His Films, His Way

Jim Jarmusch Is Still Figuring Out How to Do It

Jarmusch with Forest Whitaker on the set of <i>Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai</i>
Jarmusch with Forest Whitaker on the set of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

True story: CinemaTexas has a table set up on the UT's West Mall publicizing their festival. A guy, a student, and obviously interested in film, sidles off-course and strikes up a conversation with the young woman at the CT table.

"So who's coming?" he asks.

"Well, we've got a lot of really cool short films and filmmakers from all over the world."

"Anyone, like, you know, famous?"

"Yeah. We've got Jim Jarmusch coming in to screen some of his favorite short films."

"Jim who?"

"Jarmusch."

"Jar-muze?"

"No, Jar-musch. From New York City? Famous American indie director? Stranger Than Paradise? Dead Man, with Johnny Depp and the guy that was in Millennium?"

"Frank Black."

"Yeah, but the actor."

"I still don't think I know who --"

"Ghost Dog? With Forest Whitaker and RZA from Wu-Tang?"

"Umm ..."

"Work with me on this. He's one of the most important American directors working today."

"Sorry."

"Just ... just trust me. He's the shit."

"Gotcha. Cool. I'll check 'im out."


The state of "independent" filmmaking, and its accompanying anti-glory, ain't what it used to be, folks. For those who have been skipping indie-cred class for the past 20 years, here's the sweet and lowdown (and woe to you if you don't nail the final):

Jarmusch arrived on the scene back in 1984 when his second feature, Stranger Than Paradise, garnered the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Since then, his reputation as one of the world's most original, uncompromising, and evocative directors has only expanded. Jarmusch's films -- sometimes lensed in lush black-and-white cinematography (Dead Man, Down by Law), other times bursting with eye-popping, orgiastic color palettes (Mystery Train, Ghost Dog) -- often fare better in Europe than they do in the U.S., where they often find themselves buried at the box office by distributors unsympathetic of or unable to grasp the director's sometimes laconic, albeit thoroughly engaging, style.

Jarmusch is arguably one of American cinema's great auteurs (although he shuns both the title and the theory behind it), the Akron-born, NYC-bred bastard son of Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville (with uncles Yasujiro Ozu and John Cassavetes hiding in plain sight). You'll find no argument here.

With his trademark white mane and quiet, measured, bass delivery, Jim Jarmusch just wants to make his films his way. And though you've seen him in Sling Blade as the Frostee Cream Boy, and in Alex Cox's overlooked avant-Western free-for-all Straight to Hell as the mysterious Mr. Dade, he's more likely found behind the camera than in front of it these days.

Last year's Ghost Dog -- his eighth feature film -- was critically hailed as a masterstroke, mixing hip-hop, the Kagemusha code of the Samurai, and the then-moribund gangster genre into a wholly new, vibrant, and violent animal.

I spoke with Jarmusch from his home in New York where he's readying a series of nine short films (not his own) for screening at the upcoming CinemaTexas Film + Video Festival 2000.

Austin Chronicle: Let's talk a little bit about short films, since that's what you're coming down here to screen. Why do shorts get such a bad rap these days? Some of the greatest films of all time are shorts, and yet they just can't seem to get out there at all. Why do you think that is?

Jim Jarmusch: It's just the rigid format of what is the commercial way to maximize profitability from distributing films. In theatres they have either trailers for upcoming product, or, like in Europe, they have commercials now. Whereas they used to have short films before the features -- before our time, I guess. But, you know, they used to have cartoons as well. I think it's really just that there's no way to market them. How are you going to sell a short film on a video, or license it to TV? It's just the archaic system that we have where everything is based on how to maximize the profits and short films don't generate those.

Maybe things are changing, because technology's changing. And in the future people will get things digitally transmitted, so maybe they'll have much more access to short films. I doubt they're going to become commercial entities.

It's funny, though, because it begs the question: What is a short film? Before there even were features, in the early silent era, all films were short films, you know? But that was in the beginning, and now with features, they calculate how many screenings they get out of a feature in each theatre in a day, and how much profit they can squeeze from that.

I don't really think about the length of a film when I'm shooting it, so I don't have any hierarchical thing about, "Well, it's not a feature." And having made short films, I know that sometimes it's a lot harder than making a long film because you don't the time to develop characters and so on. It's more complicated, I think.

AC: It's like writing a short story. You have a limited amount of space and time to create what you need.

His Films, His Way

JJ: It's a real art to doing that.

