The Last of the Indies
By LYNN HIRSCHBERG, July 31, 2005, The New York Times
Although he bristles at the title -- his expression hardens, and his face starts to resemble a cloudy day with thunder threatening -- Jim Jarmusch is the last major truly independent film director in America. This is not a statement about his sensibility, although it is true that his minimalist cinematic style and his ability to deftly cross-pollinate pop culture, Eastern philosophy and classic movie genres have made him a unique presence in film for the past 20 years. While other directors may be hailed for their originality and independent point of view, Jarmusch, unlike Quentin Tarantino or pretty much any other auteur, has never made a film under a studio's watch. Ever since his debut feature, ''Stranger Than Paradise,'' in 1984, which cost $150,000, grossed $2.5 million in North America, won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and permanently upended the idea of independent film as an intrinsically inaccessible avant-garde form, he has owned and controlled all of his movies.
Nearly always, if a filmmaker's first, independent effort meets with either box-office or critical success (or both), he will be seduced into the studio system, where financing is provided in exchange for some measure of creative freedom. But despite Jarmusch's early star-is-born success and many offers from Hollywood, he has remained stubbornly distanced from the studios and their deep pockets.
His films, with their immediately recognizable idiosyncracies, testify to his independence. In 1986, he followed ''Stranger Than Paradise'' with ''Down by Law,'' the story of two deadbeats in New Orleans who are joined in jail by an eccentric Italian, played by Roberto Benigni, who plans their escape. Like all Jarmusch films, ''Down by Law'' combined cool, apathetic hipsters with flashes of poetry and wisdom. (For instance, Benigni's character quotes Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, but in Italian.) In 1989, Jarmusch set his protagonists in a seedy hotel in Memphis for ''Mystery Train,'' a film with three related stories, all influenced by Elvis Presley. In what has become his custom, Jarmusch cast musicians in key roles -- Joe Strummer, the lead singer of the Clash, starred in ''Mystery Train,'' just as Tom Waits and John Lurie did in ''Down by Law.'' Benigni resurfaced in 1992 in ''Night on Earth,'' which featured five separate narratives, each set in a different city, all centering on the relationship between cabdrivers and their passengers. ''Dead Man,'' a psychedelic western, was released in 1996, and ''Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,'' which starred Forest Whitaker as a conflicted hit man who lives by an ancient Japanese-warrior code, came out in 2000, with music by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan. ''Ghost Dog'' was chiefly about the blurring of belief systems, cultural lines and ethnicities -- a common theme in Jarmusch's films. Like the bebop music he loves, his movies begin with a familiar melody and then adapt that tune into something else, something new.
''Broken Flowers,'' which opens later this week, represents something of a departure. The movie stars Bill Murray as a man on a road trip, searching for the mother of a son he may have fathered. Like the rest of Jarmusch's work, ''Broken Flowers'' is a kind of foreign film set in America. It seems less concerned with results than with the in-between moments of life: the journey rather than the destination. Throughout his career, Jarmusch, like Jean-Luc Godard, has had a sentimental attachment to a certain American male archetype. He has updated the iconic loner movie guys -- the gangster, the cowboy, the gambler -- by making them modern and deadpan and curious. ''Broken Flowers'' expands that focus, moving beyond hipster cool to something more like maturity, but the film still maintains Jarmusch's outsider stance: it is stripped down, closely observed, with an almost dreamlike aura.
''I know,'' Jarmusch moaned during a recent meeting with me in Manhattan. ''It's all so . . . independent. I'm so sick of that word. I reach for my revolver when I hear the word 'quirky.' Or 'edgy.' Those words are now becoming labels that are slapped on products to sell them. Anyone who makes a film that is the film they want to make, and it is not defined by marketing analysis or a commercial enterprise, is independent. My movies are kind of made by hand. They're not polished -- they're sort of built in the garage. It's more like being an artisan in some way.''
