"Whether in cabs or cafes, prison or Paris, the culture-boundless writer and director leaves us with a cigarette in paradise."
By Danny Plotnick
In the world of film—particularly American film—one is either cranking out studio fodder or wallowing in independent obscurity. Jim Jarmusch is one of only a handful of American filmmakers who has managed to bridge the gap, making intensely-inspired personal works while keeping complete creative control, and getting enough distribution to make his name known, if not to all of America, certainly to a tasteful cross-section. Though he’s kept a low profile as of late—it’s been more than a year since his last feature, “Night on Earth”, and his next feature isn’t scheduled to shoot until this coming fall—he has been working on his ever-expanding collection of short works, “Coffee and Cigarettes”. Now was a good time as any to chat.
Is “Coffee and Cigarettes” a short or long film?
Jim Jarmusch: It’s a series of short films that are also designed to eventually be put together. I started them in 1987. The first one was for “Saturday Night Live” with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. I’ve made four more since then. They are intended to work as short films independent of each other, but they do have running jokes in them, that when you eventually see them all together, they will also work as a group—a sequence of shorts. I don’t know when that will be. I don’t even know if I’d be able to release them all together theatrically, but certainly eventually on video. But I’ll need about twelve of them.
Why don’t you think you’d be able to release them theatrically as a collected piece?
I’m not sure how interested people would be to distribute that theatrically. I would like it if they did.
Have you been able to show these shorter works in places beyond festivals?
I have on European television and even theatrically they have licensed them to show before features. But in the States I can’t really find an outlet for short films. It’s frustrating because it’s such a beautiful form, yet there’s no real place to show them. Why don’t they have short films in the theaters before films, especially in whatever remaining so-called art houses they are? You’d think they’d at least try. And with cable television, why isn’t there…
…And independent short film channel?
Or even on Comedy Central of something? Why don’t they have a program of one hour a week that was just short films? Maybe that will change. Cable could be so great if you could have more. Instead television is like a big river that everyone goes down and throws their garbage. It could be great, but it’s so weak.
These kind of inter-dependent short pieces tie in with your recent films, wherein things hold together thematically, in a segmented way, rather than being held together by a constant narrative strain. Frankly, I didn’t intend to repeat it. I designed “Mystery Train” to be episodic but simultaneous. While writing, I was interested in playing around with time and things happening simultaneously and in the same place, but without intercutting them. So the pieces within the film remained as sequences or episodes. I had no intention of doing that again. I had already started these “Coffee and Cigarettes” films as a separate project between longer films. I then wrote a script which I wasn’t able to do after “Mystery Train”. I got very frustrated and ended up writing “Night on Earth” in about eight days. It came out accidentally as a film that consisted of short stories or episodes within a longer thing. It wasn’t any kind of master plan.
Your work seems to tie into a more independent or experimental framework, yet you get distributed on a wide theatrical scale. How do you see yourself fitting into those two camps?
I’m not really sure. It’s kind of complicated to answer. You can see some people who obviously start out independent for financial reasons and then cross that line into commercial filmmaking by making films for the studios. I certainly don’t look down on that. I think there’s room in the world for all different kinds of films. It’s really the nature of what you want to say in a film that determines what you need in order to make the film. For example, “Lawrence of Arabia” is a huge film that needed that kind of structure and financing to tell that story, whereas a film like “Slacker” doesn’t. But the categories kind of bother me. I know they exist because they’re enforced by the commercial world, but in my head, I see myself somewhere in between without paying attention to those categories. I feel very lucky that films get distributed. In Europe, they put me in a “difficult to describe” category of being half-American and half-European in terms of the style of my films. I think that just comes from what has moved me cinematically or things that have inspired me. And they’re not purely American films.
What kinds of things inspire your work?
All kinds of things. Hollywood films—especially in the past and especially the more outsider directors like Nick Ray, Sam Fuller, Douglas Sirk, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Henry Hathaway. I love Sam Fuller. I just went to the Amazon this summer with Sam and Mika Kaurismaki, a young Finnish director. In 1954, Sam was sent to the Amazon by Darryl F. Zanuck to prepare a story based on a book that Zanuck had bought. He sent Sam down there with a 16mm camera, who made a lot of footage, particularly of a Indian tribe in the Amazon basin. He came back and wrote the story. The film was cast with John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Tryone Power, which was going to be a big thing for Sam. Then the insurance company would not insure those stars in the Amazon, so the film was never made. Sam was cleaning out his closets in Los Angeles four or five years ago and he found all the footage that he had shot, so he sent it to Kaurismaki and said, “Here, you can have it, maybe you can think of something to do with it.” Mike decided to go back down to the Amazon with Sam forty years later a go to the same places he filmed, film him there, show the footage to the indigenous people that he stayed with and see if they recognized themselves or relatives. It showed in the Berlin Film Festival this year and had a good response. I somehow got pulled into this project. In the film, I’m just travelling with Sam. He’s so energized. The man is like eighty-six and you just can’t stop the guy. He never stops talking: he has so many amazing stories. He’s like some kind of historical artifact.