AC: Speaking of short films, what's up with the ongoing Coffee and Cigarettes triptych that you've been working on since 1986? Are we going to see more of those? And will we ever be able to get those on a DVD compendium? Please?

JJ: Yeah, definitely, but actually I have five of them now. Two of them have not been seen by anybody, and I plan to shoot more and eventually put them together and get them out, if not theatrically then at least on a DVD or video. If I get 80 minutes worth maybe I'll release it theatrically in some small way. I haven't been releasing the existing ones, or licensing them, because I kind of want to let them disappear for a while so that I can make more and maybe release them all at the same time.

But, you know, it's funny, because I'm very conscious while I make them that I want them to be complete films in and of themselves. But at the same time I put little reoccuring jokes in that are, you know, sort of connected as well.

AC: Let's talk a little about the films you're going to be screening at CinemaTexas.

JJ: Well, you know, it's kind of funny because they asked me to do it, and I really like short films, but I didn't spend a lot of time researching the world of short films to pick the greatest masterpieces. Instead I just sat down and tried to think of short films that had made some sort of an impression on me. The legacy of great short films and animated films from around the world is huge, and so I just picked some things that I remembered and liked.

AC: I noticed you've got "Little Flags" by Jem Cohen [director of the Fugazi documentary/collage document] who's a filmmaker I really love.

JJ: Yeah, I selected "Little Flags," and then later Jem told me that there's another version that Fugazi did a kind of musical score for and that's the one we're going to show in Austin. I love Jem Cohen. I just love his eye, you know, what he sees in the world. And he's made so many films. I didn't even know which one to pick.

AC: What else can we expect?

JJ: There's a weird film called "P.M.," which is a Cuban film from 1962 that actually a mutual friend of mine and Julian Schnabel gave to me. This was a while ago, and I was blown away. And now I've found that Julian Schnabel is using footage of it for the end credits of his new film Before Night Falls, which I thought was kind of interesting.

One that I really love is "They Caught the Ferry," which is by [Danish director] Carl Dreyer of all people. It's hard to see, but I found out about it years ago from a film historian in Finland who knew I was a big Dreyer fan. He said, "Have you ever seen the motorcycle safety film that Dreyer did?" And I said, "Whaaat?" It's really a beautiful film, and it's a great film just as a short film, but it was made, in fact, as a motorcycle safety film back in 1948. It's an amazing find.

AC: Off the subject of short films, both you and Lars von Trier have used cinematographer Robby Müller several times -- you have that connection of sorts. I'm curious, though, what you think of von Trier's Dogme 95 experiment/movement.

JJ: I think that it's half, like, publicity stunt (which was successful), and half of it I really respect because I like the idea of stripping away whatever's extraneous and going back to what is the heart of film. I think, in part, you know, that just the fact that they call it "Dogma" indicates that it's in part tongue-in-cheek. But to be honest with you I'm more interested in the rules and the concept, or the intention of it, than the results that I've seen such as Mifune, Celebration, and The Idiots. Those are the three that I've seen. I like that idea of this stripping away of the extraneous techniques. In a way it's kind of like what the Ramones did with rock & roll, you know? And that's always valuable because then you see what really matters and what really is the heart of using this form for expression.

At the same time I'm interested in all possible uses of tools. With Dogme 95, I like the fact that if you break the rules, you have to confess. You can't get any props, and Harmony Korine had to confess that he sent his aunt out to buy raspberries or strawberries or something. I thought that was kind of cool.

I like it a lot as a concept, and I think it's really valuable, but I also like films that use whatever tools they need to express what they're trying to express. Sometimes special effects and elaborate things in something like Blade Runner make it a really incredible film experience. So I think [Dogme 95] is good as a means of limiting yourself in order to look at how you approach the form of film, but at the same time part of me is an anarchist and against any kind of rules from the beginning. I particularly don't like that in Dogme 95 you can't use black-and-white. But I understand those rules, and I do respect the intention behind them.

AC: Do you think we could use something like Dogme 95 in the U.S. to kind of shake up the cinematic status quo? I mean, what we used to call "independent filmmaking" seems to have become more and more co-opted and less and less "indie." Is the term even valid anymore?

JJ: Yeah, I don't know what it means anymore. I think it's a label you slap on the product to sell more of them. It's like "alternative" music. What's that mean? I don't know.

AC: But there was a point when those words, or labels, actually carried some real meaning and cachet. In the mid-to-late Eighties there was something going on in filmmaking that doesn't seem to be apparent anymore.

