Oliver Stone, 74, is seated for a Zoom interview at his home office in Los Angeles. He’s just finished reading an email proposing he direct a film about Led Zeppelin. “I don’t know much about them, frankly,” Stone admits. “They were never really my band.” The Doors were his band. On March 1, 1991, the universe got its first look at The Doors — Stone’s beautifully irrational biopic about the late ’60s rock group led by Jim Morrison (played by Val Kilmer, then 31, amid a Method-acting spectacle). The result is an R-rated feast that acts as an extravagant rejection of puritanism and “Just Say No.” It is campy, erotic, deeply disturbing and smoldering like a pagan bonfire.
On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, Stone talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the legacy of his film, psychedelics, Bohemian Rhapsody and Val Kilmer’s masterclass as Hollywood’s first and only Jim Morrison.
The cinematography in this film produces some astonishing eye candy.
We used a lot of filters. We had to go back into the past. We had everyone dressed in period, which was very expensive. 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 “cock rocker.”
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 were 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.
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. The things I say sometimes don’t go down so well. But I don’t agree with so much of what’s going down. 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.” He was a philosopher.
Critics focused on the lack of historical realism in this film. But it’s a fantasy. Morrison himself was a kind of myth-maker. What do you think is rooted in the obsession for realism in a film about 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 on 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 fucking 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. It somehow captured rock ‘n’ 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 [rest and recuperation] — 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. 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. 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 fucking 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.
What were some of the political challenges involved in making this film?
I guess I didn’t know the barriers back then. Paul Rothchild [the band’s producer] was a key figure. He was with us all the way. 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.
I found Ray Manzarek accusing you of “assassinating” the character of Jim Morrison to be pretty remarkable. I honestly don’t think anyone knew the real Jim Morrison (not even Manzarek).
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 these 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 the 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 toward death.
He was a sex symbol who was said to have been impotent. He seemed to be struggling with some kind of imposter syndrome. Was he crucifying himself?
I do believe there was a lot of self-hatred. He’s a deep man. If you really want to know him, look at the lyrics. There’s a lot of depth there that people often miss.
JFK (1991) provides a panorama of possibilities regarding the JFK assassination. 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 interpretation?
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 for 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.
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. Look, every film has to be marketable. The Doors was not. We just made an outlaw film because [producer] Mario Kassar was out 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 in to 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. 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 [1978’s posthumously released L.P.] An American Prayer and [1971’s] 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.