Like a Hurricane
Jim Jarmusch + Neil Young + Crazy Horse
Two months have passed since this interview with Jim Jarmusch took place in Toronto. Year of the Horse was the first film I saw after arriving in Canada for the film festival in September and Jarmusch's movie about the music of Neil Young & Crazy Horse set the perfect mood. This movie rocks. It consists mostly of uninterrupted concert footage, although it's interspersed with snatches of interviews with individual members of the band, some backstage and on-the-road flavoring, and fragments of Crazy Horse clips shot by others in 1976 and 1986.
Year of the Horse was filmed in 1996, following Young's contribution of the score for Jarmusch's ethereal Western, Dead Man, in 1995. The match-up of the Jarmusch and Young sensibilities has turned out to be an inspired fit. Just as Young's music provided the perfect jangly dreamscape for Dead Man's trippy American journey, Jarmusch's choice to shoot Year of the Horse in a low-tech combo of Super-8, 16mm, and Hi-8 video formats creates an ideal visual equivalent of the ragged passion that characterizes the Crazy Horse sound. Music has always been a major factor in Jarmusch's films: Musicians such as John Lurie, Tom Waits, Screaming Jay Hawkins, and Iggy Pop have been regularly cast as fictional characters in his movies (Permanent Vacation, Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Night on Earth) and have also contributed to his soundtracks. And Young's history of making and releasing film documents of his musical efforts is extensive. The originality of Year of the Horse has little to do with any new or radical techniques of making rock & roll concert documentaries. The movie stands out because it gets the music right: The complement of music and movie here is total. Year of the Horse is a rock & roll movie through and through.
Using material from three different decades also emphasizes the movie's sensitivity to the passage of time -- echoing one of the band's constant if unacknowledged preoccupations. It's a theme with universal resonance, this idea of improving with age, moving constantly closer to the source, and discovering the preciousness of things only as a result of time's passage. The differences between working solo and working in concert with others is another recurrent theme acknowledged by the band members, all of whom recognize that there is a greatness to their sound that can only be achieved in unison.
Jarmusch's primary collaborator on this project, Larry A. Johnson, also participated in this interview. Johnson, an associate of Neil Young's since producing his 1972 feature Journey Through the Past, also produced Year of the Horse and shot all the footage along with Jarmusch. His sound work on Woodstock received an Academy Award nomination and in addition to his nearly three decades of work with Young, Johnson has also worked on such films as Marjoe, Bob Dylan's Renaldo and Clara, Martin Scorsese and the Band's The Last Waltz, and directed the award-winning CD-ROM title Forrest Gump: Music, Artist & Times.
The interview ranges from topics directly related to the movie and the music to the meaning (or meaninglessness) of so-called independent filmmaking and Jarmusch's experience of acting in other people's films, especially the adventure of making Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, which Jarmusch made with his beloved Sam Fuller, the legendary film director who died just last week at the age of 86.
Austin Chronicle: How did this movie come about?
Jim Jarmusch: Larry [Johnson] produced and we made a video for Crazy Horse on their last record, Broken Arrow, for a song called "Big Time." That was all shot on Super-8 and Neil really liked the way that looked. Then he called me a month or two after that saying, "Let's shoot some more stuff that looks like that video." And so I just went out on the road, Larry organized it all, we went on the road and just started shooting. We had no road map, no plan, we didn't know if it would end up being a video for another song, or a half-hour film they might give away with their record, or a feature film... we didn't know. So it wasn't really a decision, it's just kind of like it's the Neil Young way: Just start in and see what happens.
AC: How long were you out there with the band?
JJ: Not very long. We were with them in Europe for a week or two and then we went and filmed them outside of Seattle at the Gorge.
AC: What about the three performances that are intercut for "Like a Hurricane"?
JJ: That's a collage of France in 1986, outside of Seattle, and this 1976 footage from the Odeon Hammersmith.
Larry Johnson: The Odeon Hammersmith in London. That's from the archive collection.
JJ: That's the only song that has sections from different places.
AC: That song as captured here effectively raises the dead.
JJ: But still, man, I think live it was much more hallucinatory. We tried to re-create that feeling but, man, live it was extraordinary.
AC: How far back does your relationship go with Neil Young?
JJ: Larry, from years and years. For me, only since he did the [Dead Man] score. I met him while I was shooting Dead Man and then he did the score. It only goes back a couple of years.
AC: Who shot the 1976 footage?
