He’s got critical acclaim, film-festival cred and a reputation as a smart, funny writer-director of offbeat comedies and dramas that skewer contemporary life.
Yet Tom DiCillo’s career has been built on a series of films that he struggled to get made, get released or both.
So when he was offered the chance to make a documentary – about one of the seminal rock bands of the 1960s, no less – he jumped at it.
“It’s not that often that people come to me with projects,” DiCillo, 56, says in a telephone interview. “I’ve received offers to direct other stuff. But if I’m going to put my name on it, I want it to be something I’m not going to cringe at. And here I got the opportunity to make a film that turned out to be as personal as any of my own scripts.”
The film is “When You’re Strange,” a documentary about the Doors that DiCillo directed and wrote out of an archive of footage from the band’s archive, much of which was previously unseen. The film, which opens in limited release Friday (4/9/10), was winnowed from footage that DiCillo spent three weeks of 10-hour days screening.
“The film was a series of discoveries,” DiCillo says. “I had to find the beginning, the middle and the end because I was seriously trying to tell a story. And I wanted to present it in a way that it hadn’t been presented before.”
At the center of that story, of course, is the late Jim Morrison, who wrote many of the band’s lyrics and served as its charismatic frontman. Morrison’s growling, crooning vocals and Rimbaud-influenced poetry, his wardrobe of flowing shirts and tight leather pants, his insinuating voice – all made him the focus of much of the attention devoted to the band at its height.
“His ability to guide public perception of himself was phenomenal,” DiCillo says. “That came from the psyche of an extremely intelligent man. But he was also extremely troubled. And no one understood what his trouble was.”
But DiCillo had no interest in filling his film with other people’s speculation about what demons consumed Morrison. Almost immediately, he decided that he wanted the footage – and the band’s music – to speak for itself. There would be no talking heads – no bandmates, friends, critics or scholars to dissect or analyze Morrison and his artistic output or his erratic behavior.
“I put together a 20-minute section of the film and showed it to the producers, and they said, ‘Aha’,” he recalls. “There’s wasn’t a battle about it. There was more a stunned moment where I established what I was doing. I also don’t think they knew they were getting my capability as a writer, for the narration. That was one of the first things I started to figure out: how the narration would help me and the film.”
DiCillo was approached for the project as a result of a directing job he had resisted taking: helming a couple of episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” on TV. He took the TV job for the chance to work – and because his last film, the underseen “Delirious,” had been in 2006. The one before that, “Double Whammy,” had been 2001 and was barely released.
But he fought the idea of directing for television for a long time: “I started at a time when filmmakers and writer-directors made their own films,” he says. “You’re an independent filmmaker – that’s what it was about. For better or worse, I was part of a group that identified with people like Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, David Lynch, people like that. I’ve got nothing against TV but, from a purist point of view, it just wasn’t where I wanted to be.
“In fact, when I showed this film at Sundance, one of the first things I heard from a reporter was, ‘Yeah, I hear you’re doing TV now.’ And I heard this tone of sarcasm and condescension. But I did it for a number of reasons. Chris Noth is a friend of mine. The producers gave me respect – and I had to pay some bills. And after I did it, I got an amazing opportunity – to make this film.”
DiCillo came of age as a filmmaker in the 1980s, shooting his own films while helping out pal Jarmusch with his early “Coffee and Cigarettes”shorts and his breakthrough feature, “Stranger Than Paradise,” which DiCillo worked on as cinematographer.
DiCillo has always had an eye for talent: His debut film, 1991’s “Johnny Suede,” featured the relatively unknown Brad Pitt; his second film, “Living in Oblivion,” starred Steve Buscemi and Catherine Keener. His 1996 gem, “Box of Moonlight,” offered Sam Rockwell his first major role. But, he says, the world of independent film he once knew is all but unrecognizable now.
“I remember when ‘Stranger than Paradise’ grossed $2 million and people talked about that as if it were amazing for an independent film,” DiCillo says. “Then ‘Pulp Fiction,’ a quote-unquote independent film, grossed over $200 million and suddenly the expectations for independent films changed. Now, if you don’t make X amount of money, your film doesn’t have validity in a lot of people’s eyes.
“That system has essentially neutered independent film. There is the same expectation at the box-office for independents and for Hollywood. There are still independent voices – they’re just a lot rarer. But they’re still just as exciting.”