We continue our discussion with “The Doors” screenwriter Randall Jahnson in Part III of our exclusive interview. Here we talk about the real Jim Morrison, Doors myths like the “Indians scattered” scene, and how much of Jahnson’s original script appeared in the film. You can read Part I here and Part II here.
DE: I’ve always ascribed some of that mythic proportion (of Morrison’s drug use) to legend.
Randall Jahnson: I would think some of that is true. Anyone who has taken massive doses of LSD, you’re going to sustain some damage.
DE: That brings us to the “Indians on Dawn’s Highway” incident.
Randall Jahnson: This goes back to Jim’s character. I interviewed his parents, as far as I know I was the first to actually interview them face to face in any sort of journalistic capacity. It was at their attorney’s office in Century City. I grew up in the San Diego area and they were retired. My dad was Marine Corps so we had some common ground there at first to talk about and I think that eased them a tad, but inevitably I had to ask questions about the Indians on the highway scene. They both nodded and were well aware of it. When I brought it up his mother Clara did most of the talking, reminiscing about that. She said they remembered the incident but it wasn’t as Jim described it. They were driving across the New Mexico desert and Jim and his siblings were in the back with the grandparents as well, and they came across something along the highway, it wasn’t an accident, an old pick-up truck was on the side of the road, on the shoulder and there were a number of Indians standing around it, most likely from one of the Nations out there.
She said there wasn’t anything overtly gruesome or bloody about it, they weren’t scattered all over the highway, there was no evidence of any kind of an accident but she said there was an odd thing about it, and that was they were all keening doing a ‘woo-woo-woo’ kind of sound. She said that was a little eerie sounding and she said she supposed there could have been somebody hurt or something, but they didn’t see it there on the side of the road among the group. She said that sound alone was rather eerie and to an impressionable 4 year old or 5 year old she said it could have had quite an impact on him. After telling the whole story and explaining it to a degree she looked at me and very earnestly said “little Jimmy had a tendency to embellish.” I’ve always loved that comment about him because it evokes a kind of a Huck Finn unreliable narrator quality about him, a little bit of the impish storyteller, the candor but the narrator wants to tell a whopper! I think that was an aspect of Jim’s personality, he was a storyteller, he enjoyed it, and there was also the mischievous prankster to him as well. Whether he honestly believed this moment in the way he always put it in context the shaman, the soul of the dying shaman jumping into his own, whether he really believed that or not I’m not convinced one way or another, but I think he enjoyed perpetuating the story because it perpetuated a certain amount of mystique and fun, and mystery about him.
DE: How much of your screenplay made it to the final movie?
Randall Jahnson: It’s difficult to reduce it to percentages because it just doesn’t work that way. Oliver rewrote probably 70-80 percent of my dialog, but structurally it’s very much my script as I laid it out all the way through the New Haven bust where he got maced. After that point it’s more into Oliver territory, and really becomes, on one level, more about Oliver and Oliver’s issues than it does about Jim. Then it comes back again to what I had laid out with Miami and how the trial went down. I didn’t bog the script down in the indecency trial proceedings, as that to me was a sure fire way of boring an audience but I did want to put it into a montage because it was part of all the stuff that was happening to Jim at once and everything coming crashing down. So, I did have it designed with a montage that would be going on when “When The Music’s Over” is playing on screen. The whole Miami performance was pretty well done too. I described it in the script as being a particularly hellish scene. It was really freaking out Densmore and the other guys and it was just a bad omen, a bad scene that just had to play out. So, I was pretty pleased with a lot of that.
DE: You said that Oliver Stone he focused more on the shaman than your original screenplay.
Randall Jahnson: I never showed the shaman in my script except for one time, which was late in the script and it was immediately on the heels of Jim telling the story of the Indians on the highway to the rest of the guys in the band, they’re in the back of a limo on the way to a big outdoor concert and he is or is not tripping and begins weaving this story in a very hypnotic manner and they’re all kind of buying into it and he kind of freaks them out a little. So, when they get onstage and they’re performing, I think I had Ray tripping out a little too, during a long instrumental vamping onstage, Ray’s hunched over the keyboards communing with the muse and hears this really arresting screech or howl and he looks up and there at the microphone is not Jim but this figure covered in skins and feathers and some kind of mask, and it’s really an alarming kind of figure.
