It’s futile to try and list characters in Jim Jarmusch’s films because there are too many and they vary too much. Here are three from his famous first work: the disembodied voice of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, an angry fat guy at a poker game, and a Hungarian turned card shark who dwells in a true New York City Studio apartment and doesn’t want his cousin to visit, but is sad when she leaves. The word critics often use-in one way or another-for the thing that runs through all of these souls is ‘cool’ (which makes them uncool). Really though, it’s that they are all humans that seem to have a sense of themselves in a world that’s both overexposed and weirdly dim, and yet in a self-less way release this oneness into the places that need it most.
Wonderfully, interviewing the writer and director turns out to be like the dream of every kid who loves movies, where you get to pal around with one of the characters from the story. Jarmusch talks more than he answers questions, and does so in blandly articulate way that masks the bodies of knowledge all real filmmakers must possess. He steers bad questions towards wider, more interesting topics and points, which he illustrates with the sort of stories he puts onto the big screen. He also impersonates people in a big-brotherly way, and sometimes impersonates himself with the same tone.
A good old Great Lakes boy, Jarmusch grew up in Ohio and studied English and French at Columbia, and then film at NYU. Stranger Than Paradise, the film most discussed here, won the Camera d’Or award at Cannes for best first feature in 1984. Jarmusch has lived in New York since he was 17, with the exception of a collegiate year he spent in Paris.
Cole Louison: It’s awful but also somewhat inevitable that talking about film leads to talking about money, but it seems like you might have a lot to say, since you have really seen the spectrum-your first film costing a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and your last film costing ten million.
Jim Jarmusch: My approach hasn’t really changed at all. It’s very collaborative, and it’s taking people that you would like to collaborate with, and then you get a big gift when they elevate the film above what any of you would imagine on your own. And my films are still low-budget compared to a Hollywood commercial film.
Because my films, none of them have ever been over ten million dollars, and I think that the average just Hollywood comedy domestic drama probably cost thirty at this point, so we’re still pretty low budget. So the procedure’s the same. They’re still sort of films made my hand in the garage.
CL: Was Stranger really shot with left-over film stock?
JJ: Yes. I was given film material from Vim Venders that was left over from his film called “The State of Things.”
CL: Oh. I read it was “Paris, Texas.”
JJ: No. That’s color.
JJ: This was “The State of Things,” and he had unfilmed–you know, just raw stock that he hadn’t used, that had been refrigerated. And he said, “I hope it’s still good.” So I got that from him, and then when I was cutting the film I got some other exposed black film because you have to make your own black leader and you can’t just–anyway it’s a technical thing. And I got that from the French Director Jean-Marie Straub, who, I’m a huge fan of him and his partner Danièle Huillet. They make films we don’t see here.
CL: Something that’s often called ‘style’ informs all of your movies, and the people who inhabit them. They are each of course all your own, but this seems especially evident in Stranger, specifically in the way the actors are dressed. Was there a way you wanted the characters to look?
JJ: It was just kind of our feeling about the characters and that kind of avoidance of what we thought was fashionable at the time, which we wanted to avoid like the plague. In the same way the style of the film is very austere and minimal. This was the time of the birth of MTV. Quick-cut, you know, multi-barrage of images, which we were also trying to avoid like the plague. So it was more of an attitude we had. It was less what we were imitating than what we were trying to avoid imitating, or referencing. But you know, I always liked film noir and gangster movies and that kind of stuff. That might be why the hats. I don’t really know. I’m not very analytical about it.
CL: I’m glad you brought that up, because hats are everywhere in this movie.
JJ: The hats were important. They were one of the first things we thought about, but it wasn’t so conscious like HATS WILL BECOME AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF THE FILM. We were just like ‘yeah, we like hats, what kind of hats?’ So it wasn’t quite so calculated, but it was important, and I know, the first time you see John Lurie’s character, Willie, he comes home and answers a ringing phone, and we were very conscious that the first time we see him he’s got the hat.
JJ: It is something you sort of establish right away with him. And John was very attached to this hat. I remember after we were done shooting, he said: You have to pay to get that hat re-blocked.
JJ: And I was like ‘What! That’ll be twelve dollars. Where am I going to get twelve dollars?’ But I did. I remember going to a place where they block hats, which was a new experience for me. And this was like, you know, the early 80s–we started filming this in eighty-two. So we were definitely trying to not have them look like punk rock or East Village kind of hipsters of that period.
CL: Like retro. Yeah.
JJ: Although now, they try to show what CBGBs looked like and they have kids with Mohawks and leather pants on and stuff, which is completely inaccurate, you know? Because people wore ripped clothes and old thrift store shit, but nobody was wearing like rock-n-roll iconographic stuff particularly, you know? That wasn’t really the thing.
CL: Like that one Ramones T-shirt?
JJ: Yeah. Although there were The Dead Boys–there was the rock-n-roll kind of iconographic clothing of some people, but it was more like what Talking Heads and Richard Hell were wearing on television you know?