JJ: In 1976, I was in New York, at CBGB's probably.
LAJ: The band was on tour and hired local cameramen. Throughout the years, different times, we decided to document different episodes for the archives. We dug in there and told Jim about some of the footage and he wanted to look at it and thought it would be appropriate to use our '76 tapes in '96, as a journey.
JJ: Larry now has the formidable task of organizing a lot of Neil's archives.
LAJ: It's another one of Neil's ongoing projects.
LAJ: Never-ending, ongoing. Neil has a motto: Anything worth doing once is worth doing over and over again. So that's what we do.
JJ: They called me on the HORDE Tour. They said, "Come and film this." I was like, "Oh man, I'm writing a script. Please, leave me alone."
AC: Looking back on it, there really does seem to be a Neil Young master plan to get all that stuff on film.
LAJ: Yeah, we have a lot in the archives, a lot of stuff, going back to Buffalo Springfield days and then all through when he first... there's a little bit of a gap we discovered in the Danny Whitten slot in terms of real footage and still photographs, there's not very much documentation, that's the only period... a little bit of material on Tonight's the Night, and a whole bunch on the rest of it. Harvest and all that is well-documented.
JJ: I keep trying to convince Neil to make a film out of that '76 stuff. There's a great film in that.
LAJ: But it's very hard to live near it. It's like Neil, living today, it's hard to look back into the past. He's afraid his past will catch up with him.
AC: To me, the most effective thing about the film is not that it dwells on the past but rather that there's just this palpable sense of time that permeates the film and the band's reflection on it. They talk about not realizing how precious something is until you've been doing it for this length of time. It had a lot of resonance for me.
LAJ: I think Jim was the one who really appreciates that and brought that to the Horse and got them in the interview to talk about it, to look back on it. Jim really brought that out in them. I don't think anyone has ever successfully gotten them to sit down and reflect on that.
JJ: But still, the film is a celebration of their longevity and where they are now. It's not intended to analyze their past in any kind of a deep way.
AC: No, it's more in the sense that the past helps the present make sense, and you keep getting closer to the source. There are all sorts of phrases like that.
LAJ: Yeah, in the movie, you're right.
AC: And I keep thinking about all these songs, so many of the song titles or album titles have time references: Journey Through the Past and Tonight's the Night to concepts like Harvest and Rust Never Sleeps.
LAJ: They say that rock & roll will never die but how long can rockers go?
JJ: Well, Link Wray's on tour. He's 78. He fell off the stage and hurt his leg but he's rockin' away. He's killer. He kicks ass.
AC: How many songs did you record altogether for the film? Was it tough to whittle it down to nine?
JJ: Yeah, it was actually. We had a few more in an earlier cut of the film but it was like three hours long, so. And Neil was totally cool. He let me pick what songs. I would call him up and run by lists and he would say, "That's cool. Whatever you think." We took out "Danger Bird," we took out "Pocahontas," we took out some other stuff too. But it was kind of hard. I got two in there from Zuma... dammit.
AC: [whiningly] But there's no "Cinnamon Girl."
JJ: There's no "Cinnamon Girl"; there's no "Cortez." You've heard those enough.
AC: Oh, okay.
JJ: You've heard those enough [repeated schoolmarmishly]. I know, I love "Cinnamon Girl" too. And "Down by the River" too, man. They played that live on this HORDE tour. It was amazing. It was great.
AC: What did you see as your greatest challenge in making this movie?
JJ: Oh, waking up and having to look at Larry every day.
LAJ: Pretty much the same.
JJ: No, ah, there wasn't a challenge. You know it was really fun and Larry was so amazingly organized. I wish my feature films could have the same kind of organization because Neil's people, his road people, man we should make a movie just about them. Cause his road crew are like pirates, or a biker gang, or something. Very organized. And they were great. And then Larry, whatever we needed was suddenly there. Like Neil asked us to go on the road and in three days -- I was in New York, Larry lives in L.A. -- he had all the equipment together, all the film material, everything was on the way. It was amazing. I guess the challenge to it came after collecting the material and sitting down and being open enough so that the material told us -- me and Jay Rabinowitz, the editor -- what the film wanted to be. You know, to just not try to bludgeon it into any form at all, just sort of in a Zen-like way say, "Okay, what do you want us to do with you now?" That was like the most challenging thing. It was a fun film to make.
AC: How did you decide which segments would be filmed in each different format? Did that just depend on what you had available at the time you were doing the segment?
