Looking For Love Over Nicotine and Caffeine; Jim Jarmusch Talks About “Coffee and Cigarettes”
by Erica Abeel
When “Stranger than Paradise” sidled onto the scene in 1983, Jim Jarmusch became an instant indie cult figure. Since then, the release of each new Jarmusch film has become something of an event, and the current “Coffee and Cigarettes,” is no exception.
From the start, “Stranger Than Paradise,” which followed a knockabout trio on a road trip to Cleveland and Florida, displayed the auteur’s trademark traits. We get the absurdism and drolly hip sensibility; minimalism; the episodic form, with segments punctuated by blackouts; the inspired use of music; the use of musician friends as actors; the lack of conventional narrative plus “pointless” scenes ending without a zinger; the slow stoner pace; the perspective of a foreigner coming to grips with an alien society; a vision of urban desolation to match Edward Hopper’s; the focus on marginal people with no discernible employment, who emerge from the woodwork by night.
Awarded the Camera d’or at Cannes, “Stranger” cultivates an amateur je-m’en-foutisme, rather than a seamless professionalism (Dino de Laurentiis once asked Jarmusch, “Why do you make amateur films?”) Most of all, Jarmusch uncorked from go his outrageous skewed humor. He is howlingly funny in a way unlike any other filmmaker. Who else would conjure up, as in “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” a Black modern-day samurai who communicates with his two-bit mafioso “master” by a pigeon flying in synch with a trippy score by RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan?
Since his maiden feature, the Jarmusch oeuvre offers a remarkable consistency, with the auteur’s finger prints all over it. “Down by Law,” a prison-bust comedy set in Cajun country, expands his abiding interest in language and (mis)communication, deconstructing verbal interactions through the foreigner played by Roberto Benigni and his clownish efforts to master English (“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.”) In “Mystery Train” two Japanese teens obsessed with Elvis make a pilgrimage to Memphis in a mythic America peopled with drifters and dropouts without discernible employment. The five taxi rides of “Night on Earth” reprise the filmmaker’s penchant for nocturnal downtime, the moments of transit between life’s “significant” events. “Dead Man” conjures the Old West as a hellish terrain and uses the same blackouts between segments as “Stranger,” suggesting that Jarmusch breathes easier around an episodic poem form than strict narrative.
Jarmusch casts his films first, writes second. “I get a general idea for a story, then, so my brain can expand on it, I think of an actor.” He gets his money from outside the U.S., going to distributors and asking them to pre-buy for their territory. When the film is finished, he can license. Jarmusch exercises complete control and gets final cut. “I’m not a player. If I’m a marginal filmmaker, fine. I don’t like people who used to run an underwear factory to cast my film.” Nor does he understand test marketing. “What, a bunch of high school girls are gonna say, It’s too long?”
Unlike filmmakers who turn ’em out at the rate of one, or even two a year (like Michael Winterbottom, who offered a double bill at Toronto), Jarmusch may take as long as two years to complete a film. So in his downtime, he’s been creating vignettes titled “Coffee and Cigarettes,” drawing on favorite actors or just pals from his A-list rolodex. Each scene in the “Coffee” series takes only one day to shoot. The first in 1986 featured Benigni and Stephen Wright in a loopy improv about two guys horsing around over coffee and smokes. More stories followed, taking on increasing complexity. The constant: two or three people hanging in a dive or posh lounge, jawing over their twin addictions.
The current expanded “Coffee and Cigarettes” collects the vignettes in what Jarmusch calls “a feature disguised as shorts.” Its segmented form obviously links it to the taxi episodes of “Night on Earth.” Yet in its emphasis on forms of (mis)communication, the film reminded me most of “Ghost Dog,” especially those sub-verbal transactions between the French-speaking ice cream man (the sublime Isaak de Bankole) and Forest Whitaker’s uncomprehending samurai.
