I wrote earlier the director is the captain of the ship. I did not mean Captain Bligh. But you’d be amazed how many people say the main reason they want to be a director is so they “can tell people what to do.” Certainly valid. Although it might help to keep in mind that most people who operate under this principal have been assassinated.

Directing is not telling people what to do. It is setting up an environment where everyone feels valued and inspired to give you their best work; from each member of the crew to all the actors, including extras and stand-ins. The director’s vision is not a license to treat people like shit. Tyranny only makes people miserable. They start to hate their jobs and contribute less and less until they’re doing only the barest minimum to keep from getting fired.

Some directors refuse to even talk to the crew. They think it weakens their power to be seen interacting with the “workers.” To me the crew is the backbone of the entire film. Making a film is hard work. The hours are long, the food is terrible and the pay (if any) is crap. Add to this a director who is condescending and worse, unconcerned about how his actions are affecting the crew and the mutiny knives quickly begin to sharpen.

Directing requires you to be firm, clear and honest. It requires you to be in control. But that doesn’t mean disrespecting the people you’ve hired to help you. Each of them has something they can contribute to the film. You weaken nothing when you encourage them and treat them as equals. In fact, when everyone is working this way–working for the film–nothing can stop you. 

The set is actually a direct reflection of who you are. It shows exactly how you deal with people; how you deal with fear, disappointment and conflict–all in a very public arena. Fear is the most universal emotion for any director. It is also the most universally denied. Everyone has felt it but no one wants to admit it. This is because we live in a culture that instantly equates any kind of confusion or self-doubt with weakness.

The fear is usually an inner voice screaming, “I have no idea what I’m doing and everyone can see it!” Sometimes this is true. The best thing you can do at these moments is stop and acknowledge you’re confused about something. If you can’t untangle it by yourself see if someone on your team can help you. The worst thing you can do is lock yourself behind a wall of rigidity. This is a false security. It actually weakens you, no matter how loud the tantrum you throw. It shows everyone that you’re not honest, that you can’t see yourself. It immediately makes people wonder what else you are not seeing. It makes them question if a drunk, or a blind man is steering the ship.

The director’s vision goes far beyond the artistic and the self. You also have to see everything that is going on around you. One day on Delirious it was taking an unusual amount of time to get a shot of Buscemi. No one seemed to know what the delay was. Then I noticed the boom operator muttering to the sound man through her microphone. She tried to find another position with her boom but gave up and walked away in exasperation.

I went over and asked the sound man what was going on. “It’s Camera,” he said. “There’s so many lights we can’t get a position for the mike without throwing a shadow on Buscemi’s face.”

I drew the DP aside and mentioned this to him. He said, “Oh, OK. No problem.” He killed one light, the boom operator found a good spot and we rolled a minute later.

This also reveals how crucial communication is on a film set. Everyone needs to know what’s going on. And again, it all starts with the director. That’s why you have to be as clear as possible with what you want. From the moment you walk on the set you’re bombarded with thousands of questions. You have to answer them. The generator driver wants to know if his truck is in the shot. You can’t just say “I don’t know” and walk away. I mean, you can but you might end up with a screwdriver flung into your back.

No power can be run and no lights can be set up until the generator is parked. If you really don’t know if it’s in the shot, I’d suggest explaining that. Just say, “Listen, I’m not exactly sure what the actors are going to do here. We may end up seeing that side of the street. To be safe you should park the genny around the corner.” I guarantee the genny operator will be much happier to hear this than a frenzied scream to move hours after everything is set up.

People want to be able to do their jobs. It makes them happy. It doesn’t make them happy if they have no idea what’s going on and they’re convinced no one else does either. Creating this kind of clarity is another part of the director’s vision. Every department is waiting for the green light that sets them moving in a real direction. This momentum is what drives the film forward.  It needs to be built and sustained, from the entire film to the smallest shot. Everything falls apart the moment the camera stops. Everybody starts tweaking, talking, eating Oreos. Part of your job as director is to gather everyone together again. Re-form. Re-focus. And with calm, clear determination get the camera rolling again. 

