Jim Jarmusch is marveling at the view outside the windows of the hotel room where we meet. It’s odd to think of a man so closely identified with the New York underground and independent film movements being impressed by a view of the Lower East Side, but this room happens to be on a high floor, and the elevated perspective, the director says, is “something new.” I wonder if this is part of his philosophy of appreciating the simple things in life — a way, he says, of dealing with the fact that the world is completely doomed. His latest film, The Dead Don’t Die, a star-studded zombie comedy in which the undead rise as a result of polar fracking setting the planet off its axis, is another way of dealing with imminent catastrophe. It is somehow both filled with dumb humor and overt metaphoric portent — a jarring, unsubtle combination that has divided critics, even more so than most Jarmusch movies. (Our David Edelstein was not a fan. Our Nate Jones sort of was.) The director sat down with us to talk about zombies, politics, poetry, the death of the planet, bad reviews, David Lynch, and his enduring love for teen pop.
I noticed in the end credits [of The Dead Don’t Die] that you thanked your first assistant director Atilla Yücer twice.
This was a very, very rough shoot. I don’t want to harp on it, but we didn’t have enough time. We had to shoot Adam Driver out in three weeks. The first AD is a very, very difficult job no matter what, but he was fantastic. He lived up to his name Attila; he’s a real warrior, but so polite. Instead of saying, “Okay, roll camera!” he would always say, “Would anyone object if we roll camera?” Or instead of saying, “Okay, bring the actors to the set,” he would say, “May I invite the actors now to the set?” And sometimes when I would be super-stressed, Atilla would say, “Can you ask me that again with a slightly different tone?” I’d be like, “I want the camera moved over there! What are we waiting for?” “Could you try that again in a different tone?” “Atilla, I think we need to place the camera here as soon as possible.”
The general reputation of first ADs is they’re the ones who do the screaming so that the director doesn’t have to.
Well, I don’t like that militant thing on the set. He was never screaming at anyone, ever. He got screamed at by people. The producers would freak out; some of the actors would freak out. I once read that the Directors Guild has the second lowest age of death of any other occupation, after coal miners in America — and this is because ADs are in the Guild, and they take more stress than almost any job you could imagine. Every AD has back problems. They have high blood pressure. They’re all messed-up. It’s the roughest job on a film.
How and why was this such a difficult shoot?
It took us a very long time to finance it, and we never got the complete budget that we said the film would require. Focus Features were great to us. They gave us total autonomy in every way and totally trusted us, but they were not able to give us what we said the full budget would be. So we went over budget, and in the end, it was exactly the budget we said it would be. And we had very limited time due to the actors’ schedules and the weather. It rained every day. I’ve always tried to use limitations, to look at them as strengths. All the driving shots with people in car interiors are all on a stage — which makes it slightly artificial, which I like. I got walking pneumonia halfway through and had to keep shooting 15 hours a day with blankets and coats, and it was 95 [degrees], you know? I broke my toe; I had to keep working. It was like the Book of Job.
I got such a sense of despair from the movie. Even though it’s lighthearted in many ways, it has a sense of overwhelming sadness. Was that on your mind, when you were making it?
I still think of the film as a comedy, very much so. It’s not agitprop. It definitely has a sociopolitical thread in it, which is reflective and therefore dark. But hey, everyone, wake up! We’re in the sixth mass extinction on this planet. To not have that darkness would have been a little superficial. There is a sadness in the human behavior for me, and zombies are the most obvious metaphor you could employ.
We were also trying to make a kind of extension or homage to George Romero because of his postmodern reinvention of zombies [with The Night of the Living Dead and its sequels], and those sociopolitical threads are evident in his films. Romero does a lot of fascinating things: The zombies are monsters, but they’re not Godzilla. They don’t come from outside the social order. They come from within a collapsing social order. They’re us, or any of us who have died, so they are also victims because they don’t choose to be undead. It’s because of some stupid shit humans did that caused them to become undead.
But the zombie concept is already so inherently metaphorical. How do you push it further so that you’re not just treading old ground?
The problems of mass consumerism, the things that are woven into Romero’s films, have only gotten worse. They haven’t changed. So why would you need to push it? We’re at a crisis because of what his films were warning. And now we’re at the endgame of that. What is more terrifying than having 1 million species going extinct in the last decade?
