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An interview with Jim Jarmusch about his new film 'Only Lovers Left Alive'

We talked about his new film, New York City, and how to stay creatively relevant.

by Michelle Lhooq
11 April 2014, 6:00am

Jim Jarmusch. All photos courtesy of Sony Pictures

What kind of person offers fucking Jim Jarmusch a drag of her e-cigarette within five minutes of meeting him? Embarrassingly enough, me. Blame it on my fragile nerves. Jim is one of the most doggedly independent filmmakers in history. Through some alchemy of virtuoso talent, stubbornness, and total indifference toward commercial appeal, he’s managed to resist the overtures of big studios. Incredibly enough, all of his films have been produced by his own company – a move that has afforded him the gift/curse of total creative control. When asked to share his rules for filmmaking, he had this to say about people who finance and distribute films: “Don’t let the fuckers get ya.”

There’s also the fact that Jim is a rock-and-roll hepcat. Few else have ever had a more impressive cadre of friends and collaborators. Bill Murray, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, Cate Blanchett, RZA, Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, and John Lurie (just to name but a few) have all slunk through his films during his three-decade career. So my knees trembled at the mere sight of his famous shock of white hair when he walked through the door of the B-Bar & Grill in Manhattan's East Village. And I proffered, as some kind of imbecilic offering, my cheap plastic pipe.

“Oh, no. I don’t dare. I quit smoking. If I took a few puffs I’d smoke a pack tomorrow. I’m bad,” he said, adding, “I’ve smoked so many cigarettes… I am a cigarette. You know? I quit, and now I’m done. But I love that e-cigarettes are vapourisers. I’ve got a vapouriser – a pipe.”

The mythical possibility of getting baked with Jim Jarmusch beckoned like a siren song. Thankfully, I resisted and asked him some questions about his new film, Only Lovers Left Alive.

VICE: You just made Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire movie that you’ve said is actually a “love story with vampires.” But still, why vampires? Surely you knew how loaded this genre is before jumping in.
Jim Jarmusch: I guess I keep my brain away from worrying about that kind of shit. I’m not ignorant of the glut of vampire stuff over the last years, but I don’t really care. This genre is classic for the history of cinema. And, you know, when I approach genres I really walk alongside them. I don’t engage in expectations. I’ve been trying to make Only Lovers for eight fucking years. So I’m just not concerned, I guess.

What took so long for the film to get made?
Financing was really rough. And the script was a bit more traditional at first. There was a lot more action. [Tom Hiddleston’s character, Adam] wasn’t a musician. There was a war with these corporate vampires. They fought with crossbows and dissolved into dust. The investors would say, “OK, put more of that stuff in.” And the more they would tell me that, the more I would take out. Just to be contrary.

Isn’t that exactly what happened when you showed your very first manuscript to Nicholas Ray? He told you there wasn’t enough action, but you decided to take even more out.
Yes, exactly. You know that story? That was the lesson he taught me. So I took more and more action out, which made them pull their money further away from me. But it led me to strip all of that away, so that it wasn’t a vampire movie, but a love story with vampires. Luckily, we got to make it.

That is amazing. Going back to Only Lovers – it has a lot of music from your band Sqürl. How does your musical process compare with, like, when John Lurie composed the soundtrack for Permanent Vacation, or Neil Young for Dead Man?
It’s very intuitive and reactive. Jozsef van Wissem recorded all these little loop pieces, which was a good start because we would just add to that. Sometimes we’ll start with a certain element, then remove that element. So it’s like it found its own way.

Sqürl is such a funny name for a noise-rock band. Where did it come from?
It came from something I wrote for Cate Blanchett in Coffee and Cigarettes. Her cousin has a boyfriend in a noise band called Sqürl. Later, we just decided we would use that. I liked the umlaut as a reference to heavy metal. Band names are hard though. It seems like all the good ones are taken.

Well, now there are bands that have names you can’t even Google. They manipulate SEO mechanisms to stay hidden.
Well, witch house bands write their names in symbols! I kind of love that. That witch house shit, you can’t even pronounce it, so how do you find it? I love that they don’t care.

Exactly. You’ve cycled through quite a few different bands.
Yes, and I’ve had some references to bands in my films. In Night on Earth there’s a metal band referred to as Utensil, which I thought was good. [Puts on stoner voice] “What’s your band’s name called?” “Uhhh, we’re called Utensil.

You once said that you thought that the idea of music videos is fucked up. Do you still feel that way?
Music videos are kind of fucked up as an idea, but having lived with them for so long, I do appreciate them as a form. I love watching YouTube on my plasma TV. Even if it’s bad quality, I love it so much.

