The Hollywood Interview
By Terry Keefe
Friday, April 16 2010
There Are Still Rooms Unknown At The Morrison Hotel: Talking with Tom DiCillo about WHEN YOU'RE STRANGE - A FILM ABOUT THE DOORS
Many a visitor to Venice Beach has spent some time wondering the exact location where Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek reportedly ran into each other in 1965, after having attended UCLA Film School together previously, and decided to form the Doors. The legend of the band needs no recounting here, not after a number of books, the 1991 Oliver Stone film, and endless television clip show assemblies, along with various live albums and re-releases of recordings. Which does raise the question of whether a 2010 documentary on the Doors fills any real need, at least that was the initial reaction from this Doors fan when hearing about director Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange - A Film About the Doors.
Then, Morrison appeared on screen in the DiCillo documentary, in pristine, previously unreleased color 35 mm footage, bearded, and driving in the desert, as part of an experimental film he shot on his own in 1969, entitled “HWY.” There were, indeed, a few things still unknown and worth exploring in the story of these four American lads who shook the world, and “HWY” was one of them, but When You’re Strange also contains behind-the-scenes footage rarely seen by anyone outside of the band and their inner circle, and it is revelatory. Of particular note is extensive film from a concert in Long Island where Morrison wanders out amongst the fans before the show, without any entourage or security, and engages them in conversation. Later on, he is seen backstage sitting next to, and speaking with, a young woman who has been hit by a chair during the concert, and who has blood coming down her head. In these verite encounters, more about the real Morrison is revealed than anything I've seen before. He’s friendly, childlike at times, but with a reserve, as if he is also studying his fans and trying to understand exactly what his relation to them is, and can be. It was something that he struggled with until the end of his life, culminating most famously in the 1969 Miami concert where he was arrested for supposedly exposing himself after a long rant in which he seems to be attempting to work the audience into a communal experience beyond their repeated shouts for “Light My Fire.” Although the audio from the Miami concert has been available to the public for some time, DiCillo adds a mixture of photographs, deftly edited in quick cuts, to give the viewer the feeling of having been there, although in this case the Miami concert was never documented on motion picture film.
When You're Strange covers the entire career of the Doors, from formation, to the Paris death of Morrison at age 27. DiCillo eschews the traditional documentary usage of talking heads, and allows the story to be told by the behind-the-scenes footage in combination with narration by Johnny Depp. The filmmaker has taken some criticism for the lack of the talking heads, but I think the choice is what sets the film apart from practically every music documentary which has come before. When You're Strange is largely linear in construction, and certainly easy to follow, but its fly-on-the-wall style makes you feel as if you are there for at least glimpses of what the Doors' journey was really like. Have we been so brainwashed by reality television that we can't understand what is happening in a non-fiction film unless some person is sitting there telling us directly to the camera? Leave the talking heads to "The Biggest Loser."
The legend of Morrison obviously looms in the forefront of any Doors recounting, but where DiCillo also departs from much of what has come before is his emphasis on how this was a true band, and he gives credit where it is due. DiCillo spends time breaking down the Doors sound and analyzing the crucial components of Ray Manzarek’s haunting keyboards and the bass line he added with his left hand; John Densmore’s jazz and Brazilian-inspired drumming; and Robby Krieger’s guitar, at times sensual, dark, pounding, and also more complicated than almost any guitar work in popular music at the time.
This is Tom DiCillo’s first documentary. He previously directed the narrative features Living in Oblivion, The Real Blonde, Delirious, Box of Moonlight, Johnny Suede, and he began his career as the Director of Photography on Jim Jarmusch’s landmark indie Stranger Than Paradise. The Emmy and Academy Award-winning Dick Wolf produced When You’re Strange.
So, I watched the film twice last night. I thought you did a terrific job, and the newly unearthed footage was pretty mind-blowing.
Tom Dicillo: Thank you. There's a lot in it. You know, it's deceptively sort of fluid and, you know, I put a lot of work into making it kind of seamless. Because, listen, the footage is amazing, but it's not always connected, and so, sometimes to illustrate a point, I'll show a series of shots taken over three or four years, just to make one point. The footage, as incredible as it is, is a little bit like a collage, in a way, so I needed to try to smooth it out into something that was chronological. But not strictly chronological.
You have the actual history that you can always use as your spine, and then you have room to play a little bit in that.
