Paste film writer Robert Davis sat down with Jim Jarmusch at the San Fransisco International Film Festival to discuss the indie legend’s new movie Coffee and Cigarettes, and much more. Here are some exclusive, unpublished excerpts from the interview:
Paste: So from what I understand Coffee and Cigarettes was shot over a long period of time... in order to capture the natural aging process…
Jim Jarmusch: [laughs] Yeah.
P: …of Tom Waits and Iggy Pop.
J: [laughs] Yes, exactly my intention.
P: Actually it's surprising to me how rich the themes are given how it was made and how you didn't start with these ideas necessarily, but they do resonate.
J: Well, yeah, it's just an organic thing. It just starts growing and you try to pay a little attention to which way it's leaning.
P: "Twins," the segment with Steve Buscemi and the Lee twins—that short predates The White Stripes, I'm sure.
P: And yet it sort of echoes this joke in the media about the White Stripes…
J: Are they brother and sister?
P: Yeah, it's implied in this weird way, in this short that existed before the band.
J: In the script for Meg & Jack, we take the tack that they are brother and sister, in a way. Cause it's like, "Remember when we were little and you had the Barbie thing." And he says, "Are you going bowling tomorrow night?" And then the cousins...
P: Are Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan cousins?
J: Right. And GZA and RZA are cousins, too.
P: That's interesting how those things recur. The opening short with Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni—they switch seats, and they also switch places at the dentist. It's a gag, and it's funny, but it does sort of blossom into something later where people are mistaken for each other or they switch places.
P: I think it shows up after you've seen a bunch of them.
J: Yeah, I never really thought of that, even, the switching and that resonating.
P: Elvis and his evil twin switch places.
J: Yeah. Hmm…
P: At the festival screening you said you felt like you finally had enough shorts for a record album. The movie does feel like a mix tape in a way, and your conversation with Harvey Keitel in Blue in the Face could almost be a bonus track on the album. You've been thinking about cigarettes for a long time.
J: [laughs] Yeah, although that wasn't my idea. That was Paul Auster’s. But he gave me some subjects, some ideas, and I made some more, and then I went in and Harvey was like, "Hey I'm half asleep today, man. I hope you got something, cause I got nothin'." I was like, uh oh, and I wrote a list and I made them put it right outside the camera so I could have a list of subjects to ramble on about.
P: I don't remember all of the details, but I know that every time I see a Nazi smoking a cigarette—which isn't that often, actually—I think of how you mention they hold them in that funny way.
J: Yeah, and I still am obsessed with people throwing guns away. Like they run out of ammo and they throw the gun away. Wha? Wha? That still astounds me.
P: Was it Top Secret or one of the Naked Gun movies where they start throwing the guns at each other?
J: Yeah. [laughs] It was one of those Naked Guns.
P: Another thing I like about Coffee and Cigarettes—it's cool that it's kind of a trip through your body of work. It has familiar faces from the past, and familiar locations like Memphis. But I wondered—I read somewhere that you don't like to look back at your movies
J: No, I don't.
P: But this project sort of requires it, at least with these little snippets. Did you see new things when you went back to look at the shorts?
J: I don't know if I saw new things, but when you put them together it becomes a whole new thing, with the echoes, so that allowed me to not have that stigma for myself, of looking back. Instead it was like, “I'm going forward by constructing something out of elements, some of which were filmed a long time ago.” So it wasn't so painful in that way for me. It was kind of fun, actually, to see how they interrelated.
P: I don't know if you've seen this thing that Chantal Akerman did. It was for a French TV show, just an hour. She was supposed to do a portrait of herself, and instead of doing that she took clips from her movies and just assembled them.
P: And they were—yeah— it's kind of mysterious because it's not clear what a given clip says about her, but she feels it says something about her. There's no commentary about any of them, you just see a series of clips. It seems like Coffee and Cigarettes may not be personal in that way, but it's still a cool summation of sorts.
J: Yeah, wow that's a beautiful idea. She always has some really beautiful ideas. Do you know a film she made called Toute Une Nuit? it all takes places in one night and keeps jumping from different characters and back around. It's really a beautiful film. It's one of my favorites of hers. She's pretty amazing.
P: Are you going to get to see much of the festival?
