If the vampire genre is soon headed for a coffin of its own, it’ll at least have the luxury of going out in style. In Only Lovers Left Alive, indie filmmaking legend Jim Jarmusch has made the most gorgeous and heartfelt film of his 34-year career: a fanged love story, inspired by Anne Rice, Mark Twain, and Jarmusch’s own enraged misanthropy, in which Detroit-based Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Tangier-rooted Eve (Tilda Swinton) rekindle their centuries-long affair. They’re forced to endure some very human problems, like Eve’s moocher sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), and some specific to immortal beings, like Adam’s frustration that his vampirism-induced anonymity keeps him from being recognized as the Hendrix-level guitarist he is.
To get it out of the way, no, the 61-year-old Jarmusch hasn’t seen either the Twilight pentalogy or HBO’s True Blood. The core of Only Lovers Left Alive came together in 2006, a couple of years before Bella first joined Team Edward on the big screen. “I did see the movie Interview with the Vampire years ago when it came out,” Jarmusch recalls. “What I liked about Anne Rice’s work was this move toward making the vampires complex characters and not just undead monster figures.” A greater inspiration, he says, was Mark Twain’s final book, The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which provided the names for Hiddleston’s and Swinton’s characters, and which Jarmusch calls “a very beautiful, very funny book about the differences between male and female perceptions of the world.”
As the suicidal vampire Adam — “He may just be a drama queen, I’m not exactly sure,” Jarmusch jokes — Hiddleston claims the more outwardly interesting role. But there’s no question that Swinton, who has also appeared in Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) and The Limits of Control (2009), was the muse for this actor’s director.
“Elements of her are certainly in Eve: that kind of wonder at the world, her centeredness as a person in real life,” he says of his placid, amusedly doting female protagonist. “I wish we had a matriarchal society. I’d want Tilda to be our leader. I’m always following what Tilda’s doing. I’ll go online and see: This week she did a fashion show in Paris but she didn’t wear the clothes — she only held them up in front of her. The next day she was in Moscow marching for gay rights. The next day she was in Rome at a symposium on Dante. She’s like the bohemian goddess of our lifetimes.”
Swinton was also instrumental in helping create the look of the film, including the vampires’ hair, which Jarmusch intended as a nod to ’60s British rock ‘n’ roll: “this combination of wild and sophisticated — a kind of contradiction.” When the initial wigs didn’t have the right look, Swinton suggested animal hair, Jarmusch reveals. “Then Gerd [Zeiss], our designer of hair and makeup, said, ‘Oh yes, I often have supplemented human hair with yak hair or goat hair to give it a fuller texture.’ He came up with these very beautiful, wild-looking wigs.”
Unsurprisingly, Swinton and Hiddleston are at their most enthralling when they let their incisors down, ending up in a place between civilization and something more primal. Jarmusch’s camera frequently swirls down on Swinton’s futuristic sprite and Hiddleston’s Byronic rocker as if it, too, can’t help swooning in their presence. The only time that these eternal hipsters show such vulnerability is after dinner, when they’re knocked back by the ecstasy of blood — they’re simply paralyzed by bliss. It’s sexy, funny, and so innocently decadent it makes you wonder if you should finally give heroin a shot.
Jarmusch doesn’t bother with the intricacies of vampire rules, but he did add alluring clues to their otherworldliness. “When you hear their heart beat, it’s not even a human heart. No one will know this, except that I’m revealing it [in this interview], but it’s like a wolf’s heart slowed down to a human speed. But it’s not the pattern of a human heart: It’s the pattern of a large canine heart.”
The inclusion of another character, 17th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), was also born of personal fascination. “I’m a diehard anti-Stratfordian,” Jarmusch admits, noting that William and Henry James, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, and Ralph Waldo Emerson all similarly believed that Marlowe or another author actually penned the works attributed to Shakespeare. “Anyone who really investigates it will find it’s just incredibly suspect. In the end, it doesn’t matter who wrote Shakespeare, but it wasn’t Shakespeare. I don’t even think he was literate. I’m not sure the man William Shakespeare was able to write his own name.” In Jarmusch’s rendition, Marlowe’s mysterious death in a bar brawl dovetails neatly with the director’s skepticism about Shakespeare’s authorship: “When he was older, [Marlowe] became a vampire, and during this time, he was writing the works that we attribute to Shakespeare.”
In the universe of the film, the sun is setting on humanity. The world began with an Adam and Eve, and may well end with another similarly named set, since the living are slowly polluting their bodies to extinction. That Jarmusch should be attracted to images of decline — much of the film takes place in abandoned sections of Detroit — is no surprise to him. “I was born in Akron, Ohio,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in the ruins, or the artifacts, of previous civilizations, whether they be from 2000 years ago or 50 years ago.”
Detroit natives, he concedes, “consider it like pornography, people who come shoot these photographs of the ruins. We were guilty of that.” The real Detroit, he volunteers, is far more complex: “There are a lot more things to Detroit that this film doesn’t deal with, one of them being apartheid, which I find all over the United States. The poor people are just left to whatever. Police don’t even go in those neighborhoods a lot in Detroit. There are whole neighborhoods where there’s no electricity.”
Tangier, explains Jarmusch, offered a different kind of homecoming. “It’s physically decaying and crumbling on one level, and yet it’s full of life, unlike Detroit, which is crumbling but seems partly devoid of life. It’s not a Christian culture, which for me is a great relief, [and] it’s not an alcohol culture, which is also kind of a relief. My imagination just opens there.”
Only Lovers Left Alive will be released on April 11, after a nine-day overview of Jarmusch’s works at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (April 2–10). He’ll make personal appearances, but he says, “Frankly, I don’t like looking back. I don’t like retrospectives. I feel like, ‘Can’t you wait until I’m really old or dead?’ I don’t look at my films again once I’ve released them to the world. So yeah, I have mixed feelings. [But] I’m proud of my films. I’m especially proud of Dead Man. I really have a fondness in my memory for Down by Law. And I’m very proud of Only Lovers Left Alive.”