'Flowers' Arranger

By Laura Winters
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 31, 2005

Meeting filmmaker Jim Jarmusch recently in the back room of Emilio's Ballato, an off-the-beaten-track Italian joint on New York's Houston Street, feels like walking into a Jarmusch film. The 52-year-old director has, throughout his career, developed his own indelible universe of hipster cool -- a universe replete with neighborhood hangouts such as Ballato's, where you pass through the hot kitchen, with its caldron of bubbling meat sauce, to get to the white-walled back room.

Jim Jarmusch
Film writer/director Jim Jarmusch on Ludlow Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side.(Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)
Jarmusch's hilariously deadpan films are populated with offbeat characters encountering each other in obscure places. But his new film, "Broken Flowers," which opens here on Friday, juxtaposes a particularly vivid crew of people. Bill Murray plays a retired computer entrepreneur and former Don Juan named Don Johnston who is left by his exasperated girlfriend (Julie Delpy) and who sets out to look up a succession of former paramours (played by the all-star team of Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy, Tilda Swinton and Sharon Stone).

Though Jarmusch was born and raised just outside Akron, Ohio, he has lived in downtown New York for almost 30 years. He cuts quite a figure, with his tall lanky frame, striking face and shock of silver hair. "He's this icon, this superhero of the Lower East Side," says actor, and former Washingtonian, Jeffrey Wright, who also stars in "Broken Flowers."

Jarmusch is especially an icon to film industry folk, many of whom credit him as a pioneer of American independent filmmaking. His first film, "Stranger Than Paradise" in 1984, a quirky black-and-white movie about three young people on a road trip, influenced directors as diverse as Spike Lee, Kevin Smith and Gregg Araki. "I was really inspired by 'Stranger Than Paradise,' " says Araki, whose haunting drama "Mysterious Skin," released in June, impressed the critics. "It showed me that a young filmmaker could make a hip, artistic movie which could get seen and talked about around the world."

Though Jarmusch's films are known primarily to art house audiences here, he is admired in international film circles for his poetic originality and his stubborn independence. He has always insisted on complete control over his movies, from start to finish. "My films are handmade," he says, smiling, sitting in Ballato's next to an empty teacup. "They're made in the garage."

Maybe because of that, he exerts a Pied Piper magnetism for A-list actors and musicians. "It's harder and harder in this day and age, in this relentless drive toward mediocrity, to find a director who's an individual," Lange says by phone. "But Jim has retained his individual voice and his vision and he never compromises. At the same time, he's kind of Zenlike: He welcomes all attitudes and behavior."

In person Jarmusch is warm and humorous, a natural raconteur who will effortlessly slip into an imitation of, say, his friend Tom Waits's gravelly voice. But he is also reflexively modest and attuned to other people's feelings. ("Is it okay if I smoke?" he asks later that afternoon. "I don't like to disturb other people's lungs.")

In "Broken Flowers," Murray's character looks up his former girlfriends because he has received an anonymous letter from one of them claiming he is the father of a son he never knew he had. The film, which is both funny and melancholy, won the Cannes Film Festival's second-place honor, the Grand Prize, in May. Critics hailed it as a departure for Jarmusch -- more accessible, some said, and potentially more mainstream.

The words "departure" and "mainstream" seem to alarm him. "I don't understand why people say this film is a departure," Jarmusch says. "I've worked with actors like Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker and Robert Mitchum before. It's not like I suddenly have a cast of known people."

Nonetheless, upon reflection he concedes that there is something different about his latest effort. "Maybe because I've always been attracted to outsiders and marginal characters, and Bill Murray plays a guy here who is not like that," he says.

"Broken Flowers" also features women more prominently than many of Jarmusch's films -- from the warm and sexually magnetic Laura (played by Stone) to the strong and intuitive Carmen (Lange), who works as an "animal communicator," to the still-furious Penny (Tilda Swinton), who slams the door in Don's face.

Jarmusch first got the idea for the film from a longtime girlfriend, filmmaker Sara Driver. "Sara was writing a script with a friend of ours, Bill Raden," he said, "and they came up with the idea of a guy getting an anonymous letter from a former lover saying that they had had a child. Sara and Bill didn't use the idea, but they thought I might like it -- so I carried it around with me for a while, as I tend to do with ideas."

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