September 5, 2009
I’m sitting in the back of a car looking out the window. The driver works through the outskirts of Paris and heads north for the two-hour drive to Deauville. Landed at Charles DeGaulle an hour ago. Slept three hours on the plane. It is 2 in the morning, My Time, which might explain why what rushes by the window melts together in my brain like a stream of liquid confetti.
The driver is young. He speaks no English. Five minutes of attempting to talk with him have left me exhausted and silent. After a moment he quietly turns on the radio. A French techno station comes on. After a minute or two I begin to fixate on the beat: Buhn duh-buhn duh-buhn duh-buhn duh… It’s locked in and as relentless as a dentist’s drill. I suddenly think of the Doors’ music, how it changes, how it ebbs and flows, how it moves with a fluid, unregimented, unpredictable spontaneity. I think how utterly human it is; sweaty, intimate, disturbing.
The difference to what is on the radio is profound.
I sleep for a couple of hours then leave the hotel and walk along the beach. Deauville is a classic resort town with big, ornate hotels and casinos lining the oceanfront. American flags are everywhere. All along the boardwalk are small cabanas where people keep beach umbrellas and chairs. Each of the cabanas bears the name of a celebrity who has visited the festival during the past 50 years.
I walk past Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Ang Lee, Sophia Loren, Matt Dillon, Kevin Costner… Although Living In Oblivion won Best Picture and the Audience Award in 1995, my name is not on any cabanas. I know this because I spent hours in the rain looking for it the last time I was here.
The beach is long and wide, leaving huge expanses of sand when the tide is out.
I walk a mile or so. I think about the screening tomorrow, in the main theater which seats 1,600. But the screening is at 11:30 on a Sunday morning. The festival director has already warned me that less people tend to show up for the documentaries. This is the first public screening of the film with Johnny Depp’s narration. I suddenly have a vision of the film playing in a huge, half-empty theater.
September 6, 2009
I go over to the theater for a sound check. The chief engineer leads me into the middle of the theater. It is empty except for a gathering cluster of sleepy security guards. “Roadhouse Blues” is blasting, swirling through the entire theater. It sounds unbelievable. The Doors’ producer, Bruce Botnick supervised the entire music mix in Dolby Surround 6.0. The engineer, a quiet guy in glasses and a graying ponytail, plays a brief riff on air guitar then stares at me for a moment.
“Ahh. Robbie Krieger,” he says in a heavy French accent. “Very fine guitar.”
With a nudge from the festival director, I walk into the theater. The first thing I do is look at the seats. I’m stunned to see the theater is almost completely full. I step onto the stage and with the help of a translator, introduce the film.
I started by mentioning the Blake poem from which Morrison took the name for the band:
“If the Doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is; Infinite.”
I explain my take on its meaning; if we were able to free our minds and hearts of preconceptions and societal restrictions then we would be completely open, free to see the world in all its complexity and wonder. I have an ulterior motive for starting with this. The issue of people thinking the footage of Jim from HWY is re-enacted persists. The primary reason seems to be that the film looks so crisp and amazing. So I said, “You’re going to see something new today. You’re going to see something your eyes have not seen before. Be open to it. Every single frame of Jim Morrison, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek and John Densmore in this film is absolutely real. Nothing has been re-created.”
Then I say, “I think the Doors might be amused that the first screening of this film in France is at a time when most people are in church. Well, let us go to church. Let’s go to a small, dark bar somewhere in downtown LA, in 1966. It’s late, around 2 a.m. It’s hot, smoky, crowded. Everybody’s sweating. The smell in the air is not incense but beer, Jack Daniels and just a hint of weed. But the music that surges from the four members of the band on stage comes from the depths of their souls.”
The lights go down. I slip back into my seat. A gasp comes from the audience when the credit appears:
Then my name and a moment later applause. It is the first time I’ve shown a film that gets applause before the film even starts.
As the film plays the audience is very still. They appear to be intensely focused on the film. It is thrilling to see the images flowing together on such a big screen; gigantic—bigger than life. Depp’s narration is even stronger than I’d remembered. His presence in the film is quiet, assured, emotional and powerfully intimate. I watch two years of work gliding past my eyes and feel an enormous sense of pride and gratitude for everyone who worked so hard on putting this film together.
No one walks out. This is no small thing. Even at festivals—especially at festivals—attention spans are short and people will commonly walk out of films at any point. And finally, when the film ends, there is long, sustained applause. People come up to personally express how much they’d been moved by the film.
Because I am at the festival alone, the press office schedules the unexpected interview requests that have come in since the screening. All of the questions are respectful and highly complimentary. Everyone remarks on the unique structure of the film, saying it plays more like a narrative feature than a traditional documentary. They say they found it moving and immensely informative.
I explain that the HWY footage looks so good because it came from the original 35 mm negative (thanks to the assistance of Frank Lisciandro, HWY’s editor). It makes me digress about Morrison’s dedication to film. He paid for HWY himself. It was not a Doors production. He took a small crew out into the California desert for a week or so. To shoot on 35 mm was expensive, even by 1969 standards. This was long before the existence any independent film movement.
As I explain this to the journalists, my respect for Morrison’s effort increases. It strikes me that more attention should be paid to his deep-seated desire to be a filmmaker. His last film at UCLA Film School was awarded a D. It clearly had an effect on him. I can relate. My thesis film earned me a B, which the head of the film school explained was the worst grade in the alphabet as far as he was concerned for it was “neither and A nor a C.”
It took me eight years to get over it and make my first film. As for Morrison, he never went to his graduation and when he resurfaced months later his friend and classmate Ray Manzarek found him wandering on the beach in Venice, CA. He’d been living on someone’s roof. He’d been writing songs.
One journalist expresses surprise that I have no interest in visiting Jim’s grave at Pere LaChaise cemetery in Paris. I try to explain that making this film has brought me closer to Morrison’s spirit than I ever would have expected. Compared to that living spirit, a rain-smeared plaster bust of dubious likeness and offerings of whiskey bottles, no matter how reverent and well intended, would seem like a trip to the circus.
September 8, 2009
Standing in an endless line waiting to get through US passport control in Newark. I went to bed at 1 the night before. Had a 6 a.m. pickup for the two-hour drive back to Paris. Pitch black in the car. The driver was an older Frenchman who barely spoke English. He was extremely courteous and kept asking me detailed questions about my family and offering lengthy details of his own family in return. I was unable to keep from falling asleep after five minutes.
I finally step up to the customs agent, a young police officer in a sharp, clean-fitting uniform. His hair is cut close to the scalp. He asks me where I’ve been. As usual I immediately feel the distinct sense that I have something to hide even though the only thing in my pocket is a wadded up paper napkin. Through a brain heavily fogged by sleep deprivation I say I’ve been to a film festival in France.
“What’s your film about?” the cop asks without looking up at me.
“The Doors. It’s the first feature-length documentary about them.”
He stamps my passport. As he hands it back to me he finally makes eye contact. There is an unexpected flash of interest in his eyes. “Ah. John Densmore,” he says. “That dude could really play the drums.”
Tom DiCillo made his debut as a writer-director with 1991’s Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy and Delirious followed. When You’re Strange, his documentary on The Doors, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. For more information on DiCillo and his work, visit www.tomdicillo.com.