Interview with Writer/Director Tom DiCillo of When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors

I’ve been following writer/director Tom DiCillo’s (Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion, Delirious) blog at www.tomdicillo.com for the past six months, ever since I heard of the impending release of his rock documentary, When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors. Tom’s passion and commitment to his projects is visceral, both on the page and on the screen, and he is extremely gracious and forthright with his fans and fellow film lovers. Tom, thank you for agreeing to talk to Press+1 (Note: Sept. 18/15: This interview was originally published at a now defunct online entertainment magazine).

What was the single most important thing that you took away from the experience of writing and directing When You’re Strange?

Making the film affected me in a surprisingly large number of ways, and still does. But, the thing that struck me the most was the band’s commitment to artistic integrity. They had it from the beginning and they kept it throughout. They made the music they wanted to hear. As an independent filmmaker it was deeply inspiring to be reminded that not everything is for sale.

What was your first thought when you learned that the documentary had been nominated for an Emmy?

Utter bewilderment.

What do you say to those who have said that When You’re Strange is unflattering towards Jim Morrison?

I say that my sole intent with this film was to portray Jim, and the entire band, as truthfully as possible. So much has been said about Jim and The Doors. Much of it is superstition, legend and frankly bullshit. I think it is obvious the enormous respect and admiration I have for Jim and for Ray, John and Robby. The footage I immersed myself in for two years provided an incredibly intimate view of all of them. To me, truth and honesty are the only things that matter. Jim Morrison is immensely more interesting to me as a human being than as a god or a devil. He was a man. He lived and breathed. He was human. To accept all the things that made him human was the only way I could show how deeply I was impressed by him.

Have you read Ray Manzarek’s (Light My Fire: My Life With The Doors) or John Densmore’s (Riders On The Storm) books about The Doors? If so, did you take anything from them for the script? I ask because some of the narration sounds a lot like what I’ve heard Ray say about them.

I read both books. And I spoke at length to Ray, John and Robby. If the narration echoes some of what they wrote that is purely accidental. The fact is the story of the Doors is relatively clear and straightforward. What happened is what happened. There really are not too many ways to describe how Jim was arrested at New Haven.

I was very much aware that many things have been written or said about the band by historians or experts much more experienced than me. I had to find something truthful for myself in order to make this film. And that truth was that the Doors were made up of four intensely gifted musicians. And although Jim was the front man, dominating the spotlight, each of them contributed something invaluable to the music.

Much of the narration is really a reflection of my subconscious thought patterns as I was originally watching all the footage. Most of it was silent and so it freed my mind to just look at what was happening and think about what I was seeing.

I heard on a recent Today is Boring podcast that you did that Jim’s film HWY is going to be released as a feature film in the not too distant future. Do you know any more details about this release?

That is all I know. The rights to the film, as well as all of Jim’s writing, reverted to Pam Courson’s mother after Pam’s death and are now jointly owned by the Courson’s and Morrison’s brother and sister. I’m not sure why they’ve waited so long to put the film out there on its own.

Did you ever see The Doors perform live?

Regrettably, no. I envy anyone who did.

What is your favourite Doors song?

Very hard to pick one. “Roadhouse Blues” always blows my mind. It sounds like it was written yesterday.

Do you think that The Doors have had any influence in your own new music project, The Black and Blue Orkestre?

Perhaps. Making the film has opened my eyes to the idea that all artistic impulses have value and none should be dismissed, or diminished. Believe me, the critics will do that for you.

Can you describe The Black and Blue Orkestre and how it was born?

The Black and Blue Orkestre is a transatlantic musical crew consisting of three people; me, Will Crewdson in the UK, and Grog in LA. It began about 3 years ago when Will wrote into my blog (www.tomdicillo.com) inquiring about my last film, Delirious. He was very supportive and offered to help bring it to the attention of some sluggish UK distributors.

We kept in contact and eventually he revealed his musical interests to me. He’s been very active in some cool UK bands for several years. How I ever decided to reveal to him that I’d just recorded my own version of “16 Tons” I can’t quite recall. But, I did. And then I took the even stranger step of sending it to him. He laid down an incredible guitar track and suddenly this little home-recording I’d made took on an entirely different sound.

I’ve never really played with other musicians. To have Will integrate a many-layered guitar part, as well as adding synth and some percussion, opened me up to working with real musicians; people who could actually play and contribute other levels to the song.

We sent a few more songs back and forth, including two that I’d written myself. I’d never let anyone hear me sing before. Will not only did not laugh, he quietly encouraged me. The collaboration kept bringing new dimension to the songs. Will knew Grog from a tour they did together. I met her when they played in NYC. Will asked her to write the bass part for one of my songs “Will Been Done”, and we were both blown away. And so she joined the trio.

