One of the more amusing moments in Jim Jarmusch’s new zombie satire finds Iggy Pop lurching into a diner as one of two walking corpses moaning “coffeeeee,” making his way from human victims to the fresh brew on the counter. The other “Coffee Zombie,” as she’s credited, is Jarmusch’s longtime partner. But Sara Driver is a lot more than that.
As a director, Driver’s playful blend of shadowy fantasy and grimy New York living was a revelation in 1986’s “Sleepwalk,” a surreal and often haunting look at a woman adrift in supernatural circumstances. Jarmusch served as one of the cinematographers on the project, two years after Driver produced Jarmusch’s surprise breakout “Stranger Than Paradise.” However, while he continued honing his trademark deadpan filmmaking across the decades, Driver’s own directing career advanced in fits and starts.
Her sophomore effort, “When Pigs Fly,” landed in 1993, and she wouldn’t direct again until the 2017 documentary “Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat.” In between, she contributed to many of Jarmusch’s films including “Ghost Dog,” “Broken Flowers,” and “Paterson.”
With “The Dead Don’t Die” behind her, Driver already has another directing project in the works, and several more planned. That’s welcome news to anyone who appreciated her work from the start, and wondered why there wasn’t more of it. Driver remains a celebrated figure by cinephiles who know her work (and at least “Sleepwalk” is available online), and retrospectives come and go around the world. But she’s never lost the desire to keep working, and her busy roster suggests the potential for a genuine comeback.
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During an interview in New York a few days before the opening of “The Dead Don’t Die,” Driver revealed that she was working on a new documentary about the life of “The Addams Family” creator Charles Addams, with permission from the late gothic cartoonist’s estate. “I’m a huge fan,” Driver said. “He was the first person to really celebrate the macabre, and I’m fascinated by how children are still fascinated by him.”
Driver first approached the Addams estate nearly a decade ago; that was shortly before the opening of “The Addams Family” Broadway production, which stymied her plans. Around six months ago, she tried again, and got through. “His timeline is such a timeline of our history as Americans,” she said. “He was born right before World War I — one of the most violent wars ever — and when he was growing up all this seance stuff was going on and these con men doing spirit photographs.”
The project is especially personal to Driver since, like Addams, she was born in Westfield, New Jersey; the cartoonist did much of his work there. “Westfield is a particularly odd place,” Driver said. “A lot of the buildings he drew are still standing, and he was such a beautiful draftsman.” But Driver said she had no plans to inject her own experiences into the project. “I won’t be a character in this story,” she said. “I don’t like when people insert themselves too much.”
Nevertheless, the world could use more of Driver and her dark sensibilities, which have particular resonance in these ominous times. The aesthetic travels with her: Meeting up in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel, she singled out the Marble Cemetery, the oldest of its kind in the city, visible through the windows; grinning, she called it a “hidden treasure.”
No wonder Jarmusch cast her as one of his movie’s walking dead. “Jim always wanted to do something with me and Iggy,” Driver said. “We’re kind of wiry in the same way, and our skin tone is sort of dark.” She spent three hours in a makeup chair for the bit part. “You have to be very patient with [the makeup artists],” she said. “It was like aliens. You have four of them all over you, poking you from every direction.”
Driver has popped up in Jarmusch’s films before, going back to “Stranger Than Paradise” when she appears alongside the late artist Rammellzee. She also appeared in a cut scene from “Down By Law” as well as “Mystery Train,” in which she played a stewardess. “It’s always when we needed an extra,” Driver said. “It teaches you how to work with actors. You feel so unsafe, especially when you’re not trained, so it really teaches you how to make your actors feel safe.”
Jarmusch has often singled her out as an inspiration (his dreamy vampire drama “Only Lovers Left the Live” credits her as the “instigation” of the idea). It’s easy to spot surface similarities in their work, since both traffic in subdued, enigmatic storytelling with occasional bursts of humor. The couple’s cinephilia blossomed when they were NYU film undergrads (in the same class as Spike Lee). “At that time, we saw so much European cinema, which had such a different pacing than American cinema,” she said.
She said she never competed with Jarmusch. “I’ve always enjoyed exchanging ideas with him,” she said. “It’s been one of the great joys of my life to have this imagination tennis with him.” However, she’s quick to draw a distinction between her filmmaking proclivities and her husband’s interests. “I think Jim is more poetry-based,” she said. “‘Mystery Train’ is almost like a poetic form. I’m different than that. I was always interested in telling stories with a new cinematic language.”
