The Calm Calculus of Reason (Pt. 6 of 9)

The Calm Calculus of Reason (Pt. 6 of 9)

A Conversation with Frank Lisciandro
By Steven P. Wheeler

In Part 6, we learn the untold story of Jim’s movie HWY, religion, shamanism, and his now-famous childhood tale of witnessing “indians scattered on the highway, bleeding to death.”

Frank Lisciandro and yours truly discussing Jim Morrison.

THE UNTOLD STORY OF HWY

Let’s go back a bit to when the fallout of the Miami concert began to happen. It was at that time that Jim decided to make a film of his own, called HWY. What do you recall about the origins of that project?
Jim had gotten a taste of filmmaking with Feast of Friends, especially in the editing stages through the fall of ’68 where we would show him scenes and ask his advice on stuff. I think we tied up Feast in the January/February period of ’69, which is when we got the final release print.
Paul was hot to get going on another film project. I wasn’t there at that time because I was working on a film of my own. All during the time that I was with the Doors, I was a hired gun, not a staff employee. So when there was a lull in the activity, I would go off and get a job editing a film or doing camera work or writing, producing and directing a film. And that’s what I was doing after Feast.
       At the end of March of ’69, Paul handed me a xerox copy of Jim’s “The Hitchhiker” and said, “Tell me what you think of this. Jim thinks he wants to work this into a film.” We later published “The Hitchhiker” in the second book of Jim’s writings, American Night, and what Paul showed me was exactly what was printed in American Night.
I would say that it resembles a script for a short film or play or it could be an outline of a short story. I read it and said, “There’s 13 characters and 13 locations, when do we start?” [laughs]. And since this was right after Miami, Paul said, “Well, it’s beginning to look like Jim’s going to have some time, because it doesn’t look like they’re going to be playing too many gigs” [laughs].

What was the original premise of HWY?
What I understand—and, again, I wasn’t there at the time, so this is second-hand information—is that Jim said that he had an idea for a film and Paul said, “Well, write it down.” So one day Jim hands this script to Paul.
The scenario is very mystical and kind of spiritual; very symbolic with overtones of the outlaw tradition of the Old West, and with a strong Billy the Kid influence. It has to do with reincarnation and regeneration, and about killers who return to kill again in another lifetime. It was like mixing elements from westerns with surreal cinema; like making a juxtaposition between those rugged western films of that time, The Wild Bunch, and something Kafka-esque.
So it had all these flavors to it, but it was coherent, it had a unity, it had a beginning, middle and end, and it was really a shining example of something that was unique. I liked it a lot. It was definitely something that had Morrison’s creative fingerprints all over it. The film, HWY, doesn’t resemble that original scenario at all; it only has the slightest reference.

What was the overall plan or foundation laid out for the film?
I don’t know; I wasn’t there at the beginning. After many conversations with Jim, after the fact of the filming, I got the notion that the plan was to film Jim’s script and make a full-length theatrical film.
This project consisted of four people—Paul, Jim, Babe and myself. It was Jim’s script and face on the screen and his money: and it was our sweat and time; some of which we were compensated for and some that we weren’t compensated for. It had absolutely nothing to do with Elektra or the Doors. The only other people who were involved were Fred Myrow who put together some of the music and Bruce Botnick, who recorded the music and helped with the mix. And the guy who did the title sequence for the film.
We had a production office across the street from Elektra and around the corner from the Doors office where we would do the editing and have our meetings.

What was the idea for the first days of shooting on that Easter Weekend in ’69?
We shot most of it in the desert near Joshua Tree National Monument, and other places in and around there. We did quite a bit of hiking with all our equipment to get to these places where we began shooting.
We had only planned on filming the intro of the scenario that weekend, but we also brought our documentary sensibilities with us. So when we saw different things happening, we’d stop the cars, get out and start filming.
We had about half-a-dozen scenes to film out there: Jim coming out of the water, Jim walking down the hill, Jim hitchhiking, Jim killing someone and taking their car, and Jim being on the road. Those were the scenes that fit the scenario. But then we picked up scenes like the dead coyote and the buried car. So we were filming fiction but staying flexible and open like a documentary film crew.
We went out to capture as much as we could based on that original scenario, but in the process of doing that, the story itself changed and became a lot more simple. I don’t know how that happened, I’m still reeling from that experience all these years later [laughs].