Standout vignettes in “Coffee” include the power plays between Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan; the hilarious antics of two Wu-Tang Clan members and caffeine junkie Bill Murray; and a dialogue between Taylor Meade and Bill Rice that’s both droll and heartbreaking in its use of Mahler’s otherworldly songs. (When I mentioned that the songs had been used in the Belgian film, “Le Maitre de Musique,” Jarmusch excitedly jotted down the title.)
Jarmusch is handsome in a weird way, with a dreamy yet alert gaze, and the plump Tweety-bird mouth of a Slav porn star. With his vertical shock of pale hair and imposing height, he’s been dubbed “Zeus on acid.” Though I quickly discovered that he tends to repeat a pre-packaged rap to reporters, he’s courteous and witty. One can appreciate that he’s less keen on doing PR than conserving energy to make films.
indieWIRE spoke to Jarmusch about the film in September 2003 at the Toronto International Film Festival. United Artists released the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: Why the subject of coffee and cigarettes?
Jim Jarmusch: The subject is not coffee and cigarettes — that’s just a pretext for showing the undramatic part of your day, when you take a break and use these drugs, or whatever. It’s a pretext for getting characters together to talk in the sort of throwaway period of their day.
iW: Why would viewers find that interesting?
Jarmusch: Well, I think our lives are made of little moments that are not necessarily dramatic, and for some odd reason I’m attracted to those moments. I made “Night on Earth,” which only takes place in taxi cabs, because I kept watching movies and where people, like, say, “Oh, I’ll be right over,” and you see them get out of the taxi, and I’m always thinking, “I wonder what that moment would be like.” The moment that’s not important to the plot. I made a whole movie about what could be taken out of movies.
iW: The interstices.
Jarmusch: Yes. One of my favorite directors is Yasujiro Ozu. On his gravestone, which I visited in Japan, was a single Chinese character that means, roughly, “the space between all things.” That’s what I’m attracted to.
iW: Are the vignettes chronological or ordered according to a different design?
Jarmusch: We shot the first segment with Benigni right after “Down by Law.” So the first three are chronological, then it starts to diverge a bit, according to just…instinct. When I was putting them together, I played a lot with the order to see how they flowed, the variety of characters, what worked best. It was like a puzzle I tried different ways.
iW: Is there a thru-line?
Jarmusch: Just those non-dramatic moments in your day, and your reactions to things — my usual themes of miscommunication and little resentments. And how people react to each other.
iW: Yet I picked up themes. Refrain-like repetitions.
Jarmusch: Yeah, I always shot the table from above with the coffee and cigarettes and ashtray. It was liberating for me to make these little sections. Because when I make a feature film I’m very particular about how the scene is constructed by the camera positions. In these they’re all shot exactly the same: a wide shot, a two-shot, single shots, and over the table. So going in, I don’t have to think about that, it’s just a given. Which frees me to think about the conversation, the details, nuances and interactions. You can play with the actors, give them room to improvise, or not, depending on their inclinations.
iW: The film plays as though improvised, but is it in fact scripted?
Jarmusch: All the segments are scripted, but some of them diverge wildly from the script. The first scene with Roberto and Steve had very little script. We played around the night before and they came up with the bit of switching places. That one is pretty wildly improvised, whereas others are almost verbatim to the script. Like the one with Cate Blanchett. Obviously it couldn’t be improvised too much. Because of the technical thing of her playing two people: she’s both herself and her cousin. We used a split screen, where she’s acting to a stand-in, who’s just looking at her blankly. It depends on how the actors work and what makes them most comfortable. I love it when they improvise a lot.
iW: The viewer becomes a sort of voyeur.
Jarmusch: I think of it as kind of constructed voyeurism. I like the feeling that you’re observing something that’s real — yet not real at all. They’re even making fun of themselves by playing themselves, but abstracting off of that.
Jarmusch: Well, Cate Blanchett is a movie star, but that’s not what she’s like. She’s sort of amping up that character to contrast with the other character she’s also playing. And Iggy Pop and Tom Waits play themselves. But Tom is not that defensive and surly usually. We kind of took a part of him and exaggerated it. And we took the part of Iggy, who’s very open and generous, and exaggerated that. I was trying to get at the defensive way people react.
iW: I felt that power plays between people formed a common thread.