Of course a good Assistant Director and Line Producer will help. But it is the director’s vision that is the truly lasting glue. People need to know and understand what it is. They need to believe in it and commit themselves as a group to achieving it. You want to allow people to take pride in their work but, you also need to make sure they’re not on a solo mission. The Production Designer’s desire to get a swanky, high-tech set on his reel may be conflicting with the real needs of the film. Unfortunately, this self-interest happens a lot. Some of it is innocent; some isn’t.

One night, on Johnny Suede, we were setting up one of the final shots of the film. The scene required an intense emotional commitment from Brad Pitt. As I watched him prepare in a corner of the set, I could see him building the personal investment he knew he needed to bring to the scene. I told the DP I was ready to shoot. He said, “10 minutes.”

20 minutes later he was still tweaking. I glanced over at Brad still sitting quietly in the corner, his eyes closed in concentration. The DP again said he needed 10 minutes. 15 minutes later he was still tweaking. I finally asked the gaffer what was going on. He informed me the DP was running cable 20 blocks down the street to light the side of a building that was barely visible through the window Brad was to be seated at. I stopped the cable run immediately. I called Brad over and we started shooting. Although we only had half the time I’d wanted Brad’s preparation held and he blossomed in the scene.

The DP got a little sulky but the way I see it he’s lucky I didn’t hit him with a crowbar. What was best for the film at that point? A useless fragment of ornamental lighting or an actor’s performance with the potential to illuminate a crucial emotional moment?

This is why it is truly a miracle that any film gets made. Thankfully, the moments of real collaboration and creative interaction are so powerful they keep you alive. And they keep you coming back for more.


Posted by:Tom

36 thoughts on “ 58. LIFE ON SET ”

  1. Hey Tom,

    I love this post because (like the film diaries) not only is it informative, but it relates to life in addition to filmmaking.

    Wish the ‘directors’ in corporate America were as self-aware and honest as you. Because you’re right…once the tyranny, non-communication and crap starts, it only makes people want to shut down.

    Some gems in this one. All of these would make a great book someday.


  2. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for another great post and thanks to Jeff for the link to the Charlie Rose interview, which was very interesting. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I must shallowly admit that I was quite captivated with your hair, Tom. I heard your words, but kept staring at your hair. There, I’ve said it.

    Your pal,


  3. Hey Rai,
    You know, I stumbled upon the clip about a year ago and found myself staring at my hair too. I think I came away impressed. In fact, the hairstyle might have been what unnerved Charlie Rose.
    Could be.
    Could be.

  4. Thx to Jeff for posting a link where the audio/visual Charlie Rose interview was in sync. I found the interview online about a year ago, but it was on a different site and with the audio/visual not aligned, it was like trying to watch an old Japanese cartoon. This time around, I could actually watch it and enjoy!

    Yep, cool hair Tom. Cool hair…


  5. You’re welcome. Thx for the thx. Tom, is the 21st the first public screening of the final version? Any more “premieres” or did Sundance take care of that? I mean, the final version until the DVD director’s cut with the CG Morrison fighting Val Kilmer to the death.

  6. Hey Tom,

    That’s some great Johnny Suede info,i’ve been listening to your commentary on the dvd too man,it’s really cool:)

    I like what you were saying about the team effort and the crew that could potentially become mutinous with an overbearing or pretentious director. Unfortunately it happens in everyday work too. I used to be hairdresser and stuff like that always happens,you get one guy who thinks he/she can do it all by him/herself and think they don’t need other opinions or input and treats people like crap when something goes wrong…ultimately theres a backlash. That’s probably a strange analogy to film making but i get where you are coming from.

    So i left the hairdressing and now i want to study film:) By the way your hair does kick ass!…it’s powerful and also would have unnerved Larry King,let alone Charlie Rose:)

    Great post as always Tom,


  7. Hey Jeff,
    Yeah, the screening on the 21st should represent the final, locked version of the film. It will have all of Johnny Depp’s narration and some pretty exciting shifts and adjustments to the picture.

