Interview: Jim Jarmusch & THE DEAD DON'T DIE
Quite like the new Jim Jarmusch film, The Dead Don’t Die, Sturgill Simpson’s self-titled theme song delivers many delicious nuggets of zombie metaphor in a smilin’ down-home death-ballad drawl.
‘Oh the dead don’t die, any more than you or I, They’re just ghosts inside a dream, of a life that we don’t own’
If the horror genre boils down to a nightmare epitomizing our societal anxieties, as has been suggested, Jarmusch’s affectionate genre reappropriation plays like a lucid dream meditating upon more personal existential concerns, all the while paying loving tribute to spirits who have offered inspiration to Jarmusch’s own creative universe and helped keep a smile on his face in an oft-wicked world.
The cinematic ghosts most prominently walking the streets of Jarmusch’s Centerville, USA - a name itself borrowed from Zappa’s 200 Motels - are those of George Romero’s, whose Night of the Living Dead broke major horror ground (not to mention indie-filmmaking ground) in its macabre metaphor for the perils of us & them mentality - the real monster lurking within a beautifully simple monster movie.
Romero is far from alone in Jarmusch’s long list of artistic beacons of light, which contains friends and mentors alike languishing in a world where the emptied grave of Sam Fuller implies a town where his undead body roams the streets. There’s a certain doom afoot - though every generation feels itself to be the last… until one inevitably proves itself tragically correct - but this said doom is no more certain than the abstraction of the very-certain demise awaiting us all.
We’re all gonna die. Whether our untimely ends come in the form of a ripe-old-age, the result of some world war, a polar-fracking induced unnatural disaster, or a zombie bite at the jaws of an undead Iggy Pop (all-time favorite zombie), it doesn’t change the fact that our time here is limited and entirely ours to define.
So what then is the monster of Jarmusch’s foray into “horror” territory? Zombies? Certainly. Us & Them thinking? Check. Irresponsible denial of global warming? Yup. Time? Yes... Death? Sure. Mindless consumerism? Check. And what about forms of living death? Like conformity. Or crowdthink? Or concerns to do with trending? Or relevance?
The list goes on, and while there is much comic delight taken in lampooning these numberless miseries - the fuckers that get ya - Jarmusch is far more interested in celebrating the warriors. Those who made their mark through creation, immortal ideas, beautiful contributions to a dream of a life that we don’t own. Those fighting the good fight. What the good fight consists of is yours to determine, the stakes are yours to decide, but it is not a battle to be taken lightly. Your fight has the ability to echo through the ages. Even if it doesn’t pay to try. And Sturgill Simpson sings…
'After life is over, the afterlife goes on…'
These are just a few of my musings after seeing the film for a second time. Whether or not they ring true to its author is secondary to the fact that, in a film about the sparks that keep us alive and the timelessness of salient ideas, a spark was certainly achieved in this viewer; a sensation I’ve grown accustomed to watching the works of this particular filmmaker.
So what a delight it was to be able to sit down with Mr. Jarmusch last week in his natural Bowery habitat to chit a little chat about his latest creative endeavor. The conversation began with my reminding Jim that the two of us had briefly spoken a few months ago at the afterparty for the NY premiere of Ron Mann’s Carmine Street Guitars, a documentary that Jim both shepherded and appears in, and one that I love very much.
Jim is quick to bring up his adoration for that film’s two main subjects - the very lovely Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej, who had both just attended the NY premiere of The Dead Don’t Die the previous night - as I hit the red circle on my recording device.
...Oh cool, so they came out to see THE DEAD DON'T DIE...
Jim Jarmusch: Yeah, I'm so happy they were there.
Me too! What did they have to say? I mean, I'm sure they were glowing about it.
They dug it, and Rick had on a vest, but he had a Sqürl tee shirt. I was like, "Yes!"
Well, since you bring it up, the first time I actually met you was at the TIFF premiere of COFFEE AND CIGARETTES back in 2003. I was 19 and you threw out Sqürl shirts into the audience and I grabbed one and I still have it, as well as this really dorky photo with you and me wearing my new Sqürl t-shirt.
Then on the way out, I found myself walking alongside Meg White, who was also wearing a Sqürl shirt, which I believe she wears in that film, and I said, "Look, we're wearing the same shirt." She responded, “It’s the cool shirt.”
Aw, lovely Meg White. I haven't seen her in a long time.
Yeah, I guess not.
A sweet, wonderful person.
