With a résumé that stretches back 30 years, Tom DiCillo knows the highs and lows of independent filmmaking better than anyone. After serving as cinematographer on Jim Jarmusch's first two films, he made beat-inflected movies of his own, starting with Johnny Suede (1991), which showcased a young Brad Pitt, and the low-rent hit Living in Oblivion (1995), which satirized shoestring filmmaking right at the height of indie self-satisfaction. In the decade that followed, he went from promising auteur to direct-to-video afterthought — before returning with 2006's flawed but heartfelt modern fable, Delirious. His new film, the rock documentary When You're Strange, would seem like a major departure, but DiCillo's veneration of Jim Morrison and the Doors speaks to the filmmaker's unflagging affection for idealists, bohemians, and iconoclasts. The 56-year-old free spirit talked about the joy in creation, the business of selling out, and that blasted Oliver Stone movie.
Why revisit the Doors in 2010?
The biggest thing that kept me awake at night was this terror of "Who am I to try to say something new, or different, about the Doors?" Ultimately, I had to treat it personally. Jim Morrison would have to exist like a lead character — that I had written. In other words, someone I would not judge, someone I would just accept and present in the most truthful way. There's a whole strata of people whose experience of the Doors is the Oliver Stone movie. I don't put it down — it's the movie that Stone wanted to make. But it's not about the Doors. It's about four guys that he kind of fantasized and fictionalized.
In the film, you describe Morrison's poetry as "symbolic and pure," and that latter word could also describe key characters in many of your films, like Michael Pitt's good-natured vagabond in Delirious, Sam Rockwell's anarchic jester in Box of Moonlight, and Steve Buscemi's filmmaker in Living in Oblivion. Why are you drawn to this notion of purity?
Maybe that comes out of my respect for anything that is truly original. My experience is that, most of the time, original work is ignored, trampled upon, or passed over for stuff that is screaming for attention — stuff that, after a glance or two, falls apart. My heart goes out to it because I know how hard it is to try and remain pure in this business.
Is that why the idea of selling out still bothers you? You end the film with the words: "As of this date, none of their songs have been used in a car commercial."
That fact remains, and it's not a judgment — it's a statement. I believe that's part of what people respond to about the Doors. Because, what the fuck, man — does everything have to be for sale? The argument from a number of people who have seen the film is that, well, Dylan's music has been used by Victoria's Secret. U2, everybody has done it. And all I can say is that's their choice. To me, I value stuff that is made because it's made. The creation of something to me is a miracle. No matter what it is. The fact that it has to be instantly for sale in order for it to be valid is something that has plagued me throughout my career.
The irony is that by not doing it for the money — by making what you want and being honest about it — you actually have to spend more time thinking about business. When younger filmmakers seek you out at festivals, what do you tell them?
Being in this business requires an ability to take a successive number of punches to the gut, a kick in the balls, a kick in the head. And just as your head clears, someone hits you in the back. So how do you tell someone, "Do you have what it takes to not only endure that, but to keep going without getting bitter or resentful?" To just accept the fact that where you are is where you are. The only thing that really matters is somehow making another movie. Because what's going to sustain you is a belief in the joy of creation. If you don't have that joy, you will crumple.