Jim Jarmusch / Dead Man press conference Cannes 1995

Q: The structure of the film [Dead Man], and the beat and the rhythm of the movie, feels more like a Japanese film than a Western.

Jim Jarmusch: The film only used the genre of a Western as a point of departure. So its style is not intended to adhere to a specific genre. The form of the film is relatively classical and simple: the camera is never a character in the film and attention is never drawn to the camera. The film was designed to have a classical feeling for its structure. The idea of fading to black at the end of a scene is not something new. A lot of films other than Western films - for instance, films in the forties used this device between each scene. So in this film, the rhythm is a little slower in that respect as far as these fades or transitions - although it's not anything radical by those means.

Q: What does black-and-white bring to a film? Is there a specific reason you decided to make this Western in black-and-white?

JJ: This film was designed to be black-and-white even while it was being written and the important reason was the story. It is about a character who gets further and further away from anything familiar to him. Color gives you extra information which in this story would somewhat undermine the film. Because we have seen these landscapes, especially in Westerns - although I say this is not really a Western. This kind of familiarity was not needed and best left out. The other thing about the use of black-and-white is that we tried to use black-and-white as a kind of palette with a lot of different shades of gray.

Q: Your films belong to the tradition of farce and philosophy, would you agree?

JJ: I'm not quite sure consciously what the philosophy in Dead Man is. It's certainly in a picturesque tradition of a voyage or a road move - which is one of the oldest forms of any narrative or story.

Q: The Western genre was just a point of departure for the movie. The film is full of nods to the genre and digs at it. Did you want to debunk a myth or just have fun with a genre?

JJ: I wasn't really intending to deconstruct the genre. The film begins with a convention, almost a cliche, of a young man going out West to find his future. What happens to him early in the film collapses that convention and from then on, the film departs into a stranger story that is not a conventional Western. The Western genre is not one of my favorites. I'm not exactly sure why I wrote this, but it was not something really conscious to take a genre.

To me the story is one about two main characters and what happens between them. It's about two different cultures. The Western in America has always been a very American one and a way of processing history for Americans and stamping ideology onto the film for the audience in a way.

We are very, very careful with details and try to stay as true culturally as we could. In Hollywood, for example, in John Ford's film The Searchers, you have Navajos called Comanches and playing Comanches, but they speak Navajo in the movie. So, Westerns in America have often treated Native Americans as though they were some kind of mythological creatures. But, an interesting thing about Westerns, other than processing history and having a whole race of people treated as mythology, is that Westerns have always said or shown something about America. Should I have an answer to that question? I don't know.

Q: Are you deliberately unconventional, adhering to independent film as in contrast to the mainstream or does it just come out that way?

JJ: I try to make films I think, I hope, will be interesting. I don't try to calculate what kind of box office they're going to make in advance, if that's what you mean. Whether a film is conventional or unconventional is not a conscious thing. I'm not trying to be unconventional. The whole idea of independent is very perplexing to me. I don't know what it means anymore. It used to be that small films could be made without a lot of money and therefore without as much interference from people who were interested solely in making money off the movie. There's a place for business in cinema. It is, to a large degree, business.

Smaller films - which used to be called independent - used to be a place for people to express their ideas, and a lot of the strongest or newest ideas came from them. But, recently, I don't quite understand what it means anymore, because a lot of "independent" producers are interested in making a name for themselves--to get money to launch their careers. So, I see people making films for $500,000 with producers and people telling them to change the script, whom to cast and how to cut it and I don't understand what independent is any more. People who are called independent make films for large studios. Miramax - owned by Disney - which is going to release this film in North America is called an independent distribution company or production company. Consequently, I don't know what that word means any more.

Q: Is it a philosophical stance you have?

JJ: No, I just do it the way I do it. I hope there's an audience for the films, but I don't like to condescend to the audience. I think there's a place for that in more intentionally commercial cinema. I don't do marketing analysis, if that's what you mean.

Q: How come you never went mainstream?

JJ: Nobody asked me!

Q: Black-and-white brings in distance - does this make a comment on our life today?

JJ: Not intentionally. Again, black-and-white was chosen for various reasons for this particular story. One I have already mentioned was to keep the familiarity of those landscapes suppressed--to keep that information out of the film.

Q I donít understand.

JJ: There are many ways to use black-and-white, as there are color and when photography was invented that didn't mean that painting ended or when acrylic paints were invented that people didn't use oil paint as well. People just had more choices. So, black-and-white is just another way of choosing what is appropriate for the emotional tone of the story and this I always imagined in black-and-white. I'm not sure I'm answering your question. I'm trying to, but it's not working.

Q: Can you talk about the spiritual baggage of the film? The character could have died in various parts of the story.

JJ: The film really is about, on the most simple level, the idea that our physical life is a brief kind of voyage. We travel through it - it is fragile - it could end at any moment. We don't know what happens afterwards. We see a lot of things that are cruel, that are beautiful, that are incomprehensible, that are very amazing. I think with Bill Blake, had he arrived at the town, got his job and worked in that factory office, I think his life might have been incredibly dismal. Although his physical life is brief in the story, I think it is very rich in some way because of what he encounters, of the spirit of Nobody's character and the things he goes through.

I'm not a big believer in Western religion. I don't like the idea of if you're a good boy, you get rewarded in the afterlife or that death and life are separate. We don't know anything about that and the idea that life's just a cycle or as the poet William Blake said himself when he was near death that death was really just getting up and going into another room. So the film as death goes is an extension of life or a part of life--that's the basic idea behind death in the film.

Now I can explain the first question: the idea of the structure of the film with scenes fading to black are often because Blake fades from consciousness and then it blacks out -- is the structure of the film. And in the very end of the film, it fades again--is he dead? Well, we assume physically he is gone. It is not saying now he is dead. He could have gotten killed very effectively earlier in the film in different situations, but he did not. He was protected by Nobody. He was not physically killed, and the last fade is just one more fade-- walking into the next room or whatever happens.

Q: Why William Blake and what did you feel toward this writer?

JJ: When I first was imagining the story and carrying it around in my head, before I wrote, William Blake, the poet, had not entered my head and I'm not exactly sure at what point he did. I was reading a lot of books about and by Native Americans about their philosophy. Also I picked up some Blake because I first discovered William Blake's writing when I was a teenager, when I read a lot. He was someone I always liked, not only his work, but his life is very interesting g to me. When I was reading a lot of writing by Native Americans, I was really struck by the similarities of thought. So, I ended up writing this idea into the story that Nobody believes that Bill Blake is actually William Blake, who for some reason has come back to the physical realm.

But, throughout the film, Nobody quotes William Blake, the poet--frequently-- but you cannot really tell unless you're a Blake scholar. I will give you an example from Blake's Proverbs of Hell, one of Nobody's lines is "the eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow" which is written by an English poet and sounds very close to Native American thought. Somehow he entered the script and I didn't block him out. I just let him come right on in. I'm not exactly sure why.

This transcript was published in the Iranian film journal Film International 3:4 (Autumn 1995) as ďA Neo-Western on Life and DeathĒ, and appears here in a slightly corrected version. -LH