”Film is close to music in that it has a rhythm inside itself; it’s something you don’t start and stop.”
By Thomas Colbath & Steven Blush
Petty thieves. Cab drivers. Escaped convicts. People who live on the fringes of society. This is the world of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. It’s all small-time, down-to-Earth, often hysterically funny and simultaneously poignant. It’s honest - that seems to be the cornerstone of his work. It’s about the struggle to survive in a world that doesn’t allow interest in those who don’t have elaborate educations and high-end pedigrees. It examines the day-to-day exigencies of those who live hand-to-mouth, either by circumstance or by the choice to reject the conventions of contemporary economic and social standards. The whole thing is a game that has no real winners except for those who are either spiritually advanced or too naÔve to know that they are being duped.
Spawned of the American industrial heartland of Akron, Ohio, Jarmusch came to New York in the mid-Seventies and suddenly his eyes were opened. His career as a filmmaker came out of the Lower East Side of the late Seventies, when rents were cheap and anyone who wanted to survive and create could do so without having to have more than a part-time job. It was a makeshift world in a neighborhood that hadn’t been co-opted yet. Punks were really Punks and there was Max’s Kansas City and CBGB where those Punks could play and hang out and live as cheaply as they needed to. It was a time when an artist didn’t have to have all of the necessary skills to create something. All that was needed was heart and vision and the determination to do it with whatever materials were available: from used Sears guitars to house paint and paper scraps; from garbage bins to movie cameras that could be bought cheap from pawn shops then repawned when filming was finished. Artists, musicians, and filmmakers inhabited the same world as drug-dealers, Puerto Rican families, and older-generation bohemians, and were glad to be there. There was an energy there that couldn’t be bought.
Needless to say, there was a malaise and fear that went with it. It was a hard place in hard times and police presence in Tompkins Square Park was unheard of - it was too tough a place. You were as likely to be beat up and robbed by street gangs as you were to find a career in the arts. It was all the same thing. Landlords abandoned buildings as if they were disposable candy wrappers. Galleries opened. The Nuyorican Poets Café opened. Creating out of an atmosphere of poverty and violence is not easy road, but it happened in an environment that was as ripe for creativity as it was for crime. Through it all, there was always Katz’s Deli...
Jarmusch’s earliest films reflect this. ”Permanent Vacation”, 1980, was a series of wanderings of an inhabitant of that neighborhood, trying to survive the vagaries of the place for a few days. ”Stranger Than Paradise”, 1984, traced the experience of a Brooklyn bohemian who is faced with an Eastern European visitor who disrupts his world. While ”Permanent Vacation” was largely overlooked by the Hollywood establishment, ”Stranger Than Paradise” was such an out-of-nowhere sensation that it established Jarmusch’s name as a director. His next film, ”Down by Law”, solidified his reputation.
Two other feature-length films followed, ”Mystery Train”, 1989, and ”Night on Earth”, 1991. Both were critically acclaimed and did well enough at the box office to parlay Jarmusch’s reputation into one of the so-called ”independent” auteurs of his day, perhaps the only one to maintain the spirit that came out of the Lower East Side. At this point, the Ramones are on their umpteenth retirement tour, Patti Smith is disappointing to say the least, Susan Seidelman hasn’t made a memorable film since ”Desperately Seeking Susan”, and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring are both dead. The Lower East Side hasn’t entirely lost its impetus as a source of creativity, but there a few stragglers who have survived the whirlwind of the late Seventies. Jim Jarmusch is one of them. He has branched out and developed more complex and elaborate films, as well as still making short films (his ”Coffee and Cigarettes” series), but the makeshift heat is still at work. Marginal characters in desperate situations still serve an impenetrable and beautiful struggle in his films.
His latest film is ”Dead Man” (Miramax), starring Johnny Depp, Robert Mitchum, Iggy Pop, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, and Gary Farmer (of ”Pow Wow Highway”). It is a Western about as far from the John Wayne tradition of Westerns as Westerns can be.
Jim Jarmusch remains a maverick director who follows his own voice and has enough of an audience appeal to be able to make movies that mean as much to him as they should to whatever audience finds his films.
SECONDS: It seems music - rock in particular - has always been important in your work.
JARMUSCH: I’m a big music fan. I love music because it doesn’t involve the restraints of language. It’s something that can move you across any culture. I grew up with music spurring me on. It’s really in important part of the inspiration; a lot of things come out of music for me. Film is close to music in that it has a rhythm inside itself; it’s something you don’t start and stop. In a book, you can read a paragraph over but a film has its own time signature within. Also, making a film is a lot like making recorded music in a studio because you can do an overdub or a take again.