Who are some of your musical influences?

I like a wide variety of music. I’m keenly into the Eastern/Western hiphop fusion that’s been going on for several years. Rachid Taha, Khaled, Natascha Atlas to name only a very few. African guitar-based music is inspiring; Salif Keita, Mama Sissoko.

I love underground American surf music from the late 50’s and 60’s. There were some amazing bands that few people ever get acquainted with because the genre was so quickly homogenized. The Fireballs, The Trashmen, Dick Dale, Link Wray.

I think Nick Cave rivals Neil Young in consistency and his constant quest to make new music that no one has heard before.

And I think Eminem’s latest album has some incredible stuff on it. I’m inspired by anyone who brings something truly new and original to my ears.

Tom, your bio on imdb.com states that a trademark of your films is that they often contain a dream sequence that is central to the plot. Are you a lucid dreamer and do you immediately write down visions for film that come to you that way?

I don’t know who wrote that bio but, I don’t think it is too accurate. Box of Moonlight has no dreams in it; nor does The Real Blonde or Delirious. However, many people smarter than me have described film as the art form closest to dream and I would agree.

I think if they are handled carefully, dropping dreams into a film can provide the audience with a deeply rewarding surprise. The fact is we all dream every night. And never during our dreams is there any pink smoke or ominous dwarf roaming around to indicate, or assure us, it is only a dream. When we dream we are convinced at that moment that what we are experiencing is absolutely REAL.

This is why dreams are so powerful. My dreams are intensely vivid and complex. I frequently wake up exhausted. I don’t tend to draw from them specifically. I actually see life most of the time as some kind of strange dream where the edges are blurred, where danger and intense joy lie around every corner.

Your films are often described as satires or black comedies. Why do you enjoy – excuse the phrase – taking the piss out of a subject on film?

Well, partly this comes from looking around me and seeing a world that appears to be frantically going blind. More, the things people are obsessed with seem completely bewildering to me. If anyone inspired me in this world-view it was Mark Twain. One of his central themes is how relentlessly the world shrinks away from anything close to the truth.

So, for example, making Living In Oblivion was a definite attempt to show the world what being an independent film director was REALLY like. To most people the indie director embodies the essence of cool; leather jacket, shades, a cigarette. In my experience, every independent director I’ve ever seen on the set (including myself) is a bundle of nerves, fear, ego and complete insecurity.

So I said, f—k it, let me just show it as it is.

Do you think you have a twisted sense of humour?

Only to the degree that I enjoy helping some people see how stupid they are.

Were the Delirious Marketing Meeting videos including the ones you made with Steve Buscemi and Kieran Culkin on YouTube for real?

I’m glad you had to ask me that. I worked very hard on those videos to make them seem like they were real. Actually, they were all scripted and acted. I was assisted by a young filmmaker Chioke Nasoor who had the original idea. He’d heard me talking at a pre-release screening of Delirious about how the distributor was not spending any money on advertising.

He approached me and suggested the idea of doing some web-based video skits that might grab people’s attention and help promote the film. At the time there was great interest in the leaked video of director David O. Russell freaking out on set of I Heart Huckabees. We used that as a model and tried to devise a series of “real” videos that would place me in the most frustrating and demeaning positions possible.

For the Buscemi piece Chioke and I actually crashed the press day for Steve’s own film, Interview. So, it was a combination of scripted stuff and complete improvisation. I greatly enjoyed acting in them.

Have you ever attended the Toronto International Film Festival or would you when you don’t have a film to present?

I attended Toronto with all of my films except the last three. I’m not sure I would see the need to go there without a film.

Are you working on another film project now or are you concentrating on your music for a while?

I have two narrative feature scripts I’ve written in development. That is a strange word which really means that I’m actively trying to arrange financing and casting on a daily basis. This process can take years. But, I’m very excited about both scripts. One is a contemporary sex comedy called Lost In Blue and the other is a tense, sexually complex crime thriller called Lighthouse Road.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom you can share with struggling filmmakers and musicians?

The only words I can say have been said so many times they probably seem meaningless. Keep going. The easiest thing for producers, agents, critics, distributors or financiers to say is NO. And so, they do. As disappointing as the rejection is the only response is to keep going and not take it personally.

Because, it isn’t personal. These people don’t know you. They know nothing about you. So why would you let someone like this tell you who you are? No one can tell you what you can do. Most of these people have no idea who they are themselves and are terrified of taking responsibility to make any kind of decision about anything.

