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.
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."
Eventually, Jarmusch wrote the part of Don Johnston for Murray, whom he had known for several years. He also wrote the female roles with many of the specific actresses in mind. He wanted to work with Stone after seeing her virtuoso performance in Martin Scorsese's "Casino" and had long wanted to cast Lange because of her "bohemian-goddess presence."
"He will tailor a role for you as if he's creating a special dish in your honor," says the French African actor Isaach De Bankole, who has starred in three of Jarmusch's films.
Both Murray and Jarmusch share a knack for improvisation: They both, as Jarmusch says laughingly, "are a little contrary, and don't like to plan ahead.
"Bill doesn't like to rehearse," Jarmusch adds. "While we were shooting I told him, 'The script is a sketch to me, and you add or change any dialogue you want.' He did add some things, but he also gave me a number of very subtle variations on each take. The fact that he could do that amazed me."
Murray's funny, wistful performance has been compared with his Oscar-nominated turn in "Lost in Translation." But the actor underscores the difference: "For me, Jim's film was a completely new experience," Murray says by telephone. "I never had a job like this one before. Usually, if you get the lead in a show, you're sort of driving the boat. But here, I never knew ahead of time how any of the actresses were going to play their scenes. So I had to be completely open and just react to them."
He pauses. "You know how people say, 'I'm really proud of this movie'? Well, it's sort of beyond that for me. I feel that I got to something here that I wouldn't have gotten to otherwise. I don't want to walk in and give a performance that I've thought about all week and know exactly what notes I want to hit. I just feel like I know enough about life that I've got the big moves down, sort of. The fine moves are moments you discover as you live life attentively."
Jarmusch shot "Broken Flowers" on locations around New York's Rockland and Westchester counties, and in New Jersey, in the fall of 2004. Frances Conroy recalls the set as homespun, "sort of like a block party." So homespun, in fact, that one morning Jarmusch watched Murray suddenly leave the set, walk to the house across the street (which was not involved in the film shoot), open the door without knocking, and disappear inside. "Ten minutes later, Bill emerges again with a plate of cookies, and starts offering them to the crew," Jarmusch says, shaking his head. "What I would have liked to see was the people inside eating breakfast, when Bill Murray walks in."
Though the film's landscapes feel very American in spirit, its soundtrack has an eerie, exotic languor. As he's traveling from place to place, Don listens to music by the Ethiopian jazz musician Mulatu Astatke (which is given to him by his best friend, Winston, Wright's character, who is Ethiopian). Jarmusch's films have always melded different cultural currents. In 1996's "Dead Man," Johnny Depp's fugitive befriends a Native American seer. In "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," Forest Whitaker's hit man models himself on the "Hagakure," an early 18th-century Japanese samurai code book.
"You know when you read the warning label on the back of something and it says 'Please don't mix'?" says Waits, who has acted in, and contributed music to, several of Jarmusch's films. "Well, Jim doesn't let that stop him."
Says Jarmusch, "I've always found a great beauty in different people's forms of expression. I feel a bit lost in contemporary America because it seems odd to me that a country made up of people from so many different cultures is so insular right now."
Jarmusch says he was obsessed with music and books as a teenager growing up in Akron. His father worked for B.F. Goodrich before becoming the president of a small manufacturing company in Cleveland. Jim went to Northwestern University and then transferred to Columbia, where he majored in literature.
During a semester in Paris he discovered the Cinematheque Francaise, the renowned film archive, and the works of directors from all over the world. He applied to graduate film school at New York University and while there became a protege of director Nicholas Ray, perhaps best known for "Rebel Without a Cause," who introduced him to the German film director Wim Wenders. Wenders liked Jarmusch's student thesis film and gave him some leftover film stock, which eventually helped to jump-start "Stranger Than Paradise."
The film was shown at Cannes in 1984 and stunned Jarmusch by winning the Camera d'Or, the prize for best first feature. "We were street punks, we had nothing," he recalls, still incredulous. "We put up the posters ourselves on the street. And then the film was bought all over Europe."
In the wake of newfound celebrity, he started working on "Down by Law," which starred a young Italian comedian, Roberto Benigni, whom he had met at a film festival. After "Down by Law" came "Mystery Train," the tale of a young Japanese couple on Elvis's trail in Memphis, and "Night on Earth," set in five different cities.
He made four feature-length films in the next 12 years: "Dead Man," "Year of the Horse" (a concert documentary about Neil Young and his band), "Ghost Dog" and 2004's "Coffee and Cigarettes," an effervescent collection of vignettes with a starry cast.
Most of Jarmusch's films have been financed by foreign companies, and he works slowly because of his involvement in every step of the process. But even "Broken Flowers," which was financed by Focus Features (the specialty films unit of Universal Pictures), was made with the same degree of creative control. "I always negotiate my financing deals with a loaded shotgun," Jarmusch says, "and this film was made the same way as I made the others."
He is already working on several new ideas, and says that he tries not to analyze his films too much once they are finished. "I don't learn anything by looking back at them," he says. "They're like little signposts along the way, and if you start investing too much importance in a certain moment, you're losing the thread. I carry the memory of shooting my films more deeply than the actual films themselves." He smiles. "For me, it's all about the process, not the destination."