“HWY: An American Pastoral”: Jim Morrison’s experimental killer-on-the-road desert noir

By on July 3, 2015

Jim Morrison had studied film at UCLA, and might have pursued more film projects had he not died on July 3, 1971, in a rented apartment on the rue Beautreillis, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, on the Right Bank. But we do have HWY: An American Pastoral, which was lensed out in the Mojave Desert during Easter week, April 2-9, 1969, with additional location shooting taking place in both Los Angeles and Palm Springs, California.

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The film, not quite an hour long at just over 50 minutes, was shot in a cinéma vérité style and is considered experimental, incorporating improvisation and real-life ad-lib scenarios in favor of following a specific plotline. It was loosely based on a short screenplay scenario that Morrison had written, titled “The Hitchhiker: An American Pastoral,” which told the story of a fictional killer on the road (partially inspired by American serial killer Billy Cook — Morrison’s character is referred to as “Billy” in this early short script) who finds his victims while hitchhiking through the Californian desert. There’s no dialogue or characters from Morrison’s original ten-page script, however, in the finished HWY movie.

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Additionally, Morrison’s hitchhiker-turned-killer/car thief tale seems to have been inspired by haunting images that had stayed with him since childhood, and he also is said to have drawn further inspiration from a 1953 film noir B-movie directed by Ida Lupino, called The Hitch-Hiker. Morrison told writer Howard Smith (in November 1969, the month he’d finished work on HWY) that he thought it was a “very beautiful film” about a person who “comes down out of the mountains and hitchhikes his way through the desert into a modern city, which happened to be L.A., and that’s where it ends.”

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Morrison financed the entire venture for his own production company, HiWay Productions, working with his filmmaking friends Paul Ferrara, Frank Lisciandro and Babe Hill, who had the worked the previous year on Feast of Friends, a 40-minute documentary that was produced by and about The Doors (Feast was also shot cinéma vérité-style and features footage of the group filmed during a five-month period, from mid-April to early September 1968, spanning two countries, nine states, and more than twenty cities). Ferrara — a classmate of Morrison’s and also his bandmate, Ray Manzarek, at UCLA film school — was once again the cameraman, and used a rented 35mm Arriflex camera. Hill once again ran sound, using a portable Nagra reel-to-reel recorder and a boom mic, and Lisciandrio — did the editing on Feast of Friends — would reprise that same role on HWY.

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Morrison had also asked his friend, composer/pianist Fred Myrow — a composer-in-residence under Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic — to select the soundtrack for the film. Myrow had also discussed creating a musical with Morrison, with Myrow doing the music and Morrison the text and lyrics, although those plans were scrapped after Morrison’s death in 1971.

Lisciandro worked on editing the film, with Morrison’s input, in an office upstairs from Themis, Morrison’s girlfriend Pamela Courson’s clothing boutique, in the Clear Thoughts Building, which was located just across the street from Elektra Records. The final edit was shown to friends, associates, and movie critics at a few private screenings during the winter of ’69, spring of ’70, including one screening held at the Granada Theatre inside the 9000 Bldg., on Sunset Blvd., where the final scene in the film takes place.

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HWY had its official world premiere, however, at the Orpheum Theatre during the aptly-named “Jim Morrison Film Festival” in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on March 27, 1970. Morrison, however, due to legal problems he was facing at the time, was unable to attend the midnight screening of the film. HWY was also submitted to the San Francisco International Film Festival but it was rejected for unknown reasons. It was never publicly shown again during Morrison’s lifetime.

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In June 1970, Morrison traveled to France, where he showed HWY to directors Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda, hoping to find someone who might help finance its completion and expansion to feature length, but they apparently did not think too much of the film.

Morrison later (Feb. 1971) told Rolling Stone‘s Ben Fong-Torres, “I don’t think [HWY] has much commercial appeal. I would like people to see it though. It was more of an exercise for me and a warm-up for something bigger.” (You can hear the audio of that 1971 interview here).

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Only and only a few scenes from HWY ended up in Tom DiCillo’s documentary on the Doors, When You’re Strange, released to theaters in 35mm in 2009 (it first screened at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2009, but DiCillo’s own voiceover narration was later replaced with Johnny Depp’s), and so HWY remains something of a curiosity, since the film uses nearly all of the available footage shot during all five days in the desert and it still ended up being too long to be a short film, and too short to be a theatrical-length feature.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.