With his 1984 minimalist comedy Stranger Than Paradise, director Jim Jarmusch set the standard for the next generation of American independent films, but he’s spent the last 25 years carving out his own inimitably eclectic territory. Though his signature deadpan style has been a constant, Jarmusch has traveled restlessly to new destinations all over this country and abroad, from Louisiana (1986’s Down By Law) to Memphis (1989’s Mystery Train) to the Old West (1995’s Dead Man) as well as his native New York (1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai) and various cosmopolitan cities for 1991’s Night On Earth. After following Bill Murray around the country in his last effort, 2005’s Broken Flowers, Jarmusch headed to Spain for his new film, The Limits Of Control, another in a long line of stranger-in-a-strange land stories.
Appearing for the fourth time in a Jarmusch film, Isaach De Bankolé steps into the lead role of a mystery man hired for a criminal act. His mission remains a secret throughout the film, which has the trappings of a crime fiction but is more a journey of the soul. As De Bankolé travels through Spain, he encounters a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Alex Descas, Gael García Bernal, John Hurt, and Bill Murray. Jarmusch recently talked to The A.V. Club about…
The A.V. Club: What were you were shooting yesterday?
Jim Jarmusch: I was appearing in an HBO TV show, a new show called Bored To Death, with Jason Schwartzman and Ted Danson. It’s a comedy show. I think they’re going to start running it in September. I was just a guest.
AVC: When was the last time you were in front of the camera like that?
JJ: Shit, I don’t know. I did an appearance some years ago on a Pamela Anderson TV show called VIP. Do you remember that show? I loved that show. I thought it should become a cult thing. I did a little thing on that. I guess that’s it most recently, at least as far as something that wasn’t documentary talking-heads nonsense.
AVC: The Limits Of Control seems very similar to Dead Man in that it subverts genre material and becomes kind of a philosophical reverie. Is that a fair comparison? Do you feel like those two films are closely connected?
JJ: For me they are, in a way, because in both cases, I was referring to a particular genre, but also I was trying to put in a lot of references and layers you could connect with, that didn’t necessarily fit into the genre. You just sort of follow the trip. So in that way, they are very connected to me. They’re both obvious metaphors of the journey and all of that, but I guess other films of mine may be as well.
AVC: What kind of references do you have in mind?
JJ: I’m not calculating, so the idea was to make a film where I was open to finding connections and layers even as we went along. So I started this project with a 25-page prose story that I wrote, and I said “I’m not going to write a conventional script. I’m going to start from here and just start building things.” So for me, as always, I kind of start collecting details and then piece them together along the way.
AVC: When it came time to shoot, did you still just have a 25-page prose story, or was there more form at that point?
JJ: No, it was becoming more and more formed. Once I had that 25-page story and then got the financing for the film, then I started scouting locations and casting the film. It just kept building and building from there. And then I didn’t really write the dialogue until while we were filming, actually. The 25 pages did contain the basic form of the story and the scenes within it, but they were intentionally very minimal, without a lot of description and without any dialogue.
AVC: Have you done that before, where the dialogue is done on the spot?
JJ: Only when I made Coffee And Cigarettes, but even then, I would often write the dialogue the night before. Generally, my other films have had more of a conventional script, but I’ve always also been open to taking detours off the roadmap if they presented themselves and seemed strong. This is the first time I didn’t shoot with basically a conventional script.
AVC: What kind of problems did that present, particularly for the actors?
JJ: In this case, I would have the dialogue for the actors by the time they arrived in Spain. Because besides Isaach De Bankolé’s character, I only had these actors for a few days. So I would have their dialogue sketched out by the time they arrived, and then I would talk with them about it, try to rehearse a little bit, or discuss it, whatever rehearsal means. It’s different for each actor. They weren’t on the set blind. They had dialogue in advance. So there weren’t really any problems. The only real problem I had was when I wrote a scene that didn’t work for Tilda Swinton. Then I realized while I was shooting it, “I am not liking this,” and I said, “We’re going to come back tomorrow and start the whole scene over and I’m going to rewrite it tonight. I’ll call you, Tilda, and talk to you about it. We’ll start again tomorrow.” Which is very problematic, since we only had six and a half weeks to shoot this damn film. So we were under a lot of pressure, but I just knew instinctively that I wasn’t liking it. That was the only time I pulled it and wrote something else.
