Of course, it was important to us that Dennis Hopper’s legacy as a director be recognized and preserved. In addition, it was important that the performances of the actors Dennis, Sharon Farrell, and Linda Manz need to be seen and preserved. Linda achieved cult status from her work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and OUT OF THE BLUE. Days of Heaven has been seen by more people. And we wanted more people to experience Linda’s work in OUT OF THE BLUE.  Cebe, the role that Linda plays in OUT OF THE BLUE was Linda’s favorite performance.  When we visited Linda in her home, she had a shrine for OUT OF THE BLUE in her den (reminiscent of Cebe’s shrine to Elvis in the film), where she liked to sit with her dogs and drink coffee. It included the movie poster, photographs of her and Dennis at the Cannes Film Festival when the film premiered there in 1980, and other memorabilia from working with Dennis on the film.  We’re so glad that we got to spend time with Linda before her sad passing in 2020.  Linda was excited about the restoration and touched by the continued enthusiasm and interest in her as an actor. And in the film.  To help support the restoration and theatrical re-release, Linda signed vintage posters for us; fortunately, John Alan Simon saved a box of the posters from the original release he did with Dennis Hopper in 1982.

There is something about Linda’s performance and OUT OF THE BLUE that touches people on a deep level. I think it’s the authenticity and fierce independence she brings to her portrayal of CeBe. There’s a lot to admire in that performance. It’s been wonderful to see the response from new generations seeing the film for the first time — how taken they are with the film and Linda’s portrayal as CeBe.  Our hope has been that by doing the restoration and rerelease, new audiences could experience Dennis and Linda’s work and that is happening.  We’re thrilled with not only the renewed interest and enthusiasm in the film, but the renewed critical acclaim garnered both by Dennis Hopper’s film and Linda Manz’s performance.

I like to think that whatever is beyond us when we leave this planet that somehow Linda Manz is aware of how many lives she continues to impact.

When did you first watch OUT OF THE BLUE and how did it affect you?

Elizabeth Karr: John Alan Simon showed me OUT OF THE BLUE for the first time before we embarked on the 35 mm restoration to screen at American Cinematheque Francaise Dennis Hopper Retrospective in 2010. It struck me as bleak, raw, powerful, and beautiful. The film’s impact on me has increased over time with repeated viewings. Despite its brutal, heartbreaking core, watching it is an exhilarating experience. Its truth and authenticity and the powerful performances leave me inspired.

John Alan Simon: I was a journalist and film critic working for the New Orleans Times Picayune.  Another film critic friend and I persuaded Warner Brothers to let us distribute a shelved film called The Wicker Man. And we had a tremendous indie success with that – and  Time Magazine wrote an article about me. And as a result, I was deluged with terrible films, most of which deserved their status as unloved and unseen. But one of them was OUT OF THE BLUE. I knew nothing at all about it.  I remember vividly watching it for the first time in a small screening room by myself on Highland Avenue in LA, and literally falling out of my chair at the end. It was so dark and funny and had so much to say about human nature and the decline of 60s idealism into the inchoate mess of the 80s. I contacted Dennis Hopper and told him that if he would go on the road with me the same way I had done with Christopher Lee for The Wicker Man, I would take a stab at getting this bleak nihilistic film out into the world.  And that’s what we did back then.  And what Elizabeth Karr and I are doing together again now with this incredible new 4K restoration.

Hopper was a notoriously difficult and exacting actor during this period of his career. His wild success with Easy Rider made his reputation as a director, but was immediately followed by the notorious reception of The Last Movie. After OUT OF THE BLUE, Hopper went on to direct Colors. Where does OOTB stand in his filmography, in your opinion?

John Alan Simon: I think OUT OF THE BLUE is a masterpiece, and I consider it to be Dennis Hopper’s most accomplished film on every level both as a director and actor. I’m definitely a fan of Easy Rider and The Last Movie and some of the later efforts, particularly The Hot Spot but for me the raw intensity of OUT OF THE BLUE and what it has to say about alienation and the rebellious angst of adolescence – I think it’s an important film akin to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Tony Richardson’s great The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

Why do you think that Hopper brought punk rock into his filmmaking? His films seem to have personal themes. How personal do you think the film was to Hopper?

