There’s been a spate of big, campy music biopics in the last few years, including films about Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody), Elton John (Rocketman), Mötley Crüe (The Dirt) and even one about that band of freakish Doctor Moreau rejects whose screams haunt my nightmares (Cats).
Back in 1991, however, music biopics could be altogether darker and druggier affairs. Oliver Stone’s The Doors portrayed frontman Jim Morrison as a death-obsessed shaman who wandered the Sunset Strip spouting lines like: ““What’s a band for? Let’s plan a murder or start a religion” or “I don’t remember being born, it must have happened during one of my blackouts”. It also featured a memorable desert acid trip sequence that would be lovingly satirised in Wayne’s World 2 (“I have to ask, didn’t you think it was a trifle unnecessary to see the crack in the Indian’s bottom?”).
Now that music films are back in vogue, the film has been given a shiny new 4K polish and is being re-released today. To mark the occasion, we headed to Oliver Stone’s Hollywood office to see if he’d let us touch one of his three (three!) Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay for 1979’s Midnight Express, Best Director for both 1987’s Platoon and 1990’s Born on the Fourth of July). When that failed, we settled for talking to him about how Val Kilmer managed to rack up a $20,000 massage bill on the set of The Doors, the best place to score acid in Sydney in 1968, and why Madonna’s lack of acting chops led him to walk away from Evita.
Is it true you first heard The Doors while you were serving in Vietnam?
“I think so. It could have been on acid in Australia while I was on R&R, but I’m not sure. It was very psychedelic music but it was also clear poetic verse, you know? The guy was imitating Rimbaud. He was very clear.”
Did listening to The Doors and taking acid go together? Were you looking to expand your mind?
“After I’d been wounded a couple of times I took some time off in Australia. There was quite a bit of acid-taking going on there because they were selling it in Kings Cross in Sydney. It was a case of: well, what do we have to lose? You’re going back to the war! You think: ‘What the hell, I might as well see it one time.’”
Did you identify with Jim Morrison?
“Well, he was much more advanced than I was. I was 21 and still learning about the world. I was in Vietnam and I was a teacher and considered myself an explorer, but he was a public success already. I looked up to him. He was like, I guess, what Mick Jagger was for you guys in Britain. I grew up on classical music as part of a classically conservative education. I didn’t really hear much rock radio. Elvis Presley was looked down on as a greaseball in my society, so it was all new to me. The black music was unbelievable, people like The Supremes and Smokey Robinson. You heard some of that in Platoon, which was sort of a homage to the music which was trying to keep us human. It was very important over there.”
Did you ever meet him?
“Never. He was dead by ’71. When I came back in ’69 and ’70, I was in New York and he was on his trip. But I sent him a script. That was an interesting story. I sent him the script of Break, which was my first script which I wrote when I came back, about Vietnam. It was very psychedelic. I thought he could play the soldier. He could play the character of me. It was quite a wild script. I didn’t hear back, of course. I’m used to that, I’ve been rejected a lot. Then in 1990, 20 years later, Bill Siddons’ wife came to see me. Bill Siddons was a manager of The Doors, he was very close with them. He went to Paris the week of Jim’s death to collect his personal items. She told me that he wanted me to have something, and then she gave me the script back! That was a strange sign.”
So the script you sent him was among his possessions at the time he died?
“He was reading it, yeah. Why else would he take it to Paris?”
Val Kilmer is incredible as Morrison, not just for the way he looks and acts but also the way he sounds. Was he always the front runner for that part?
“I can’t tell you enough how hard he worked and how intuitive he was. He chased me down. He’d wanted to be in Platoon but he was impossible. During the auditions he was so out there. He was sort of eccentric. There are a lot of eccentric actors, but he was really out there. He did a strange audition for Elias [the character eventually played by Willem Dafoe]. He shot his own audition. He was lying on a table doing his kind of, you know, Jim Morrison imitation. It wasn’t right at all for that movie, because he wasn’t military. Then when The Doors happened, again he popped up in my life and he’d already prepared a tape. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but it was certainly promising. I think we went on looking for a month or two, and it became clear that he had the best approach. I mean, he was the strangest guy. There was another guy, Dave Brock, who was in a band that was going around LA imitating Morrison [The Doors tribute group Wild Child]. He was very good, actually. I was thinking about using him. There were a couple of other actors, but nobody quite like Val. Paul Rothschild, who had been close to Jim as his producer, really worked with Val. It was really beautifully done. They synced as much as they could, maybe 60% of the voice. We mixed it. I think it’s 40% Jim, 60% Val.”
It’s remarkable that Kilmer’s voice was close enough to Morrison’s that you could do that.
“It also allowed us to shoot live, which was unbelievable. We could do several takes, as long as his voice held out. That was another issue, of course: fatigue. You couldn’t push him like you could push an opera star. He’s got lungs and he’s going to get tired. Of course Val, being of an extravagant mentality, would melodramatise his fatigue. That drove everyone a little bit crazy. He had so many massages. The massage bill on that film was enormous. $20,000, at least, in massages. For a big guy, and strong-looking, he wasn’t that strong. He started looking tired.”
He goes through a physical transformation in the film, from the chiselled rock god to the flab of excess.
