WHITE NIGHT: AN INTERVIEW WITH JIM JARMUSCH

(Jim Jarmusch Interview conducted upon the release of Night on Earth)
With his deep voice and deadpan delivery, Jim Jarmusch’s voice sounds more like that of a network news anchor than a prolific, internationally known writer/director and domestic cult figure. Propelled by the languid strength of his films Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train, this Akron, Ohio native is a calm spot in a hyperactive Hollywood-spawned storm of one sentence stories, plot points and big-explosion finalés. Like his idol John Cassavetes, slyly serious Jarmusch concentrates on character and acting-making him “unbankable” but respected, at least by the measure of international film festival prizes.
His latest film, Night On Earth, is a biting comedy divided in five sections, each offering a microdrama between a cabbie and his (and sometimes her) passengers as they cruise through the darkness, forced to interact and experience each other’s lives if for a short time. Beginning at dusk in Los Angeles as a casting agent (Gena Rowlands) eyes new talent (Winona Ryder), the film skips through the dangerous streets of New York, the cobblestones of Paris, the narrow alleys of Rome, and finally the icy roads of Helsinki where, as the final drama unfolds, the winter sun rises and beats back the night.
[ What’s your least favorite mispronunciation of your last name? ] ^ That you have to be “JAR-NUCK.” Someone in Portugal once printed my name as “Jin Jarnuck.” But they just published a little book in Poland, a retrospective of my films, and in every review on each page my name is spelled differently. So I’ve got a whole list of them now.
[ Your films are much more popular in Europe that they are here, so do you think the opening of Eastern Europe will provide you with a new audience? ] ^ Well, I’ve been careful with all my films to give them to distributors in those countries in Central and Eastern Europe, even when they didn’t have the money to pay for them. In some cases I’d just give them to them for free, just so they’d be seen there. A couple weeks ago, I was in Yugoslavia and they had a screening of Night On Earth. It was in a theater that held four thousand people and six thousand showed up. It was pretty intense. I just kept wondering how these people knew who the hell I was. So all my films have been seen there and I’m pretty popular, but it was still a shock.
[ You once said that our NYU days were the most wasteful of your life. Do you have a different take on that now, after your success? ] ^ That’s a hard question. I certainly did learn some things there about technical things, about editing and using equipment that was really invaluable to me, but that the same time, I had to unlearn a lot of things that they tried to teach us. Especially about acting and working with actors. Even camera positions and who to photograph things in a traditional way. They were things I had erase from my brain, which ended up taking a couple of years. But at the same time, I got to meet a lot of great people there, Nicholas Ray, and I still have close friends from there that I still work with, like Tom DiCillo. I read the recent piece on film schools that Film Threat ran and pretty much agreed with a lot of the criticisms.
[ You grew up in Ohio, but are most commonly referred to as a New Yorker. What elements of both places find their way into your films? ] ^ Well, since I am from Akron, I do find that I have some perverse nostalgia for post-industrial landscapes. To me, I don’t find them ugly, but comforting in some weird way. But other than that, I’m not too sure. New York is such a mixture of all different kinds of people that I get inspired by that. My neighborhood has Sicillians, Dominicans, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Hasidic Jews-it’s all really mixed up. That I like a lot about New York, and Akron really doesn’t have that kind of diversity.
[ In Night On Earth, despite that fact that the action carries over five entirely different cities, the neighborhoods all have a similar, graffiti covered, run down or dilapidated look. How do you decide when an area is run down enough to shoot in? ] ^ Well, in all big cities, where people really live and work, there are areas that aren’t chamber of commerce, picture-postcard perfect. I didn’t want to make a film where we go t all these places and then make them exotic or glamorous in a cliché way. I didn’t want to say, “There’s the Eiffel Tower, we’re in France.” The characters live in the cities that they’re in. They’re not tourists out sightseeing, so I wanted the atmosphere to reflect that. Also, I know all of these cities pretty well and I stuck to places I was familiar with as opposed to where some tour guide would take you.
[ The stories are pretty specific to the cities where they take place, how did they generate from your experiences in each place? ] ^ That’s complicated. I started writing them with specific actors in mind that I wanted to work with, or people I already knew and were friends of mine. So it began by imagining characters for them and working that back into the structure I already had, of the cab rides through different cities. But the cities themselves were chosen more because that’s where those actors were from than any outside necessity. I didn’t need to make a film in Rome, but that’s where Roberto Benigni is from. If he was from Dakkar and was African, then it would have been shot there. It wasn’t a calculated thing, but still these cities were all places I’d spent time and know pretty well, with the exception of Helsinki. So location was secondary to the actors and the characters they were suggesting in my head.