That’s such a weird image to me. You going on a YouTube binge.
But I do. I’m obsessed. It leads me to so many little threads. What I used to love about the radio is you don’t know what they’re going to play, so you can learn something new and unexpected. YouTube does the same thing. So I have to say, I’m a kind of a YouTube junkie.

What other modes of discovery do you have? Especially for non-Western music like Indonesian gamelan, which I know you used in Permanent Vacation.
I found out about Javanese music through Balinese music. I love them both. I guess I’ve had a lot of amazing friends who are into a lot of shit. My friend Joe Strummer would always say, [puts on an English accent] "No input, no output, maaaan. We’ve got to go see this band. Because if we don’t, we’re not going to make anything ourselves." We would call it Strummer’s Law. Turning each other on to stuff has always been important to me. I know a little about a lot of things, and I don’t take that to be a negative. Life isn’t that long, and I don’t want to want to spend it learning about one thing. I’m a whore. No input, no output… baby.

And I’m sure you get a lot of “input” from all of the countries you’ve set your films in. Only Lovers was partly set in Tangier.
I love to travel. I love to get lost in a city and try to find my way back. I’ve seen so many amazing things just doing that. Just little details of life. Have you ever been to Morocco?

Nope.
Tangier’s a place where, unlike Marrakech, the old world and new world are not separated by a gulf as though looking at each other. It’s all mixed. Once I saw two girls standing by a cell-phone shop. They were attractive 20-something Moroccans with miniskirts and boots and whatever. And just beside them, at the end of the alley, I saw two men dressed in hooded, Medieval-looking things, slaughtering a goat with wooden mallets. Both these things were in the same tableau. Going simultaneously and not separated. So cool.

You couldn’t have set up the shot better, even if you’d tried.
Once in New York, in the middle of the night, I looked out of my window in the Lower East Side and I saw a guy walking across Prince Street leading a llama. Just walking by with a llama. This was maybe in 1982. You see a lot of weird shit in New York.

Film still from Only Lovers Left Alive.

Speaking of weird shit, did you go to the CBGB bathroom recreation at the Met?
No, I spent enough time in the real one.

Which bathroom was the most rancid?
CBGB’s. Max's Kansas City was a little better. And the Mud Club was just people doing drugs and having sex, by then. So that was different too. Then there was like, the Anvil. I never really checked out the New York hard-core gay scene. That wasn’t really my thing – but I was glad that it was there.

Does it bother you that the New York underground scene you were involved in has been totally fetishised?
I find it disturbing. But that’s the way it always is in history. They form these little groups after the fact. There was a brief moment in the early 80s where punk rock, graffiti artists, and hip-hop converged together. I loved hanging out at this bar that was in an alley behind the American Thread Building. It was fucking great because, you know, Bambaataa would show up and Jean-Michel [Basquiat] would be there. Arto Lindsay or Mick Jones or Futura 2000 – we were all there together. That was fantastic. My point is, it’s always evolving into the next thing. That’s just the way it is. But if you want to freeze it anywhere, that kind of disturbs me.

Has your relationship with New York changed since those days? I mean, there are days when I love it. And then there are times – like on the way here when I was smushed against a stranger’s armpit – when I fucking hate it here.
In my years here, I’ve seen it being sold out, sold out, sold out. To real estate, to corporate stuff. I must say that I don’t like the noise of the city anymore. And I don’t like how a lot of young people are just into money and status. Going out becomes less interesting. But New York is about change and it’s about hustle. It’s about Money-Making Manhattan. I don’t have nostalgia, like, Oh, if only New York was like 1978. But I’m kind of sick of New York.

I was watching a documentary you’re in called Blank City that’s about that scene. John Lurie said something quite striking: “Basquiat was one of the first to make it about 'If you’re not making money, you’re not cool.' And I still hate him for that to this day.” Do you feel that way about certain people you came up with?
I certainly did not feel that way about Jean. I don’t remember him giving off that kind of feeling at all. Jean-Michel was always obsessed with work and his ideas. I’d visit him and there would always be paintings on the floor, music, and books of anatomy that he was referencing. Maybe that was something between [Lurie and Basquait]. I actually didn’t see that documentary at all. I don’t like seeing things I’m in. It makes me nervous.

Well, you don’t like seeing any of your old movies either, right?
I like seeing them once, with a paying audience that doesn’t know I’m there, after I’ve done the festival and premiere thing. And then I’m done. I don’t want to see it ever again. So far, I don’t look back.

Why not?
Two reasons. One, I give some years of my life to each film, and I can’t give anymore. At a certain point, you have to just walk away. I can’t change anything, I don’t learn anything from it, and I don’t enjoy it. So why should I watch it? The second reason is because the beauty of cinema is that you’re entering a world that’s going to take you along at its rhythm. Well, I could never ever do that with my own film. So the beauty that you’re making it for, you’re robbed of.

