attention mobile-device users:
scroll to the bottom for access to story menus.
thank you for reading.
The Cenozoic Passes in Five Seconds Flat
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, August 5, 2005.
Jim Jarmusch does not enjoy the image of Kate Moss wearing a beard any more than I do. But that’s what we’ve been confronted with, on the glossy cover of a Hollywood-lifestyle magazine placed, no doubt by the Gideons, on the coffee table in Château Marmont’s Suite 69. It’s very unsettling.
“And it’s kind of freaking me out,” says Jarmusch.
“Here,” I offer, rising from my comfy spot on the floor. “Allow me.”
I do what I must: extract the shiny magazine from the coffee table, walk it through the dining room to the kitchen and stash it somewhere safe.
“Did you put it in the fridge?” Jarmusch asks when I return.
“In the freezer.”
Now we can concentrate.
Jarmusch and I replant ourselves in the comfortable living room, and I propose terms for the rest of our one-hour relationship.
“In theory,” I say, “you should be the accomplished artist who says complex and interesting things, and I’ll be the benevolent parasite who encourages you and pretends to understand what you’re talking about.”
“In theory,” says Jarmusch, sucking down a healthy dose of smoke. “We’ll see about that.”
I’m Jarmusch’s first interview of the day. Afterward, he’ll go back downstairs to his room, then return to this suite, back and forth, until sundown. Then on to other hotels in Seattle, Chicago, New York and abroad.
“Usually you feel like a whore in a hotel room,” he says. “The next one comes in to fuck you, then the next. Next! And you don’t even get paid. You were lucky to even get to make the film! Now shut up and take it! Well, actually, no — they don’t treat me like that. But, you know, often [interviewers] already have an idea of what they want me to be, so that’s what they’re going to make me. You know?”
“The outsider. The control freak.”
“Yeah, yeah. Aging punk rock indie whatever. And quirky. Don’t forget quirky.”
“Quirky. Check. Within six words of sensibility.”
“I did an interview in England, and then I read that I spoke as though I were English. Like, ‘Yes, I’d just popped ’round to the local pub to meet my mates’ — stuff like that — when I’d actually said, ‘Yeah, I met some friends at a bar.’ They changed it into their vernacular, as if that was the way I spoke. They didn’t really misquote me, they just retranslated it.”
In art school, one of my painting instructors took our class to see a film called Stranger Than Paradise. That was Jarmusch’s first commercial release, and I became an instant fan. Over the next two decades, I followed faithfully as Jarmusch continued to create these heroically small, inimitably patient pictures, filled with austere absurdities and precise, silent punch lines: Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), the Neil Young and Crazy Horse concert film/documentary Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), which he’d begun in 1986 as a series of black-and-white shorts. One of those shorts featured Bill Murray, star of Jarmusch’s newest work, Broken Flowers, which recently received the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.
“Did you know Bill Murray before Coffee and Cigarettes?”
“Yeah, but not really. I wrote a script for Bill in 2001, and even raised most of the money for it. Then I came back from Europe and read the script again, and I thought it was a good story, but it needed work. And I hate rewriting scripts. I just do one draft and then start going.
“So I went to Bill’s house and said, ‘You know, Bill, I got a weird thing. I think I got the money to pay for this, but I don’t feel like doing it. But I have this other idea I want to throw on you.’ So I told him the basic idea for Broken Flowers. I hadn’t written it, but I’d been carrying the idea around for some years. And he said, ‘I like that one, too. I like that as much as the other one. You wanna do that?’ And I was like, ‘Thank you!’ So then I wrote this script — really fast, in less than three weeks — and brought it to Bill, and we just went ahead and made it.”
Murray’s Broken Flowers character is one Don Johnston, a retired computer executive and ex-manslut who receives a mysterious pink letter (no return address) warning that he may have unknowingly sired a son almost 20 years ago, and that this son might now be seeking him out.
“It came from an idea that some friends of mine gave me years ago,” says Jarmusch. “Just a vague idea that a guy got a letter from a former lover — he’d had a lot of girlfriends in the past — saying, ‘We had a kid, maybe he’s looking for you now.’ And it throws the guy for a loop. That was it. I was carrying that idea around for a number of years. And then at some point I thought, ‘Ah . . . okay. I’d like to develop this for Bill.’ So then I came up with the character.
“But I first met Bill maybe 10 years ago. I’d seen a film in the afternoon at Lincoln Center, I was walking on Columbus Avenue, and I see Bill Murray walking right toward me. And I’m like, ‘Whoa — that’s Bill Murray.’ And he walked right up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re Jim, right?’
“And I said, ‘Yeah. You’re — you’re Bill Murray!’
” ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You wanna get a cup of coffee?’
