Jim Jarmusch: with religion making a killing at the box office, one of the movies' most independent-minded directors worships—with the hippest cast of the summer—at the temple of smoke, caffeine, and downtime
Interview magazine, June 2004
by Cate Blanchett
For some directors, action means computer-generated tidal waves and elaborately choreographed battle scenes. But for Jim Jarmusch, the real action occurs in life's forgotten moments: waiting for buses in Mystery Train (1989), riding in cabs in Night on Earth (1991), and in his latest film, Coffee and Cigarettes, chatting over java and smokes.
Comprised of 11 unconnected vignettes, Coffee and Cigarettes is a gritty black-and-whitemare in which some of Jarmusch's famous and not-so-famous friends--nearly all playing themselves--engage in whirls of purgatorial chatter. The White Stripes contemplate electromagnetic conductivity, Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina take a meeting Hollywood style, ravaged radicals Iggy Pop and Tom Waits test the boundaries of testiness, Bill Murray ponders the runs with the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA, and a host of others discuss all manner of existential ephemera, jacked up on caffeine and nicotine.
Remarkably, Coffee and Cigarettes has been nearly two decades in the making: The first segment, featuring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, was shot in 1986; the final six were completed in early 2003. One of its most ambitious sequences features Cate Blanchett trying, literally, to negotiate her own fame, playing both herself and her fictional envy-riddled rocker cousin. Here, Blanchett and Jarmusch engage in a little coffee talk of their own.
CATE BLANCHETT: So, Jim, the thing that surprised me the most about Coffee and Cigarettes is that it's built around resonance rather than plot. There's an echo to the movie, which comes from having all these vignettes lined up together, one after another, as opposed to a linear story line. How did the film develop?
JIM JARMUSCH: I don't exactly know. After I made two of the segments, I realized I wanted to make a series because, well, now you've made two films with the same title and the same situations, so I thought, Huh, I'll just keep making them. And it became a game for me to try to stick in little motifs, but visually it's just the checkerboard pattern that repeats, and the camera positions are exactly the same for each sequence. I started weaving things together that I hoped might accumulate and have an effect, but I didn't know what that effect would be or how it would work until I had about 11 vignettes done. I thought of it like if I were making a record, then I would have enough songs for an album, you know?
CB: The first section I saw was the one with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. I was really drawn in and enjoyed it, but somehow seeing it later, in the context of the other films, it had a completely different weight. At what point did you feel the individual sections of the film taking on a unity?
JJ: The one with Iggy and Tom was actually the third one we did, in 1993. The first three appear in the order they were shot: Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, then Steve Buscemi and Joie and Cinque Lee, and then Iggy and Tom; after that they sort of diverge from the chronological order. It's funny because at first I thought, Oh, this is just repetitious. But once I got the sections in order, I felt like they were somehow stronger because of the diversity of people and characters in them. That's why I'd like to keep making them, or maybe play with some other variation of a situation that I could repeat over and over. It was so much fun for me, so liberating. Your segment, by the way, was the only one that took two days to shoot; the rest were each shot in one day.
CB: My segment was really strange because I was playing opposite myself. It needed to be quite scripted, and the technical aspects of doing the scene were very much at the forefront since we needed to do it as a split screen. But the actual making of the scene felt really experimental.
JJ: Well, I wanted to have a chance to develop a story through time in these little segments. Although that one was so technical, with your having to play one person one day and another the next, it was really fun. You did so many subtle things. Like, you said to me the night before we shot the first day, "Well, the other character, Shelly, is shorter, and she's got bigger breasts and a lower voice. I want to do this with the clothes, and I want Cate to have heels." [laughs] You had all these ideas. The way you kept the nuances of each character's reactions in your head was really amazing--you know, I was actually getting lost. [Blanchett laughs] Thankfully, you were keeping track of things in front of the camera. I really don't know how your imagination could handle that. Some people who have seen the film don't even realize that it's you doing both characters, including Bill Murray. When he first saw the film at our premiere in Venice, while you guys were there shooting The Life Aquatic with Wes Anderson, he came up to me and said really sincerely, "Wow, you know, Cate was really good, but that other girl was incredible too. Who is that?" [both laugh] It's part of what has always interested me about your work, just the incredible variety of characters you can pull off. Man, you've got such range.
CB: I'm deranged? [sarcastically] Thanks!
JJ: [laughs] No, I said you have good range. Plus you are slightly deranged.
CB: [laughs] So when you were working with people who are not necessarily actors, like musicians and things, did you set up guidelines for them, or did you just turn the camera on? It must be tricky, too, because with the sorts of people you work with, there are some really big personalities coming into the room.
JJ: Well, on the first one, with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, we just goofed around together the night before and came up with a little outline; then they kind of diverged from it. With all the sections, the actors had a script that I wrote, but I got input from them while I was writing--like, when you and I went through the script and you brought in some new ideas and some new dialogue. Mostly I work like that. Some actors want to improvise and just naturally do more, and others want to stay closer to the script. It's a different process for everyone. When I worked with Robert Mitchum on Dead Man , he was the only actor that I was really somewhat intimidated by because he was such an icon. I had written the script and was working with the casting director, Ellen Lewis, and she said, "Tell me who your dream people would be." And I said, "Well, Robert Mitchum." Then we got in touch with him, and he asked me to have lunch with him in Santa Barbara. I spent four hours with him, listening to him tell me amazing things about his life. We got along really well, and at the end he said, "Yeah, what the hell. I'll do it." But he was an actor who did not like to improvise. He was from the old-school studio thing, and he did not like his dialogue being changed.
CB: Did he like to have a hand in it?
JJ: No. For example, his character had to have a shotgun, so I got all these vintage shotguns from prop houses in Los Angeles. I drove up to his place in Santa Barbara and laid them out on towels on his living-room floor. I'd heard he had a collection of guns, so I thought he would be interested in picking which one he would carry in the film. So I show him all the guns, and he says, "Well, what the hell would I care? Which one's the lightest? If I have to carry the damn thing around in the whole scene, get me a light one." [both laugh] So, he was very, very funny--and very intimidating, but in a self-effacing way. Man, what an amazing guy.
CB: Because you've been working on Coffee and Cigarettes for such a long time, can you feel its influence on what you're doing now
JJ: Well, I thought recently, What if you just reconfigured the scenes with different actors and kept the same cast, but kept making more? Like having Bill Murray or Taylor Mead be in a scene with Roberto Benigni, or pairing up Steve Buscemi with Steve Coogan. It could be funny, but there are also a lot of other people that I'd like to play with a little bit, so I don't know whether I'll do more. I think I will. I'm not very analytical--all work for me is a process. When he was in his 80s, the great Japanese master Akira Kurosawa was asked, "When will you stop making films?" and he answered, "As soon as I figure out how to do it." That really moved me. I was like, "Wow, I know nothing, and I want to learn."
CB: It seems like in the West, when someone expresses a sentiment like that, it's assumed to be false humility. But that idea is so important: that there is no end point in a process, that it just keeps evolving.
JJ: People seem to undervalue their mistakes or even try to deny them, but for me, mistakes are the most important part of working because that's how I learn. The things you do wrong help you go forward because what you do right, you often can't explain. You know, because I'm Western, you might be inferring that I'm bullshitting here, but with filmmaking, the process by which things happen is almost magical. It's a constant collaboration, and for some reason, things sometimes just work out.