Notes From Winter
The flight to Sundance is over-sold. The plane is jammed with ski-bums and half the NY independent film scene. Bad news; I got stuck with a middle seat. Good news, I got an exit row so at least I can stretch my legs and sleep.
Just discovered exit row seats don’t recline. But the window seat beside me is vacant so at least I’ll get some elbow room. There is a delay as the crew waits for the last passenger to board. I notice he is so fat his paunch simultaneously knocks the heads of people on both sides of the aisle. He takes my window seat.
As he struggles with his seatbelt he apologizes profusely for forcing me and the woman next to me out into the aisle. He asks the stewardess for a seatbelt extension. I close my eyes, thinking, “4 1/2 hours…4 1/2 hours.” And the plane hasn’t even pushed back yet.
Just then the stewardess returns. She says she can’t give him a seatbelt extension because he’s in an exit row. Since he is required by law to buckle his seatbelt he has to move. He switches seats with a very skinny guy and I take my first real breath in 10 minutes. My new seatmate is a music critic for the NY Times. But he signals he’s deaf and won’t be talking for the entire flight.
Park City, Utah.
The town is clogged with agents, managers, publicists, actors, directors, journalists and tourists with cameras; all stepping with tense caution over the iron-colored ice while searching for celebrity in every passing face. I do the morning press with Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger; I’ll be with John Densmore in the afternoon. The first interview goes well. Ray is hyper but eloquent. Robby is quiet, slipping in brief comments that send out ripples of meaning. Both are highly complimentary about the film. It suddenly penetrates my jetlag that I’m actually sitting with 2 members of The Doors talking about a film I made about their lives.
At the next interview I notice a small keyboard set up across the room. I nudge Ray with a wink. “Why don’t you play something?” “Yeah,” he laughs, “you know how many times I’ve heard that in my life?”
I leave the room for a moment. Someone starts playing the piano intro to “Riders On the Storm.” I turn and see it’s Ray. Robby is standing beside him strapping on an electric guitar. He checks his volume, then slips into the music. Around the room people’s jaws are dropping. As the song builds Ray’s eyes close, his head goes back. Robby studies his fretboard, a faint smile touching his lips. At that moment they both look 20 years old.
In the middle of an interview with Densmore. He’s sharp and gracious. He’s also the only thing keeping me awake. About 25 other interviews are taking place in the room around us. The jabber is deafening. John gives Oliver Stone some professional respect but then, when asked about Jim his voice takes on a deep, quiet reverence and I see Morrison suddenly come alive in his eyes.
The camera crew leaves. Another one quickly sets up. A short, thick-set blonde from Australia announces she hasn’t seen any of my films; including When You’re Strange. I express puzzlement as to what we’ll be talking about. “OK,” she sniffs, “tell me about your films then.”
John drifts away. A wave of drowsiness almost crushes me to the floor. “I do mainly porno,” I hear myself say. “I specialize in threesomes, usually girl-on-girl but sometimes girl-on-hamster-on-girl.”
The blonde stares at me. I stare back.
Three Kings Road
A dinner is going on for the film. I am not there. I am standing on the road in front of my housing unit waiting for the bus. It is a free bus. It comes every half hour.
It’s 5 degrees. The street is dark and absolutely still. The cold has already made it through all three of my coats. Above me the obsidian sky is glittering with millions of stars. I take a breath. The whole night sky rushes into my throat, the stars tickling into my lungs like tiny fragments of ice.
Footsteps down the road. Three kids emerge from the darkness; a girl and two guys. They’re about 17. Only the girl is wearing a hat. The guys wear jean jackets, unbuttoned, and no gloves. They want to know if this is the free bus going into Park City. I tell them it is and ask if they’re going in to the festival. They say no. They’re from a town 20 miles away. They drove their snowmobiles over the mountain, parked them down the road, and are heading into Park City to hit a few bars. They take note of the street sign so they can find their way back.
No bus comes. We keep talking in the bitter cold. They’re all Obama supporters. I find this surprising in such a conservative state. One of the kids, a little taller and somewhat aloof says simply, “No brainer, dude.”
