Becoming Jim Morrison -- Behind the scenes of Oliver Stone's ''The Doors'' starring Val Kilmer

In a typically hazy California morning last March, more than 100 people began forming a circle around a crackling campfire on Malibu’s Trancas Beach. In a sense, they had gathered to pay homage to the mystique of Jim Morrison, the self-styled Lizard King of ’60s rock & roll, whose reign ended abruptly in 1971 when he died of heart failure at age 27 while living in Paris. Ignoring the stares of passing joggers, an Indian drummer began beating out a hypnotic rhythm.

”We have come together to form a new tribe,” Bobby Klein, an old friend of Morrison’s, intoned. ”We are all in this together.” Everyone assembled threw a handful of herbs onto the fire. ”Each person’s job is as important as everybody else’s,” Klein proclaimed, and they started walking, carefully following in each other’s footsteps, around the circle, each to wind up at the precise spot where he began.

To any jaded ’90s observer wandering by, the little ritual must have seemed hopelessly quaint or even perverse. But this was no ragtag assemblage of latter-day hippies quixotically bent on resurrecting the ’60s. It was the crew of a $20 million film about to begin three months of shooting. The director was Oliver Stone, whose dossier includes the critical and financial blockbusters Platoon, Wall Street, and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone fell into line with the throng he had assembled to bring to life The Doors, his kaleidoscopic account of Morrison’s rise and fall as lead singer of that breakthrough L.A. rock band. The star, Val Kilmer, a ringer for Morrison with his blond hair dyed and permed into an approximation of the late singer’s shaggy brown mane, joined the circling actors and crew. Even the six producers, who had attached themselves to the project during its torturous, eight-year journey to the start of filming gamely participated.

The Purification Ceremony had begun.

”I suspect there were a few producers wishing we could all walk in each other’s shoes a little bit faster, because it was about ten o’clock by the time we finished,” Val Kilmer laughs, recalling the scene nearly a year later in London, where he’s staying while his wife, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, appears in a play. Sitting at a corner table at Orso, a West End show-biz brasserie, and puffing on an English True Silk cigarette, Kilmer will never be mistaken for a Londoner. He looks like one of Ralph Lauren’s Sante Fe cowboys in a red plaid shirt and neatly-tailored wide-wale cords, with a blue bandana knotted rakishly around his neck. He has washed all traces of Morrison right out of his hair, which is back to dark blond. And he has also left behind the black contact lenses he wore to simulate Morrison’s chronically dilated pupils (”like wearing sunglasses with a hole in them — it kind of screws up your equilibrium, making it easy to act stoned”), as well as the skintight leathers he let get nice and gamey during the three grueling months of filming.

”It’s quite a miracle that the thing got done, period,” Kilmer says. ”The fact that it works is kind of like icing on the cake.”

Given all the vested interests — including the three surviving members of the Doors and the group’s fans, old and new — The Doors will undoubtedly trigger passionate arguments. But few are likely to fault Kilmer’s eerily realistic embodiment of Morrison. By the movie’s foregone conclusion, he has effected a bone-deep transformation, playing the singer during his final days as a weary, burnt-out hulk. The performance is bound to elevate the 31-year-old Kilmer out of the ranks of pretty-boy actors into the select company of major leading men.

The three surviving Doors were aghast when they first heard that Oliver Stone had selected Kilmer. The role of the doomed, Dionysian Morrison seemed miles from Kilmer’s slick turns in movies like Real Genius (1985), and Top Gun (1986). But any actor trying to assume Morrison’s seductive poses faced a credibility gap, since the singer seemed born to be a movie star himself. Fans were rabid in their embrace of the band and its incendiary anthems ”Light My Fire,” ”People Are Strange,” ”L.A. Woman,” and especially ”The End,” Morrison’s Oedipal cri de coeur. And Hollywood was eager to capture Morrison’s perverse charisma on film: Screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne wanted him for The Panic in Needle Park, Steve McQueen summoned him to what proved to be a disastrous meeting, and MGM signed him to write a starring vehicle for himself, which he worked on but never finished.

