From D.W. Griffith to John Cassavetes to sex, lies, and videotape, plenty of moments in American independent cinema could be called epochal. One such argument could be made for Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch's minimalist 1983 comedy. Not only did the film announce a major new voice, but it also worked against the dynamism of traditional Hollywood fare, depicting the mundane adventures of three characters that films wouldn't normally illuminate. After that, anything was possible.
An Akron, Ohio native and graduate of NYU's Tisch School Of The Arts, Jarmusch funneled some tuition money into his first feature, 1980's Permanent Vacation, and he found financing from a German producer for Stranger Than Paradise, which won the Camera D'Or (best first feature) at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival. His subsequent work includes 1986's Down By Law, 1989's Mystery Train, 1991's Night On Earth, 1995's Dead Man, 1997's Year Of The Horse, and 1999's Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai. Jarmusch's latest, Coffee And Cigarettes, compiles roughly 15 years' worth of vignettes centering on conversations between such diverse subjects as Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni, Cate Blanchett and herself, Jack and Meg White of The White Stripes, RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray, Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, and more. The director recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the origins and methods behind Coffee And Cigarettes, his relationship with filmmaker Nicholas Ray, and his opinion of test screenings and focus groups.
The Onion: How did the concept for Coffee And Cigarettes evolve over time?
Jim Jarmusch: It started with Saturday Night Live in 1986. This guy called me up and asked if I wanted to do a short for the show. He said it had to be five minutes and that I could own it, but they wanted it in a couple of weeks. At the time, I knew Roberto Benigni was coming into town and Steven Wright was in town, so the three of us got together and wrote something and played around and shot it. That was the beginning. Then I made another one around the time I was making Mystery Train, with Steve Buscemi and Joie and Cinqué Lee. And then I realized, "Gee, you're making the same film over and over here." Then came a third with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop. I just kept making them for my own amusement, but also with this thought in my head that I could collect enough songs to make an album out of it.
O: Do you ever have a sense of the grand design?
JJ: No, there's no grand design. However, I am attracted to non-dramatic moments in life. The idea of a coffee break is not something you'd think of as being an important part of your day, so these shorts were like little free zones in which we could just play around. It was very liberating, because we knew what the camera angles were going to be, because they're shot in the same way. What I do is, I trick some people into agreeing to do it, and then I write a script for them after I know who's going to be in it. As the idea evolved, I did thread different themes throughout, and repeated dialogue, so that they would hopefully work in a cumulative way. But it's really about variations. I love variations. It's an old formal ploy in literature like [Geoffrey] Chaucer and [Giovanni] Boccaccio, or Bach, or people like Andy Warhol. I like it as a formal exercise.
O: You talked about getting together with Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni on the first short, and then tailoring scripts for specific people on other occasions. How do these shorts usually come together?
JJ: It's different for each actor. I have a script for each one, but usually, the evening before, I get to play with the actors or have one little rehearsal. During the shoot, I often try to trick them by telling them, "On this next take, we're just going to go up to here in the script." Then, after they get there, I'd keep rolling and leave them stranded and see what they would do. Sometimes that gets incorporated. With Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina, the basic skeleton of the script is still in the finished film, but the dialogue they brought into the rehearsal… They were just flying. I was having trouble writing it all down and then sifting through which things to keep and which variations I preferred. So it really changes with every actor. Some stay pretty close to the script, and others go off on tangents.
O: Are you done shooting these shorts, or will you continue?
JJ: I'm not sure. I think I might make more of them, and 12 years from now I'll have another group to put out. Or I might pick a slightly different situation. But I'd like to continue making another series of films with the same idea formally. There were some I wanted to do that I didn't get to do, like one called Cognac And Cigars, with [late directors] Sam Fuller and Billy Wilder. I wanted to do one with Johnny Depp and Julie Christie. I kind of wanted to do one with Xan and Zoe Cassavetes and Sofia Coppola. I wanted to do one with some of my Native [American] friends, maybe with Gary Farmer and some other people. There's not an Asian one. There are so many more I'd like to do, but I'm not sure yet when or if I'm going to do them. For now, I'm just taking a breath.
O: You went to NYU's film school. Would you advise would-be filmmakers to attend schools like NYU, or to use the same money to make a film?
JJ: That's a hard question, because it's such an individual choice. It depends on what their intentions are. I went to graduate film school at NYU, and at first I didn't get a degree, because I took a scholarship that was supposed to pay my tuition, and I used it to make a film. For the longest time, I never actually graduated. And about 70 percent of the things I learned there I had to unlearn, but 30 percent was really valuable. It's like Mark Twain said, "Don't let school get in the way of your education." But everyone has teachers during their schooling that change the course of their lives, and I had Nicholas Ray. [Ray directed In A Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, and Rebel Without A Cause, among other classics. —ed.] I was fortunate enough to be his assistant in my last year there, and that was incredible for me. I learned so much from him just talking about anything—certainly about movies, but other things, too.
O: What was your involvement in the shooting of Lightning Over Water, Wim Wenders' film about Ray?
