FC: Where did you grow up? What was family life like for you? What were your aspirations before leaving home?
RS: I grew up in a small town called Castro Valley, which is about 25-30 miles away from San Francisco, in the East Bay. My parents divorced when I was around 4, and I lived most of the time with my mom who, like a lot of single parents, worked a lot to get the bills paid. I went to a school within walking distance of the apartment we lived in, so I had a lot of time to myself particularly when I was in middle school. I was pretty introverted so I was in my head a lot, in there with my imagination, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I started seeing movies and film as something I might want to do when I was older.
And this did indeed carry over — I did drama in high school and knew pretty much by the time I was ready for college that I wanted to study filmmaking.
FC: At what age and where were you upon hearing your very first Door’s song?
RS: I have no doubt I heard some of the songs when I was a kid (how can you not!) but it really wasn’t until late high school / college where The Doors really started to speak to me. And looking back, it just feels like it was probably “Break on Through” that really first grabbed me.
RS: Well, like a lot of other fans, of course I love Morrison’s work with the Doors and it’s impossible not to see him in the role of the lead singer/rock star. But I truly adore is poetry and writing. It feels very tied to some of the great American writers I love, most specifically Jack Kerouac. There is a deep curiosity about the mystery of being human in Morrison’s work. And as an artist, there seems to be both a need to remove restrictions and break boundaries, but at the same time someone who was interested in form, who was conscious of working his poetry into different ways on the page — like still the need to make sense of the chaos and burst of images, themes, and ideas that were streaming through his head. And of course, this is the core of what we are doing with “The Last Beat,” to make sure people do see someone like Morrison as a true poet and writer with the ability, like all great writers, to show you something about ourselves we don’t see, or keep ourselves from seeing. So, for me, this is really the James Douglas Morrison I’ve come to identify the most with, not the “T-shirt” version of the man.
FC: Many individuals have proudly confessed to me in prior conversations having gone on complete Jim Morrison ‘binges,’ where they’ve become obsessed with his life, consuming as much information within a short time. Have you witnessed or experienced this?
RS: Oh yes! And of course, I’m just as guilty of that — especially when I was really getting deeper into The Doors in college. At the time I was certainly reading the obligatory bio “No One Here Gets out Alive.” I was also going to college in San Francisco, and this was the 90’s, and there was a great interest in all things 60’s, so Morrison and The Doors were obviously one of the leading bands being listened to, and even a lot of the current music was referencing, including of course, Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. Beyond Pearl Jam, bands like The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols were certainly heavily influenced by music from the 60’s, early 70’s. So the environment itself was sort of pushing all this on me, and on others — and Oliver Stone’s film was also getting made at this time, so there was a lot of buzz about that, and looking back, it seems to make sense that it was getting made at that time. And when you’re young and hungry for knowledge, of course, you’re binging on all of this hardcore. When “The Doors” film came to town, my friends and I all signed up to be extras, and that was an amazing experience — when you’re 19 watching a director you admire and in a world you’re kind of obsessed with!
FC: Did you ever experience this same phenomenon with Pamela Courson?
RS: Not so much in college, but now that we are making this film — and we’ve certainly got a character inspired by Pamela — I can see that she resonated with a lot people too. We were lucky enough to have seen Ray Manzarek along with Robby Krieger at a screening for the film based on the making of the album “LA Woman,” and I’m pretty sure it was Ray who called them the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Romeo and Juliet,” which I think really nails it. There is something about the both of them together that is beautiful and tragic — and yes, totally rock ‘n’ roll and iconic — and that can’t help but capture people’s imaginations, and Pam’s spirit shines through all of their photos together. Maybe it is the sense that she was trying to be the light in some of the darkness Morrison seemed to fall into.
Along with our fictional take on Morrison, we still wanted our female character, whom we call Valerie, to ultimately be a very three dimensional character, so although Pam is certainly a jumping off point, it was important she be a strong character that feels as much “equal” to Jay (our Morrison-inspired character) and not just “the girlfriend.” I think that comes through even in the photos we’ve taken of our two leads, Shawn Andrews and Cameron Richardson, as well as this initial scene we’ve shot, and I think fans of both Morrison and Pamela Courson are hopefully sensing that we want to make sure these characters aren’t caricatures, but still portray the spirit of the real people they are inspired by.
