An Interview With Randall Jahnson

Crafting a Rock biopic is a complex and tricky task. Even those well received by moviegoers, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” or “The Dirt,” are still picked apart by the artist’s hardcore fans for any historical inaccuracies. One example that is particularly polarizing is Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, “The Doors.” 

Based on the titular rock group and its frontman Jim Morrison, “The Doors” is a fever dream spectacle that packs in a mixture of psychedelia, romance, and tragedy. While it captured the rambunctious spirit of the band and featured a transformative performance from Val Kilmer, some have been critical through the years of the film’s heightened portrayal of Morrison. Especially vocal was the band’s late keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who stated in a 2010 interview that “Oliver Stone is the anti-Doors.” 

Despite the film facing an underwhelming reception from critics and at the box office, it has managed to sustain a loyal fanbase. It continues to be discovered by new generations of music and movie lovers and can also be found on several “Top Music Biopic” listicles from publications like Rolling Stone and Esquire

In light of the film’s thirtieth anniversary, Andrew spoke with co-writer Randall Jahnson where they discussed the lengthy effort he put into researching Jim Morrison, differences between the original script and finished film, and his thoughts looking back at “The Doors” decades later. 

Be sure to check it out below!

How did you first become connected to “The Doors” biopic?

It was a confluence of several different things. My former roommate from college was dating the woman who was in charge of the project at Columbia TriStar at the time. She was the development executive there and self-admittedly, she was kind of square when it came to music. Her job was to find a writer for the project and she asked her boyfriend and he said “Oh, you should talk to Randall.” He knew that I was way into music, something that I inherited from my two older brothers and my own passions. Secondly, I was really involved in the LA punk/new wave scene in the early ‘80s and making videos with bands like Black Flag and the Minutemen. I had gone to UCLA film school, which Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek had also gone to. I also had a movie called “Dudes” that was going into production that Penelope Spheeris was directing. It was just a lot of things happening at once and it was a stroke of luck to be in the right place at the right time with a certain amount of street cred and all of that. 

I should note that this was in 1986. I wrote my drafts of the screenplay about three and a half years before Oliver Stone got involved with it. I get the question a lot of “What was it like working with Oliver Stone?” We actually didn’t work with each other, but we met at one point later on. 

You once stated that you logged over fifty hours of interviews with different people connected to Jim Morrison. What was it like to embark on that journey? 

This was ‘86, so there was no internet then. There was no biographical information on Morrison that was available other than “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the Danny Sugarman/Jerry Hopkins book, which the studio didn’t have the rights to. I was actually sort of glad because I wanted to do my own take on it anyway. I remember the producer Sasha Harari telling me to take a couple of weeks to research and then go and write the script. My first interview was with Ray Manzarek and I knew after about an hour with him that this was so much bigger and deeper than I’d anticipated. 

I had to do a lot of sleuth work and track down people. I had exhausted my interviews with Robby, Ray, and John pretty quickly. Paul Rothchild, who produced all their albums, was a terrific interview. We met several times and he steered me towards a lot of different things to look into. The more I got into it, the deeper it became and the question of Jim: what was the source of his angst? It really put me on a quest. I would have probably researched for another couple of years if I had been left to my own devices. At one point, Sasha cornered me and said, “You have to start writing the screenplay.” 

When writing a screenplay based on real events, details are bound to change due to time constraints and other factors. How concerned were you with staying completely true to the band’s story? 

That’s something I really wrestled with. At a certain point, after conducting so many different interviews, it was really a case where it was like that old story of the blind man touching the elephant. All the interviews were the various blindmen. They all had a piece of Jim. They had a tail, they had a trunk, they had a tusk. They all thought that because of what they had, they knew who the real Jim Morrison was. I think on one level, collectively, nobody really knew who he was. That was a point I arrived at pretty deep in the process. Initially, when I started out, I was very passionate about it and I was going to tell the truth about this guy, whatever it was going to be. Ultimately, I found the truth was very elusive or relative to who you’re talking to. I couldn’t get a consensus on a lot of stuff except that “Jim was the smartest guy I ever met and I never saw him without a book in his hand” and “He was honest and told the truth, sometimes to the point of being brutal.” Those were consistent attributes that I got straight across the board.

Ultimately, I arrived to a point where there was no ultimate truth. Especially in a movie where you have to collapse it into two and a half hours of time, it’s impossible. I adjusted my aims to a degree. My job is to tell a story and entertain. No one is going to be able to tell the whole truth, but what I hope to impart is something that is truthful. There might be certain poetic licenses taken here and there, but I hoped that it would be truthful as opposed to a complete fabrication.

