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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Jim JARMUSCH: “I feel like I have to listen to a film and let it tell me what it wants”

29 April, 2014 - 10:59

After the premiere of the film Only Lovers Left Alive film director Jim Jarmusch and leading actress Tilda Swinton gave the press conference in New York. The Day’s reporter attended it and asked them some questions.

The movie has an incredible tone that is sustained by all the actors and which is very delicately balanced. I wondered how Jim communicated that to you?

Tilda SWINTON: “I think we all just threw ourselves off the precipice as usual, and kept Jim as our baseline, there he is, all the time, reassuring us that this is how it has to be. And we just trusted him, but felt that we did not necessarily know until this moment that it did not dissolve in Cannes or whatever. It was just a romantic risk that we were all willing to take, Jim included. We wanted to make a kind of atmosphere that we had not seen before, for sure. But when you are trying to make something you do not necessarily know how to make it, so you just kind of grope around in the dark. Groping around in the dark where your friend is, is always better than groping around in the dark by yourself.”

The film is about a couple that is living through a lot. How did you managed to play the spouses so natural? Because you seem like you have lived together forever.

T.S.: “That is another very nice thing to hear. It is, as you say, about surviving, things in general, life in general, but being together in love, you know, in a long relationship – this one, of course, many hundreds of years – sometimes, all our relationships feel like many hundreds of years, even if they have not been. Just rebooting one’s connection. Rebooting the reasons to not go out and get a gun! Or get really depressed and sit in your underpants all day, and do nothing else. And just that feeling of being there, in support. That was something that Jim, Tom, and I talked about for a long time before we started shooting. And we were all so clear that what we wanted was a couple who really felt familiar. And familiar in a way that you do, long after you have first been fancying each other. And then just end up in bed for a long time. And people who have really talked constantly about everything. You know, she says at one point, ‘you love telling me stuff about all the fancy people you used to know.’ That is one of those things she has learned to put up with and love, as well. And we talked about all of that and a really long friendship. And we also noticed that we had not necessarily seen that in a film – a man and a woman who obviously really fancied each other. Still. But really, really love talking to each other as well. So we kind of cut that off, by the yard, and laid it down.”

Jim, have you ever worked with director of photography Yorick Le Saux before?

Jim JARMUSCH: “No., Because of the nature of production, it was the first time I had to use a director of photography from Europe. Tilda had highly recommended Yorick, I had seen his work. I also spoke at length with Olivier Assayas, director whose work I love, who had worked with Yorick on a number of films. So, my meeting him was just fantastic, I knew he sought the closest approach to a film of anyone I worked with.”

This film is lit so beautifully. How did you manage to get such an atmospheric lighting?

J.J.: “It was the first time I worked with digital photography. I do not like digital for several reasons. I do not like the depth of field, I do not like exterior daylight and skin tones, it looks not appealing to me. These were not problems because we shot in very low light. We were shooting, lighting these scenes with light bulbs and these little LED squares and very, very minimally so we did not have the depth of field problems. So, the photography, I find it really beautiful.”

What was so interesting for you as a cinematographer in this vampire subject?

J.J.: “I think it was just the overview that it allowed, because they have been alive so long to show a love story that spans that amount of time... This is just a little character study. We are just observing these characters that happen to be very strange and interesting. So to be able to see their perception of history over a long period of time was, I think, really attractive to me, and their own love story to span that time was what drew me to it. I read somewhere that vampires are not humans, therefore, it was something… I forgot what the point was. They are humans, because vampires start as humans. In any case they are not just metaphorically humans. They are humans that have been transformed. They are still humans so that was interesting.”

All spoken like a scientific fact here, like a zoological lecture. It is a zoological form?

J.J.: “It is also a mythological one, which is another thing. In case someone asks, you know, mythology in vampire films is a cumulative thing. For example, having fangs, I think, only appeared in a Mexican vampire film in the 1950s. It is very recent. I do not recall that Nosferatu [a hero of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror – German expressionist horror film, directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1922. – Author] had fangs, but all of these things get added in like garlic or you must be invited over the threshold or the cross or the holy water. All these things get added in arbitrarily by certain authors who chose this form. So we wanted to add something in there so we added in these leather gloves that they wear outside of their habitat. Why? Because we wanted to have something that was ours that we invented and we thought that it looked really cool which is a very important criteria.”

How had you woven this script in the locations? Usually in the vampire films there is a great stress on interior shots, and you did this film in a different, very sophisticated way. Why?