Paul Ferrara and Frank Lisciandro filming a scene for HWY on Easter Weekend in 1969.

It sounds as if you’re describing some kind of cinematic stream-of-consciousness…
Well the film might have that feeling at times, possibly because some magical things happened that we didn’t plan for. Like finding that car that was buried in the sand. You could drive around Joshua Tree for years and never find something like that. When we saw that, we were like, “This is perfect. This could be where he spent the night when he couldn’t get a ride.” So we pick him up the next morning as he’s getting out of this car, which made a nice transition. Our attitude seemed to be: We have a story, let’s film the story and if something comes along that might fit the story, then we’ll film that, too, and later we’ll see how it fits together.

So when did the original scenario get abandoned?
Things went left, they went right, they zig-zagged, they went up, they went down. I think that Jim began stretching the original concept of the film because he liked what we were finding to film. He liked the spontaneity of the creative moment, and who doesn’t? That’s a lot more pleasant than having to elaborately set-up a shot and do it over and over again.
Because of that, we ended up shooting a lot of stuff that wasn’t anywhere near the script but was still somehow part of this character’s evolution and journey. It just reached a point where the script Jim had originally written was out the window, unfortunately.

Why “unfortunately”?
Unfortunately, because the characters, scenes and symbols in “The Hitchhiker” script were really quite powerful. But they were out the window; and we found ourselves sailing in uncharted waters and essentially making it up as we went along.
That’s extremely dangerous when you’re making a film, because you can come back with a lot of footage that doesn’t have a prayer of fitting the theme and/or concept of the work; scenes that do not fit in the beginning, middle or end. And footage that’s only “interesting,” which is a curse-word for creative people. But we started down this other path; and the film was now about this guy, this killer, and what happens to him.


“HWY essentially started out with a concrete plan that was abandoned, and we were left to follow this sort of magical ribbon that was unfolding in front of us and then at one point, Jim looked at it and said, ‘I don’t want to shoot anymore. I think we’ve got enough. I like everything we’ve done. We’ll just string it all together and it’s gonna be the film.'”


What were some of the things that you saw happening to this character?
Well, none of the four of us were bashful about throwing ideas around [laughs]. We had one idea where Jim’s character would go into a barber shop and get his hair cut and his beard shaved. And amazingly Jim was going along with it, for awhile. And then the main character was gonna meet a girl who worked in a topless bar, so there was gonna be this topless dancer as the romantic interest; but none of that ever got past the talking stage.
I think we were using what I’d call, “embedded film history.” We had all seen so many films and talked about so many films that we all had these little scenes in the back of our heads that we were constantly pulling out as possibilities. Like the scene in the phone booth when Jim makes the phone call. That’s a classic film noir scene and it seemed to fit the story as it was evolving.
So HWY essentially started out with a concrete plan that was abandoned, and we were left to follow our instincts and this sort of magical ribbon that was unfolding in front of us and we captured all these off-the-wall images and situations and then at one point, Jim looked at it and said, “I don’t want to shoot anymore. I think we’ve got enough.”
We all went, “What? What are you talking about, dude? [laughs]. We don’t have a finished film here.” And Jim said, “Yeah, I like everything we’ve done. We’ll just string it all together and it’s gonna be the film.”

How much was footage was actually shot for HWY?
As I recall we shot about an hour and ten minutes of footage and cut it into a 50-minute film, so there wasn’t a big ratio [laughs]. There was not a lot that was thrown out or thrown away. Anything that was thrown away was usually a duplicate of a better take. We literally shot about an hour and ten minutes total; including re-takes and mistakes. That was it, and we cut it to 50 minutes.