Yeah, so that's why, I mean, I made the decision after seeing ten minutes of this footage, that the story, this film, should be made only using this original footage. No talking heads, no interviews with the band. Okay, they kind of flipped out about that, when they first heard that. You know, Ray Manzarek said to me, 'Well, how can you tell the story of the Doors, without hearing it from the Doors?' Then he saw a half hour of what I was cutting together, and he said, 'Ah...I see what you're up to.' In other words, begin the thing, and then don't let people out of it. Tell the story, show the beginning of the band, and then just stay in it -- so that it's as if it's a moment that keeps happening in time, and you never step back and refer to it. And it allows people to experience the Doors, as if they'd never seen them before. You know, it was a risky decision. It placed a tremendous amount of responsibility on the narration.
Yeah. And the editing, I’d imagine.
And the editing. I mean, but, yes, particularly the narration, which I wrote. You know, it went through a series of changes. It had to, because it had to find its form. And I will openly admit that the first form of it was a little too wordy. And I got some reactions to that, so, whatever, you know?
Did you have Johnny Depp’s narration for the initial screenings, or was it later?
No. It was my voice, and that was only, you know, so we had something to edit to. Unfortunately, when we went to Sundance with the film, they hadn't arranged to get a narrator. And we had to use my voice because, you know, I'd be in the editing room, going, 'Okay, let's change that line,' and I would narrate the line so the editors could cut to it. Well, so we went to Sundance, and they said, 'Well, let's just use your voice, all right?' I think that was a mistake. I mean--
It puts a big target on you for the people that want to criticize it.
Yes. Yes. It does. And, you know, I took a lot of hits for that. And that's okay. I don't mind, you know -- but I had always had Johnny in mind. I knew, because the narration was so crucial, it needed to be delivered by somebody who you believe that they believe what they were saying. And how many narrators do you believe that? Most of the time it's just a voice, like frosting.
And this, I just have to tell you, Terry, you know, when Johnny came on board, he said, 'Here's the only thing I ask: I've seen the film, I've heard your narration. Let me just go off somewhere. I will do the words as you wrote them. Let me just -- I don't wanna, you know, discuss it. Let me just do it.' And I said, 'Fine.'
He started sending me the CDs of all these different takes. He did one line, you know, like, 'The 60s began with a shot.'? He did it five times, six times! He did the whole script that way. To, you know, finding different meanings, like an actor, different rhythms. And I went, 'Wow, this is incredible.'
Until I did some research on my own, my first question was going to be how you found an actor that looked so much like Jim Morrison for the “reenactments,” and how that footage was shot. But, it was actually Morrison in his film “HWY.” You chose not to point that out in the film, so it was a jolt to learn the truth.
When I discovered that footage, it was all cut into this huge mass of stuff that they sent me. No identification of it. I wasn't that finely-tuned of a Doors fan to know that Jim had made a movie, so I just saw this shot of Jim Morrison with a beard walking through the desert, and I said, 'Wow, this has got to go in the movie somewhere!' And I immediately said, 'Hoo, what if it's like this spirit of Morrison -- that's an idea, you know -- kind of wandering through the film,
searching for meaning?' As if, this idea that Morrison lives, because people really do hold onto that more than anything. Something about Morrison is still alive. I said, 'Let me touch that a little bit. Let me see what happens if there was a spirit, you know, and he wanders through the film.' And so my only thought was that people would go, 'Wow, look at this footage, it's amazing. Where did it come from?' as opposed to, 'That can't be Morrison.' We had someone walk out of a screening at Sundance, a distributor, someone that I really wanted to like the movie. And he just walked out after ten minutes. I chased him down the street. I said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I can't believe you used an actor in this movie!' First of all, it just insulted me, it insulted me. If anybody knows anything about my work, it's that it's honest, you know? And if I was to put a fuckin' actor in this movie, you know, I would've done it differently, you know? But it's not an actor.
One reason why people might assume the footage is re-created is that it looks so contemporary, and so clean.
It is. You know why? He shot it on 35mm in 1969, and a week and a half before we committed to printing the film, we found access to the original negative. And to this day I don't know how it happened, because we were looking for it for two years. Somebody made a deal. Somebody made a deal is all I can tell you. And so what we used to have was this bleached-out print that we had, you know, it still looked good, but it was bleached-out, it had, you know, cuts in it, and they said, Tom, here's the original negative. And I said, 'Let's just make it look as if he just shot it.' You know, some people said to me, 'Why didn't you screw it up? Why didn't you deteriorate it?' or something. I said, 'No!'
I learned a lot about Jim from watching your film, but I still found him impenetrable, to a degree.
Yes, I gave that some thought.
