June 5, 2024
One of the most bizarre reactions to my films occurred on When You’re Strange. Before editing started, I spent weeks looking at all the footage from The Doors archive. Interspersed with hours of concert footage were silent shots of Jim Morrison walking and driving through the desert.
I found out they were outtakes from Jim’s own film, HWY. I’d been struggling with a unifying concept, and one sleepless night, I had the thought to use a shot of Jim turning on his car radio and hearing the announcement of his own death. That was the key to the whole film; these shots of Morrison became like images of his spirit coming back to find meaning in what had happened to him.
The footage from HWY became crucial. The quality was terrible, though; copies of copies, many generations gone. A lot of the shots had been on the internet for years, but all were equally grainy, fuzzy and blurred.
But, I cut them into the film, even though there were ripped frames, splices shuddering past and faces so degraded from copying you could hardly recognize anybody. Jim had been greatly impressed by Easy Rider and decided to finance his own film. He paid extra to shoot on 35mm negative, showing he was concerned about the quality of his images. Of course, I asked the producers if there was a better copy of the film somewhere but was told there was not.
And then, a miracle. A week before we were to lock picture, I was informed that the original 35mm negative had been found and was being made available to me. The producers sent me clips from it. It was astounding, like coming into clear water after months of swimming through murk. The clarity and the detail felt alive, electric and brand new.
Then came the stipulation. “We will let you use this original negative only if you remove any reference in the film to a particular woman’s addiction to, and ultimate death from, heroin.”
I was dumbfounded. Throughout the film, Jim’s drinking and drug use are freely detailed and presented. No one had a problem with his substance abuse. So, I made a difficult decision, which I rationalized by reminding myself it was a film about Jim Morrison and The Doors. Using Jim’s original negative, from the only film he made as director, felt like the right thing to do.
After I cut in this riveting new footage, something strange began happening. When the film screened at Sundance, I made a point of saying that there were no actors in the film, no recreations; everything in the film was real. After the screening, a woman stood up and asked, “I understand what you said about everything being real, but who did you get to play Jim Morrison?”
At the next screening, a distributor I’d spent weeks coaxing to attend stormed out of the theatre after five minutes. I ran out after him. “What happened?” I asked. “What’s the matter?” He whirled on me. “I can’t believe you used a stunt double for Jim Morrison!!!”
His outrage was so intense it stunned me. I said, “It’s not a stunt double. It’s Jim. It’s all footage from his own movie that he acted in.”
The distributor glared at me, trembling in rage. And then he walked off. He passed on the film, as did every other distributor at Sundance.
When the film finally got a limited theatrical release, critics trashed it for including “recreated scenes and body doubles.” Every frame they were incensed about was Jim Morrison, taken directly from his own film.
No one ever bothered to ask me about Jim’s film HWY or its footage on the internet, which had been there for twenty years.
I still stand by my decision. I used the original negative of another filmmaker’s film. As a director, I would have wanted someone to do the same.
But I still can’t comprehend what happened.

You can watch When You're Strange here.


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Independent Filmmaker & Musician