You also deny the viewer the traditional idea of suspense and conventions like that. So that we’re left facing the metaphorical element straight-on. You’re very in-your-face about what the zombies represent.
There aren’t plot twists or formulaic suspense; it’s just a progression. And to me it’s a character-driven comedy that gets dark. But I’m not big on those formulas. Everybody else does that. We weren’t trying to make The Walking Dead. I don’t know if you saw Train to Busan, the Korean film. That is a badass zombie film. And that has terror and suspense. I love that film for what it is, but this is not that. This is Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny as cops in a little town with a lot of ridiculous dialogue. It was intended to leave you with the thought, What a fucked-up world.
For me, having, for example, the hat that Steve Buscemi’s character wears, which has a slogan, “Keep America White Again.” That’s a little out of my normal … I’m not really into being didactic. But at the same time, [by showing] this kind of racist sloganeering, we’re reflecting something that is concerning. I didn’t want to hide from it.
It was interesting to see you make this film after Paterson, which I thought felt like a very personal film, filled with a sense of awe for the mundane. That movie was like an artistic manifesto: You had come to New York to be a poet initially, and now you’d made a film about a poet of the everyday, which is how I think many would describe you.
Well I’m a godson, I hope, of the New York School of poets. I studied with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro, and my bible, when I came to New York, was An Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and Dave Shapiro. Ron Padgett wrote the poems for Paterson. I love the Beat poets and also Black Mountain and the San Francisco poets, but for me, the New York School, that’s kind of my blood. They’re exuberant. They embrace all forms of expression: painting, poetry, architecture, anything that moves them. They are very aware of the importance of humor in the poems. These have been, in a way, my masters as a filmmaker.
You said once that when you start making a movie, it always starts off serious, and then gets funnier as you shoot. Was that the case here as well?
This is a little different. It kind of got darker. It still had the humor in it, but my initial idea was to make a film like Coffee and Cigarettes, and use the zombie-apocalypse structure to get actors that I love in smaller groups, kind of cordoned off against the zombies. And in the lulls, which would be longer than the attacks, they could talk about all kinds of dumb stuff, like in Coffee and Cigarettes.
Something of that still remains, in that everybody’s kind of in their own little world, and each is sort of invaded by the zombies. That’s also why it feels so despairing. Because no matter who you are, or what your attitude is, or how cool you are, or how big of a racist or a progressive you are, it’s coming for you.
Yeah. And it is. The real problem on this whole planet is divisiveness. That’s the premier tactic of totalitarianism. I don’t want to fight against my enemies; I want us to all join together to face something that is not political, which is an ecological crisis. It has to do with our children and our future and our species and all the beautiful things that we have on this planet. So I don’t like the divisive thing. When you don’t have any water or food for your children, or there’s misery of disease and climate migrations, all of this other stuff is going to be secondary. So we need empathy and togetherness somehow. Because we’re all in this together. It’s coming for everybody.
Here’s a thing I struggle with, and you’re a parent so you probably do, too. How to get through the day knowing what’s happening to the planet and how much worse it’s going to be for our children, after we’re gone. It’s paralyzing.
There’s a philosophy expressed by RZA in The Dead Don’t Die. RZA and I, we have the same martial arts shifu, and he is very philosophical in a very minimal way because he hardly speaks English. “Even for a few seconds every day or once a week, if you can achieve being in the present moment, the world is perfect.” And if you realize the world is perfect, you do appreciate the details of having a consciousness. That’s not just throwaway to me. When I’m very depressed about human behavior, I get lifted by realizing that I have a consciousness, and what an incredible thing life on earth is, just so brief in the universe.
For me, I don’t want to put the fear out. I don’t want looming darkness, fear, and paranoia, but I want younger people to be aware. And they are. In fact, the younger people are the leaders now. Greta Thunberg is one of my leaders. Teenagers are extremely important to me in many, many ways. Culturally, they define us, our music, our sense of style.
And although she’s not a teenager, was that why you put Selena Gomez in the film?
Selena Gomez, Austin Butler, and Luka Sabbat are all really fine young actors, super-naturalistic actors, but they’re also incredibly beautiful. So I wanted them to be like these beautiful young people in a beautiful vintage car traveling through the world with all possibilities open. When they land in Centerville, they are like exotic creatures out of a Guess jeans ad.
