In 1965, four university students came together to form a band that would only make six albums over the course of the next six years, but albums that would go on to sell over 75 million copies worldwide in the forty years since their singer’s untimely demise. That band was The Doors–Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, John Densmore and the late but legendary Jim Morrison–one of the groups from the ’60s that would become hugely influential on waves and waves of rock groups trying to integrate poetry and psychedelia they made famous into their own music.
Fast forward to a few years ago when downtown New York filmmaker Tom DiCillo was hired to put together a lot of newly-found and rarely-seen footage of Morrison and The Doors into a documentary feature called When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors. Part of the footage available for him to use as the running narrative for the film is never-before-seen footage of Morrison late in his life wandering around the desert in a movie called “Highway.”
It’s a fascinating doc, not just due to the amazing amount of concert footage and home movies of the group from that time, but also because DiCillo decided to use the infamous group as the basis for his first foray into the world of documentary filmmaking. It’s quite a departure, but it maintains much of the laid-back zen sensibilities the director has often exuded, which led to some of his most inspired writing in telling the story of The Doors.
When You’re Strange premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and since then, DiCillo did a lot of work, including getting actor Johnny Depp to replace his own initial voiceover track for the narrative. Unfortunately, our interview was done before those changes–and in fact, before we actually had a chance to see the movie–but we sat down with DiCillo to talk about the movie a bit before The Doors drummer John Densmore joined us midway through the conversation. (Due to his long-running and ongoing feud with the other two surviving members of The Doors, they were all doing interviews separately and wouldn’t even agree to be in the same space together.)
ComingSoon.net: How long ago did you think of doing this? I remember talking to you maybe a year-and-a-half ago, and don’t remember you mentioning it. Was this already something you were working on?
Tom DiCillo: I got the first nibble from the producers, they contacted me. “So we have all this footage, would you be interested in directing a documentary feature about The Doors?” I instantly said “yes.” That was in January…
CS: Basically, a year ago. That’s a fast turnaround for a documentary.
DiCillo: Fast, and also the producers were not that experienced. They had me start in February and they though we were going to make Cannes. Just so you know, that was in January… this is now January. We just finished the final print two weeks ago, so they weren’t quite realistic. But yeah, they approached me and said, “We have all this archival footage. We need someone who can come up with a concept, something to pull it all together.” You’ll see when you watch the film what I discovered as a concept. It’s not a strict documentary. I found some footage of Jim Morrison that’s never been seen before or seen by very few people. He made a personal film, outside of The Doors, called “Highway.”
DiCillo: No, very few people have seen it. And I took outtakes from it with the agreement of his estate, and used sections of this character that he plays in the film, which is Jim Morrison, almost as a wandering spirit through this hook. He kind of gives it this really intense dramatic feature quality. It was all shot on 35 millimeter and it all looks incredible. I have a beautiful structure and it made me feel that I should just keep the film in that period, see if I can get an audience to stay in that period and experience The Doors as they were and in another way, immortalize The Doors. Because they never get old. I would never have anybody talking back at them from a 40-year perspective. You don’t have Billy Idol saying (puts on a British accent) “I took my leather pants from Jim Morrison.” Whatever. You stay in that bubble, and to me, it was an amazing time in America, so much going on.
CS: They’ve had this footage for forty years, so why did it take so long to make a movie out of it?
DiCillo: In their guts, everyone involved, from the producers to The Doors themselves, knew that the essence of The Doors is very tricky, and they wanted to do something that really captured it. A couple of attempts were made, and the footage, I have to tell you, was not the most developed. They didn’t shoot long scenes. It’s like home movies, it’s like snapshots. And so, not too much that gets you from A to B, so I had to use the footage, write a narration and come up with a concept that gets you from A to B. Now the film isn’t strictly linear, which is nice. I take an element, I take a theme, I approach it. That gets me through a year-and-a-half, and then they back up a little bit, take another theme, then come around and go forward a little bit more. It has its own rhythm.
CS: Being your first documentary, did you watch other docs and try to see how they flow or did you always want to take your own approach?
DiCillo: I knew I needed to look at a couple things that I felt were very impressive. Of course, I have a huge respect for Errol Morris. The mystery that he imbues in his films, even a film like “Fog of War” where you have McNamara just sitting there talking, there’s something surreal about it. I said, “Okay” and I took a little of that. There’s a great documentary on the first year of Elvis’ life called “Elvis 56″ and what I took from that is that everything is presented in the present tense, and that was interesting. Yeah, I needed to get some guideposts, because with a 90-minute film, that’s a long period of time to tell a story. You gotta give it a beginning, a middle, you have to rest… it all has to feel like it’s moving and heading somewhere at the same as it gives you the element of surprise, which is what a great documentary does. It allows you to discover things.
CS: One of the hardest parts of starting any documentary is finding footage, so it must have been a great benefit that you already had that available to you, so what kind of quality was it? Did you have to do a lot of reconstruction?