DE: Your career hasn’t all been as a screenwriter. You started a record company that produced Michael C. Ford’s “Motel Café.” Was this happenstance or coincidence?
Randall Jahnson: I interviewed him at a little bar that is now long gone called the Raincheck, it was on Santa Monica Boulevard next to Irv’s Burgers. Michael was real great, he came at this from a poet’s perspective. Through all these experiences we became good friends. We stayed in touch and I eventually moved out of Sweetzer, and I moved into west L.A. and we lived very, very close. We used to meet up at a place called the Apple Pan, which is a little horseshoe counter burger place that’s been there since 1947. We’d talk late into the night, it was really fun. After The Doors movie was made, I got a fairly good paycheck at that point, and I was still young and single I didn’t have a family, or a mortgage and I had some money kicking around. I had seen examples of what the indie record business was doing like SST Records, Frontier Records, Slash, all these indies that were such an influence on my life. I thought, ‘well, I’m going to start a record label, I’m going to do this!’ So I put out four albums and Michael’s was the last of the four, and it just seemed natural thing to do because he had a bunch of new material and he was along with Harvey Kubernick’s Freeway Records. Harvey Kubernick, the chronicler of the L.A rock music scene.
DE: I have a couple of his books.
Randall Jahnson: Yeah, yeah, a great book, “Laurel Canyon” came out last year I think, fantastic. Harvey said, ‘do it’ he was the one who had Michael in the studio and produced it. I just released it under my banner. So, that’s how that came about. The first album that was released on my record label was by this band, The Fibonaccis that Ray (Manzarek) was interested in producing at one point, but ultimately that didn’t work out, they just produced themselves. There were these funny connections. Who would’ve thought that the Minutemen and Michael C. Ford and Jim Morrison would all be thrown in. It’s all these funny associations, that’s how that played out, and then I folded up! If the movie industry is like the circus, the independent music world was like the asylum in those days. I mean they were crazy. The methods of distribution, and people getting paid, stuff like that, and ripped off, it was crazy. It was really kind of a wild, wild west in a lot of ways, but it was fun. And again music has always been a huge influence in my life. I feel a great affinity towards musicians even though I’m not one myself. I’m a rabid consumer, it was fun. I’ve always been in awe.
DE: That kind of goes into my next question. A lot of your work has gravitated towards Rock ‘n’ Roll as a subject…
Randall Jahnson: Not just to Rock ‘n’ Roll, but music in general. I’m a big fan of American music, Blue Grass, the blues, country, the Carter family, all these things. And again, frankly, it goes back to my experience in the punk rock world. When I was in film school there were several bands associated with students from film school at UCLA at the time.
One was a band called Stabbing Republic that did a real single combo of industrial, tribal kind of instrumental heavy music. They also had great art direction, and they were really interesting, but they used to perform, there used to be, there still are, these facility tunnels underneath, that laced the UCLA campus and they used to rehearse down there. Their keyboardist, one of their members or two were at the film school at the time with another band called The Urinals. Two of their members were in the film school that I got to know. There were a couple members of The Dream Syndicate that used to audit film classes, so all these people were around and a lot of them would rehearse in and around UCLA. The Urinals, for a long time rehearsed in the parking structure at UCLA. Bands like X, they really harkened to American roots music and again one of my older brothers used to listen to Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, Hank Williams. I mean the twangiest of country music.
Then my other brother was the quintessential hippy, so I was hearing Jefferson Airplane, Captain Beefheart. And I even liked The Doors, ironically, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills and Nash, all those bands early on. I was five, six, seven years old and I used to sneak into his room and look at his record collection. Their sensibilities really had an influence on me, and I think I really developed that at an early age, and just had an ear for music. My Mom was a musician, she always had music playing in the house, my Mom sang with big bands in World War II, so there was always music around the house. One of the things that attracted me to The Doors’ story in the first place was up until that point there had never been, for a lack of a better term, a rock ‘n’ roll epic that had been told as a movie. We had the Ritchie Valens Story (“La Bamba“), The Buddy Holly Story, kind of like safe, nice things that little individual stories, the Hanks Williams story, these kind of things. There had never really been a rock ‘n’ roll epic that had great scope to it that was dealing with things much more than just the short life and death of a talented performer.
