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HWY: An American Pastoral

April 2-6, 1969

Various Locations
Palm Springs/Los Angeles, CA

Film Crew:
Jim Morrison (Story); Paul Ferrara (Camera); Babe Hill (Sound); Frank Lisciandro (Editing); Fred Myrow (Music); Bruce Botnick (Sound Engineer); Norm Gollin (Title)

November 1969


HWY: An American Pastoral is 50-minute film conceived by Jim Morrison, Paul Ferrara, Frank Lisciandro, and Babe Hill.

It's loosely based on a short script written by Morrison titled The Hitchhiker: An American Pastoral, which tells the story of a fictional killer (partially inspired by American spree killer Billy Cook and referred to as "Billy" in the script) who finds his victims while hitchhiking through the Californian desert. The film also draws elements from Ida Lupino's 1953 film noir classic, The Hitch-Hiker. Filming is done in a cinéma vérité style, incorporating improvisation and real life scenarios in favor of following a specific plot line. As such, no dialogue or characters from Morrison's original ten-page script appear in the movie.

Jim Morrison described HWY in a November 1969 interview with Howard Smith in this way:

"Essentially there's no plot; no story in a traditional sense. A person, played by me, 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. It's a very beautiful film."

Filming takes place over five days in several locations in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs areas of California during Easter week (April 2-6) in 1969. Paul Ferrara, who shot much of the footage used in Feast Of Friends, rents a 35mm Arriflex movie camera and buys "several thousand feet of color negative film" for the shoot. Babe Hill records location sound on a portable Nagra reel-to-reel recorder.

The plan was to make a short film, but Morrison hoped they could eventually expand it to feature length as Frank Lisciandro explained in a 2006 interview with Steven P. Wheeler:

"[HWY] 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.' 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...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."

Over the course of several months following the shoot, Lisciandro edits the film with Morrison's input in an office upstairs from Themis (Pamela Courson's clothing boutique) in the Clear Thoughts Building just across the street from Elektra Sound Recorders. As filming only lasted five days, they use nearly all of the available footage in their final edit, arriving at a running time of 50 minutes, much longer than a short film but about half an hour shy of theatrical length.

According to Paul Ferrara in his autobiography Flash Of Eden, HWY is first shown for "friends, associates, and as many reviewers as we could get" at a private screening. David Thompson remembers it was held at the Granada Theatre inside the 9000 Building, where the final scene in the film takes place. Fellow UCLA alum John Ptak managed the Granada and ran the projector that evening.

HWY had its official world premiere at the Orpheum Theatre during the aptly-named "Jim Morrison Film Festival" in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on March 27, 1970. Due to court proceedings relating to an incident in Phoenix the previous year, Morrison is unable to attend the midnight screening. The film is also submitted to the San Francisco International Film Festival but is rejected for unknown reasons. Although occasionally screened in private, it is never publicly shown again during Morrison's lifetime.

Jim travels to France in June 1970 and shows HWY to Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda in hopes of finding someone in the French film industry who might help finance its completion and expansion to feature length. Unfortunately, funding is never secured.

Morrison eventually decides that the film is finished "as is" and does not wish to continue working on it much to the chagrin of the rest of the film crew who saw it as unfinished at the time.

In a February 1971 interview with Ben Fong-Torres, Morrison admits:

"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."

For this reason, HWY can be viewed as a film both complete and incomplete — part realized passion project and part unfulfilled ambition. Like the nameless character Morrison portrays, the film wanders along the perimeter and forces viewers to reach their own conclusions as to its meaning.

Perhaps Jim would have preferred it that way.

HWY begins with the sounds of traffic and the wail of a siren over the opening credits followed by a horn blow and a shot of the moon in daylight beside a contrail.

As the camera pans down, we see Tahquitz Falls located in Tahquitz Canyon, Palm Springs. Jim's head pops up directly under the Falls as he swims in Tahquitz Creek.

He slowly emerges from the water and lies on a rock by the Creek.

Jim next appears getting dressed and walking through Tahquitz Canyon.

In one scene, Jim swings precariously over the Creek's rushing waters.

In his autobiography Flash Of Eden, Paul Ferrara writes that these Tahquitz Canyon scenes were all shot on the second day of filming.

The instrumental music that accompanies these and other scenes was composed by Fred Myrow.

We next see Jim walking by the side of the eponymous highway attempting to hitchhike. Played over these scenes is audio of Jim describing a car accident he witnessed as a small child where he saw "Indians scattered all over the highway bleeding to death" and whose souls he believed had leapt into his brain. The audio was recorded in conversation at a Palm Springs hotel room by Ferrara after a day's filming and would later be reused on the 1978 album An American Prayer. It is not a scripted moment but something Jim genuinely believed had happened to him.

Failing to find a ride, Jim plays matador with the passing traffic.