His regal attitude is explained a moment later. “He’s stiff,” his friend says, “because he just crashed a snowmobile into a tree a week ago. He shouldn’t be riding tonight.”
“Why?” I ask.
“He broke his back,” the friend answers. The tall kid lifts his jacket and reveals a tensed metal brace encircling his entire lower torso. I ask how it happened.
“Too many beers,” he replies with a soft chuckle.
A long moment of silence. The girl puts her arm around the guy with no broken back. Far down the road, the bus slowly appears; the lights of its interior making it look like some enormous phosphorescent sea creature floating through the darkness.
Finally made it to the dinner. Japanese restaurant. Note: sake and high altitude induce a rush only slightly less intense than Super-Ultramega Blue Krystal Meth. I realize this only as I leave the restaurant and try to cross the street. It takes me a while but I make it.
Sting had been at the premiere. Word came back that he’d really liked the film and wanted to meet me. He invited me to a party which is why I’ve crossed the street. At the door a sour-looking publicist checks her list then tells me to step aside. I do. While I wait she lets three people behind me in. It takes me a moment to realize she will not, as I had imagined, be looking at another, more detailed list with my name on it. Just then one of her assistants mutters, “Move over,” and pushes me.
I’m already pressed back against the railing with nowhere to go. I look down at her hand still clenching my forearm and a rush of blood fills my head. “Get your hand off me,” I say, shaking her hand off. In a speed that amazes me a security guy appears. “Alright, man. You need to leave; immediately.”
Although I’ve been studying boxing for 3 years I’ve never actually hit anybody. Something in this jerk’s tone makes me realize this could be the night. I’m thinking, “Go with a jab to the nose because it’s going to be really hard to get anything into a right with all these coats on.” I’m just about to let one go when someone hugs me from behind. It is Sting. He’s laughing and shaking my hand and telling me how great it is to meet me and thanks for coming and how much he loved When You’re Strange. As he leads me inside, the publicist, her assistants and the security guard all find a way to magically disappear while not moving.
I stay 15 minutes. Sting is warm and generous in his affection for the film but I’m still jittery. I can’t help thinking that if he’d come 5 seconds later I would have met him flying headfirst down the stairs.
The free bus has stopped running. I start walking. I keep wondering if those three kids ever found their way back to their snowmobiles parked somewhere up the road in the darkness.
1. 20. 09.
3 Kings Road.
I call my wife back in NYC. She listens to my litany of complaints and disappointments for a few minutes before interrupting me. “Tom, do you even know what’s going on right now?”
“What do you mean?” I return, not a little defensively.
“Turn on the TV. ”
She hangs up. I turn on the TV. On every channel Barak Obama is giving his inaugural speech.
Something odd is happening. No one believes the footage of Jim Morrison is real. 10 minutes into the 1st screening a distributor walks out cursing, furious that we’d used a “re-enactment.” I find him later and explain nothing was re-enacted. It really is Jim, from his own film called HWY. This makes the guy even angrier, as if I’d played another trick on him.
But the disbelief persists. At the next screening I introduce the film and state very clearly that all footage in the film is real. I explain that it is from Morrison’s film HWY in which he plays a bearded loner hitch-hiking through the desert. I ask the audience to repeat after me, “There are no actors or re-enactments in this film.” Laughing, they do.
After the screening I answer a few questions. I make the point again; “Everything in the film is authentic. Nothing is re-enacted. Do you see?”
“Yes!!” the audience returns. A woman raises her hand. “I understand there are no re-enactments,” she says. “But in the desert scenes why did you use an actor to play Jim Morrison?”
The “actor” Jim Morrison playing Jim Morrison in When You’re Strange.
Some hotel ballroom.
I go to a party thrown by a large Hollywood talent agency. Someone had an in. It wasn’t me. Nonetheless it still takes 20 minutes to get in the door. It is dark, deafening and jammed with thousands of eager, absolute strangers. 10 minutes later I turn to leave. Behind me a cluster of 9 young agents perch on a U-shaped couch. Though facing each other none of them make eye contact. In the darkness they all lean over their blackberries, the tiny screens casting an identical pale blue light on each of their rapt, oblivious faces.
1. 22. 09.
Festival shuttle van.
