Tom DiCillo has long been a name to contend with in the world of Independent Film. With six films under his belt-- among them Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion and his latest, Delirious--the award winning writer/director was convinced by his friend, actor Chris Noth to try his hand at directing an episode of Law & Order for Dick Wolf Productions. One episode turned into four. Those four episodes led to DiCillo's latest challenge when, in 2008, Dick Wolf asked him to direct a feature documentary about The Doors. Vintage film, some of it buried in boxes for decades, was supplied by the band. DiCillo, a huge Doors' fan, could not resist. He jumped at the chance.
KH: It says on IMDB that your next project was Lost in Blue, but then When You're Strange came along. Did you just stop working on that project and jump to the documentary?
I met Tom after a Sundance Film Festival showing of When You're Strange and approached him about an interview. Writer/interviewer Salli Stevenson (who interviewed Morrison in 1970 for Circus Magazine) joined me on January 25th as we talked candidly to Tom about this latest project.
TD: I did actually. I have two scripts, Kerry; one called AMERICANA that I wrote before 9/11. It's an odd, dark comedy about two young teenage boys who get swept up in a very small white militia group. I tweaked the story as a modern version of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Needless to say, after 9/11 I was told to burn the script. But now, with a change in the air it's looking very possible. Then I wrote another one; a larger budget film that I would like to make called Lost in Blue.
I'd been trying to finance both films for three years when I was approached to do this Doors film. Most of the time, with independent film, you're spending all of your time and energy just trying to raise the money to get the project going. But when they asked me to do the Doors film, I was amazed to hear they already had the money and everything was all set.
KH: What was your first reaction when you heard this documentary film was to be about the Doors?
TD: The instant that they mentioned the Doors I said, "Yes! Wow!" They didn't even have a concept other than they had all this footage and they were looking for someone to put it together to form it into something.
The Doors have been, subconsciously, my favorite band since I first heard them when I was 14. I keep listening to their music. Every time you hear it, it feels like you're hearing it for the first time. I did not see the Oliver Stone film. I don't hold it against him and I don't want to talk negatively about it. But the pieces of it that I did see just struck me as being a little too obvious for my taste.
I knew there was a great mystery surrounding the Doors, a great unsaid and unspoken thing that still, to this date, is undefined...and I wanted to take a stab at defining it.
KH: Being an actor, playwright, director, and writer, which of those helped you prepare for dealing with this documentary process?
TD: [Laughs] All of them did in an interesting way. This is my first documentary. So you think about a documentary and go, "OK, yeah." You put the pieces together and that's it.
I realized I needed to approach this as a narrative film and in that sense discover and develop particularly Morrison as the protagonist, as the lead character in it. I realized that I needed to understand him as deeply as I possibly could, given the fact that I'd never met the guy.
I don't know what was going on inside him. I would never want to assume that I do, but I needed to feel that I knew him, that I could understand him, that I could empathize with him. That understanding went through a series of developments.
When I first started, I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, which I just couldn't quite believe was totally accurate or was the only answer. They present Jim as a guy who is on this constant and almost immediate cycle of destruction.
I really believe Jim was an artist. But Picasso was also an artist and he didn't go down in flames when he was 27. Then one night I was at dinner at Anne Morrison's [Jim's sister's] house, I mentioned Jim's drinking, seeing if they could give me any insight into its origins. Someone at the table almost got in a fight with me and very passionately informed me that Jim was an alcoholic and alcoholism is a disease, not something that you choose.
It opened something up for me; that Jim was struggling with something his whole life. It was a battle as opposed to just a desire to get plastered.
Robby told me that at their second rehearsal Jim never showed up. He was drunk. It seemed like he was always trying to either sharpen or dull his sense of perception, or at least change it...definitely change it.
KH: You did a lot of interviews for this project. Aside from Anne, did you talk to the families of the other Doors members?
TD: No, I only talked to Anne's...her children have very specific reactions to Jim. I have a suspicion that some of what was motivating Jim, or troubling him, might have been something connected to having come from a military family. No matter how well he may or may not have gotten along with his father, the military has a very specific way of dealing with people. Every person I've ever met in the military deals with their children and their spouses in the exact same way. That is, "You do something because I'm telling you to do it."
My suspicion is that Jim's psychic and karmic persona was the exact opposite of that. "Don't tell me what to do," and "even if you do tell me what to do, at least you owe it to me to tell me why."
From everything I watched and discovered about him, it seemed apparent that the only thing that drove him mad was when someone just simply said, "You can't do that."
SS: Or, "You're going to do this."
SS: There are some that think Jim was the devil and others that maintain he had a quality of innocence about him. What was your take?
