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The Dead Don't Die
Illustration Eric Kostiuk Williams

Jim Jarmusch in conversation with Adam Driver

As The Dead Don’t Die takes a whack at the zombie zeitgeist, the director sits down with his star to discuss their bloody joint conquest

Taken from the summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

In a small town called Centerville, somewherein upstate New York, the locals are beset by zombies. So goes the premise for Jim Jarmusch’s most unexpected turn yet – a blood-doused grindhouse comedy teeming with triple A-list stars. In The Dead Don’t Die, a trio of hapless cops – played by Adam DriverBill Murray and Chloë Sevigny – team up with a variety of townspeople to fight off the invasion of ghouls. Joining the ranks of the living and the undead are Selena Gomez, Steve Buscemi, Austin Butler, RZA, Tilda Swinton, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez and, of course, Iggy Pop as a coffee-loving zombie. As with every new Jarmusch film, The Dead Don’t Die feels like a conquest for the director, a fresh experiment only he could pull off.

Ageing rock stars, foreign drifters, Elvis obsessives, gentle bus drivers who moonlight as poets: veteran independent filmmaker Jarmusch has always had a talent for marrying the banal with the batshit. With his unhurried style and laconic wit, his films are wry, warm explorations of marginalia with a heavy side of pop-culture homage. The director’s films have included references to Emily Dickinson (2016’s Paterson) and Howlin’ Wolf (1989 triptych film Mystery Train), slyly winked toward American westerns (Dead Man, his 1995 revisionist stab at the genre) and featured iconic hip-hop artists (RZA and GZA in 2003 ensemble comedy Coffee and Cigarettes). With this bric-a-brac approach to American cultural history, it’s not altogether surprising that he would eventually take a whack at the zombie zeitgeist.

As in Paterson, Jarmusch’s film about an ordinary New Jersey bus driver with an extraordinary writing talent, the starring role here belongs to Adam Driver. The 35-year-old actor has, in recent years, come to dominate screens as pouting baddie Kylo Ren in the rebooted Star Wars saga, winning acclaim for his roles as a Jesuit missionary in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016) and an undercover cop in Spike Lee’s darkly comic crime flick BlacKkKlansman (2018). His sullen, joli-laid demeanour is remarkably versatile, giving him as much comic timing as it does gravitas. Both are apparent in his conversation with Jarmusch, which crackles with just the right amount of frisson.

I also happened to grow up in Elizaville, New York, the sleepy rural farm town where Jarmusch and company shot part of the movie. When I tell them on the eve of the film’s Cannes premiere that I tried – and failed – to secure a high-school job at the exact same 50s turquoise-and-chrome diner they shot in, Jarmusch smoothly replies that he figures it worked out in the end, since I’m talking to him now.

“I wrote for Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Chloë Sevigny. I often take the liberty of writing for specific actors with the thought that hopefully I can trick them into playing the role” – Jim Jarmusch

Where I grew up, in the Elizaville area, nothing ever happened. For a movie crew and this amazing ensemble cast to turn upthere – it must have been pretty wild.

Jim Jarmusch: I guess so, but people were all pretty nice. They offered us ice cream at an ice cream place one time and everyone was nice about it. We were so busy it was hard to even notice the impact we had.

Paterson is a tender, melancholy film about a poet. The Dead Don’t Die, a comedy featuring zombie decapitations, is the extreme opposite. Adam, can you tell me a bit about this gear change?

Adam Driver: For me, it wasn’t so much a conscious thing of, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to change gears.’ When Jim’s working on something, I want to be there – it doesn’t really matter to mewhat it is. Maybe that’s more of a question for Jim. I wanted to work with him.

Jim Jarmusch: I wrote the part of Paterson thinking of Adam and with this I wrote for Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Chloë Sevigny. I often take the liberty of writing for specific actors with the thought that hopefully I can trick them into playing the role. We had a lot of fun with the names, because Tilda Swinton’s character is named Delta Winston and Rosie Perez is named Posie Horez. I had a lot of fun writing this thing. I had a blast imagining Bill and Adam and Chloë and Tilda, but Bill and Adam’s characters are really the heart of the story. Knowing both of them and having worked with both of them, (I wrote) things I hoped would be funny hearing them in my head. (But) shooting with them was even better because they were just so very, very funny together without it being big comic stuff. Hearing them, watching them become the characters... Oh man, it was a lot of fun for me to watch that happen.

