The Auteurs: Jim Jarmusch
A filmmaker who is the total definition of being an outsider, Jim Jarmusch makes the kind of films that he wants to make without the interference or input of Hollywood. He is a man who is an unabashed film buff and is not afraid to show those influences in his work. He continues to entrance audiences with his unique exploration of individuals who do not fit into a certain ideal that is common within society. Though Jarmusch does not make films very often, one of the drawbacks of being an independent filmmaker, he always creates something that gets people talking regardless of subject matter. He is set to prove this once again with the upcoming release of Only Lovers Left Alive, his take on the vampire mythology.
Born James R. Jarmusch on January 22, 1953 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Jarmusch grew up in middle-class suburbia. His mother was a local film critic who introduced him to all sorts of films ranging from B-movie double features to the American films of the time. Though film was one thing he loved as a kid, it was literature that would shape his upbringing. Coming of age in the 1960s, Jarmusch discovered the underground American films of Robert Downey and Andy Warhol. This prompted his desire to leave Ohio, where he was attending Northwestern University, and to transfer to Columbia University in New York City.
Jarmusch’s time in Columbia not only broadened his love of literature, but also gave him ideas for what kind of stories he wanted to tell. A trip to Paris led to the discovery of works by European filmmakers like Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Jean Cocteau. While overseas he also dabbled into the films of Japanese filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. After graduating from Columbia in 1975, he went to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University to learn about film. It was there where where he would meet his longtime partner Sara Driver, future cinematographer Tom Di Cillo, and another young filmmaker named Spike Lee.
During the late 1970s, when Jarmusch was completing his studies, he met the renowned American filmmaker Nicholas Ray. Impressed by Jarmusch’s sense of independence and refusal to go into convention, Ray brought Jarmusch to the set of Lightning Over Water, a collaborative project that he was doing with German filmmaker Wim Wenders. As Ray’s personal assistant, Jarmusch was prominently featured in the film.
Permanent Vacation (review)
During Jarmusch’s time with Ray, he had an idea for what would become his final project for NYU. With the help of filmmaker Amos Poe, Jarmusch used the scholarship he got for tuition to make his very first film. The 75-minute film called Permanent Vacation, with Tom DiCillo serving as one of the cinematographers and Sara Driver assisting in a small a role, was made for a mere $12,000. The story was based on Jarmusch’s own experiences with arriving in New York City.
Not wanting to make a film that played to the conventions of mainstream films of the time, Jarmusch decided to go for something that felt loose and real in its improvisation. Shot on location in New York City, the film explored a young drifter’s attempts to find himself while dealing with alienation in a city that is changing around him. School friend Chris Parker played the lead and Frankie Faison, who would become a Jarmusch regular, also nabbed a small role. Another person Jarmusch put in the film, who would become one of his collaborators and close friends, was musician John Lurie. Jarmusch decided to handle all of the editing on the film himself.
Despite not getting a degree from NYU, Jarmusch submitted the film to the 1980 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival in German where it won the Josef von Sternberg award. Permanent Vacation received a very limited released a year later, and was included as a DVD extra for the 2007 Criterion Collection release of Jarmusch’s next film Stranger Than Paradise.
Stranger than Paradise (review)
Jarmusch’s friendship with Wim Wenders allowed the director to get the chance to start working on a project that was an exploration of alienation in three different parts of America. After completing The State of Things, Wenders gave Jarmusch some left-over film stock to create a story in only 30 minutes. The short entitled The New World followed a young Hungarian-born woman who arrives in New York City to stay with her cousin for 10 days before moving on to Cleveland. The short premiered in 1982 and was featured at the prestigious International Film Festival in Rotterdam in 1983. Using the money that short film raised, Jarmusch decided to expand the story into a three-part feature film.
This time though the film would revolve around two hipsters who like to gamble. However, one of the two men struggles to balance his gambling habit and dealing with his Hungarian cousin. Since the film was to be about alienation, Jarmusch decided to take an absurdist approach to the way the characters dealt with their surroundings. This is most noticeable in Eszter Balint’s Eva, the young woman who arrives from Hungary and is baffled by New York City. Jarmusch’s chose strange locations in order to capture the actors’ natural reactions to their surroundings.
Stranger than Paradise made its premiere at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival where it was a major hit and Jarmusch won the prestigious Camera d’Or for Best First Film. The film was was well received amongst critics and won the National Society of Film Critics’ award for Best Film of 1985. Many considered the film to be a benchmark for the new wave of independent American cinema that was emerging in the 1980s. In 2002, the film was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in the U.S. which cemented Stranger than Paradise ’s legacy.
