We continue our discussion with “The Doors” screenwriter Randall Jahnson in Part II of our exclusive interview. In this installment Randall and Jim Cherry talk about the UCLA Film School, its influence on Jim Morrison, and Oliver Stone’s portrayal of Morrison and the band in the film. You can read Part I here.
DE: I read that there were different cliques in the film school. There were the careerists, and the poets, and Morrison fell in with the poets.
Randall Jahnson: That’s sort of typical of any (film school), I mean film is a craft, and it is an art and it is a science and so you have people that are there on a career path in a sense to be cinematographers, to be sound recordists, to be sound re-recordists, or they want to be editors, they approach it much more as a craftsman would in a lot of ways, and there were those who really it was about being an auteur. It was the age of Godard. European new wave had a huge influence on these guys at the time. Remember, in the context, American cinema was coming out of the ’50s and early ’60s with George Cukor and people like that making these and the Robert Wise’s of the world making very good but standard, safe films. So, in comes the new wave and jump cutting and everything else. So you really see the difference in American cinema from about ’67 with “Bonnie and Clyde” arriving and “Easy Rider” and all that other stuff.
DE: In one of your videos on Youtube you said Oliver Stone inserted his own vision of Jim, and Ray Manzarek has said something very similar. What do you think that vision was? And how did it work into the film?
Randall Jahnson: It worked in because Oliver was the writer/director! At that point in Oliver’s career he could do what he damn well pleased and no one was going to say no. My take on the film was that at some point in the movie it stops being about Jim Morrison and starts being about Oliver Stone. Specifically, I perceived it as Oliver is just much more death obsessed than Jim was. That’s one of the bones I have to pick about it. I did not write in the bald headed death figure to the script at all. That was Oliver’s invention and it’s prevalent throughout there. No doubt Jim had a fascination with death just like anybody does. In a sense it was almost like an adolescent thing. I kind of feel that Jim was actually much more life-embracing than he’s given credit for. I think life was very mystical and mysterious to him and he was fascinated by so many aspects of it. He loved art, he loved movies, he loved books, he loved performance and provoking people. He had an impish sense of humor, he liked to party as we all well know. This was about life. This wasn’t about death. This wasn’t a guy who was sitting there just stewing, sitting alone in a room all the time, at least initially. I think he was very, very fun.
Rich Linnell who managed them with Siddons for a while showed me a lot of photographs, Lisciandro too. The guys would get together and they would play football sometimes on Sundays. They showed me some pictures from Lisciandro’s book (An Hour for Magic) of Jim with a headband on, out in full beard playing football with all these guys. They said he was a cut-up, he was having fun, they used to do stuff like that, you know, just regular life kinds of things, and you never quite got that indication in the movie. Another thing about the movie that bothered me and this goes back to my own research when I first came on board, Sasha Harari told me to just take a couple of weeks to research it and go ahead and write the movie. Well, OK, after about a few interviews with the surviving Doors and then with Paul Rothchild I began to see stuff in between the cracks that the public perception of Jim Morrison was vastly different than the guy was privately, and I wanted to investigate that more and Rothchild really encouraged me to do so. And the more I dug, the more difficult it was to navigate, to get a handle on who this character was. I mean not only who he was as a person, but as who he was going to be as a movie character.
I eventually compiled about 50 hours of interviews, I suppose. And a lot of it was like the parable of the blind man touching the elephant and people would tell me “I knew Jim, I really knew him” and basically it was “yeah, OK, you knew him but you had your hand on the tail or your hand on the trunk. You’re just one of the blind men that had a piece of it, you didn’t have a grasp of the whole guy.” I had a lot of conflicting interviews, a lot of conflicting information, and it was too difficult to really assess it and kind of get through some of the bullshit and see who was reliable and who wasn’t. But, two consistent things came out in all the interviews: one, was he was the smartest guy I ever met, without a doubt, very, very intelligent young man; and then two, I never saw him without a book in his hand, the guy was always reading and it wasn’t just the Nietzsche, he was reading magazines, popular stuff, Norman Mailer, you know then of course the Rimbauds and Baudelaires, and things of that ilk, movie reviews, he was just constantly thinking and searching, you know this was a guy who was searching a lot. So, what bothered me then about the movie was that, oh, I would say more towards the second half of it they just got Jim sprawling around with a fifth of whiskey in his hand all the time.
I just wish, if for nothing else, in a couple of scenes, if Oliver had substituted a book instead of a fifth of booze, we might have gotten a slightly different perception of him (Morrison). I really felt that Morrison was indeed a searcher. I think that he felt an obligation to his audience to take them somewhere, to deliver them, and very much like a shaman would to the tribe, bring them a message, and there was a search within him to find that message, and to bring it as well. I think sometimes that search got lost, he got lost, he got scared when he couldn’t find it and couldn’t deliver it in a way that he had hoped. That induced a certain amount of disappointment, or panic, or fear that he wasn’t the guy that everyone expected him to be. But back to Stone, that never came across, never came across that he was a reader, never came across that there were stacks of books in his motel room or wherever he was crashing. Michael C. Ford told me that he would go see him over at the Alta Cienega Motel, and there would just be books like paperbacks stacked almost to the ceiling. He was always reading, thinking, and writing.