I feel more comfortable around musicians and I’ve met a lot of people through music. I used to hang out at Max’s and CB’s. A lot of the reason I even make films started from New York music culture in the mid-to-late Seventies. That whole scene gave me the courage to express myself in film without having to be a virtuoso. There are a lot of musicians whose work I like who entered into my films as actors, like John Lurie and Richard Edson, who was the first drummer of Sonic Youth, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Rufus Thomas, Joe Strummer, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop - even Johnny Depp was a musician first and became an actor by accident. He was in a band called the Kids before he ever thought about being an actor.
SECONDS: Why are non-actors in acting roles attractive to you?
JARMUSCH: It’s not a category where I say, ”I like non-actors.” I like people that I think I could collaborate with to make a believable character on screen. They could be Robert Mitchum or they could be my plumber. It’s not a matter of the experience they have; it’s more a matter of what kind of rapport we can have to create this character together. I write my own scripts but I collaborate with each actor to make the character. I think there are a lot of musicians in films that are not interesting actors and maybe that’s because they weren’t worked with in the right way. It’s a delicate thing. There’s a certain way to work with each actor. There’s no one way for a director to go out and approach all actors.
SECONDS: Is there a precedent for you?
JARMUSCH: Many. The Italian Neo-Realists used non-actors exclusively to try and get the idea of real people. From the moment anyone ever picked up a motion camera and started to make films - for example, there’s Edward Curtis, a photographer who made this film with Pacific Northwest Indians in the early Twentieth Century called ”Land of the War Canoes”. It’s not an ethnographic film; it’s passed off as one like the Robert Flaherty film ”Nanook of the North”. Both of those guys used those people to make a story in which they are actors. They’re not ethnographic films; they’re not even documentaries; they’re using non-actors to tell a story. We’re just jaded to the commercialization of everything so that actors have to become products. If they’re not a product, they’re not a real actor. In my opinion, a large degree of movie stars are pretty shitty actors. But they’re big products, so they’re valuable - but only in a commercial sense.
SECONDS: I wouldn’t say your work is anti-Hollywood - though maybe it is - but you stay away from those problems that are ”Hollywood.”
JARMUSCH: It’s just part of my nature. I would not be good at directing a film where other people tell me what it is they want me to do. I’m not against the idea of people that do that. I’m also not against people that are up-front and say, ”I work in Hollywood because I make a lot of money.” I like that. That’s cool, if you say it. If you say, ”I work in Hollywood because I want my art to reach the widest amount of people and therefore I will let some businessmen tell me how to make art,” then they’re full of shit. I respect people that are straight about it. If someone came in here and said they’d make me a big Hollywood deal where I could have complete control over the work, I would certainly think hard about it and very likely do it. What I’m against is the concept that it’s purely a product and ”art” is a dirty word. I’m relegated to being an ”art” director because money doesn’t motivate my work. I could walk out of this room and never make a film again and it wouldn’t be the end of my life. I bring that attitude to negotiating for money to make my films. If I can’t do it my way, I’ll just walk out. It shocks a lot of people because they’re not used to it. Hollywood is about power, money, and status - and it’s not my religion. I am aware of those things; I want my films to recoup the investment so I can make another one - I’m not ignorant of it. I’m not against the fact that Hollywood is an area of filmmaking, but it’s not the only one. What I lovea bout film is that you can make films that aren’t even photographic images - that are more like paintings. You can use film to be purely pornographic. You can make action movies or you can make movies that aren’t narrative-driven or you can make glossy commercial entertaining things. I love the spectrum of Michael Snow to About & Costello - the form is so wide-open. Hollywood is just one part of it, the part that generates the most money, and therefore is the most visible. To me, it’s not the center of the form.
SECONDS: Does Hollywood have more control of the form than when you started fifteen years ago?
JARMUSCH: It seems to. I think it’s because everything has speeded up so fast. America is the place where we can repackage our own waste products and sell shit. If you have a counterculture, you just put a label on it and make money. ”Beatniks. Yeah, we can sell bongos and berets. Hippies, we can sell... ” I like to go to Coney Island High and look at the different styles that younger people are into. Some of them are glam, some of them are disco, some of them are punk, some of them are grunge, some of them are hip-hop - they all coexist at the same place at the same time because no on can say, ”You’re out of fashion” anymore. I don’t know where I’m going with that but... making things into products has accelerated to where it’s got its hooks in everything.
SECONDS: Rock culture is very disrespected in Hollywood. The music world feels inferior the film world, too...
JARMUSCH: It’s probably a big power trip that goes on between those corporate thinking people in the music business and the film business. Maybe they’re at odds with each other, I don’t know.
