Writer/Director: Tom DiCillo
Cast: John Densmore, Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison
Narrated by Johnny Depp.
Awards: Grammy for Best Documentary,
Audience Award; South by Southwest
Festivals: Sundance, LA Film Festival, Woodstock, Berlin, Deauville, London, San Sebastian.
US Distribution: Rhino Entertainment and Abramorama.
When You're Strange is my first feature documentary. It was supposed to have taken 2 months to finish. It ended up completely occupying my life for over 2 years. And to my great astonishment it won a Grammy in 2010.
In early 2008 I was approached by Dick Wolf Productions to direct what they described as the first feature documentary about The Doors. They had access to every frame of footage and music in The Doors archive. I said yes immediately.
The first thing I did was look at all the footage. It took over 3 weeks. Most of it was shot by Paul Ferrara, Jim Morrison's classmate at UCLA Film School, between 1966 and 1970. Some of it had sound, much of it didn't.
But, whether it had sound or not it was all real. And somehow watching the footage alone and in silence made it more immediate and personal, like I was seeing it come alive as if it was all shot yesterday. When I was done I knew one thing; there would be no interviews with other musicians, no celebrity appearances. I wanted to try and tell the story of The Doors using only this footage.
But, I didn't really have a Concept. Every 2 days the producers (who were paying me) came by the editing room and politely asked, "What's your Concept?" And every two days I would have to say, "Still working on it."
One day I opened a box that had HWY written on it. In it was the completed cut of Jim Morrison's own film (Highway) which he also produced. The box also contained all of the unused outtakes from the film. I watched everything. Again, most of the outtakes had no sound. So, I was watching silent original footage of Jim Morrison driving, hitchhiking through Joshua Tree, swimming in a mountain stream. In one of the close-ups of him driving he closed his eyes as if in exhaustion from a deeply moving thought.
And that's when it hit me. What if I used these outtakes of Jim to represent something like his spirit, some manifestation of himself that was lost and wandering through the world? Seeing him in that close-up somehow gave me the idea to have a news flash come on the car radio in which he hears the announcment of his own death.
At that moment the entire Concept became clear; the spirit of Jim Morrison begins a journey searching for some meaning--about The Doors, about the time, about himself. Throughout the film, this spirit of Jim appears, ruminating, meditative; emotionally connecting the chapters and events of The Door's story. One of my greatest reliefs about stumbling upon this idea was that it enabled me to use nothing but the real footage.
The real footage. Every single frame in the film is from this original footage of The Doors. All of the footage of Jim driving and wandering through the desert is from his own film, HWY, which has been viewable on the web for many, many years.
To this day I am still in awe that I actually met John Densmore, Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek, and that I made a film about the incredible musical force they were all part of. I came to have a great respect for all of them, as musicians and as human beings. I could not be more honored that they so enthusiastically supported the film.
As for the one I didn’t meet; I feel I got to know Mr. Morrison just a little bit through making this film and feel permanently altered as a result. I was most affected by his commitment to artistic freedom which was ferocious and absolute.
Independent Filmmaker & Musician
Thanks Tom. Such an awesome in-depth window into the Doors.
My favorite DOORS docu yet! Wonderful job. I went into it blind and was like WHOA where did you get that actor, THAT GUY REALLY LOOKS LIKE HIM. Then a couple minutes in I caught on. It’s all him. No stand ins. Amazing footage from his childhood and teen years. Through the narration you really bring some interesting insights to the Doors and Morrison particularly. It is truthful but respectful (unlike Oliver Stone’s which i was embarrassed to still be a Doors fan after viewing all those years ago). I particularly like that sequence of intercut stills and footage of current events in the lulls in the live performance of The End. Brilliant. I liked Depp’s narration, but I kept wondering what yours would sound like – could not get it out of my head in fact – after reading somewhere that they played your reading at the festivals. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED by this reviewer! Liora P
hi, Tom, I read somewhere that in an early screening of the film you did all the narration. Where is that now? Not understanding any of the legalities of all this, I still want to ask: Is there any way to have a listen to it?
Yes, that is true, Liora. It is somewhat of a painful story so I won’t go into it too much. The shortest version of it is that while we were editing the film the narration changed almost daily. So, in order to not have to have some voice over person come in every day I recorded the new narration myself. By the time we went to Sundance we had not gotten anyone to do the narration so we left my voice in. Apparently, this was very disturbing to some people.
No, this narration is not available to listen to. All I can say is that Johnny Depp’s narration followed mine to the word, and also in time and inflection.