TD: My intent with this film was to try and show that innocence, but also to show what accompanied it and to not romanticize or glorify either one of them.
KH: You used HWY outtakes. Why did you not use anything from HWY other than outtakes? Was that out of respect?
TD: Yes, it was completely, Kerry. I'm glad you asked that. I wouldn't want anybody bastardizing one of my films.
All the outtakes of HWY were included in these boxes of DVDs that they sent me. They weren't labeled. I, at that point, did not know that Jim had even made a film called HWY. All I saw was this footage of Morrison wandering through the desert. I said, "Man, this is incredible."
It was the first impetus in creating this idea of the spirit of Morrison wandering throughout the film on a personal journey to discover what he was and what the Doors were about. That's where the idea came from. It was only later that I found out it was part of his film. So I said, "Well, let's just make sure we don't use any of the cuts, any of the sequences, the montages, nothing. Just use the outtakes."
SS: A lot of the film footage came from Paul Ferrara. Did Paul give you the rights to the film?
TD: No, the rights actually came from Pam's mother and Anne as well.
SS: You said you read NOHGOA. What else did you read?
TD: I read Ray's book. I read John's book. I read a lot of magazine pieces. Salli, I read your interview. I read Jac Holzman's book Follow the Music, which was really informative. And there were a couple of other books that I read. There was also The Jim Morrison Scrapbook. I got a lot out of that one.
The last thing that I wanted to do was just paraphrase everything that was written. I wanted to try to look at all this material. Look at this footage. Read all this stuff and come up with an observation of my own and I just felt that if I didn't make it personal to myself, then there was no point in doing it.
SS: Making it personal to yourself, I'm wondering...did Jim in any way remind you of Johnny Suede? [character in DiCillo's 1992 movie, Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt as a musician with a Ricky Nelson fixation]
TD: Hmm. That's really interesting, Salli. It's hard to say. I know this. Johnny Suede was a character in conflict. He didn't know who he was. I couldn't say that Jim struck me as someone who didn't know who he was. My feeling was that he did know who he was.
I felt that in some ways it was just more accurate for me to look at the material and to determine what I felt by watching it, because in so much of that material he's unguarded and not aware that the camera's on him. That's where I went to understand some aspect of him for myself.
SS: So who is Jim Morrison to you?
TD: What I attempted to do in the film was to suggest that he was an extremely intelligent and very bright man. He brought something to the rock and roll scene that had never been there before.
The line I wrote in the film is, "He's a sexy rock poet, a precocious wild child, but he's got the art cred down cold." He really did. He combined sex and art. He created a persona that was immensely powerful and it instantly touched millions of people who felt it. He was an expert at his own creation.
My sense is that his real joy in living out that creation quickly started to change and ultimately that the creation consumed him. Nothing could compare to that high; it was better than any drug. I think the high he got from that fame, all the attention he received, and the ability to do and say anything he wanted whenever he wanted, eventually overwhelmed his desire to be a poet.
I think he really wanted to be a poet, but in comparison to that high, this creation that he had come up with just obliterated it. It made it impossible to turn his back on it. That was something I tried to suggest in the film.
KH: What did the other Doors think about the film?
TD: Something interesting happened at Sundance. I was standing next to Robby and he turned to me-I didn't know why-and said very quietly, "Tom I just want to thank you for something."
I said, "What" and he said, "For letting the world know that I wrote 'Light My Fire.'" He didn't say it possessively. He didn't say it with ego. He just thanked me. I realized that when I first started this I didn't know that. I was a Doors fan, but I didn't know that.
Like many Doors fans and many people I've spoken to, they didn't know that Robby wrote a lot of the songs. That to me is who this film is for. It's for the people that didn't know that Robby wrote "Light My Fire." It's for the people who knew it and appreciate the fact that I think it's important; that I think it's crucial. They're all amazing artists and musicians and very, very different.
I think that their difference is what pulled everything together. All of their differences contributed to a very exotic and dark beauty of music that still sounds brand new. If you listen to other music from the mid to late sixties, it sounds like a popcorn commercial. It's awful. So I wanted to emphasize just what their contribution was and how they supported Jim. I don't think he would have felt free or safe enough to go where he went, if he didn't feel that all three of them were there to back him up.
That's why the film ends when Morrison dies. All four of them were The Doors. When Jim died, there were three...they were members of The Doors, not The Doors.
SS: If you were to define each of them back in that period-Ray, Robby, and John-how would you define them as people, from your experience?
TD: I can't define them as people, but what I can say is that Ray, being slightly older, was a little bit of the father figure of their band. He also provided this really solid classical, musical structure to the band.