Along those lines, what you realize when you watch this footage is how young Jim was. I thought Val Kilmer did a great job playing Jim in the Oliver Stone film, but Kilmer was 10 years older than Jim was. Jim was a kid. So, was it possible that the impenetrability is because the persona underneath the façade was sort of undeveloped -
Listen, I think you've just really hit it. And, if anything, what I tried to do in this film was to suggest that, that nobody knew this guy. All we really know is the exterior of his behavior. The only person maybe who could've shed a little light on him was Pam [Courson, Morrison‘s longtime girlfriend]. She suggested he go see a psychiatrist, which he did, one session. Clearly, I mean, a tremendously complicated guy, with a lot of issues. But I tried to say, 'Listen, I'm going to show you as many sides of this guy that we know, at times, you know, a drunken oaf, at times, an amazingly brilliant performer and writer, and, you know, presence.’ At times a goofball, a little kid, the scene of him dancing in the desert with those boys [in ‘HWY], you know they stumbled upon these kids, and there he was dancing with them. And he looked like one of them, you know, there was no difference on his face, the look on his face and the look on their faces. He was committed to it. And one of the things I discovered with this movie was that I had to, finally, treat Jim as if he was a character I had written. And, in that sense, don't judge him, just portray him, don't romanticize him, just show him, but, by all means, do not judge him. And that enabled me to show the different sides of him. He still remains one of the most immutable figures, and people just project so much onto him! It's beyond belief. Some woman at the Berlin Film Festival stood up and just announced (German accent), 'So clearly Jim has a death wish.' I said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Did you know him? Did you talk to him? Were you in his brain?' I said, 'I don't think so. I think he was excessive, you know. He was conflicted, confused and driven by many different things, but he was very much alive.' And that's what I like about the film, it shows a Morrison that very few people have seen. And I'm going to be straight-up with you, there are some things in the film that, to non-Doors fans, they might find new and fascinating. Okay? To hard-core Doors fans, there is very little that is going to be revelatory in terms of facts about the Doors. However, even for the hard-core Doors fans, there's something in this film, there is a glimpse, there is an emotional intimacy that has never been presented before. And that's what I think has the real value. I mean, on the other hand, I can tell you that Robby came up to me, not too long ago, and just touched me on the shoulder, and he said, 'Hey, Tom, I just wanted to thank you.' I said, 'Why?' You know? He said, 'Well, for just letting people know that I wrote "Light My Fire."'
I appreciated that you made a point of mentioning that Jim had no musical training, and also showed how much the other members created. I’m a mild Doors fan myself, but I had forgotten how many songs Robby wrote. He’s still playing, and he’s remembered, but it's not quite to the degree I think he deserves to be remembered.
I totally agree with you. And I had to say that by all accounts, Jim Morrison always insisted that it was not Jim Morrison and the Doors, it was always the Doors. And he recognized that these guys, that it was a foursome. And, you know, at their very best, there was nothing like them.
I didn’t know the story about Jim seriously quitting the band, Was that something that came out in conversation with the guys?
It came out, and, you know, I read Ray's book, John's book, I spoke to Robby, and spoke to a lot of people, and there was this conflict that was in him. And again, I will only say that, I speculated momentarily in the film. I didn't want to go down the road of speculation in this movie, which is why I left his death as simple as it was. Because, listen, it's not a story about Jim Morrison, it's a story about the band. And I had to make some decisions how to keep it that way, because you could certainly make an entire film just about Jim. But, you know, he did quit. He had a conflict. And what I was saying is that...it's an amazingly complex idea, but let me see if I can explain it simply. I'm not the first one to say this, but, you know, having witnessed, and kind of been interested in the effects of fame on people…..the thing about Morrison was that, I think, he never expected to be famous, or, like, craved it. I just think he was born for it, and it happened to him, and he happened to be perfectly ready for it when it hit him.