I leave the mountain for a screening of When You’re Strange down in Salt Lake City. The festival has provided a young driver, a volunteer. The moment we begin our descent a startling sense of relief passes through me. On the interstate I see a religious license plate with the initials: WWJD? For a moment I think it stands for What Would Jim Do?
The theater is sold out. The vibe is completely different from the festival crowd. The first words out of my mouth bring an unexpected burst of applause; “I can’t tell you how good it feels to be down off that mountain.”
The film plays well. I take questions for almost an hour afterwards. Someone asks me what I learned from making the film. After thinking for a moment I respond, “The Doors, especially Morrison believed in complete artistic freedom. I learned that if you believe in something the only thing you can do is fight for it, as hard as you can.”
On the 50 minute ride back up the mountain the driver begins recalling his favorite Simpsons episodes–in minute detail. He finally stops after number 32. My eyes close in the welcome silence. Then he starts all over again with King of the Hill.
My last screening of the film. The theatre is in an active Jewish synagogue lent to Sundance for the festival. I wait in the lobby, hearing the last 5 minutes of the film through the closed doors. I am alone. Everyone else from the film has already left town.
When the screening ends I take questions from the audience. Afterwards a middle-aged couple corners me by the door, describing a documentary their nephew made 12 years ago about blind tattoo artists in West Virginia. A young woman waits quietly a few feet away.
“I really liked your film,” she says when the couple walks off. She looks down then glances up with a pained smile. “My father was a big Doors fan. He really loved them.” A slight tremor goes through her. “I’m sorry. I have no right to lay this on you.”
“Lay what?” I ask, half wary and half concerned by her increasing emotion.
Again she looks down. When she looks up this time I see her eyes are welling with tears. “He died last week.”
I take her hand. She squeezes back hard, the tears coming stronger. “I’m sorry,” she says again then gently withdraws her hand. Ducking her head she slips swiftly through the crowd.
After a few moments I step outside, still staggered by her sorrow. Snow is piled in crusty, 5 foot drifts but the sun is warm and soothing on my face. I walk to the edge of the parking lot and squint against the sun. Two parking attendants sit right on the snow, smoking and talking quietly. Something in the slush at my feet catches my eye. It’s the poster for When You’re Strange. I pick it up. Knowing the absolute futility of my actions–there will be no more screenings at Sundance–I re-attach the poster to the metal pole it had fallen from.
Leaving for Berlin in an hour. I’ve done this enough times to know the drill: the “night’s sleep” of about 2 hours on the plane is merely a weak attempt to disguise the fact that you are landing at 3 in the morning. I’m on a long walk between terminals, each step bringing me closer to the pending blur of sleep deprivation. The disorientation has already begun. Someone has stopped in the middle of the corridor and is staring at me; one face asking for recognition out of thousands of strangers.
It’s Geoff Gilmore, the head of the Sundance Film Festival. I’d seen him only 3 weeks earlier when he introduced me at the premiere of When You’re Strange. But seeing him here in an airport hallway throws me. He’s flying to Dublin for a few days before starting his new job. After 25 years he is leaving Sundance to take over as head of the Tribeca Film Festival. The news is significant. All of my films have gone to Sundance, all with the support of Gilmore.
We embrace in the middle of the corridor then he steps onto a moving walkway and disappears.
Delta Gate 47C.
Someone taps my shoulder as I wait to board. Note to self: why is my first thought always that I’m going to be arrested? I turn and see Steve Buscemi. He’s with his wife Jo, and their son Lucian. Steve’s got 3 films in Berlin and we’re all on the same flight. Filmmaking is a constant rhythm of people coming together and pulling apart yet somehow with Steve each separation and reunion finds us exactly where we left off. Every time I see him it feels like we just walked off the set of Living Oblivion; as if only a week has passed. Of course, more than a week has passed; Lucian hadn’t even been born yet. Now he’s 16.
Delta Flight 1609.
Somewhere over the Atlantic.
Knock back some wine during dinner hoping to knock myself out for sleep. Thinking about Berlin. It’s one of the big 3 European festivals, along with Cannes and Venice. Just Densmore is going; Ray and Robby are touring. Several of the producers will be there. They’ll make the announcement that Johnny Depp is doing the narration. He heard about the film out of Sundance. He’d been my original choice many months ago but now his interest and his schedule are finally in sync.