John Alan Simon: Dennis told me that he thought of his films as time-capsules.  That’s how he approached both Easy Rider and The Last Movie and I know was also his intention in terms of the punk element of OUT OF THE BLUE.  He was like a sponge – and attracted to the burgeoning punk scene in Vancouver which has not been an element at all of the original scripts.  Cebe was mourning the death of Elvis – and Hopper seized on the connection of the black-leather clad rebel Elvis to the persona and costumes of punk icons like Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten. Neil Young’s song which he appropriated for theme – both musically and in terms of the script – proclaimed that ‘’The King (Elvis) is gone, but he’s not forgotten – this is the story of Johnny Rotten. He loved that leap that Neil Young had taken – and embraced it fully for Cebe’s Elvis/punk obsessions in OUT OF THE BLUE.

I think OUT OF THE BLUE was an incredibly personal film for Dennis Hopper, perhaps even more personal than he realized at the time.

Dennis didn’t originate the project.  He was initially hired to play the role of the father. When the original writer-director was fired about two weeks into the production, Dennis took over, rewrote the script over the weekend, and began shooting that Monday morning.  He had been out of the director’s chair for 10 years nearly and I think the pent up frustration and energy and drug-and-alcohol-fueled rage from that period of unwilling inactivity, during what should have been the most vital years of his career following Easy Rider and The Last Movie flowed out in the torrent of OUT OF THE BLUE. On The Last Movie, Dennis Hopper had carte-blanche to shoot how and when and where he wanted, and to take however much time he desired in post-production. This “freedom” may have been more paralyzing than liberating.  His excesses on The Last Movie were legendary (and recorded in the American Dreamer documentary) and as a result, he was unhireable as a director.  On OUT OF THE BLUE, there was no time to over-think – with only a weekend to prepare, inspired by his friend Neil Young’s Out of the Blue playing on his car radio, reworking the script to fit the talents and personality of young star Linda Manz, who he’d gotten to know and observe during the weeks he’s been on the set without working.

He shot his own part without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. The crew called it “method directing”. He drank beer in between takes and pretty much stayed in the character of the troubled father even behind the camera.  What resulted was a brutal self-portrait so close to himself, it must have been painful for him to watch.  That scene in the kitchen when he calls out in frustration “Do you think it’s easy for me? I don’t even know if I can even drive anymore.” – he’s not talking about the character of Don Barnes, who was a truck driver before being sent to prison.  He’s talking about the character of Dennis Hopper, wondering if he still has what it takes to be a film director.  At least that’s how I see it.

There’s still time to see a screening of the re-release of the restoration of OUT OF THE BLUE in Los Angeles and other cities. The American Cinematheque is doing a month of screenings of the film and the films of Dennis Hopper and Linda Manz. Sadly, the Late Night With Dennis Hopper screenings are over, but the Manz retrospective still has some screenings left and they’re good ones.

You can see the OUT OF THE BLUE RESTORATION at The American Cinematheque at the Los Feliz 3 Theatre four more times. The dates and times are here. Tickets can be purchased at the links on each screening time.

Friday, January 21 at 4:00 p.m.

Saturday, January 22 at 1:30 p.m

Monday, January 24 at 10:00 p.m.

Friday, January 28 at 4:00 p.m.

The remaining screenings of the Linda Manz retrospective are also at the Los Feliz 3 and tickets can be purchased through links on each screening time. Here are the remaining screening dates and times.

Saturday, January 22 screening of The Game at 10:00 p.m.

Sunday, January 23 screening of Days of Heaven at 10:00 p.m.

The restoration will also screen at the Rhinebeck Theatre in Rhinebeck, NY on the following dates. Tickets can be purchased through the links on each screening time: 

Friday, January 21 7:45 p.m.

Saturday, January 22 at 3:00 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.

Sunday, January 23 at 7:45 p.m.

Wednesday, January 26 at 7:45 p.m.

Thursday, January 27 at 7:45 p.m.

And in New Orleans, Louisiana at the Broad Theatre until the end of the month:

Friday, January 21 at 10:15 p.m.

Saturday, January 22 at 4:00 p.m.and 6:15 p.m

Sunday, January 23 at 8:15 p.m

Monday, January 24 at 8:15 p.m

Tuesday, January 25 at 4:45 p.m.

Wednesday, January 26 at 1:15 p.m

Thursday, January 27 at 2:45 p.m and 8:30 p.m.

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