FC: Where were you (physically and in life) when the idea for THE LAST BEAT came to you? How long did you wrestle with the idea?
RS: I think I was still on the festival circuit with my last film, “Godspeed.” This was always a story I have really wanted to tell for a while, but it wasn’t until I met with Shawn Andrews (our lead actor) during this period and he told me that this was the film he wanted to make, and we should make it together — something on the last days of Jim Morrison. We got some coffee, took a walk, and the genesis, including a more fictional approach like what Van Sant did with Cobain in “Last Days,” was the direction we decided to take. We even brainstormed a few scenes and some of the core story elements, which are still in the script.
So, it was really Shawn that lit the fire, sparked me to commit to writing this, and in terms of wrestling with the concept, the script really poured out of me fairly quickly. I was really inspired by this one, and it may sound weird, but this felt like the most personal thing I had ever written in my life.
In terms of where I was in my own life, it was definitely a transition time, and I think for Shawn too — we both just decided we needed to find a project that was something we deep down wanted to make on all levels, and commit to it, period. I think we were so proud of our last films, but disappointed about how hard it was for them to be seen and heard that if we were going to make another film it had to be something very special to our hearts and with people that would give 110% to the production, from the financing to getting the film out there.
To be honest, the real struggle has really been the financing, the struggle to bring this concept and script to life, rather than getting it down on paper.
FC: What about Morrison’s last days in Paris move you?
RS: Well, that’s what this whole film “The Last Beat” really is — the answer to this question!
But it’s most certainly not the morbid facts of how this person might have died, but the psychology of what was going through his head at the time. I feel like Morrison just kind of knew at this point that this was the last act, and there was this deep fatigue for all things in this world that seemed to prevent him from doing the one thing that I think saved his sanity before — writing, writing poetry, and even maybe prevented him from loving the way he wanted. So along with that is the question of how this affected his relationships, most specifically of course, with his long-term girlfriend. This might sound a little mundane, but it’s some of these smaller, intimate moments that we really want to focus on, moments I think are missing in popular culture depictions of Morrison.
As I say in some of the project summaries for the film, you can’t really separate Morrison from the time he lived in, and our characters are certainly affected by all that was happening in the late 60’s, early 70’s, even in France. They are complex events that can’t be simplified into “Right vs. Left,” and I think someone like Morrison was more attuned to that than most, and in the end, people, even on the Left, started to criticize him. This is also something we want to explore by focusing in on these last days in Paris — this notion of the responsibility of an artist, someone who pushes an audience to react and even maybe revolt against authority, the status quo, but then maybe disappears from all of this, walks away from it. I think this was tied to him walking away from the rock star status, wanting to lose the Lizard King identity — it rattled people especially during a time when American society and modern democracy as a whole was really questioning itself, and I think it also shattered, broke something inside of Morrison, knowing full well he was probably just as responsible for creating this image of himself as everyone else.
FC: As you’ve experienced life and the film industry, how have your thoughts evolved on Morrison’s alleged desire to make movies and be taken more seriously? Although deep and introspective, it is said that he wrestled with labels as a ‘heartthrob,’ ‘teen idol,’ or ‘rebellious front man?’
RS: Well, maybe this is tied to the last question, to the idea that Morrison wanted to shed (and maybe shred) the skin of the Lizard King identity. I really do believe he wanted to be taken quite seriously as a writer and artist, but also felt that what he and The Doors did wasn’t just any music, wasn’t just pop music, but also music and art they wanted people to take seriously too. The Doors, at least to me, weren’t just saying “we’re young, let’s have some fun,” it was “we’re young and the world needs to change!” There was an idealism and intelligence to their music that I think was pretty misunderstood at the time and then carried over into how everyone saw and related to its charismatic front man. This is probably one of the reasons why Morrison became confrontational with his audience — they weren’t listening to any of the lyrics and didn’t care about what the band was trying to say through their music.