JJ: Yeah. We started shooting interviews at one point in Super-8 and quickly realized that we had two and a half minutes to a load. That's pretty hard to get someone to really talk, you know. So we just switched to video, which we had available.
AC: Where was that space where the interviews were shot?
LAJ: That was one of the hardest things, you talk about grace and finding things out. That was a location in Dublin...
LAJ: ...backstage, and it was the last day of the tour and Jim said, "We need a place to interrogate these guys."
JJ: An interrogation room.
LAJ: And when we found that room we went, "This is perfect." We got exactly what you wanted. You were really pleased with that.
JJ: Yeah, we even had German accents for interrogating. "Vy did you steal zees guys from another bahnd, Neil. Confess," you know.
AC: How much of the footage did you shoot?
JJ: Well, Larry and I shot all the Super-8 stuff and most of the good Super-8 onstage stuff Larry shot because my camera malfunctioned through a lot of it. But most of the stuff shooting out of car windows and stuff like that, I shot.
LAJ: All the dreamy stuff. Obviously, the stuff that Jim's in, I shot.
JJ: All the stuff that looks really sloppy and amateurish, we shot.
LAJ: Yeah, exactly.
JJ: And we're proud of it.
LAJ: Very proud of it.
JJ: We don't distinguish between whose is whose.
AC: "Proudly shot in Super-8" [as it says in the film's opening credits].
JJ: We were proud of our Super-8 photography. Dammit.
AC: So this shouldn't have been a very expensive film.
JJ: It's a lot of expenses. It's a 40-track mix, the recording. Dolby Digital. And it was expensive because we shot Super-8, 16, and Hi-8 video. Then we made a digital video of that and from that they make three 16mm strands, like the old three-color process, and from that they make a color 35mm negative. So, technically, it was a little trickier than it seems.
LAJ: If we had a plan -- which we didn't, never did, not even a desire -- I don't know if we would have done anything different. But actually, it's at the end when we tried to get it on 35mm and mix the audio, that was the most expensive part. The actual going out and shooting on Super-8 and getting the film and the transfer was pretty humble. Which is how we wanted it to be.
AC: Have a lot of the roadies been with Young a long time?
LAJ: Yes, there's a core group of people. I've been with Neil 27 years. And Jim, as we say in the film, is the new guy. Which is why he gets all the abuse from the band members.
JJ: Especially from Poncho, who's been known as the new guy for 25 years.
AC: What convinced you that your ideal for Dead Man would be Neil Young to do the music?
JJ: Oh man, that was my dream even while I was writing it. I just never thought it would really happen. But I was lucky, very lucky. Then Sleeps With Angels came out while we were filming, and I'd go to the set in the mornings and hear Neil Young & Crazy Horse coming from different trucks. Different people listening independently. It was kind of a magical thing. It just was right for the film, so it's just how it happened.
AC: But he came into it after it was shot and assembled?
JJ: Yeah, I met him while we were shooting. We all went to see him play, our whole crew, in Sedona, Arizona. That's the first time I met him. I got to go backstage. I had been corresponding, trying to get through to him and finally did, and got to talk to him there. It wasn't until I sent him a rough cut of the film, he responded saying he loved it and wanted to do the music.
AC: Did you ever consider not shooting Dead Man in black-and-white?
JJ: No, never. I thought of it while writing as black-and-white. And I'm pretty stubborn. I've done three films in black-and-white.
AC: Do you think you'll start any trends with Super-8?
JJ: Hey, it's a trend that already exists. It's beautiful material. You know they said that when photography was invented that was the death of painting. But painting just got more interesting in a lot of ways. Sometimes you need a hammer and a chisel instead of a chainsaw. Just because there are computers doesn't mean you can't write with a pen anymore. It depends on what material suits what you need. I like technology. I use Avids and stuff to edit, you know. I love all that stuff but that doesn't mean that anything pre-dating that is dead. It depends on what you need to use. I'm not a Luddite. I find a lot of uses of technology highly suspicious, but it's not involved with the technology itself.
AC: The film is a perfect merger of the music with technology, that rawness of both of them.
JJ: I think it fits and I think the Super-8 stuff is beautiful. Some people won't, but people have different tastes.
AC: Did you play around with different titles?
JJ: Well, our working title was Horseshit. And one of the band's slogans always is: "Smell the Horse," a Spinal Tap take-off. I liked Horseshit but I decided Year of the Horse would be better.