AVC: Do you intend to repeat this process in the future? What were benefits of doing it this way?
JJ: The benefits were that our minds were always open, so we were always looking for things that might relate to something else in the film. I think when you have a game plan that’s too determined, you think, “Well, I’ve got to get this and I’ve got to get that.” And you’re not thinking, “Wow, what if I shot something over there? Or what if this location should be used for something? What could I use it for?” The benefits were just having minds like antennae up all the time for something that might suggest itself, and never think, “Well, I can’t do that. I’ve got to shoot this scene, and it’s all written out.”
I remember I was shooting Ghost Dog, and I had an unwieldy union crew, and I was in Jersey City, and I saw something where, “Man, I want to shoot something along that cyclone fence over there,” and was told, “We don’t have it on the schedule. There’s no place to park the trucks. The crew won’t take the camera over there, so you can’t really do that.” And I was like, “What the hell is this?” So that really disturbed me. This film was open to do those kinds of things if I needed to. It depends project by project, but there is one project in the future that I definitely would like to approach like The Limits Of Control. Other ones may need to be a little more structured. But it’s not like this was without any structure, because the scenes were all in the little story. They just weren’t described in any kind of detail.
AVC: Does this also make you more reliant on your actors’ creative sense? Was there an expectation that they would have to bring a lot to the table?
JJ: I always collaborate with the actors. I consider the characters we make a collaboration. It wasn’t that much different, and in fact they improvised less than maybe in some of my other films, because we had very little time, and there’s very little dialogue in the film as it is. Where there is dialogue, I had to be pretty precise about it, and they pretty much followed that and wanted to be pretty precise about it, too. On that level, it was maybe a little more structured than some of my other films, where, okay, here’s the idea of the scene, here’s how I wrote it, but as long as you keep that idea, you can say it any way you want. But in this case, they had to stick a little closer to what was written, because we didn’t have a lot of time to play around. And since there’s so little dialogue and a lot of things are repeated through the film in the dialogue as a kind of code or puzzle, they had to stay closer than in other films I’ve made. That sounds contradictory. I guess it is. But I like contradictions.
AVC: This is your fourth collaboration with Isaach De Bankolé, but his first lead role for you. What qualities does he bring to this role?
JJ: One amazing thing about Isaach is how visibly changeable he is. Even though he has such striking features, they change very drastically by how you light him, by what kind of facial hair he has, by whether his character is outward or inward. So he is very, very versatile, but I always wanted to make a film with him where he was very quiet and internal and strong. Not outward. So the tiniest little things register on his face, you know? Or the way he moves, physically. It was those things that led me to write this character for him and with him, because he embodied the character.
AVC: His character carries himself as a professional, so he’s inscrutable in that way, but he also has to suggest an internal life. Was that a tough thing to pull off, to be expressive in such a minimalist way?
JJ: You know, I didn’t have much to do with it. I was his guide, I’m his director, so I respond to how big or small a reaction might be. But he worked on it. He kept separate from the crew. He kept separate from all of his castmates who were filming. He didn’t stay in the same hotel, and he didn’t eat with us. And these were all his choices. He was the lone man the whole time we were working. And believe me, I’ve known Isaach De Bankolé for over 20 years, and he is not an inexpressive person. He can be very exuberant and extroverted in a certain way; he doesn’t hide his feelings. So that was interesting and kind of painful—I kind of wanted my friend back halfway through, but he wasn’t there. [Laughs.] It wasn’t him; it was the lone man. When we were done shooting, it took him a couple of weeks to get back to being his old self. I think it was a bit hard on him that way.
AVC: His performance is so disciplined and quiet, but there’s one moment—maybe the most startling moment of the film—when he really gets mad at a waiter for giving him a double espresso instead of the two espressos he ordered. Were you surprised by that as well?