    The plan is to treat it as a brand new entity and start fresh with US distributors. Once a sale is made, then the distributor would determine a premiere date just prior to releasing the film in theaters.

    That would be a fascinating CG scene between Kilmer and Morrison. I might have to CG myself and drop me in somewhere with my boxing gloves on.

    Let’s see what happens.

  8. Hello Tom,
    We would be interested in screening “Strange” at the
    Berkeley Video & Film Festival, September 25 & 26.
    Is it available for Festivals?
    Many Thanks,

  9. Hey Mel,
    The film is definitely available for festivals. Please contact Kathy Rivkin at Rhino Entertainment in Los Angeles.

  10. Hey Wayne,
    I think that’s a great transition from hairdressing to filmmaking. I’m not kidding. In both instances you need to know what to cut, and what not to cut. What to leave long, and what to shorten. What needs a little lift and what should be flattened.
    I always had (and still have) a fascination for the real styles of the 50’s–not the Happy Days version. It was really a time when men took a lot of time with their appearance; from hair to shoes. Some of those pompadours were pretty elaborate. The whole look for men was much more detailed and dramatic than it is now. Look at some of those pointy shoes and 2-tone shirt jacs.
    Eventually, I must confess my hair started taking too much time. And so, I had to let it go.
    Good luck to you.

  11. Hi Tom,

    That sounds absolutely awesome about finding the negative for HWY. Hopefully someday HWY itself can be more widely seen. The L.A. Film Festival site says WYS includes some of Morrison’s actual UCLA student film, which I heard had been lost long ago. Is that a recent find? Or do they have it mixed up with HWY?
    5 days to go. I can’t wait.

  12. Hey Jeff,
    Yes, they have mixed it up with HWY, which is frustrating. I don’t know who is providing information to these festivals, or who is overseeing it but it’s too bad someone can’t get the facts straight–especially about something as important as that.
    Like I said, keep spreading the word. Original outtakes from HWY are used. The real deal.

  13. Great to read the latest news about HWY and the final mix. Hope it plays well at the LA Film Fest and others to come.


    PS – Finally picked up that book by Maupassant you recommended. Will let you know what I think 🙂

  14. Hi Tom,

    I just saw this in your news section: “Doors historians out there; spread the word. Morrison wrote and acted in his own film, shot in 1969. This is what we use in the film. THERE ARE NO FUCKING RE-ENACTMENTS.”

    As something of a Doors historian I could help with this, but why not have some text at the start of the documentary pointing out that ALL the footage in the film comes from 1965-1971 and that no actors or re-enactments have been used? Because I’m willing to bet 90% of Doors fans (we’re talking people who basically know the hit singles and the Oliver Stone movie) aren’t aware that Jim made his own films or what they were called. So if you show them crystal clear 35mm footage of a guy who looks like Jim wandering around the desert, some will naturally assume it’s an actor. It might be best to address the issue directly before the film starts. It’ll also be a nice primer for what people are about to see unfold on the screen.


  15. Hey Len,
    Good to hear from you. Thanks for your suggestion. We did try something like that for Sundance. It had no effect. But worse, it started the film with no mystery. It forced the viewer to read an explanation, in text. When you see the film you’ll understand why I did not relish this encylopedic note starting the film.

    Then I began stating this information before every screening, even at one point asking the audience to repeat after me, “There are no actors or re-enactments in this film.” Check out my Sundance post for the effect of this little speech.

    I actually think the most effective and productive way to handle it would be through journalists and people like you. Just keep saying it. I’d always thought journalists would have jumped at the chance to reveal something most people were unaware of. But, you’re right. People’s conceptions of Jim Morrison are personal and limited. Anything that deviates from that is mistrusted and debunked. Too bad.

    But, like I said, I think once the word gets out there that it is all Jim in the film then people will appreciate the opportunity to perceive someething new.


  16. Hey Elaine,
    Yeah, I guess the film is done. It is pretty amazing to realize that. And that it is after all this time still the movie I wanted to make. I am very proud of it. Let’s see what the Los Angelenians think about it.