Morrison’s death — officially listed as a heart attack, but surely linked to his heavy drinking and possible heroin use — brought all such curtains crashing down. Frances Ford Coppola’s use of ”The End” to underscore the opening conflagration of 1979’s Apocalpyse Now, coupled with the 1980 publication of Morrison’s lurid biography (No One Here Gets Out Alive), by his gofer, Danny Sugerman, and journalist Jerry Hopkins, launched a Doors revival that continues to gain momentum. Like another doomed rebel, James Dean, Morrison has been adopted as a kindred spirit by successive waves of yearning kids.

”I think they’re responding to a need for a cause, for a hero, for something that’s a combination of rebellion and art in a very attractive package,” Paul Rothchild, producer of the Doors’ albums, says of the group’s continuing cachet with the young. Kilmer puts it more simply: ”I think death had a lot to do with Morrison’s popularity.”

Over the years, John Travolta, Timothy Hutton, Charlie Sheen, Jason Patric, U2’s Bono and INXS’s Michael Hutchence have all been associated with real or rumored Doors movie projects. Finally, in 1989, Kilmer sat down with Stone to discuss the part. “It was the most interesting meeting I’ve ever been to,” Kilmer says. ”Oliver was like a reporter — very humble, very selfless. He just fired questions at me.”

Though he grew up as one of three sons of a real estate developer in the Doors’ Southern California backyard, Kilmer admits he’d never been a real Doors fan. ”I’d had my black-light poster of the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix with his hair on fire, but no Doors,” he says. For his meeting with Stone, he speed-read No One Here Gets Out Alive, but he found Morrison’s music and lyrics more revealing, ”a clear map of his dreams in a way, his particular dream states.” During the meeting, he offered one caveat: ”I told Oliver, ‘If your intention is to glorify his lifestyle, I’ve got no interest.’ Which was pretty pretentious for me to say. But Morrison was an alcoholic, and that’s no way to live.”

Stone continued to meet with other actors, but something about Kilmer impressed him. He thought the actor had the right look (”His face is very American, the bones are very wide and Slavic”). He sensed that Kilmer could capture the right attitude (”In Willow [1988], he was not at all the classic Errol Flynn type, he’s more in the anti-heroic mold. I liked his implied arrogance.”). And, having seen Top Secret! (1984), in which he played a ’50s rock star, Stone knew he could sing (”No question. He had a wonderful, rich baritone.”). The big uncertainty was whether he could sing convincingly as Morrison.

While Stone wrestled with the casting decision, Kilmer, now hooked by Morrison’s character and mystique, went on the offensive, spending several thousand dollars to produce his own video, shot in his rented Laurel Canyon home with professional assistance: in it, wearing rudimentary make-up, he slipped into Morrison’s persona and performed a couple of songs. The results, Stone says drily, ”were not great. It was pretty awful in a way.” But producer Paul Rothchild, who had told Stone it would be best to find an actor who could sing the Morrison songs live before the cameras, found the home video more intriguing. ”I was shaken by it,” he says. Rothchild suggested taking Kilmer into a real studio to record his vocals against the backing of original Doors master tapes. With Rothchild coaching him, Kilmer laid down a new set of tracks.

This time, Stone was definitely impressed.

The clincher was the Doors themselves. Stone invited all three — keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robby Krieger, and drummer John Densmore — down to the Digital Magnetics Studio in L.A. Rothchild cued up Kilmer’s recording of ”The WASP (Texas Radio & The Big Heat).” When one asked ”Are we listening to Val or Jim?,” it was clear Kilmer had the part.

Still, Stone reserved the right to substitute Morrison’s original vocals for Kilmer’s new ones on the final soundtrack if the actor’s live singing didn’t measure up. Recording the performance sequences would be no easy trick. First, there had to be absolute silence on the set. Kilmer and his three other Doors — Twin Peaks‘ Kyle MacLachlan as Manzarek, Frank Whaley (Born on the Fourth of July as Krieger, and Kevin Dillon (Platoon) as Densmore — were all fitted with molded, flesh-colored ear-pieces, through which they were fed the instrumentals. While the other three mimed their performances, Kilmer sang his — sometimes using just the piped-in instrumental for guidance, sometimes singing along to his own prerecorded track, sometimes listening to an earful of Morrison himself. ”It was like preparing for war — we had to be ready for any contingency,” says Budd Carr, who, along with Rothchild, supervised the music tracks.