Jarmusch took a sip of hot green tea. It was a humid summer day, and he sat outside under an umbrella at B Bar, down the street from the office of his company, Exoskeleton, on the Bowery. Jarmusch was dressed completely in black, and a pin on his shirt pocket read ''Indian Country,'' a nod to his fondness for Native American culture. At 52, he has a face that is soft and unlined, which contrasts with his trademark, a sweeping pompadour of startling gray hair. ''The key, I think, to Jim, is that he went gray when he was 15,'' Waits, Jarmusch's close friend, would later say to me. ''As a result, he always felt like an immigrant in the teenage world. He's been an immigrant -- a benign, fascinated foreigner -- ever since. And all his films are about that.''
More than anything, Jarmusch is a sort of focused amateur enthusiast. ''I consider myself a dilettante in a positive way, and I always have,'' he said. ''That affects my sense of filmmaking.'' His passions, which reflect his resolute disinterest in the conventional, include the study of mushrooms (''I almost died after eating wild mushrooms''); bird-watching (''In 12 years, I've identified about 80 birds in my yard in my home in the Catskills''); the authorship of Shakespeare's plays (''I think it was Christopher Marlowe''); the history of cinema (''Some mornings I'll wake up and say, 'There's an Ophuls film I haven't seen, and I need to see it today'''); and, most of all, music. He wrote ''Broken Flowers'' while listening to recordings from the early 70's by Mulatu Astatke, an Ethiopian jazz-funk artist (whose music ended up in the film), and is currently enthralled by a duo called Coco Rosie, who, as he described them, ''sound like two little Billie Holidays an octave higher if you were on acid in Tokyo in 1926.'' ''I think I was supposed to be a musician,'' he said. To him, movies should aspire to the immediate sway of music. ''I want to capture the temperature, the texture, the atmosphere you can inhale just by listening to a three-and-a-half-minute song.''
After Jarmusch moved to New York in the 70's to attend Columbia, he formed a band called the Del-Byzanteens, and he lived in the East Village, the same neighborhood he lives in now. The punk and new-wave scene in Lower Manhattan at the time not only introduced bands like the Ramones and the Talking Heads but also gave rise to a group of enterprising filmmakers, like Amos Poe, whose 1978 movie ''The Foreigner'' (in which Debbie Harry played a prostitute) influenced Jarmusch. ''I feel so lucky,'' Jarmusch said. ''During the late 70's in New York, anything seemed possible. You could make a movie or a record and work part time, and you could find an apartment for 160 bucks a month. And the conversations were about ideas. No one was talking about money. It was pretty amazing. But looking back is dangerous. I don't like nostalgia.'' He smiled. ''But, still, damn, it was fun. I'm glad I was there.''
In most of the important ways, he is still there. In the last 30 years, New York may have changed, but Jarmusch has stuck to his original ethos. ''I prefer to be subcultural rather than mass-cultural,'' he explained. ''I'm not interested in hitting the vein of the mainstream.''
And yet ''Broken Flowers'' is, by far, his most mainstream film. By casting Murray, who is in virtually every scene of the movie, Jarmusch has given audiences a more traditional leading man rather than his usual downtown habitue. Immediately, the movie seems adult, grown-up. The subtleties of Murray's beautiful performance -- his ability to move seamlessly from comedy to drama, his sense of stillness when faced with an absurd situation, his distinct out-of-time Americanness -- fit perfectly into Jarmusch's playfully moody world. But the story line of ''Broken Flowers'' -- a man visits his ex-girlfriends (who are played by Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Tilda Swinton) to discover which, if any, gave birth to his son -- is more conventional, and more emotionally direct, than Jarmusch's plots have ever been. '''Broken Flowers' is completely accessible,'' Bill Murray told me when I phoned him not long ago. ''A lot of people are going to see this film that have never seen one of Jim's films. It's going to touch all kinds of people. And I think that frightens Jim a little bit. When you're really independent, the fear is as much about losing your independence as having success.''