Once you’re done making a film, do you even think about it?
Not really. I remember the life experiences – what people said, or things we did on our days off. But the film I keep out of my head. I sort of erase it.

Film still from Only Lovers Left Alive.

Speaking of the experiences behind your films, in order to get Robert Mitchum to be in Dead Man, you brought a bunch of guns to his house and tried to get him to pick one out. Do you use small tricks like that to get all these amazing people to work with you?
No, I don’t really trick them. I’m pretty straightforward about it. I say, "I think you would make this character or do this thing in the film in some amazing way." At the end of Nicholas Ray’s life, I was his assistant and he told me some stories about how he was shooting Johnny Guitar, and in order to make Joan Crawford angry, he would do nasty things to her, like throw her wardrobe in the mud and drive over it in a car. I love Nick Ray, and really, whatever you need to do to get the frame is what you need to do. But I would never do that.

Why not?
Those kinds of negative relationships just seem to make the whole thing harder. Dennis Hopper once said in an interview, "It’s fucking hard to make a film, and it’s just as hard to make a bad film as it is to make a good film." And it is. It’s stressful and exhausting, and you put everything into it. I don’t want an adversarial relationship with people.

I don’t know if it has to be adversarial. Couldn’t it just be about understanding what makes someone tick and using that knowledge strategically?
I believe that as many filmmakers as there are, there are that many ways to make a film. People ask me how I work with actors. Well, which actor? I don’t work with Johnny Depp the same way I’m going to work with Forest Whitaker. I’m not going to work with Robert Mitchum the same way I work with Roberto Benigni. Having said that, I wouldn’t criticize Nick Ray or Alfred Hitchcock for doing the psychological manipulation they feel they have to do.

How do you feel about the state of underground cinema? The last time someone asked you this, you quoted John Waters, who said, "Underground film doesn’t exist. It’s just about the modes of distribution." Do you still feel that way?
A few years ago, I would say, "You’re not going to see my films or Wong Kar-wai’s films in the theaters." Now I have to take Wong Kar-wai out of there, because the biggest film market is China, and his films are huge there. But I do think that in the future, it’s only going to be these big money-making films in the theaters. As for the future of underground film, I don’t know what will happen. I’m discouraged and excited at the same time. I don't know what’s going to happen to me. I can’t afford to keep my office now. I’m not going to make any money off this film. To the contrary. So it’s kind of a drag, you know? It’s kind of a discouraging period right now. But something new will happen.

Looking back, do you have any regrets? Maybe in being so staunchly against the support of big studios?
No, I dont. In my procedure I have no regrets. My only regret is that I’m kind of a lazy workaholic. My natural inclination is to be lazy, because that’s when ideas come. So my regret is not producing more things. In the 1970s, we all did numerous things. Like John Lurie made paintings and music. The drummer in our first band was James Nares, the fucking genius painter, filmmaker, and installation artist. There was a period that I made a lot of little collages, which I really loved doing. I didn’t make music for a long time, and I could’ve kept doing that. But regrets are bad because my personal philosophy is not looking back and feeling bad. 

What are you working on now?
Well, we’re working on the film about the Stooges. Not a traditional documentary, just an essay and portrait on them. I’m working on an opera with the composer Phil Kline about Nikola Tesla. I have another film script that I don’t want to talk about yet that may be my next feature film. For me, that’s a lot of stuff. Because I used to just do one film for two years and not do anything else. So that I kind of regret, not doing more stuff, especially music. But it is what it is; at least I’m doing it now again.

Back in '81 you said that your main aspiration is to be able to pay your rent and not have to worry about money. But that was a long time ago. What’s your main aspiration now?
My ambition is to keep making things, and to do it my own way. That’s my priority, I guess. To make music and movies that I believe in and keep doing it, and not be too concerned with how many people it reaches. Keep input and output. [chuckles]

What’s been the funniest criticism you’ve ever had?
My favourite? I’ll translate it from the French. It was from a right-wing newspaper in the South of France about my movie Down by Law, which said, “Jim Jarmusch is celebrated by the French intelligentsia in a way that’s reminiscent of deaf and dumb parents applauding their retarded child. He is 33 years old. This is the age that Christ was crucified on the cross. We can only hope for the same for the future of his film career.” Woah! I used to carry that one around in my wallet.

That was a zinger!
That was a multiple zinger. That was multiple punches to my head. I read the bad reviews of my stuff, always. I dont like reading the good ones. You don’t learn anything. I like the bad ones, because they’re different and interesting to me. But sometimes it’s a bit brutal.

Follow Michelle Lhooq on Twitter and go see Only Lovers Left Alive in a theater near you.

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