“The Doors” is the 1991 Oliver Stone film that has been much maligned by the surviving Doors (although it initially had all their participation in the making) and Doors fans alike even though the movie continues to draw fans to the band.
Few know that “The Doors” was written by a young screenwriter named Randall Jahnson (credited in the film as L. Randal Johnson). He had a lot in common with The Doors: he was a UCLA film school graduate, had some of the same teachers as Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison did at UCLA, and he has an abiding interest in music.
I was able to talk with Mr. Jahnson (11/1/10) and he talked about every aspect of the movie, from how he became involved, to the movie he wrote, and how his script differs from the movie that appears on the screen. He was very frank and detailed in his answers and we talked for an hour and half.
For more information on Randall Jahnson, please visit his website: http://randalljahnson.com/.
DE: How did you get involved in writing The Doors’ movie?
Randall Jahnson: There were several circumstances that contributed to it. My fledgling career was taking off and I had a film that was slated for production, it was called “Dudes.” It was directed by Penelope Spheeris, known for her “Decline of Western Civilization” and for a lack of better description it was a punk rock western. It had made the rounds of the major studios and Columbia pictures was one of the studios where it was read, and actually Ridley Scott I think was interested in it one point. So I was on the radar at Columbia where “The Doors” was set-up at that point. Hollywood is a business that is just built on hype. I had some street cred on me, some hype at that time, so that was all hopeful just in terms of getting in the door at Columbia.
The other really helpful thing was my college roommate was dating the creative exec in charge of The Doors’ movie. She was in charge of developing it. She was relatively new there, her name is Jude Schneider. It was important to her to get the right writer for this project slated for that spot. She began to ask my former roommate at college if he knew somebody who would be really, really good for this and Mike immediately recommended me knowing that I had a huge interest in music and was I involved in a lot of the punk scene in L.A. at the that time. The next thing I knew I was on the phone with her, and then she was going to arrange a meeting with Sasha Harari who was the lead producer on it at the time. I met Sasha for a lunch, and we had absolutely nothing in common (laughs). It was a meeting that was going nowhere fast. I just felt like whatever I was saying was not what he wanted to hear. He didn’t seem to have any interest in what I was bringing up until I compared Jim Morrison to, of all people, “Lawrence of Arabia.” I said they were two really similar guys, about the same age and they were highly intelligent, very well read, very well educated, and they were guys who were swept up by the events of their time. The events of history, if you will, and they were guys who the public perception of them versus the private side of them were vastly different. That discrepancy, once they became famous, began to weigh on them to the point of where they ultimately, I think, cracked and kind of fell apart. In Lawrence’s case he was captured by the Turks and raped and/or tortured. In Jim’s case he was suffering privately. I think in many ways, in knowing that the public persona that he had created or the media had created was really vastly different from the private one. So, he (Harari) perked up at that thought that was very, very interesting. And so what seemed to be a lunch that was going nowhere fast ended up being a two-hour lunch.
The next thing I knew I was scheduled to go have a meeting with Manzarek, Densmore, and Robby Krieger. I met with them and it was in the office of Tom Rickman who was a wonderful screenwriter, who wrote “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” Tom had actually been the studio’s choice to write the movie, but he declined to do it. But he agreed to mentor whoever they hired on the project just in case that particular writer ran into trouble. Tom was a wonderful guy who really settled me down a number of times when I was really feeling completely overwhelmed with the magnitude of the whole project. He was very supportive, really encouraging.
Anyway, so that first meeting with the surviving Doors, Tom Rickman, Sasha Harari and myself was over at Tom’s office over at Fox studios. We were all sitting around eating sandwiches and Manzarek was very interested in me because I had been working with Henry Rollins and Black Flag, and a band called The Minutemen. I had been making videos for these guys. Densmore was very interested in me because of “Dudes,” and Penelope directing it. John at that point was doing a lot of acting and was interested in finding some acting work. When he found out “Dudes” was going into production he said “is there a part for me? Do you think I can get in?“ “Sure, sure, love you John, so of course.” I actually talked to Penelope and she had met him, I think once or twice before. Anyway, she said “Oh, sure we can create something for him” he actually got a spot playing a sheriff, a lawman up in Montana, blown away by the villain of the movie who was Lee Ving, who was the lead singer of a punk band called Fear. Lee played a great villain. Because Manzarek had been producing X, he was also interested in another band I had a close association with. A band called The Fibonaccis who were declared “arty, farty and ready to party” by the L.A. Weekly. Very eclectic, unusual, highly intelligent; they were a really great band. Ray was interested in producing them as well, but he was interested in a lot of the things I had done. Plus, I had gone to UCLA film school and had a couple of the same instructors he and Jim had had. We were just speaking the same language right from the start. I had a little bit of pedigree coming with me, and the connection with my former roommate’s girlfriend, and the momentum that “Dudes” had. So all these events conspired to really land me the job. I had been forewarned by my agent at the time, that it’s highly, highly doubtful you’ll get the job because they’re talking to some major heavy hitters, but nevertheless I did.
DE: One of the things Oliver Stone said about Ray was that he wanted to have more creative input into the movie. Did Ray volunteer any creative input to you?