As we got ready to leave, Jarmusch shrugged off any talk of box-office popularity. ''Bill called and said, 'I'm glad I'm responsible for your crossing over,''' he recalled as he finished a cigarette. ''I called back and said: 'Yeah, I'm crossing over. So if you want to reach me, call my people, and maybe I'll get back to you.''' Jarmusch laughed, but the anxiety in his statement was clear: it may be difficult to remain an outsider -- an independent -- if the paying public applauds your efforts.
It was a rainy Wednesday night around 9 p.m., and Jarmusch, his hair glowing in the semidarkness, was staring intently at a naked girl on a video monitor. ''You don't want her skin too warm,'' Jarmusch said to John Dowdell, a post-production colorist who was sitting next to him in a studio on Leroy Street in Manhattan. Jarmusch was overseeing a transfer of ''Broken Flowers'' from film to video, tweaking the tones and shades in nearly every scene. ''It's so delicate,'' Jarmusch said, as the naked girl's skin was turned slightly pinker. ''If you go one way or the other, it has a different emotional effect on you.'' He stared a second. ''Now she's kind of glowing,'' he said. He tilted his head. ''Very Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin.''
They moved on to the next frame. ''This is extremely time-consuming,'' Jarmusch said. ''We're getting close to giving the baby away, and I'm exhausted. I'm happiest when I'm shooting the movie. Filming is like sex. Writing the script is like seduction, then shooting is like sex because you're doing the movie with other people. Editing is like being pregnant, and then you give birth and they take your baby away.'' He took a swig of cranberry juice. ''After this process is done, I will watch the movie one more time with a paying audience that doesn't know I'm there, and then I will never see it again. I'm so sick of it.''
As Jarmusch's films go, ''Broken Flowers'' came together quickly. Although he likes to set his films in slightly mythic cities that he never visited (Memphis in ''Mystery Train,'' New Orleans in ''Down by Law''), he prefers to create characters with an actor he knows in mind. He wrote ''Down by Law'' thinking of Tom Waits, ''Dead Man'' was for Johnny Depp and John Lurie inspired ''Stranger Than Paradise.'' Four years ago, Jarmusch spoke with Murray when both were guests on a television show. ''Jim thought and talked about movies the way I think and talk about them,'' Murray recalls. ''It was like meeting a cousin I didn't know I had.''
That kind of empathetic connection with Jarmusch is common. From a distance, Jarmusch is taciturn and can seem forbidding, but he is actually a sort of muscular romantic. He is defined by oppositions: he loves pulp action films from Asia but dedicated ''Broken Flowers'' to the relatively obscure French film director Jean Eustache; he rides old English motorcycles and owns two El Caminos but is a devotee of pearls and sonnets. He is keenly aware of history, especially as it concerns certain actors. A few years ago, Jarmusch created the Sons of Lee Marvin, a secret society that counts as its members Jarmusch, Waits and Lurie. Waits designed fancy business cards for the group, whose members are united in having some physical resemblance to the late actor. ''I can't tell you too much about the Sons of Lee Marvin,'' Waits whispered to me when I asked about the group. ''But we all speak the same language.''
Jarmusch was similarly attuned to Murray. After meeting him, Jarmusch wrote a script called ''Three Moons in the Sky'' with a lead role for Murray. It was the story of a man with three separate wives and families. Murray loved the premise, and Jarmusch went to Cannes in 2002 to raise money for the production of the film.
Setting up a Jarmusch movie is a complicated process. Because he doesn't work within the studio system, each film has to be sold individually. He and his agent, Bart Walker of Creative Artists Agency (who also represents, among others, Sofia Coppola), meet with foreign distributors who have worked with Jarmusch before. Jarmusch has one especially difficult and costly requirement: unlike many other American directors, he strongly resists his films' being dubbed into other languages. ''Jim feels that an actor's voice is a part of who they are in the film,'' Walker explained to me. ''The integrity of his film changes when the actor's voice is changed.'' Jarmusch is also known to shoot his movies in black and white, which also alienates investors; television networks and movie-rental outlets like Blockbuster are chiefly interested in color films.