J.J.: “The locations evolved when I did this version of the film several years ago, this script. A previous script was set in Rome and Detroit, but Tangier is one of my favorite places on the planet, so I just wanted to shoot there. And also, it seemed like a place that would draw Eve to it, and I like it because it is separated from European culture in a way. It is not a Christian culture, it is not even an alcohol culture. It is a hashish culture, so it is a very different feeling there. And Detroit is also a city I really, deeply love. I am from the Midwest, from Ohio, but Detroit... As a child it was almost mythological, Detroit, as this Paris of the Midwest and very different to Cleveland, which always felt culturally secondary. And now, what has happened with Detroit [Detroit’s official default. – Author] is very tragic and sad and unusual, maybe not so unusual, I do not know. So I was drawn to it visually and historically, for its musical culture and industrial culture, its kind of post-industrial visual feeling.

“As far as the interior stuff, I think, maybe, when vampire films are really in the genre of horror films that claustrophobia is very helpful for that aspect of being scary or feeling uneasy. Vampires sleeping in a confined coffin, not being able to be touched by sunlight, becomes very claustrophobic, and may be important element when the focus of the film is fear and horror film – which this is not. This is a film of, in a way, openness, openness to ideas, to culture, to surroundings, to one’s own consciousness. So I think maybe not so consciously on our part but the film stylistically reflects that rather than claustrophobia of a horror film.”

Ms. Swinton, it is not your first movie with Jarmusch, so what is the biggest challenge in working with him for you as an actress?

T.S.: “Working with Jim, it was challenging for us to want to make this film for quite a while and have to be really patient, that was the biggest challenge. Once we started shooting, as ever, when you have been developing something for a while it is just like Christmas every day. But having patience, pacing our energies for the years Jim was talking to me about making this film – that was a challenge. And personally, it is a challenge for me to know that Jim Jarmusch is not making a film every year, because that is what I want. So that is literally the only challenge I can think of.”

J.J.: “I have to add to that, it was seven or eight years that I wanted to make this film, or a variation of it, and it was written with Tilda in mind from the very beginning. Whenever this production would fall apart or we would lose financing or another element and I would just be ready to give up Tilda would invariably say, “No, this is a good sign. This means we are not ready yet, all the pieces are not in place yet.” And she was always so optimistic and reflective in the spirit of Eve, that I could not give up this project.”

Jim, I don’t know, if you remember, but last year we met in a subway car and had a conversation and you said: “Follow your instinct.” I wonder if we might speak that you followed your instinct on a film like this which is so deeply rooted in the past and the future and if we might speak as well of the dialectic between the intellect and the instinct?

J.J.: “Intellect is very valuable and interesting, and instinct is something I pay more attention to, because I think you can overanalyze things. I read a lot about filmmakers and directors that I really love, and this is a weak generalization, but sometimes I think, ‘Well, they are not the most highly intellectual people.’ Like, maybe, writers are, or people who use other forms. I do not know if this is true or not, but I really think instinct and using your intuition is extremely important. While filming we are gathering material that then we will make into a film in the editing room. It is not a formulaic procedure, like a Hitchcock film, which are fantastic for what they are, but everything is decided in advance for this little machine to function in a Hitchcock-type film. What we are making, the machine may not be completely visible until the end, until it is cut. So, you have to use your intuition throughout, for editing, you have to look at the film. I feel like I have to listen to a film and let it tell me what it wants. Often it mumbles and is not very distinct. I really think the instinct is listening to the film that you are making and letting it be what it is. Oddly enough that is the theme I love in the film, too, it is that Adam and Eve allow each other to be who they are. They are not trying to change each other or whining about things. She accepts who he is, loves him for that, and he also loves her for who she is and I think that is, maybe, the key to love stories, but I am not sure.”

You mentioned gloves as something that you added to the myth of vampires. I heard you also added a new hairstyle for vampires, which is great.

J.J.: “Hair thing was really interesting. I wanted them to have wild hair, I wanted them to look partly animalistic and even behave like half animals and half very sophisticated humans. So we were trying to make wigs for them, and we just were not getting an interesting texture. And Tilda said, “You keep saying ‘animal,’ so why are we just looking at humans? Let us look at animal fur.” So we started looking at animals and different monkeys and llamas and different textures of fur and hair. And then Gerd, our makeup and hair designer, said that he had, in the past, mixed some goat and yak fur into human hair to make it thicker. So we tried that, and in the end the wigs for John Hurt, for Tom, for Tilda, and for Mia were made of a certain percentage of human hair mixed with goat and yak. I just wanted them to look kind of wild. It was a real leap of the imagination to free ourselves from anything that felt tied to any one time.”

By Dmytro DESIATERYK, The Day, New York – Kyiv