“I was like, ‘Sure!’ So we went into a luncheonette and talked for about 45 minutes about . . . I don’t know. All kinds of stuff. We had some mutual friends, and he was friends with Johnny Depp. So then he said, ‘Oh, man. I gotta go. Hey, it was great meeting you — I’ll see you around sometime.’ Then I never saw him again, for like five or six years, when I approached him with that other script.”
Bill Murray’s ability to reveal Johnston’s simultaneous anxieties and exhaustion without discernibly moving a muscle is a constant and solid pleasure to behold. It’s some of his best work. The same expression passes over Johnston’s face when he regards a young girl annoying him with her toy horse on an airplane as when he finds himself painfully alone with an ex’s daughter, Lolita (Alexis Dziena), parading through the house in the altogether. Same expression, but the one appearance wields fatherly authority as clearly as the other betrays vulnerability, lust and fear. How the hell did Murray do that?
“He’s a master of that minimal thing,” says Jarmusch. “Which is kind of odd for someone initially known for painting in broad comedic strokes. And then to see him work with a tiny, fine, one-haired brush like that, you know? He’s really pretty amazing. He can go either way, as far as you want him to.”
Outside, fellow citizens are melting in triple-digit heat, but here in film-promotion world, it’s barely 70. In the arena of motion-picture marketing, putting the interviewer and his prize victim in a comfortable room with a well-stocked bar increases the likelihood of a successful interview.
“Ten years ago I stayed here,” Jarmusch says. “I was promoting Dead Man, and I had a smaller suite downstairs. Iggy Pop, who I’ve known for a long time, was also staying here. And Joe Strummer was in L.A. We were all just hanging out in my room, and Iggy was complaining about how he had the room below the one that had all the balconies. He was saying, ‘Yeah, they didn’t even give me the better room, you know? I think Slash is staying there.’ He was sort of in a snarly mood, and we were laughing at him, saying, ‘Well, you know, Iggy. Slash’s records make more money than yours.’ Then Joe Strummer said to me, ‘Just think, Jim. Your film’s black and white. If you make the next one in color, you’ll move up a floor!’ ”
In general, Jarmusch makes films wherein the pauses and inactions are as important as what transpires between them. But it’s difficult to describe inactions in a script, and a venerable Hollywood equation — one page of script equals one minute onscreen — generally prevents studios from investing in such things. As a rule, no studio will even consider producing, for example, a 59-page script as a feature. Won’t even
look at it.
“The Huns cross Europe, raping and pillaging,” says Jarmusch. “You know? That’s only half a line, so that must take 12 seconds.”
“The cells divide,” I propose, “and the race wipes itself out. Five seconds.”
“World war decimates the planet.”
“But you don’t have to deal with that anymore, do you?”
“No. Because I go straight in from the beginning and say, ‘Look. I have to have these things to make this film. I get final cut. I have all control over casting and crew. No notes for my script. No financing people on set. Nobody comes in my editing room. I don’t show you the picture until I have it locked. And if you don’t want to negotiate any further, I understand.'”
“And the usual response?”
“They act like I’m out of my mind. Who does he think he is? But, I mean, my films don’t cost that much. And that’s just my way. I don’t work by committee. I don’t tell the people putting in the money how to run their business, so why should they tell me how to make a film? It just seems odd.
“My criticism of Hollywood is not that they make films that way, or that films are commercial products in their minds. That doesn’t bother me. That’s the nature of the ‘entertainment industry,’ or whatever. My real criticism is that they’re so timid. They just force shit down people’s throats because of their very conservative marketing analysis and all that. But it’s always mysterious, what people are going to like. Even just on a business level — wouldn’t it make sense to have a wider variety of products that cost less to produce? Wouldn’t you have a better chance of increasing your profit margin? But I don’t know. I’m not a business guy, so maybe I’m completely wrong.”
In Broken Flowers, Don Johnston ends up dropping in on the four ex-girlfriends deemed by his amateur-sleuth next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright) to be the likeliest sources of the mysterious pink letter. These long-estranged former lovers now live in disparate regions and circumstances, the most disturbing of which is a sparsely planted neighborhood of prefabricated tract mansions, such as one might find in . . .
“Wayne, New Jersey,” says Jarmusch. “And shooting in it was very depressing. Because everyone has the same stuff, you know? The same TV, the same cars, their kids dress the same. But then the people in the community were really, really nice to us. Very enthusiastic and kinda lovely. But before that human connection, it was just depressing to me, to be in that kind of hermetically sealed community. I think a lot of people actually live in places like that, more and more.”
“In a hundred years,” I say, “after the plants get a chance to grow and the houses fall apart — those houses are only built to last 30 years anyway — then I could imagine those places being, theoretically, places where I could live.”
“Yeah,” says Jarmusch. “Maybe people like us will live there in the future, when they’re all overgrown and rundown. And there’s, like, coyotes walking through.”