Because Stone wanted to include swooping, 360-degree camera moves, a way also had to be devised to keep the extras in the ”audience” dancing to the missing beat. The solution was a ”thumper track,” a very low-frequency tone that was synchronized with a prerecorded track and piped in so that the audiences could sway in rhythm. Later, in post-production, the thumper track was electronically removed.

During the concert scenes, each of which took several days, Kilmer’s stamina was pushed to the limit. ”Val’s not Pavarotti,” Stone concedes. ”His voice would start to deteriorate after two or three takes. We had to take that into consideration.”

Kilmer remembers one sequence filmed inside the Whiskey a Go Go on Sunset Strip as the most brutal endurance test. The air was heavy with smoke and sweat, sweltering from body heat and camera lights. For nearly three days, Kilmer had been raging back and forth on the crowded stage, unleashing the primal furies of ”The End,” Morrison’s agonized call to generational incest and patricide. As Stone finally called it a wrap, on what the actor figures was something like the 24th take, Kilmer slumped, enervated and exhausted. ”I felt like it was the end,” he says.

Several weeks later, Rothchild invited Doors Krieger and Densmore to an L.A. post-production facility, affectionately called ”The Bunker.” After a screening of ”The End,” the soft-spoken Krieger leaned over to Rothchild and confided, ”I’m really glad that we finally got ‘The End.’ We never got a recording of that live with Jim. Now we’ve got it.”

The movie’s scenes of the band in performance use Kilmer’s vocals almost exclusively. When Doors songs are featured on the soundtrack behind other action, Morrison’s voice is heard. It takes a fine-tuned ear to tell the difference.

”I think Val was under enormous pressure,” Stone says. Once Kilmer cracked the songs, he still had to develop a dramatic characterization. Friends and confidants of Morrison’s surrounded him on the film’s set, their presence at once reassuring because of the insights they offered and intimidating because of the personal judgments they brought to bear. Others withheld their cooperation, most notably Ray Manzarek, who had pursued a Doors movie on his own for years. ”We never met,” says Kilmer. ”I tried to reach him, but it was just not something that was meant to be.”

”Let me just say this about the film,” Manzarek says. ”There are two Doors that had absolutely nothing to do with the Doors film: Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. I’m basically going to ignore the thing.

Kilmer feels that, on some level at least, Morrison was involved. On the set, Kilmer surrounded himself with books by Morrison’s favorite authors — Blake, Rimbaud, Kerouac — and invited the other actors into his trailer to rap during lunch breaks. ”We’d drag the lava lamp out,” he jokes, ”put up the black light posters, eat our pasta, and groove.”

Inhabiting the soul of the self-destructive singer also meant exploring his darker side. ”Morrison hurt a lot of people,” Kilmer says. ”I met a lot of broken spirits.” He and Meg Ryan, who plays Morrison’s longtime girlfriend Pamela Courson (she died of an overdose in 1974), were locked into recreating the couple’s dance of death. While filming one of their marathon fight scenes, ”We were both picking glass out of our knees between takes,” Kilmer recalls. ”How we dealt with it was just with a lot of humor and sensitivity. We were very dependent on each other in that sensitive state which you have to live in when you’re inside someone else’s life.”

Walking in Morrison’s footsteps also had its eerie moments. ”I’d say to Paul [Rothchild] sometimes, ‘I know what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t like this song. That’s why it sounds so dry. I just don’t like it,”’ Kilmer recalls. ”And nine times out of ten, Paul would come onto the headset and say Jim hated the song too.”

Having climbed inside Morrison’s life, Kilmer wants no part of the singer’s fate. ”Ultimately,” he says, ”the movie isn’t about the ’60s. It isn’t about the Doors. It isn’t even about Jim Morrison. It’s about fame. That’s the line that Oliver chose to hang it on. In my feeble way, I’ve been trying not to suffer those pains.”

Stone and Kilmer may have started out to film a celebration of one of the most original voices of the 60s. But from their ’90s vantage point, Morrison’s fascination with testing all the limits — even to the point of death — begins to lose its romantic allure. So in the end, while their movie will certainly add to the cult of Morrison, The Doors can’t help but emerge as a cautionary tale for generations too young to know the price of excess. — Additional reporting by John Voland

The Doors
  • Movie
  • 140 minutes