[ The Los Angeles story is about a casting agent, in New York you have an immigrant tale, both of which reflect specific perceptions of those cities. How was the story set in Helsinki unique to that location? ] ^ I like the Finnish culture, Finnish people, because they are very particular. Their language isn’t related to Scandinavian or Russian, although they are situated in Scandinavia right next to Russia. They’re vary strange people. And the actors I was working with, Matti Pellonpaa, Sakari Kuosmanen and Keri Vaananen, are big, rough guys. That’s what Finnish people are like, but they’re very emotional and not afraid of that. I was sitting in a bar in New York at four in the morning with Sakari, who plays the big guy in the back seat, and he started crying. So I asked him what was wrong and he said, ‘Well, today in Finland is Father’s Day and I’m really missing my children.’ He was just weeping. But if someone had gone up to him and said it’s not masculine or macho to be crying, he would have thrown them through a frigging window. That they are so emotional and unafraid to show emotions is something I’ve found to be unique to the Finnish people. Now I may be way off base, maybe my friends aren’t indicative of the entire culture, but that one thing really impressed me. So the story came from that idea, to get these big, drunk guys to become sensitive to each other’s emotions. I wanted to end up with them crying in the cab, so I found a story to make that happen.
[ In both Mystery Train and Night On Earth you use several different languages; English, Japanese, French, Italian and now Finnish. I assume you don’t speak all of these. ] ^ No, but the funny thing is, in my previous films, the idea has been that what happens between dialog is much more important than the words themselves. Language is a kind of code that we use to communicate with, but I don’t think most of it is essential as a means of expression, especially for an actor when you’re recreating something. It’s not really happening, so the language is secondary to their reactions, facial features and all of that stuff. Language is very important to me, that all these characters speak in a way that kind of person would speak. I don’t have a working-class Finnish guy speaking with an aristocratic tone, but the words are not the most essential thing. So I haven’t had problems working with people in languages I don’t understand or speak.
[ What specifically inspired the story set in Rome, with the confession about the pumpkin, the sheep and the brother’s wife? ] ^ The lead in that one, Roberto Benigni is from a very small town and since I’m know him for a number of years now, he’s told me a lot of wild stories about growing up in a very rural environment. A lot of wild stories. The sister-in-law thing was just invented, but the pumpkin and sheep stuff that he related to me, although they weren’t things he did, were things that people in his hometown had done. He told me about one guy who really fell in love with a cow and was traumatized when it was finally sent off to be butchered. So those kinds of things found their way into the script from Roberto’s own life.
[ Night On Earth isn’t as claustrophobic as Lifeboat, but did you miss having to space for your actors? ] ^ I felt very limited in what I was able to show, for example, of the cities, to make the cities characters of their own, but what was more important to me was the rhythm of what was happening between the actors. The dynamics of that small space in the different cabs. It doesn’t bother me as much in the finished film, but it was really complicated to shoot that way. To be confined and working in a car that way, which is like working in miniature. We felt like we were working with toy trains after a while rather that a full size city. But it was a real change for me to have a lot of close-ups and use the faces of the actors, which was probably more important for this film than my previous ones.
[ What kinds of special problems did the production have because of the vampiric hours? ] ^ Actually it made it easier in some ways. There was less traffic and people hassling us while we were shooting, but it really cold. Especially in Helsinki and New York, because we shot this all exterior, at night in the winter. We had wind chill factors of thirty below in Helsinki, and that’s the coldest I’ve ever been. It got cold in Akron when I was a kid, but not like that. But I prefer the night, I live mostly at night and I like the idea of nighttime because things aren’t as defined and your imagination is more open visually. Also, it keyed in to my idea of having all the action happen in one night, all these stories.
[ It’s very similar to Mystery Train in that way, with the synchronous action. What attracted you to that? ] ^ I don’t know. After Mystery Train I had no intention to make another film with that as an element. I had another script I was going to do, but there were some problems, so Night was written really fast, over eight days just to have something else to work on. I’m not very analytical as to where that comes from, but because I now have friends all over the world, I think I’ve become more sensitive to different time zones. So that may have had a semi-conscious effect, but I don’t know.