    Savor the Maupassant, like a strong wine. The stories have great variety in emotion and tone. Some are even very funny. Some of course are deeply tragic. All have a keenness of observation that I believe has never been equalled.

    Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

  17. Hey Chris,
    Unfortunately I’m stuck in NY. But I know the Doors have discussed attending one of the two screenings.

  18. Well Tom,

    I can’t believe it, today’s the day. After today I may hate your guts for ruining the Doors story! But I doubt it. You’ve obviously made a sincere effort so even if I don’t agree with your “take” on the material, I can respect it.
    That’s an interesting aspect of the process, living with it. As you said, the music is unique to each individual who’s listened to it over the years (er, um, I think you said that or something like it). In that sense you’re linked with Oliver Stone as the only two people who have made feature length films about the tale of the Doors. He’s had a wide variety of response and now it’s your turn.
    This is not only your first documentary, it’s your first adaptation (and your first non-fiction), right? Your other films were your creations, while this is taking others’ material (footage, lives, memories) and shaping it. I would think that would be more nerve-racking. Obviously they’ve given their blessing to what you made, but this must be a unique situation for you.
    Sorry you’re not going to be there tonight. Best, Jeff

  19. Hey Jeff,
    I’m glad you’re seeing the film tonight.
    Yes, it is my first documentary. And yes, it has had its moments of intensity in terms of nerves. I look back on those first 3 weeks of work in LA, almost 2 years ago, and I can recall every single sleepless night as I realized what I’d undertaken. But I can honestly say I am extremely proud of the film. I think it achieves something unique in terms of the Doors in that it presents them intimately and honestly.

    As you watch the film just think of this: You know Morrison took the name for the band from a poem by Blake. Blakes suggests clearing all the doors through which we percieve things, wiping away from our eyes the clutter of myth and preconception.

    I have come to see how powerful and important this idea is. It is the only guaranteed way to really see something, and the only way to really form your own opinion.

  20. Tom!

    Just got back from the Doors screening at the Mann Festival Theatre w/ the Wolf gang. The documentary has really come together! It felt as though it was extremely well received by the audience. You should be very proud.

    Hope to see you back in LA soon and again, congratulations!


    The hard work paid off!!

  21. Thx for posting an update, Ash–I’ve been looking on Google this morning to see if I could find any news or blogs from people that attended. Glad to hear it was well received.

    Great news for you, Tom! Hope all the strands begin coming together!


  22. Hi Tom,

    I attended the screening of When You’re Strange last night in Los Angeles. I am not a Film Industry person. Just a long time Doors fan and interested in good films.

    The movie was excellent. I was very interested to see how the use of real footage only without interviews could tell the story of the Doors. I would have to say it worked better than anything I could have imagined. Combined with Johnny Depp’s narration, which was just the right amount of background information at just the right tone, the real story of the Doors comes across very clear.

    The use of Morrison’s film HWY was just absolutely amazing!!! You might think that Morrison is still with us.

    All in all an excellent documentary telling the Door’s story I feel would be of interest not only to Doors fans but also those wanting to get a glimpse of what it was like during this interesting period in our recent past.

    I thought the audience was about evenly split between Doors fans and Film industry “types”and that they received the film well.

    Congratulations ! An excellent job by you and all those who put the film together.


