Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Jim Jarmusch.
As many successful American filmmakers who get their start in independent filmmaking quickly find themselves comfortable in Hollywood studios, Jim Jarmusch feels like the anachronism that the economics of filmmaking rarely find room for but the culture of cinema certainly needs. After making the No Wave-era Permanent Vacation on the seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape of a crumbling late-70s New York, Jarmusch made waves at the then-young Sundance film festival with Stranger Than Paradise, a bare-bones indie that exhibited the director’s penchant for deliberate pacing, wry humor, an insistent soundtrack and a canted examination of Americana.
Jarmusch’s productions are few and far between, partly due to the fact that he is ever in want of funding and seeks final cut on all his films. The process may be difficult, but it’s worth it: thirty years after Paradise, Jarmusch crafted Only Lovers Left Alive (recently released on disc and digital), a film that surprised me as both a sideways look at high-cult consumption and one of the most genuinely romantic films of this year. It is, in short, well worth the seven years of frustration that it took to get the film made and into theaters. It’s hard to imagine the same film coming from a filmmaker willing to touch studio funding. And it’s an intoxicating glimpse of what could be if more independent filmmakers were as unimpressed by studio dollars as Jarmusch.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a Son of Lee Marvin.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Jim Jarmusch
1. Find collaborators who will add texture to the film
In this interview, Jarmusch arrives at the observation that one should find collaborators who add texture to a film after discussing the wildly different scoring methods of Neil Young (for Dead Man) and The RZA (for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai). Neil Young live-scored Dead Man with a solo electric guitar, while The RZA sent Jarmusch an array of cuts that he urged the director to combine, sample, or even disregard. These methods were consistent with each of these musicians’ artistic sensibilities and contributed volumes to the particular tone each of these films strike.
As a form of practice, Jarmusch displays here the need to give one’s fellow artists room to do what they do. He still decides what stays in and what goes, but giving people who know what their craft room to contribute and communicate in the ways they work best can make the film a far richer thing than it otherwise would have been. The result of such a process cannot be under-emphasized, as Jarmusch’s films are nothing if not musical.
2. Get seduced into the collective process
“I put ‘A film by’ as a protection of my rights, but I don’t really believe it. It’s important for me to have a final cut, and I do for every film. So I’m in the editing room every day, I’m the navigator of the ship, but I’m not the captain, I can’t do it without everyone’s equally valuable input. For me it’s phases where I’m very solitary, writing, and then I’m preparing, getting the money, and then I’m with the crew and on a ship and it’s amazing and exhausting and exhilarating, and then I’m alone with the editor again … I’ve said it before, it’s like seduction, wild sex, and then pregnancy in the editing room. That’s how it feels for me.”
This advice is akin to his statement about working with various types of musicians, and a tacit admission shared by many filmmakers about how the reading strategies of auteurism don’t resemble the everyday collaborative grind of filmmaking itself. Perhaps Jarmusch is understating the power that his reputation, his decisive methods of funding, and his resulting insistence on final cut brings to a film’s production. But what Jarmusch is getting at by the end of this yarn is an expression of the unique creative exhilaration that comes with working with a variety of creative people throughout different phases of production.
3. Don’t make original films; make authentic theft
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.’”
4. Don’t let conventions overcome the experience you seek to depict
“What I was trying to do was to approximate real time for the audience. Instead of embellishing the pace with quick editing, and moving things along simply because the audience is accustomed to being moved along at a certain ‘film’ pace, I wanted to remove all that. Minimalize it so that you watch people in almost real time. The camera doesn’t punctuate things so that this becomes an important gesture, and this is not, according to the distance between camera and subject. I leave those judgments up to the audience by attempting to accustom them to a more realistic pace.”
In this 1982 interview with BOMB about his first film, Permanent Vacation, Jarmusch details the unique possibilities entailed in letting films breathe patiently through the progression of time (influenced, obliquely, by filmmakers like Aki Kaurismaki and Jean-Pierre Melville). Jarmusch’s rise as an independent filmmaker coincided as an almost direct parallel to the rise of MTV and the MTV aesthetic. It’s notable, then, how his view of pacing gave 1980s alternative American culture a different vision, particularly of popular music’s relationship to temporality and editing. Even during an era when independent films could find greater financial support domestically, Jarmusch’s work was decisively out of step with the times. If a convention exists, it is in dire need of upending.
5. Take the time to observe
Jarmusch’s films are rarely released less than a half-decade apart. While this has a great deal to do with the exponential difficulty of funding the types of films he likes to make, it’s also the working method of a filmmaker who has learned to be patient and knows when to step back. The capitalist modes of production that have created the majority of the world’s narrative filmmaking have also resulted in an almost wholly unchecked value placed in being prolific. Tentpole productions are always hurried, and Woody Allen is forgiven for so many misfires because, hey, he makes one film a year, and next year’s film might be a return to greatness. Studios and directors sometimes approach filmmaking as a zero-sum game between numeric output and the grave. But more, or more often, is not the same thing as “better.”
It should be little surprise that, as David Ehrlich attested in an interview, Jarmusch’s demeanor resembles the films he makes. Whether through creative ruts, other ventures, or simply preferring to take time to exist, Jarmusch does not see a packed work schedule as that which dictates artistic significance. If you don’t have another film in mind, why work so diligently to say nothing? Not searching for inspiration is perhaps the best way to, eventually, find it.
6. Nothing “has to be” one way or another; the world is as your consciousness perceives it
In this discussion with Gavin Smith about his reasons behind making The Limits of Control (no doubt one of his most divisive films), Jarmusch discusses the unchecked assumptions that let the powerful keep a tighter hold on their power, and allow systems of control and convention to proceed unchecked. Jarmusch’s filmmaking can be summarized by his lack of patience for these assumptions. Work is not necessarily the most important thing. This or that is not how a film is “supposed” to be or look like or sound like. The filmmaker’s primary job is not to entertain audiences into complacence.
This is hardly some post-’60s rant against some unspecified “Man” from a person who remembers Time Square when it wasn’t an ancillary of the Disney Corporation, but the concise explanation of why creative work should have absolutely no regard for the wholly unimaginative act of regurgitating “common sense.” Make a movie about people drinking coffee. Let your set be the rubble of a despairing city. Make Tom Waits into a fucking movie star. Do anything but reproduce the world as others before you think it should be.