DE: I always thought that The Doors movie was missing one scene with Jim sitting and writing.
Randall Jahnson: I wrote a scene where he was at the soul food place, the soul kitchen (Olivia’s) in Venice when he was crashing down there at Dennis Jakob’s place where he was living on the rooftop one summer and he used to go into the soul food place there. An African American woman ran the place. So I had him sitting in there writing some stuff. I was disappointed that scene didn’t make it. That was before The Doors really took off and he was still searching. I missed a lot of the process for Jim and again a sense that everything he was doing performance-wise, poetry-wise, art-wise, it was coming from an intellectual base. It wasn’t just necessarily a drunken spontaneous moment that just suddenly sprang out of his subconscious. I’m sure there were a few moments of that, but he was hugely influenced by theatre and especially the Living Theatre, as we know, and the whole evocative nature of what the Living Theatre was doing, and interacting with the audience, really up close.
That was the thing I really wanted to see, that’s what was pretty revolutionary, that was exciting, but that got lost. You didn’t see that and the second half of the movie is just a drag because it’s just about him walking around gaining weight, with his fifth of Jack Daniel’s and everything is a bummer and death, death, death. Oliver wasn’t stateside during this period. Oliver was in Vietnam, and Oliver comes from an entirely different sensibility and not to say that’s not a valid sensibility, it’s just a different sensibility that’s going on here.
And when Oliver came aboard three and half years after I had written my draft of the screenplay, I got a call from Bill Graham’s attorney who was also one of the producers, and he said, “would you want to talk with Oliver Stone?” And I said, “well, why?” Because he’s on board, directing the movie now working off of your script and he said, “frankly Oliver is a little square” musically. Oliver was in Vietnam at the time and heard The Doors, and listened to The Doors in an entirely different context. I was 7-8 years old when The Doors were peaking in ’67-68, but I remember hearing them on the radio. I had two older brothers, 10-12 years older than me, so they were going through the quintessential hippy period. So I was a fly on the wall for the ’60s period, if you will, so I felt qualified enough to replicate it. I argued with the producers when I came aboard that The Doors were much more punk rock than they were flower children. Anyone who really knows, it was New York that really made The Doors. It wasn’t L.A. I mean, they could hardly get arrested in L.A. It was New York and Europe that ultimately made The Doors who they were. The punkers really embraced The Doors. X covered them, of course. I’m sure Manzarek’s part of their influence, but John Doe and Exene, they were all poets living in Venice. That was the legacy of Jim there.
DE: We talked a little about Oliver Stone inserting his own persona or his own perspective on Jim. When you were writing the screenplay was there any identification with Jim?
Randall Jahnson: Yeah, I couldn’t help it. I was 27 at the time, that magic age. I thought, ‘God, am I going to die at 27?’ writing about this. Secondly, I was living in West Hollywood. I was on Sweetzer about half a block north of Santa Monica Boulevard, which was about three blocks east of La Cienega. So I was really in, literally living in, Jim’s old neighborhood. And I had a ’67 Ford Mustang that I was driving around in too. I had gone to UCLA film school. As a writer it’s one thing when you’re writing a fantasy world, an “Avatar” world, or you’re writing something in a particular period of history and evoking that. This was recent history and so much of Jim’s universe, especially that intersection of La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevard that was the center of his universe pretty much. And I was there, literally, Barney’s Beanery, Alta Cienega Motel. The Tropicana (Motel) was gone by then, but The Doors’ office was still there. The old Elektra offices had moved, but the building was still there. And I think he and Pam had lived in an apartment on Norton Avenue which was literally right around the corner from where I lived on Sweetzer. You couldn’t help but sort of identify with it a little bit. You’re walking the same sidewalk, I imagined him walking the same sidewalk, hanging out, going into Barney’s, and yeah you kind of get into a little bit of a vibe. For me it’s always about trying to get into the character’s head, and to see the world as they saw it and to communicate it to an audience. The challenge here with Jim was that you have essentially a puzzle, an enigma here that had to make a protagonist and I had to get inside his head or try to, attempt to, for right or wrong, I had to bring a movie. There were just things about the experience I couldn’t help but identify with a little, but I never took the massive amounts of psychedelics that Jim had.
DE: I don’t think many people could.
Randall Jahnson: Yeah, that’s true. I’ll tell you something interesting Rothchild told me about the famous encounter of Jim and Janis Joplin where she beaned him over the head with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s because he was being such an ass at this barbecue they were at. He said that Jim just couldn’t drink, he was like an Indian where there’s something in the physiology of your body that can’t process alcohol and he’s drunk on the first drink. But Janis could drink. She could really fucking drink and Jim couldn’t. So when they met and he tried to keep up with her he was dead in the water right from the start and he just got to be an ass. Paul said he was yanking her hair and being a jerk and so she finally just took a bottle and pounded him right over the head. But he said drug-wise it was a different thing. He took a lot of drugs and could.
To be continued… Part III available here.
For more information on Randall Jahnson please visit his website: http://randalljahnson.com/.