Jim Jarmusch’s Showtunes


No director embodies the relationship between cinema and song like off-center hypnosis merchant Jim Jarmusch. For 30 years, his musical obsessions have inspired meditative, idiosyncratic, devoutly independent films—his recurring themes of displacement and unease likewise preoccupy the hip-hop, metal, indie rock, and downtown-jazz stars who dot his soundtracks. Jarmusch’s films are often directly inspired by his mixtapes and fave raves—or, as he says, “It is leading me, and I’m following”—resulting in a mesmeric poetry where celluloid and music are inseparable from frame one, whether it be the languid cool of Tom Waits and John Lurie in Down by Law, the jagged desolation of Neil Young in Dead Man, the damaged noir of RZA in Ghost Dog, or the minor-key breeziness of Ethio-jazzer Mulatu Astatke in Broken Flowers.

Jarmusch’s latest showcase for his eclectic taste and unique vision is the Sunday lineup for the 2010 edition of New York’s All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival, the reliably surreal weekend-long indie-rock pool party held in a Jewish resort in the Catskills. As curator, his choices include artists who’ve graced his films (Raekwon, GZA, the Greenhornes, the Black Angels), artists that inspired him as an ’80s no-waver (hip-hop inventor DJ Kool Herc), and contemporary indie stars who capture the charming-weirdo anxiety of his protagonists (Girls, Kurt Vile, Fucked Up). The weekend concludes with a feedback blowout courtesy of Sunn O))) and Boris, who provided dissonance and beauty in his most recent film, 2009’s The Limits of Control. In honor of the occasion, we pulled up a chair at a downtown restaurant to discuss exactly how he turns sound into vision.

When you were singing for the Del-Byzanteens in the ’80s, were you comfortable as a performer? I didn’t eat it up, but I liked it. We opened twice for Echo and the Bunnymen and once for New Order—a couple of times for the Psychedelic Furs. I don’t know why these British bands were asking for us in that period there. . . . The most terrifying was opening for a reunion of the Four Tops where it was a bunch of frat boys, and not only did we get pelted with spit and beer cans, which was fine for the time, but then the toilets in the dressing rooms completely flooded, and all our equipment and stuff was floating away in sewage.

How does something that inspires you, like a Boris song, end up as part of a movie? I love that band. When I was writing Limits of Control, I made little mixtapes or CDs for myself for inspiration, and Boris and Sunn O))) were really helping to trigger my imagination. They would open up my mind to the kinds of things I was trying visualize in my head, guiding me toward the feeling of the score and the atmosphere of the film. So I just kept writing, using that stuff. I made mixtapes to give to the crew—not necessarily what will make it into the film, but things that are just inspiring. That stuff starts echoing around the set—it starts to just follow you around like a climate or a weather system. Music’s a real guide. For me, it can help me get a sense for the speed the camera might move; music might help me find rhythmic things in the editing.

Have you gotten to hang out and talk to Boris at all? I have. Although only one of them, the drummer, Atsuo, speaks English. The coolest quote I got off them once: They told me that they had taken a van from Chicago to Seattle. I said, “Oh, wow, what was the trip like?” And the answer was: “OK, leave Chicago . . . look out window . . . nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, Rocky Mountain! Very exciting!

How do you approach someone like RZA to do a movie score? I had to hunt RZA down. I wasn’t getting anywhere through the management–normal things. I just started asking some friends, and within two days, I was sitting with RZA in a studio in Midtown at 3 a.m., meeting for the first time. We got along really well, and we just started talking about everything, and by the end of that night, he was like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m down. When should we start? What should I do?” Him and GZA are like encyclopedias of martial-arts film. They don’t just know every director and actor; they know who choreographed the fight scenes, who did the design, who did this and that.

What kind of direction did you give him? I had collected all the Wu-Tang vinyl with the instrumental B-sides, so I could say, like, “I like this floating, damaged beat. I like this stutter, this trippy slow thing.” We decided that we won’t do cues to the film. You’ll hand me off music, I’ll put it in the film, but don’t score to certain sections. . . . One of the coolest times: He came in with ODB, and we spent the whole day with ODB watching the placement of the music. That was amazing. I think they were on mushrooms or something, though—they were acting very peculiar. Every five minutes or so, ODB would jump up and go, “Yo, yo! Stop the machine! Earth, Mars, Venus: Pick one!” And RZA would go, “I got this. Earth.” And he’d go, “OK, start it up again.” He was amazing. I wanted to go in and film him—we were going to go in when he was locked down. Go put a camera on ODB and let him talk about any fucking thing he wants. We never got to do it. That’s a big regret.

