Iconoclastic filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been living outside of the mainstream for his entire career, so it’s perhaps only fitting that for his 11th feature-length film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the writer/director turns his attentions to the outsiders that live in shadows.
A vampire film on the surface, “Only Lovers Left Alive” charts the relationship, dynamics and long-lasting love of Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton respectively), two immortal beings that are much more outsider hipsters than they are traditional bloodsuckers. In other words, don’t be expecting modern-day vampire horror; this textured, funny and moving picture is quite incomparable. An exquisite film that debuted at Cannes last year (our review), “Only Lovers Left Alive” is perhaps Jarmusch’s best film to date and perhaps his most emotionally accessible. Carefully balancing heart, soul, melancholia and humor, “Only Lovers Left Alive” evinces a great humanity, both with a wonder for all that humankind has created, and a lament for everything culture seems to now have disregarded. And it’s a romance too by means of two opposite characters—one a suicidal musician, the other a more hopeful and inquisitive person—who have lived and absorbed an eternity of civilization. It’s a layered piece of work both deeply observant, richly comedic and hauntingly atmospheric.
Co-starring Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright, “Only Lovers Left Alive” finally opens in U.S. theaters this weekend in limited release via Sony Pictures Classics. Here’s our interview with the inimitable Jarmusch.
Vampires seems like an unlikely subject for you given their position in pop-culture right now. What drew you to them?
I just like genres, it’s one that I’ve always liked. I really like the whole history of vampire films that are more the kind of marginal, the less conventional ones. Starting with “Vampyr” by Carl Dreyer in the ‘30s, and many, many interesting films – “Shadow of the Vampire” with Willem Dafoe, then in the ‘80s the “Hunger” with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. I liked George Romero’s film “Martin” a lot, Katheryn Bigelow’s film “Near Dark,” Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” Clair Denis’ “Trouble Every Day,” Polanski’s “Fearless Vampire Killers.” I loved “Let The Right One In”—that was from like five, six years ago, beautiful.
That’s a good list of films.
Yeah, I’ve always loved all of those films, that type of approach. Rather than the sort of more obvious one and I wanted to make a love story for quite a long time. It’s had different variances to it, but somehow it got merged maybe eight years ago into my vampire film. So, I wanted to make a love story that involved vampires. Why, I can’t really tell you… It interests me. And I like genres too sometimes because they imply a kind of metaphoric element. Just by the fact that they are a genre. So you can work within [that genre] and do something different inside of that frame. So, that always appeals to me, or not always, but in the case of the few films where I’ve referred to genres, there’s something attractive there for me too.
I imagine the ideas of immortality and all that they entail were an appeal as well?
The possibility of having a historical overview was really interesting to me, because there’s a point where [Mia Wasikowska’s character] calls them snobs, when they’re throwing her out of their house, which on a certain level they are. It’s important it’s in the film, in a way. But who wouldn’t be considered a snob if you’d been alive for a thousand yeas and had all of this knowledge and accumulated experience? That’s ten, twenty times as much as any normal person. The idea of seeing history in a timeline by having lived through it, but from the margins, from the shadows: observing it half in secret is very interesting to me. I’ve always been drawn to outsider type of characters, so what more perfect shadowy inhabitants of the margins are there, than vampires? Who are not undead monsters, by the way, they’re humans that have been transformed and now have the possibility of immortality, but are reliant, like junkies, on blood.
One of the themes that struck me, presented from Adam’s [Tom Hiddleston] perspective is the decay of civilization, and the decay of culture.
Adam is a kind of romantic character. He maybe is a bit flawed in a way, whereas [Tilda Swinton’s character] Eve is very happy to just have a consciousness and be in awe of all the things, phenomenal logical things in the world, or in the world of ideas.
Adam, I mean, I carefully layered in that he was a friend of the romantic poets or hung out with Byron and Shelley and Scott. I really think of him as a tortured romantic. Is he really going to kill himself? I don’t know, maybe he’s just a drama queen, I’m not sure. But just the fact that it would occur to him, that kind of dramatic action is very insightful somehow.
He’s hurt by things he sees people do that he doesn’t understand or why does the world acts the way it does—what I like to think of as an operating system. Out of all of the potential operating systems we could have, why is it this one? It’s a system based on greed and power, manipulation, subjugation and colonialism, which obviously isn’t good. I have a sort of closeness to Adam on that level of, “Wow, I find that very kind of sad,” and him it really bothers him. That’s part of his character, that he’s an emotional, complex creature that is affected by these things. Eve has certainly been affected by them too. I think she’s a bit more resilient and maybe she’s just more centered as a person. They’re a bit different. I don’t know if I’m answering your question.
Is it meant to have any commentary on males and females? Adam being flawed and insecure and Eve being a more divine figure?
That’s interesting that you say that because to me what was most inspiring for me to make this film was the last book by Mark Twain, “The Diaries of Adam and Eve.” That’s why I named them Adam and Eve, not the direct Biblical thing, but via Mark Twain. That book is very funny, beautiful and kind of slight. It’s just diary entries of Adam and Eve’s vastly different perceptions of the world, via the fact that she’s female and he’s male. It’s a hilarious book and it really inspired me to want to make a film with two characters named Adam and Eve that sort of represented on some level the sun and the moon, but certainly very different perceptions of things.