For example, this persona he created, I think he did create it, and the thing is, he was so smart, almost like a businessman, or an ad company, but yet one of the most artistic ad companies that's ever existed, right? And he created the icon that was Jim Morrison. And that developed, as people sort of responded to it. You know what I'm saying? He didn't start out with it. It wasn't like -- I hope she'll forgive me -- Madonna, you know, coming out with this image, and then changing it when the mood changed. Elvis, whom he really idolized, was huge around the world. Why? Well, he was like this, he was very sexy, in his own way, right? But it was a '50s sort of sexuality, even though it was, you know, when you see some of the moves he did, they were pretty amazing. But Jim was sexy, right? However, he had something different than Elvis: Elvis never wrote a poem, as far as we know. Okay? Jagger was sexy, then he added a little bit of the dirt to it, a little bit of the danger. Well, Jim had that, but he also was amazingly intelligent, and artistic, he brought his art cred to what he was doing in a way that no performer ever had. And he had this sexual presence that was mind-blowing to people. Men loved him, women loved him, he was like, 'Hey, either one of you can have me,' you know what I mean? And that, I think, drew all of this attention. And when you get that, I think, there is no human instinct available to defend you against what that does to you. And I know or a fact that he struggled with wanting to be an artist. He wanted to be an artist more than anything. He felt that, either to be a poet, a writer, a filmmaker. He really wanted to be a filmmaker, and that part of him was always looking at the music as a kind of clowning around, you know. And that was the conflict for him, and he couldn't get away from it, because, sitting in a lonely apartment in Paris, and then remembering what it was like to have 5,000 people cheering you?
Right, right. You mentioned in the narration that the solitary writing life didn't have the same kick as being onstage.
It was an addiction, I mean, and how could it not be? You know, you get that kind of adulation from the world, and his was different, because he wasn’t a teeny-bopper. It was a whole different persona, one that people have emulated to this day.
Do you think that, going away from the death wish thing, maybe quitting the band was an attempt to stay alive?
Well, you know, Pam was encouraging him to. She wanted to start a family. There was that whole aspect: Settle down, have kids. But he didn't do that, either. You know, I think that...he had an issue with his father, that I touched upon. And I'm not sure what that did to him, but clearly there was some rift, something that he didn't get from his father, that affected him -- to the point that he literally turned his back on the entire family, which is extreme! But, you know, this is what he did. And then he left, he'd come back, he left, the drinking increased, and it just became this heavy thing.
It's astonishing when you realize who his father was. He was a Navy Admiral in Viet Nam.
He was commanding a division off the coast of Viet Nam. I personally related to that aspect of it.
Your father -
My dad's a retired United States Marine Colonel. And, I'm telling you, you know, I experienced firsthand what it is like to be told to do something, simply because someone has the authority to tell you to do it. And I, from a very early age, reacted against that kind of authority. You know: 'Do it.' 'Why?' 'Because I say so.' You know, fuck you. That's the way I feel, you know. You want to give me a reason for something, you want to explain something, I'll be more than happy to listen. But the artistic sensibility has to always -- I'm not saying that like, a, [sarcastic tone] 'Oh wow, they're artists!' -- I'm just saying, to be a creative person, you cannot have any authority. You have to be able to say, 'All right, I'm going to try that. I'm going to try it. I'm going to go over there. And I may look like a fool. I may fall on my face. But that's okay.' First of all, you don't want anybody else telling you, 'Don't do that,' and you don't want yourself saying, 'Don't do that.' You see what I mean? And I think Jim had a really hyper-exaggerated sense of that, to the degree that he kind of went, 'Nobody, nobody, nobody!' But I respect that, because look what they did. Their first album had two cuts on it that were over seven minutes long….at a time when the norm for a popular, successful song was two to three minutes. So clearly they weren't going, 'Oh, let's hit it big! Let's do something for the radio!' They just made their own music. As an independent filmmaker, I found a huge connection to that idea. And also, they didn't preach about it -- they just did it. You know, and I'm not trying to romanticize them, either. But the fact that they never sold out--
Yeah, you make a very direct point of that in the film.
- it means something to me. I had a tough time getting that line in the movie. A couple of the guys, they didn't want me to put it in. I said, 'What's wrong with that? What's wrong with it?' You know, the last line of the film is: ‘As of this date, none of their songs have been used in a car commercial.’
Oh, it's a great line.
It doesn't judge it, it just simply says it. But a couple of them said, 'Well, what's wrong with putting a song in a car commercial? You know, Dylan has done it, U2 did it.' And I said, 'True. All true. But you know, there's a reason why people that love the Doors, there's a reason why they love them. And I think that's one of them.'
Talking With Tom CiCillo About When Your Strange
1 reply to this topic
Posted 14 May 2010 - 04:16 AM
American Masters PBS Interviews posted to U-Tube
AMERICAN MASTERS | When You're Strange | Glimpses of The Doors | PBS
AMERICAN MASTERS | When You're Strange | Interview With John Densmore | PBS
AMERICAN MASTERS | When You're Strange | Interview with Robby Krieger | PBS
AMERICAN MASTERS | When You're Strange | Glimpses of The Doors | PBS
AMERICAN MASTERS | When You're Strange | Interview With John Densmore | PBS
AMERICAN MASTERS | When You're Strange | Interview with Robby Krieger | PBS