Jim Jarmusch


“I don’t know… You come some place new and everything looks the same”
– Eddie in ‘Stranger Than Paradise.’

“Do you have, Zach, some cigarettes ?”
– Roberto Benigni in ‘Down By Law.’

“Don’t call me ‘Elvis’’ !”
– Joe Strummer in ‘Mystery Train’.

Jim Jarmusch – the prince of principle – wears black, talks in a low, modest, slightly dazed drawl and has a beautiful silver quiff, like a ghost.
He is considered but quietly friendly, healthily obsessed but perfectly reasonable.
“I’m not really ambitious at all. I take my work very seriously because I don’t think of it as work, or ‘Art’. I don’t like ‘ambitious’ because I don’t like the objectification of movie stars and directors as auteur, because it always reeks of somebody is going to make money out of them. I don’t really like doing this promotion stuff. What I want to say, I put on the screen.”

No doubt, you’ll know what Jim Jarmusch does in his films: ‘Stranger Than Paradise’, ‘Down by Law’, ‘Coffee & Cigarettes’, and now, ‘Mystery Train’. These are wonderfully quirky, low-budget road comedies with a rough charm, vitality and dry idiosyncrasy that manage to avoid being either stiflingly pretentious or conventional.

Jarmusch offers hope for the future as much for the way he makes his film as what he refuses to do, or be. He eschews the aspects of ‘experimentation’, making ‘unusual’ or ‘safer’ films, and almost refuses to acknowledge any increased pressure or expectation as his career develops.
“I work in a very intuitive way. Plot is kind of secondary. I’m interested in the characters. I try to avoid the big, dramatic moments, I like the small moments, bits of dialogue that happen in between.”

Jarmusch writes, develops and totally controls his films, stubbornly refusing to let them be dubbed for foreign release (even the moments of spoken Italian in ‘Down by Law’ remained un-sub-titled – “as a surprise treat just for them”). He allowed the young Japanese actors to re-write their own Japanese dialogue.

At a cost of under $3 million, ‘Mystery Train’ is JVC’s first American production and Jarmusch describes it as “the perfect partnership.”
“They were actually disturbed that there were two Japanese characters in the script and people might think they’d forced me to use them.”
“I always try to make it clear that what we’re doing is a collaboration.”
He’s about as far from Hitchcock’s famous mantra “actors should be treated like cattle” as it’s possible to imagine.
“There’s no single way to work with actors. I don’t understand directors that treat actors as if they’re all the same.”

‘Mystery Train’ is three Memphis fables following the fates of four foreigners and a night they spend in the Arcade Hotel.
The first shows the pilgrimage to the Sun Studios and Gracelands tour by two Japanese teenagers – all ultra cool rockabilly gear, distressed, trembling lips, and culture- shocked customs.
Nicoletta Braschi plays a recently bereaved Italian pursued by the myth and spectre of Elvis in the second and finally Joe Strummer plays an out-of-work Londoner hassled by being called ‘Elvis’ by the black guys he plays pool with all day, who has been dumped by his American girlfriend. Each story concludes with Tom Waits reading a request for ‘Blue Moon’ on the radio and the sound of a single gunshot.

Following the tradition he started with John Lurie, Waits, Steven Wright and Ellen Barkin, Jarmusch gives cool cameos to Steve Buscemi and Rufus Thomas. Not to mention an excellent Screamin’ J.Hawkins as the Arcade’s night porter, constantly threatening to steal the film in the way Benigni stole ‘Down by Law’.
“He had some trouble in Memphis,” Jarmusch drawls. “But he never got arrested, so we were happy about that. Unlike our local casting agent and a few other people. He wanted to be much wilder (in the movie). At one point he said to me: (does the Hawkins voice) ‘Jim, I don’t understand. It’s like you’ve ordered a nuclear device and then instructed it not to explode.’ But it’s like, when people say ‘why didn’t you cast Shelley Duvall as Didi ?’, I say, well Shelley Duvall would be prefect. But that to me is not interesting. I like Nicholson’s work a lot, but not in ‘Batman’ because it’s exactly what we expect. It’s underwhelming. A friend of mine said that in ‘The Shining’, Nicholson didn’t frighten him at all because it was so obvious. If it had been Bob Newhart it would have scared the shit out of him.”

The conclusion of a loose kind of trilogy, ‘Mystery Train’ may be his most accessible, his warmest, and most structured film to date but it’s also, inevitably, the most familiar of the three – it’s terms of content and visually – even though it’s shot in bright, primary colour.

“I’m the worst person to ask how they relate to one another. Being analytical you could find all kinds of collections or differences, but I’m not too interested in that kind of analysis. Psychologically, I don’t want to feel it’s been a ‘trilogy’ because I want to see my new script as a new step, although I’m sure you’ll find out all the thematic and stylistic similarities in my future work… I see all 3 films as a good step, but I have no desire to see them again. You never make the film the way you attempted to. If you did, I don’t even know that you’d do it.”

He gives each film “a certain little rule that suits the story.” In ‘Stranger’, every scene was written and budgeted to have one shot only. While in ‘Mystery Train’, the camera doesn’t move unless the character does.
“The camera should just be an observational recorder, not a character in the film. I never do dramatic pans or tracking in shots.”