Jarmusch: That’s certainly true of the scenes with Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina, and the two Cates. Those two segments are a little bit about this business because they’re actors.
iW: I see it here [in Toronto], among the journalists, one-upsmanship, who gets invited to what …
Jarmusch: It’s human nature I think. The theme comes through in the chessboard motifs that always appear on the table. The game structure: you make this move, I make that move. That recurs a lot in the conversations.
iW: In their terrific scene, why is Coogan condescending to Molina?
Jarmusch: It’s just a way to have one guy think he’s more bankable. And Steve is really generous, not an egotistical person in real life, though he loves to play people who are. And Alfred Molina I love to torture. To see him get excited and be disappointed and keep torturing him. When Steve says, I’ve got all these meetings, and Alfred says, “Anything interesting?” And Steve says, “Yeah.” Alfred’s waiting to hear, and then his face just sinks. I love torturing poor Alfred because I love him.
iW: You seem to be reinventing dialogue, combining mundane chatter with things that spring from the subconscious.
Jarmusch: It’s not really realistic, and yet the intention is to get to something real between people and what it is to be a human and interact with each other. I hope it works. It’s hard for me to know because I can’t see the film in a fresh way. And I hope it’s cumulative, rather than just cars on a train moving by. I hope they have a larger effect than just the individual cases. Theoretically, that’s what we were trying to do. Emotions often aren’t clear. So the theme becomes more and more resonant.
iW: Where did the film’s bizarre connection between medicine and music come from?
Jarmusch: Tom Waits improvised that stuff about “roadside surgery,” I couldn’t believe it. “Sorry I’m late [he mimics Waits’ hoarse voice], I delivered a baby this morning. Did a tracheeotomy with a ball point pen …” I loved that.
And it came from my life, too. I’m with my friend RZA, we’re in the studio hanging out late at night, and he gets a call from the wife of our kung fu master, and RZA says, “Yo, Jim, we gotta stop, the kids are sick.” We go over to their house and RZA’s like, “They got a virus and here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna give ’em these herbs, take them off the dairy, forget about the citrus, keep ’em warm and call me tomorrow.”
We’re leaving the building and I’m like, “RZA, what, are you a doctor?” [He said,] “Yeah, I’ve been studying alternative shit on my own in books for two years now. I know about African herbs” … So that part was real and I reprised it when I wrote their story. It was just too weird, a musician who thinks he’s a doctor. And now, in real life, RZA, who’s a hip hop star, thinks he’s a doctor. I’m very serious. I later called him up. I said, “RZA, I’m sick, what should I do?” Another real detail came from the vignette with Bill Murray. I was coughing a lot and he said, “Jim, go upstairs and take hydrogen peroxide and dilute it and gargle and spit it out.” And I did it, and it helped my throat. So there’s all these weird little things in there.
iW: How does music influence your work?
Jarmusch: Music is my greatest inspiration. I love literature, cinema, painting and design. But all cultures have music. Music is to me the most immediate form of expression, so I get inspiration from music. I think film is a musical form. I treat it that way. Because it transpires over time in a constructed way. A book and painting don’t — you supply the time. When I’m editing, film becomes a piece of music rhythmically and how the cuts work. Obviously I like kinda slow music.”
iW: In his segment, Molina says this incredibly naked thing: “I want you to love me.” Where did that come from?
Jarmusch: The line was scripted, but actually came from a phone conversation with Alfred when we were going over ideas. I’m saying, “Steve thinks you want something from him.” And Alfred said, “Do you think it’s too much if I tell him what I really want? What if what I really want is just for him to love me. Do you think that will be too over the top?” I said, “Not if you do it.” That little moment: that’s sort of the heart of the whole film for me, the center of the whole feature version of the stories. And my friend Jay Rabinowitz, who edited the film, says, “Yeah, that’s sort of the heart of it.” Because that’s all anyone every really wants. And Alfred comes right out and says it.