At first glance, it might seem unusual for Jim Jarmusch to be taking on the vampire genre; after all, his films have usually been concerned with the likes of cab drivers, middle-aged New Jersey lotharios and other arrays of offbeat yet down-to-earth characters. And yet his propensity for deadpan absurdity and keen observation lends itself uncannily well to a story about people who drink blood and have been living for hundreds of years. If Jarmusch’s last film “The Limits of Control” saw the auteur dramatically tackle more abstract narrative terrain, “Only Lovers Left Alive” still finds him on a metaphorical tangent that is tethered to the ground with a love story, although in this case it is a very long-lasting one.
Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton respectively play Adam and Eve, two vampires who have been alive, and together, for several centuries. Extremely intellectual and well-cultured, they have been silently weaving in and out of the fabric of history, as they casually discuss memories of knowing Lord Byron and Percy Shelley and one instance where Adam even allowed Schubert to take the credit for one of his most prized musical works. All the years of living in the shadows and on the periphery of society has taken a toll on their relationship, with Eve living in Tangier while Adam, having attained a sort of underground legendary status in the rock music world, is living as a recluse in Detroit. Eve comes to visit him in the Motor City in hopes to rekindle their connection, but an ensuing visit by Eva’s wild younger sister (Mia Waskiowska) throws the lovelorn pair off course.
What is remarkable about the film is way Jarmusch pokes fun at the mythology surrounding vampires (blood popsicles, anyone?) while also seriously exploring the implications of what it means to be immortal. Adam has grown thoroughly disenchanted with the world after watching it basically destroy itself throughout the past 500 years and having it leave behind a seemingly decayed wasteland, with him constantly referring to the human race as “zombies.” His constant retreats into the past make it increasingly difficult for him to muster up hope for he and Eve’s future together. “Only Lovers Left Alive” imbues every romantic and humorous gesture with a tinge of ache.
After the film’s New York Film Festival press screening, Jarmusch and Swinton were on hand for a press conference moderated by Amy Taubin, where the two discussed the film’s long road to getting made, intellect versus instincts and why the scores for Hollywood films are monotonous.
Below is a roundup of highlights from the talk.
Jarmusch on what drew him to telling a story about vampires:
“For me, obviously it’s not a horror movie, as most vampire movies are, although they are some that aren’t explicitly horror films. But I think it’s just the overview that it allows, because they’ve been alive so long, to show a love story that spans that amount of time. After all, this is a character study; we’re just observing these characters who happen to be very strange and, to me, interesting. So to be able to see their perception of history over a long period of time, and their own love story that spans that amount of time, is what what drew me to it. So obviously, you know I read something where the film, somebody said, ‘Well, they’re vampires, so they’re not human, therefore…’ I forget what the point was. But they’re humans, they start as humans. They’re not zombies that return from the dead, vampires don’t return. So in any case, they’re not just metaphorically humans, they are humans that have been transformed.”
Swinton on portraying centuries-spanning love:
“When in a long relationship, this one lasts hundreds of years, sometimes all our relationships feel like they’ve been going on for hundreds of years, but they haven’t really. Just rebooting one’s connection, rebooting the reasons to not get really depressed and sit in your underpants all day and do nothing else. Just that feeling of being there in support. That was something that Jim, Anton and I talked about for a long time before we started shooting. And we were all so clear that what we wanted was a couple that really felt familiar, familiar in a way that you do long after you’ve first been fancying each other and just end up in bed for a long time. People who have really, really talked constantly about everything. She says at one point, ‘You love telling me stuff about all the fancy people you used to know.’ That’s one of those things she’s learned to put up with. And love, as well. We talked about texture and really, really long friendship. And we also noticed that we hadn’t necessarily seen that; a man and a woman who obvious really fancy each other still, but really, really love talking to each other as well. So we kind of cut that off by the yard.”
Jarmusch on choosing the film’s locations:
“The locations of Detroit and Tangier, they evolved when I did this version of the film several years ago, this script. A previous script was set in Rome and Detroit, but Tangier is one of my favorite places on the planet, so I just wanted to shoot there. And also, it seemed like a place that would draw Eve to it, and I like it because it’s separated from European culture in a way. It’s not a Christian culture, it’s not even an alcohol culture. It’s a hashish culture, so it’s a very different feeling there. And Detroit is also a city I really, deeply love. I’m from the midwest, I’m from Ohio, but Detroit, wow. As a child it was almost mythological, Detroit, as this Paris of the midwest and very different to Cleveland, which always felt culturally secondary. And now, what’s happened with Detroit is very tragic and sad and unusual, maybe not so unusual, I don’t know. So I was drawn to it visually and historically, for its musical culture and industrial culture, its kind of post-industrial visual feeling.”
Swinton and Jarmusch on the challenges of making the film:
Jarmusch on the vampires’ hair in the film:
“I wanted them to have wild hair, I wanted them to look partly animalistic and even behave like half animals and half very sophisticated humans. So we were trying to make wigs for them, we were trying on different things, we were in Cologne, Germany working with Gerd, our makeup/hair designer, who’s great. And we just weren’t getting an interesting texture from looking at different textures of hair online. And Tilda said, ‘You keep saying ‘animal,’ so why are we just looking at humans? Let’s look at animal fur.’ So we started looking at animals and monkeys and llamas and different textures of fur and hair. And then Gerd said that he had, in the past, mixed some goat and yak fur with human hair. And Tilda was like, ‘Let’s try that.’ So we tried that, and in the end the wigs for John Hurt, for Tom, for Tilda, and for Mia were made of a certain percentage of human hair mixed with goat and yak. Again, why? I just wanted them to look kind of wild.”
Swinton on the film’s period-less costumes:
“It was a real leap of the imagination to free ourselves from anything that felt tied to any one time. We were making a bouquet, so we wanted to make it look like they had lived through all of these times, so if you put too much one one flower in a bouquet it tends to overwhelm, you just need to smorgasbord all these references, but for them to never look fashionable. I mean, they are too snobbish to be fashionable, let’s face it, too snobbish to be snobs. Jim was really clear with us, with Bina, the great costume designer, trying to kind of strip all the elements, every glove, every jacket, from any contemporary or any remotely fashion reference. Although it had to feel like it could have been at any time.”
Jarmusch on intellect versus instincts:
“Intellect is very valuable and interesting, and intellect is something I pay more attention to, because I think you can overanalyze things.I read a lot about filmmakers and directors and writer-directors that I really love, and this is a weak generalization, but sometimes I think, ‘Well, they’re not the most highly intellectual people.’ I really think instinct and using your intuition is extremely important. While filming you are, in my case, gathering material that you will then make into a film in the editing room. It’s not a formulaic procedure, like a Hitchcock film, which are fantastic for what they are, but everything’s decided in advance for this little machine to function in a Hitchcock-type film. What we’re making, the machine may not be visible until the end, until it’s cut.”
Jarmusch on the film’s eclectic soundtrack:
“Well, it partly reflects the fact that there’s such a wide range of incredible forms of music that’s certainly of interest to me, so yeah, it’s reflective of that range, only a part of that range, the film could only use so much music. And the music created for the film is kind of liquid and molten, in a way. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it seemed appropriate for the feelings of the film, and Adam himself is a musician, so we see him making music as well. But I’m always shocked by the limited range of musical style used in cinema, especially American films, especially commercial Hollywood films. It seems like they just buy the music by the yard and use the same five scores over and over and over again. And when you see, wow, what kind of music is available and made all around this planet, it’s very strange to me that what’s in movies is often very limited. This isn’t always true, there’s some great non-American and American films that use great music. But still, it feels like not as wide a range being used.”