I have read the remaining band members had mixed feelings about a biopic being about them. What did they want out of the film?

That’s a good question. Even though the movie was called “The Doors” it’s really about Jim Morrison. I don’t think anyone had any illusions going into it. Maybe Ray did a little bit that it was going to be more of an ensemble piece, but the innate drama to that story surrounds Jim and the enigma of Jim so that was going to be the driving force of it. Robby Krieger was very shy. It’s tough to get a lengthy dissertation from him on any particular thing, but he’s super smart and sharp. He was just really cool and laid back about everything. John Densmore was very eager to communicate his side of things. He had a book that was about to come out and it was actually really good. I thought John’s take on the whole experience with the Doors was more forthcoming and raw and real. And Ray… I loved Ray, but he was the keeper of the faith and very proprietary of the Doors brand and what the Doors meant. So I think Ray didn’t want to see anything that was going to negatively portray them. 

I understand Pamela Courson’s family was very protective over how she was going to be portrayed in the movie. 

They were very protective over her, as well as Jim to a degree. They were in possession of all of Jim’s notebooks with all of his poetry and musings which became the basis for that whole series “Wilderness.” The Courson’s were very conservative. They were from Orange County which is a very conservative part of California. I think to a degree, they were in a certain amount of denial over Pam. They saw Jim and Pam as star crossed lovers so that’s how they described them – almost as something Shakespearean. 

I remember Penny, her mother, talking about Jim coming over for dinner at their place one time and her father Corky said, “Jim, you want a drink? Let’s have a man-to-man, let’s talk!” He made a stiff drink, I think it was a gin martini or something like that. Penny said at one point, Jim slipped into the kitchen where she was making dinner and said, “Do you mind if I pour this out?” He dumped the drink into the sink and said, “I don’t really like it that much.” She felt that moments like this were the opposite of this raging party animal that had been pushed into the public eye. They felt he had attributes of a traditional southern gentleman. He was very courteous and thoughtful. Corky, who was a big jazz fan, raved about John Densmore’s work in the band. He said, “Listen to this song and that one. That’s a great jazz drummer!” I appreciated that. 

There was one thing Penny told me which ties into your previous question of what’s truth and what’s not. One night, Jim had gone with his pals Frank Lisciandro and Paul Ferrara to the top of the 9000 Building which is on the far western edge of Sunset Strip. It’s a very tall highrise. They were old friends from film school and Frank was always shooting Jim with still shots and film cameras. Apparently, Jim did a tightrope walk on the edge of the 9000 Building and Frank filmed it. Unfortunately, he said it was too dark and you couldn’t see anything at all. But wow, what an amazing strip of film that would be! There was also an incident in which Jim fell out a window at the Chateau Marmont. There was a question at one point where I’d heard that Pam was there at one of those events. Penny said, “Oh no, Pam wasn’t at the 9000 building or the other one, but if she had been, she would have gone out there on the ledge to bring him back.” I thought that was a terrific statement. That’s what made me say, “You know what? That’s a scene. Whether it happened or not, it was truthful to the characters.” So I wrote that into my script knowing it was a fabrication, but based on real events. 

The Courson’s were very guarded though in terms of allowing me to see the unpublished notebooks. They said they were going to do it, but they kept blocking and never quite produced them for me to look at. I think what happened was they allowed them to be looked at later on, but Stone pissed them off a little and they didn’t want to play ball anymore. But I did have access to a lot of that stuff because Jim used it on the recording session on his last birthday that became the American Prayer album. I got a transcript of that recording session so I knew I could go along with that. 

What led to your removal from the film?

I tell a lot of my students that part of the experience of working in Hollywood is you’re going to get fired at one time or another. Hollywood is a dream machine. It’s constantly hiring and firing writers because people are very insecure about what they have. They play on certain strengths and weaknesses of writers – some are much stronger with dialogue, some are better with structure. Either way, you’re always contracted for a limited amount of stuff. I was contracted for two drafts and a polish. I delivered my two drafts and they said “Thanks, we’re moving on.” Really what happened was that Sasha and I clashed quite a bit on the whole approach to it. Sasha did not care for how I was structuring it, which was using that last recording session and making that the device through which we tell the story of Jim. He didn’t like the fact that we open in this dark studio and in comes this guy who Paul Rothchild said at that point was very haggard, had put on a lot weight, and was just the antithesis of a sexy rockstar preening in his black leather pants and concho belt in front of screaming fans. I was fascinated with this because here’s a guy who was twenty-seven years old. It’s his birthday and it will be his last birthday and he chose to spend it like this. Not with the Doors, not with anyone. I was very struck by that. I thought it was a poignant moment and it sparked a lot of curiosity. Sasha didn’t like that. He thought that we needed to see the hot, sexy rockstar right at the start and I disagreed. 