Inevitably with each film, he loses something of his innocence and the amateurish strangeness that made ‘Stranger’ and ‘Down by Law’ so refreshing and funny.
“I don’t mourn the loss of my innocence. Sometimes I regret having a different perspective on life. Sophistication isn’t something I strive for, no. I still see a lot of amateurishness in ‘Mystery Train’. It’s very naïve in terms of style and my work with the actors. The things that work – like, there’s an elegance even about things like their rhythm – I tend to take for granted. I’m interested in learning. I feel I need to learn more about designing my shots, give myself more leeway in the editing, although I detest the idea of covering every scene from several angles – that traditional ‘mastershot, close-up, over-the-shoulder shot format.”

There’s a suggestion in ‘Mystery Train’ that perhaps Jarmusch has begun to know too much about the skill of humour.
“I hope not, God. I never sit down and think: ‘I should put in a joke here’. I’ve never tried to write a joke. I collect things that happen to me or I observe, or that I hear about, that I think are funny. ‘Mystery Train’ is closer to ‘Stranger than Paradise’ than ‘Down by Law’, yes. More subtle and funnier in a contagious way. I sneaked in to a screening in Paris for fifteen minutes and twice the audience laughed so much they started to applaud… At that point, I left the theatre.”
Jarmusch looks bemused, pleased and rather bashful about this.

He points out Godard said he made the same film over and over and Cassavetes that all his films were about one thing: love. Jarmusch’s theme thus far has been the same. Eva the Hungarian girl, Nicoletta Braschi and Roberto Benigni in ‘Down by Law’ (also Waits and Lurie), and now Strummer, Nicoletta Braschi and the two cool Japanese rockers visiting ‘Memphis’ Sun City and Gracelands all relate to ideas of: drifting and dreaming, an individual’s sense of identity and place, the aimless, amiable desire to belong somewhere, somewhere different and the unease of being a stranger in an alien culture.
The theme is explained by Jarmusch’s roots – he’s part Czech, part German and mostly Irish, ‘a mutt.’
“It’s also America. America has a very young, disposable culture and the only true, native Americans have been eliminated through genocide, which is a sick premise to found a culture on.”

The moral is that dreams are never real, or really satisfying.
“Generally though, my characters don’t get the big pay-off. Strummer’s character lives there – he’s not just ethereally drifting but he starts to act out, to misbehave, cos he’s trapped and frustrated. In ‘Down by Law’, Benigni’s dream pays off because his desire is so strong it somehow happens. It happens in life too – you expect a lot from those things, but what affects you the most are the smaller things. The way you meet the most important people in your life is usually by accident… The Japanese rockers are real dreamers because they believe in the iconography and mythology of American rock ‘n’ roll. But their story is actually about rather innocent young love, finding ways of relating to each other. The other two stories in ‘Mystery Train’ have a more fractured love element.”

Though his mother was a film critic (his father worked in personnel in an Akron rubber company) Jarmusch studied Literature in New York, discovering cinema during a term in Paris when he was 20.
“When I was young all I wanted was to get the hell out of Akron. I had no thoughts about films. I wanted to be a writer. After Paris I got a scholarship for Film School, which seemed odd to me cos I’d never made a film. I just gave them some writing and photography. Then I was asked by Nicolas Ray to be his assistant.”

Jarmusch is nicely surprised by what’s happened to him.
“If you chase after it and pursue people persistently, it seems you’re missing out on the chance of the possibility of chance. If you plan it all out, it’s sort of defeating.”

It seems unlikely that Jarmusch will go the way of ‘sex, lies & videotape’s Steve Soderberg and run the risk of being chewed up by the big budget machinery of a major studio.

“If they’d let me do my work, I could work with any studio. I’ve slagged Cannon for all that exploitation shit, but they made ‘Barfly’, Godard’s ‘King Lear’, Cassavetes’ ‘Love Streams’, which is a masterpiece. I think Steve will come through, though I agree it’s potentially catastrophic. I don’t like the story of ‘sex, lies and videotape’, though I admire the dialogue and the direction, I don’t get the story myself.”

Jarmusch picks the posters, the PR companies, the distributors everything for his films.
“I tend to be obsessed. People call me a control freak, but I put a lot of heart into my work and I don’t want somebody to just piss on it. I own my own films. I don’t understand how people can let their films be dubbed badly and shown in horrible shopping malls with ugly posters. The idea of being hired to do some project that somebody else has left, life’s too short for that. Rather than make ’Batman 6’ then I’d rather go and learn how to be a motorcycle repair man or something – work with my hands. I’d end up in jail for shooting a producer or something.”

He feels at home in New York “which doesn’t really seem to be part of America” though less and less so.

He has 3 stories loosely scripted and plans for more ’coffee and cigarettes’ sketches (with the likes of friends such as Steve Buscemi, Steven Wright, Cinque Lee, and possibly Sam Fuller) plus short films in French and Italian.

“My next film will be very different in one very obvious way but I’m very superstitious about talking about it; I’ll confuse myself. I’ve been asked I see myself as an artist or an entertainer. I see it as beings a craftsman. I’m trying to learn how to express myself through the craft of making the film for the audience. But my films are meaningless if the audience doesn’t get something out of them.”