So, are you having a good time releasing the film?
Yeah, I'm getting a little worn down, because I've been doing this straight up now for two years. Writing, getting the financing.
Has it been two years? Wow.
I finished the script in 2017, around a month from now. Then, I was writing before that. It's been kind of relentless.
Now obviously answering to the film is a whole other animal.
Yeah, kind of weird. As you can imagine because I've spent my life - a large part of my life - trying to learn how to say what I want to say with a film. Then what do you have to say about it? It's kind of up on the screen.
When did this idea occur to you? When did it start germinating? When did you think ‘I have a Zombie film in me’?
Well, it started after making a film Only Lovers Left Alive. Tilda Swinton kept calling me up and kind of teasingly, whenever we’d talk she'd say, "What about the zombie film?" I'm like, "What zombie film, Tilda?" "The one we're going to make?" I'm like, "Okay." I call her Swilda, "What Zombie Film, Swilda?". She would tease me about it, so that was planting in there.
And then after making Paterson, and we made Gimme Danger, even while editing those films, I was thinking about this one. My first idea was I want to make something funny in a stupid way like Coffee and Cigarettes.
My first idea was okay, I'm going to get actors I love, a bunch of them and there's going to be a kind of zombie apocalypse in a town and then I'm going to have some sort of cordoned off in different little areas and the zombie attacks will be brief but violent.
There'll be long lag times where they're just boarded up like in Night of the Living Dead. Then they can talk about all kinds of stupid shit, but then when I started writing, okay, Centerville, which I took from Frank Zappa's 200 Motels. Then it became a little different. It became this film, but it's sort of the same general idea.
They still do talk about some stupid shit, you know?
It's a bit different structurally than that, but that was the beginning of it.
Yeah, there's some stupid shit. There's also some pretty damn profound shit in there. When did that stuff start entering- or how can it not enter the picture, I suppose?
Yes. There's no way it can't when we're trying to make something that is kind of Goddaughter of Night of the Living Dead and when you use zombies now as a metaphor, wow, how can you not make this kind of allegorical thing? Because what George Romero did was, he made the undead, he made the monsters of the films us. He made them the result of a broken social structure. Right?
That's 50 years ago and that has only gotten worse. Consumer fetishism has only gotten worse. Corporate control of everything has only gotten worse... and racism. Now we got a white supremacist in the White House. That hasn't happened since Woodrow Wilson who was also a mother fucking white supremacist and a hack.
Those things affect me. I am also mostly affected more than any of that by being in the sixth mass extinction on this planet. Everyone seems to be not wanting to hear that. Not everyone. That's disturbing to me and makes me sad, so the film's a comedy with a kind of sad ending. It's unavoidable that it's reflective cause it's zombies. After George Romero, how can that not be reflected?
I guess it can be. If you want to make something stupid. I've never seen The Walking Dead. I don't know if that has any sociopolitical thread and I have no idea. I'm not a big zombie fan, but I've seen, I don't know if you saw Train to Busan?
Yeah, I did.
That is a badass zombie film.
You know what I mean? Our film, honestly, it's not a horror film. A horror film involves employing a certain formula of suspense. Suspense SCARES YOU! We're not in it for that. We have no interest in that whatsoever in The Dead Don't Die.
We could have. I could have tried to use that formula. I don't know why I have no interest in that. It's more of a character thing.
The first time I saw it - I saw it twice - was at Cannes I found it very funny with some incredibly profound lines in it like you keep coming back to Melville, I'm going to botch it, but you know, ‘numerous miseries of the mortals’ or what have you.
Yeah, the numberless mortals.
Yeah... Then I saw it again in Paris, since it opened there weeks ago, and the second time I just found it really beautiful. I think where I'm coming from there is that one interpretation I have of the film is it as something of a love letter to your friends. As like kind of brothers and sisters in arms and like the fight to be alive.
Well and the celebrating of consciousness. It's important what RZA's character says, to me. Honestly, it's a comedy. There's a sociopolitical threat, how can there not be? With zombies after Romero how can you not? At the same time, I think of it as more of a celebration of our consciousness and our friendships.
To me the heart of the film really is like... the cops and these people in this town are, for the most part, very accepting of one another. They're even sort of fascinated by the so-called hipsters who are very exotic to them. They're these young, beautiful people with a cool car.
Yeah. Very hip city, even hipper than Pittsburgh, I guess.
Is that a STRANGER THAN PARADISE reference?
