Interview with Oliver Stone

Did Oliver Stone’s "The Doors" Reinvent Jim Morrison?

For three-decades, Oliver Stone’s camera has been the sniper’s rifle aimed directly at our various Rockwellian fantasies. “No one here gets out alive” is something Jim Morrison sang, which has become Oliver Stone’s unofficial manifesto. The collateral damage associated with his renegade style has transformed Stone into Hollywood’s lone gunman: an enfant terrible who wants to rewrite history, like Howard Zinn, who was both polemicist and historian. In the process of becoming an alt-historian who drank tea with Putin, Oliver Stone has been purged by today’s culturati. His contrarianism has become as polarizing as the phallocentric rock star he worships—a subject he was unfairly accused of “assassinating” in 1991. 

But there’s still nothing quite like his biopic on the Doors; an R-rated Macedonian feast that is preposterously extravagant and incandescent, like Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956). It is a campy, patricidal, erotic, and smoldering rejection of “Just Say No” puritanism. It is, as Lana Del Rey might intone, “white hot forever”—as provocative today as it was three decades ago.

If the hypnotic blades of a chopper hovering over Vietnam resurrected Jim Morrison from his Parisian grave, then Stone’s film reinvented him into a carnival ride decorated with Greek columns and lipsticked graffiti.

For Generation X and aging millennials, Val Kilmer’s performance as an “enlightened savage” is the only vaguely recognizable Jim Morrison, who remains as ungraspable and chaotic as Oliver Stone’s artistic vision: a wobbly “doors of perception” from which we now hallucinate on who shot JFK? and Jim Morrison, hot, sexy, and dead. 

The cinematography in this film produces some astonishing eye-candy. It feels like we’re trapped in some deranged poet’s low-grade acid trip. 

Well, we used a lot of filters [laughs]. We had to go back into the past. We had everyone dressed in period, which was very expensive. Bob [Richardson] was feeling his oats as a young cinematographer. We were also taking chances that we normally wouldn’t. We were growing in our boldness. We wanted to challenge all the ideas. We had no rules, no limits, no laws…

At least for my generation, the film has come to symbolize a darkly funny and dizzying parody of the Dionysian “cock rocker” as a kind of John Waters character.

One thing you have to understand is that you see the film, as a 30-year-old looking back, as a bit of a parody. John Waters, you mentioned. That was never my intention. I’m a little square perhaps, for your taste, but I worshipped Morrison. I thought he was a great force breaking through to the other side. He was saying things that needed to be said. It was being said by others: Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, and so on. But he was the only one that was really going into the erotica as much as he was. Of course, he talked about Indians, shamanism, but back then, we were coming out of the ‘50s—it was a very different time. He was liberated. He was sexy as a man. He felt at ease with himself. And he carried on as if he was a free man. I worshipped a free man. I’m actually one of the people who really likes his lyrics. Some people make fun of them. 

I think absurdity has a value. Maybe it was Val Kilmer’s portrayal, but this film feels like a parody of the Dionysian rock star. Perhaps it’s unintentional, but I found it beautiful. It’s critical of that image. It’s also lovable, cute, ridiculous, endearing—do you see that when you look back at this film?

I take it seriously. Who was Dionysus? He was a very important figure. He was the god of wine, music, and sex. Morrison was Dionysus.  

There’s an earnestness in your style. But sometimes, in the filmmaking process, whether it’s your doing or not, it seems to produce an over-the-top, psychedelic quality—not farcical.

I am naive, in a way, so I think “earnest” is a good word. But remember, Jim could not turn around. He was very shy. I see him as a poet. He wasn’t comfortable as a rock star. I think everything he did was awkward. One segment that I really feel I really should have gone into, but I avoided, was “The Unknown Soldier” story, when he took on the Vietnam War directly. It was a powerful song. But because I was coming off Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon, I felt self-conscious about reaching for another Vietnam metaphor. But I missed it. That was very important. He was one of the few people who was actively engaged with challenging it.

The Doors feels like a rebuke of the Bush-era and “Just Say No." Was Morrison acting as your mouthpiece when he was screaming at us that we were all, “a bunch of slaves”?

Yes. You got it. You’ve seen my other films, so you’ve seen where I’m at. The things I say sometimes don’t go down so well. But I don’t agree with so much of what’s going down. It puts me at war with it. I still don’t. I haven’t changed. If anything I’m worse. His timing may have been off when he said, “you’re all a bunch of slaves,” which I think is great in our film, but my God, he really knew how to turn it up. He was a philosopher. To go up was great, but to come down was also worth studying. Failure was interesting to him. Not living up to other people’s expectations; getting fat and becoming kind of gross was part of what he was doing.

The critics always focus on the lack of historical realism in this film. But it’s a fantasy. Morrison himself was a kind of carny myth-maker. What do you think is rooted in the obsession for realism in a film about the myth of Jim Morrison? 

