It’s not hyperbolic to describe Jim Jarmusch as an American auteur. The filmmaker, who rose to prominence during the independent film boom of the 1980s (with movies like “Mystery Train,” “Night on Earth” and “Down by Law”) and continued making singular, esoteric works for the past two decades (highlights include “Dead Man” and “Broken Flowers”). In 2013 he made “Only Lovers Left Alive,” a beautiful, mournful vampire film that starred Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, that unexpectedly inspired his latest project: “The Dead Don’t Die,” his typically idiosyncratic take on the zombie film.
Featuring an all-star cast that combines Jarmusch regulars (including Swinton, Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Steve Buscemi) with new ensemble players like Selena Gomez and Danny Glover, it’s one of his slice-of-life comedy/dramas, except maybe this time it’s slice-of-death.
We were lucky enough to sit down with the legendary filmmaker in Beverly Hills recently, where we talked about the movie’s unlikely origins, its political and meta-textual tone, what happened to Daniel Craig’s role and who okayed them using a “Star Wars” spaceship on a keychain. And yes, he’s just as creative and stimulating as you’d imagine he’d be.
Moviefone: When did you start thinking about doing a zombie movie?
Jim Jarmusch: I started thinking about it after we made “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I started thinking about it partly because Tilda Swinton was teasing me a lot. She’d call me and say, “So, when's the zombie film Jim?” And then we made, in between, “Patterson” and the Stooges documentary “Gimme Danger.” Then I was gathering some ideas and my real attraction is that I like the framework of a genre film, but the zombie thing is the most obvious metaphorically. I'd say it’s the most obvious thing you could do that's going to have metaphorical implications.
So my initial idea was to make a film like “Coffee and Cigarettes” where I could have actors I really love, a number of them, and I could have them maybe cordoned off in separate groups, boarding off the zombie attack. So between the zombie attacks, which could be infrequent, I could have ridiculous dialogue about whatever I want with actors I love. So that was the beginning, but then as I started writing, it took me to Centerville and a town and it still has a lot of that element of ridiculous dialogue. But it just moved to what it is and I didn't analyze it or I didn't plan it exactly. I just follow my intuition.
Was it always this political?
Well I have to say a few things about that. First of all, our template is George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” and his other films as well. He’s the godfather of postmodern zombies with a sociopolitical thread in it. Now I am aware of some people have criticized our film saying, “Well, it doesn't bring anything new. And it says the same things he said 50 years ago.” Well, those things haven't f*cking changed. They've only gotten worse. What are we supposed to do? And we weren't trying to make an experimental innovative zombie film. We were using a very obvious metaphorical framework.
But in response to the only really pointed thing is the hat and Steve Buscemi’s character. And the reason allowed that to remain in the film was that the film’s reflective and we live in a time with a lot of racist f*cking sloganeering going on. That's where we are. So why would not allow it in the film?
But the larger thing for me is I'm against the division of people. I don't want a revolution. I want people to be together. And what I'm against are all these right-wing people all over the planet separating everybody now. I don't like that. So all the people in Centerville, they still get along. Okay, Steve Buscemi’s character is a racist or a right-wing guy, a farmer, but he's still hangs out in the diner and still sitting next to Danny Glover. They still talk to each other and that it's not like a war going on. It's not like white supremacists marching in the street. It's one farmer that is kind of nasty and everyone kind of says, “Well, he's an asshole.”
So that's as far as I wanted to go about that. But in the end of the film, of course that message is a kind of unavoidable for me in it being a reflective thing with the zombie metaphor. Because total corporate greed and total consumerist consumption of it is going to be the end of our planet. But there's also something in the film that’s equally important to me. RZA’s character says, “The world is perfect, appreciate the details.” And that's as important to me as anything else because we have our consciousness and life on earth may be like this in the universe, but we're here talking, feeling a breeze, talking about things that interest us. So there's that in the film too, but the end is dark. How can it not be?
