"The Passenger"

From Details, May, 1992

Five taxis, five cities. Jim Jarmusch takes another strange journey in Night on Earth.

By Jill Feldman

“I’m not a real director,” says Jim Jarmusch. “I’m sort of a fake one.” Jarmusch, considered to be of the artiest, most iconoclastic directors in the country, is trying hard to dispel some of the myths about himself in a New York City bar. “I could never work with 150 technicians on a set and I couldn’t possibly spend more than, say, $12 million on a film.”

Still, Jarmusch, thirty-nine, has managed to make five: Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, and his latest, Night on Earth. Spending less than $12 million on them all combined, he’s won the Camera d’Or at Cannes (for Stranger) and the festival’s Artistic Contribution Prize (for Mystery Train). His is a suitably offbeat blessing: he is unknown enough so people think they’re in the know if they know him, yet he is also world famous.

Sporting his almost Don King hair, he has come to this bar today to discuss Night on Earth—how he wrote it in eight days, how he filmed it around the world, and how, thanks to him, his Finnish actors barely escaped death by oncoming streetcar. But more on that later.

“Spielberg, Coppola, those guys are real directors,” says Jarmusch. “I only made Night on Earth so I could travel and work with my friends. It’s nice, but it’s antithetical to a professional attitude.” (While working with his friends Tom Waits and John Lurie on Down by Law, he says, “some nights you had to walk us home with leashes.”)

“And I only make movies,” he continues, “that I would want to see.” This means small plots, sparse dialogue, midair endings.

“I imagine the endings after I finish the movies.” For example, he’s just come up with an ending for Down by Law—a movie which simply stops with fugitives Tom Waits and John Lurie saying good-bye at a fork in the road. “Tom’s character makes it to Memphis and becomes a DJ again. And John’s gets caught and goes back to jail for a long time. Hate to put that on John, but you know how it is.”

So why not film these endings? people ask.

“Life has no plot, no real conclusion,” Jarmusch has answered, even though his own story is that of a dyslexic boy who battled unpopularity at Akron’s Cuyahoga Falls High School only to become a famous movie director. His life is not wholly charmed, he insists, and to prove his point he tells of his jobs as a moving man (he was fired for dropping a glass coffee table out a window), a landscape artist (he once felled a tree on a friend’s house), and an art gallery driver (his truck made tracks over an impressionist work). “What the fuck,” he says. “The guy who owned the painting never even noticed.”

But Night on Earth has a less obscure feel than his other films. Its cast includes Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands, and its story line—five trips made by five cab drivers and their passengers in five cities around the world one night—has five setups and five payoffs. It’s still focused on small moments, buts its ratio of dialogue to film is high. Jarmusch says this wasn’t done for any reason other than that multiple takes of a cab interior were too heavy, even for him.

He smiles when asked about his seemingly Herculean threshold for monotony. After all, plots don’t matter much to a man who says that one of the high points of the last few years was when a bike messenger stopped on a street to give him a light. “I got such a buzz off that.”

While drams may not be Jarmusch’s first priority in movies, it sometimes attracts him in real life. Clarence Thomas? William Kennedy Smith? Mike Tyson? “Guilty, guilty, guilty,” he says, “and Don King ought to go to jail, too, even though I do like his hair.” Can our children save the planet? “They’ve done wonders for Tom Waits.” Should they be protected from rap lyrics. That’s a complicated issue,” he says. “I loved N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police”. I can get behind Public Enemy’s assassination video politically, but artistically it’s agitprop.

“Like when Spike Lee said that only a black director can make a movie about Malcolm X—that really upset me.” Lee isa friend, and Jarmusch looks hurt just recalling the remark. “Because it means that I can’t make a movie about Finnish people.” This is when he finally gets to the story about nearly killing his actors in Helsinki.

He was shooting the last segment of Night on Earth, which takes place in a Finnish cab. Four Finnish actors were packed into it, and Jarmusch was riding in front of them in a tow vehicle, which was pulling the cab along as he shot out the back window. Suddenly, he says, “the actors’ car broke loose from the towline, and it just came to a dead stop.” Right in the middle of a cable car track, just as two cable cars were coming from opposite directions. “And,” says Jarmusch, “the actors were locked in by the light rigging.” Today, they lift another Finlandia only because Jarmusch and a crewman managed to flag down the oncoming cable cars.

“See what I mean? I’m not a real director.”

Coincidentally, real director Francis Ford Coppola once made a movie right outside the same bar where Jarmusch now sits. “I’d wander down and visit him in his trailer—and he always had this little eight-millimeter videocam with him. So one day I asked him about it, and he said, ‘This movie? Godfather III? It’s my wife. But this,’”—and Coppola held up the eight-millimeter—“’this little camera is my mistress.’” Jarmusch went away thinking that the next Coppola movie would be a “fucking amazing” low-budget art film. But Coppla’s next movie is Dracula. “Unfortunately.”

Jarmusch says he can not imagine doing a film like Dracula, which is a multimillion-dollar Columbia deal with a coffee-table book tie-in. Then again, he says, “if it were an idea that could only be made for that much money, then I might consider it.” And what would such a film be about? He puts his elbows on the table. “A couple of guys working in a hamburger stand. Italian guys. On Mars. Hey, somebody call Spielberg.” Jarmusch laughs. “Steven, I’ve got this great idea for a movie about two Italian guys working in a hamburger stand on Mars, and, you know, I only shoot on location.”

Transcribed by Larry Da Silveira