Movie-savvy readers, who have followed articles about Jim Jarmusch‘s picaresque “Broken Flowers” ever since it took the Grand Prix at Cannes in May, are familiar with its spare plot. Film icon Bill Murray plays ennui-ridden Don Johnston, a wealthy retiree and lifelong Lothario described by the director as “a man with a hole in his life” — the latest in Jarmusch’s gallery of isolated protagonists. Don receives an anonymous unsigned letter on pink stationery informing him that he has a 19-year-old son. Partly out of curiosity but mostly out of endless prodding by his friend and neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), a working-class Ethiopian immigrant and amateur sleuth, Don embarks on a trip around the States to check out the motherhood status of four ex-girlfriends from two decades before. The women are played by Tilda Swinton, Frances Conroy, Sharon Stone, and Jessica Lange injecting indie, television, and even more Hollywood star power into the film.
What most readers don’t know is that “Broken Flowers” — a kissin’ cousin to Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s 1949 “A Letter to Three Wives” — is the offshoot of an earlier script, “Three Moons in the Sky,” also penned for Murray. “It’s about a polygamist who deeply loves each of his three wives and families but keeps them secret from one another,” Jarmusch explains. He chats affably in the garden of an upscale Cannes hotel, his silver mane attracting the attention of passersby. “The man works his ass off to maintain the secret, but it wears him down.” Murray agreed to do the picture. Jarmusch recalls that he then obtained most of the financing during the 2002 Cannes festival, where his Chloe Sevigny-starrer “Int. Trailer Night” was playing. (It is a segment in the omnibus film “Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet.”) Now the screenplay is, he says, “in a drawer.” He had second thoughts after he returned home.
“I reread the script and thought, this is a great story — this isn’t a great script. It’s overwritten, it needs work. I don’t rewrite scripts. I didn’t want to spend two years of my life fixing it. So I went to Bill with the idea that became ‘Broken Flowers’ and told him, ‘I got the money but I don’t want to make the film.’ He looked at me, as if to ask, ‘What are you SAYING?’ I told him I had another idea and what it was. He just said, ‘Let’s do that one.’ I didn’t want to do a bait-and-switch thing on him, but I had to be honest. I wrote the new script in two-and-a-half weeks and gave it to him.”
He does not regret the time most of us would consider wasted. “I’ve been making films for 25 years. I don’t like looking back into my own past, but I’ve learned that progress comes from the mistakes. Mistakes are gifts. The stuff that didn’t work remains mysterious. You can’t analyze why something worked, but you can analyze why it DIDN’T work.”
Jarmusch had another purpose in mind with the new script. “I wanted to do something with this incredible wealth of female actors 40-55 who seem discarded. I wanted female characters who were varied and interesting as part of the story.” He had Stone and Lange in mind, but didn’t initially think of either “Six Feet Under“‘s Conroy (“I don’t watch TV”) nor Swinton (“I met her in LA backstage at a rock ‘n roll concert by The Darkness”). And varied and interesting their characters are. “I don’t like back-story,” he asserts, adding that the viewer can chart the women’s 20-year path “by the way they live, by objects in their homes, by how they dress and talk.” Stone’s earthy, working-class Laura has a yard sale going on in front of her home, a “suped-up” car in the driveway, and a naked teen daughter in the living room. Conroy’s passive Dora lives with her husband in a sterile pink home in a faux-quality real estate development. Lange’s low-key Carmen, who has opted for an alternative lifestyle, practices her profession of “animal communicator” in an expensive structure of barn wood and glass on a large wooded site. Swinton’s Penny is a tough biker gal whose unmanicured yard contains motorcycles, car seats, and wrecked autos.
Just as we begin to think that Don’s voyage across the country by plane and car (accompanied by a fabulous bluesy piece written and performed by Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke) is, on one level, an anthropological study of class and values in contemporary America, we realize that something is missing. We don’t have a clue where any of them lives. License plates are blurred; no telling road or airport signs are visible. “On set I always referred to it as ‘Generica,'” says Jarmusch. “Normally I like the contrast between city and country. I live in the city and in the Catskills, and I love them both. This film is in between. It’s all in the suburbs, like where I came from, from where I escaped.” He neglects to mention another, less abstract reason for the non-differentiation of locations. Murray agreed to the project on condition that all of it — and he is in just about every frame — be shot within 100 miles of his New York home. The film was made entirely in New York and New Jersey.
“Broken Flowers” is poignant, sadness overriding comedy. Winston IS comic relief, and we can’t help but laugh at seeing four well-respected actresses playing parts that sabotage our expectations. The movie begins with Don’s live-in girlfriend walking out and ends on a revelatory note with an existential 360 degree pan around him. “I always have a natural mix of melancholy and humor coming from inside,” says Jarmusch. “In this film, I tried to pull the humor back a bit for two reasons: I wanted sadness to have its proper place; and I wanted to pull from that side of Bill, a very precise actor who can be so hilarious. Usually when I start a movie, it gets funnier as I go along; it just sneaks in. In this one, I tried to keep the humor between the takes.” It’s more “Ghost Dog” than “Down by Law,” less “Stranger in Paradise” than “Dead Man.” “We laughed a lot when the camera wasn’t rolling, but we were careful not to let (the film itself) go in the direction of the goofball stuff. I hope it’s funny, although I’m afraid the American people will just sit there and…” He offers a shrug signifying incomprehension.
He is wary of how “Broken Flowers” will be seen compared to his earlier works. Someone at the press conference earlier that day had brought up its relative accessibility. “What’s more accessible about it?” he barks, referring to the comment. “Maybe my paranoid brain hears ‘commercial’ when I hear accessible — and that’s a bad thing to me. That makes me draw a gun. My intention is not to make my films commercial. I’m not willing to make a product for commerce. I’m not stupid, though. Some distributors so have to work their asses off to get people to see it– but that’s not my job or concern. If it were, I’d be betraying myself.”
“I worry that, because Bill was in Sofia Coppola‘s film” — he notes that his script came first — “they’ll try to sell ‘Broken Flowers’ as (deep voice) ‘Lost in Translation‘ meets ‘Sideways.'”