Did you work with Neil Young in a similar way? Neil, in a way, was the opposite procedure, because Neil played directly to the film live, in a couple of takes, two and a half times through the film. So, what he recorded I did not move, you know? He reacted to it as if his music became a character. It wasn’t something I could really slide around; I didn’t want to.

Has there ever been an artist you’ve wanted to use for a movie and you couldn’t make it happen? So far, no. I’ve been really lucky. Although I had to pay through the teeth in Mystery Train to use “Mystery Train” and “Blue Moon” by Elvis. That was ex-pen-sive.

You’ve been using musicians as actors in your movies for years and years. . . . It’s not like, “Well, what musicians would be good actors?” It was more like, “What people do I know who I could imagine being that character?” And they happen to be musicians—actors are different. It doesn’t matter if they’re musicians or plumbers or strippers or what. Joe Strummer, he stayed kind of close to the text because he felt he liked having a map; Waits will improvise more. But that’s true of someone like Bill Murray—he’ll improvise more. Or someone like John Hurt, who doesn’t improvise. Iggy’s a great actor, potentially—if he trusts you. He is really smart, and his body is an instrument for him already, so for him to be a character—as long as you get him trusting you, and he feels like he understands the character, he’s fantastic. Waits, I want to work with him as an actor again sometime, I just have a lot of fun with him. Tom and I met some casting director a few years ago when they were doing the second Austin Powers or something. Tom and I swooped in on it and said, “We want to be in it—we could be brothers, whatever, we want to be a team.” Never heard anything from them, of course.

It’s hard to imagine such a huge presence as Tom Waits taking directions. But he’s a collaborator, he understands. We had a big fight once when I made a music video for his song “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” We had a fight because he wanted me to edit something differently that I didn’t want to do. In fact, I locked Tom inside an indoor parking lot behind a metal door, and he was pounding on it, screaming. I got two great things out of this experience: One, hearing Tom yell at me, “Goddamn it Jim! I’m going to glue your fucking hair to the wall!” which I had never heard as a threat before. That was pretty Waits-ian. And what I really learned, in the end, is that he was right, and I edited it the way he wanted. He was absolutely right. He taught me, Jim, this isn’t your film. This is my video for my record and your voice is in it by the fact that you made it, but it’s a thing on TV. I really learned that collaboration has its parameters. I was really happy to learn that lesson.

Do you have a soundtrack for a next project that you’re thinking of? I’m working on it, but I can’t talk about it in advance. I’m trying to get a film going for early next year. One of the characters is a musician of unusual, outside music—electric stuff. It’s going to be a mixture of—I don’t know how you’d call it—avant-instrumental electric guitar . . . with some lute music. There will be some Arabic music, some vintage rockabilly stuff, so, again, a mixture of things. I have a great cast, but I don’t have the financing yet because it’s really weird out there right now. I’ve got Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender, Mia Wasikowska, and John Hurt—I’ve got these four ready to do it, but I don’t have the money yet. I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna get it even if I have to do something highly illegal, I don’t know what.

Was there a narrative to your All Tomorrow’s Parties selections? No. I just wanted it to be innovative, interesting, potentially mind-blowing live. I wanted some girls in there, so I got the Vivian Girls and Hope Sandoval. White Hills has a girl. And then I got Girls, who aren’t actually girls. My first thought was, “I’m going to make it all girls.” Then I thought that’s a bit too restrictive. My only daunting thing was I couldn’t pick enough bands. I had a hundred. I could go on forever . . . I’m open to all forms of music . . . except maybe showtunes. I never really quite connected with that. There’s a lot of showtune-isms in rock ‘n’ roll—so-called rock ‘n’ roll. Like Billy Joel and Meatloaf might as well just be Broadway garbage. Anyway, we’re not going to have the cast of Mamma Mia! at ATP, I don’t think.

Some big Bob Fosse routine around the lake . . . Yeah, with the Wu-Tang. The Bob Fosse Massacre.

All Tomorrow’s Parties comes to Kutsher’s Country Club in Monticello, New York, September 3 through 5,