I know Jim loved film and the cinema and of course worked on a version of one of his projects, which we now know as HWY, but I’m not sure how far that desire to actually make films went. For me, it seemed like he really wanted — and really needed — to hide away and sit with himself, and just write, write as much as he could. But sometimes, as we all know, it’s just this premise — the writer confronting the empty page — that can be very frightening, and lead to all sorts of things going through someone’s head, and this is certainly part of what we are trying to explore too.
FC: What do you believe is society’s fascination with tragic, public figures (giving way to the ’27 club’ and other glorification of self-destruction)?
RS: I hate to say it, but I think it’s maybe something as morbid as being tied to us as spectators in a Roman coliseum watching someone, especially if that someone is a known figure, get ripped to shreds by a lion or tiger, or whatever. American culture is obsessed with death in a very unhealthy way, and strangely the modern media, just exacerbates all of this — it doesn’t explore any deeper meaning to people’s unfortunate downward spirals, depression, or why they are self-destructing, it only wants to mention it repeatedly, 24/7 on every and any platform available.
There’s a difference when a culture wants to honor, or is saddened, by the passing of a public figure, especially if it’s an artist, than when it just wants to display the body, so to speak, for all to see. We have a line from the script that is straight from a poem our character Jay writes — “You all want my bones, not my brain…”
But, in the end, we are also attracted to tragedy as humans, it’s just how we explore and accept that as a culture where it can either become savage or respectable, and enlighten rather than tastelessly entertain.
FC: How do you feel Jim Morrison/Pamela Courson’s public perception of their relationship differs or compares with other notable music pairings (Sid and Nancy, Kurt and Courtney, Yoko and John, Sony and Cher, etc)? Do you think the public/media ever knows the truth? Do you think the public/media is ever to blame for their demise?
RS: Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be more of an initial innocence to Jim and Pam, and a sense of two spirits really connecting. Maybe closer to the bond that John and Yoko had. I know there was a book that delved specifically into their relationship and I made a conscious effort not to read it for “The Last Beat.” I don’t think the public or the media can ever know the truth, and this is certainly one of the biggest reasons — if not the main reason — why we really wanted to fictionalize this story. The imagination might get closer to what actually happened, and since it’s colored through your own experiences, just feels even more honest. And I think in the end, this can just reach an audience even more deeply than traditional biopics.
I think the public and media, especially with all the chatter we have now on social media can certainly start to weigh heavy on someone who is in the public eye, and it’s hard not to see how such a negative “cloud” that can be created from all of this could begin to weaken someone’s psyche. But it is often just a lot of misplaced anger, small-mindedness, and total bullsh*t that it might sting, but eventually isn’t going to be the main reason why someone is going to fully self-destruct. There’s obviously a lot more going on there.
FC: Have you ever been to Morrison’s or Courson’s gravesite? What feelings and observations did you have?
RS: I haven’t been to Pam’s but I’ve visited Morrison’s twice. The first time I visited, this film, although maybe a nugget in my head, wasn’t written or fleshed out at all. The second time was with Shawn and our other producer Matt Miller, and that was most certainly intense. We were visiting Paris in January for initial pre-pro on this film. It was very cold, and I remember this second time feeling much more apprehensive. I guess you also want some sort of feeling or sign of “acceptance” especially since this project was obviously inspired by this man’s work and life to some degree. It could be Père Lachaise itself, but no one can deny there is a palpable energy at that cemetery, beyond just Morrison’s site.
In the end, I felt very positive about this last visit, and in fact, the idea of this very gravesite is a visual theme in the first nine minutes we shot — not the gravesite as it is now, but based heavily on how it was in the months following his death. We combined the idea of a fire pit with a gravesite, perhaps pointing to one of the themes we want to deal with — this tragic flame burning out.
I know we just talked about our culture’s strange and definitely unhealthy obsession with death, but I think we are trying to explore it from the different angle, that it’s ultimately part of everyday human existence, and as we all know, Morrison is someone more than most that needed to confront and make sense of that through his work.