JJ: The whole crew was brought in by Wim Wenders except for me. I was the one person that Nick Ray asked to be his gofer or assistant, so I was an odd factor. I was very shy, too, at the time. I just did whatever Nick needed me to do, whether it was getting him some ice cream or finding his notebooks or just watching over him. I was the odd man out, but I could observe the procedure for how they made the film, and I got to hang out and look after Nick. Then, later, when Nick got really sick and was in the hospital, his wife Susan asked me to stay in their loft. I would sleep there and answer the phone and stuff, because she was sleeping in the hospital. I held down the fort in the last period of his life.
O: The end result of that film is so peculiar, because it doesn't fit into any proscribed category. It's not quite a documentary, but it's not fiction, either.
JJ: It's an unusual film, but I have trouble analyzing it. I haven't seen it in years, and even when I did see it, I didn't have a very coherent response, because my own personal connection to Nick while watching it was very painful for me. I was never able to see it like any other film, where you don't know anything about it.
O: Do you have those feelings about your own work? A lot of filmmakers say the process of making movies makes it difficult for them to see the finished work from the right distance.
JJ: That's true. Because the beauty of a movie is that you walk in, you don't know anything about it, you enter a world that's new to you, and that's the magic of being transported. If you make a film, that magic is not there, because you were there while shooting it. After writing a film and shooting it and being in the editing room every day, you can never see it clearly. I think other people's perception of your film is more valid than your own, because they have that ability to see it for the first time. Also, I'm not an analytical person, so it's not my job to even know what the hell the thing meant. It's not my problem. I'm just supposed to do it. Sometimes, people have explained things to me that I might have been semi-conscious of or not. I could see how they are in the film, but I'm not aware of them. For example, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a book about my film Dead Man that was really enlightening to me. [Laughs.] There were a lot of things in that book that made me think, "Really? That's in there?" [Laughs.]
O: What was it like putting together the Down By Law DVD? Some of the features on it are so unexpected that it seems like you're reacting against certain DVD conventions, like commentary tracks or featurettes.
JJ: I don't like having commentaries run over the film. I just don't like looking back. I don't look at my films once they're released. So to sit there and talk over them is just too painful and not interesting to me, but they wanted something, so they got me to sort of blabber on an audio track, and I really don't know how interesting that is. Then I had the idea of calling up Roberto Benigni and John Lurie and Tom Waits, and doing a lo-fi recording over the phone, so they stuck that on there. Criterion had the nice idea of having people e-mail questions, and I insisted I would mention the names of the people who submitted them. Some of those were like, "Bob Yamakowski from St. Louis asks, 'Jim, is your hair made of wax?'" [Laughs.] But it's hard to talk about things you've made. What I want to say, I try to put on the screen. After the fact, I'm like "Gee, what am I supposed to say about it?" I always feel at a loss talking about my films.
O: Your engagement with a film ends when you're done making it?
JJ: My part of it, yes. But I feel it's like plugging in a lamp: Until you plug it in and turn the light on, it's not going to illuminate. And that's the audience receiving it. I'm not saying, "Oh, I don't care about the audience." I do. The film is for them to then receive. But I don't think about them or what they expect to receive. That's just not my job. It's sort of contradictory. Those of us who make films try to make something that we're feeling and that we would like. Then we just hope an audience responds the same way. It's very important to have the electrical circuit made, but I don't have control over how people feel when they flip the switch. So the whole idea of marketing research and test screenings is just foreign to me. You show a film to a bunch of high-school girls in a shopping mall, and they tell you how they want the film to be… Well, damn, man, go get some high-school girls to make your film for you, then.
O: Have you ever had to submit any of your films to that process?
JJ: [A test screening] happened once with Dead Man, but that was after I sold Miramax a finished film. So I said, "Hey, you can do that if helps you figure out your marketing, but I'm not changing the film." A big argument ensued later, of course. [Laughs.] But I'm not bitter in any way. We sold Miramax a film that was a black-and-white, psychedelic Western. None of us ever thought, "This is gonna be a blockbuster." We knew it was going to be an odd film. We were just happy to make the damn thing. So I don't have any sour attitude like "Miramax ruined my film. Why didn't it make more money?"
O: You've always been a voracious moviegoer. What's your impression of what's going on in the world now? Are certain filmmakers or filmmaking countries particularly exciting to you now?
JJ: Definitely. There's a lot of incredible stuff coming from Asia—from Japan and Taiwan and all over the place. Certainly, Iran has become a beautiful garden of cinema. The best film I've seen recently is Crimson Gold by Jafar Panahi, about a pizza-delivery guy in Tehran, that was written by [Abbas] Kiarostami. I even think the commercial element of new American directors is really fertile right now. There are a lot of filmmakers with very particular visions, like Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson and Alexander Payne and Peter Sollett and Harmony Korine and Vincent Gallo. At least they're making films that they choose to make, and they're on their own. That's positive to me. This is not a dead period for American cinema at all. I think of myself as an amateur filmmaker, not a professional, in the sense that "amateur" means love of something, for the form. I feel very aligned with directors like Claire Denis in France and Aki Kaurismäki and Emir Kusturica and Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien and people like Panahi in Iran. I feel close to these filmmakers, whom I consider amateurs in the most complimentary way.