Yeah. That's just my preference. I've got a lot of Cleveland. I'm from Northeast Ohio, so I have it in Stranger than Paradise. It's in Dead Man, you know, wrote in there... Yeah, I don't know what I was saying… Just that they're beautiful young, they're free, they've got a cool car, they don't care where they're even going.
It's a '68, right?
68 Pontiac LeMans with a vinyl top right out of Night of the Living Dead.
Is Selena Gomez sort of a de facto Jarmsuch with all her culture love and knowledge.
I don't know. I love them all. I love all the characters. I even appreciate Steve Buscemi's character because he's afraid. His fear of others has been ingrained in him, and I don't dislike the guy, you know? He's just kind of afraid.
He's sort of isolated, very isolated. Living alone there on that farm with a dog only. I don't dislike any of them.
I like Hermit Bob and I liked the three teenage delinquents because they're four I choose not to be killed or zombified. My hearts with those teenagers that had some kind of problem. They got sent to teenage jail and Tom Waits’ character, he left the whole social order decades ago. He's not having it anymore. Because he doesn't want consumer fetishist life.
You give him the last word, you call Officers Cliff and Ronnie (Murray and Driver) warriors. He calls them warriors.
Yeah, because he's known them. He even calls him ‘little Ronnie’, implying that he's known him since he was very young. He knows Bill since junior high school, Bill's character. They all know each other. He knows Frank, you know the farmer, he calls him Frank and they all know each other.
Yeah. He's like our Greek chorus. He's our narrator. Because he has an overview of everything, from those fucked up a little binoculars from the woods. He still kinda knows what the fuck's going on. He's observing these dumb ass behaviors that he doesn't really want to be part of.
Right. I sure as shit don't feel this way, but to borrow Hermit Bob's words, I think, do you ever feel past your expiry date?
That's actually the words of Tilda's character.
No, I don't. I hope not. No, because I don't look back. I look forward so I don't know. I don't have an expiration date until it comes. Where I have til then.
There’s that moment where Ronnie, Adam Driver, asks his partner, Bill Murray's character, "I'd ask you if you felt like retiring, but I think I know the answer.' Do you think the film touches on the unlikely idea of your retiring to some extent?
Actually not because that was just a joke when I was writing and Bill says, "Are we improvising here?" I don't even know the answer. Even when I wrote it, I was sort of channeling. I was just listening to them talk and writing it down and then he said, "Well, you probably know the answer. He said, "Yeah, I probably do. That ended there and I didn't even know, what did they mean? What was it? I don't know. It's between them, honestly. I don't really know.
I think about what Bill Murray said in the press conference at Cannes, which just like kind of shook me, about feeling like he's on a sinking iceberg. People like you keeping him afloat, you know?
Yeah. I'm not sure what he meant, that I know. I love that guy. He's really an amazing person, a really wonderful actor with a range, amazing range. He could be so subtle and serious, whatever you need from him, he loves to be directed and he loves, when we work, to have me be his audience. You know?
In real life, he's just the most generous, kind of strange, complicated man. I just, I love Bill Murray.
I love another thing he said at that press conference, that he just wants to show up and be one less problem for the director who has so much to think about and he just wants to do his job and do the best he can.
Yeah, well that's hardly true, man. Because Bill, did you hear this thing where they took the cop car at one point?
The three of them are in their cop uniforms. We have that cop car and we had a slight delay, so we're doing something technically. Bill just drives off with Adam and Chloe in their uniforms and they drive off for an hour. They're gone and they're driving all around the countryside. Bill's sitting there saying to them, ‘you guys got phones? No. You got any money? No. We're almost out of gas’. They go to some farm stand and they get out at the farm stand, he had the lights on. Then they think they're cops, right? Then they see Bill Murray, they don't really recognize Chloe and Adam. Then they see it's Bill Murray, and they're confused.
They brought back all this fruit from the farm stand for the crew, but they had no money. We had to- later Bill went back to .. He said, "Can we get this on credit? They're like, "I guess if you're Bill Murray." He's always doing that kind of shit….
Once, we were shooting Broken Flowers and he just walked into our house across the street, that we had nothing to do with. He didn't knock. He opened the door and went inside. He came out a half an hour later with a plate of cookies and started giving them the crew and I said, "Bill, so what happened?" "Oh, I went in there, nice family. They're having breakfast." They looked up, they said, "Bill Murray." He said, "Yeah, what are you guys doing? They gave me some eggs and then they gave me these cookies. It was great.’