FC: Who is the sultry and mysterious Countess Clémence? Is she real or fictional?
RS: Clémence is most definitely fictional, but part of me thinks there must have been someone like this during Jim’s time in Paris at the end.
I think she represents the fire that has clearly burnt out of Jay, and even Valerie. But she is someone who also doesn’t want to accept as true what’s right in front of her — whether it’s the fact that Jay will never be able to love her like she wants or the social and political turmoil that is happening all throughout the world. She wants to pretend she is unaffected, and therefore won’t be touched by any of it, when of course, that’s not possible.
For me, she’s not the opposite of Valerie, nor is this meant at all to be some kind of “love triangle” subplot — but there needed to be some counterpoint to Jay and Valerie, some soul that still wanted to burn bright, even if that love was a little blind.
FC: Has any other notable public figures passing affected you in a profound way? Why / who was it?
RS: For me, it was really when Kubrick passed. I’m sure I’m one of many filmmakers who just feel so inspired by this man’s work, but also the level of his craft. He was 70 I believe at the time of his death, but he made such few films, you just wanted more. It was also the fact that it happened right before “Eyes Wide Shut” was released, and even though he didn’t do a lot of interviews, I felt this film was different in so many ways from his other work, that I wanted so badly to hear from him — anything on this film!
It was also the time in my life — I had just shot my first feature, “After the Flood,” which stars Shawn, and where we first met. I was struggling to finish that film, and I think it’s always hard to lose what you consider a teacher or mentor, even if it’s someone who’s not really in your life, when you are still figuring out your own craft.
FC: Why do you think people react so strongly to the passing of public figures, even if they were never initially fans? Why do you think they serve as historical markers for our own lives?
RS: This is a great question, and perhaps it’s related to that idea I just spoke of, that sometimes, for you they are teachers or inspirational figures. Sometimes, it’s really a generational thing and we all collectively have to face our own immortality. For me that was Kurt Cobain. I liked Nirvana, but at the time I wasn’t the biggest fan — I was stuck in the 60’s and 70’s with Hendrix, The Doors, and Zeppelin. Sometimes it takes someone’s passing to finally get to their work or life, find out what it was that moved so many people.
FC: What epiphanies can you share for being chosen as Official Selection in the 2003 Sundance Film Festival for White of Winter, for which you wrote, directed and edited?
RS: Well, when you are working in a somewhat non-traditional way, it’s a joy to be accepted to something like Sundance — clearly it’s very validating on many levels and gives you some confidence that maybe this life choice was the right one!
It was truly an amazing — if not overwhelming — experience and we had such intense, great reactions from audiences. However, you find out very quickly that if you’re not seen as commercial in any way, you won’t get a lot of love from the business end of things, from distributors to representation.
But I must say Sundance fought and supported this film and myself as a filmmaker in so many ways and it takes more than a festival to change the business — crowdfunding and VOD are starting to break down a lot of barriers and are certainly pulling the rug out from under traditional financing and distribution, but we have a long way to go.
FC: See that you’re a frequent panelist at film-related events. What is the one thing you find yourself frequently and freely giving advice on?
RS: I think most people are always interested in how we financed the films. Back then it was, of course, the stock answers of friends, families, angel investors, and yes, evil credit cards, but now, as I mentioned, the alternative method of crowdfunding which we are currently doing ourselves for “The Last Beat.” Of course, until it matures a bit more (which it will) a lot of crowdfunding is still that inner network — friends, family, angel investors!
FC: Of the films you’ve been a part of (either writing, directing, editing, etc.), which one held the most meaning for you personally and why?
RS: It’s a little like asking which is your favorite child! The films are really all personal on some level — not necessarily with personal experience — but dealing with themes or ideas that are close to my heart, or that I feel I really need to explore. But I can say “The Last Beat” just feels like the most personal of all my projects, and I’m not entirely sure why yet. It’s not only the subject matter, but perhaps because it seems to encompass a lot of the emotions, questions, and ideas I’ve had over the years.