SECONDS: But do you get, ”Why are you dragging in all this music stuff?”
JARMUSCH: See, I’m lucky because I have a thing set up where nobody has approval over my cast. There’s nobody I have to answer to.
SECONDS: Am I off base in my assumption about rock and Hollywood?
JARMUSCH: You make me think of another dilemma about popular culture being so accessible now that so-called classic culture seems to be... I mean, rock & roll is always at the edge of youth culture and testing the boundaries of things, even if it’s totally co-opted. There’s still kids in garages with guitars or doing techno and they’re going to push the limits of things. Maybe that scares Hollywood because they’re not about that. I watched part of the Academy Awards and it’s so conservative, it’s scary. You see new generations come but the power sits where it is like a lead balloon. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving Oscars to a new generation, it’s still the same white American power and it’s got to preserve those things in the same way the government has to preserve this idea that America is a white culture. If you watch TV, that’s the impression you’re given. The only beautiful things about America is cross-pollination of cultures. It’s given us blues, bebop, rock & roll - every musical form, as well as painting and style. It’s the cool thing about America but America’s in total denial.
SECONDS: The Europeans are the ones who look at American cross-pollination as high art.
JARMUSCH: Yeah, they pluck little jewels out and say, ”This is James Brown. Here’s a national treasure. This is America.” The bebop guys were too far ahead here... America’s in denial of so many things. It’s in denial of the fact that America is built on a genocide that far exceeded anything the Third Reich did. Over twenty-five million North American indigenous people were murdered. They didn’t completely wipe them out, luckily.
SECONDS: Which brings me to subject of your movie, ”Dead Man.” Are you trying to lose the mystique of a Western?
JARMUSCH: You may be right. Your interpretation is as valid, if not more valid, as my own. In this case, I used the Western as a departure point and went pretty far from any conventions Westerns have. On the most basic level, Bill Blake, Johnny Depp’s character, is a passive character. I can’t think of another Western where that’s the case. Things happen to him against his own inclinations. It’s not your typical Western by any means. I don’t really like the Western as a genre all that much, I like the peripheral Westerns like Monte Hellman’s Westerns of the Sixties and Seventies. I like Sergio Leone and I like Westerns that - like Peckinpah said, ”The Western’s a frame in which you can comment on today.” I like those kind of Westerns more than your classic John Ford-type things. I like Howard Hawks, by the way... Robert Wise made a really interesting Western, ”Blood on the Moon.” There are Westerns that are old-school Hollywood classic films, but generally I like the more off-beat ones.
SECONDS: It seemed like you’re fucking with the mythos of the Western hero -
JARMUSCH: I think it does because he’s not your typical character that’s going to ride in and clean up the town and ride off into the sunset. To me, it’s about the physical part of our lives being a journey we take. It’s around the connection between these two guys, William Blake, who has the name of a dead poet, and Nobody - two guys displaced that connect and take this voyage. Cultures clash and everything around them seems chaotic but all those things are sub-themes around this basic story of two guys. The nuances make the film rich and psychedelic. I think it’s a better film if you’ve seen it more than once but it’s hard to tell my distributors that because they say, ”How the hell are we going to get them in there to see it once?” But I think the film is better if you’ve seen it more than once, because you can trip to it after you’ve seen the plot. Those other levels seep in if you’re not concentrating on the storyline.
SECONDS: Is it a nihilistic film?
JARMUSCH: It is dark and nihilistic on a certain level but on another level it’s about life being cyclical and death being part of life in a kind of Eastern or Aboriginal sense of spirituality that is not dark. Accepting that death is part of life immediately frees you from being controlled by people that tell you, ”You better be a good boy or you’re not going to go to Heaven.” Nobody knows what happens when you die, whether you’re the Pope or the Dalai Lama. You can’t sit here and tell us what’s going to happen, so why should we follow certain rules that are not part of our spirituality in any way?
SECONDS: Does William Blake symbolize this passage in any particular way?
JARMUSCH: No; he made an accidental entrance into the film right before I started writing it. The character wasn’t even named William Blake originally. I collected all my notes on the film and was about to write the script and I was reading all these books by American Indian people. Then I put all that stuff away and picked up William Blake, who I read a lot when I was younger but hadn’t read for awhile, and I was just struck by the connection in thought between a lot of the stuff I was reading and a lot of Blake’s work. He just walked into the film on his own. After the film was shot, I started seeing even more connections. If you’re interested in Blake, it’s woven in there pretty deeply. If you’re not, it doesn’t take away from the film.