So it became more of a demo reel to a certain extent…
Well, it was going to be a sort of demo from the get-go; a demo reel for Jim as an actor and filmmaker and a demo of the concept and script. Jim even said, “If we can’t film all of it, at least we’ll film enough so that we can find other people to put up the rest of the money, because I don’t know how much I can spend.”
Like I said earlier, the original scenario was for a short form film; but Jim wanted to make a theatrical length film because he knew that a theatrical length film has a better chance of being shown. On the other hand, Jim wasn’t sure whether he could support that size of a project on his own and we had never really done a full budget.
We went out on that first weekend and that gave us an indication of what a 90-minute film could cost. Jim saw that it would be a very costly venture since we were dealing with 35mm where everything is more expensive. And we hadn’t even gotten to the complicated scenes where we’d need a bigger crew to light an interior or lay dolly tracks, or we’d need to hire actors and actresses.
From the beginning, the thinking was that we hoped we could film all of it within Jim’s budget, but if we couldn’t, we’d stop production and put it together as a demo to attract other investors in order to finish it.

So what happened?
What happened was that Jim suddenly had this third thought—which none of us saw coming—and that was, “This film is finished, I like it this way. I see it as a finished film.”
We said, “No way is this fuckin’ done. You can’t be doing this. It feels like you’re pulling the plug on the film.” But Jim was adamant, “No, it’s not that. It’s done, I like it like it is.”

What did the three of you think about Jim’s decision?
I don’t think Paul ever convinced himself that it was a finished film. I don’t know if Babe ever did. But Jim claimed that it was a finished film. I don’t think Jim convinced me of that at the time, but I did become convinced later on that he was right.
Jim was a much deeper person than I was. He was experiencing the film in a different way; there were layers and symbols and themes that I didn’t really grasp. I think he liked this spontaneous, creative guerrilla-style of filmmaking. He loved the fact that we weren’t telling anybody anything; that people couldn’t be passive watchers, that they had to be much more involved to figure out what was going on.

All told, how long did the HWY project go on?
From that first Easter Weekend, it probably went five-to-six months; it pretty much encompassed the middle of ’69. But Jim was gone during various periods; he had to be in Miami, they did the Critique show in April, we did the Norman Mailer benefit in May, there was Mexico in June, and The Soft Parade album came out around July I think, so there was a lot going on during that time.
Then there was the Aquarius shows that were recorded in July, and then they started getting gigs again. And then there was the regrettable bust on the plane to Vegas on the way to see the Stones. So it was a full year with a lot of stuff going on, and Jim just wasn’t around to work on HWY all the time.
I think Paul wanted to shoot a real film with a real production schedule, so there was a bit of disappointment on his part with the project.


Trailer for When You’re Strange, featuring numerous scenes from HWY.


There seems to be a lot of confusion as to who really owns the rights to release HWY. What’s the real story on that?
Jim’s heirs own the copyright to the film. They alone have the right to release HWY, no one else. In fact, Jim gave Paul, Babe and I percentages of the profits of the film—of course, there’s never been any profits [laughs]. But Jim gave us those percentages as gifts and it came as a complete surprise to all three of us. It was a very generous gift and while it has never added up to anything financially, it was still a wonderful gesture on his part.
I would love to see a release of HWY on Blu-ray and DVD with commentary and special features and all of that. The film could be restored to its original 35mm beauty and it would look spectacular. The image would be very sharp, very colorful, very bright, and could be brought back its original quality,  so that people can at least see it as it was intended to be seen.
A proper release would hopefully kill the black market. People who are watching one of these pirated versions think that they’re seeing Jim Morrison’s film, HWY, but they’re not, they’re seeing a poor quality, bastardized version from a work print with a running timecode on it. They’re not experiencing the film as it was intended to be seen at all.