FC: What is the significance of the ‘BRONSON CAVES’ (which you offer as part of your crowdfunding campaigns rewards)?
RS: We knew we wanted to create a photo shoot that mimicked a late 60’s look and feel in order to really show people how Cameron and Shawn would look in their roles. But at first I was apprehensive about using Bronson as a background, even though those famous shots of Jim and Pam are such a huge reference. The caves are so interesting because you don’t think that this could be LA, and that’s actually what’s kind of very LA about it — the strangeness of it all. The fact that it’s also where the Batmobile races out of in the Adam West TV series just gives it that extra sense of weirdness and humor that I think someone like Jim would have appreciated.
In the end, it just felt right. Like the film, these are inspired by the real-life references, but are always infused with our own voice, our own take on the times, the fashion, and of course, the people. We ended up shooting a lot more there, and I know all of us were on a kind of high — the stills were turning out great and for lack of a better word, the vibe was very positive. It was really the first time we had Shawn and Cameron together in full costume, and even though we weren’t shooting a scene, it felt like we were making the movie, we were finally in this world that we’ve been fighting so long to live in.
So beyond, of course, the historical resonance, it’s now a place where I think we really started to move forward in a direction where we would empower ourselves and find a way to make this film, so we wanted to share that with people.
FC: What parallels do you see in today’s ‘fringe’ or alternative youth that mimic The Beat Generation? Why do these subcultures form and why does the mainstream seem resistive to their message?
RS: And this is where my age reveals itself! For me to say I know just what’s happening in today’s alternative youth culture would be a flat out lie — but I do know that like any introspective segment of a young generation it has to be centered on some kind exploration of the human condition, not just pushing away the mainstream. It’s easy to rebel sometimes when you’re young, but it’s hard to really question yourself or your actions, because you always end up questioning your own worldview which may be more mainstream than you think, or may just lead to other questions which as we know don’t always have answers. And by the way, I don’t think you ever stop pushing the mainstream if that’s really where you come from. And if you’re an artist of some kind, hopefully your craft just keeps getting refined as you still question the world around you and what’s status quo.
And in terms of why the mainstream seems resistive to alternative culture is a complicated question, but it certainly is related to what I think Morrison was trying to say — which is when you expand your consciousness, when you see things outside of a constructed boundary, it’s actually quite frightening, so most people pull back to the safety of mainstream thinking. It’s like a white fence which everyone thinks will protect them, but deep down inside, know that it can’t.
FC: Do you believe there is any rock band (current or past) which message and front man unites as many ages, cultures, social levels as The Doors?
RS: I think there certainly are but maybe it’s because The Doors were coming from a specific time where particularly American society was really fighting with itself for the first time, where the culture was really erupting from all sides, it might be hard to compare for that reason. But I’m sure you could say bands like U2, Nirvana, and Led Zeppelin have a fairly large and wide audience, with music that seems to transcend, like The Doors, many different cultures and ages.
It’s interesting though that in our age of the internet, YouTube, and iTunes, taste is becoming more eclectic, and even if a band doesn’t have a huge following or necessarily a front person like a Morrison, people are hearing so much more music from so many different cultures than ever before and personalizing those bands. They don’t need large stadiums or concerts to really touch, move, or even push people anymore, and music itself is transforming, as it should, by maybe incorporating other sounds, tones, and styles from different cultures and disciplines. More so than cinema it seems!
FC: If you were immortalized, what would you want people to remember of you, Robert?
RS: Honestly I just hope as many people get to see the films I’ve made. I’m so proud of them and all the work everyone else has done for the films that for me it’s all about the work getting out there. I’d prefer the films to be the ones people remember more than anything about me!
Robert is a Sundance Alumni whose 1st feature film, “After the Flood received the Grand Prize for Best Director at the 2002 Rhode Island Int’l Film Festival. Robert’s 2nd feature film, “White of Winter,” for which he also wrote the screenplay, was an official selection to the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. “Godspeed,” his 3rd feature film, won the Special Jury Award for Exceptional Artistic Achievement at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival. Check out ‘The Last Beat,’ currently on Indiegogo!