  23. Tom!

    I’ve had that coyote image in my head all day. Great movie there. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it was going to be and it kept surprising me at every turn. As a Doors fan I thank you for going your own way and making something different. It wasn’t just a straight bio, it had some thought to it, in the telling and in the images.
    The movie is alive from beginning to end. Even the familiar stuff like the Sullivan performance seem different somehow. You kind of slowed things up and went in closer. I came to it from the perspective of having seen a lot of the footage from the old videos. But you made it all new and full of subtext. And besides, there really IS a lot of stuff I hadn’t seen before.
    The HWY stuff looked great, but it didn’t stick out. Almost everything looks gorgeous. For some reason the boat stuff really blew me away even though I’d seen it on VHS and DVD many times over the years.
    I thought the Miami scene worked great in that you used alternate footage artfully so that we know it’s not supposed to be actual Miami footage. The way the footage is kind of subdued and mysterious. And for some reason I was impressed with the way you recreated the final phone call between Morrison and Densmore. I loved the playing with the footage that way. Speaking of Miami, I thought it was ironic you went through the Miami trial, the whole thing of: did Jim show his package or didn’t he? And then later we see actually see Jim’s family jewels anyway. A kind of, what was the big deal? I don’t know if it was planned that way but that shot made me think back to the whole Miami thing.
    I liked the Depp narration and showing the context of the ’60’s. Some people find that too “obvious” and the narration as only one point of view (we’re trained to get the dramatic thrust of a subject from the conflicted talking heads we see on TV documentaries). But I think there’s a lot of value for those willing to go for the ride and listen. Some messages bear repeating and it truly was a unique and packed time. I liked how you went all the way with the ’60’s footage (sexually, etc.) instead of getting PC, and really gave that era it’s due. And the last line of the movie got a great response, though you said it caused you some problems. 🙂
    I loved the movie. One feeling I got was there’s a lot of quiet in it for a rock movie. Depp’s narration adds to that. And the audience was rather quiet too, really seeming to intensely watch the flick. Though they laughed at the right times, etc.
    I talked a little to KLOS’ Cynthia Fox, my radio dream girl all these years. She said before the movie that Jim Ladd was curious if he was in the movie (he wasn’t there that night) and I was able to tell her that you told me he was. And then her station got a couple of plugs in the movie too so that was cool. I said after the movie that they should work out a promotion when it’s released and she thought so too. The station has a great relationship with the Doors so that kind of made the movie more personal for me, that the local DJs were a part of it.
    Anyway, a great night, a great movie. Thanks Tom!

  24. Hey Ash,
    Great to hear from you. I respect your opinion enormously and it is encouraging to hear you liked the film. I really think the work of the past two months has snapped the film into its truest and sharpest form. I’m grateful for the opportunity to rework it. That chance doesn’t always happen.
    I hope you’re good and making steps to direct a film of your own.

  25. Hey Chris,
    Thanks for this report from the front lines. I appreciate the fact that you acknowledge my creative team on the film–they were incredible.
    I agree with you about the original HWY footage. It is so clear and present it makes Jim seem alive. And to think this original negative was only located 3 weeks ago–after 40 years of looking for it.
    I’m glad you liked the film and I appreciate your taking the time to tell me why.

  26. Hey Jeff,
    It was a real pleasure to follow your journey through watching the film. I’m glad you got so many of the different levels. I loved your synthesis of the shot of Morrison’s jewels. I never thought of it in terms of the Miami incident, only that it seemed right to place it in the film at that point.
    I also appreciated your recognition of how I treated the 60’s. They were an incredibly turbulent time in America. I hate nostalgia. I wanted to show the details of exactly what was going on, from the sexual revolution to the intense struggles for human rights.
    That is definitely Jim Ladd’s voice on the radio. He came in and recorded it for us. It adds something amazing.
    Thanks so much for the support. There is a real sea change happening I think. Let’s keep up the fight and see if we can keep the film moving toward a theatrical release.

  27. KUDOS TOM!!!
    Throughly dug “WHEN YOUR STRANGE”
    I have a response to the movie on the Ray Manzarek fan forum, if you
    have an opportunity to read it directed towards your artistic achievement.

    Also, Screaming Eagle(Chasen-son) would love to acquire one of your “WHEN YOUR STRANGE POSTERS.” ( Any probability?)How much? $$$
    S/Eagle directed/created/scored a film (trilogy) that paid homage to JDM approximately 2 years ago for his film school thesis, which was conceived on his friends’ rooftop one early am (7/4).
    Raven 13

  28. As a fan of the Doors from about 1980 I thought I had seen and heard pretty much all there was about the Doors. However when I sat and watched “When You’re Strange” at the Mann Festival in Westwood I was completely blown away. The footage from HWY was so clear and fresh it looked like it was shot the day before. The audio from Miami was amazing. This documentary is truly a masterpiece for Doors and all music fans. And thanks to Ida for keeping me posted on all things Doors.