By this time, I had been taking so much flak. I don’t mean to self pity, but my God, I had just done Born of the Fourth of July, Talk Radio, and Wall Street, I was exhausted by trying to be realistic. This was freedom. It was like tearing your clothes off and breathing. It was about going out and having fuckin’ fun making a movie. After JFK and Heaven & Earth, I did Natural Born Killers. Again, I wanted to be free. I get off on those films.

I first discovered this film as a teenager. I fell in love with how ridiculous it was. It somehow captured rock and roll at its purest.

Thank you. I didn’t really have the connection to music that other people had. A lot of filmmakers study music. I didn’t. I just followed a god that I liked. You see, I heard him in Vietnam for the first time. I was doing LSD on R&R, not in the field, but we were discovering LSD and realizing you really had to pay attention. Morrison had done enough LSD to really understand it. It’s a powerful consciousness journey. I never stopped. I kept going in that direction with all kinds of drugs…

Did you experiment with any psychedelics while you were making this film? 

I was high, in a sense, by osmosis, but I had the attitude to just free your ass and your mind will follow [laughs]. I think people would say I was pretty wild as a director. But I was not getting high on the set. Yeah, the occasional grass here and there, but I wouldn’t do anything on the set. Off the set I had some fun. I had a friend, Richard [Rutowski], who played Death in the film, and because we were doing the peyote trip, I wanted to go back to South Dakota, with the Sioux, and do this peyote ceremony with a very powerful shaman. And we did it. We got to this place on the reservation and got fuckin’ high beyond belief. It was a big trip. A lot of Indians were involved. Strong peyote. And then we flew back. I was dead on Monday morning when we shot the peyote scene. I had no energy as a director. 

Is it true that you had plans to direct a Timothy Leary biopic?  

A lot of people have asked me to do that. Leo DiCaprio wanted to do it years ago, and I passed, but I wish I had worked with Leo. Anyhow, I knew Tim. I liked him. He was always teasing me because he was naturally attracted to me. But he was beyond me. He was older and from a different generation. I just didn’t want to make a movie about him. 

Rock biopics are like cinema’s equivalent of trying to produce an honest TV show about the CIA and FBI, where all these tyrannical forces are at play: band, estate, parents, etc. What were some of the political challenges involved in making this film? 

You got it. I’ve since tried to make some very controversial music movies and it’s impossible. I guess I didn’t know the barriers back then. Steering the thing were some wonderful people. Mario Kassar was the real thing. He was like the Dino De Laurentiis of America. He loves movies. He got it. Bill Graham was a very strong influence. There was Sasha Harari [producer]. Paul Rothchild [the band’s producer] was a key figure. He was with us all the way. He knew Jim as well as any of the Doors did. Paul was a very warm and intimate man. He told me a lot about Jim. I never got that from the bandmates. They didn’t seem to know him that well. Certainly Ray Manzarek thought he knew him. Ray did not cooperate in any way. In fact, it was a very disagreeable relationship for me. And of course, when the movie came out, boy, he was tearing it down from the beginning. But Bill got the rights from the parents. He took me to San Diego to meet the admiral and his wife [Jim Morrison’s parents]. They were a little scared of movies. But the fact that I’d been in Vietnam, and he’d been an admiral in Vietnam, gave him some confidence in me. For Jim, of course, this brings up a tremendous amount of conflict in his soul. You see this is in the film with Kathleen Quinlan [who plays pagan witch Patricia Kennealy] when he lies about his parents. He doesn’t want to talk about them. 

I found Ray Manzarek accusing you of “assassinating” the character of Jim Morrison to be pretty remarkable. I honestly don’t think anyone knows the real Jim Morrison. 

Jerry Hopkins, who wrote the book [No One Here Gets Out Alive, 1980] left me 120 documents of interviews he did with people who knew Morrison in the beginning, from grade-school to the very end. And if you read this 120 versions of his life, it’s like Citizen Kane. That’s what he was to this person or that person. In the interviews, there were several women, my God, sexually, he was all over the place. He wasn’t necessarily impotent. Perhaps that occurred later, when there were issues, which did bother him. But you saw in the loft scene with Kathleen Quinlan, when he has an orgasm. And that’s the truth of matter, he had orgasms with intensity that came from intense situations. That was the only way he could get off—dangling from a window may have worked for him. 

Morrison seems like the original “cock rocker.” I think he understood that he was a sex symbol…

Well, they made him a sex symbol. Part of the reason he started drinking was to probably run from that. He was not comfortable with publicity. I do believe he was inherently shy. Girls would come at him, and according to Paul [Rothchild], he ended up talking to them all night. He loved women. He talked them to death. But it wasn’t about sex. It was about something in his mind he had to work out. He was running towards death. 

