Jim Jarmusch: From Vampires to Stooges (Q&A)

Jim Jarmusch Headshot - P 2014
Sara Driver

Jim Jarmusch Headshot - P 2014

The maverick film auteur puts his spin on the genre with stars Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston and his own unique musical sensibilities.

The ultimate downtown New York hipster director, white-haired Jim Jarmusch has carved out an impressive career as an independent voice since breaking out with his 1984 deadpan comedy Stranger Than Paradise. Since then, he has directed a string of movies in which his vision emerged intact, with classics like Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers and The Limits of Control. His latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, is his idiosyncratic spin on the vampire genre, a heartbreaking postapocalyptic romance between Tom Hiddleston's Adam and Tilda Swinton's Eve which takes place in both Detroit and Tangier as the two immortal partners look to quench each other's ardor while finding enough untainted blood to see another night. A musician who got his start on New York's '80s no-wave scene with the likes of the Del-Byzantines and Robin Crutchfield, Jarmusch has always made music an important part of his movies, from his inclusion of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" in Stranger Than Paradise, John Lurie's score for Down by Law and RZA's Ghost Dog soundtrack to his use of his own band SQURL — featuring associate Carter Logan and sound engineer Shane Stoneback — along with classic songs by Wanda Jackson and Denise LaSalle in his latest effort. The new film is accompanied by a soundtrack on the indie ATP Records label, which is separated into two sections ("Detroit" and "Tangier"), featuring what pal Thurston Moore refers to as "molten meditation core," along with classical lute player Jozef van Wissem and vocals by Cults' Madeline Follin on a drastically reworked version of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love."

How did you feel about the movie's critical reception?

I really only read the negative reviews, and there were a number of them. I find it perplexing to learn, if you appreciate things from the past, you're a conservative elitist.

That was the only negative line in A.O. Scott's N.Y. Times review, but there is a fetish for vinyl, handcrafted guitars and various sorts of artisanal objects in the film.

If you've been alive for a thousand years, an object that's 50 years old doesn't seem like such a throwback to me. Most people I know are interested in vinyl and having some analog machines.

What attracted you to doing a vampire movie?

Maybe eight years ago, I told Tilda Swinton I wanted to make a film with her as a vampire. I enjoy doing anything with her, and I thought physically, she'd make a striking vampire. So I wrote this script, which took place in Detroit and Rome, but it was a little too obvious about declining empires as the setting, and it had a little more action. It was a bit more of a conventional approach to vampires, but I had trouble financing that film. The response I kept getting from people with money was to make it more like a vampire film. Which, being contrary, made me rethink the whole film, strip all that other shit away and turn it into a love story between two people who just happened to be vampires.

PHOTOS: 50 Never-Before-Seen Portraits From Cannes

Being a film nerd, I'm interested in the whole history of vampires in film and literature. I've always appreciated the marginal ones, those who color outside the lines of the genre, starting with Carl Dreyer's Vampyr and, of course, I love Murnau's Nosferatu, as well as all the Universal and Hammer horror films. I even love Blacula and the sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream! I like the Tony Scott film, The Hunger, with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. And Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In.

What really attracted me was having characters with that historical overview, having lived through that many centuries. It was a story about two people who love each other for who they are, not trying to make the other into someone else. Just accepting one another — even when Adam is frustratingly self-involved at times, but Eve loves him for that, too.

You stress the fact immortality is always subject to ennui, which is another of the recurrent themes in your films, that of existential despair and life's tiny absurdities.

It's hard for them. They're very fragile and they have to live in the shadows of everything. They have to obtain at this time in the 21st century, blood that isn't tainted in any way or carrying any disease. I thought I was using them as a metaphor for the delicacy of human life. Consciousness shouldn't be taken for granted. But certain critics didn't get that. They thought the people pictured on Adam's walls — everyone from Buster Keaton, Isaac Newton and Mark Twain to Rodney Dangerfield, Iggy and Chrissie Hynde — were somehow vampires, too, and I don't know where they got that. They're humans that give us an expression of Adam's likes and heroes. I just thought it would be interesting to observe these two people … who just happen to be vampires.

I liked the way you called the two main characters Adam and Eve, the first lovers, and the last. It gives the film a fin de siècle quality.

I have to confess something really dumb about that. My main inspiration for this film, which isn't referred to anywhere, is Mark Twain's The Diaries of Adam and Eve. I'm a big Mark Twain fan, but that's maybe my favorite book of his. It's so funny and beautiful, about the difference between male and female perceptions. It wasn't until shooting the film that I realized everyone's first impression will be the biblical reference. Whoops. It's too late now. What can I do?

As in all your films, music plays an important role in telling the story and accompanying the narrative. There's the opening scene where the Anton Yelchin character brings Adam all those vintage guitars. It's almost like rock star as vampire, guzzling blood as if it were heroin.

It's a survival thing for them, rather than just hedonism. They're no more addicted to blood than you and I are to food and water. It's a requirement to survive. One of the films I gave to the cast while we were performing was Nicolas Roeg's film Performance, so there's a certain obvious connection to that. I don't agree that rock is a dying form, though. There is a lot of interesting stuff around the world that continues to find new ways to use that form, branches of a tree that is very much alive. You just have to look for these groups, like Follakzoid from Chile, who are playing this Krautrock hybrid.