The search for a narrator has been tough. At one point an offer was made to Jack Nicholson; a great actor but my sense is that a younger voice is needed; someone to help bridge the 40 year time gap. We tried several musicians but the narration is tricky. It can’t just be read. We need to feel that whoever is speaking has an emotional investment in the words and believes what he is saying.
Which is why I’m glad Depp is doing it. Mainly I will be happy to get my voice the fuck out of there.
I finish dinner and go to sleep. Two hours later I wake and eat breakfast with a pale blue dawn breaking outside the tiny window egg.
Drag myself into the shower after sleeping a couple of hours. The jetlag crush is definitely kicking in. More than once I discover myself standing and staring at the wall. The day outside is cold and colorless, so familiar from the other times I’ve been here that it is almost comforting. My first trip was in 1979 with Jim Jarmusch and his first feature, Permanent Vacation, which I shot. I stayed with a German friend, Christoph, in his loft in Kreuzberg. Christoph played bass in an art-punk band. He was constantly rolling cigarettes, into which he crumbled soft, dense chunks of Moroccan hash.
Not surprisingly we were stoned most of the time. He showed me the Berlin Wall. He told me I could ride the subway without paying as no one would ever ask for my ticket. 5 minutes into my first free ride I was arrested by two German transit cops and would have gone to jail if I hadn’t immediately paid the $40 fine. Christoph thought this was pretty funny.
He gave me a big nugget of hash as a going-away present. Still buzzed, I tossed it into my suitcase and locked it. It wasn’t until 9 hours later when I was moving forward in the US Customs line at JFK that I realized this might not have been too smart. Ahead of me the cops were opening every suitcase. I broke out in a sharp, prickly sweat thinking of that thick block of hash just sitting there on top of my socks and underwear. It did not help that I could actually hear Christoph laughing. I was so paralyzed with fear that I could barely mumble ‘thanks’ when for some reason the cops just waved me through.
Berlin Cinemaxx 8.
The first screening is a good one. A sold-out house of around 400. A sharp contrast to the Sundance premiere where the theater was smaller and more remote, lost in the night snowdrifts like some all night 7-11 in Siberia. Here the screen is huge and the film lives up to it. It’s a bigger than life story and needs to be presented that way. Afterwards the team files down for questions. Densmore gets a huge round of applause. One of the producers breaks the news about Johnny Depp. It is now official. As the audience applauds I see a thick trickle of blood flash on the producer’s neck. He’d lost the handle to his razor that morning and had shaved by holding the cartridge in his fingers.
Berlin Grand Hyatt Hotel.
Another full day of press. It’s all very relaxed and informal. The whole group sits around a table and the journalists come in one by one. The questions are directly mainly to me and Densmore but anyone who feels like answering weighs in. I don’t mind. I’m hovering in a jetlag-no sleep fog that is not entirely unpleasant. My standard routine is reliable and working: double espressos every two hours until 8 pm and then an immediate shift to alcohol right up to bedtime.
Had a late dinner last night at my friend Dimitri’s, a filmmaker from once-Soviet Georgia now living in Berlin with his wife and 2 sons. When I left at 2 am I was not only plastered but utterly bewildered about how to get back to my hotel. Dimitri sent his oldest son Davidov to guide me on the several subways I needed to take. Davidov obliged cheerfully although the round trip would take him over 2 hours.
As we made our way through the crowded stations, getting on and off trains, I walked behind, focusing intently on Davidov’s Spiderman backpack. In the cars, on the platforms, in the corridors almost everyone was drunk. Clots of people, mostly young men, staggering, laughing, yelling, shoving each other into walls while openly gulping from bottles.
“Drinking in public is legal in Germany,” explained Davidov as we boarded another train. In the corner a group of young men and women bleated out an apparently endless drinking song. “Is better to keep it in the open, I think,” Davidov said with the infinite wisdom of a 13 year old.
Berlin PlexxiCine 4.