“Oh yeah, and he was a method actor in the sense that he had to live that role. He lived in the leathers all the time. You know, it’s not easy to work with a method actor sometimes. It can be exhausting.”
Is it true he wanted to be referred to as ‘Jim’ on set?
“Something like that. I mean, it’s a tough character. You’re haunted with death all the time.”
Is that something you related to, that obsession with mortality?
“Well, as much as any young poet. I was romantic, and yes, you do relate to it. But I don’t think I ever thought about suicide. When I did the movie. I was 44 years old, but I related to it as a younger man. Jim was all out for nothing. He was serious. I think you see it in the movie, he takes no prisoners. ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Would you die for me?’ It’s crazy stuff.”
Do you see Jim Morrison as a tragic figure?
“No, because I think he fulfilled his life. Tragedy implies that it was cut off. He was flawed, but he definitely fulfilled himself. People don’t understand that, the movie celebrates that. They think of death as being the end, but not to him. That was not the end. He had an Indian spirit, and he believed in some kind of continuation. I think he saw it as another stage of life. He was finished with the band. I do think Paris was the beginning of a new stage and it got derailed, of course. I think part of that, this is my opinion only, I can’t prove it, but I do feel that Pamela [Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson] had a problem. My feeling is that he was trying to help her, and kept up with her, and I think he overdid it.”
In terms of heroin?
“Yeah. That wasn’t part of the film. We weren’t allowed, because her parents didn’t want to have any depiction of that, but you can see that she’s high. He had a drinking issue, too. That’s his Irish gene. And he was impotent, to a certain degree. Because of the drinking, I’m sure. Most of these rockers have problems, don’t they?”
Are there other musicians you’d like to make a biopic about?
“Yeah, I tried twice. They’re sad stories. There’s so many contentious factors, it’s impossibly difficult. I worked for a long time on Evita, the musical. I worked with Rice and Webber. We were very close, and I thought my script was good. We were ready to go. We went twice, once with Meryl and then once with Michelle Pfeiffer. But Michelle was a big star and she didn’t want to be that far away from her baby in LA. To reset this thing in Mexico over Argentina was very complicated. It couldn’t be done at a price. There was always one thing or another. Then Madonna I wasn’t interested in at all. She can’t act. I hated the movie, which I’m co-credited for, because there’s no dancing in it. There’s no movement, there’s nothing physical. It’s stilted. I just hated it. I also worked for a long time on Bob Marley. I had the rights to Rita’s book, his wife. It was a different type of approach than The Doors approach. It was the love story approach. Her version. She was the first one, and he was committed to her. He was still in touch with her at the end. I know a lot of people had hard feelings for her, but it’s such a divided group with all the kids. Chris Blackwell of Island Records killed it. We had enough songs to do it, but we didn’t have them all. We came close. We could have done it. We had a script that was decent. It was getting there.”
How did you feel about Wayne’s World 2 spoofing The Doors‘ acid trip scene with the naked Indian in the desert?
“I vaguely remember being mocked. Ben Stiller did something about it too.”
Is it vaguely flattering to be pastiched like that?
“No! They were making fun of me back then. I’m easy to make fun of because I’m kind of a classical character. I take the acid, I want to do the acid, you know, right? I’m pretty straight in some ways, and I think that’s why it’s easy to mock me. The English would say that I have no sense of irony.”
There’s a sincerity to your films, would be another way of putting it.
“Yeah, and that’s all you can do because that’s the basis on which you make the movies. That’s where your energy comes from. If you’re not honest about that. In other words, I was able to make those movies only because of that, I think.”
How do you rank The Doors within your own filmography?
“I mean, it’s just different. It’s like Natural Born Killers. It’s in that line of film where with imagery we freed ourselves and allowed free associations. We really pushed the camera, we pushed the imagery. It led right into JFK, which has a completely opposite tonality, but we used a lot of that freedom to really cut loose. It was part of my growth. Doing the acid trips and all that was fun. I was freeing myself. Not having these ridiculous inhibitions you have in filmdom, which are based on what critics say, or what your contemporaries say. ‘You can’t do that!’ I didn’t give a shit.”
You mentioned Natural Born Killers. Do you see a connection between The Doors and that film?
“Yeah, I think of it as a line. Natural Born Killers was like being free again. I’d made JFK, and I’d gotten historically hammered by everyone, and then I made Heaven & Earth, which is a classical movie about a Vietnamese peasant with beautiful music by Kitarō. Then I just said: ‘Fuck it.’ I made Natural Born Killers quickly, but I was getting a divorce and I was just shedding everything. I didn’t like this business. I just had fun, man. We went crazy. I had a drug addict cast, a wild cast. Those people were crazy, each one in their own way. I needed to get away from everything. When you live in this business, you’re sometimes thinking about what other people think more than what you’re thinking. It’s too incestuous. You need to be unselfconscious. That’s what I don’t like about the movie business in general these days. It feels like movies are always like referencing another movie. Everything’s postmodern. It’s just annoying. I want a pure experience. If I want to see a Bible movie then I want to see a real believer’s movie, I don’t want to see some wiseass.”
I think even going back to something like Scarface, there’s always been a straightforwardness to your story-telling.
“That’s the best part of me, I think. When you think too much you get all fucked up.”
The new 4K, in Dolby Atmos® restoration of The Doors: The Final Cut is released today by Studiocanal.