“I have no desire to make films for any kind of specific audience,” the independent and uncompromising American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has declared. “What I want to do is make films that . . . tell stories, but somehow in an new way, not in a predictable form, not in the usual manipulative way that films seem to on their audiences.” In 1984 Jarmusch emerged from the downtown New York art scene with Stranger Than Paradise, a picaresque film, made in black-and-white on a shoestring budget, that won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and he followed up two years later with another picaresque fable, the critically acclaimed Down by Law. In 1989 Jarmusch rounded off his first cinematic trilogy with the release of Mystery Train, a film that prompted Vincent Canby of the New York Times to call him the “most adventurous and arresting filmmaker to surface in the American cinema in this decade.” Jarmusch has explained that he looks at the United States “through a foreigner’s eyes” and that his ambition is to create a new cinematic language shaped by his two major influences: the world cinema of Europe and Japan, and Hollywood. “I’m interested in finding a bridge between these,” he has said. I’d like to embrace both sides without negating one or the other.”
Jim Jarmusch was born in [should be: near] the industrial city of Akron, Ohio, not too far from Cleveland, in 1953 [January 22]. He has characterized his father, a businessman on the payroll of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company [should be: B.F. Goodrich Company], as a kind man who worked hard to support his family. Before her marriage, Jarmusch’s mother was a newspaperwoman on the staff of the Akron Beacon-Journal who covered show business and movies, among other assignments. One of his grandmothers, a lover of modern art and literature, encouraged her grandson in his literary pursuits. “The only beautiful thing about growing up in Akron,” Jarmusch told Paul Attanasio of the Washington Post (October 2, 1984), “was the [Goodyear] Blimp. You’d be taking a walk and you’d see the blimp. I love the blimp, it’s so beautiful.”
Soon realizing that his future did not lie in Akron, Jarmusch escaped by enrolling in the School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1970 [should be: 1972], but, believing that “poets are the lifeblood of any culture” and having wanted to become a poet since childhood, he transferred in 1971 [should be: 1973] to Columbia University on New York’s Upper West Side. There, he majored in English and American literature under such teachers as David Shapiro and Kenneth Koch, prominent figures in the so-called New York School of avant-garde poets. He also began to read “post-post-structural fiction and the deconstructed narrative and all that stuff,” as he recalled in an interview with Jane Shapiro of the Village Voice (September 16, 1986), and to write “little . . . semi-narrative abstract pieces.”
While growing up in Akron, Jarmusch saw Japanese horror films and James Bond movies, but two black-and-white American films that starred Robert Mitchum made a deeper impression on him. Those movies were The Night of the Hunter, directed by Charles Laughton, in which Mitchum memorably played an implacably evil “preacher” with “love” tattooed on the knuckles on one hand and “hate” on the other, and Thunder Road, a B-movie about hillbilly moonshiners that has since gained a cult following. “Before that time,” Jarmusch told Jane Shapiro, in referring to Thunder Road, “I didn’t know movies could be this dangerous and this seductive.” In 1975, during his final semester at Columbia, Jarmusch went to Paris, where he discovered world cinema through the vast archives of the Cinémathèque Française. In an interview with Lawrence Van Gelder of the New York Times (October 21, 1984), Jarmusch said, “That’s where I saw things I had only read about and heard about - films by many of the good Japanese directors, like Imamura, Ozu, Mizoguchi. Also, films by European directors like Bresson and Dreyer, and even American films, like the retrospective of Samuel Fuller’s films, which I only knew from seeing a few of them on television late at night. When I came back from Paris, I was still writing, and my writing was becoming more cinematic in certain ways, more visually descriptive.”
Back in New York [in 1976], Jarmusch applied to the prestigious graduate department of film studies at New York University. Since he had no hands-on experience in film, he was surprised when he was accepted on the strength of an essay about film and some still photographs that he had submitted. At New York University he became a teaching assistant to the venerable American auteur Nicholas Ray, the director, among other films, of In a Lonely Place, Rebel without a Cause, and Johnny Guitar. He also met the noted German director Wim Wenders and worked as a production assistant on Lightning over Water, Wender’s documentary film about the dying Ray’s last years. “When I . . . began learning technically how to make films,” Jarmusch told Lawrence Van Gelder, “I decided that’s what I really wanted to do.”