DiCillo: No. Listen, it was all in any form of presentation you can imagine. Nothing was super 8, but there was video, there was 16 (millimeter)… but it ranged from the absolutely pristine to the four or five generations old, scratchy, but I used it all.
CS: But you didn’t have to spend a lot of time working on it to make it look better?
DiCillo: No, all I did was a couple scenes–like I do with all my films–you tweak the color a little bit to give it a little bit of vibrancy.
CS: I know that all three surviving members of The Doors are here at Sundance, but how involved were they with the movie? Are there any interviews with them in the movie or did you sit down and talk to them?
DiCillo: No (in response to the first question) and yes, I did (in response to the second).
CS: Let’s talk about that then. What point did you want to do that?
DiCillo: I had to do it immediately because who knows the story better than them? Interestingly enough, they didn’t all agree on things. A couple times, Robbie would say to me – and they’re all fantastic. I grew to have a great admiration for all of them – but Robbie would simply look at me at one point and go, “You know, it’s over 40 years ago, I don’t remember.” But yeah, talking to them was crucial to this, and it took me a while to get them to trust me. Why should they trust me? Everybody throughout all their careers has gone, “Oh, yeah, I love you, I love your music,” but I think I impressed them with the fact that I wanted to tell the story including all four of them. It wasn’t just the Jim Morrison show, and that I really did believe that all four of them were cornerstones and contributors to the film.
CS: Did you want to include any of the interviews in the movie?
CS: That was just for your own references.
DiCillo: Yes, I read their books and read just about everything written about The Doors.
CS: Did you ever have a chance to see The Doors yourself?
DiCillo: I saw about three minutes of it. (He’s obviously talking about the Oliver Stone movie.)
CS: Three minutes of them?
DiCillo: Oh, you mean The Doors themselves… No, no, except yesterday. Robby and Ray played yesterday, completely impromptu. I felt chills, it was incredible.
CS: That’s really cool. You mentioned how you wanted to keep it in that time, but it’s impossible to completely ignore 40 years of myths surrounding the band and Jim so how did you do that in your head to avoid that?
DiCillo: Listen, if you go from the idea that The Doors were four guys. When one of the four guys is gone, that’s the end of the story, that’s the way I felt about it. At that point, they’re no longer The Doors, so that’s okay. Another film that can be made that can follow them after this. I just felt that if it’s about the four of them, the film ends when one of them goes.
CS: You talked to them before making the movie so after doing some work, did you show it to the three surviving members before it premiered?
DiCillo: Oh, yes… of course. I would show John a cut of the film and he gave me his reaction.
As if right on cue, Doors drummer John Densmore shows up just as his name is mentioned, and the interview almost completely falls apart once he sees that the interviewer is wearing a sweatshirt that said “Ray” on it–as in “Ray Charles” the Jamie Foxx movie, not “Ray Manzarek”–and after a few minutes joking that I should remove the offending item of clothing, the interview continued…
CS: As I told Tom earlier, I haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet but Tom’s done a good job filling me in about it.
John Densmore: Let me say something.
DiCillo: Oh, sh*t… here we go.
Densmore: I went to the premiere last night, it was the fourth time I think I saw this, and I saw some things… nothing specific, but I got a feeling that I didn’t get from it before. It’s a deeper look into Jim and there’s a sensitivity there, and it made me teary in the beginning. It was poignant and this was the man who did that.
DiCillo: Why, thank you, John. You can’t imagine what that’s like to hear you say that. You lived through this so you know…
Densmore: Yeah, but I’m it, so I can’t… we made the music but…
DiCillo: But you knew him so…
Densmore: Just seeing him struggle with trying to sing and…
CS: Back when you first met Tom and sat down with him, what were some of your concerns?
Densmore: His hair.
CS: No, I mean about the movie.
DiCillo: Just a sidebar, someone just wrote about me recently that said, “Never trust a director with hair like that” and I was like, “Go f*ck yourselves! What difference does it make?” But that’s a good question for John because my wife respected John because he was a little like this (backs away from John) with me…
Densmore: Wait a minute… I know every frame of all the footage you see and everything on the floor, okay?
DiCillo: That’s right.
Densmore: What? They’re going to do another one? I mean, Oliver’s (movie) wasn’t bad… Val should have been nominated, but again? When they put out another rehash Beatles album, the late great transcendental George Harrison said, “Maybe we should put the Surgeon General sticker on this thing?” God damn if this guy didn’t find some magical glue with the narration and all this old footage that I know and there’s 10 or 15 minutes of “Highway” brand new that most folks haven’t seen that will knock you out. And there’s some magic there.
CS: This really was the first documentary about the band though, right? I’m sure there have been TV things. Oliver’s movie was a dramatic retelling…
Densmore: Well, early on, I think there was something. “Feast of Friends.” Ray and Jim went to film school and these guys were doing this all the time, and I know every frame, and I’m pretty turned on by it. One more time. This is the last time, right? We’re done.
