Jim Jarmusch on taking the backroads

The true cinema experimentalist goes cold turkey and speaks of creativity's undying spirit

Jim Jarmusch

At 61 years of age, it’s difficult to think of many other modern day filmmakers that have remained so consistently – and purposefully – on the fringe of American cinema as Jim Jarmusch. If the cinematic mainstream is a supercar hurtling down the open highway in the shimmering Los Angeles sunshine then Jarmusch is the guy taking the raggedy back-roads in a beat-up 50s pick-up and all the happier for it. However, steering clear of industry convention and studio kowtowing has been a constant battle, and one that is getting harder to win, as he has experienced on his latest film Only Lovers Left Alive (ostensibly a love story based around two vampires – Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) which took seven years to get off the ground, “The world has changed economically so financing films has changed drastically,” he tells me via telephone at home in New York. His voice is instantly recognisable; it has a warm, curious depth to it that skips between lugubriousness and light-heartedness in its tone and character – it booms through my speakers and rattles my desk like a throbbing bass-line, a bouncing rhythm of its own. “It’s a lot harder than it was five or six years ago,” he continues, “and that’s why you have people like David Lynch saying, ‘I don’t want to make films anymore’ or why Béla Tarr has stopped making films. Some of the less mainstream people are having the most trouble.”

Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch on the set of Stranger Than Paradise via cinearchive.org

“Different projects require different things and some of them are not so viable anymore. It makes me a little, I don’t know, what’s the word? Disheartened”

While Only Lovers Left Alive has received a great deal of critical praise, many claiming it to be Jarmusch’s best since ‘insert critics favourite Jarmuch film here’, but come the major award season, he is notable largely for his absence. It’s an invite he is happy to not find in his letterbox, "The Academy Awards, in the end, always strike me as a big company picnic where they are just slapping each other on the back for how much money they can still make from some of these products." Jarmusch’s only flirtation with working with major studios was with 1995’s glorious psychedelic western Dead Man, and resulted in a heated battle in the editing suite with notorious Hollywood hot-head Harvey Weinstein (co-founder of Miramax) which Jarmusch, rather remarkably, won, retaining final cut of his film for which he got a half-hearted marketing campaign. But despite overcoming obstacles as large and difficult as Weinstein in the 1990’s and an economic crash in recent years, his recent struggle to finance Only Lovers Left Alive has had an impact on Jarmusch’s thoughts for the future, “A part of it does make me hesitant to continue,” he says with a sadness creeping into his voice. “I don’t know what will happen. One thing I’ve been doing for the past eight years or so is making more music, so at least I will end up doing something to express myself in case the film thing just gets more and more problematic, which it doesn’t look like it’s getting any better. I don’t know what will happen… Different projects require different things and some of them are not so viable anymore. It makes me a little, I don’t know, what’s the word? Disheartened.”

But while Jarmusch is “keeping one eye on the exit”, he is far from giving up. “I’ve got my gloves on, I’m still fighting,” he chuckles. In fact, future projects are plentiful: “I am preparing this film about (American rock band) the Stooges. It’s going to be a film in little subjects and little chapters. It’s hard to explain. It won’t be very conventional. It’s more like a love letter or an essay or a poem, for or about, the Stooges. I have seven and a half hours on film of interrogating Iggy, so that’s like an oral history right there. It’s fantastic, there’s a lot of good material.” 2014 may in fact be one of Jarmusch’s busiest years ever. On top of the Stooges film he will start shooting a new feature at the end of this year (“I get superstitious if I reveal too much. The only thing I can say is that it’s a fiction film set in the present and it all takes place in the city of Paterson, New Jersey, which is a very fascinating, weird city.”) His film catalogue is getting a reissue (along with some theatrical runs) via Soda Pictures. He is also working on an “Opera” about Nikola Tesla with composer Phil Klein and experimental theatre director Robert Wilson, while music projects with Jozef van Wissem and his band Sqürl are ongoing – and the superb score they collectively recorded for Only Lovers Left Alive has just had a CD and Vinyl release through ATP.