I had also uncovered some stuff and Paul Rothchild had encouraged me to go down this road: Jim had trouble in the bedroom. Shocker! Paul said Jim came to him a couple times during recording and said he had a problem. Paul was all of like thirty-two, thirty-three years old at that point. He was the elder statesman of the camp. He was like the father figure [laughs]. Jim divulged this and said, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t get it up!” Paul was just like, “Whoa. Maybe stop drinking, lay off the drugs and see a shrink. Maybe those three things might help.” Paul told me, “We know he didn’t stop drinking. We know he certainly didn’t stop taking the drugs. He did see a shrink apparently, but talked circles around them and just didn’t get anywhere with it.” But he said, “Look into this. This will provide the clues to Jim’s angst.” 

So, I discreetly asked some of the Doors if there was anyone around that Jim might have had a relationship with when Pam wasn’t around. Densmore spoke up and put me in touch with someone. Then my roommate at the time came in one night and said, “I was just at this party and I met this woman who said she had a relationship with Jim Morrison.” I said, “Like a sexual relationship!? Did you get her name? You have to find out who she was.” Sure enough, he was able to make a couple calls and found out her name and it turned out she lived a couple blocks away from where we lived. I met both of the women and interviewed them separately and after a couple of beers just said, “Hey, there’s something I have to ask you.” They told me to turn off the tape recorder and said, “Don’t attribute this to me in public,” but they confirmed it. What’s very interesting is the one Densmore turned me onto was involved with Jim back at UCLA. That said to me that whatever issues, be they psychological, physiological or a combination of both, they were in his personality prior to the Doors. This was not a complication of the fame, drinking and drugs. It might have in fact been the cause of it. Lightbulbs went off where I just said, “This is the key. This is his dark secret.” It was an incredible revelation that made him deeply human. One of the challenges of this was how do we make this rock god human? How do we make him likable and vulnerable? I was rather electrified and it filled in a huge piece of the puzzle. 

And you were fired for trying to make the main character too human?

Basically. I went back to the producers and they just said, “No.” Sasha especially put his foot down and said, “No, it’s not gonna happen. We’re not going to do this.” I said, “It’s not what the whole movie is about, but it’s a key point in the story.” It’s not without precedent. If you remember a little film called Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty is chronically impotent in the film. He admits it in the first scene. Does that make him any less sexy? Did it make the story any less compelling? No, it enhanced it. It made it even stronger. It’s not expected. But they said if I persisted with it, I’d be gone. So I was gone [laughs].

Do you know how many different writers and drafts the studio went through before Oliver Stone went back to yours?

I do. There were two other writers after me and they chewed them up and spit them out pretty fast as well. This was a drawn out process. I was canned at the end of ‘86 so they went through a couple more. About three and a half years later, I went to see a guy named Michael C. Ford who was a friend of Jim’s and someone I forged a friendship with as a result of interviewing him. He was performing at a club on Fairfax and occasionally Ray Manzarek would back him up on piano. I went to see him at this club and Ray was there. After the show, Ray saw me and he said, “You’re going to get a call from Oliver Stone.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Stone’s on the movie now. We had a meeting last week and he said he read all the previous scripts. He wants to work off of yours. I think you’re going to get a call from him.” 

Sure enough, he was right. Within two weeks, I got a call from Stone’s office and we met. I went down there to his office in Venice. The first thing he asked me was, “What about this impotence issue?” I said, “I have my sources. I won’t reveal them.” I started out as a journalist and I value my sources. These women spoke to me in confidence, but they spoke to me, not Oliver or anyone else and they didn’t want their names revealed. He said, “Well, Danny Sugarman said that Jim was a sexual animal.” I said, “Excuse my language, but Danny didn’t fuck him.” Oliver thought that was pretty funny. Anyway, we chatted some more. I wasn’t sure where I was fitting in and I wasn’t sure what Oliver was getting at by talking to me. I didn’t know if he was auditioning me as someone to work together with or not. I just wasn’t sure. I had gone through a lot of pain and angst myself with all of this so I wasn’t totally on board to play ball yet either. We had a nice chat though. It was only about twenty or thirty minutes. He said, “Look, I’m going to do my own draft and then I’m going to make the movie, but your script has inspired me a great deal. I think when all’s said and done, the Writer’s Guild will be very kind to you,” which was kind of a weird thing to say, but the implication was that we’d be sharing credit.

