While she arrived a little late, Tilda Swinton made a grand entrance at the New York Film Festival press conference for “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Jim Jarmusch’s meditative, moody and yet hilarious look at a vampire relationship that has spanned centuries. The movie stars Tom Hiddleston and Swinton as Adam and Eve, two vampire lovers separated by continents, she in Tangiers and he in bombed out Detroit. But the duo have to reuinte when Adam, an Über-hip but anti-hipster musician, who would rather not have his music out in the world because that would taint it, goes through a kind of existential and perhaps even suicidal crisis (read our full review here).
Co-starring Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt, the film comments on culture, and the lack thereof and underappreciation of true art in the world, but also on relationships that span the tests of time. What would it like to be in a relationship that crossed several hundred years and experienced several touchstone moments in civilization? Jarmusch and Swinton discussed the film in in New York and music fans take note, that fantastic soundtrack, by Jozef van Wissem and Jarmusch’s drone rock band Sqürl, should be out sometime in early January according the filmmaker. Here are the highlights from the NYFF conversation:
Jarmusch had been dwelling on a vampire movie for almost a decade.
“I’d say eight or ten years, and I had an early script of something similar to this about seven years ago and was not able to get anything financed on several tries and than sort of put it aside and made another film and than came back to it, rewrote it and it finally came about.”
Jarmusch’s bombed-out Detroit is not necessarily a paean to the bombed out and gone 1970s New York.
“I’m not honestly conscious of that at all. I mean, it’s sort of a period where I have developed aesthetically and started making films so I’m sure there’s something of it in me and in this film but I’m not…that’s the first time I’ve of thought of that. It’s not a conscious [thought].”
Tilda Swinton talked the critical, delicate tone of the movie, how Jarmusch communicated that and how they stayed away from camp.
“We did wonder [whether it would work] but I think we all just threw ourselves off the precipice as usual and kept Jim as our baseline. He is all the time reassuring us that this is how it has to be and if we just as reasonable and intelligent people trusted him [it would be fine],” she explained. “But we didn’t necessarily know until right now that it didn’t dissolve into camp. It was just a romantic risk that we were all willing to take, Jim included. We wanted to make a kind of atmosphere we hadn’t seen before When you’re groping around in the dark [trying to make something] with your friends it’s always better than groping around in the dark by yourself.”
Tilda Swinton revealed how she worked with Tom Hiddelston to create a comfortable relationship where it seemed credible that they had lived together forever.
“It is about surviving in general. But being together in love in a long relationship. This one equals hundreds of years. Just rebooting one’s connections, the reasons to not get out a gun or get really depressed and sitting around all day and doing nothing else,” Swinton said. “That was something that Jim and Tom and I talked about for a long time before we started shooting and we were all clear that what we wanted was a couple who really felt familiar.”
“She says at one point, ‘You loved telling me stuff about all the fancy people you used to know.’ That’s one of the things she’s learned to put up with and love as well,” the actress continued. “We talked about the texture and really, really long friendships and noticed that we hadn’t necessarily seen that in a film. A man and a woman who obviously really fancied each other still but really, really loved talking to each other.”
The film was analog-obsessive Jarmusch’s first film shot digitally and his first time working with DP Yorick LeSaux.
“It’s the first time I worked with digital photography. I don’t like digital for several reasons. I don’t like the depth of field, I don’t like exterior daylight on skin tones, it looks not appealing to me,” he admitted. “These weren’t problems because we shot in very low light. We were shooting, lighting these scenes with light bulbs and LED squares and very, very minimally so we didn’t have the depth of field problems. I find it very beautiful. It was lit very delicately.”
Why were vampires such an interesting subject for Jarmusch?
“For me, it was obviously not a horror movie as most vampire films are…I think it’s just the overview that it allowed, that they’ve been alive so long to show a love story that spans that amount of time…we’re just observing these characters that happen to be very strange and interesting,” he said. “So to be able to see their perception of history over a long period of time was, I think, really attractive to me, and their own love story to span that time was what drew me to it.”
“Vampires start as humans, they’re not zombies that return from the dead,” Jarmusch continued. “So in any case they are not just metaphorically humans. They are humans that have been transformed. They’re still humans so that was interesting.”