SECONDS: Let’s talk about all the rock connections in ”Dead Man.”
JARMUSCH: Let’s see... I have Johnny ”The Kid” Pickett and Cole Wilson, so I have Wilson Pickett in there. Nobody says his name is ”Nobody” but his name is also ”He Who Talks Loud Saying Nothing,” which is from James Brown’s ”Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” When he says, ”My name is Nobody,” it’s a reference to Conway Twitty. I have two marshalls named Lee and Marvin, so Lee Marvin... When you see them on a poster, their names are Lee Hazelwood and Marvin Throneberry, so I got Lee Hazelwood in there. I can’t remember all the details but there are a lot of stupid things in there I put in to amuse myself while writing.
SECONDS: How did you hook up with Neil Young for the soundtrack?
JARMUSCH: In my head, I was thinking Neil and Crazy Horse instrumental. Then I talked to Neil and he said, ”It’s complicated to generate something fast with Crazy Horse.” Then he said, ”Well, maybe I would work with the drummer and bass player from Nirvana.” I said to him, ”All these ideas are great but don’t rule out the idea of doing it yourself.” I mentioned an Eric Clapton score to a movie I loved called ”The Hit” where the score is just solo electric guitar. I love Neil as an electric guitar player and then Neil was like, ”Yeah, I could do it myself.” So what he did was set up this big warehouse in San Francisco with a big screen and a lot of monitors and all his instruments miked and everthing running to a remote truck. Neil insisted on playing live to a two-and-a-half rough cut like guys used to do with silent movies. Neil said, ”To me, the movie is my rhythm section and I will add a melody to that.” He played three times straight through the film over a two-day period. Neil was completely focused and laid down three different tracks all the way through the film. Then he did a few other little pieces for the titles and then he came to New York and we picked which takes of the three should go where. The music organically connected Neil’s emotional reaction to the film.
SECONDS: So there’s no ”score” per se?
JARMUSCH: Well, that is his score. It wasn’t totally off the top of his head; I know he had some themes he was playing around with - but a lot of it was intuitive reaction. It is a score, not a soundtrack. It’s not, ”Let’s go out and get twelve songs by different bands and slap them all over the movie.” That’s just a marketing tool for most films unless it’s Scorsese doing something brilliant like in ”GoodFellas”, relating the music of a period to the film. Usually, it’s done in the most superficial way - which Neil hates, and will now no longer give single songs of his to movies. He’s opposed to that way of thinking. It’s not a score; it doesn’t grow out of the film.
SECONDS: What’s your impression of music videos? Fifteen years later, I still have an uneasy feeling about music and video together?
JARMUSCH: I agree. You hear a song and all these associations flood into your head about your life at that time. That’s been erased by music videos because the damn images are planted in your head. Let’s face it, they’re just commercials for the records. I’ve done a few of them because I liked the music but I don’t like the form. It’s a tricky thing to make a good one but I’d like to try again. I wanted to do one with the Butthole Surfers for their new record but I don’t think it’s going to happen. There are certain people I’d like to do stuff with just to see what would happen. As a form, I like it only slightly more than commercials. You can never disassociate ”Smells Like Teen Spirit” with its video ever again, and that’s a drag. I like that video but music is so magical and video is like putting it in a cage. I cruise MTV and only really like to watch videos on ”Beavis & Butthead” because I generally agree with their reactions to them.
SECONDS: Is there too much importance in our culture placed on film?
JARMUSCH: It generates the most money, so therefore it is the most important - if that’s the way you think. They don’t have conventions for bus drivers, they don’t have awards for short-order cooks because they don't generate money - they’re not products. I met this actor once... the Italian actor that died and was in ”Il Postino”, Massimo Troisi. He was nominated for an Academy Award this year but he’s dead. No way in hell would they ever give a dead guy and Academy Award for Best Actor because they can’t make money off the guy. That’s what it’s about. People in the film industry and in sports and in music are way overpaid for what they do. It’s way out of whack. It’s not about your value for what you do.
SECONDS: Tell us about the late Seventies downtown New York scene. It’s everyone from Lydia Lunch to Susan Seidelman...
JARMUSCH: You could live in New York cheap. You could find apartments for $175 a month, so there was an influx of younger people that had artistic intentions. It was a really lively scene in New York. You could go to CBGB’s or Max’s and see the Ramones, Television or Patti Smith. There was the very young Jean-Michel Basquiat painting on the streets all night under the name SAMO. There was a group of people on St. Mark’s Place making movies called The New Cinema - Eric Mitchell, Beth and Scott B, then people like Charlie Ahearn and Susan Seidelman. There was just a lot going on. It felt like everyone was trying to express something. They weren’t worried about how much money was behind it or how many people it would reach or how refined a product it was or whether you were an experienced virtuoso with your instrument. It wasn’t about that; it was about the spirit of expressing something.