During the four years that he studied at New York University, until 1979, Jarmusch also entered enthusiastically into the post-punk scene that was flourishing in the East Village. He frequented the arty Mudd Club and joined a new-wave [should be: No Wave] band called the Del-Byzanteens, for which he played keyboards, sang, and helped to write numbers like “Atom Satellite,” with lyrics made up entirely of tabloid headlines. “At the time, everybody in New York had a band,” Jarmusch told Paul Attanasio. “The idea was you didn’t have to be a virtuoso musician to have a band. The spirit was more important than having technical expertise, and that influenced a lot of filmmakers.”
Encouraged by Nicholas Ray and by Amos Poe, an underground New York filmmaker, Jarmusch decided he really wanted to make movies. “Nick told me,” he said to a reporter for People magazine (December 10, 1984), “‘If you really want to make a film, don’t talk about it. Do it.’” Using money from a fellowship grant that was supposed to pay for his tuition, Jarmusch set about fulfilling the program requirement of a student film by starting work on Permanent Vacation in 1979, about two weeks after Nicholas Ray died. As he explained to Lawrence Van Gelder, Permanent Vacation was about “two and a half days in the life of a young guy doesn’t really have any ambitions or responsibility. He doesn’t live anywhere specifically. He doesn’t go to school. He doesn’t work.” Frowned upon by New York University officials because of its “excessive” eighty-minute length, Permanent Vacation (1980) was distributed by the art circuit in Europe, where it gained a small cult following, but “it really didn’t do anything” in the United States, as Jarmusch pointed out to Van Gelder.
It was in about 1981 that Jarmusch began to work on the script for a short film with Stranger Than Paradise as its working title, but which is now known as The New World. Impressed by Permanent Vacation, Chris Sievernich, the executive producer of Wim Wender’s films, gave Jarmusch about forty minutes’ worth of unused film stock, from which experienced directors could expect to get about five minutes’ worth of finished film. [---] Having learned from Nicholas Ray that if the “scene is there, the movie is there,” Jarmusch filmed his story over a single weekend in February 1982. Casting his friend John Lurie, the saxophonist in an arty jazz band called the Lounge Lizards, as the “cool,” taciturn Willie, the actor Richard Edson as the gregarious Eddie, and the Squat Theater’s Ezster Balint as the tenacious Eva, Jarmusch got a thirty-minute film out of the donated film stock, largely because he framed each scene as one extended shot, with no cutting away to different camera angles within the frame. “I personally thought he was out of his mind,” Lurie has commented. “If anybody had gotten the flu during the shoot, that would’ve been the end of the film.”
While editing his footage in his small downtown apartment, Jarmusch decided that it could be a feature film in three chapters, and by the time he had the film edited, he also had a script for the feature. [---] In 1983 the short version of Stranger Than Paradise won the international critics prize at the 1983 Rotterdam Film Festival, and Jarmusch traveled around Europe trying to drum up financial backing for a full-length version of his film. His efforts were to no avail until he met Otto Grokenberger, a young West German who aspired to become a film producer.
In January 1984, in New York, Jarmusch resumed the shooting of Stranger Than Paradise, and what had been an $8,000 short subject was in the process of becoming a $120,000 ninety-minute film. In March Jarmusch showed his movie to Cannes Film Festival official, who selected it for inclusion in the program of that much -publicized film competition. At Cannes he lost the Palme d’Or, or grand prize, to his old friend Wim Wenders for Paris, Texas, but he was awarded the coveted Camera d’Or for best [first] feature film.
[And the rest, as they say, is history.]
From an interview in The Guardian, November 13 2004 ("A Talk on the Wild Side", by Simon Hattenstone):
"Jarmusch rarely refers to his personal life. I ask him if he has any family. 'You mean kids? I don't.' He has lived with his girlfriend, the film-maker Sara Driver, for 20 years. 'She's the best. Her only flaw is her taste in men, I guess, because I can't find anything else wrong with her.' Driver produced Jarmusch's early movies. 'We stopped working together after we split up at one point, because all we did was work and we weren't lovers any more, so we were like, this is no good, and then we came back and said, OK, we're not working together, then ever since, well, anyway ... I wish I had kids, especially with Sara,' he says. 'Still could, y'know ...'