Jim Jarmusch crafts a vampire love story for the ages in Only Lovers Left Alive.
Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch is old school. He writes all his scripts out by hand and then dictates them to a typist. And, despite the presence of an iPad and iPhone in his life, he doesn’t have email. “I don’t have enough time as it is to read a book or see my friends,” he said.
So his interest in vampires, the subject of his latest movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, is hardly modish: He hasn’t seen Twilight or True Blood or read Anne Rice, but he can recount the origin of one of the first English vampire stories, which dates to around 1816. His film stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve, a bloodsucking couple whose love spans centuries and continents — he lives in crumbling Detroit; she in seedy, tangled Tangier. They’re united as much by their creative and literary appetites as by their darker urges. In some ways, Jarmusch said, it’s quite a personal film.
Jarmusch could be called vampiric, too, and not just for his predominantly black wardrobe and nimbus of silver hair, which he has cut himself since he was a boy. At 61, he still has an unquenched cultural thirst.
More than three decades into filmmaking, Jarmusch remains the rare indie director who achieved critical success (and four prizes at Cannes) and enough prestige to cast stars like Cate Blanchett and Johnny Depp and yet never made a move toward Hollywood, never even leapt at directing a commercial. Instead he maintained, in movies and music, his own wry, rad vision.
“For my generation of film nerds, he was pretty much the first who showed us America through the eyes of an American alien,” said Swinton, who has made three films with him. As a student, she saw Stranger Than Paradise, his 1984 breakthrough, and ever since, “he has been a consistent North Star for me,” she said, “a reliable idiosyncratic bass note under the anthem of generica sounding around him.”
The film is part of a productive swoop for Jarmusch. It’s the first in which his five-year-old band, Sqürl, provides much of the soundtrack, in collaboration with composer and lutist Jozef van Wissem. Coming projects include a quasi-documentary about the Stooges; an opera about Nikola Tesla; and another feature, about a bus driver and poet in Paterson, New Jersey.
Jarmusch is nocturnal, which is why his films so often take place at night. He has long had a loft on the Lower East Side and a place in the Catskills, too with his longtime partner Sara Driver, also a filmmaker.
If his work has eccentric tonal similarities — long, slow takes; a penchant for black-and-white; evocative, obscure music; tinder-dry humor — Jarmusch has applied them to familiar genres, like Westerns (Dead Man, with Depp), martial arts-gangster flicks (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai with Forest Whitaker) and dark rom-coms (Broken Flowers, with Bill Murray, his highest-grossing film).
In the new film, Adam is a reluctant virtuoso who shares Jarmusch’s affinity for avant drone rock (with lute). “He has a weakness that he wants to hear his own music echo back,” Jarmusch said. “That’s not a smart thing to do, if you’re trying to live undercover. Unlike Eve — she has no need for that, she’s full of wonder at things, and that’s enough for her.”
With film, Jarmusch likes to improvise, writing new pages, adding scenes when locations strike him and shooting as much as he can. He works “as the musician he is,” Swinton said, “assembling and tickling up a rhythm and a relaxedness in the scene by extended ‘jamming’ before eventually laying down tracks. I happen to love this free-fall way of working.”
Jarmusch’s real-life stories easily equal, or maybe surpass, the narrative leaps of his movies. “I have this motto: It’s hard to get lost when you don’t know where you’re going,” he said.