"Last time nobody knew anything. This time, there's a certain expectation. It makes me nervous," said Jim Jarmusch, whose "Stranger Than Paradise" was one of the discoveries of 1984 and set the stage for his new film, "Down By Law." It opens the New York Film Festival Friday, will screen Saturday at the Boston Film Festival, then Sunday begins a regular run at the Nickelodeon. Like "Stranger Than Paradise," Jarmusch's breakthrough film, "Down By Law" is in black and white and is about three strangers. But there the resemblances begin to diverge.
The new film was photographed in New Orleans and its surrounding bayous, but seems to unfold in a Louisiana of the mind -- a view confirmed by Jarmusch, who says he completed his screenplay before ever setting foot there. Dim bulbs John Lurie, Tom Waits and Italian comedian Roberto Benigni sink into deep trouble, wind up in the same jail cell, then escape into a fairytale. Call it a sort of existential Marx Brothers prison movie. But don't call it that around Jarmusch.
"Keaton was more of an influence than the Marx Brothers. I don't know why. I call it neo-beat-noir-comedy," said Jarmusch, describing his new film on the eve of its premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival. "It's a way of kind of defusing categorizing. It's a jumble of influences. I started with a lot of images -- prison movies like "I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," ''Sullivan's Travels," paperback novels, Tennessee Williams, the whole early '50s genre of noir films -- I wanted to keep the influences subterranean. John and Tom weren't cast. The characters they play a pimp and a deejay were created through the relationship I had with them. I found myself blocked in writing the script when I went to Italy to be on a film jury. That's where I met Roberto. His character dropped right into the story I was trying to structure. I finished the script in his apartment in Rome."
Benigni comes close to stealing the film from low-key Waits and Lurie, largely on the strength of his ebullience and his smiling hand-to-hand combat with the English language. When he says, "Call me Bob -- I'm a good egg," it comes out funny. "What's funny is Bob's persistence to get to the end of a sentence," Jarmusch says. "He made real contributions. In the script, I had Robert Frost. He changed it to Bob Frost. He'd make up sentences and we'd be on the floor laughing. Then John would speak in made-up Italian and Bob would be on the floor laughing. I certainly would like to work with Roberto again. Then, John is threatening to write and direct a film and cast me. He said, 'You'll see what you've been doing to me.' If the film wasn't weird, John wouldn't be interested."
Although Jarmusch has been, uh, visible, since the success of "Stranger Than Paradise," he doesn't like to think it's changed him much. At 33, the prematurely gray filmmaker from Akron by way of Columbia University still dresses in New Wave black, still remains close to the New Wave music scene, although the group with which he played, the Del-Byzanteens, has dissolved. When he won the Camera d'or award at Cannes in 1984, the prize was an actual camera, valued at $25,000. It sat in US Customs for months because Jarmusch didn't have the $2,000 he needed to pay the duty. He's since ransomed the camera.
"I've since moved to a new loft, around the corner, on the Bowery. Robert Frank used to live in that building. Filmmaker Sara Driver and I were living and working in a tiny tenement apartment. If we hadn't moved, we would have broken up. The tenement is now my office. It's nice to have that change. I also got enough from that film to keep my motorcycle going, also my two little production companies, one for each film, set up for legal and tax purposes. This film cost $1 million, which is a lot for me. The other cost $150,000. I hope nothing I ever did would be considered mainstream. After 'Stranger Than Paradise,' I had a lot of offers to make bad movies, and agents I didn't need. I've been offered teen virginity movies and episodes of 'Miami Vice' to direct, but that's absolutely not my style. Some of the discussions I had made me realize that the people I was speaking with had never seen the film, but had just read Variety.
"I found it wasn't tough to raise the $1 million for this one. It took a while, but it wasn't tough. There was no pressure whatsoever. All Island the film distributing company wanted was to read the script. They knew I didn't want to hear their comments. I don't want to make bigger and bigger movies. I want to go backwards, make a smaller, more controlled film. There are four or five films I have in mind, some in black and white, some in color. I've had offers of twice as much money to make a film in color. They made me angry, and even more stubborn to use black and white. The biggest project of the ones in my mind is a Western, or at least as much a Western as 'Down By Law' is a prison movie. Right now I'm trying to write something for Ellen Barkin who has a role in 'Down By Law'. Somebody in Italy called her 'Brando in skirts' -- very appropriate.
"There'll be no sequel to 'Stranger Than Paradise.' That's a plague of Hollywood. I was very surprised that 'Stranger Than Paradise' was successful. I still think of it as an underground, antimainstream film. Tom Decillo didn't get enough credit for the way he photographed it. He was the one who gave it that look of dryness and hardness. I still will work with Tom. He's got a slightly harder, more realistic sensibility than Robby Muller, who photographed 'Down By Law' in a very moody style, very different than 'Stranger Than Paradise.' He's like a Dutch 17th century interior painter born in the wrong century. I've never known anyone who has his sense of light. He's a poet with light. In the hotel room in New Orleans, he put rice paper over certain windows because he didn't like the light. How I make a film depends on the picture I have in my imagination. That's always the starting point with me -- a very vague mental picture, a very atmospheric thing. I'm not very theoretical. That's why I don't give good interviews!"