So that was a big inspiration. It’s not even referred to in the film, the book. But it’s very important for me as a background for this.
There’s a temptation to see Adam as a surrogate for you; because of your similar taste and the similar artistic heroes on his wall…
Certainly there is, but it’s a bit reductive because I think there are qualities Adam has that I don’t have. And qualities that Eve has that I hope I have, or would aspire to have: that sense of wonder of the world and everyday there’s something else you could learn that you didn’t know before. But it’s very hard for me to analyze that because it’s not a self portrait in any intentional conscious way and yet there’s a lot of personal things in there that I would agree with them. So it’s hard to know those things.
It’s funny my friend Claire Denis had a Q&A after her film, “Bastards,” at the New York Film Festival a few months ago and someone asked her why she killed this character and she said, “I didn’t kill them, the other character did. I didn’t do it.”
You operate that way then. The story takes the characters where they want to go.
Yeah, when you make these films they do walk on their own after a certain point. Often when I’m writing dialogue in a script, it’s always whatever’s on paper for me is a sketch until you film it. But often they’re just talking and I am just writing it down. It’s not like I’m making them say words. I feel like I’m just transcribing what they’re saying. So there’s a funny disconnect where I can’t analyze, but to me it’s not autobiographical in any way. Of course I placed a lot of things I believe in, or even the photos on the wall, some of them are even my friends.
Those portraits on the wall I had five or six times as many people originally. The art department said, “Look after a certain point you have to clear all these images, so after a certain point we’ll just stop, we have enough, don’t worry.” But I could have kept feeding them more and more and more. I could still be giving them names of people I admire from the history of humans.
The Adam character also has a Jack White-esque, kind of quality to him; that celebration of the past where everything is vintage.
Well, most people have a mix of old things and new things at the same times. That doesn’t seem at all unusual. Like our composer Jozef Van Wissem plays a lute, an instrument, a renaissance or baroque instrument, but he’s living in 2014. He’s very well versed in avant-garde music and all kinds of stuff. So, when he and I are talking about Morton Feldman, or John Cage and whether these guys are new, it doesn’t even occur to us. If it’s good it’s good and if it inspires you it’s inspirational. There is a direct reference to Jack White’s house in the movie, but I wasn’t thinking of him in particular, although he does appreciate vintage, analog, interesting things.
Man, now [White] has this recording booth where you can record a song straight to vinyl but you can only record for like a minute and eight seconds. So he’s having people record songs in there. I know Neil Young recorded a number in this booth that Jack has.
You worked with Tilda Swinton before on “The Limits Of Control,” this was written for her?
Yes, it was written thinking of her, and all the earliest incarnations involved her, at least in my imagination. And she would never give up on this project when it kept falling apart. She would say, “That just means it’s not the right time yet.” She would never let go of it.
She feels like a kindred spirit to you in a way. What draws you to her?
She’s just one of the most fantastic people I know. She is full of creativity, she’s open, she’s incredibly knowledgeable about so many things. She can tap into all facets of human expression and nature and everything. She’s just remarkable. At one point when we were shooting a scene in “The Limits of Control” in Madrid, we did a take, we shot something with her and it was so beautiful. I said to her, “Tilda, will you marry me?” She said, “Oh darling, we already are married.” It was the high point of my life. We process the same kind of things, although she’s way smarter than me and knows a lot more about things, but she’s remarkable. She’s like the bohemian goddess of our lifetime. She’s just amazing.
You were making a doc on The Stooges at one point. Is that still happening?
Yes. It’s a love letter to the Stooges, a kind of essay film; a document portrait. I’ve filmed most of it, but then we ran out of my own money so I had to stop and then make this film. Now it looks like I’m getting it financed to complete it. So that’s going to happen.
Is that something we’re going to see next, or are you doing another narrative?
I don’t know, I have another … I don’t know what will come out next, what I’ll finish next. I have a feature film that I would like to shoot this fall or next spring. I’m working on a quote, unquote opera with the composer Phil Kline, about Nikola Tesla, that apparently Robert Wilson will now collaborate with us on, we think. He wants to. So that and a lot of new music that we’re recording and creating. So I have quite a few things up my sleeve.
The droning score in this film is terrific, by the way. Extremely hypnotic and soulful.
Well, thanks, it helps my soul, making music is so important to me now. I’m so happy to do it.
The feature that you’re shooting next fall, what’s it about?
It’s all written and everything, but I don’t really want to talk about it too much. I’m a little superstitious, but it’s set in the present in Patterson, New Jersey.
I was going to ask if it’s a comedy, but your films defy those kinds of categorizations.
Yeah. It’s funny, I don’t know if it’s any more of a comedy than any other film I’ve made, but it definitely has some funny stuff in it.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” opens in limited release on April 11th.