What is keeping it from being released?
I’ve had four different meetings with four major distributors in the United States and the results were always the same: everyone is excited about it, but then it seems to get lost in the shuffle at these big companies. It just never seems to go beyond that initial burst of enthusiasm. I hope that it will all come to fruition at some point in the near future.

INDIANS, RELIGION & SHAMANISM

Probably the most memorable item from HWY is Jim’s telling of the famous childhood experience with the dying Indians on that highway in New Mexico. Was that story recorded for HWY or how did that come about?
Jim’s story of the dead Indians came as a complete shock to me. It was not in the original scenario. It was told to Paul, Babe and I one evening after a long day of shooting. It was something that I recorded; as I recorded lots of other conversations that we were having at that time.
We had the Nagra with us, and we had just gotten some takeout food of some kind and we were just sitting around talking about the day’s events. Jim didn’t tell that story as something to be used for the film at all.
I turned on the Nagra, set it in the middle of where we were, and we just continued talking. I didn’t turn it on for any real reason. All four of us are on these tapes talking about various things, it’s like a gab-fest, and part of that was Jim telling this story about this childhood experience.
After the fact, I thought it would be a powerful thing to put in the film because it gave us a unique window into the main character. It was just another one of those amazing unplanned moments that happened during the filming of HWY. That moment could have easily gone by without it being captured on tape; I just happened to turn on the recorder and at one point Jim told that story. So I decided to put it in the film and Jim liked it being in the film and that’s how it happened.


Listen to the recording of Jim telling the now-famous story of his childhood to Frank, Paul and Babe after a day of shooting scenes for HWY.


What’s your take on the story? Do you think it really happened?
I didn’t know anything about that incident before that first time he told the story and Jim wasn’t really revelatory about it afterwards. I will say that on more than one occasion either Babe or I point-blank asked him, “Is that story really true?” And Jim was very consistent in his confirmation that it was true and actually happened to him.

Obviously that story about death is nothing new for Jim. Throughout his poems and his songs, Jim wrote and sang openly about death, but did he ever discuss religion or anything to do with faith?
Yeah, we talked a lot about religion. I was interested in Zen Buddhism since my early teens and then met a Zen Master in Los Angeles, so I was pretty much into the whole Zen practice of meditation and observing the tenants of Buddhism. It’s a pretty much do-it-yourself kind of thing in comparison with something like Christianity, but it’s very vigorous if you decide to really pursue it.
So I always had that stuff on my mind, and Jim and I couldn’t help but talk about religion and consciousness and spiritual things. In those days different sects and Eastern religions were making themselves known and people were considering them; Hare Krishnas were on the streets and in airports with their drums and chanting.
We talked about Catholicisim at length and he seemed to know quite a bit about it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he might have gone to some catechism classes in his childhood. He definitely didn’t practice any religion though and the closest thing he ever said to me about being in any way conscious of religion was when he would admit that he was a spiritual person.
He was interested in the spirituality that was apparent to the transcendental poets, like Emerson, and he was very conscious of the spiritual view of the universe opened up under psychedelics. But he didn’t attend religion worship. He was not a church-goer and he didn’t express opinions one way or another about any specific religion.
From his actions and his words, he was extremely interested in the psychology and the rituals of shamanism; where the spirit world is entered through ingesting natural substances and chanting and dancing. He was definitely interested in that. Through his writings and what he said, shamanism was a subject of great interest to him.
In fact, Babe, Jim and I met with [shaman philosopher and author] Carlos Castaneda for three-and-a-half hours one day. We had all read The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge [published in 1968] and we asked Castaneda lots of questions. It was just the four of us. Jim was not drunk, he was perfectly polite, and very humble in the presence of Castaneda, who really didn’t know who Jim was. Jim was very respectful during that meeting and it was a great day for him.

The Calm Calculus of Reason – Pt. 7

 

Jim Morrison: Friends Gathered Together
Print Edition Available Now on Amazon, as well as all ebook platforms

 


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