You just have to keep going. It is not easy. Actually, it is incredibly hard. Because we all have to survive somehow. We all need to generate income, to pay the rent, to eat. And if pursuing an artistic career does not provide these things then life can seem pretty bleak and scary.

How do you stay optimistic? How do you keep going when it seems like you’re all alone and no one in the entire world seems to give a sh-t if you give up tomorrow?

I’m not sure I know the exact answer. But your question takes me back to your first one; what I learned from making When You’re Strange. Jim Morrison’s belief in the power of artistic integrity was unshakeable. He left home when he was 17. No one in his family had any faith in his ability to sing or write music. His father actually advised a friend not to invest money in the Doors.

And yet, Jim kept going. Some part of him already knew that there was little if any value in waiting for approval and validation from other people.

When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors


DVD Review
Title: When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors
Director: Tom DiCillo
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Starring: Jim Morrison, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek & John Densmore; narrated by Johnny Depp
Run Time: 90 min.
Release Date: June 29, 2010
Stars: 4.0

As the imperturbable narrator Johnny Depp has already said, “As a rock n’ roll documentary, or any kind of documentary for that matter, it simply doesn’t get any better than this.”

The mesmerizing When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors, written and directed by Tom DiCillo, opened in North America on April 9th of this year and I attended the premiere that evening in Kingston. The theatre screening was two-thirds full with an audience of mixed demographics and everyone sat still with rapt attention and watched for the most part in sober silence for 90 minutes. There were a few laughs along the way, usually at Jim’s expense. The DVD viewing experience allows you to truly indulge in your emotional response to it, out loud. For Doors fans, it is the ultimate film treasure.

The opening sequence of When You’re Strange is riveting, with Jim Morrison climbing out of a crashed car on a desert highway in never-before-seen footage from his and Paul Ferrara’s 50-minute 1969 film HWY, that is so clear and vibrant that it could have been shot yesterday. As Jim drives along a California highway in a slick, blue Shelby GT500 we hear reports of his death on the car radio and so begins a factual and retrospective look back at one of the most unique and influential rock bands ever to grace this planet. With Johnny Depp at the helm, we’re taken for a sail back through time to an era when counterculture was born and a gorgeous, young, Elvis-obsessed, and very well read James Douglas Morrison was quoting William Blake. “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”.

Jim also knowingly said, “The music can’t help but reflect things that are happening around it.” That is still true of music today although no other band has so clearly defined an era in history as perfectly as The Doors depicted the end of the 1960s and the end of the Kennedys’ Camelot vision for America. Tom DiCillo has captured this fact perfectly in his commanding film about Robby Krieger, John Densmore, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison and he made sure to emphasize the importance of each band member’s contribution. Presented primarily in chronological order from archival footage supplied by Wolf Films and producer Peter Jankowski, When You’re Strange is not only a bittersweet love letter to the band, but a Dear John letter to the era that spawned them.

“The fact is the music is strange. It is music for the different, for the uninvited. It carries the listener into the shadowy realm of dream.”

The film’s editing is superb and perfectly paced with Depp’s narration while the sequence with “Riders On The Storm” playing during graphic footage of the Vietnam War is particularly powerful. When You’re Strange covers all the well known seminal moments in the career of The Doors as well as some private ones among the band members which offer a more well-rounded depiction of their relationship. It reveals the fact that even before the infamous Miami concert the cops were really hard on Morrison and denied him his constitutional right to freedom of speech. It was DiCillo’s position to simply allow their story to unfold as it happened within the contexts of the footage he had to work with and the major news events of the time period (1965-1971) and he let the material speak for itself.

You will thoroughly enjoy the footage that you haven’t seen before while being reminded of the band’s relevance in the history of rock’n’roll. When You’re Strange can’t help but stir up emotions for anyone who lived through the time period it represents but it also gives new fans the big picture as to why The Doors music is timeless and why it continues to live on long past the lives of the men who dared to challenge the boundaries of rock music with intelligent, poetic lyrics and jazz, flamenco, classical and blues infused rock’n’roll. No one had done it before and no one has made music like it since.

The one DVD bonus feature is an interview with Jim’s father Admiral George S. Morrison (who admitted that he was a very poor interpreter of Jim’s talent and didn’t know him very well after he left home) and his sister Anne Robin Morrison-Chewning who share their fond memories of Jim.

When You’re Strange was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, aired on PBS’ American Masters program on May 26, 2010 and has gone on to earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Achievement in a Non-Fiction Series. It continues to do well in Europe and will undoubtedly make Top 10 Best Rock Documentary lists all over the world.