Mystery and lore have always surrounded The Doors. To uncover the personal truth behind the legend and reveal it as accurately as possible, independent filmmaker Tom DiCillo drew upon a wealth of original documentary footage shot by Paul Ferrara, frontman Jim Morrison’s UCLA film school buddy, and wove into it scenes from HWY, Morrison’s unreleased experimental film from 1969, in which he starred and made with a group of filmmaker friends. The end result is When You’re Strange, a riveting account of the creative journey of one of the most revolutionary bands seen through the unique prism of America 40 years ago. Narrated by Johnny Depp, the film provides an amazingly perceptive perspective on The Doors.
We sat down with director Tom DiCillo and former Doors drummer John Densmore at a recent roundtable interview to discuss their new film. DiCillo’s most recent feature film, Delirious was released in 2007. When You’re Strange is his first full-length documentary. Densmore was far more than merely the rhythmic engine of The Doors. He brought a highly evolved sense of dynamics, structure and musicality to his beats. DiCillo and Densmore talked to us about the challenge of combining an overwhelming amount of 40-year-old footage into a cohesive narrative to capture the zeitgeist and fraction of an era while providing insight into who The Doors were, what they became and what they meant to our culture.
Q: How long have you been working on this project, from the point of conception until now?
TD: I got a phone call from Wolf Films, in particular from Peter Jankowski, I think in January 2008, and he pitched this idea, and I said yes immediately, even though I didn’t know what it was gonna be or where it was going. And we finished finally fine-tuning Johnny’s narration about a month ago. So that’s how long it took.
Q: What was the challenge like to take all of this footage and try to interweave it into some kind of cohesive narrative? Was it overwhelming, or did it come naturally?
TD: Yes, it was overwhelming. The only thing that came naturally was the absolute conviction right away that this is the way I wanted to tell the story, that with all due respect to John and Ray and Robby, I would rather just try to let the footage show us this and allow the audience to go on this journey as if it was happening to them for the first time. The footage, as compelling as it is, and it’s astonishing, didn’t cover all aspects of the Doors. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but the entire Miami concert was created by using footage from another concert. The only thing that existed from the Miami concert is this audiotape, which is absolutely real, and the still photographs. So the challenge became how do you tell this story and do something different with it given this footage. There were a couple of surprisingly happy accidents. The discovery of that “HWY” footage gave me the idea to at least have a thematic element of Morrison kind of wandering through the film as a spirit and maybe searching for the meaning of things. That helped me a little bit.
JD: A lot.
TD: I just wanted to let the footage show these guys in a way that only a relatively few people have seen.
Q: I think that’s an important point. There’s a cultural memory with bands like the Beatles and the Stones. They’ve been seen in movies and on TV, but the Doors have not. This movie is like a backstage pass that takes us right there. Why did it take 40 years to get it out?
TD: I don’t know the answer to that.
JD: We hadn’t met Tom yet. (laughs) It’s a great addition to the legacy.
TD: I think there are cultural ebbs and flows where things kind of rise and fall to the surface, and this wealth of material has been sitting there. As John said, many people know it. Snippets from it are available on the web and have been on the web for years. But I don’t know, I just think something about the Doors and what they represented, that they were, as John has said a number of times, concerned with integrity. I don’t think they made a phobic thing about integrity. They just had it. And that, to me, is a real thing. Because if you have to work at integrity, you’re kind of, you know, behind the eight-ball. But these guys had it. Their music had it from the very first album, which was “Hey, this is the music we want to make, right here.”
Q: It’s a very personal film, can you talk about Paul Ferrara’s contributions to it and how the footage he shot was used?
TD: Well, Paul Ferrara shot most of it, and that was Jim’s idea, to have him start following the Doors around. I give him credit for that. What an amazingly perceptive thought to have that. So it is very personal.
JD: Well, it was all of us really. We made Feast of Friends, you know, so Paul and Babe (Hill) was the sound man, and they were film school friends. We were used to them hanging around. They had cameras. It didn’t bother us, so that was a real gift. Rather than having some official DP.
TD: You want to know something? I don’t think I’ve ever said this to you [John]. In all the footage, there is never a shot of anybody, except Jim once or twice, mugging for the camera. Once or twice Jim looks at the camera and goes like this (makes a face). You see him in the film.
JD: Yes, the thing with the …that’s a great [moment].
TD: Nobody mugs for the camera and that gives you a sense of how intimate it was. They took it serious.
Q: Has Paul seen the film and have you spoken to him about it?
TD: He has seen it and I haven’t spoken to him, but he likes it very much and he is pleased that his work is finally [being] seen after 40 years.
Q: John, do you think this is an appropriate time for this film to be seen, for it to come out to the public, given everything that’s going on in our culture?
JD: What is going on?
Q: The economy, the wars, all this kind of chaos.