When Bill Murray was first talking about this, he was said that Daniel Craig was a part of the cast. Was he the Adam Driver character?
No, I had a different character for Daniel Craig. He was a trailer-in-the-woods, meth lab type of guy. He was a loner and separate from the town and kind of violent and strange. We had a very squeezed schedule because we had to shoot Adam out in three weeks. That whole character with Bill and Chloe, all that in three weeks.
Was that because he was starting “Star Wars?”
Yes. And it took us so long to finance the film that we were really pushed. So Daniel Craig, who I've known for a few years and who I think is fantastic actor, we wanted to do something together so I wrote this character. And he said, “Listen man, I’ve got a new baby coming. I’ve got to be in England for James Bond at this point. I have 10 days I will devote to you.” He said, “These are the only 10 days I can give you and I within that, I'm sure we could shoot in a few days.” However, it was in the Adam Driver period and there was no way I could schedule it. So instead of recasting, I said, “You know what, then I'm just going to take that guy out of the story. Because I wrote it for you. I wanted it to be you. I'm honored that you gave me a chance, but it won't work.” And he said, “I understand.” He said, “That damn Adam Driver!” Because they’re friends.
Did it take any convincing to get Adam Driver to do the “Star Wars” gag? And did you get any resistance from Disney in terms of allowing the spaceship? Because famously Spielberg couldn’t get that stuff cleared for “Ready Player One.”
Yes. That wasn't in the script. But my property guy Jeff Butcher, he brought that key chain and said, “Is this interesting to you?” for the scene where gives her the keys. And I said, “Yeah, that's fantastic.” So we tried to get the rights for them and they said, “No, no, no, no, no, sorry.” So it's like aw dammit. And even JJ Abrams had been very nice to us. He kept trying to move Adam’s shoot date, but he could not. But he tried for us. So anyway, Adam loved the gag. But then I said, “Adam, we can't do it. They're not giving us permission.” So Adam says, “Let me make a call.” So he made a call and then we got permission. He was so cool about it and liked it a lot.
Did the movie always have that meta element to it too?
Yeah, it did. Because I wrote it into the script to amuse myself, but all films for me are a process and they change all the way through. So when I wrote it I wasn't sure I would keep it. I wanted to wait and see what Adam and Bill [thought], because I wrote for them. I wanted to see if they thought, oh this is arch or this is too self-referential. Then I would take it out. But instead they were the opposite. They were like, “We love this. This is great. This gives us a lot to play with in our minds in a way we think is funny.We can pull it off.”
Did you give Bill Murray the full script or just his scenes?
I won’t answer that.
What was it like working with the special effects and make-up? It's the most probably you've ever had?
By far. It was challenging because the schedule was so tight. We shot the whole film in seven weeks in the middle of summer and so we had to shoot all in the day. We shot day for night for that reason, which we like the artifice of it. We couldn't afford to tow the cars around. So all that was shot in a warehouse and we put the plates in later. It looks very good but slightly artificial, that I like, if you really look at it. But I love that. So the same company, Chimney that's in New York and Sweden did all the effects. Not the prosthetics or the make-up stuff, but all the visual effects. And they were fantastic, but it was very time consuming and a lot of things to plan on the set when on location and you're so squeezed for time. It was very taxing but also really fascinating for me. So I loved it. But it took a lot out of us to prepare. So like George Romero, we were mixing, you know, we have prosthetics, some masks and then some just make-up and some almost no make-up.
And you made your partner a zombie.
Yeah. We’re old friends with Iggy. And I always thought they'd be a great couple sometime because they have similar physiques, they are very wiry, Bruce Lee-ish and she has a female version of that in a way and their long hair and they’re friends and Iggy likes tall girls. And I just thought, Okay, this is cool. And she's been in a few of my films in small roles – in “Mystery Train” and “Stranger Than Paradise.” She was in “Down by Law,” but the scene got taken out because the film didn't need it. But she was great. She was like a female motorcycle mechanic. It's in the outtakes on the Criterion. I liked having them together and it was one of my favorite scenes of any film I've ever made. I don't know. I just love those coffee zombies.
