Before Jim Jarmusch was Jim Jarmusch, he was this tall and intimidatingly cool guy who lived near me in Little Italy in the early 80s. He was so disgustingly cool that he made me feel ashamed of myself. I would literally cross to the other side of the street to avoid his towering coolness.
As I'm sure you know, there was a flurry of artistic activity downtown in those days --painting, theatre, music, club life, performance art, etc. But movies were expensive to make, so there weren't too many of them. A lot of people did find put together some money, including Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Bette Gordon, and Beth & Scott B. The scene was interesting and there were so many talented people around it just seemed like a masterpiece was just around the corner.
I was invited to a screening at the Film Forum of a new half-hour short called Stranger Than Paradise, by Janet Perlberg (who worked at FF) and her boyfriend John. Everybody seemed to be there. I sat down with my buddy Ed Lachman (who would later receive an Oscar nomination for shooting Far From Heaven) and we watched the thing. Afterwards, Ed and I were in such a daze that we bonked heads as we got up. We really hurt each other, but we were happy. It was one of those rare moments when you go into a movie theatre expecting nothing and see something you've never seen before. This Jarmusch guy was obviously a huge talent.
Outside I discovered that Jarmusch was in fact the downtown super-dude that I'd been avoiding. Jesus!
I was running a little movie PR company in those days out of the bedroom of my apartment. My friend Adam Brooks (now a writer/director) was helping me out, but when he left, I went looking for a new assistant. My friend Leon Falk suggested Sara Driver, who turned out to be the producer of Stranger, a very good filmmaker in her own right, and Jim's girlfriend.
Sara and I worked together with Jeanne Moreau on L'Adolescente and with Werner Herzog on Fitzcarraldo. Jim was broke in those days, so I hired him to put up posters for a reissue of The Seven Samurai that Russell Schwartz (then a freelancer; now President of Theatrical Marketing for New Line) and I teamed up on. Jim did a lot of postering for his band The Del-Byzanteens and was a terrific posterer. Some of those posters are probably still there. He got some amazing spots.
Jim had been a star pupil at NYU and had already made one feature, "Permanent Vacation." He had done various production jobs and had shot Sara's short "You are Not I" and taken part in Wim Wenders' film "Lightning over Water," about Nicholas Ray. Through Sara, I saw Jim now and then. He turned out to be a really good guy--funny, warm, and an amazing storyteller.
In making Stranger Than Paradise, Jim tapped into the talents of the people he knew in the downtown world he traveled in. John Lurie, the lanky saxophonist leader of The Lounge Lizards, played Willie in the film and also composed the score; Richard Edson, the original drummer in Sonic Youth, caught Jarmusch's eye while drumming for the dance band Konk, and was cast in the film as Eddie.
Hungarian Eszter Balint (Eva) was a 16-year-old member of a NY theatre troupe called Squat Theatre. The name came from the fact that the company lived as well as performed in their storefront theatre on 23rd Street. In a Squat production, the audience would sit facing the big door that opened out to the street, which became a backdrop for the play. Seeing plays at Squat was always exciting and precarious, most notably in 1982 when real policemen handcuffed (at gunpoint) two actors engaged in a simulated gun battle on the street.
Jim traveled to many festivals with Stranger the short, trying to raise money for a feature version. I did my best to convince him what a terrible idea this was. "It's a perfect short, maybe the best one I've ever seen," I told him. "You should just move on and write something new." Jim wasn't defensive. He calmly explained that he thought he might have a few ideas about how to continue the story. I gave up trying to convince him. Some people just won't listen..
Finally, Jim found a producer, Otto Grokenberger, who had enough money to finish the film. But suddenly there was an unexpected cost-- $25,000. And that was it. For Jim and Otto, $25,000 might as well have been 25 million. At that scary moment, it looked like there might not ever be a feature version of "Stranger Than Paradise."
Then actor/director Paul Bartel ("Death Race 2000," "Eating Raoul") came to the rescue with the $25,000. He didn't ask for producer credit or anything (his credit is "special thanks"). He just forked over the cash. Years later I asked Paul about this and he just shrugged his shoulders. As far as he was concerned, anyone would have done it. I wonder what Jarmusch's life would have been like without Paul's generosity. Most likely Jim would have gotten the film made somehow, but Paul (who died in 2000) was a miracle of a guy.
With the money in place, Sara quit her job with me and went off to finish "Stranger." After they it was done, they got into Cannes and came back with the Camera d'Or, the prize for Best First Film at the festival in 1984. Jim was very excited that the prize was actually a camera. He kept talking about that damned camera, how great it was.
Sara, who had learned about publicity writing from me, wrote the press materials for Cannes. They explained a lot of what Jim's intentions were in making the film. Quotes from Carl Dreyer, etc. The kind of stuff I always liked to put in publicity notes. But in this case, I took all that stuff out. People were enjoying the film. Let them figure out why they liked it. I didn't want to limit people's responses by hearing Jim's reasons for making it.
I was still pretty new to the PR game, but I knew that Jim's life was about to change forever. I went to work. (take a look at this article written by future screenwriter Paul Attanasio for the Washington Post.
Jeff Lipsky (future co-founder of October Films and now a film director) of the Samuel Goldwyn Company brought his usual enthusiasm and passion to his promotion of the film.
What happened next, most of you know. The film was a great success (to say the least), was eventually named Best Film of the Year (1984) by the National Society of Film Critics and has since taken its place as a landmark of the American independent cinema.
[image: Jarmusch and Rosefelt at Telluride in 1984.]
One final memory.
Early on, I took the film's three stars, John, Richard and Eszter, out for lunch, to discuss the plans for the film. As I laid out buttons, t-shirts and other Lipsky-created doodads on the table, Eszter looked at me incredulously.
We were more innocent then. This was before worldwide conglomerates produced "indie" films, before product placement blanketed Sundance like snow, before anyone even knew what goodie bags were.
Eszter stared at the t-shirts and buttons in stunned disbelief.
"You're kidding, right?"