It helps that Jarmusch is a major star internationally. His movies are acclaimed overseas, and foreign distributors are always interested in hearing about his latest project. In Europe and Asia, filmgoers generally do not differentiate between independent and studio films, and the international film community does not view Jarmusch as some kind of alternative cult director. ''In America, independent film is treated like the minor leagues,'' Jarmusch said. ''And then you're supposed to try and try to get into the majors, which are the studios. That's never been my goal. And in Europe they understand that.''
After hearing Jarmusch describe the plot and cast of his new film (or reading the script if it's ready), foreign movie companies decide how much they are willing to pay for the distribution rights. This negotiation is a laborious process. But if all goes well, agreements are forged, and the contract is then taken to a bank, where a loan is secured, and the movie production can begin. This can take months. After Jarmusch finishes the film, he and Walker will then sell it to an American distributor. (For ''Broken Flowers,'' an American company, Focus Features, provided the financing and is handling worldwide distribution. This is a one-off relationship designed to accommodate Bill Murray's schedule, rather than a long-term creative marriage.)
With ''Three Moons,'' Jarmusch had already raised the money when he began to have qualms about his script. He decided he wanted to write another one instead. The new script, which became ''Broken Flowers,'' was completed in a speedy two and a half weeks. Jarmusch wrote as he always does: at his house in the Catskills, in longhand in unlined sketchbooks, with the scenes composed out of order. He lives upstate (and in the city) with his longtime girlfriend, the filmmaker Sara Driver, who has worked with him since the beginning of his career. His writing desk is in a small room and is surrounded by photographs of Joe Louis, Robert Mitchum, Geronimo, Buster Keaton and Jean Eustache, all tacked to the wall for inspiration. ''Jim's scripts are really like haikus,'' Waits says. ''The script is like a rough map that someone gives you to get to the store. He figures that since he wrote the part with you in mind, you're already the guy, so everything you do in the movie just seems to make sense.''
Murray may have first read the finished script for ''Broken Flowers'' only when filming began -- or he may have never read it at all. ''I can't recall him ever telling me what he thought of the script,'' Jarmusch told me matter-of-factly. At one point in pre-production, Jarmusch and Murray were having dinner, and halfway through the meal Murray left the table, presumably to make a phone call or have a cigarette. He never came back. ''That didn't bother me,'' Jarmusch recalled. ''All my friends are like that. They may disappear, but they always return.''
The first real film that Jarmusch remembers seeing was ''Thunder Road,'' starring Robert Mitchum. Jarmusch was about 6, and he watched it at a drive-in with his mother and older sister. Jarmusch has never seen the whole film again, but something about it stuck in his mind. ''I liked being there,'' he said over yet another cup of hot green tea, at a restaurant in TriBeCa. Although Jarmusch's most recent movie, in 2004, was a collection of 11 short films titled ''Coffee and Cigarettes,'' he has not drunk coffee in years. ''In 1986,'' he explained, ''I decided to stop all kinds of chemicals and drugs at once. I think it had to do with William Burroughs treating his body like an experiment. So, no alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, sugar, beef, coffee. I went insane. I don't remember what I did, but I was insane. When I came back, I never took drugs in the form of powders or pills again. I still don't drink coffee. I never ate meat again. I still smoke. It was an experiment -- it wasn't really for health. And it was interesting.''
When Jarmusch spoke about his past, it was often in the measured manner of a cultural anthropologist. Throughout his life, he has courted and cultivated influences and mentors, and though many of his mentors have now died, they seem to float around his brain like wise, stubborn, pontificating ghosts. ''I really miss Joe Strummer,'' he said. ''Even though he's dead, I still get advice from him. He's very good at telling you to stick to your guns. I have Nick Ray, Sam Fuller and Joe -- I have some great spirits when I need guidance. I hear William Burroughs a lot, too, but I don't really want to listen to his advice.''