Down By Law (review)
The success of Stranger than Paradise gave Jarmusch the chance to make another film that would once again give him creative control and a small budget. The project was in the form of a prison break movie but told in an unconventional fashion. The first act centered around three different men and how they got arrested. The middle act focused on them sharing a prison cell. While the final act was about the three men escaping prison and enduring the Louisiana swamp while trying to figure out where to go.
Retaining most of his collaborators from his first film, including editor Melody London and music composer John Lurie, the production would also see inclusion of musician Tom Waits. Playing the role of an unemployed DJ who is set up for a crime he did not commit, Waits also contributed a couple of songs from his 1985 album Rain Dogs. The biggest coup for Jarmusch, in regards to casting, was getting famed Italian comedy actor/filmmaker Roberto Benigni to play the role of an Italian immigrant who is jailed for manslaughter. Ellen Barkin played the part of Waits’ frustrated girlfriend while Benigni’s wife, Nicoletta Braschi, was also feature in a small role. Jarmusch enlisted the services of the renowned Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller, a regular collaborator of Jarmusch’s friend Wim Wenders, to give the film an element of European noir circa the 1960s. The distinctive look of the film help Jarmusch to refine his visual language as well as his approach to filmmaking in regards to mixing humor and drama.
Down By Law, which Jarmusch dedicated to filmmaker Enzo Ungari and French actress Pascale Ogier, made its premiere at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. The film was an international hit and introduced American audiences to Roberto Benigni. Down By Law helped cement Jarmusch as one of the leaders of the emerging independent film movement in American cinema. Despite the praise Jarmusch quickly realized that one of the drawbacks to the independent landscape was trying to raise funding between projects.
Mystery Train (review)
Already a major figure in American indie films, Jarmusch spent some time acting in other people’s films, this included Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell and films by Aki and Mika Kaurismaki. It was during this time that Jarmusch was writing a story set in Memphis, Tennessee. The story revolved around a bunch of characters from different countries that, over the course a day, arrive in Memphis and end up converging at the same hotel. Originally called One Night in Memphis, the title was changed to Mystery Train in honor of one of Elvis Presley’s Memphis recordings. By making numerous references to Presley in the film, Jarmusch further emphasized both the history and the mysticism that city of Memphis holds.
In regards to casting, Jarmusch wanted to get an array of very eclectic actors to appear in the film. The diverse group included: Spike Lee’s younger brother Cinque as a bellboy; blues legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins as the hotel night clerk; indie actors like Tom Noonan, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Rick Aviles, Sy Richardson, and Steve Buscemi in some key parts; cult figures like musician Rufus Thomas and comedian Rockets Redglare; and Joe Strummer from the Clash, one of the greatest punk bands ever. Jarmusch also wanted to include international actors that who were not well known to American audiences. This meant casting the likes of Japanese actors Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase, as well as Italian actress Nicoletta Braschi in key roles.
Shot in color, in order to capture the beauty of Memphis, Jarmusch found unique ways to link the various narratives so that the film felt like a unified story rather than a typical anthology film. Mystery Train made its world premiere at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival that May and was well-received. Though he did not win the Palme d’Or, which was given Steven Soderbergh’s landmark film Sex, Lies, & Videotape, Jarmusch won an award for Best Artistic Achievement. Mystery Train was a major success on the film festival circuit but failed to connect with audiences commercially. Detractors of the film felt that Jarmusch was becoming “too cool” for the mainstream. Despite his denial of such claims, it would be a criticism that Jarmusch faced all throughout his career.
Night on Earth (review)
Jarmusch’s next project was Night on Earth, a very simple tale told from the perspective of cab drivers and their passengers over the course of one night in five different city. Jarmusch took eight days to write the script and filmed it in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki. For the Los Angeles segment, Jarmusch got Gena Rowlands to play a Hollywood executive and Winona Ryder for the role of a tomboy cab driver. The New York City segment featured Giancarlo Esposito as the passenger and Armin Mueller-Stahl as a new to the job cab driver. Actress Rosie Perez also made an appearance in the story as well. In the Paris segment, Isaach de Bankole starred as the driver with Beatrice Dalle as his blind passenger. The Rome section featured Roberto Benigni in the role of a crazy cab driver whose customer was a priest played by Paolo Bonacelli. The final segment in Helsinki starred Kari Vaananen, Sakari Kousmanen, and Tomi Salmela as the passengers and Matti Pellonpaa as their driver. All four actors had previously been known to North American audiences for their work in Aki Kaurismaki films.