What’s this Finnish director’s deal?
You probably know his brother’s films more than his—Aki Kaurismaki. He made “Match Factory Girl”, “I Hired a Contract Killer”, and “Leningrad Cowboys”. I’ve known Mika and Aki since 1986. I appeared briefly in “Leningrad Cowboys” and in a film Mika made in 1987 called “Helsinkinapoli All Night Long”. Sam was also in the film, and Wim Wenders had a cameo, too.
You work with people who aren’t “actors” like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Iggy Pop. What’s your experience with working with someone like that as opposed to people who are “actors”?
I think certain people are capable of being good actors or being relaxed and becoming real in front of the camera. They could be someone who studied acting academically for years, or they could be your plumber. It really depends on the person and the character and how you work. There’s no one way to direct all actors, there’s only one way for a single director and single actor to collaborate. When you find that, you get a great performance. But in the case of people like Iggy or Screamin’ Jay, they’re already performers. I would say performing rock ‘n roll live is closer to acting on the stage, whereas filmmaking is a little closer to making a record in the studio because you can overdub or do other takes. I have to qualify that because I’m sure there are a lot of musicians that are terrible actors. It really depends on the person. But those guys are performers and they’re also very observant and intelligent, so they’re pretty good as actors.
Do you also find that you gear your writing of their parts to who you perceive them to be as performers?
I do that even with actors. I try to write with specific people in mind for a character. It’s often someone I already know, so even if I’m not conscious of it, my impressions of them, whether accurate or not, filter into the character I write for them. And that’s not to say I’m writing for them to be themselves. I use certain aspects of their personality to develop the character from.
How did you hook up with Roberto Benigni?
I first met Roberto at a small film festival in Italy. We were both on the jury of this festival. It’s the first and last time I would ever be on a jury because Roberto and I caused a scandal by not voting for the film we were being pressured to vote for. Even the head of the festival yelled at us. Roberto didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak any Italian but somehow we became really good friends during that two week period, babbling on endlessly in very bad French. We kept saying that if some French person had a hidden microphone and heard what we were saying, they would be horrified by the way we were butchering the language. But we understood each other completely. I had started sketching out a story for “Down by Law”, but was kind of lost. Then I met him, and from there I went to Rome and wrote the rest of the script in about a week or two. I gave it to him and he said, “Yes, I will do this.” He’s amazing. He’s more of a wild man in real life. A lot of the things we did in “Night on Earth” came from things we had talked about or done together. Once I stayed with Roberto for a couple of months in Rome. We would go out at night and on the way home, he would try to drive all the way back to his house going the wrong way on one way streets. He’d flash the lights and honk the horn at every intersection. We almost got killed several times. He loved that game. “One way” is “senso unico” in Italian, so he would say, “Now Jim, do you want to play senso unico?” I would be terrified and we’d almost get t-boned at every intersection.
How much of his bit in “Night on Earth” was scripted and how much did he improvise?
All of his dialogue was initially scripted, but he had a very long leash. Of all the actors in that film, he improvised the most, but always around what was scripted. I remember while shooting we did a take that was really great, but it was five minutes long. After the take I said, “Roberto, that was hilarious, but it should be more like two and a half minutes.” And he said, “No problem, I do it again”, and the next take was about eight minutes. He was really going crazy improvising. A lot of the most hilarious stuff was just stuff he was coming up with as we shot. He stayed to the text, but his interpretation of it and way of delivering it was really wild.
When you do these segmented films, my guess is you have a sense of how they’ll hang together. But when you get the film back from the lab and begin to piece it together, do things start changing?
Not so much, actually. In “Night on Earth”, that didn’t happen very much. It happens more in my short films. The “Coffee and Cigarettes” films are also scripted, but they are more cartoon-like in our approach to them, so I encourage improvising or going off on tangents. But then I have to really piece the thing together in the editing, and a lot of the shots don’t match. There are jumps of continuity in the finished films that I don’t really care about. In the long films, it’s been less that way because I encourage improvisation in the rehearsals more than in front of the camera, and that’s due only to financial restrictions. I wish I had more time or could shoot in a different way. Did you see “Naked”? I was so envious of Mike Leigh’s way of working. I guess he rehearsed for months beforehand as well. I would love to have the chance to work that way, but my budgets have been pretty restricting. I would rather be able to work the way Leigh or Cassavetes worked and have more play while rolling. But I haven’t had that luxury.
Have you seen much of Mike Leigh’s work?
Only a few. My favorites are “Naked” and “Abigail’s Party”. I really liked “Naked” ‘cause it was so funny and so brutal.
It’s impressive how he can infuse humor into grim situations. People’s reactions to that kind of stuff is interesting—that “it made me uncomfortable so I didn’t like it” approach that some people have to a film like “Naked”.