[ Your films have been described as “foreign-American.” Do you have some kind of feeling on that? ] ^ I like it. In fact, just before the Academy Awards in 1984, someone sent me a photograph of the marquee of a theater in Seattle that said, “Stranger Than Paradise-Best Foreign-American Film.” I took it as a great compliment, but I feel like I’m in a little row boat in the middle of the Atlantic sometimes. I’m definitely influenced by Hollywood films, but also by films from Japan, China, India and Europe, so I don’t think I’m as purely American in a way. And because I’ve been so lucky to travel and have friends all over the place, it’s really changed my perspective on the planet. I like the disposable American culture though. I like living in hotels, driving rented cars.
[ With the Hollywood success of people like Spike Lee, the Cohen brothers and Sam Raimi, do you think there’s hope for this town and American film in general? ] ^ I’ve been encouraged by seeing Spike and the Cohens work with certain connections to Hollywood, so maybe there is. I didn’t like Darkman at all, but the Evil Dead films I love, so maybe it hasn’t been so positive for Sam Raimi in his case. But it’s based on a lot of different things, your personality and what you want to do. I’m not even considered a real director in America. I’m a cult, marginal, fake director; which I don’t mind or resent. In fact I probably agree with it. I wouldn’t be good at making a film that someone told me to make. The Cohen brothers and Spike don’t have people telling them what to do, although I’m not really sure what’s happening on Malcolm X. I spoke to Spike yesterday and he said that he wasn’t cracking under pressure, and that it was the films he wanted to make, so yeah, I’m encouraged by that. I wouldn’t turn down money from anywhere, even Hollywood. My films haven’t been commercially successful in America, but they have been in Europe and Japan, so that’s where my money comes from now. My offers from Hollywood so far have been to direct Porkey’s V. They haven’t seen my films, just my name in Variety, so it’s kind of perplexing.
[ You were the one who initiated this interview by contacting the film’s publicist and telling her you wanted to be in Film Threat. Why was that? ] ^ Because I like the magazine and so I though that people who also like it might like my films. The publicists work their own thing, like they have to get Winona [Ryder] in Vanity Fair and this person in Esquire, and they had not even heard of Film Threat. So I called and asked them to see if you’d be interested. The whole idea of the press and people who are famous and how that works is repulsive to me in a way, but I’m a victim of it too. I’ll get nervous around famous people. I met Jean-Luc Goddard once and I had about ten years worth of questions to ask him, but ended up just talking about ice cream. But now I’ve met a lot of famous people and that sense of being impressed is beginning to go away. I never got to meet John Cassavetes though. I probably would have shit my pants.
[ Then how did it make you feel to work with Gina Rowlands on Night on Earth? ] ^ When I first met her I was nervous because she’s one of my favorite actors on this planet. She is so warm and generous. She puts people at ease immediately. Winona was very nervous too, trembling. But after five minutes it was gone. Gena just has that kind of effect, that kind of warmth. Working with her was never intimidating at all, but there was this one take, a close-up of Gena, and I let the dialog run way past the point where I told them I was going to cut because it just flashed in my head oh man, that’s Gena Rolands and she’s in my movie! I was just obsessed, watching her until I finally realized what I’d done.
[ Did Tom DiCillo ever approach you for the role of Freak Storm in his film Johnny Suede? ] ^ (Laughs) No, he didn’t but when I came out of a screening of the film some woman rushed up to me and told me how excellent I was. In fact, I haven’t even asked him if it was any kind of reference to my hair or whatever, although people have come up to me and said I look a lot like Nick Cave. A girl in Paris asked once if people tell me I look like Billy Idol, and then this guy she was with said I looked like Nick Cave. One time I was walking in New York with a friend on Halloween. I was wearing a motorcycle jacket and everyone keep pointing at me shouting “Billy Idol, Billy Idol!” As if I was in costume, so that was pretty funny.
[ Who does your hair? ] ^ It’s genetic. My mother’s hair turned completely white by the time she was twenty and my hair started when I was about fourteen. When I first moved to New York I lived in Spanish Harlem and there was this hotel nearby that was all transvestites. Black and Puerto Rican transvestites, and they wouldn’t leave me alone. So every time I’d walk by I heard, “Who does your hair!” But I just told them the same thing, it’s genetic. Once a year I get to the point where I want to dye it black, just after I get asked “Did you see a ghost?” for the hundredth time. But then someone would ask me [in a whiny voice] “Why did you dye it black, had you dyed it white previously?” So I can’t win.
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Posted on June 25, 1991 in Interviews by
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