Jarmusch grew up in Akron, Ohio, the middle of three children. ''Jim is from Ohio,'' Waits told me, as if it were more an explanation than a fact. ''It's very flat. You dream in very flat places. You learn to solve problems. Six presidents were born there. And Jim.'' Jarmusch's father worked for BF Goodrich, and his mother, before marrying and becoming a housewife, reviewed films for The Akron Beacon Journal. ''My maternal grandmother was amazingly inspiring to me,'' Jarmusch said. ''On my 16th birthday, my grandmother gave me the Moncrieff translation of Proust. She had a lot of activities: she traded Oriental rugs, she knew gypsies and got me interested in Native American culture. By the time I was 14, I discovered the Beats and rock 'n' roll, and I knew I wanted to get out of Akron. By 17, I was gone.''
He studied journalism briefly at Northwestern University and then transferred to Columbia, where he majored in literature. In 1977, he enrolled at N.Y.U.'s film school. In the third year of the program, he became a teaching assistant for Nicholas Ray, the director of ''Rebel Without a Cause.'' Ray, who was dying of cancer at the time, became hugely important to Jarmusch. ''Ray said, 'If you want to make a film, you can make a film,''' Jarmusch said. ''And that sense of possibility made all the difference. It also mirrored the feeling in New York then. Technical expertise was not as crucial as spirit: the punk scene was about expression over virtuosity. It was more important to be open to all influences.''
Ray died in 1979, and afterward the director Wim Wenders, who met Jarmusch while filming a documentary about Ray's last years, gave Jarmusch about 40 minutes' worth of unused black-and-white film stock he had left over from another movie -- a precious gift for a young filmmaker. Seizing the opportunity, Jarmusch used the film to make a 30-minute short, which eventually became the first third of ''Stranger Than Paradise.'' The final, complete film, which the critic Pauline Kael aptly titled a ''punk picaresque,'' has a cool, absurdist sensibility. There is no real plot -- just snippets of conversation between two buddies and a teenage girl from Budapest and a road trip to Cleveland -- but ''Stranger Than Paradise,'' with its irresistible evocation of the downtown spirit of the time, was one of those rare movies that change the culture. The film had a big-city release in the United States, played for one solid year in a theater in Paris and established a new breed of do-it-yourself filmmaking. '''Stranger Than Paradise' made me feel that films could be made in a different way in America,'' Tilda Swinton, who met Jarmusch backstage at a concert by the rock band the Darkness, told me. ''Jim has a way of explaining America. He says, 'I'm an alien, but I'm also an American, and we'll experience this world together.' That's why he's become such a force in international film -- he explains America to aliens, while remaining an alien himself.''
After ''Stranger Than Paradise,'' Hollywood came calling. Eager to absorb his cinematic sensibility, the industry offered Jarmusch action movies, teen movies, movies about hipsters in New York clubs, movies with cocaine-dealing plot lines. He turned everything down. When it became clear that Jarmusch was not interested in signing a deal with any studio, Hollywood stopped offering him projects. He had cemented his reputation as a staunch outsider. ''My place is in the margins,'' he said. ''If I made a film that a lot of people liked, I might wonder what I did wrong.''
Truly independent filmmaking is risky, and the failures can be tremendously frustrating. When ''Dead Man,'' Jarmusch's most ambitious film, finished playing in competition at Cannes in 1995, the audience was virtually silent. The movie, which stars Johnny Depp as an accountant named William Blake (as an homage to the visionary, romantic poet of the same name), is a modernist twist on a classic film genre. Jarmusch loves to take his characters on a journey, and ''Dead Man'' is the western as road trip, with Depp gaining enlightenment through his exposure to Native American culture. Jarmusch persuaded Robert Mitchum, one of his heroes -- ''The only actor I ever found intimidating'' -- to play one of the film's villains. Jarmusch flew out to Mitchum's home in Santa Barbara, Calif., to woo him. They had lunch, and Mitchum said, ''I'll do your damn movie.'' This is typical Jarmusch: by casting Mitchum, he pushed the past into the present and aligned his western with Mitchum's classic persona. Although the film has oddball, comic moments, it is the only Jarmusch movie to directly ponder the subject of mortality. ''Life is very fragile,'' Jarmusch told reporters at the time, ''and 'Dead Man' is about that -- that life is fragile and cruel and that it's also beautiful and funny and emotional.''