Robby- In the early days of the band Morrison said to the guys, "We need some more songs." At this point, all they had were Jim's songs. So he told everybody to go home and write one song over the weekend. Well, only Robby did his homework and the first song he wrote was "Light My Fire." I said to Robby recently, "Why didn't anybody else write a song? Why didn't Ray write a song? Why didn't John write a song?" He just smiled and shrugged. It's interesting that they didn't, and so their contribution, I think, to the band really comes in the structural element that they provide to hold the music together.
Robby is one of the most mysterious guitar players I have ever seen. There is just something indefinable about the way he plays the guitar, what he contributes to it; that sort of Middle Eastern Spanish tinge that comes through in several songs. It again adds to the quality of their sound.
Densmore was a little bit like oil and water with some members of the band, but you talk to him now and you can feel without question the enormous respect that he had and still has for what the group accomplished as a foursome. He was perhaps a little more of the strict disciplinarian in terms of the music. He wanted to always have a great gig. Regarding the Miami show he said, "I don't know if Jim pulled it out, but I know this much, we did a lousy show."
SS: Did any one of them try to change the perceptions you had of the Doors as you were looking at the footage?
TD: There's a piece of audio I put in of Jim talking to a bouncer at a club. It's in the background as the film is discussing Jim's encounter with Janis Joplin at a party. I was told by every member of the band to take that out. I questioned why and they said it makes Jim sound like an asshole.
SS: What happened?
TD: I said, "He said it. He said it," and I left it in. I was a little surprised by that.
KH: What were the high and low points of this film for you?
TD: The high point was finally getting the concept, which was using this HWY footage as the narrative theme to hold the whole film together. It was exciting seeing it begin to work, and then diving into this goldmine of authentic footage. I never had to worry about the quality of the acting or the way I had directed the scene because it was all in the footage.
Of course, meeting each of the Doors and talking to them was an enormous highpoint. It took me quite awhile to get it in my brain that I was actually sitting with the Doors and talking to them, together and individually. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be telling their story.
The low point had to do with figuring out how to make my way through a thicket of differing opinions. Working on this in LA for nine and a half months and encountering all these people, each one with a different perspective on what the story is, what Jim was, each one adamant their version was the truth...was exhausting! I finally had to say, "You know what, guys? If I listen to you all, this film's going to end up looking like a bowl of oatmeal and I'm not going to do it."
SS: In making this film, what was the process you actually used? I assume it's different from making a narrative film.
TD: Yes, it is. When I write a script, I will sit in my office and work on it alone for months and the trial and error happens between the computer and me. When I finish a draft, I'll show it to my wife or somebody else. Again, the process is extremely intimate.
When I was working on this, I realized very quickly I had no place to hide. I would have to write the narration at night, come in and work with the editors, find footage and try it. I didn't want to have to bring in an actor every three seconds to change the narration so I did the narration myself. Every single time we showed this film, if it worked, it was good. If it didn't work, everyone knew it. It was all done in public. So I was basically writing the film in public. I immediately developed a trust with my editors and accepted that this is the way it's going to be. That was the trickiest thing.
KH: I thought you did a great job with the narrative, but someone told me you were thinking of getting someone else to re-do it.
TD: Yes, that's going to happen without question. That was always my idea. As I said, standing there in the editing room with this little microphone enabled me to make changes to the vocal narration and there's no other way to edit the film, unless you do that.
I kept telling them that we needed to get a voice in there for Sundance. I can't really divulge who some of the potential narrators were but none of them worked so we ended up using my voice.
SS: How about Peter Coyote?
TD: That name came up! But whenever a name is suggested it first has to go through all three members of the Doors. It has to go through several people at Rhino. It has to go through Dick Wolf Productions. It has to go through Jeff Jampol (The Doors' manager), the Courson family, the Morrison family. (General laughter) So, you can imagine how almost impossible this task was, in fact, you should have seen us just trying to find a title. That took nine months! Ultimately, we needed to put a name in the Sundance catalogue so the day before it went to print we finally chose one.
KH: Do you think the name will change when it comes out?
TD: I don't think so. I think it's a good title. I think of being strange as a badge of honor. I think it's a statement that fits the band. It's a title that also is in flux. It implies movement. It's not something that locks you into anything and it also touches anyone else who has felt the same way. Their music is strange. There's no question about it, but I mean strange in a good way.
KH: What is the process that has to happen before it gets released? I've been asked so many times when will it be available so the real Doors fans can see it.