JJ: But anyway we were trying to separate it from that. And we liked that idea of hats, because people don’t really wear hats anymore like that, like men wore in the 50s.
CL: It all sounds very collaborative and cooperative; was there ever a difference of opinion?
JJ: No. The only thing was that John wears a leather car coat, which was my favorite coat at that time. My only thing was: ‘But John, that’s my coat, you know? I’ll have to get another coat.'[now impersonating Lurie]: ‘Well you’re making a film and I think I look good in that. I wanna wear that.’ It was that kind of leather car coat, the kind of Bud Powell and bee bop guys wore. And the Black Panthers.
CL: Back then it was sort of not quite yet like the punk kind–it wasn’t quite as fashionable. Nowadays, everybody wears those things. But back then it was a little more particular. And you had to find old ones, because they didn’t make them, you know? So you had to get them at the thrift store and they were from the 60s.
JJ: But the funny thing is that we were trying to make them look not hip, or like hipsters, right? And then after the film came out and got seen, people started dressing a little bit like that, even to the degree that in Japan, in Tokyo, they put out a line of clothes for women and girls called Evawear that were baggy pants and cardigan sweaters exactly like Eszter Balint wore in the film, and her name’s Ava in the film, so you know, they were biting that from the film, which we found very funny, because we were trying to not make them appealing in any fashion way and it sort of backfired.
CL: I got that feeling from Eddie and Willie, that they like gangster movies and like to consider themselves sort of big time.
JJ: Yeah, they think, you know, they’re going to the racetrack, that they’re getting over by not having a real job, you know, so they were sort of outsiders. But I also have to say that John and Eszter particularly, in their personal style, have always had a very strong sense of style that was not necessarily a sense of fashion. Like John always wanted The Lounge Lizards to wear suits from the very beginning. That was very odd at the time, when people were wearing ripped up jeans and T-shirts. And Eszter’s always had a very strong sense of her own style even when I first knew her when she was 14. But it was never about being fashionable. They had a big influence, I’m sure, on Stranger, you know. Because they, they have a real sense of style as opposed to fashion.
CL: That’s one thing I loved about elderly Aunt Lottie. There’s certainly some kind of style there, but definitely not fashion. That, and everyone has a relative like her.
JJ: Yes. And I made her dress down, because the woman playing Aunt Lottie, she was a little more upscale in her real life. And she sort of was annoyed, like [speaking like an old woman with a Hungarian accent]: “Vy I have to vear this thing? This look like something I ‘vould have a maid vear.” I’m like “because, this is who you are in the film, you’re not yourself.” “Ok, ok. I vear that.’ She understood, but she didn’t like it at first. “I don’t like dis, but I vill vear it. I understand.”
CL: One film I was trying to get some editors to look at for comic relief here was Battlefield Earth, which cost $70 million. I’ve seen part of it, and none of the costumes fit. And they can’t really walk so they stand around a lot.
[A great, deep, weed-wacker-sounding inner-laugh.]
It’s pretty funny.
JJ: I pay attention to the details always, on any film. And sometimes it looks like they just don’t care, which I find annoying.
JJ: You know, another thing that drives me nuts is whenever they make a period film, and you have all these old cars in the film right?
JJ: If the film takes place in 1955, all the cars on the street are from 1954 55, and they’re all perfect. But if you took a time machine back to 1955, half the cars would be from the 40s, and they’d be all fucked up. And I know it’s hard, because it’s hard to go get fucked up cars from the 40s, you know? It’s easier to find some guy who’s got them all redone and everything. It’s all perfect and they’ve been rebuilt, but it looks so fake to me.
That’s true with clothes too. Like sometimes I watch films an its supposed to be a period. And it’s 1955, and everyone is dressed like 1955. But if you go out in the street in 1955, half the people, some of them are still wearing clothes still from the 30s, from the 40s, you know? So I always find that odd that they try to pinpoint it, and end up being inaccurate by attempting to be too accurate.
I’m also interested in the style of Westerns, because they often are very, very inaccurate. Sometimes, they just don’t care. Like, Nick Ray made a film called “Johnny Guitar,” and all of the architecture looks like ski lodges from the 60s. And all of their hairstyles and clothes look like The Marlboro Man. So they look like 60s cowboys, or 50s.
CL: Like, a cowboy hat, and it’s a Western.
JJ: Yeah. But in that film it works because it’s sort of a Brechtian Western. But sometimes it’s really annoying. Well, gee, they’re just dress up cowboys, you know. And they didn’t really research what people really wore, like we did on our film Dead Man, extensively. So people wore bowler hats and plaid suits, you know? They didn’t all wear chaps and a cowboy hat with long sideburns.
CL: Did you get your coat back?
JJ: He did give my leather coat back at the end. So that was lucky. I insisted: ‘that’s mine, remember John.’ [again impersonating Lurie]: “uuuh, ok.” He probably said something like: “Well I wouldn’t wear that anyway, it was just for my character.”
That’s all I can remember.
Cole Louison is a former editor and founder of Buzzsaw magazine. He graciously sent us this interview as an email submission.