DiCillo: I hope so.
CS: You talked about seeing this and getting teary-eyed, but I’m sure you haven’t spent the last 40 years watching this footage over and over, but what does seeing you four on stage bring back?
Densmore: The magic. The purity of four guys from a garage who came on some muse that was bigger. There was so much room without a bass that I could… I’m the timekeeper, I’m the spine. If I f*ck that up, there’s no communal heartbeat that makes people dance or get emotional. But I could really fool around. Tom in on Jim’s stuff, fill, push Ray and Robbie and I miss that. I don’t miss the kamikaze drunk, those headaches and rashes that he says I had. I actually had the headache for a couple years ’cause I knew there was an elephant in the room, but my young… substance abuse clinics, we didn’t know what was up, so major stress, but also my path in life. I know this music is special.
CS: Having not seen it, is there any studio footage of The Doors, because I think that’s one thing I’ve never seen.
DiCillo: Yes, there is. There’s a fantastic sequence of them recording “Wild Child.” Beautiful stuff.
CS: And is that something that’s never been shown before?
DiCillo: I think this has been… at least parts of it have been on YouTube, but without sound. But you really see The Doors working together to create a song.
CS: Did you have to do a lot of rerecording or remixing of stuff for the movie?
DiCillo: Bruce Botnick, who was their engineer on the first five or six albums. Right, John?
Densmore: He engineered all of them and co-produced the last one, “L.A. Woman,” with us.
DiCillo: Well, he was involved. He did all the music mixing for the film, and it sounds amazing. It doesn’t sound pushed or forced or like it’s trying to be hip for today’s audiences. He just did a beautiful mix.
Densmore: Did you appreciate the bass last night in this?
CS: Was it shown at The Library?
DiCillo: No, it was shown at The Temple. It’s an odd venue.
Densmore: But the P.A.
DiCillo: Yeah, the sound was incredible.
CS: I assume there were a lot more younger people at the screening last night just by the basis of being Sundance, but also a lot of bands who’ve been influenced, but for people who aren’t fans of The Doors or were never into them, what would you like them to get out of the movie?
DiCillo: It’s a very intense story. I think it’s a very archetypical story. It’s a tragedy in a way, but not a downer tragedy. It’s kind of a spiritual thing what happened with these guys. Morrison’s destruction led to a rebirth in a way of something. That’s why people refuse to believe that he’s gone. Because his moment of life was so intense, and I think it’s an amazing story, it’s like a myth in itself.
CS: John, what about yourself? Considering this might be the last movie or documentary about The Doors…
Densmore: I hope!
CS: So what would you like people to get out of the movie whether they’re fans of The Doors or not? I assume fans already know a lot of the story and the music, but what about people who don’t?
Densmore: Well, they’ll get the story. I mean, there’s a film out now, “Frost/Nixon.” We all know the story and the thing is riveting, so just get more into what we were doing.
DiCillo: I think John is right. I think the film–and I feel very lucky and fortunate to have it happen this way–but it does manage to present The Doors in a way that I believe is very truthful and very intimate, and it recognizes everything about The Doors. It was four guys. It really was four guys. It’s not the Jim Morrison Show. It was four guys. Not to take anything away from anybody, but the amazing confluence of this group…
Densmore: Well, now…
DiCillo: Let me just finish…
Densmore: Without the lead singer…
DiCillo: I agree with you, but John, but without your particular way…
Densmore: Let me put it this way. Stewart Copeland was filling my drumstool for a minute…
DiCillo: Oh, really? That’s right…
Densmore: And I saw The Police last summer, never seen them, and Stewart wears gloves when he plays, and I went backstage, and I wrote this in my new book, and I realized that if I was asked to fill his shoes in The Police, couldn’t do it. Too unique, and he had trouble filming mine. There’s a uniqueness, which is what you’re looking for. You’re not the fastest, but you’re saying something no one else is.
CS: Before we wrap-up, who is doing the narration in this? Someone who saw it asked me to ask about it.
DiCillo: At the moment, it’s me. Yes, and mainly, to be completely honest with you, it was a functional thing. When I was writing this, I’d be standing in the editing room, I’d write some lines the night before, bring them in, we’d try to find some footage. I’d rewrite the lines and instead of bringing in an actor for two minutes every day, I basically just stood there with a microphone and did it. For the moment, it’s me.
Densmore: Let me say that whatever happens, whether it remains to be Tom or someone else, the writing, which is him, is great.
DiCillo: Thanks John.
Now, over a year later, DiCillo has none other than Johnny Depp reading those words, which brings another level of intensity to the film, and you can see his doc When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors when it opens in New York, L.A., San Francisco and other cities on Friday, April 9. The full release schedule for the film is on the official site.