AC: What determines which cameo roles you take in other people's films?
JJ: I do it if they're friends of mine and think it might be fun, basically. Because I'm not an actor. It's good for me to do it because it helps me as a director to know what it's like on the other side. But mostly I do it because it's like people I know, Billy Bob Thornton [Sling Blade], the Kaurismäki brothers [Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Tigrero]. I knew Paul Auster who was writing the Wayne Wang film [Blue in the Face]. I knew Wayne too.
AC: What about Tigrero?
JJ: I was with Sam [Fuller] who I love. And Mika [Kaurismäki] is a good friend of mine. But I'd do anything for Sam. He's the man. It was just a pleasure to be there. It was also really interesting to be with the Karajá people, and the Amazon, and I like Mika Kaurismäki [Tigrero's director] a lot. And I love Sam Fuller. So that was just selfishly having a great experience with those people. And Sam. I'd like to be with Sam anywhere in the world, you know. He's such a character. He's the only guy that didn't get sick. Everyone on the crew, everyone got sick. Sam didn't get sick. [Switching to Fuller's craggy, rapid-fire voice] "What is the matter with you? You're all falling apart here." He was like 84 years old. What a guy. I remember one scene -- I don't know if it's in the movie -- where he's telling me how to kill a jaguar and I'm saying, "Why don't you just shoot it?" [In Fuller's voice again] "Ah, you just can't shoot it. You've got to use a spear. Don't you understand the whole concept of the thing? We're in the Amazon. They don't have guns here right now." He just explodes on me. He was great.
AC: Do you go back and look at your previous films?
JJ: Never. I don't like to look back. It's very uncomfortable. Don't look back.
AC: Except that it's ever-present in Year of the Horse, that inescapable sense of time that's an undercurrent. And the differences between the things you do solo or do in concert with others. Do you find any resonances in that as a filmmaker?
JJ: Yeah, time goes by too fast. I like getting older. I'm not afraid of age. In our culture people are supposed to think about being young and it's bad to be older, whereas in a lot of cultures being older is really a cool thing. It's like with Native Americans if you're old, if you get to the top of the mountain, you get the cool view. It's just kind of strange. Time goes so damn fast but I just try not to look back. I still try to keep my films out there if I can, I just don't want to look at them myself.
AC: Is it as good a time to be a so-called independent filmmaker as the media would like us to believe?
JJ: It's just a load of shit. It's just another brand slapped on something to market it. I don't know what it means anymore. It's like "alternative" music. It means nothing now. It's used to make alternative music commercial, you know, mainstream. I've never liked titles slapped on things anyway. So I don't know what it means. I'm getting really annoyed at even hearing the word. When I hear the word independent I reach for my revolver. At this point, what the hell does that mean? The English Patient is an independent film. I don't know. I'm getting annoyed though. Hootie and the Blowfish are alternative music. I'm the Queen of Denmark. I don't know what it means anymore.
AC: It's like when I asked if you expected to see any trends with Super-8... I would expect more people to say, "Oh look this is independent filmmaking. You can do it on the cheap, and just go out with Dad's Super-8 camera. Which is great if it makes sense, if it's right for the material. And it's a great way to learn. I just see it mushrooming into something that doesn't make sense.
LAJ: It's just a matter of using the tools. It's always been there. The unfortunate part is that Kodak stopped making the stock, and it's hard to get the cameras. But you can do a movie and it could be great. If you can afford to do the blowup. The problem is you can spend the money cheap but then you're going to spend extra money doing a 35mm blowup -- spend $50-60,000 -- which is probably twice what you spent on making the movie -- just to get it into a theatrical venue.
JJ: But there's a real problem, it's all screwed up because people go to Sundance and they want to get a studio deal or something. I know of a few films where distributors overpaid for the films for more than they were worth and then they couldn't get their money back out of them, and then it was the filmmaker's fault if it was a failure. And the failure was that too much money was put on the film. So maybe it was a really great film but now the filmmaker is struggling to get another one because of being labeled a failure. But the failure was because of some system that wanted to keep them alive and make them a product without being sensitive to what was the thing they did, you know. So the problems run pretty deep and it sort of started with Ronald Reagan when he allowed studios to own theatre chains again, which is a big disaster. It's changed a lot since I started out. But I always have hope for people who love movies because of what they can do with it.
Year of the Horse opens Friday, November 7 at the Dobie and the Arbor Theatres.