I loved Selena in Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s film. I loved her in The Big Short, where she broke the fourth wall and gave a little lesson in economics. She’s a radiant person, and a very powerful, positive force, especially for young females. She’s very strong about body shaming, about not trusting social media, that sort of thing. As well as quite an interesting pop musician. I love a few of her songs: “Bad Liar” and “It Ain’t Me” are really classic pop songs. Do you know Billie Eilish? She’s a genius.
What I find really interesting — sorry to divert briefly — but current pop music is dominated by femininity. It’s all of the stars, whether it’s Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift or Alessia Cara or Selena or Billie Eilish. It’s very, very female. Hip-hop’s a little harder and dominated by the male thing, though there are great female hip-hoppers, too. Some years ago, I wanted to learn how to play on guitar and sing a song of Taylor Swift’s called “Teardrops on my Guitar.” I just thought, God, that’s a beautiful song. I’m not really a Taylor Swift fan, but when you see strong stuff, it’s strong. I got about halfway through, and then I never really finished learning it completely. But it’s interesting that the very strong pop music that speaks to young people all over this planet is very feminized.
It’s been growing for a while. You could say that Madonna was a pioneer in this, and then we had Britney, Christina …
TLC, Britney. At the time I was like, “Gee, Britney Spears. Really? Come on.” Now, I see. “Baby One More Time,” that’s a very important turning point of pop music. I don’t know if you ever saw this, but when Britney Spears had a breakdown and shaved her head, one of my teachers — one of my heroes in a way, though I don’t like that word — Jonas Mekas said, “Hey, get off Britney Spears’s back.” He had a picture of her with her head shaved, saying, “She is an artist. I don’t care what you think of her art; she is an artist. It comes out of her soul. Give her a break. All artists are susceptible to a breakdown because of what they give us.” Jonas Mekas, the king of experimental, avant-garde film, standing up for Britney Spears. I thought that was really beautiful.
How closely are you following the election?
Since Joe Biden entered, I’m avoiding it because that’s distasteful to me. The lesser of two evils does not appeal to me, and I don’t like the two-party system anyway. I don’t know why people aren’t all over the Electoral College and this nonsense. Well, I do know why, because it’s the corporate media. What disturbs me now is that my friends who don’t like Trump spend maybe more time on Trump than the people who like Trump. Trump sets the content for the corporate media every day, and by corporate media I mean MSNBC and CNN and Fox. They’re all the same; it’s just the Trump channels. I like some things about Elizabeth Warren. I, of course, like Bernie Sanders. I like what’s his name, the governor of Washington State who’s the only really environmentally conscious one [Jay Inslee]. And, of course, I like AOC; she’s too young. But I’m trying to stay away from it right now because the Joe Biden thing makes me deeply depressed.
Do you read your reviews?
I try not to. I really love bad reviews, so I read the really negative ones. I carried in my wallet for years a clip from, I think, Le Figaro, of my film Down by Law in Cannes, and they said — I’m translating, but I even laminated it — “The French intelligentsia praises Jarmusch in the way a deaf and blind parent would applaud their retarded child. Jarmusch is 33 years old, the age Christ was when he was crucified. We can only hope the same for his film career.” I loved that one, man!
You’ve gotten some bad reviews for this one.
We’ve got some, especially from the trades. I read a few. I read the Variety one. I also know hard-core horror nerds may not like this film. Trump people aren’t going to like this film, and that’s a lot of people already. We didn’t build the film to be a money-making machine, so they’re probably going to say, “Not a money-making machine; it sucks.” We’re apparently really strong in France. And we apparently got nice things here, in Time and The Wall Street Journal, places I wouldn’t expect. I did read the nice thing by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, where they have the little picks.
What are the films you watch these days?
Oh boy, I watch a lot of films. I saw a lot of beautiful ones that were almost mainstream last year, like Roma and The Favourite. I really liked, except for the music, At Eternity’s Gate, Julian Schnabel’s film with Willem Dafoe. I liked High Life, a very strange Claire Denis film. I liked Shoplifters, BlacKkKlansman, Death of Stalin, Minding the Gap. Oh, the best of American cinema of the last decade, probably, for me, is Twin Peaks: The Return, an 18-hour film that is incomprehensible and dreamlike in the most beautiful, adventurous way. That is a masterpiece. Why can’t they just give David Lynch whatever money he needs? Why can’t you give Terry Gilliam? He needs money to make something; just give it to him! I don’t understand.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.