I noticed the car from “Night of the Living Dead” in the film. Are there any other Romero references that we should look out for it?
Yes, there are many. All, all the town names are from Romero. Obviously this kind of vestigial memory of something they liked going back to “Dawn of the Dead” and the mall thing. There a lot of little things, like killed the head, but also there's a very obscure ones, like Caleb Landry Jones’ character drinking Mountain Dew. That is only for real Romero heads.
What’s the Mountain Dew reference?
You’ll have to look it up. It has to do with him personally. [Editor’s note: Apparently Romero woke every day and had a cigarette and a Mountain Dew. Romero died at age 77 after a “brief but aggressive” battle with lung cancer (according to his longtime producing partner).] So that's one. Certainly in “Night of the Living Dead” and Romero’s films, the dead are becoming undead because of some stupid ass things humans did. In “Night of the Living Dead,” a virus comes back on a satellite or something. So obviously we need needed a device like that. It's indebted to him for us. Other things too. I'm forgetting them all.
Do like any other zombie movies?
Yeah, I do. I don't know if you ever saw “Train to Busan?” That is a bad-ass f*cking zombie movie. And and I love the first 20 minutes of “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s fantastic. It kind of wears out for me, after that, but that doesn't take away from it being a great film. And I've seen “Zombieland” and that's pretty good. I don't know, I'm not a big zombie fan, but I like even the earliest ones. I think “White Zombie” is probably the earliest one. That's a different thing. It's only Romero that made them us. He made them victims and monsters and makes them come from broken social structure. Romero’s the postmodern master.
If you were thinking “The Dead Don’t Die” while you were making “Only Lovers Left Alive,” have you started thinking about the end of your horror trilogy?
Would that be what? Ghosts? Mummies?
I haven't yet, but I'm not a big planner. I'm sort of single celled. I'm working on my next one, but it's not a horror genre. But I’ll keep it in mind.
You’ve worked with Amazon on “Patterson.” Did you ever pitch “The Dead Don’t Die” to a streaming platform?
Well I went to Amazon first. And then I did go to Netflix and they turned me down and you know what they said? They said, and this was total horse shit, it was just something someone was told to say. They said, “we find the script to be a bit too sophisticated.” I was like, “This is one of the dumbest things I've ever written after ‘Coffee and Cigarettes.’ This is supposed to be… it's called “The Dead Don’t Die” for Christ’s sake. It's not a sophisticated thing.
But you don’t have a problem with streaming services?
No, I don't. I mean I liked theatrical releases of course, but I will go that will let you make the film you want to make without interfering and Netflix gives you the budgets you ask for. Which Focus did not. And we went over budget to the exact point of what we said it would cost initially. But we got punished for that by not getting paid. They deferred some of us but I don't want to diss them because this was very hard to finance. Focus did step up. They did allow us to make the film and they did give us total autonomy, which I require, no interference. You have final cut, you choose all your collaborators, we front the money, you do it through your own production company. That's your entity. Everything artistic is yours. And we'll consult with you about the way we promote the film. I don't have final say like I use usually do, but they have been kept their word and have been inclusive in all of the poster art and social media stuff. And the last two times I must say, they gave me the budget that I asked for. And they didn't interfere. But that was different times. Different people and smaller budget I must say.
Does going into television appeal to you?
Well, I've been trying for a while and now it might happen. It looks good to do a “Ghost Dog” TV series.
Would you direct it?
Probably not. I’d be an executive producer. The pilot script was written, not by me, and RZA is involved and we would like Forest to be involved as an executive producer. But I don't think I want to get real into doing it, but I would love to do it and guide a bit. We’ve been trying that one for some years. RZA is very gung ho.
“The Dead Don’t Die” is in theaters this Friday. Take somebody you’d want to return from the grave with.