He soon wanders his way into the roadside.

And stumbles onto a dead car half buried in the desert...

...which he proceeds to make sure is dead.

Jim walks back to the highway. Ferrara writes that these highway scenes were shot on the first day of filming and show the San Jacinto Mountains in the background. It's unclear, but I suspect these scenes were likely filmed along State Route 62 in Palm Springs. The highway leads directly to the Joshua Tree National Park (where scenes are later filmed) and the landscape matches driving sequences in the film.

Jim levels his thumb to hitch a ride and gets picked up by an unseen Babe Hill driving a familiar car. Jim's 1967 nightmist blue four-speed Shelby Mustang GT-500 makes its first appearance in the film. Hill dubs the car "The Blue Lady." Its current whereabouts remain a mystery.

In the next scene, we see a series of road shots filmed from the passenger's seat, followed by several quick cuts that show Jim is now driving. Accomplished solely through editing and suggestion, the implication is that the hitchhiker has killed the driver and stolen his car. The song "Bald Mountain" performed by Ferrara and sung by his then-wife Georgia plays during this driving sequence.

The next scene shows Jim at a roadside convenience store spinning a rack of Dell Books. The camera pans over a shelf of pulp magazines with similar titles like Man's Story, Men Today and Man's Conquest. Research into the covers shows they're a mix of April and May 1969 issues, confirming an April film date.

The squealing rack of books soon turns into the roar of a helicopter overhead and the squealing of a dying coyote in the road. The film crew happen upon the scene while driving and, in true cinéma vérité fashion, stop to film. It was this disturbing encounter that later that evening caused Jim to relate his story of seeing "dead Indians" on the highway as a child.

As the sound of drums and squealing increases to fever pitch, Jim is seen driving away in the Mustang and lets out a deafening scream that silences everything but the car's engine.

We next see Jim drive into the Joshua Tree National Park and do some casual driving.

He stops to admire his work.

Jim next runs into some children at the park and proceeds to dance with them.

Jim resumes his trip down the highway, but as it's sundown in Joshua Tree, it soon turns dark. Jim reads a map by the Mustang's headlights and wanders around the side of the road before jumping back into the car and continuing his drive.

We next see Jim pull into a Joshua Tree gas station ("the best town in the high desert" as the attendant says) where he fuels up and bums a cigarette. As it's daylight, this may have been filmed while en route to Joshua Tree National Park but edited into the film after the scenes that were shot there.

Jim drives into Los Angeles and makes friends with the natives.

The scene below is not actually in HWY but appears in The Doors documentary When You're Strange which incorporates several outtakes from the film. In it, we see a young station attendant put his hand out and point his fingers down. This gesture has confused many fans. It's said to be a '60s drag racing signal and he's basically telling Jim to lay on the gas and peel out.

Back to the original film. Following Jim's drive, we cut to a series of suburban scenes filmed from the window of Ferrara's Rambler station wagon. The audio during this portion includes a church sermon and Frank Sinatra singing "My Way."

We next travel down East 5th Street and pass John's Busy Bee Cafe.

The cameras next capture what Ferrara has identified as his childhood neighborhood of Vermont Knolls in Los Angeles. The audio during this portion includes dialogue from the Marilyn Monroe/Clark Gable movie The Misfits, which was playing on TV in the Palm Springs hotel where the film crew was staying and recorded on Babe Hill's portable Nagra.

We next travel along Santa Monica Pier and pass Clara's Cafe and Beachcomber Gift Shop.

The sequence eventually ends at Ocean Front Walk in Venice, CA.

The next sequence is composed of day-to-night time lapse footage shot from the roof of The Doors Office showing traffic at the intersection where the Phone Booth strip club is located.

We zoom in on the Phone Booth's lighted sign and then to Jim making a phone call. During the call, Jim's character confesses to killing someone in the desert. Unbeknownst to anyone in the film crew, Jim had dialed his friend, the poet Michael McClure, who played along with the routine but had no idea it was part of a film. The phone call is later featured in the 1978 album An American Prayer.

Following the call, Jim arrives at the Alta Cienega Motel right next to the Phone Booth and enters his favorite crash pad, Room 32. He promptly enters the bathroom and relieves himself.

Jim walks out onto the balcony and we cut to a shot of the traffic below.

We next see Jim having a smoke outside the Whisky à Go Go asking, "Is this T.J. (Tijuana) or L.A.?"

In the final sequence of the film, Jim enters an elevator in the 9000 Building, the tallest building on the Sunset Strip, and heads for the roof.

Here, though the footage is dark, we can just make out Jim walking along the edge of the roof of the 9000 Building, arms outstretched, as we see traffic lights pass 225 feet below him.

The final shots of the film are traffic seen from the roof of the 9000 Building, followed by the sounds of thunder, explosions, and a siren. Cut to black.

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