Nice usage of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love" and Denise LaSalle's "Trapped by a Thing Called Love" in the film.

"Funnel of Love" is a song I've wanted to get into a movie for years. That was a perfect opener for this love story, but we wanted to SQURL-ize it, so we slowed it way down and did a remix, adding some things to it. On our record, we couldn't use any of the original track, so it's completely just us, with Madeline Follin from Cults, who sang on it, which was great. There's nothing from the original on the soundtrack album. I just love that song. Wanda Jackson's a very interesting bridge between country, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll. I was lucky, because a few years ago, when Jack White did a record with her, I didn't want him to do a new version of "Funnel of Love" before I used it in a movie. Luckily, he did not.

The Denise LaSalle song is so beautiful. And she's from Detroit, even though that track is very Memphis-sounding to me, especially with that hat horn section. So I had to have that in when they danced. Thematically, lyrically … "Why do I have to love this man who's driving me crazy? But I can't help it." So it fit in. Some of the original 45s were printed, incorrectly, with the title "Tunnel of Love" on them and they were worth a lot more money. I don't know if there's a Springsteen connection or not, though.

Your own band SQURL created the industrial and very musique concrete score.

We started the group years ago when we made The Limits of Control. I wanted to score that film with pre-existing, licensed, nonoriginal music. We couldn't find music to fit a few scenes, so we just decided to make our own. We threw a name on those recordings and called it Bad Rabbit. For Lovers, I wanted to have this mixture of an appreciation for old music and some more rock 'n' roll stuff. Jozef van Wissem is this lute player, a minimalist avant-garde musician and composer, but a historian of lute music. He's really immersed in it and knows everything about it. So he's on the record. And then we mixed it together with SQURL playing alongside those lute parts and we made some stuff without him. We mixed those old European traditions with sort of this drone music. I don't know how to describe it. Thurston Moore called us "molten meditation core." And oddly the two styles mixed together really well. When we perform live, van Wissem plays electric 12-string guitar with us. Shane Stoneback is more a studio member of the group and Carter Logan rounds out the band. In the same way, Adam and Eve aren't hierarchical about the past, present and future. They're open to all these things. Adam likes that warm analog sound heard on vintage equipment. We were trying to make the kind of music Adam would.

Those scenes of a boarded-up Detroit at night were beautifully eerie. Was that actually the house that Jack White grew up in?

Yes, it was. When Jack lived there, the neighborhood was predominantly Mexican-American. He's the seventh son for real. I've met his brothers, cousins and mother. We asked his cousin to show us the house where Jack grew up so that it would be a surprise for him to see it. Or maybe he told him.

And who was that band in the bar scene, the White Hills?

They're a great group that's sort of been overlooked. They're from New York, and they play psych-rock or space-rock. They are fantastic. I booked them when I curated an All Tomorrow's Parties festival a few years ago with a lot of other psych bands like Wooden Ships, Sleep and the Black Angels. The White Hills kick ass, and they're such nice people, too.

STORY: Cannes: Sony Classics Nabs Jim Jarmusch's 'Only Lovers Left Alive'

What's next?

I'm about to start editing a film on The Stooges. Not a conventional documentary; more a kind of love letter. We're trying to avoid talking heads that aren't in the band. Most of it's been shot. And a lot of it will be made up of clips, not just of the Stooges, but a lot of other things from the time, including TV commercials, political kind of stuff, Soupy Sales videos. We did all-new interviews. I interrogated Jim Osterberg for 7½ hours, which is a beautiful oral history, not from Iggy, but Jim. We have some stuff with [the late] Ron and Scott [Asheton], which we were lucky to get. We've got Mike Watt and James Williamson. We're going to try talking with Danny Fields and John Cale. And we definitely want to film Kathy Asheton, Ron and Scott's younger sister, who is kind of responsible for The Stooges even existing as a band.

I'm making more music with SQURL. We're going to give away new tracks on our website. We're trying to wrangle a residency in some New York club where we can play once or twice a week and invite other bands to join us. We're also planning on performing live scores to silent films, like the movies of Man Ray, in New York in the fall, and maybe Paris. We want to record more stuff, too.

And then I'm working on a musical theater project with Phil Kline and Robert Wilson, an opera of sorts about Nikola Tesla, for the fall of 2015 or 2016. And then I have another feature film that's written about New Jersey. So I got a lot of stuff going on.

What's your partner, Sara Driver, up to?

She's filming a documentary on the year in Jean-Michel Basquiat's life when he went from doing SAMO and street art to painting on canvases and showing in major galleries. We knew him back then, when he was, like 18 or 19.

Jeffrey Wright, who plays the blood-dealing doctor in your film, was Basquiat in Julian Schnabel's biopic.

I refuse to see that film. I knew Jean-Michel and he was not friends with Julian. I like Julian very much — he's a very generous guy, even if he is an egotistical character. And his films — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one of the masterworks of recent cinema. Once a year, he'll ask me, "So are you ever going to see Basquiat?" And I'll say, "Never." I refused to talk to Schnabel about Jean-Michel when he was making the film. But Jean-Michel was not a fan of Schnabel as a person back then. And I would not betray him in that way. I've seen a few clips, though, and Jeffrey Wright is f—in' amazing in it.