Adam, you seem to have comic timing. What was it like to work with Bill Murray, a comedy veteran? Did you guys find a rhythm naturally?

Adam Driver: You know, he’s not really someone who likes to sit people down and say what things are going to be. It’s what you would hope for in a scene partner. He was very grounded; he was listening the entire time. What’s unique about him is there’s nothing on top of it. He’s not trying to generate something. Although we did have to dive into the deep end on the first day. I think we shot the majority of our car scenes together (that day), which was a great way of just kind of jumping in. If you’re locked in a box together all day long in a factory in Kingston, you get to know each other.

Jim Jarmusch: I did throw them into a car! Our car scenes are what we call ‘poor-man’s process’, where they’re just on a stage and we are rocking the car and putting in fake lights passing by. But they’re basically looking out into a darkened warehouse. They’re not going anywhere or seeing anything, so it was good in some ways, but a bit complicated. It was interesting for them to start the film that way – to find their relationship very quickly, because they’re at the heart of the story.

Adam Driver: (Bill) is who he is and there’s no intention or airs or anything; he’s very personable so it all felt very natural. There’s no ‘getting to know you’ process with him in particular. It just happens really fast because he’s so available.

The zombie movie is fairly familiar territory these days. Jim, you tackled a different horror genre, the vampire movie, in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). How do you start writing something like this when there’s so much cultural zeitgeist around the zombie film?

Jim Jarmusch: Well to be honest with you, I’m not a zombie aficionado, I’m a film geek. I layered so many references into the film for super-nerds. I know the history of zombie films starting with White Zombie in the 30s and I have my favourites. But I’ve never seen an episode of The Walking Dead and I haven’t seen a lot of recent zombie films. I haven’t seen Zombieland, even though Bill’s in it, which I should. For me, the real inspiration of any real zombie film is Night of the Living Dead and George A Romero. Most so-called monsters, whether it’s Dracula or Frankenstein or Godzilla or whatever, attack the social structure from without. They’re to be dealt with by the social order. After Romero, the zombie thing is the opposite of that – the zombies come from within the rotten social structure and you can’t control them in any way. They don’t have personalities, they don’t have identities, they’re just kind of soulless, creepy entities.

Your movies have always had such a deeply held interest in Americana in one way or another. To me I think of zombies being used to critique a very particular set of American social ills. I guess we have Romero to thank for that.

Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, he’s our American postmodern zombie master for sure. I’m not a real zombie guy. I like vampires, because they’re sophisticated and knowledgeable and mysterious. They’re like changelings, but zombies are just kind of soulless, uncommunicative, stupid and relentless. But they’re a good metaphor. Romero laid the path for using them metaphorically.

Do you prefer to think of zombies in terms of escapism and fun?

Jim Jarmusch: No, it’s both for me for sure; there is a social commentary mixed in (with the film) definitely. It’s a comedy, but it’s also dark. I don’t quite know what the balance is – I’m too close to the film. I haven’t seen it with an audience yet or anything, so I’m not quite sure how I feel. I know that it’s funny, so I think of it as a comedy, but it is kind of dark and strange too.

Adam, you swing a machete out of a moving car in the film. How much choreography or tinkering around did you guys have to do to get the zombie killing scenes the way you wanted them?

Adam Driver: When you’re wielding a machete, the only thing you have the energy for is to make sure you don’t hit anybody with it.

Was it a real machete?

Adam Driver: Sometimes, yeah, it’s a machete that has been dulled down. Sometimes it’s just a handle, and they put the machete in later digitally, sometimes it’s a real machete. I have the machete actually; I took that as a prize possession.

Jim Jarmusch: (laughs) Uh oh, that could be bad for me. Just don’t read Marlon Brando’s autobiography about how the director is your enemy.

“After you’ve worked with Jim, you’re like, ‘Well, this is how good it could be – why isn’t it like that all the time?’ If anything comes up (I know) it’s going to be handled with such sensitivity and care” – Adam Driver

And in terms of how the zombies move and look?