What were some of the biggest changes between your script and the finished film? 

Oliver added the bald headed figure of death – the pervasive guy who’s always around. That was a product of Oliver’s. Fundamentally, I felt that it made Jim almost literally death obsessed. I didn’t feel that way. He could get down and very depressed like anyone else, but I don’t think this was a guy who was constantly walking around courting it. 

Oliver also got really literal with the Shaman character. We all knew that the “Indian’s On The Highway” scene was something that was going to be in the movie. We just didn’t know where it was going to fit in. When I interviewed Jim’s parents, it was in their attorney’s office in Central City and I couldn’t use a tape recorder. I had very strict bumpers in the bowling lane in that I wasn’t allowed to portray them in the movie, except for the “Indian’s on the highway” scene. We got to talking and I finally said, “I have to ask you about this.” His mother did most of the talking and said, “We don’t remember that much. It was in Arizona or New Mexico, somewhere in the southwest. We were driving on a very lonely highway and Jim’s grandparents were with us. Jim was in the back at maybe three or four years old. We came up on something that forced us to slow down.” She said, “I remember there was a pick up truck on the side of the road. It hadn’t crashed, but there were a lot of Native Americans standing there.” There was no carnage and no blood. It’s possible someone might have been dying or something of that stature, but there weren’t bodies all over the highway as Jim later liked to tell. 

She said there was an eerie quality to it because they were keening in some sort of ceremonial sounding way. To an impressionable three year old as Jim was at the time, it could have had an impact. She then paused for a long moment and said one of my favorite quotes of the entire project: “Little Jimmy had a tendency to embellish.” I heard that and I just cracked up. I loved that because it brought home a lot of things about Morrison the storyteller. He was an Irishman and they love to tell stories. I think Jim was a storyteller – it was innately part of his troubadour quality. He was part Oscar Wilde, holding court in the small theatres or saloons of America. I think there was also this prankster, Huck Finn, pulling your leg kind of quality to that. So when he would tell that story later on, I think he really relished it. 

The Shaman appeared in my drafts, but it was only after Jim had told the story to the guys when they’re in a limousine on the way to a gig. They trip on a bunch of acid and right in the middle of the performance, I had it where Ray hears this horrific screech from the microphone. He looks up and doesn’t see Jim, but see’s the Shaman performing this ancient incantation and then the other guys start to see it. That was the only time we saw it and it was only when they were tripping. Oliver got a little more literal with getting Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman to play the Shaman in the film.

Oliver also brought in Patricia Kennealy. I never interviewed her and was actually told to steer clear of her. Oliver brought her in and combined her with the journalist who was with Jim in the shower stall in New Haven when he got maced. I would say shortly after he’s maced in New Haven, the script takes the Oliver offramp. A lot of it felt to me that it became more about Oliver and less about Jim. One of the things that got lost in translation that was disappointing to me was that we didn’t get to see Jim showing his intellectual side that much. Especially in the last half of the film, Jim is just bumbling around with a fifth of Jack Daniels and drinking heavily. You have to know that so many of the things he did on stage and how he performed all had an intellectual and artistic basis. It was stuff he had seen and been inspired by and he was trying to bring a new type of performance. It was an earnest desire on his part to create something beyond rock n’ roll. If Oliver had just swapped out a book instead of the bottle of booze a couple of times, that would have been a really cool thing to see. 

Thirty years later, what are your overall feelings towards the film?

It’s hard to believe it was thirty years ago. I think it holds up pretty well. I watched it not too long ago. They had a screening here in Portland and it was fun to watch it up on the big screen. I would do things differently, but it’s Oliver’s film. It has his imprint hugely. At the same time, I don’t think there could have been another director who would have been able to pull it off quite as well. As they said about Lawrence of Arabia, “He’s a two-edged sword!” Oliver’s kind of that way. He had the strength and vision to get a movie like this made, which was pretty hardcore and radical at the time. At the same time, that weight brings a certain amount of heavy handedness to it. There’s still passages that I like though. When they’re performing “Not To Touch the Earth,” and the thing is starting to get really debauched… that’s just a great sequence. Oliver made it feel like a Nuremberg Rally or something. It was just really nightmarish and horrific. Granted, I worked some language like that into the description of it, but he took it even further and I think it’s great.

I’m very pleased and proud that the film has legs. It still seems to find an audience. I’m pleased that younger people watch it and relate to it in a lot of ways. That’s exciting to me. I think the thing that still emerges out of it is that it’s still a story about transcendence, seeking and going beyond – not settling for things, just always yearning.

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