In 1979, 26-year-old Jim Jarmusch got a job working as an assistant to the ailing Hollywood bad boy Nicholas Ray. The director of Rebel Without a Cause was one of Jarmusch’s idols, so he sought out the older man’s counsel on the first feature script he was writing, a deadpan account of hipster urban drift called Permanent Vacation.
“I showed Nick my little script several times,” recalled Jarmusch, now 61. “The first time he said ‘There’s no action. It’s a kid walking around.’ So I went back and rewrote it and I took more of the action out, and I went back to Nick Ray doing exactly what he said not to do. He read it and said ‘Jim, you did the opposite of what I suggested. Are my suggestions not valid or what?’ And I said ‘No man, they’re really valid but this is what I felt and if I didn’t respect you I wouldn’t show it to you again.’
“He said, ‘You know what? You are absolutely right. You’ve got to make it your way. You don’t make it because of what I say. You follow your instinct and do that for your whole career.’ He gave me so much strength,” Jarmusch said. “So I kept that. I keep that always. I follow my instincts.”
The anecdote pertains to just about everything the Ohio native has done ever since. In 1984, Jarmusch became something of an indie-movie rock star when his second feature, Stranger than Paradise, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. For 30 years, he has not only done things his way, he has done precisely what he has been told not to do.
Take Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s so-called vampire movie, about the centuries-old love affair between the undead Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), a relationship steeped in ageless melancholy and nostalgia, but also informed by a mutual devotion to all things ephemeral and fleeting, such as vinyl records, strong cigarettes, books and the ruins of great cities left behind.
Ignited seven years ago by some thoughts about what it might really be like to live forever in a world where nothing lasts more than five minutes, the movie was subject to skeptical conceptual intervention everywhere he went.
“No one wanted to finance it,” Jarmusch, at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, said with a laugh. “They’d say ‘Well, we like the script, but it’s not really a vampire film. It needs more action. They don’t drink enough blood.’ And the earlier versions did have much more action. They used crossbows and there was a kind of war between two enclaves of vampires. More kind of plot. And the more I kept being told, ‘Yeah, you need more … you need more …’ the more I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna take more out. That’s not what I’m doing here.’ That’s something that goes back to my origins with Nick Ray.”
It’s also a way that Jarmusch hones his instinct and clarifies his art: The more he hears suggestions about how to make a movie more audience-sweet, the more he’s likely to drain the commercial sap out of it. Not that he doesn’t like commercial movies; he just isn’t interested in making them. And not that he doesn’t love genre movies; he just isn’t interested in working within the lines.
“I love genres,” said Jarmusch, who has made idiosyncratic interventions on westerns, crime movies, science fiction and spy films. “Especially crime fiction and film noir. I love the westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Budd Boetticher. I love a lot of genres, but I follow those things as inspiration. I want to use some things and not use other things. This isn’t a horror film. But they are vampires.
“That was one problem with Only Lovers Left Alive,” said Jarmusch, looking quite vampiristic himself with an upward shock of white hair and all-black garb. “I kept hearing ‘We’ll give you money if you make more action, more blood, more traditional stuff.’ So I’d take more out. Until it got to what I wanted it to be: a love story. Not a vampire film. A film where the vampires are really metaphors for humans.
“It’s about love and tenderness and an overview of history,” he added. “And how do you do that? They’re vampires. They’ve lived that long. I could have thought of some other ways, but I love vampire genre films, and the odd ones especially. I love them all, but movies like The Hunger with David Bowie, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, [Tomas Alfredson’s] Let the Right One In – these are very beautiful forms of it.”
Equally as inspired by music as film – his next movie is a years-in-the-making “love letter to Iggy and the Stooges” – and admittedly as happy at home with his guitars and digital recording equipment as he is in the world making movies, Jarmusch is a firm believer in the improv theory of popular culture: Nothing is fixed, and everything is there for interpretation. Plunder is progress.
“Throughout the history of the vampire genre both in literature and cinema, little things get added in, like crosses and garlic and fangs. People add these things on. I wanted to add something too, so our vampires wear gloves when they’re outside of their habitat. Why? I don’t know. It looks cool. I mean, why are they afraid of garlic? I don’t know, you know?
“I love the genre. I’m not following it, but I’m certainly appreciating it. I hope.”