TD: Well, here's the deal. There's a development that's in the works right now, Kerry, that will make a U.S. theatrical release almost a given. That, of course, was the whole purpose why we went to Sundance.
The great news is that foreign sales are really just off the charts. We're going to the Berlin Film Festival. The most important thing for me is that wherever it plays, it plays on a movie screen. I want to have a strong United States release of it on a screen and it looks like that is going to happen. When? It's hard to say, but I would say we're going to know about a U.S. deal within two weeks.
SS: On your blog, I think you said there were times when you weren't sure where to go, so you asked yourself, What would Jim do? How did that change the direction of the film?
TD: As I was driving from the airport up to Sundance I passed a car with a license plate that read WWJD. At the premiere I said that I finally figured out what it meant: What Would Jim Do. It got a big laugh up there in Mormon country.
But without getting too personal, one of the things that really hooked me into this, and it relates to what I said earlier about Jim and his father, is the idea that in order to be an artist or any kind of human being oftentimes requires the healthy response, "Go f*ck yourself." Let me do what I want to do.
I related to Jim's rejection of his father's reality. Jim believed that it was the artist's right and obligation to be completely free and uncensored. For me this has been an endless struggle. The independent film business is all about compromise. You write a script. You go to someone for money. The first thing they say is, "OK, change the script, do this, get this actor and I'll give you the money." It's all about compromise.
I identified immensely with the Doors and particularly Morrison's belief that there's nothing wrong with simply doing it the way you want to do it, you know, total freedom. There's nothing wrong with it and that state of creativity is actually a blessing. I think that is the real state of divinity. I really do, and I cherish it. That's what I took from Jim. That spirit is what pulled me through this whole thing.
SS: What did you learn from the movie?
TD: Well, almost everything in the film is something I learned. Sure there are certain details everybody knows. They did this; they went to this concert; Jim got arrested after New Haven.... But there was a lot of stuff that I didn't know: the interactions of the band, the way that they were able to stay together for as long as they did even in the face of this dilemma with Jim. What came through in each of my talks with Ray, Robby and John was their absolute love for him!
Some would say the reason they stuck it out was they wanted to go along for the ride and they knew Jim was their ticket. I don't agree with that. I think the guys genuinely loved Jim. Robby said the other day, "I never met another human being like this guy." It's an amazing thing. It's an amazing connection, an incredible relationship for each of them.
Afterwards, what I learned is that there is something about the Doors' music that affects people on a deeply personal level. Everyone feels like they own it individually and they get infuriated when someone comes sniffing around it, like they're going to take something from them or violate their ownership. The response is extremely animalistic. It's a destructive, slashing response that I never would have expected, but clearly it shows you the power that this music has to touch people on a very personal level.
SS: The early responses from critics were not entirely favorable. How did you deal with them?
TD: These blows came so unexpectedly I didn't really have time to get my defenses up. They just startled me in terms of their nastiness. I never, never would have expected this.
SS: This is the Doors world. I've found that everyone feels very proprietary about them.
TD: Yes, I discovered that. I'm working on a post for my blog that addresses this discovery. It's interesting though; Kerry, Ida Miller [www.idafan.com], and Jim Southwick [www.johndensmore.com webmaster] were there at the screening. They're very possessive of the Doors, but they didn't have this reaction of wanting to annihilate me.
KH: There are just some people that don't have a name in the Doors community and by running everybody else down is how they try to get one. That's why I don't post on Doors boards. People just rip you to shreds because they want to get one over on you like they're the only Doors expert. It's quite sad.
SS: What did you take personally from working on the film, from meeting all these people? What, if anything, has it changed in you?
TD: It has made me believe more than ever that the only thing that matters is fighting to the death for something that you believe in. Life is too short to compromise, to settle for something. You have to go for it. Go over the cliff and go for it and no matter what, no matter if people think you are a lunatic, if people think you're an asshole, you just have to do it. That's what I took from it.
KH: It sounds like work on the film is continuing....
TD: Just so you know I'm actually working on it right now. The door's closed, the microphone's set up and I've been revising the narration. I've cut four pages out and I'm re-recording some stuff just to cover the transitions and the holes. Let's face it, a lot of the negative reaction was about the number of words and I would be a fool if I didn't look at some of the unanimity there and ask myself, is it true or not? I decided that some of it was true, so I've cut some of the words.
SS: Well Tom, thank you! I'm looking forward to eventually seeing the film. Kerry tells me that it's wonderful.
TD: Several people have remarked on this, and Roger Friedman from Fox News mentioned it. The film provides a glimpse into Jim and Ray and Robby and John that makes them human. You get into their bodies, their skin. That's what I attempted to do. That's what my films do.