Kind of reminds me of him in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES. ‘Aren’t you Bill Murray, man?’
They're like, 'Yeah, but Bill Murray, everyone's going to know your Bill Murray.' He will be found in people's kitchens, washing their dishes. They don't even know how the fuck he got in there. I mean he does that kind of stuff. He is really such a wonderful character like that.
Getting back to RZA’s line in the film, which you mentioned is very important line to you. Appreciating the details. What are some of your favorite details?
Oh God, that's endless.
I'm sure it is.
I'm a self-proclaimed mychologist. Yeah, because life's too short to know just about one thing. An example is, once maybe 10, 15 years ago, I gave a little lecture and there was a lot of people there. I ran into one of them like maybe six months ago, upstate at Earth Restore, and the guy said, "You don't know me, but I was at your lecture like 15 years ago at New Paltz." I was like, "Oh wow. Was it any good?"
He said, "Well you talked a lot about my college here and mushroom identification. You talked at length about the history of British and Italian motorcycle design. You talked about English polyphony from the 16th century. You talked about French symbolist poets. You talked about underground hip hop and you never talked about filmmaking at all." I was like, "Wow, I'm sorry." He said, "No. It was cool. It was really fascinating, you just never got around to it." That's sort of like my life, there are so many things that interest me that I can't stay on one all the time. Also I follow Strummer's law. Joe Strummer was a friend of mine.
Anyone that knows him, knows Strummer's law. Four words: no input, no output. Meaning you have to take things in if you want to express anything. This really, it really enlightens you about what The Clash were. Because they opened the doors so that they would receive the breeze of reggae, of rockabilly, of soul music, of hip hop, they were open. It was like the input. Whereas the Pistols - equally great - were reductive, like ‘let's boil it down to one fucking thing. What's the most intense thing we can make it into?’ Equally very important you know?
The Clash, no.
Not what they were about.
You've got to have input.
One line I love in Sturgill Simpson's - I don't have the time left to ask you all about that great song - I like the lyrics, ‘After life is over, the afterlife goes on’. That makes me think about the empty graves. Did I see Sam Fuller's grave?
Yes, yes. I had another one too, but I think it's not in the film, which said Nicholas Raymond Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, which was Nick Ray's birth name. I had one gravestone made for that, but I think maybe we edited the scene - the shot where it was visible. Sam's still in there.
I love the doc you guys made, TIGRERO
Tigrero, the film that was never made.
I love that movie.
I love Sam Fuller.
I know you do.
I kept that gravestone. It's in my garden.
I just was in LA and I saw Christa Fuller, his wife, and Samantha, his daughter, I keep in touch.
Very cool. Would you say there's any truth in my reading of Centerville as a town habitated by the creative debts you owe? Centerville is marinating with all of the people who you took in.
I wouldn't use marinating. They are illuminating my soul because anything that... Look, I'm just some white guy from Akron, Ohio, right? Anything I take in that moves me, is now me. It's part of me, whether it's Mulatu Astatke, Ethiopian funk music from the 70s or if it's, like I said, English polyphonic music from the 17th century, if it comes into me then it's mine.
I got that. Now it's part of me, whether it's, I don't know, some remarkable blacksploitation movie or some remarkable masterwork of Japanese cinema. I'm not hierarchical. If it moves you, then you've got to take it and it's Strummer's law, you know?
Well, I think you're probably too modest to answer this final question, but how do you feel about giving back to this continuum that you have received from and the fact that you have given so much to people like me?
Yeah, I have a hard time seeing that, because I feel that I've received all these gifts and continue to. Every day something that's like ‘wow’ amazing to me. I don't know. Also, I have a hard time- I'm not analytical about what I do and I have a hard time looking at myself, you know?
In that way. I'm trying, but I don't know how to answer that.
I'm sure not but it couldn't hurt to take it in and to appreciate yourself.
Well, I appreciate you saying it. I really do.
It won't go to my head though, cause I'm still learning how to make films and how to make music. I love... I think some of it... one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century is the electric guitar. But I play for shit. It's a mystery. Even great guitarists said it's a mystery forever. It's just too many mathematical possibilities.
Yeah, electrifying that shit is so beautiful to me.
I also love, from the 20th century, the human genome, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the design of the French Bikini. I would say these four things are my favorites.
Thank you, Jim.
...There are so many.
Of course, there are.