J: No, I usually don't at festivals any more. I get kind of burned out and then I want to kind of distance myself a little and go off and check out other things. But it's sort of a drag, though. Because I do see films at festivals but not as many as I would like to. I'd like to go to some when I don't have a film there, you know, and just be there for the films, but...
P: Well it's unfortunate that in most places you can't see these movies anywhere else.
J: I know.
P: So you end up packing them into two weeks but, if you had the opportunity, you'd spread it out.
J: Yeah, it can be rough, seeing like 3 a day.
P: But I really feel like there's pressure building on the wall around the American multiplex. I mean, Paste is out there looking for signs of life, and DVD distributors are figuring out that there's interest in things like Tokyo Story, and the Internet has all this information. Do you think that's true?
J: Yeah, I love the idea. I mean, I have an "illegal" multi-system DVD player and it's so great, man, you can buy them anywhere. I get all regions.
P: Yeah, and you can place the order over the Internet and it takes just a few days longer to get it from France.
J: I know. I just ordered the box set of Feuillade's Fantômas from France. It's a beautiful set. A friend of mine had it and I saw it. It's really cool, I can't wait ’till I get it.
P: Does that include Les Vampires? Or that was already on DVD?
J: No that's a separate box that came out, wow, maybe four years ago. I have that actually on videotape, not on DVD.
P: Speaking of box sets, this Chaplin box set MK2 put together recently—I saw your comments on A King in New York. Did you choose that movie to comment on?
J: I did.
P: That's an interesting choice…
J: They first wanted me to do Modern Times, which seems so obvious and really is his great film, probably. But I just thought [A King in New York] was an overlooked film that kind of resonates with the world now. But, you know, it has some really great things in it. It's not a masterpiece of cinema, but it's a pretty fascinating artifact and an interesting film. I mean, I'm a Keaton fan, myself. I have the Keaton box set. Oh man, that's very precious to me. But I did it because I thought that film was kind of overlooked.
P: Yeah, it's gotta be his least remembered movie, of the ones he starred in.
J: But it has some incredible insights into commercial American culture, you know? Even rock ’n’ roll. It's quite amazing. And I love it when he hoses down the House Un-American Activities Committee. That's really good [laughs]. Or that thing in the restaurant, where he’s doing like—he wants a lobster and he does all these pantomimes…
P: A turtle or something…
J: Yeah, turtle soup! Oh that's great. He always comes up with some incredible shit.
P: You know, I was watching Dead Man again recently—which is such a beautiful film in so many ways…
J: Oh, thanks.
P: And I hadn't noticed before, this scene when William Blake is still in [the town of] Machine. I guess it's his only night there. He's outside the saloon, and a couple of minutes are really Chaplinesque, the way he pulls the coins out of his pocket and shakes them out in his palm. Johnny Depp is even dressed a little like him, with the hat—not a bowler, but more upscale…
J: Yeah, it is Chaplinesque. There are some Keatonesque things in that film, too, hopefully, but I know what you mean about that section.
P: He even meets the girl who sells flowers shortly after, which reminds me of City Lights.
J: Hmm, yeah. And he has the quintessential Chaplin chivalrous scene when the girl gets pushed in the mud. It is very Chaplin-like more than Keaton for sure. I don't know how conscious we were of it.
P: Referring to Coffee and Cigarettes like it’s a record album seems fitting since music is so important to a lot of your characters. From the beginning, I think, from Permanent Vacation all the way through. People listen to music in your movies, which is rarely seen. And it's hard to imagine Ghost Dog without hip-hop or Mystery Train without Memphis—it just wouldn't make any sense. Are you a musician?