SECONDS: You had to search for this kind of music and art.
JARMUSCH: I remember seeing Television at Max’s with twelve people there and Patti Smith dancing on top of a table. It was not a mass cultural thing at all, but it was happening. The origins of Hip-Hop and Graffiti were intermingling, too; it was all interconnected on the fringe of everything. There were little galleries starting in the East Village and that stuff was not mainstream because there wasn’t money behind any of this stuff. It was just spirit behind it. It wasn’t like the SoHo galleries that came later. That was about big money.
SECONDS: Is film harder to succeed in than rock because you’re only as good as your last film? In music, it seems, some people can coast, but directors can’t coast on just a few good films.
JARMUSCH: Again, it comes down to how much these films cost. If they’re expensive, you don’t get that kind of leeway because people are losing their money. If your films are incredibly interesting and innovative, that doesn’t insure you can go on making them because they may not be what people are making money off of. The music industry is different because musicians are like indentured servants. They make the record and they go out and tour to pay for the record. It’s slavery. Corporate music people can send musicians out to generate money to pay themselves back with interest. They have the slaves to send out, which is not the same with film. You’ve got to make another film and that takes a lot of money. You don’t have the same way of recouping the money you put in if you’re a corporate film producer. It’s harder to make indentured slaves out of people in the film world because you’ve got to make a big product that takes two years and then it may go straight to video. I’ve got to admit, I’ve always regarded money as Monopoly money. It has no inherent value to me because I know how to live without any. To me, it’s a big game and I like conning people out of their money to make something that’s not going to be a big commercial success. I like the gambling aspect. Even a small film costs a lot of money.
SECONDS: Will technology change any of this? Will there be a point when film can be more accessible?
JARMUSCH: Yeah. I think they’ll try to prevent it but I think they will be unable to eventually. In the future, video technology and digitally-recorded images will be accessible. There’ll be no way to prevent any idiot from going out with a camera and making something equally beautiful to something made for a whole lot of money. I think they’ll try in every way they can to keep control on it. ”That’s not broadcast quality” or ”This is not suitable for mass reproduction in the theaters.” They won’t be able to control the technology but they’ll be able to control other things around it like distribution. Since I started making films, Ronald Reagan overturned these anti-trust laws, and that allowed the studios themselves to own theater chains. Since then, it’s gotten really hard. Everything’s all sewed up by the big boys and that wasn’t the case before. It’s pretty hard now because the studios own the damn theaters. If you’re independent, how do you get your work seen? We need alternative distribution systems.
SECONDS: But do the big boys own those too? You hear about Sundance and that kind of stuff?
JARMUSCH: Sundance is a breeding ground for Hollywood. Alternate forms of distribution don’t exist now. I’m suspicious of everything; it’s just my nature. Anything involving money I don’t trust. I innately think it’s a sin of humanity to do what’s called usury. To make money off money is what Christ threw people out of the temple for. We have to pay interest on everything, and that breaks one of the primary codes of human nature. If Christ - or whatever mythic version of Christ they throw on us - came back, he’d kick Pat Buchanan’s ass for using his name. It’s all so bogus. I don’t believe in usury but it’s what everything is based on. What do you do? I’ll go to jail if I don’t pay such and such. It’s like, you have to have car insurance to drive your car, but if you get in an accident, the insurance goes up so high... it’s just a big game and we’re pawns in it all.
SECONDS: What’s your best and worst work to date?
JARMUSCH: Well, I don’t look back at my films when they’re done. I don’t like to look backwards. In my memory, my favorite film is ”Down by Law.” I remember the memories of making the film more vividly than I can recall the film itself. My worst work... all the other ones. I talked to some students at NYU graduate film school recently and there was so much pressure on them. They’re terrified to make a mistake. I said, ”Mistakes are the most valuable things you can have because you learn from them. They’re much more valuable than things you can do that are successful.” You don’t want to re-create the same thing over and over, so you take a new chance and your mistakes are really valuable. Whatever my worst work is, it’s probably the most valuable to me.
SECONDS: If there’s a legacy you could leave with your work, what would you like it to be?
JARMUSCH: If you think of the history of cinema as a bookstore, I would not like to be a big volume of important literature. I’d like to be in the back somewhere as a think volume of poetry. But I truly don’t want to think about my place in the history of cinema. I’m just some jerk from Akron that keeps trying to make these dumb films. Once a loser, always a loser.