Nearly all of Jarmusch's films had been warmly received in competition at Cannes, and ''Dead Man'' had momentum; there had been talk that it was going to be the best movie at the festival. But after the film was shown on the huge screen at the Palais, only a few people applauded. And then, in the vast, mostly quiet auditorium, a voice boomed down from the balcony. ''Jeem,'' a man yelled in a heavy French accent, ''it's [expletive].''
''Jim must have told me that story five times,'' Murray says. ''It's a good story, but it's also upsetting to hear and tells you a lot about how complicated this international film world can be.''
''Dead Man'' had been sold to Miramax before it was shown in Cannes. Excited by the marketing possibilities of Depp and Jarmusch and a new kind of western, Harvey Weinstein, the co-head of Miramax, bought the movie without even seeing it. But after Cannes, Miramax barely released the film. Jarmusch had struggled to make the movie for a budget of only $9 million (astonishingly small for a period film set on location in the American West), and he admits today that it was the most difficult film he has ever directed, but he will not break his Zen-like code and show any disappointment that ''Dead Man'' played in theaters for just a few weeks.
''I never expected Harvey to cross me over to a new audience,'' Jarmusch said. ''I just wanted a classy release, and Miramax kind of washed their hands of the movie.'' Jarmusch paused. ''But it was a great relief to not have another urban film in theaters. At least the press couldn't hang all that on me again. No more aging-punk-rock-indie-downtown-urban. Oh, please -- I'm going to make a western in black and white.''
Jarmusch laughed. If he was ever enraged over ''Dead Man,'' his anger had dissipated. He listens to his mentor-ghosts, who tell him not to dwell on the past but to concentrate, instead, on the work. ''Blake said, 'The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow,''' Jarmusch recited, as if this explained the heartache of a good movie going unseen. He stared a second. ''I'd like to own a crow,'' he said. ''I think that would be an excellent pet.''
At Cannes in May, before the screening of ''Broken Flowers,'' Jarmusch expected the worst. As he later told me, ''It's easier that way.'' Murray, who was also there, attending Cannes for the first time with a film in competition, said, ''Unlike Jim, I always prefer that people actually see the movie.'' Jarmusch praised Murray's performance: ''Nick Ray said: 'Acting is like piano playing. The dialogue is just the left hand; the melody is in the eyes.' And that would apply to Bill in this movie.'' Before the screening, Murray zipped around La Croisette on a moped, picking up passengers, and gave interviews about searching for his own ex-girlfriends, as his character does in the movie. ''I usually decide to try in the middle of the night in a strange town, and I don't recommend it,'' he said.
It rained on the night of the premiere at the Palais, and the weather nicely underscored the comic melancholy of ''Broken Flowers.'' By all accounts, the Cannes audiences loved the movie, which of course made Jarmusch uncomfortable. ''If something gets too good a response, I want to head for the hills,'' he said later. ''And not Beverly Hills. Popular success is not my area of expertise.''
Before he left the festival, Murray, who claims to be ''semi-psychic,'' turned to Jarmusch and said, enigmatically, ''I think second place is O.K.'' He was referring to the coming announcement of the Palme d'Or, the top prize at Cannes. Jarmusch doesn't really remember the moment, but two days later, ''Broken Flowers'' won the Grand Prix, the runner-up prize at the festival, just as Murray predicted. ''That was better for Jim,'' Murray said. ''He could win and not feel awkward. His victory was a bit off to the side. And he's happier there.''Lynn Hirschberg, editor at large for the magazine, writes frequently about the movies.