The greatest tragedy of this film, in my eyes, is the depiction of Pamela Courson. I think you could have had a real Sid and Nancy dynamic if you had developed her into the slightly more terrifying, gun-collecting madwoman she apparently really was.

I don’t agree with you. You see her as much more interesting. I had never heard those stories. A lot of people that knew her talked to me about her. You call her a “gun-collecting madwoman.” For me, I think Meg [Ryan] played her perfectly. She was the all-American girl he was seeking. Sometimes you go for your opposite. He wanted a clean cut girl who talked like that—I see that in Meg. That’s what I feel. I would have been lying if I tried to make her this exciting madwoman. It wouldn’t have contrasted well with Jim. He was the one doing the outrageous things. She was the one trying to calm him down and be with him. And he always went back to her. That’s the point. All the people I talked to said that. She was his home base. That never changed.

I think from a filmmaking perspective, it made sense, as a contrast, to portray her as the ingenue, but everything I’ve read about her seems to indicate that she was more of a Courtney Love-type figure. 

I know Courtney [laughs]. We cast her in the Larry Flynt story [The People vs. Larry Flynt]. We had to put up a lot of money to get her insured. I know Courtney very well. She’s fun but crazy, too, and hard to figure out. If Pamela [Courson] were anything like that, I would not have portrayed her as I did.

Well, I know she collected guns [reported by Eve Babitz]. She was addicted to heroin, so there’s a dark side to her. If you had found out that she was a more intense figure, like a pagan witch—would you have portrayed her that way?

Well, remember, I had Kathleen Quinlan doing a lot of that. I don’t think it would have contrasted well. Just take a look at Pam’s face: The freckles, the look, it’s very southern California. Jim loved her. He would never have wanted Courtney Love. It would have been the worst thing for him. What does he call her? He keeps saying it in the film…

“You’re the one.” 

He keeps saying that! He was fixed on her.

JFK provides a panorama of possibilities regarding the JFK assassination: was it the CIA? Was it the Cubans? A lone gunman? With this film, you end with Morrison in a bathtub under a kind of amber glow. We don’t know what has happened to him. He’s just beautiful and dead. Were you trying to leave the cause of his death open to the audience? Were you not allowed to speculate about a possible heroin overdose?

It didn’t make any difference to me if he was on heroin or not. In the movie, you have to assume he was. But he was half in love with death all his life. An American Prayer is filled with images of death. I don’t think Morrison made the normal difference between life and death. It was a boundary that he crossed many times. He was ready for death. I found the scene tranquil. Like the ancient Romans cutting their wrists; I didn’t see the fear of death in him. As a shaman, he saw it as a transition to continue life in another form. I would have loved to see him survive Paris. I think he died by accident. I do feel it was an overdose of something. I do feel like he was doing it to accompany somebody he cared about. I think his plan was to come back and be a writer. I think he would have been a really interesting writer and philosopher for American society into the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even today. He got robbed early.

Looking back at his phenomenal performance, do you feel Val Kilmer was snubbed an Oscar nomination that year? 

I do feel he was slighted. It was a once in a lifetime kind of performance. I certainly know the pain and the sweat he put into it. But I kind of knew The Doors was doomed because of the hijinks Morrison was going through. In other words, it was a crossing-the-line kind of movie. It’s become more acceptable now. But this is 1991. You gotta look back. Certainly Val deserved it, but also the sound: there were so many sound breakthroughs and editing breakthroughs in that movie. We were using some new methods. The sound work by Paul Rothchild and that group was unbelievable. The fact that Val was singing about 70-percent of his stuff was pretty significant. 

Is it true that Paula Abdul choreographed Val’s body mannerisms and movements?

Probably, yes, I had hired her prior to that for Evita. I probably hired her to free up his body a bit, yes. 

I feel like a lot of today’s rock biopics, like Bohemian Rhapsody, are pretty sterile. They feel more like marketing films.

I don’t want to be negative on that. I wish we had made the money Bohemian Rhapsody had made [laughs]. Look, every film has to be marketable. The Doors was not. We just made an outlaw film, because Mario Kassar was of his mind. He was willing to gamble. He didn’t give a shit about all that stuff. He was a pirate. He made films against the grain.

In the final shot at Père Lachaise Cemetery, we zoom into a bust of Jim Morrison placed on his gravestone. It’s a beautiful documentary-style shot scored to “A Feast of Friends.” It really takes us to the end. But wasn’t the bust stolen in 1988? 

It was. The bust was our creation. It was based on Kilmer and not on Jim. But what the press never seems to understand when they describe it as a “rise and fall” is that he wasn’t falling. He was moving through life as an explorer. Some of his best work is in An American Prayer and L.A. Woman. I didn’t see the decline. I guess what I’m saying is that you don’t die when you’re Jim Morrison, you just move on.

An abbreviated version of this interview was published in The Hollywood Reporter on March 11, 2021.