Tom DiChillo talks about his documentary When You’re Strange
Independent American director, screenwriter and cinematographer Tom DiChillo is a frequent guest at the Sundance Film Festival and has worked with Jim Jarmusch, Steven Buscemi and Nick Cave. His camera can often be found focused on the life of underground music, such as in Coffee and Cigarettes and Johnny Suede. His documentary about the iconic The Doors is a speech about all those who lived against the rules.
Subconsciously The Doors have been my favorite band since I first heard them when I was 14. I keep listening to their music. Every time you hear it, it feels like you're hearing it for the first time. I knew there was a great mystery surrounding the Doors, a great unsaid and unspoken thing that still, to this date, is undefined…and I wanted to take a stab at defining it.
This is my first documentary. So you think about a documentary and go, "OK, yeah." You put the pieces together and that's it. I realized I needed to approach this as a narrative film and in that sense discover and develop Morrison the protagonist, as the lead character in it. I realized that I needed to understand him as deeply as I possibly could, given the fact I'd never met the guy.
I don't know what was going on inside him. I would never want to assume that I do, but I needed to feel that I knew him, that I could understand him, that I could empathize with him. That understanding went through a series of developments.
When I first started, I read “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” (the first biography of Jim Morrison written after his death by journalist Jerry Hopkins – Ed.) and I just couldn't quite believe it was totally accurate or the only answer. The book presents Jim as a guy who is on this constant and almost immediate cycle of destruction.
I believe Jim was an artist. But Picasso was also an artist and he didn't go down in flames when he was 27. Then one night I was at dinner at Anne Morrison's [Jim's sister's] house. I mentioned Jim's drinking, asking if she, or any of her grown children could give me any insight into its origins. Someone at the table almost got in a fight with me and very passionately informed me that Jim was an alcoholic and alcoholism is a disease, not something that you choose. It opened something up for me — that Jim was struggling with something his whole life. It was a battle as opposed to just a desire to get plastered. It seemed like he was always trying to either sharpen or dull his sense of perception, or at least change it…
After seeing just ten minutes of footage of The Doors, I made the decision that the story, this film, should be made only using this original footage. No talking heads, no interviews with the band. Ray Manzarek said to me, "Well, how can you tell the story of the Doors, without hearing it from the living Doors?" Then he saw a half hour of what I was cutting together, and he said, "Ah yes, I see what you're up to." In other words, let the experience start and don't let people out of it. Tell the story, show the beginning of the band, and then just stay in it —as if it's a moment that is just happening, and you never step back and refer to it.
The producers were pressuring me for a concept, because they had all this amazing footage that had no real continuity to it. So I said, if you really want me to give you a concept, I'll have to see every inch of the footage you have. So for the first three weeks I did nothing but look at footage, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. The thunderbolt hit me when I found I was saturated in the footage; I said, if I break the spell of this incredible footage that shows The Doors in their prime by cutting away to old farts talking about the significance of "The End" or something, then I will be fucked. The only way to do it is to somehow stay in that world and never break out of it.