Jarmusch allowed for a lot of improvisation to occur in each segment. The result was a rich tapestry of humorous discussions. For example, Rowlands and Ryder talked about ambition and men. Esposito and Mueller-Stahl bonded over the latter’s inexperience with automatic transmission and the city. The Paris segment found Dalle and de Bankole bickering at each other for the course of their journey. Jarmusch decided to raise up the level humor in Rome as Benigni’s character makes some crazy confessions to Bonacelli while driving like madman. However, it was the Helsinki segment where Jarmusch did the unexpected and changed to a more melodramatic tone. It proved an engrossing decision which enabled the director to emphasize the theme that some things in life are not as bad as they may seem.
Night on Earth would make its premiere at the 1991 New York Film Festival where it divided critics and audiences. Some enjoyed the film for its unique take on a night involving drivers and passengers, while others felt that Jarmusch was repeating himself in his approach to narrative. Still, the film won over his fans and did modestly well worldwide. As American independent cinema was moving towards mainstream acceptance, thanks to the emergence of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Roberto Rodriguez, Jarmusch was content to do things his way even if mainstream acclaim eluded him.
Dead Man (review)
Following the release of Night on Earth, Jarmusch spent some time away from the world of film before eventually making a 1993 short film called Somewhere in California. The film won the short film Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and was later included in his 2003 collection of shorts called Coffee and Cigarettes. Aware of some of the criticism that he had been receiving for his approach to storytelling, Jarmusch knew it was time to make some changes. So his next project was a very ambitious tale that would be set within the western genre. The story centered on an accountant from Cleveland named William Blake, named after the writer, who would find himself in a strange situation in the West. Inspired by the writings of Cormac McCarthy and William Blake, Jarmusch wanted to make a “psychedelic western” that took a different approach to how Native American characters had been depicted on screen. Instead of making Native Americans the antagonists or goofy sidekicks, he wanted to show respect to them by creating an important supporting character named of Nobody.
With Robby Muller back on board as cinematographer, and Jay Rabinowitz as editor, Jarmusch returned to a black-and-white aesthetic. Budgeted at $9 million, the film proved to be his most expensive film to date. Discarding many of the traditional approaches to the genre, Jarmusch asked musician Neil Young to create an improvisational and haunting score for the film. Young’s contribution added textures that felt both unique and fitting. The quirky score fit perfectly with Jarmusch’s offbeat casting.
Johnny Depp was cast in the role of William Blake, while Canadian actor Gary Farmer played the opinionated Nobody. The rest of the cast included an array of diverse actors and musicians such as: Gabriel Byrne, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Michael Wincott, punk godfather Iggy Pop, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, Mili Avital, Lance Henriksen, Billy Bob Thornton, Jared Harris, Alfred Molina, and Robert Mitchum in his final film role as an industrialist Blake was supposed to work for. Many of these characters would be named after the 20th Century figures like Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench and music producer George Drakoulias.
Dead Man made its premiere at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival that May where it was a major smash at the festival. Though the film would be released through Miramax, Jarmusch openly sparred with Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein over the film’s final cut. Weinstein wanted some new cuts for the film so it could be shown to a wider audience but Jarmusch refused. Though the film was released in its original cut, it only made $1 million in the box office with Jarmusch vowing never to deal with Weinstein ever again. Critical opinions was divided as some, like Roger Ebert, disliked the film and others, such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, were convinced that it was one of the best films ever made.
Year of the Horse (review)
After the troubled release for Dead Man, Jarmusch took a break and agreed to make a documentary about his friend Neil Young and the band Crazy Horse as they toured to promote their 1996 album Broken Arrow. Jarmusch got access to the band’s archives which allowed him to show aspects of the band’s history dating back to 1970. To give the documentary a different look, Jarmusch and his small crew decided to shoot the film in different film formats ranging from Super 8 film, 16mm, and Hi-8 video.
Another aspect of the film where Jarmusch wanted to stray from convention was in his approach to interviews. He wanted to give Young and the members of Crazy Horse equal time to establish themselves as real people and not just rock stars. Jarmusch also got stories from Young’s father Scott, the band’s longtime manager Elliot Roberts, and some roadies to add greater perspective on the story. This helped to Jarmusch to showcase the band as a family that manages to get through both the good and bad times.