Jim Jarmusch: There’s a big scene with a decapitation battle, which we had to choreograph – we had amazing prosthetic people and visual effects people that made it work in post-production. It was very complicated and we were quite stressed out by time (limits), but it came together very well thanks to these great collaborators.

Adam Driver: Yeah, I was going to say, they put together a presentation because there was a lot of conversation around what the zombies would look like when they die, what the blood would look like and things like that. That was really helpful in visualising what we had.

Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, we had a local company that helped us make all the prosthetics and fake heads. They were fantastic. We had a lot of good help. Whenever I make a movie about zombies or vampires I like to add something in that isn’t in other (films). I like my vampires to wear gloves or have the ability to touch things and know how old they are, which I just made up. In this case, the zombies are dust inside, there’s no f luid in them, there’s no blood. I didn’t want to make a bloody movie. It’s bloody enough when they attack humans. So when they’re decapitated, it’s just black dust inside them. It was interesting to have that done in post-production with the visual effects people helping make it look (good).

I love that idea, of the zombies being just sort of dried-up and dessicated.

Jim Jarmusch: Well, I didn’t want it to be a splatter movie. When I was writing it I was thinking that human beings are over 60 per cent water, and our brains and lungs are an even higher percentage. We’re walking around like water balloons full of sausage! (Adam laughs) Thinking about that, I was like, ‘Woah, that’s weird. I’m going to have zombies who are just dried-up dust inside. I don’t want any of that fluid.’ So that’s where that came from. Human beings are very strange; we’re all animals.

It goes without saying that The Dead Don’t Die has an incredible ensemble cast, but a lotof them are pretty regular collaborators of yours. How did Selena Gomez join the cast of more familiar faces?

Jim Jarmusch: I wanted some really beautiful young people, millennials, and to the people of the town they would look like they were out of a Guess jeans ad or something. So I got Luka Sabbat and Austin Butler and Selena. Selena I just love because I saw her first in Spring Breakers, and I thought she was great. But also I’m very open on genres of music and stuff. Current pop music isn’t my thing per se – I appreciate it when it’s really, really good. And Selena Gomez is really good. I like her work; I like her presence. I was thrilled when she said right away she’d like to be in (the film), and to get Luka and Austin (with her) as this little trio of beautiful hipsters from out of town.

The movie is opening Cannes this year, which is interesting because they don’t normally open with comedies. I guess it will be exciting to watch it with an audience in that context?

Jim Jarmusch: It’s always fun because it’s a world premiere. It’ll be fun for me because Adam and Tilda and Chloë and Bill will be there. Also Fred Elmes, our director of photography, and Catherine George, our extraordinary costume designer. It’s going to be fun for me just to be there with everybody; that’s what I’m looking forward to.

Adam Driver: It’s just exciting to work with Jim because he is a singular filmmaker. He spoils you on set. After you’ve worked with Jim, you’re like, ‘Well, this is how good it could be – why isn’t it like that all the time?’ If anything comes up that he’s doing, whatever it is, (I know) it’s going to be handled with such sensitivity and care. It could be (about) a garbage man, the profession doesn’t fall into play. You know it will be three-dimensional. You’re lucky to do things with the people that you want to work with. I’m lucky it’s panned out that way.

Jim Jarmusch: I appreciate all that you’ve said. I also have to add that making the film was not totally pleasurable, because it was hard. We had a hard schedule and it was a lot of pressure on Adam as well as the rest of us. People that don’t make films don’t realise how hard they are to do. It takes a lot out of you. Especially if you don’t have quite enough money or quite enough time, which always seems to be the case. There was a lot of pressure and we all worked together and gave it our best shot – to quote a line in the film.

And after Cannes you can take a breath and relax?

Jim Jarmusch: Well, there’s still some press to do. Our film opens in the States on June 14, then I’ll be able to have a break. I’m tired of zombies.

Can I tell you something funny? We premiered our film Dead Man in Cannes (in 1995). After the film ended, there was dead silence for about four or five seconds. Then, in English but with a French accent, some guy yells, (exaggerated French accent) ‘Hey Jim, it’s shit!’ And then there was another five seconds of total silence. So, Adam, be ready. Keep in the back of your mind: ‘Hey guys, your zombie movie is shit!’ 

The Dead Don’t Die is in UK cinemas from July 12