“The Academy Awards, in the end, always strike me as a big company picnic where they are just slapping each other on the back for how much money they can still make from some of these products”

Only Lovers Left Alive, much like many of Jarmusch’s films, is something of an education. It’s a reference-packed sermon on history, art and culture, “I consider myself and probably my job on this planet to just be what most people think as a derogatory term, to be a kind of dilettante,” he says. “Say some kid in Wichita finds out about William Blake, then I feel like I did something. Mission accomplished. I got something I was excited about passed along and that makes the whole thing valid for me.” While Jarmusch may have a penchant for shoehorning history and culture into his films (there is a literal wall of fame – a who’s who in the arts – in one Only Lovers left Alive scene) he is keen to point out that he doesn’t dabble in retrospective reflection. “I don’t trust nostalgia and looking back and saying, ‘It was so much better back then’”. That said, Jarmusch does fondly recall periods in his own history, specifically that of 1970’s New York and the impact it had on him as a bourgeoning artist. “It was totally formative,” he tells me. “People did more than one thing, you know? Like if you look at Patti Smith as an example, she’s a painter, she’s a poet, she’s a writer, she’s a photographer, she’s a musician, she’s all these different things. Richard Hell, he’s a writer, he’s a musician, they were all doing a lot of different things and were all encountering each other and hanging out with each other.” Jarmusch can be included in that group too, as he was in the rather underrated No-Wave group The Del Byzanteens around this time.

Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch on the set of Stranger Than Paradise via cinearchive.org

Many of Jarmusch’s films are culturally and racially diverse, he appears to relish in the studying and inclusion of other cultures in his films, ranging vastly from Samurai (Ghost Dog) to Native American culture (Dead Man) – whatever the subject, Jarmusch is consistently meticulous in his research. Again, the roots can perhaps be traced to a clashing of cultures in 70s NYC he witnessed, “That mixture of graffiti artists with the post-punk thing was really great; the beginnings of hip-hop and all these things emerging at once was really inspirational and everyone was hanging out together and doing different things and nobody was really in it for the money. Even graffiti started by putting your name on the trains so your name would travel all through the city and you might meet girls! It was really great because it wasn’t motivated by, ‘I’m going to be a famous successful star’. I don’t think that was applied to people like Arto Lindsay! It was great because you could live really cheaply. It was fucking dangerous too, New York, but there was something great about it so I’m very happy that I got infused by all this creative energy. This do-it-yourself force is in me forever and I’m very proud that I got to have that ingrained in me through other people’s amazing spirits at that time.” 

“I have a positive sense of the spirit and I see young people and people of all ages, still all over the world. They’re going to fight for what they want, they’re going to express themselves. They’re going to find a way. You can’t kill it, I’m still optimistic”

I question him, wondering if he perhaps feels that the bolstering energy and momentum found in the 70s NYC art/music/film scene was driven by a youthful naivety and maybe that has now been replaced by a know-it-all cynicism found in some young people today, “Probably, yeah,” he concedes, “but you can’t kill the spirit of wanting to express something. There are a lot of amazing young people out there and they’re just going to do it man. If there’s something they want to do, they’re going to do it. They don’t trust this operating system, this whole corporate world. It’s not a good operating system. It’s imposed on us and it’s a bad one… I’m not a social analyst, I don’t know how all these things affect us all but I know the spirit. I have a positive sense of the spirit and I see young people and people of all ages, still all over the world. They’re going to fight for what they want, they’re going to express themselves. They’re going to find a way. You can’t kill it, I’m still optimistic.”

This broken operating system that Jarmusch refers to is one that we are gradually being given more of an insight into through the world of documentary film he feels, “Also, with the whole corporate control of information, really documentary films are, in the last ten years, a way to see a more truthful way of getting information so that’s very important and very valuable. You get more truth out of these politically-orientated documentaries than you’re ever going to get on the corporate newscast.” Is traditional documentary-making something he has ever expressed an inclination towards? “Not so much, although I have been a bit obsessed for decades with this question of Shakespeare. I don’t believe Shakespeare wrote anything. I’m an anti-Stratfordian, so at times I’ve toyed with the idea of making a film about that but I don’t know if I actually will do that.”

Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch on the set of Stranger Than Paradise via cinearchive.org

It’s rare to read a mention of Jarmusch without the term ‘independent’ being used in broad-brush terms, yet while he has remained a fierce proponent of independent filmmaking in its truest, most literal, sense he feels confused by the contrived and generic ‘indie’ flicks that have become a staple of cinema in recent years. “I think contrived is a good word. It’s like what you said about this indie thing becoming a product label, then it’s just selling stuff we can stamp on there, ‘indie rock’, you know? I remember some years ago Tom Waits got some award – this was like fifteen or twenty years ago – for best alternative record and he went up there and said, ‘I just have one question. Alternative to what?’ so I was like, 'Exactly!' What is this label? What the hell! ‘Indie’ films?! What does that even mean anymore? Nothing, it doesn’t mean anything. Then it carries on into the content and the thinking of ‘I’m going to put all this twee music on here because that’s what people expect’, So you’re just serving expectations, isn’t that the job of the mainstream? Then you are the mainstream if you do that and again, I’m not saying that’s the worst thing in the world, it’s just the innovative things – they don’t come from there. They don’t come from the safe place of ‘Let’s fulfil their expectations’. Is that any way to start off how to express yourself?”

“I stopped all those things and it was like, ‘Wow’, I could have chopped my mother up with an axe and I dearly love my mother! It was insane”

So, while at 61 Jarmusch shows no sign of slowing down in terms of his own creative experimentations, be them cinematic, musical or otherwise, he is a little more careful with his personal experiments these days. In 1986 Jarmusch gave up, all at once: meat, drugs, alcohol, caffeine, sugar and nicotine. “It was partly an experiment. I think some of it had to do with William S. Burroughs,” he recalls. “I realised that Burroughs has pretty much treated his whole physical being as a kind of experiment and he experimented with a lot of hallucinogenic and opiate substances and different things but he had such a cold, distant observation of himself and I found that fascinating and I started thinking, ‘Wow, I have all these substances. I wonder how addicted I am to them. I wonder how they affect my psyche, my overall energy level’.” He then begins to laugh, “It was totally ridiculous, because the way to find that out isn’t to quit them all at the same time! So, I stopped all those things and it was like, ‘Wow’, I could have chopped my mother up with an axe and I dearly love my mother! It was insane. I’m still a vegetarian. I do not use any kind of drugs that are chemically oriented, not natural, so that really only means weed or occasionally maybe mushrooms. I quit smoking cigarettes finally two and a half years ago, which was one of the hardest things of all, I’ve got to say. I think it’s probably easier to kick heroin than it is nicotine, man. I don’t drink any hard alcohol either. I found out that I’m allergic to red wine some years ago. What a drag. So now I only drink occasionally dry white wine or champagne. I don’t drink any vodka or anything like that. Sugar came back. I even quit sugar man, I was really out of my mind! I really felt like I could run up to somebody and just grab a cigarette right out of their mouth, or grab a candy bar from a child, ‘Gimmie that sugar!’ I was out of my mind.” Was the drug use recreational or habitual? “There were periods of both and I don’t want to go into it too much, it was a problematic period.” He says, “I have a thing on my film set: nobody uses drugs while we’re shooting and that includes alcohol. I just don’t allow it on the set. When we wrap for the day, I don’t care if you go home and inject pure LSD into your eyeball, that’s your business, but when we’re working you can’t do that.”

As we wind down, talk turns back to the future of cinema in this ever-changing, capricious landscape, and while “disheartened” by experiences, Jarmusch still has all the love and passion for his chosen art form that he always had. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I just know it’s a very beautiful form, filmmaking, and it incorporates so many other things: music and movement and writing and literature and composition and style and sound and light and so many things that you can’t kill. It is a beautiful, inspiring form and new people are going to come up using it no matter what, so that’s a positive thing. You can’t stop it, unless you physically take the cameras out of peoples hands you’re not going to stop this form from being investigated further or utilised in some beautiful way”. 

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