Jarmsuch shared what he added to vampire mythology.
“Mythology in vampire films is a cumulative thing. For example, having fangs only appeared in a Mexican vampire film in the 1950s. It’s a very recent [phenomomenon]. I don’t recall that Nosferatu had fangs but all of these things get added in like garlic or you must be invited in over the threshold or the cross or the holy water,” he explained. “All these things get added in arbitrarily by certain authors who chose this form. So we wanted to add something in there so we added in these leather gloves that they wear outside of their habitat. Why? Because we wanted to have something that was ours that we invented and we thought that it looked really cool which is an important criteria.”
Jarmusch described the differences between his vampire film and vampire horror films.
“When vampire films are really in the genre of horror films that claustrophobia is very helpful, Being scary or feeling uneasy. Vampires sleeping in a confined coffin, not being able to be touched by sunlight becomes very claustrophobic,” Jarmusch said. “This is a film of openness. Openness to ideas, to culture, to surroundings, to ones own consciousness. So I think maybe not so consciously on our parts but the film stylistically reflects that rather than claustrophobia.”
Instinct versus intellect.
“Intellect is very valuable, but instinct is something more, I pay more attention to,” Jarmusch reflected. “I think you can over analyze things…but I really think instinct and using your intuition is extremely important. While in the editing room… it’s not not a formulaic procedure like a Hitchcock film which are fantastic for what they are but everything’s decided and enhanced with a little machine, to function like a Hitchcock-like film.”
“[My films are made] where the shape of the machine may not be completely visible until the end, until it’s cut,” he elaborated. “I feel like I have to listen to a film and let it tell me what it wants. Often sometimes it mumbles and is not very distinct and is not telling you yet. I have like a thirty minute outtake reel of beautiful scenes [that I cut from the film] and I kept removing certain scenes that I deeply loved and I didn’t want to. We’d take [certain scenes] out and the film was so much happier. I really think the instinct is listening to the film that you’re making and letting it be what it is. Oddly enough that’s the theme I love in the film – it’s that Adam and Eve allow each other to be who they are. They’re not trying to change each other or whining about things. She accepts who he is and he also loves her for who she is and I think maybe that’s the key to love stories.”
How the more impish and playful Ava—played by Mia Wasikowska — acted as a counterpoint to Adam and Eve’s “snobbery.”
“She’s playful, she’s a little dangerous, she’s… I wouldn’t say naive at all but less sophisticated maybe than Adam and Eve,” Jarmusch observed. “I think it’s very important to me when she calls them snobs. They are snobs in a way. But than again if you live for 1000 years and saw humanity devolving you might be a little snobbish as well. But she’s very important as a counter to them and as a younger spirit too. She doesn’t obey and she acts like a little child running and jumping.”
Jarmusch laments the use of music in cinema.
“I’m always shocked by the limited range of musical styles used in cinema. Especially in American films, especially commercial Hollywood films it seems like they just buy the music by the yard. It seems like they use the same five scores over and over and over again,” the director said. “When you see what kind of music is available all around this planet it’s very strange to me what’s in these pieces it’s often very limited. Some great non-American films and American films use great music but still it seems like not as wide a range that could maybe make them stronger.”
Jarmusch wrote the film for Tilda Swinton who was an unwavering force in getting it made.
“Whenever this production would fall apart or we would lose financing or another element, I’d just be ready to give up,” Jarmusch revealed. “And Tilda would invariably say, ‘No, this is a good sign, this means we’re not ready yet, all the pieces aren’t in place yet.’ She was always so optimistic and reflecting in a way of Eve, the kind of spirit of Eve that I could not give up this project. So I’m so indebted [to my producers and Tilda] and of course everyone has stuck by the film but the two of them were there from the beginning and also John Hurt. He always said, ‘Just tell me what you’re shooting and I’ll be there,’ so he was also very supportive all along but Tilda was crucial. – Reporting by Rodrigo Perez
“Only Lovers Left Alive” will hit theaters in the spring of 2014. Check out some new images below and an interview with German television. And if you’re desperate to see more, at the very bottom a some new footage from the film that hasn’t been seen before, but most of it is dubbed over in German.