More specifically, her movies involve a form of reality disturbance: To prepare for “Sleepwalk,” she showed her actors Jacques Rivette’s magical two-hander “Celine and Julie Go Boating” as well as Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” She grew up admiring the eerie atmosphere of Jacques Tourneur films like “Cat People” and “I Walked With a Zombie,” and he continues to be a key reference point. “He said that if you anchor something in something real, you can go anywhere,” she said. “Maybe the story doesn’t even make sense, but it’s still so alluring. There are films I’m not even sure I like until the next day, but they stay in my mind.”
After “Sleepwalk,” Driver planned to adapt Jane Bowles’ novel, “Two Serious Ladies,” with a cast that included Marianne Faithfull and Karen Young, in addition to a supporting role for Alfred Molina. “This was before ‘Thelma and Louise,’ and at that time, nobody wanted to finance a film without a male lead,” Driver said.
The setbacks caught her by surprise. “Women were so powerful in the ’40s and ’50s with these great lead roles, so I never even thought about it,” she said. “I had a feminist mother. I never thought about these limitations at all. I spent like seven years trying to get that film made. I felt like a donkey in a caravan. I kept getting really close, and it just never happened.” Now, she said, she was making inroads on producing a new adaptation of “Two Serious Ladies” with “another young female filmmaker,” though she declined to elaborate.
Driver shifted gears to work with Molina on “When Pigs Fly,” a ghost story designed as her response to the AIDS crisis. “We’d lost six or seven friends to AIDS and we were trying to deal with ghosts at a pretty young age,” she said. “These people stay with you even when they’re gone.” (That mentality later lead her to co-produce the 2016 documentary “Uncle Howard,” about her late friend, director Howard Brookner.)
When it came to her own directing career, however, she spent two decades hitting financing snags (and sexist producers). Though she and Jarmusch have been reticent to discuss their private life, in a 2004 interview, Jarmusch admitted that the pair broke up at one point and recognized they needed to stop collaborating on each other’s projects in any official capacity. “All we did was work and we weren’t lovers any more, so we were like, this is no good, and then we came back and said, OK, we’re not working together,” he said. ”She’s the best. Her only flaw is her taste in men, I guess, because I can’t find anything else wrong with her.”
At one point, she wrote a script called “Gone With the Mind” with American musicologist Louis Sarno. It was based on his life; Sarno moved from Newark to Central Africa to live with pygmies in the rain forest. “I remember walking into a production company and they said, ‘We love this script, it’s really funny. Are you and Louis going to direct it together?’” she said. “I was like, ‘Louis is a pygmy! I mean, he’s from New Jersey, but basically, he’s a pygmy. It was just this unconscious thing.”
Today, Driver is confident about the Addams documentary; after that, she wants to tackle narrative features again. She’s developing a script “with an actress friend of mine” whom she has wanted to work with for 40 years. “I’m doing it as automatic writing,” she said. “As these things come, I put them down. I don’t know if it will turn into anything.”
But as she went on, it sounded like they already had. “I keep thinking, we’re electrical as human beings, our brains are electricity, and our brains pick up these ideas, so where do ideas go if they’re not used?” she said. “It’s about the celebration of ideas. In the movie, you won’t be able to tell if you’re in a dream or reality.”
Other Driverian concepts in the works include an omnibus project, “Tales From the Hanging Head,” which adapts a series of folk tales. At one point, she had filmmakers ranging from Alfonso Cuaron to Michel Gondry attached to direct various installments. When a potential producer suggested she only hire women directors for the project, she faced another harsh reality check. “I started looking at lists of women directors from all over the world,” she said. “So many women have only made one or two films, maximum. It’s amazing when you look. I guess they just get sidetracked by family, or they just can’t get the money.”
Driver was wary of the idea anyway, and added that she resented broader conversations about women filmmakers as a separate category. “I can’t stand these women’s film festivals,” she said. “We’re ghettoized. We’re all on this same planet together.”
She was also stirred by the ongoing debate surrounding abortion laws. “It’s terrifying,” she said. “It’s a war against poor women. The rich women can still fly out of these states, and these women will die with coathangers.” The situation led her to consider adapting Kate Manning’s novel “My Notorious Life,” about a midwife in the 1860s. “It’s the exact same fight we’re having now,” she said. “I’m very interested in how history is so cyclical. I like surrealism and fantasy more than realism, but I do like to promote things that I feel are important.”
She expressed nostalgia for the sense of community that defined her early artistic life in New York. “I feel like we communicated even more than we do now, even though we had no phones,” she said. “We had posters and word of mouth. I feel like people are not really participating in the city anymore. They’re looking at their phones. What’s wrong with daydreaming?”