JD: Yeah, I guess it is….
Q: Sarah Palin.
TD: She’s a Doors fan. Did you know that?
JD: I’m not gonna answer that question. [back to original question] Well, you know, we always help each generation cut their umbilical cord. I’m pleased with having a dark-skinned president. But there’s a lot of problems. The Doors always represented looking in, and then figure yourself out a bit and then you might help affect what’s out there. So, I met Barack. I’m having a hard time getting a hold of him now though. (laughs) This was just when he threw his hat in the ring. My jazz band played for him and I got to hang out with him. So I’m gonna try to get him to watch this film.
TD: That would be great.
JD: Good luck.
TD: It is a crazy time. I’d like to help John out a little bit by saying I think what the Doors represented is kind of the antithesis of a lot of what is going on today — people wanting to make music or be rock musicians just to be famous. I mean, that’s the norm. I think if you take that idea and spread it to other aspects of our culture, it’s exactly why we’re in the state we’re in. There isn’t any sense of starting within, as John said, of looking within and discovering what you really are and then looking out and seeing what you can do. There’s none of that happening. I mean, the entire right-wing agenda, I’m sorry if I’m gonna sound preachy here, but it’s about blindness. Blindness. The Doors’ music said “Hey listen, listen to us and open your eyes.”
JD: There was no Rock Star energy drink. (laughs) In fact, that wasn’t in our vocabulary. We didn’t think “We’re going to be rock stars.” That was later. That’s a co-opting thing that America does well. We co-opt everything. I mean, we wanted to pay the rent . So great, we do. It’s 40 years now.
Q: Would the Doors have ever made it on American Idol if it existed back then?
Q: What’s your perspective on the fact that it seems like now it takes very little effort for people to become famous and to get out there?
JD: Yeah, but look at the ones who become famous without some fabric of integrity. They’re in rehab in 10 minutes.
Q: I’ve read that Danny Sugarman’s book, “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” and Oliver Stone’s movie, “The Doors,” were light-years away from reality and that this movie is the most realistic portrayal yet?
JD: Well, *My* book was the most authentic (laughs), but Danny’s book was true. It listed all the binges Jim went on. How did this crazy guy write any poetry, you know? Oliver wrote a movie about self-destruction and that’s good, but it didn’t have the ’60s and the period. Tom, fortunately, is focusing a little more on the band members. It’s a little more equal and you get to see the ingredients into the melting pot and you get to see Jim with a little humor. Val (Kilmer) was incredible. He should have gotten an Oscar nomination. But, to see the arc of the young Jim, and then the tragedy you see in Tom’s movie, it’s more well rounded. I don’t know about light-years, but it’s a great addition.
Q: Tom, I’ve read your blog from back when you were dealing with “Delirious.” This seems like a much more peaceful experience for you.
TD: (Laughs) Oh God!
Q: I thought it was the best thing I’ve ever read so …
TD: I had a good time. I found the only way for me to not go out and pick up a machine gun was to try to put some humor into the blog and relate this experience and it has been an infinitely more rewarding experience doing this. Listen, we’ve had tough moments with this movie, and all I can say is that the guys at Rhino, the guys at Wolf Films, have never, ever lost faith in it. The fact that they have pushed and gotten us a theatrical release is incredibly meaningful to me. I came onto this film and never once would I have done that if I had thought it was gonna go straight to DVD. I don’t think it should. I think this movie should play IMAX. Yes. It should.
JD: It’s gonna run all summer.
TD: But I think it holds up. It’s not like the bigness should make you pay attention. I think the film should play at the IMAX because you see it. This band was bigger than life.
JD: Can you see Jim diving off the IMAX stage?
TD: But you know, this has been a much better experience. It’s a film I can once again say I’m very proud of, and I’m honored to have been able to have gotten this opportunity.
Q: Do you hear The Doors’ influence in bands today? Do you see a difference between homage to The Doors and kind of a rip-off?
JD: Well, I saw an incredible bumper sticker in Topanga the other day. It said, “Life is not a tribute band.” (laughs) Good, huh?
TD: You should have followed that guy.
JD: I loved that bumper sticker. You know, the tribute bands, I’m not gonna say it’s a rip-off. It’s a cottage industry and they’re making money playing live. It’s a dead-end. It’s a short road. They gotta write their own songs to become unique and find a longer road. I’m not really up on what’s going on musically today. I mean, I know there’s the influences on Bono and whoever…
Q: Psychedelic rock is coming back a lot.
JD: Oh really?
Q: A lot of the LA underground is turning towards that and there’s a lot of organs coming back so there’s a lot of influence.
JD: Well, that’s great.
Q: Has any of Jim’s family seen the film?
TD: Yes, they have. Actually Pam, Jim’s sister, saw it at one screening and I looked up and she was in tears. It didn’t strike me [until] then and I had forgotten about that whole element. Listen, on the one hand, they do become characters in your movie and you forget, in this instance, they’re really based on real people.