JJ: No, that was intended. I wanted to show how particular he was, and that particular scene came from something Isaach did in real life about 15 years ago when I was with him. He blew up at a waiter because he ordered very particularly two espressos in separate cups. And the guy brought him a double espresso. And he went off on the guy, explaining why, but he was very agitated. And I found it kind of amusing. I was like, “Man, you’re really particular about how you drink those espressos, Isaach!” He was like, “Yeah, man I didn’t ask for a double, it’s a different texture, it’s a different temperature! I drink this one first, and then this one cools. I have my process! I asked for this, I want this, I’m the customer!” That stayed with me, hence the two espressos in the movie. Because Isaach almost always orders two espressos, separate cups. So I just thought that was odd and interesting and funny, and it just entered his character—which is not him, of course. But that one incident, I wanted to keep in there.
AVC: What were you looking for when you were scouting locations in Spain? Was there something about the country’s landscape and architecture that spoke to the story?
JJ: Well, I wanted the cosmopolitan feeling of Madrid without it being touristic, just how Madrid kind of feels if you live there. And I’ve always been madly in love with the city of Seville, and always wanted to shoot something there. The place is incredibly magical and visual, and has a lot of Moorish influence in its architecture. It’s where all that tilework comes from in Spain. There are balconies everywhere that are tiled underneath just for the visual pleasure of someone walking in the street. The streets are very narrow, and it has that weird tower of gold that we have in the film, which was colonial Spain’s warehouse of gold. It doesn’t even have doors; you had to get in by pulling a sailing ship up alongside it, and enter way above the line of the ground. It’s just a really amazing place, sort of central to Andalusian culture, flamenco culture. And then the south of Spain, where we shot outside of Almería, is where a lot of the spaghetti Westerns were shot. So the landscape is oddly familiar to me, even sort of semi-consciously, from biblical Hollywood epics that were shot there, and all the Italian Westerns that were shot there. So those things were drawing me. Spain entered the film and then kept pulling on me, even though the story could have been set in South America, or in Turkey or Mexico.
AVC: It seems like your films are a bit more stylistically formal than the on-the-fly quality your cinematographer Christopher Doyle has done working with directors like Wong Kar-wai and Gus Van Sant. Why did you bring him on as cinematographer here, and how did you go about meshing your styles?
JJ: I’ve known Chris for a long time—12, 15 years. So we’ve hung out a lot in the past and talked a lot about all forms of expression—painting and films and photography. And Chris is very strange. He’s really kind of a painter-photographer-collage artist, and those things meshed and he became a cinematographer. But all those poetic sides of him are very, very present. I don’t agree that Chris’s style is not formal or handheld or wild, because that’s not really true. He’s very adaptable. For example, he shot the remake of Psycho for Gus, which was certainly not the style of like a Wong Kar-wai film. He shot with Phillip Noyce. I mean, he finds the style that goes with what the film’s intention and soul contains. So he’s quite adaptable.
But a little bit of that wild side was very appealing to me, because I needed to break my own formal control in a certain way and collaborate with someone who would bring other ideas, and he certainly did that. I would sort of back off, and then the first setups of each scene, I would say, “Where would you put the camera, Chris?” rather than “Here’s what I’m thinking. I think we should cover it like this. What do you think?” I wouldn’t even suggest much of anything on many of the scenes, although I did specifically want to start the scene with Bill Murray with the camera static or on a track, and then go into handheld. But other times, Chris knew it wasn’t a handheld sort of feeling for the film, so where we used that had to be particular. We’d just sort of see how he would start off a scene, and that was really helpful to me. He made the frame a little plastic for me in a way, and because he showed me a lot of different ways I could do something.