JJ: No. It's been usurped. But that's what a free-market, American philosophy always does, you know? It repackages its own waste material and sells it off. That's a natural progression, I guess, given the kind of system that we live under.

So I don't know. I don't know how to respond. I think there's always hope, and there are always things that are underground or non-mainstream that are always behind and not appreciated. And that's always been the case. And that always will be the case. It was the case of Vincent Van Gogh, or Belá Bartók, or Lester Young, or people that died in abject poverty and now are acclaimed as great masters. Franz Schubert. Nobody cared anything about his music while he was alive.

I'm just hoping that when things switch over to new technologies that maybe -- certainly -- new avenues will open and they will exist at least briefly, until they figure out how to usurp those, too. So it's always in those cracks that you're going to find interesting things. It's sort of a kind of revolution going on now, technologically speaking, because in the near future films probably won't even exist on film material anymore. As commercial products they'll be digitally received into the theatre. And then with new ways of receiving stuff in your home, I'm not sure what's going to happen. Maybe there will be a lot of new possibilities and we'll be able to find the things that we want to find somehow, without having whatever's shoved down our throats be the thing that we see.

I just hope that those people who love the form of filmmaking continue experimenting and expressing themselves through it without being concerned about how it's going to function as a product. Because that's where the real shit is. And always will be. How do we find that? That's the problem.

I thought it was pretty funny that American Beauty won all those awards, and it was really a soft version of Todd Solondz's Happiness, which was a little too tough for a wide audience to take. So they watered it down and made a studio-fabricated, "independent" film. And man, they cleaned up with that.

AC: Do you find it more difficult to make the films that you want to make in the current climate?

JJ: I'm lucky and stubborn, and I still do it my own way, so I still have complete freedom when I make a film. But it is getting a little harder to get the financing. I'm lucky because at least people do know some of my work and I do have some track record in certain territories, like Europe, so I can, so far (knock on wood), still get the films financed. But, again, I don't make really expensive films -- I've never made a film over $10 million -- and the bigger the budget, the more control you lose, the more people want to tell you what to do.

I've never come to the point where I just couldn't do it at all, which would be pretty difficult because I could always make a film really cheaply or shoot it on digital video or somehow. But if I can't do it the way I want, I don't really want to keep doing it.

AC: What do you think about the current digital video revolution that's going on?

JJ: I see all those things as tools. Whatever tool you choose as the best one for the thing you're making, then you should use it. At the same time I do have an old-school fondness for film material because, for me, there's something magical about light passing through a material. And electronically generated images don't have that magical thing. It's been removed.

AC: What are you working on now? What's next?

JJ: I'm going to make a short film that's part of a compilation film with a lot of different directors. It's a bunch of 10-minute films which are being made by Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, Chris Marker, Aki Kaurismäki. I think Godard might be doing one. They're going to put those all together -- and they're all on the nature of 10 minutes, they all have something to do with the idea of 10 minutes.

AC: Last question: What kind of advice would you give to beginning filmmakers who might want to steer clear of the mainstream Hollywood body politic and remain somewhat -- for want of a better word -- "independent?"

JJ: What I'm really moved in all forms -- in music, art, whatever -- is by people who have a vision that's very particular and that their love for the form is obvious by how they use it. If they want to express something with their work and they're not trying to calculate how that will be received. My advice, my hope, is that the people whose real instincts are those, please don't think about your film as a commercial product until you've made it the way you want it to be. I just get excited by people that really love the form itself.

My other advice is that what influences you or inspires you will come from everywhere, not just other films. It will come from books you read, people you know, things you've seen, things you've heard, things that move you, or affect you. And those are the things you should pay attention to.

But I'm not real good at advice, you know? My motto is: "It's hard to get lost if you don't know where you're going." I'm still figuring it out. I was really moved when someone asked Akira Kurosawa when he would stop making films -- he was in his 80s -- and he said, "As soon as I figure out how to do it." end story


"Love & Sprockets: Jim Jarmusch's Favorite Short Films" is Saturday, October 21, 8-11pm, at the Texas Union, 24th & Guadalupe, part of the CinemaTexas5 international short film and video festival. A full schedule of events can be found on the festival's Web site, www.cinematexas.com. Tickets for Jarmusch are $20 ($15 student) and can be bought in advance at Thirty Three Degrees, Waterloo Records, I Video, Ruta Maya Coffee House, and Vulcan Video. 471-6497.

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