My last screening in Berlin. Once again, the entourage has left before me. My flight out is at noon tomorrow. Another sold-out screening. My friend Christoph comes, with his ex-girlfriend, his new girlfriend and the new girlfriend’s girlfriend. The film plays very well. Alone on stage, aided by several scotches at dinner with Christoph, I loosen up with the audience. I’ve discovered it is best not to wait for the first questions but to start by asking questions of my own. People answer and quickly become used to the sound of their own voices.
An older guy (an American) in the very front row says, “I don’t have a question. I just want to say this is one of the best fuckin rock docs I’ve ever seen!!” I take the mic from him and look out at the audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, I deeply apologize for my father’s language. If I’d known he was going to be here I would never have come.”
The questions are clear and genuinely inquisitive. I enjoy the give and take until a young woman asks, “I know Morrison had a death wish and I would like to ask what you think about that.”
I had just finished explaining what I set out to do in the film; to drag off the dusty cloak of myth, superstition and legend about Morrison and show him as he really was–as a real human being. I take a breath and respond.
“I tried to avoid making assumptions or generalizations about Jim’s behavior. Mainly because there is very little documentation to back it up. Jim’s own sister says there was no real problem with him and his father. Everyone else says the two were locked in a primal power struggle. Sure, Morrison did some wild, disturbing things. But are you absolutely certain they weren’t part of the role he had created for himself? I don’t happen to believe he had a death wish. But, the only one who truly knows the answer to that question is Morrison and he’s not here. Look at him in this film; he’s laughing, playing, goofing around with the band.”
“I think he had a life wish,” I continue. “Certainly he was very troubled and there is no question he was a severe alcoholic. But, my sense is that he lost his way and fell off the edge.”
I see the woman’s face harden. She doesn’t like my answer. Neither does a man across the aisle. “You can say what you like but it is obvious to me and many, many others Jim did have a death wish.” The man wears a gray goatee, wire-rimmed glasses and his voice is tense with disdain.
“Are you a psychiatrist?” I ask carefully, both alarmed and curious.
“No,” he answers after a short pause. “I’m an animal yoga instructor.”
A bar somewhere.
Christoph and I go out for a drink with all the girlfriends. I look at my watch and realize I have to get up in 2 hours. I have another scotch. Ellen, the ex, is very upset because strangers stop her on the street to tell her she looks just like Karl Lagerfeld. She’s wearing a 3-piece men’s suit with a tie, large sunglasses and her frosted blond hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail.
We drop the new girlfriend and her girlfriend off at another party then Ellen and Christoph drive me back to the Hotel Movenpick. The front door is locked. Ellen has to get out and read the instructions for punching in an entry code which she does effortlessly even with her Lagerfeld sunglasses on.
I sleep for an hour and am jolted awake by the wake-up call at 7am. My festival liason gives me a box of chocolate-covered pretzels as a going-away present. As soon as she’s out of the car I give it to the driver.
Berlin Tegel Airport.
I sit in a heavy stupor as the minutes drag past. Everytime I look at my watch the strain on my eyeballs makes me almost pass out.
But the trip has been successful. Offers for theatrical distribution are in from Spain, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Greece, Poland and Japan. Other offers are coming. More importantly, my faith in the film has been stengthened; and re-validated.
Someone taps me on the shoulder. My first thought is a question: do I have any hash on me? It’s Buscemi, with Jo and Lucian. They’re on their way back to NYC. I never ran into them once at the festival. Lucian says he too has been up all night, googling the history of Berlin. He gives me a cd from one of the three alt-rock bands he plays in, called Fiasco.
Delta Flight 1607 to JFK.
I sit for so long staring at the seatback in front of me that the male steward eyes me several times in concern. I’m so exhausted I can’t move. Finally the steward stops. He leans closer with an almost doctorly frown and asks, “Are you going to be alright?”
Not, “Are you alright?” but “Are you going to be alright?”
That’s when I realize I really need to get my shit together. “Oh, yeah. I’m good,” I reply with what I’m hoping is the smile of a person who’s really got their shit together. I slip Lucian’s cd into my laptop. It’s the only music I have. The neo-surf-on-acid snarl of Fiasco crawls snakelike into my brain. After 5 songs I finally fall asleep.