Randall Jahnson: Ray really didn’t call me up and say “hey, listen, I see it this way, it should be like this or that.” Anyone who’s listened to FM radio in the last 50 years is going to run across some kind of an interview with Ray talking about the origin of The Doors and that time period. Ray is very charismatic and he is such a great interview, very evocative of that time. He passed on the same kind of stuff. We talked a lot about UCLA and what was going on there and a number of the film school cronies that they hung out with, real characters in the department. There was a guy named John DeBella who was one of them.
DE: He was still there when you were there?
Randall Jahnson: No, they were talking about these guys and I started trying to find them. Dennis Jakob is credited with being the guy who whispered into Coppola’s ear that he should build “Apocalypse Now” around Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” And then of course there was Frank Lisciandro and Paul Ferrara, and Felix Venable. Felix, John DeBella, and Dennis Jakob were the guys that were, I guess evoked a certain kind of film school mythos. They were highly intellectual according to Ray and would argue about films until dawn. They were also kind of dangerous guys in a lot of ways, a lot of drugs, a lot of pushing the limits and so I think these were the guys that really had a big influence on Jim. Of course Lisciandro and Paul Ferrara were really the good friends that I recall. Ray didn’t like DeBella much, and one of the guys subsequently died (Felix). I think he said Felix was just an angry person. Nevertheless, if you go to any film school as I did, there were all these characters there. That was just the way it was, always a very eclectic group of people coming from many kinds of backgrounds — ethnic, class and sensibilities. I think all that stuff really informed Jim quite a bit. Talk about Dennis Jakob, the guy was a massive reader and intellectual, so it was a tough crowd to hang with and apparently Jim certainly held his own.
DE: You shared some of the same instructors as Jim and Ray. Did they add to your insight in writing The Doors movie?
Randall Jahnson: Yeah, they did. I interviewed both of them, the two instructors. Lou Stoumen who won an Academy Award for a short documentary film, he was primarily a still photographer, actually he was my first basic screenwriting instructor that I had there. He was a really interesting looking guy, very tall, he had kind of a salt and pepper beard, a very chiseled profile. I used to imagine that he like was Captain Ahab, very dramatic looking. I don’t recall a whole lot that he had to say about Jim.
The one who was very vocal and talkative about him and a real wealth of information was Ed Brokaw. Ed really was one of the founders of the UCLA (film) school. He really transformed it into a world class organization and that was one of the first things that when I met Ray, one of the first things was “you had Brokaw, oh God yeah, editing “Gunsmoke.” He taught editing so the basic exercise always was to take a sequence from an episode of “Gunsmoke” and cut it together. It was basically a little bit of dialogue where Marshall Dillon comes up and breaks up a man fighting with his wife out in the street and the man doesn’t want any intervention by the law so they end up in this fistfight or knife fight. I can’t remember what it is. While the woman watches and a crowd gathers, Marshall Dillon takes him down. There’s millions of ways to cut this sequence and Ed would lecture about it and then he would hand you the rushes or dailies and then we would have to go and cut it on a 16 millimeter Movieola, splice it and put it together so you’re physically cutting it, this is long before the digital age. We had these tiny little edit bays or little bullpens as they called them, and there were only a certain amount of Movieolas available so people were cutting “Gunsmoke”. You would hear it, the same lines over and over again echoing in the halls at two, three, four in the morning.
Ed was very avant garde. He really encouraged you to take chances with the cutting, he didn’t seem too impressed with the sort of standard TV view of editing, he really seemed to like it when people took chances. He was a very interesting guy, so anyone who had gone through UCLA film school had taken Brokaw and therefore had cut “Gunsmoke”. I mean it was just a standard, and I think a standard then adapted by other film schools around. Someone was telling me recently that “oh, yeah we still cut Gunsmoke.” Brokaw was such an interesting character and there were a lot of stories about him. He was very eccentric. There were stories about him that there was a tragedy in his past, and apparently that has some truth to it, either family, wife, or child killed in a car wreck something of that nature. He never quite recovered from it. Manzarek thought that Brokaw had taken some acid and thought he was a little too old to take it, and he thought that might have contributed to Ed’s eccentricities. I don’t know about that. He was very eccentric, there’s no doubt about it. I used to see him even in my days in film school and then a few years afterward when I was writing the script. I lived in Westwood and Ed was just wandering the streets at night or waiting at a bus stop, or I would bump into him in a bookstore.
DE: Didn’t Ed Brokaw mentor Jim or take more interest in Jim than other instructors?
Randall Jahnson: In “No One Here Gets Out Alive” Sugerman refers to him as Jim’s favorite instructor. Honestly, I don’t know if that was true or not. Brokaw told me a couple of things about them. He did like Jim a lot, but he thought that Jim was so intelligent that all his ideas were in the abstract. He had a hard time grounding his ideas in some kind of drama or cinema. Whereas, Manzarek was the superior filmmaker because Manzarek just thought cinematically. If you’ve seen Ray’s films, “Induction” and “Evergreen,” they’re wonderful student films. I mean they’re quite good, I haven’t seen them in years, but I remember being very impressed by them. Manzarek was just a natural filmmaker in how he saw things, but Jim was out there, his head was in the clouds and he had a really difficult time grounding his vision of things. That’s why Ed felt Manzarek was a better filmmaker and Jim was probably the better poet, or poetry suited him and his intellect better.
To be continued… Part II available here.