That was really intriguing to me about The Doors potentially. It had that potential, it could break a lot of ground, so that’s what I wanted to bring. Going back to my take on the movie, and my architecture and your question of how much of it is mine. After talking with (Paul) Rothchild quite a bit and then really looking at that recording session where Jim came in on his last birthday and recorded all the poetry alone in the studio over the course of several hours, that struck me as being an incredibly significant moment. And poignant as well because I felt like this was a guy who knew he was a sinking ship and in his own fractured subconscious way he was laying down his last will and testament. Unfiltered, just raw words in his own way, and I thought there was great beauty to that, and that’s how the movie had to be structured that way. We see this guy come into the darkened recording studio, sort of a lone wolf, the solace of it, a solitary man. He had put on a lot of weight, disheveled looking, haggard, he comes in and goes through the whole ritual of setting up invoking the muse, if you will, and recording it all, and this was going to be the narrative spine for it, the poetry and not just the stuff that was available in “The Lords and the New Creatures” at the time. There was a ton of stuff the Coursons had that had not been published yet. They gave me Xeroxed copies and a lot of this stuff was so good and it would provide commentary throughout the whole movie about what we’re seeing.
It was like the narration of it. So that’s they way I wrote it. I incorporated all that and that would be the bookend of it. In the transcript of those recording sessions, at the very end Jim says “Did you get it all?” And the (engineer) says “Yeah, we got it.” (Jim says) “Great, let’s go get a taco.” And I just love that line! I just thought ‘man, that is so cool,’ that is just so cool because again we have a story that is ultimately rather depressing. A bright talent dead in a bathtub at 27 years old. How do you get upbeat about that? You realize now at the end of it because ‘we got it now,’ that’s his legacy and that makes you feel good and upbeat, and you want to get that taco. There’s some pictures of him, you’ve seen them I’m sure, eating at the little Mexican place right around the corner from the Village Recorders. He’s got a full beard there. He’s kind of winking or squinting at the camera with a bottle of Dos Equis or some kind of Mexican beer, and I just love those pictures, you know, because he looks really happy and satisfied; like ‘yeah man, cool.’
That’s what we’re seeing with that, but the producers did not like that. He did not like the set up. They said we need to see the hot, sexy, rock ‘n’ roll animal, right at the start. And I said, “No, no man, that’s the drama we all know that perception of Jim Morrison.” Rothchild described him as having put on so much weight, and when he put on that jacket, or whatever jacket he had on, he was just hugely bulky. He described him as Orson Wellesian in girth at that stage. He said it was shocking. I said “That’s the journey, that’s what we want to know.” How does this guy, the guy looking like a big man, what was the journey that got him there? We know the hot, young, sexy rock ‘n’ roll animal.
At that point a whole lot of people didn’t know the other side of Jim Morrison, this is very exciting, this is how we need to structure it. We fought over it and they said they would fire me if I stuck to this, and they fired me (laughs). I bumped into Ray about three and half years later at a club, and actually he was playing piano with Michael C. Ford and I talked to Ray afterward and he said “Hey, I gotta tell ya Oliver Stone is involved in this movie now. He came into this meeting last week and said he read all the scripts by previous writers on it and he likes yours the best, and he’s going to work off of it, so you might be getting a call from him real soon.” I was like “Yeah, Ray, sure.” And sure enough I did get a call shortly after that. Oliver and I met for a half-hour conversation and he said my script inspired him a great deal. And when all was said and done, he implied that we’d be sharing credit, so that’s the way that happened.
Tune in tomorrow as we conclude our discussion with Randall… conclusion here.
For more information on Randall Jahnson please visit his website: http://randalljahnson.com/.