By Amy Taubin
Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise was the siren song of independent film. The film seemed simple enough that anyone could have made it, and many tried. A dozen years later, Jarmusch's Dead Man feels like a reproach to the cookie-cutter indies designed with nothing but the box office in mind. Like Todd Haynes's Safe, Dead Man is an aesthetically sophisticated, intellectually complicated, thoroughly personal work. I talked with Jarmusch a week before the film's opening.
JIM JARMUSCH: I'm just happy to get it out there because I know it's not fashionable. And although while making the film we always ignore the audience and make it for ourselves, ultimately the intention of the film is to be given to an audience. After I look at my films a few times with an audience, I never look at them again. With Dead Man, I could look at him once or twice more and then ship him off to military school.
AMY TAUBIN: I heard that you still want to tinker with the editing.
JARMUSCH: There are these two little picture things, they add up to less than a minute, that I took out and now I wish I could stick back in. But I don't know if that's possible. The poet Valery said, ``A poem is never finished, only abandoned.'' You have to do that with films too.
TAUBIN: When you showed the film in Cannes a year ago, wasn't it completed?
JARMUSCH: No, but there was pressure on me by investors to show it anyway. Businesswise, it was a good decision.
It's a very simple story at the center. It's this voyage and the voyage is a metaphor for our physical lives. But for the first time in my films, there are also these peripheral themes like industrialization, violence, America as a place, the clash of cultures, genocide, fame, outlaw status, poetry, language. And because of all those layers, the film became a little too long and so the metaphor seemed a little heavy-handed. I had to make adjustments until all those themes coexisted at the right weight.
TAUBIN: When did you actually start working on Dead Man?
JARMUSCH: After Night on Earth. I still had this kind of western in me.
TAUBIN: How did you get the money?
JARMUSCH: I had the script and I had Johnny [Depp] attached and I had Robbie Muller [the cinematographer]. But to be honest, several line producers told me I didn't have enough money. And in fact, they were pretty close to right because it was really hard. We had $9 million and needed $11 million, but somehow we did it anyway. It's one thing to find incredible locations where there are no signs of civilization, and another thing to come in there with 30 trucks, horses, lighting, and wardrobe. And we had so many different locations--it was all six-day weeks and on our days off, we'd have to drive 14 hours. And we had a big cast, and a lot of things were built from scratch--the Indian village, the train interior, the offices for the factory. So it was pretty miraculous that we pulled it off. I don't work with storyboards, and on this film we didn't even have shot lists. We wanted to think on our feet and be open to factors we couldn't control, like weather and time.
TAUBIN: Unlike most independent filmmakers, you own the negatives for your films. What does that mean exactly?
JARMUSCH: It means that my company decides, through sales agents, who will release the film in various territories and how long their licenses will run.
TAUBIN: And what do the people who finance the film get out of it?
JARMUSCH: It's complicated. Basically, I go to France and I say how much do you want to buy the film for in advance and they say a certain amount. I do the same thing in Germany and Japan. And then I have enough money to make the film. I also give them equity so they own a certain percentage of whatever profit there is, or they get paid first. So you make the deal like that. But the copyright and ownership for the materials for the films belong to my company. It's been really a good system. The upside is that I have complete artistic control. They're buying a film that I will deliver to them. They aren't involved in telling me how to make the film, how to cut it, in the casting, or the music. The disadvantage is keeping track of all the licenses.
TAUBIN: How did you keep complete artistic control with Miramax as the U.S. distributor for Dead Man?
JARMUSCH: The fact is that Harvey [Weinstein] wanted to recut the film, but his contract didn't allow him to. He even said to me at the time of signing, ``Jarmusch, you made me sign in blood, but I can't touch your damn picture.'' I was fully aware that he would try to get me to agree to recut it anyway because that's his nature. I tried, for my own purposes, a much more abbreviated version of the film, and the poetry just leaked right out of it. It was like the Cliffs Notes version. The rhythm, the respiration, the hallucinatory quality all got diminished to a point where they no longer had any power or magic. So ultimately, I stuck to my guns and Harvey stuck to the agreement. He didn't say, ``Fuck you then, we'll just throw the film out there.'' They're now behind the film, and I'm happy because Harvey knows film distribution. He's a genius at it.
TAUBIN: Why is Johnny Depp's character named William Blake?
JARMUSCH: I read Blake in my late teens and early twenties, and he blew my mind--how someone could be this contradictory, this passionate and this deep. And when I was preparing to write the script for this film, I was kind of OD'd on all the Native American stuff I'd been reading. So just for a break, I picked up some Blake and I started reading things like ``The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow'' or ``Expect poison from standing water,'' and I was ``Oh wow, didn't I just read that?'' So Blake just walked into my script. I mean, you can't kill these damn visionary poets with a shovel. The so-called Beats were wild for Blake. And I just found out that a lot of these younger rave and techno kids in London are into Blake again.
TAUBIN: I've always thought that your films came out of the music scene.
JARMUSCH: I spent a lot of formative years in CBGB and the Mudd Club. That whole so-called punk scene was so much about expression over virtuosity. You could kill off the Led Zeppelin dinosaurs with three chords, and you could find something incredibly pure like Carl Dreyer or Bresson in the Ramones.
TAUBIN: How would you categorize the kinds of films you've made?
JARMUSCH: In Europe, I'm a film director; in America, I'm an alternative cult director. I don't make up the labels, so I don't know how to answer. And the whole independent film thing is starting to annoy the hell out of me. Independent film is treated like the minor leagues--and then you're supposed to step up to the majors, which isn't my motivation.
TAUBIN: It is pretty amazing that you've made six features in exactly the way you want to make them. Most people have no choice but to step up to the majors, because otherwise they can't keep going.
JARMUSCH: I've been really lucky and I've had great people to work with. Like when I made Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Stark was my lawyer, and I learned a lot from him about how to structure deals in a really innovative way. And I was lucky to make Stranger when I did, because if I'd made it two years earlier, it probably would have gone totally unnoticed--although there was nothing calculated about it.
TAUBIN: One last question about Dead Man. Is it the first film you've made that's directly involved with death?
JARMUSCH: Yeah, although to me, Dead Man isn't about death. It's about life being a voyage we take and death to be accepted as part of life and not to be feared or used as a con game--you know, if you're a good boy now, you'll be rewarded later. It's the only thing that is certain, and it's the biggest mystery.
TAUBIN: And has it affected you that so many people we know have died, and died younger than they should have?
JARMUSCH: I'm not analytical about this stuff, but I've lost so many people to drugs, and now to AIDS, that it must have some effect on me. And I'm over 40, so that must have some effect as well. Life is very fragile and Dead Man is about that--that life is fragile and cruel and fucked-up, and that it's also beautiful and funny and absurd and illogical and emotional. All those things accumulate and make up what our lives are. And they aren't in any order. Life doesn't have any real plot to it.
And truly, that's when the publicist for Dead Man opened the door and said, ``Time to go.''
By Amy Taubin