JD: Yeah, we’re not dead. (laughs)
TD: I know that. You’re definitely not. But everyone has been extremely supportive. I think maybe because they saw that what I was trying to do was not to demean them or to do anything else than to just simply try to peal back the layers of bullshit and mystery and just tell the story.
JD: There was a screening in Santa Barbara where I introduced the film and I said that Jim’s mother-in-law was in the audience, Jim’s sister’s children were in the audience, and who else? It felt really good to have them there, you know?
Q: John, you came from a jazz background. In the modern era, kids grow up listening to rock and roll, become a rock drummer and later, if they get bored or feel constrained, they go into jazz or world music. But you and some others like Mitch Mitchell came from jazz into rock, and it was an exploding, creative time. It seems that time is a little bit over and you’re going back to jazz. Is it just the first love, or do you feel that the rock thing doesn’t allow you to fully express yourself as a drummer?
JD: Well, if Jim would come back, I’ll do it again. Because he had all this poetry, and there were big sections where we could improvise and it was like jazz. It’s funny, I did a benefit for my son’s school the other day, and Stewart Copeland was there, and we played, and he was saying Mitch Mitchell and I were some of his heroes, and it felt great. I ripped off stuff from Mitch, I mean borrowed (laughs), and his hands…jazz gives you good hands, fast hands, and the most important thing is the groove. You have to have the pocket. To get technical, one beat is about this long [holds hands apart], meaning the feel you give it. Irish and military music is on the front of the beat and blues is on the back of the beat, and that space between each beat, how big you make it, is the pocket. And that’s what connects all of us. If you’re in the pocket, then everybody’s back in the womb grooving with mom. That’s why you dance. Anyway, that was a little music anthropology. If a rock drummer has a good pocket, great, and then starts to explore world or jazz, then you’re gonna get more technique. You have to or you’re gonna “fffft” [sound of escaping air].
Q: A lot of the bands that came out in the early 60s like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have a huge filmography. Was there a reason you didn’t do that at a time when a lot of the other bands of that era were using their films as hype machines?
JD: Well maybe that’s what’s going on with American Idol and the fame thing. It’s funny, earlier this morning the last question from someone was if you were in a film what would that be if your life was a film and I don’t know why but I blurted out “8 ½” by Fellini. Well I do know why. Because it was the first art film I saw. I was a teenager and my God, it was in black and white …how weird. I don’t know what it meant, but it captivated the shit out of me, so anyway I wanted to say that.
Q: So why didn’t the Doors do any of that?
JD: Because we had to wait till now to have him [Tom] do it.
Q: Were you offered it at all?
JD: We did videos. I cut a bunch of videos for MTV. Drummers do videos ’cause they got good timing.
Q: But never anything more narrative?
Q: Weren’t you one of the first bands filming music videos? They weren’t music videos per se but like Break On Through?
JD: Well that’s right, Elektra commissioned the very first video ever maybe — Break On Through. It’s real naïve but it’s sweet. (to Tom) Have you seen it?
Tom: Yes, I have.
JD: And then we did Unknown Soldier. And then MTV [went] “ffffwhew.”
Q: What do you think of the music industry today? I know you had said you don’t really pay too much attention to it.
JD: It’s morphing. As Tom and I were talking about earlier, way back, we worked really hard to make every cut on all 6 of those albums as good as possible and we’re saying how you get a CD and you say “I got 2 or 3 cuts, that’s a good CD.” And now, like my son, he downloads songs and makes his own CD, “the hell with them.” It’s strange. You can make your own record cheap. You can get your own film going on YouTube, but there are 4 trillion things on YouTube. How do you get attention? So it’s new problems. It’s a brave new world.
Q: Are there any solutions to making the music industry better?
JD: Solutions? I would be the head of … (laughs) Follow your passion and if you really have to do it, then you should do it.
Q: The labels aren’t what they were.
JD: Well, they’re flipping out. But I don’t know. I make the music, selling it’s another thing. But that’s the crux. You know, movie, music. I wrote a script because I wanted to be like every waiter in my home town. Once you get done, then the work of trying to get this baby in the world, it’s so Herculean. But that’s life. That’s how it is.
Q: You’ve finished the script now? Do you want to make a movie?
Q: Is that what you’re working on now? Does it have a name?
TD: “8 ½ point 2”
Q: Was anyone else consulted on the film? Or was it just the collective memories of the band members that were used?
TD: I talked to a lot of people. Bruce Spotnick , who was the engineer for almost all the albums and produced LA Woman. Jac Holzman, who was head of Elektra and first signed the band. Jim’s sister was an interesting conversation. But yeah.