Some girl I didn’t know accosted me in a bar and asked if I liked “Naked”. I said “Yes, a lot” and she started railing against me for saying I liked the film because she thought it was misogynistic. I said, “It’s really more misanthropic,” but it was more just the cynicism or nihilism of the character. But it’s such a ridiculous argument. I said, “Well, I guess you should only see films and read books about people you know you would like.” It’s so ridiculous. There’s a great book by Honore de Balzac called “The Wild Ass’ Skin”. The character in it is a total fuck-up. It’s a great book, but do you have to like the guy and want to have dinner with him in order to read it?
So “Coffee and Cigarettes” is scripted?
Yeah, but we play around with them. We rehearse them too, but only for like a day. The one with Tom Waits and Iggy we didn’t have much time to rehearse. Tom was exhausted. We had just shot a video the day before for “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” and he had been doing a lot of press. He was kind of in a surly mood as he is sometimes, but he’s also very warm. He came in late that morning—I had given him the script the night before—and I was with Iggy. Tom threw the script down on the table and said, “Well, you know, you said this was going to be funny, Jim. Maybe you better just circle the jokes ‘cause I don’t see them”. He looked at poor Iggy and said, “What do you think Iggy?” Iggy said, “I think I’m gonna go get some coffee and let you guys talk.” So I calmed Tom down. I knew it was just early in the morning and Tom was in a bad mood. His attitude changed completely, but I wanted him to keep some of that paranoid surliness in the script. We worked with that and kept it in his character. If he had been in a really good mood, I don’t think the film would have been as funny.
That’s the version which showed in Cannes last year and won big prizes?
It won the short film award, whatever it is. I don’t really know. Those awards are kind of ridiculous. When Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” came out, he was given a humanitarian award in Spain. He went up and said, “I don’t want your god-damned award. This isn’t a god-damned humanitarian film. This is a hard-hitting action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.” He walked off without accepting it. The next year, they gave the award to Bergman. I’ve had films in competition, so this is somewhat duplicitous on my part, but I’ve really done that for reasons of selling my films to distributors. I think it’s kind of funny and it’s why I also would never be on a jury again. It’s like sending eight people in to the Louvre and having them decide collectively what’s the best painting in the museum, who’s the best painter, which painting is the most artistic.
So now you’re working on another film?
Yeah. I’m preparing a film that I shoot in August, September, October—somewhere in there. I’m also laying the groundwork for another film that I would like to make in the fall of 1995. I’m getting ready for a long stint of work, because for the last year and a half I didn’t do anything. I hit a funny period and I felt like I had absolutely nothing to say. I did make three short films and a video with Tom and I acted in a biker film in Finland called “Iron Horsemen” and then I went to the Amazon with Sam and Mika. I did some things that were fun, but I just didn’t want to make another film. I kind of burst through that and spent three months this winter alone in the country writing this script and sketched out the other film I want to make next year. I don’t want to talk about them yet because I’m sort of superstitious. It’s not to be secretive, more just ‘cause I feel like I’ll jinx myself.
In “Night on Earth”, did you have any language problems communicating and directing with the Fins or the French?
Strangely, I didn’t. It’s interesting—you find out how much language is just a code that we use. People express their emotions in ways other than language. I’ve brought back a lot of video tapes from Japan by directors like Suzuki, Ozu, Oshima, Kurosawa, and other less known directors. They’re not subtitled, so I don’t know what the fuck they’re saying, but it’s amazing how much you can follow. Of course you miss certain plot points that are intimated only in the language, but you still know how people are feeling without knowing what they’re saying. That helped me on working in languages I didn’t speak. I had translators all the time and I speak French and I understand maybe sixty percent of what Roberto says in Italian, so those were less difficult. The Fins were following a script that I had written, so as long as I knew where they were in the dialogue, I could assess what I felt about their performances. I worked with the actors while it was being translated and we all sat around for a day and discussed the nuances of the translation to make sure, for example, that the way they talked was working class.
Was it difficult to coordinate crews for each country?
It was complicated having new people each time. We had the same basic crew: the same soundman, director of photography, gaffer, grip, myself, and the line producer. But everyone else was a new crew in each place. We tended to hire people on the basis of enthusiasm rather than experience. That worked out well, because we had dedicated younger crews. We had a few problems in Italy where they didn’t want to shoot after certain hours or they wanted an hour and a half for lunch and wanted to drink wine. But that was just cultural. Once we got over that, everything worked out well. It was all pretty hectic, but it was fun. I devised the film to see a lot of my friends or work with them.
Good reason to go to Finland.
One of the few good reasons, yeah. I have good friends there, and I’ve met some crazy people. This motorcycle gang called Overkill M.C. invited me to this party in their headquarters. We drove about forty minutes outside Helsinki to this Quonset hut in the middle of the night. Two huge leaders of the gang came up to me—I’m 6’2” and they were much bigger than me—and they pushed me in a corner and said [in menacing Finnish biker-tone] “You. You are Jim Jarmusch, no? I want to tell you something. We are liking so much you films. Come and have beer with us now.” I thought it was trouble. They’re spitting it out and spitting on me, and I’m looking at the scorpion tattoos on their necks and stuff. But they were good guys.