Immortal Beloved

Published April 7, 2014

ABOVE: JIM JARMUSCH PHOTO COURTESY OF SARA DRIVER.

Like many of Jim Jarmusch’s movies, the newest from the 61-year-old director, Only Lovers Left Alive, is set in the ruins of a once-great city and populated by rock-‘n’-roll drifters. This time the backdrop is a ghostly Detroit (with a dash of Tangier)—but his hipster heroes are vampires. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a centuries-old musician whose howling hymnal rock songs (which are actually Jarmusch’s, with the band Sqürl) are catching on in the underground clubs in town. And, alongside his equally eternal wife, Eve (a platinum Tilda Swinton), Adam pretty much leads the life you’d expect of a literal rock god—or indie film king; it turns out they’re very similar. 

CHRIS WALLACE: What is it about a ruined city that attracts you?

JIM JARMUSCH: I think it’s from my consciousness growing up in Northeast Ohio with the kind of postindustrial landscape there, seeing Akron and Cleveland change when I was a child. Sometimes I worry that I romanticize decay in my films too much. But then I stop analyzing it and it’s just what I do.

WALLACE: The artist Doug Aitken recently interviewed Jack White, who has a sort of ghostly presence in this film, about the manufacturing-style repetition that comes out in his music, and all the great music that was produced in Detroit. Lovers, too, has a lot of cyclical, repetitive movement to it—compared with your other films, the camera movement in Lovers is positively baroque.

JARMUSCH: Yeah, there are a lot of turntables. [laughs] Initially, there were quotes from the poet Rumi throughout the film. And Rumi being Sufi, and a whirling dervish, there’s a lot of spinning referenced. But we took them all out because in the end the film didn’t want them, they felt pretentious and tacked-on somehow.

WALLACE: Most movies obliterate history to create their own world. They want you to start from scratch and pretend that you’ve never seen these actors before in anything. Lovers sort of welcomes the fact that Tilda has these associations—this great history with Derek Jarman, for example, and the avant-garde cinema in London, which itself had several other streams pouring into it. Like Eve, Tilda does feel as though she could have been a part of every groovy scene in history.

JARMUSCH: We did welcome a lot of referential things, and let them wash over the film. And I think Tilda is the bohemian queen of my lifetime. She kind of plays one in this film. She is that to me. I wish we had matriarchal societies and Tilda could be one of our leaders. I’d do whatever she said.

WALLACE: Each of your films has its own philosophy—I mean, literally, from the Haga Kure in Ghost Dog, to the vision questing of Dead Man—as well as a very specific sonic palate and sensibility. They feel like snapshots of who you were, and what you were into at the time you were making them. Do you ever look back at them to sort of chart your life?

JARMUSCH: You are the accumulations of your experiences at any given point. And when you express something those things come out. The thing is I hate seeing my films when I’m done with them, so I don’t look back as a chart of my life, but I leave it as a kind of chart. But, you’re absolutely right, though, it is a photograph, captured. The tricky thing is that, for example, the first draft I wrote of this film was eight years ago. So now I’m talking about it and I’m a different person.

WALLACE: But it isn’t as if these bits—even the peripheral bits, like the Ethiopian music in Broken Flowers, say—once they’ve been processed into the work are dead to you. 

JARMUSCH: No, I think it just ingrains them deeper so that I can claim them as part of myself. They don’t go away. The things I learned from indigenous people while making Dead Man, say, only deepen the longer I live. The Eastern Philosophy of Ghost Dog has certainly stayed with me. I still do Tai Chi almost every day.

WALLACE: In Lovers, Adam and Eve have used their time to learn thingsevery thing, it seems—she speed reads in a zillion languages, and he plays a thousand instruments. Is that what you would do with immortality, learn?

JARMUSCH: Certainly I would. I mean, I think anyone would. Even if you weren’t so inclined, you’d just start accumulating knowledge out of boredom and curiosity. But me, I’m a professional dilettante. It’s my job is to gather and absorb things that interest me.

WALLACE: That’s a kind of vampirism, isn’t it, soaking up that goodness?

JARMUSCH: One of our favorite Joe Strummer quotes was, “No input, no output.” Meaning, we’re going to hear a band, we’re going to go to a museum, or we’re going to go hang out with some writer that we admire. We’re going to get some input, because if we don’t, then we have nothing. It’s a circle. It’s a respiratory thing.

WALLACE: And a director has to exhale so many different kinds of knowledge.

JARMUSCH: When I studied with Nicholas Ray he was always telling us, “If you want to make films, watch a lot of films, but don’t just watch films, go take a walk, look at the sky, read a book about meteorology, look at the design of people’s shoes. Because all of them are part of filmmaking.” So I thought, perfect! That’s a good job for me.

WALLACE: This was a time when people were in a band and were actors and were writers.

JARMUSCH: That scene was all about everybody doing more than one thing. That was very important to everybody. And you still see it. Look at Patti Smith—is she a poet, is she a musician, is she a photographer, is she a painter, is she a writer? Yes. She’s all those things. Richard Hell—he’s a writer as well as a musician.

WALLACE: Early in the movie there is this Pynchon-ian mystery brewing about how Adam’s song is getting out into the world. How does it get out?

JARMUSCH: I’m not sure. I think Adam’s human factotum Ian [played by Anton Yelchin] has been spreading it around with Adam’s unspoken consent. Because Adam does want to see how it echoes back on him. He’s a little insecure, unlike Eve, who has no ego. She has no interest. She just absorbs everything. Maybe she’s a little more enlightened. I think of Adam as being a romantic, and Eve being more of a classicist. Romantics need to feel that thing—where is my soul, how does it merge in the world? Eve doesn’t need any of that. For her, it’s just, “how interesting, to observe these mushrooms.”

WALLACE: Shit, I forgot to ask you about mushrooms.

JARMUSCH: That’s a long subject. I’m an amateur mycologist—another dilettante thing for me is the study and identification of mushrooms.

WALLACE: Because one almost killed you.

JARMUSCH: Yes, exactly.

WALLACE: But that will motivate anybody to become a master of a subject.

JARMUSCH: Well, some people would run from it, but I ran toward it, because I was so amazed by the power of it.

WALLACE: Are you good enough that you can go pick one and know whether you can eat it or not?

JARMUSCH: Well, only a few things. Certainly I can pick chanterelles and boletus and know that they’re safe. And morels. I got to go mushroom forging in the Rocky Mountains in the fall. That was amazing.

WALLACE: Wow, next stop truffles for you.

JARMUSCH: Truffles… yeah, you’ll see me with a pig on a leash. [laughs]

THE ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE COMES OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TOMORROW, APRIL 11.