Jarmusch premiered Year of the Horse in film festivals in 1997 and received a limited theatrical release. It divided many critics with Roger Ebert naming it the worst film of that year. Yet, the film was a hit with fans of Young and Crazy Horse . Regardless of the response, the documentary gave Jarmusch something to do in between feature film projects; especially in a time when it was becoming more difficult for him to find studios to support him and his vision.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (review)
Jarmusch continued his exploration of different genre for his next feature which was heavily influenced by the samurai genre. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was a modern-day version of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai that focused on a hitman who lives by a strict code inspired by samurai teachings. Jarmusch set his version in New Jersey and made the protagonist African-American. Another aspect that separated Jarmusch’s film from Melville’s was the way he incorporated lines from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s book Hagakure. Tsunetomo’s textbook taught how to live a life of discipline and in the shadows. This fit in well with the character of Ghost Dog, who lived a solitary life until he finds himself in trouble with his former retainer.
Gathering his usual collaborators behind the scenes, Jarmusch made some rather interesting choices in regards to casting. For the role title of Ghost Dog, Jarmusch got the services of Forest Whitaker. Isaach de Bankole played the small role of Ghost Dog’s friend Raymond, while notable character actors such as Henry Silva, Cliff Gorman, and John Tormey the played main gangsters. Jarmusch also brought in Gary Farmer, from Dead Man, to add some humor in the role of a man mistaken as a pigeon farmer.
While the humor was prevalent in the film, such as Cliff Gorman’s character confessing his love for the hip-hop group Public Enemy, Jarmusch’s film also created a sense of alienation. Ghost Dog tries to live a simple disciplined life in a world full of chaos. Jarmusch used images of cartoon violence to emphasize Ghost Dog’s disconnect with the world around him.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai premiered at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and received an amazing reception from critics and audiences. It was released in the U.S. that year and gave Jarmusch a modest hit in the box office. The film did very well worldwide. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai gave Jarmusch some of his best reviews since Mystery Train. Jarmusch finally answered his critics about his minimalist ideas proving that he was able to do something new.
Int. Trailer Night
During a break between projects, Jarmusch was among one of several filmmakers to be approached to make a 10-minute short film on the theme of time at the turn of the Millennium. The project called Ten Minutes Older featured filmmakers from all over the world, each one offering something unique in their shorts. Jarmusch’s short was called Int. Trailer Night and saw the director returning to black-and-white filmmaking. The film tells the tale of an actress, played by Chloe Seivgny, who listens to a classical piece and talks on the phone while on break during a film shoot. It is a very intimate piece that effectively showcased Jarmusch’s minimalism style.
The segment can be seen here.
Coffee and Cigarettes (Coffee and Cigarettes)
Making of Int. Trailer Night inspired him to create a new feature film based on a simple concept of people smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and talking about mundane things. It was an idea that he had tackled on numerous occasions in various short films dating back to 1986. Jarmusch decided to create a new batch of new shorts and couple them with his existing ones for the feature film. He brought in both new and former collaborators to take part in the project. Jarmusch shot all of the new shorts with Frederick Elmes and Ellen Kuras who helped to give the film its black-and-white photography style.
Jarmusch brought in his friends, as well as other actors, to create an experimental and lively feel. Among the actors he got to participate were Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina. The men played themselves and spent their time on screen talking about their careers and the possibility that they might be cousins. Cate Blanchett did double duty in playing herself and her cousin in a very strange segment that many felt was one of the film’s highlights. Jarmusch also got the White Stripes to make an appearance in a segment where Jack White showed his ex-wife Meg a Tesla coil. The RZA and GZA of Wu-Tang Clan also appeared in a segment where they talk about the dangers of caffeine and meet Bill Murray.
Coffee and Cigarettes premiered in 2003 internationally where it got some excellent reviews. While it did well in the art-house circuit, the film did not make waves commercially. However, Jarmusch fans were happy to finally get the chance to see some of his older shorts that did not get much exposure when they were originally made.
Broken Flowers (review)
Originally titled Dead Flowers, and spawned from an idea that Jarmusch‘s wife Sara Driver and friend Bill Raden had, Broken Flowers revolved around an aging Don Juan who goes on a road trip to find answers to a mysterious letter claiming that he unknowingly fathered a child with one of his old conquests. As Bill Murray was going through a dramatic period in his career, Jarmusch knew that Murray was perfect for the lead role. Murray had a unique skill of providing a slightly comedic take to many dramatic situations.