J: Well, I used to be in a band in the early ’80s. I worked for a few years. I actually don't play music any more, although on my birthday in January I made a resolution that I'm going to get a guitar again before the summer, so time is running out. I might get one of those resonator guitars and try to learn some kind of finger picking, you know, rural slide kind of stuff, but I'm not sure yet what I'll get. I haven't played music in so long but I figure, well, I know some chords. I used to play keyboards and oddly tuned guitars in the band I was in, and some vocals. I wasn't really a guitarist although I played guitar on some things. But I figure, well, God, if kids start when they're 15 and by the time they're 17 they're playing well, I can learn in a couple of years. Hell, man. I gotta go back to it, but not to be a musician. Just for myself, purely for my own soul, you know? And I love guitars. I just love the sound of guitars, the idea of guitars. They're like their own little orchestra. I think guitars are such beautiful instruments. And visually they're beautiful. I saw that last Rodriguez film with Johnny Depp [Once Upon a Time in Mexico]. The guitar fetishism in the movie was, I thought, beautiful. It's not a great movie, but there's great guitar fetishism in it, man. All these guitar makers, these old Mexican guys with unfinished guitars and some mariachi guys and one guitar that's black with beautiful flowers painted on it, and they wear those suits and shit. And you see them ride through a town and there are all these guys making guitars, guitars half-made hanging up. There are some great things in it. I was more interested in the guitars than the plot.
P: I think it was John Waters who said that when he's watching a movie he doesn't like he just focuses on some detail like the elbows, and he decides it's a movie about elbows and it becomes a lot more interesting. You do the same thing with guitars…
J: Yeah, although I do it more often with background action. I get really obsessed with the background actors and how they were directed, you know? The people crossing the street and the crowd scenes. Who directed them? Is it realistic? Is it good? And then I miss the whole scene that's going on in the foreground because I'm like, "That guy wasn't real, look, he takes his hat off, he's looking for attention. Get him out of there." I get obsessed with the background action.
P: Have you seen any other movies lately?
J: Not a lot of new films. I'll probably go see Hellboy because it's got a Tom Waits song in it. They used "Heart Attack and Vine". Oh, I got all the shorts that Kiarostami ever made from these guys in Texas, Cinema Texas. There are some amazing films, shorts that you can't see. He made some really beautiful ones. And I was in Paris recently and I was really astounded to find that no films by Jean Eustache or Jean Rouch are available on DVD. I couldn't believe it. I was so disappointed, because I had this list, and I was going to get these DVDs, and they said, "They're not available," and I was like, “oh man.”
P: Maybe they will be eventually, now that Rouch has passed away.
J: I'm also really into Jacque Becker—French director, ’40s and ’50s, maybe his greatest film is a precursor to Bob Le Flambeur, the Melville film. It's called Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. I love that film. Or he makes a lot of films about working class people, like there’s a beautiful one Antoine et Antoinette. He's a great director that seems not so known here, you know? I'm trying to get my hands on all his stuff lately. I mean, not to own, but just to see them.
P: There's this movie, I don't think it has distribution, by this guy Aza Jacobs in New York—I don't know if you know him—but he did this small movie called Nobody Needs to Know. I happened to see it at an indie fest here. Tricia Vessey [from Ghost Dog] is the lead in it, actually.
J: Ahh, yes, because they're showing it I think at Gen Art, this little festival in New York. It's showing while I'm here [in San Francisco].
P: It's kind of a rough first feature, but there's a lot of really interesting stuff going on. It's black and white, with great images of New York and life and appearances.
J: Really? Cause Tricia told me about it. I'll find out if there's any way I can see it.
P: It reminds me of Stranger Than Paradise a little. It’s not really like that at all, but… it has some interesting rhythms and observations about how people sometimes want to appear like drop-outs but can't actually leave the structure of life behind. It's hard to tear down walls that you've spent your life building. Something you said about learning the guitar being something even kids can do. As you get older, as an adult, you build up these barriers to things. Every kid can paint and draw, but you ask an adult, "Can you paint?" and they say, "Oh I can't do that." It's like you have to relearn things, to break out.
J: Well, I think we're just conditioned that way. They don't want us to live in a world of ideas and imagination. We're supposed to worry about our f---in’ taxes and insurance and rent money and all of this nonsense that, really, when you're on your deathbed is going to mean nothing to you. But it takes up so much of your life. I don't mean the evil “they.” But, I mean, we can make our own choices. We have to attend to some of that stuff, but how much value we give it us up to us. So ... I think people need to be opened up again. I don't know how it's going to happen in this culture, but I'm always hopeful.
P: Well, I hope you get to keep making your movies.
J: Thanks, me too. If not, I don't know what I'll do. Write bad poetry for the rest of my life, I guess.
To read Paste’s full-length feature “Jim Jarmusch: The Clever Is In The Details,” click here.