JD: May I say, Bruce Spotnick is now the “Fifth Door.” We used to say Paul Rothchild was the Fifth Door because he taught us how to make records and Bruce was the engineer the whole time and then LA Woman we produced ourselves with Bruce and he has done the sound for the whole film and the soundtrack and, you know, I mean he’s a genius. And we’re secure with him, he knows us sonically. So he’s now the Fifth. He’s the Sixth [points to Tom].
TD: Thank you John, I really appreciate that. I did some music in the movie, some incidental music.
JD: That’s right.
TD: The biggest jolt of my life was hearing John and Ray and Robby saying, “That’s not bad, we’ll leave it in.”
JD: Yeah. It’s sonic, it’s ethereal, and it’s perfect for the visuals.
TD: It’s a palate cleanser. That’s all it really is.
JD: A sorbet.
Q: Was that at the beginning?
TD: Yes, and throughout. It’s throughout the film.
JD: It’s the sorbet in between “HWY.”
TD: That’s right. Exactly.
Q: Musical sorbet?
TD: I wouldn’t say sorbet.
JD: No. That’s too sweet.
Q: How was it to work with Johnny Depp?
TD: Interesting. Johnny is a very serious and private person so my interactions with him were basically at a distance. He said he wanted to do it and he said this is the way I want to do it. He took the narration as it was recorded and written, and went into seclusion and did it, and sent me all the different takes and allowed me to choose the best ones — or not the best ones, just the ones that I thought were successful. He’s immensely proud of being part of the film. And we are. I mean, I’m not just saying it because it’s Johnny Depp. We have to understand that. I think what he brings is something amazing to the film — an intimacy, an intellect.
JD: Understated. No ego.
TD: And he feels like he could be the “Sixth Door”.
Q: That would be the “Seventh Door.”
JD: You’re getting bumped.
TD: You’re right. I’m the Sixth, I’m the Sixth. OK.
JD: Johnny Depp.
TD: He can be the Seventh.
JD: He turned around to me at the screening he was at and said, “Wow! Where’d all that footage [come from]?” “HWY.”
Q: It looks so good I had to double-check it wasn’t an actor.
JD: Put the word out there that it’s not an actor. A guy stormed out of Sundance thinking it was. And I like that, I love confusion.
TD: But seriously, it would help us all. Because at one point, when this misperception began happening, we just kind of ignored it.
JD: No we didn’t.
TD: Well at first we did.
JD: I always worried about it.
TD: But then we came up with the idea that let’s put a disclaimer at the head of the film.
JD: And that ruined the visual.
TD: So we just had to trust that when people see it …
JD: So you guys, you’re watching the real deal. It’s not a reality TV show.
TD: It’s not a tribute band.
JD: It’s a life.
TD: But seriously, if you wanted to mention that and just say listen, it’s from Morrison’s film. I would never have done something as idiotic as that.
Q: I think it’s interesting to see him in action since there isn’t that much footage of him that’s been released theatrically. You only see still images of him so it was really interesting to see him in motion.
TD: That’s a great point because I think that seeing Morrison in motion is …
TD: My God, the moments in that one section where we were talking about him being a little crazy and he does that thing at the microphone, you go like “What is he doing?” You know, a still picture could never have captured that.
Q: Was it interesting to have to go through all of this and to kind of feel the magnetism through that?
TD: Yes, and again most of it was silent, so I was literally just looking at these images and that’s when it just hit me. There’s no way that I can interrupt this stuff with people talking about it. I need to just try and stay in this pocket.
Q: Are there any other projects that you’re working on?
JD: I have a book in the fall.
Q: What’s the book called?
JD: I’m not sure yet.
JD: What’s that?
Q: TBD , to be determined. Is it fiction or non-fiction?
JD: Non-fiction. It’s a spin-off on an article I wrote in The Nation that was syndicated in Rolling Stone and The Guardian, if you want to Google that. The Greed Gene. That was that.
Q: What about musically?
JD: My jazz group’s kind of on hold. I’m looking for the music in between the sentences this year.
Q: That’s a great line. What about you, Tom? What are you working on?
TD: Oh, I got a couple of things. I’m trying to raise money for two films. I hope to get something.
JD: Hey, Tom? I think this [film] might help. (laughs)
TD: It might.
JD: I think we’re gonna get a lotta friggin’ attention. Get ready for a lot of attention.
Q: Do you have a title for either of those films?
TD: Yes, I do. One is called “Lost in Blue” and that’s a contemporary sex comedy and the other one is called “Lighthouse Road” and it’s a contemporary crime thriller. They’re both feature films that I wrote.
Q: Do you have a cast in mind yet? Any ideas?
TD: Yes, I do. Tyman Baker is attached on one. There are several actors that I have been seriously interested in. I’m trying to get Kate Winslet interested in it. James Franco is also an idea.
When You’re Strange opens in theaters on April 9th.