The amazing thing about Chris is, he is a river full of ideas of fish, and you can pull out five and say “I like these two,” or you can pull out 30 and say “I like those two,” and he won’t say “What about the other 28?” He’ll say, “Oh, you like those two? Fantastic.” Because there’s always more fish coming. The guy has so many ideas, and you just want to let him be who he is and let those things keep flowing. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, so you have to say, “Chris, wait, I want to focus on these two fish I caught right now. Dam up the other ones for a while.” But you can’t ever dam them up, because they’re always coming. So you just find your way of collaborating, which was exciting and interesting. Also, he does this amazing shit and he calls it “of the film, but not from the film” or “from the film, but not of the film”… I don’t know. But he does these collages while he’s making a film that have things from places he is, because he’s making that film, but they’re not related necessarily to the film, and they are so exquisitely beautiful. They incorporate painting, and collaged images, and photographic images. I don’t know where he gets the energy to do those while he’s making a film.
AVC: Where do those end up?
JJ: He had a show of them in Dublin recently, and I think he’s going have a show in Paris, and maybe one in New York. Chris is out there as we speak making more of them, probably, rather than wondering where he should show them. There’s more fish going by. They will eventually be seen in galleries and books, I hope, because they are incredible. We’ll put some on our DVD [for The Limits Of Control] I hope, as well.
AVC: The music and sound design were really important as well in drawing viewers into this movie, because it doesn’t have a steamroller of a narrative. What were you looking to accomplish with the soundtrack?
JJ: For me, the music is always like the small rowboat I get into at the very beginning of my process. When I’m trying to imagine something, I have a few elements, a few ideas, maybe a certain actor or actress I want to create a certain type of character for, or maybe a certain place. Specific music starts feeding my imagination and gives me a landscape that corresponds somehow, in some abstract way, to the world I’m just starting to imagine. So the music comes very, very early to me, and that’s happened so many times. And usually, a lot of that music or some element of it becomes the score or enters the film in some way. I did that with Dead Man with Neil Young’s music, and I was collecting RZA’s vinyl instrumental B-sides to Wu-Tang stuff, and listening to those while I was writing Ghost Dog. Mulatu Astatke’s music came to me first as I was just starting to write Broken Flowers. In this case, it was Boris particularly, and Sunn O))) and Earth, those bands were really speaking to me. When I’m focusing and developing an idea, what music I listen to is incredibly important, and I then can’t listen to a lot of other music, and I avoid it. In the same way, I’m very careful about what films I watch when I’m preparing a film, if I watch any at all. The music is kind of a primal beginning point, often, for inspiring me. This time it was those cinematic landscapes with feedback and distortion, a form of rock ’n’ roll, but a very particular, hard-to-describe genre. It came very strong and was opening me up, so it ended up really being the score of the film, along with the flamenco stuff, and then Franz Schubert’s Adagio For String Quartet.
AVC: Did you happen to read New York Times critic A.O. Scott on “Neo-neo-realism”? What do you make of the independent landscape he’s describing?
JJ: I find it really interesting. I like that little genre, “Neo-neo-realism” as he was calling it. I find it really interesting, and I like some of the connections he was making as to why does it seem attractive now to these filmmakers. So yeah, I’m definitely very interested in it, but I’m not a practitioner of it. Particularly in The Limits Of Control, which very obviously, I think, celebrates the artifice of cinema and embraces it as artifice. There’s a lot of stuff in the film that says we’re embracing cinema being artificial.
AVC: It also seems that your work has become identified more and more as “international” than American specifically.
JJ: It’s hard for me to respond to or analyze that. I do know I have a photograph of a marquee of a movie theater in Seattle when my film Stranger Than Paradise came out in 1984 that said, “Best foreign American film of 1984.” [Laughs.] So I don’t know. I think that’s been put on me from the beginning, and again, I’m not self-analytical, but I do know that my inspirations are not restricted. So I watch movies from Asia, from India, from Africa, from Iran. If it’s something interesting, I just want to explore it. Consequently, I get inspiration from all over the place. But it’s not like a calculated thing on my part, or a way that I see myself, you know? I’m just interested in things that move me, and I don’t care where they come from. In fact, I’m interested if they come from a place I wouldn’t expect, or would seem foreign to me on some level.