During the writing of the project, Jarmusch was inspired by the works of Jean Eustache who was best known for his independence and his unique approach to storytelling. Jarmusch wanted the story of his main character, Don Johnston, to be more than just about confronting his past. He also wanted to explore what had become of these women’s lives. Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton were cast in the roles of Don’s former flames. Some of the other supporting characters included Julie Delpy as Don’s most recent girlfriend; Chloe Sevigny as one of the quirky individuals he meets on his travels; and Jeffrey Wright in the role of Don’s amateur detective neighbor who tries to uncover the mystery of the letter.
One aspect of the film that Jarmusch wanted to make standout was its approach to music. This was most noticeable in Wright’s character Winston who listens to a lot of Ethiopian jazz music. Jarmusch was able to get rights to feature Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke prominently in the film’s score. Along with the jazz tunes, he incorporated an array of music ranging from the garage rock of the Greenhornes to the soul music from Marvin Gaye. He even sprinkled in classical, reggae, and stoner metal music. This helped to play into the many worlds that Don Johnston would encounter on his journey.
Broken Flowers made its premiere on May of 2005 at the Cannes Film Festival where it was a major hit. It even managed to win the festival’s 2nd place Grand Jury prize. The film was Jarmusch’s biggest hit commercially worldwide making $46 million against its $10 million budget. Broken Flowers received rave reviews with some critic citing it as his most accessible work to date. Yet, the film’s success was mired in controversy when Jarmusch and Focus Features were sued by Reed Martin in March of 2006 as he claimed to have written the film’s script. The case was dismissed after the jury ruled for the defendant.
The Limits of Control (review)
The success of Broken Flowers may have helped Jarmusch financially but the director still wanted to remain independent despite having a good working relationship with Focus Features. Wanting to experiment with his idea of minimalist narrative, the director chose to make another film based on the myth of the hitman. The Limits of Control revolved around a hitman who travels to different parts of Spain to meet various contacts that might help him get closer to his assigned target. Jarmusch was particularly intrigued by the notion of repetition and how things changed slightly with each contact the hitman encountered.
Gaining the services of Christopher Doyle to shoot the film, Jarmusch decided to call in Isaach de Bankole to play the lead role of the hitman. The diverse cast of contacts included model Paz de la Huerta as often-nude woman; Tilda Swinton as a blonde wearing cowboy clothes; Gael Garcia Bernal and Hiam Abbass as two different drivers; Youki Kudoh as a contact he meets in a train; and John Hurt as a man with a guitar case. The film also featured Bill Murray in the small role as the target.
Being the filmmaker who often strays from convention, Jarmusch decided to go another route for the film’s music. Though he received contributions from artists like LCD Soundsystem, the Black Angels, Earth and Bill Frisell, and the avant-metal band Sunn O))), Jarmusch hired the Japanese drone-rock band Boris to create the majority of the music on the film’s soundtrack. Jarmusch wanted Boris to provide music that was improvisational and minimalist in its setting. It allowed the film to maintain a sense of the unknown and helped to accentuate de Bankole’s very understated performance.
The Limits of Control made its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival where Jarmusch once again won over audiences at the festival. However, it divided most critics and audiences when it received limited release during the summer of that year. Much of the criticism was towards the film’s repetitiveness and pacing, though there were some who saw it as a wonderful take on minimalist filmmaking.
Only Lovers Left Alive (review)
Jarmusch’s latest feature film once again has him exploring another genre of film. This time around, he focuses on two lovers, who happen to be vampires, reuniting and trying to deal with modern society. There happy reunion is disrupted when one of the lover’s sister arrives and begins to cause problems. Since vampires have become prominent in pop culture in recent years, Jarmusch decided to stray from popular conventions by focusing on the themes of people dealing with a new world.
The cast includes previous Jarmusch collaborators Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, and John Hurt as well as Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, and Anton Yelchin. Swinton and Hiddleston play Eve and Adam respectively, the two central lovers of the piece. The film marks a departure of sorts as it is the first film not to feature any of his usual collaborators behind the scenes. Having already premiered to a wonderful reception this past May at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and becoming a hit on the festival circuit, the film is slated to be released in April 2014 through Sony Picture Classics.
While he may have not gotten the same accolades that some of his peers have had over the years, there is no question about Jim Jarmusch’s place in the world of cinema. There probably would not be an independent film scene as without his contributions. He is a director who sticks to his guns no matter how long it takes to make a new film. It is one of the many reasons why Jim Jarmusch is such a beloved figure in cinema. He is the true definition of what it means to be an independent filmmaker.
© thevoid99 2013