By Chris M. Junior
Just as The Doors were not a typical rock band, “When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors” is not a typical music documentary — and that’s due to the vision of director/writer Tom DiCillo.
Instead of following the typical rock-doc format and including recent interviews with band members and other notable figures, DiCillo’s “When You’re Strange” tells the story of The Doors through music and archival footage, and it’s all linked together by the narrative he wrote (with actor Johnny Depp providing the voice-over).
But this documentary is not merely a chronological repackaging of typical or played-out visuals paired with music and narration. The surviving Doors (keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger and drummer John Densmore) gave DiCillo access to the video vaults so he could make his film, which also includes rare band footage along with views of private moments and personal projects, such as outtakes from “HWY,” a film featuring singer Jim Morrison.
“The footage of ‘HWY’ becomes the spirit of Morrison, kind of wandering through the film, looking for the meaning of himself, the meaning of the band and the meaning of the time,” says DiCillo, whose TV and movie credits include “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Johnny Suede.”
DiCillo took some time to talk about his experience making “When You’re Strange” (now available on DVD and Blu-ray).
You were in your early-to-mid teens when The Doors were in their heyday. When and how did you first become familiar with the band, and what made The Doors different in your eyes?
Tom DiCillo: Well, my dad was a colonel in the Marine Corps, so my brother and I didn’t have that much access to, let’s say, alternative forms of music when we were 13, 14. I was in the car one day with some friends, and we were going to a junior high school dance … and The Doors’ “Light My Fire” came on – the long version. I just couldn’t believe it. I said, “This song is just going on and on.” … That was my introduction to The Doors: It had something to do with rebellion against my father and rebellion against authority. I knew nothing about [the band], and I bought that first album.
The only thing I could tell you about that sound and what the music was about was I felt like it spoke to me [and] all of the things that were different about me and other people who liked that music.
What were you doing professionally when the call came to do a documentary on The Doors?
DiCillo: I was in the process of trying to raise financing for one of my films when the phone rang, and it was the producers asking me if I’d be interested in directing a documentary about The Doors. And as soon as the word “Doors” came out of their mouths, I said yes.
My sense about the band, even before I really got into it, was that this is an extremely cinematic journey and a cinematic story, and that’s what prompted me to say ‘yes’ right away to it. … I dove into it, and that’s what it took. For two and a half years, I completely focused on this movie. The Doors have an archive in Los Angeles, and I looked at every single piece of filmed material on the band – that took a month.
Aside from going through all of that film footage, what other research did you do, and what did you gain from it?
DiCillo: Of course I spoke to Ray, John and Robby. That was interesting, because when I first met them, I thought they would instantly see what I feel about myself, which is I’m an honest guy. I thought that they’d see that immediately and just open up to me. It was a rude shock to suddenly realize these guys have been meeting people like me for 40 years. I had to prove myself to them, and that really affected the way I spoke to the three of them.
Soon after I began cutting stuff together and showing them what I was thinking of — particularly the decision to only use the archival footage — they began to trust me. They saw that I knew a little bit about music and that it was going to be a film about all of them and not just Jim.
I spoke to Jim’s sister, Anne. I spoke to Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra, and [Doors engineer] Bruce Botnick. I didn’t really feel like I wanted to talk to anyone further outside the intimate circle of the band than that group; otherwise, you’re just getting into opinion.
What’s the most unusual or memorable comment you’ve heard from someone who’s seen the documentary?
DiCillo: There have been a number of them, and they come from the most unexpected places. [When] the film played here in New York at the Angelika, this young African-American girl tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I have to tell you that I just loved this movie.” I said, “How do you know about The Doors?” She said, “My dad. I love this band.”
When I hear a response like that, it shows me one thing: The Doors and their music have the power to still affect people today the way they did when they first came out, and that’s pretty amazing to me. It shows you that music is timeless and keeps inspiring generations of people, and I tried to suggest that with the film. That’s why I made that decision to only use the original footage, the real stuff, and to stay there. That way, the audiences today could experience them as if they were happening right now.
Has there been any talk about what might become of the footage that was left in the can?
DiCillo: I pretty much believe that what’s in the film is the best of it. A lot of it didn’t have sound; a lot of it had the camera swinging around and going out of focus. I had to be very judicious with just finding pieces of footage that helped tell a story.
… At one point we tried to put a bunch of images over the final credits. But they weren’t strong enough to be in the main part of the movie, so when you saw them at the end of the film, they were a real letdown. So I just decided not to put anything there.
Including them would have been like a bad encore.
DiCillo: Oh yeah, exactly.
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