  29. Just saw the la afternoon showing.Ray and robby were both there and were loudly applauded.I thought the movie worked on a number of levels. My girlfriend who was an agent in the early 70s and 80s and was a fan said she forgotten how good the music was I told her to get the first album..At lunch we decided were going to see it again.This may sound weird but we were both somewhat exhausted by the end of the movie it brought back such memories,many of us had dominering fathers life was alot louder back then,the war,drugs,friends dying of overdoses murder suicide ah the good old days who could ever forget the time we got REALLY stoned on grass shut the lights and then let a rattle snake out that was intense and after all there was a hospital at riverside dr. and coldwater canyon..We were doors fans…

  30. While waiting in line I couldn’t help but notice how normal everyone looked,no leather no longhair allot of young people real nice vibe..Ray and robby were welcomed with loud applause.Very good movie on a number of levels more personal than I expected.The narration seemed almost invisible and only added to the movie I was half expecting a pirate voice..My girlfriend was an agent in the early 60s and 70s who is still engulfed in music of all types was so taken by the movie shes going to start listening to the doors again.This movie not only brings back the doors in context to there time but paints a portrait of the group and there music in a truly amazing way ..You
    are really to be congratulated..

  31. Hey Raven 13,
    I sincerely thank you for your great note and for your post on the Manzarek site. I am really glad you liked the film.

    Give Screaming Eagle my congratulations on his thesis. I like the topic–and the way it was conceived. Unfortunately I don’t have any posters but I think if you go to the Doors Official site they used to offer some of them for sale.


  32. Hey Joe G,
    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate hearing your response to the film. Of course I’m glad that you liked it but more it helps on many levels to keep the faith that all the hard work was worth it.
    As you know the original negative for HWY only resurfaced a few weeks ago. Up until then I was using outtakes from faded prints that ended up in the Doors vault. I am as blown away as you are by the immediacy of this new material.
    It looks brand new.
    I’m glad you got what we were up to with the Miami sequence. I’m especially proud of the way it came together.
    Thanks very much for writing.

  33. Well Marty,
    When your comments came in I just had to include them all, in the order I received them. It took me a while to stop laughing. I still don’t know exactly what the hell you and your girlfriend were doing with the snake but I felt like I was there.

    I really like your take on the times today versus then. I’m not a nostalgia buff in any way. Just because it’s old don’t make it good. But, I do agree with you. There’s a kind of pervasive pruppie-ness (preppie and yuppie) today that I find colorless and bland. Back then people were called freaks for a reason.

    I personally feel it’s time for another Youth Movement in this country. God knows there’s enough to be pissed off about.

    But, listen, thanks very much for your kind words about the film. You can’t imagine the amount of pressure I was under (some of it self-inflicted) to wrestle this thing into some form of coherence and meaning.

    The only thing that kept me alive was my belief in the music and my belief that in its purest form that brief scream of protest from this country’s young people was unbelievably brave and courageous.

    My best to you and your girlfriend,

  34. Thanks for the reply tom..The snake thing happened back in 1969 true i’ve asked my girlfriend to participate in some questionable practices but they never involved rattle snakes.Harry would catch the snakes in the local mountains..Harry died the following year,drug related as did 6 others in our circle of friends in fact the only aspect of the Doors I don’t like in retrospect is the talk of mind expansion ect..We all took drugs back then, many of us got a bit carried away.. i called the Doors workshop in 1971 and was told I could come over and watch them record what would become LA WOMAN.By the time me and my brother got there Morrison had just left.. my brother said ..he’s lucky… what do you mean?I was going to hit him..WHY..you know gary and drugs and all..his best friend was recently murdered in a drug deal many others had become quite messed up.Im very familiar with the whole mind expansion bullshit..as far as the blandness of todays youth you can thank my 60s generation for political correctness which does not tolerate freedom of speech or thought..interesting how one becomes what they hate..i actually like todays generation a bit overly obsessed with the environment but hay beats the hitler youth…my girlfriend just called sky saxon just died….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.