Husband and wife John Densmore and Leslie Neale sit on their sofa, both cross-legged. As one shifts position, the other soon follows, so “in tune” are they.
They met at an “underground” performance art workshop in downtown L.A., “when the downtown art scene was really happening,” Neale says. Originally the drummer with the legendary rock group The Doors, he was drumming for the Actors Gang when she joined that theater group. First a child actress at the Dallas Theater Center, then a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in film, she earned her living by commercial and television appearances.
Then, three years ago, Neale says, she “jumped off” and the couple began making documentaries — writing, producing and directing them. “We collaborated,” she says. How was that? They simultaneously laugh the same laugh. “Too much togetherness,” she says. “Our differences came out,” he says.
The story of their collaborations, and differences, may be the subject of their talk at the Women in Film networking breakfast Friday, and as will be apparent, vive la diffrence.
Densmore explains, “I liked being in the spotlight. I was — for a long time.” Neale says, “I love the rehearsal process. I hate it when the audience comes.”
Their documentary, titled “Road to Return,” was born after Densmore bought drums for a prison program called Project Return, dedicated to the aftercare of prisoners. “Drums had given me everything,” he says. So they went to watch what he calls an afternoon of incredible catharsis, and they became involved in the program.
“We’re bleeding-heart liberals,” he says. “We were shocked about the generalization of ‘monsters’ in the prisons. Only 3 percent or less are monsters. The rest grew up in the ghetto and had no choices.”
Neale says she “got totally turned on” by the program and decided to make a documentary about it. Her husband collaborated in the filming process until she kicked him out of the editing room. He admits, “After ‘Light My Fire,’ nobody told me what to do.” Then, the warden kicked everyone out.
She never feared for herself in the prison. “There was more sexual harassment working in production in the film business. I never had it as an actress, because the union protects us, and never from the prisoners.”
Three years later, the program resurfaced, outside the prison, and she was asked to resume filming. She did so, believing in Project Return for its reduction of recidivism. The completed documentary has been shown to Congress and has resulted in the project’s funding in six additional states.
Now, she is working at juvenile hall, teaching video production to eight minors — all but one facing at least a life sentence. “It’s really where my heart is,” Neale says. “John always encouraged me to do it. Acting pales compared to this.” She developed her program from a writing project there.
Densmore came to see her work at juvenile hall, bringing fellow musicians with him. “What a joy,” he says of the kids. “They’re so appreciative.”
“I’m getting far more than they’re getting,” Neale says. “No one wants to look at juveniles right now. Youth is demonized — a scapegoat for everything.” He adds, “There’s a lack of mentors. It’s a reflection of our society. They’re just kids.”
In addition, Densmore is working on a new album, which will synthesize world music and jazz — “tribal jazz,” he calls it. Friends composed the music, which he is helping arrange.
Neale says she was never a rock ‘n’ roll fan, always a jazz fan. He says his idol was always jazz drummer Elvin Jones, whom he finally met. “I brought him my [autobiography]. I was really nervous because jazz people sometimes have attitude. I showed him I wrote, ‘You gave me my hands.’ He was very, very sweet.”
After penning his autobiography, Densmore swore he wouldn’t write again. But he had a story to tell, set in the ’60s, so he wrote a script. His writer friends warned him the actors would change his words, so he turned the work into a novel. He and those friends swap “big favors” of reading one another’s works.
He “sort of” likes the writing process, listing the upsides: “You can do it alone; you don’t have to get musicians.”
The couple also boards horses at Zuma. His sister once lived there, on the property now occupied by the equestrian center. “So we’re very connected to the land,” he says. “When ‘Light My Fire’ hit, the president of Electra Records wanted to give us a gift. Jim [Morrison] got a type of a horse — a Mustang Shelby Cobra. I asked for a real horse.”
Born in Santa Monica and raised in West Los Angeles, he says, “It got me into nature and the Chumash. I realized it was nurturing my soul, if I got depressed, to go hiking.” Now he reads Chumash stories to his child.
Asked what he thinks of today’s music, he says, “To tell the truth, I read the book review section now.”
Leslie Neale and John Densmore speak at Women In Film’s networking breakfast Dec. 12, 8-10 a.m., at The ChartHouse restaurant, PCH at Topanga.