With his perennial shades and insouciant shock of grey hair, Ohio-born Jim Jarmusch has always been the definitive rock star director, a creative force whose own enigmatic brand of cool is just as famous as his now near-forty-year output of cult favourites, which include the likes of Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, Night On Earth and Broken Flowers. Jarmusch’s man-in-black rock star swagger has also informed the work, with the director collaborating with musicians like The White Stripes (who appeared in a vignette from Coffee & Cigarettes), RZA (who scored Ghost Dog), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who appeared in Mystery Train), and regulars Tom Waits and Iggy Pop, who hilariously collided in Coffee & Cigarettes. As well as helming various music videos, Jarmusch has also made brilliant documentaries on Iggy Pop’s Stooges (Gimme Danger) and on rock legend, Neil Young (Year Of The Horse), who also epically scored the director’s existential western, Dead Man.
Jim Jarmusch’s latest effort, The Dead Don’t Die – a wry horror-comedy in which local law enforcement officers, Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloe Sevigny, protect their small town from a zombie outbreak – is typically dotted with famous rockers and music industry types, including country singer, Sturgill Simpson; Baz Luhrmann’s man-who-will-be-Elvis, Austin Butler; old compatriot, RZA; and surprise choice, Selena Gomez, the once squeaky clean pop star who took a walk on the wild side in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
“I admire Selena Gomez very much,” Jarmusch says. “She’s real, and very strong. She’s a huge pop star, okay. She is also a spokesperson for younger people, especially girls, in a very empowering way. If you read what she talks about, she is very cool. She’s a strong, very positive person that’s had a lot of health issues, and personal struggles that she doesn’t hide. She gives real strength to young women. Very strong. Some of her songs, I love, because I have a very open mind. Yeah, okay, I listen to avant garde jazz, and underground hip hop, and 16th century British polyphony, and ethnic music from the Pygmies, the Byaka. I also listen to pop music, and I also will check out current pop forms. In those forms, there are some really brilliant people. She’s one of them. Another one is a teenager who’s huge now, named Billie Eilish. I don’t know if you know her. She is brilliant, and she is huge. She started recording her first EP when she was 15. She’s now 17. Sometimes, some things are just so good that mass culture can’t deny embracing them, like Kurt Cobain. Billie Eilish is like that. She’s really great.”
A more Jarmusch-familiar face in The Dead Don’t Die is Mount Rushmore-worthy punk-and-rock legend, Iggy Pop, who amusingly plays a coffeehouse zombie. “When I asked him about doing the film, his response was, ‘A zombie? Okay, cool.’ He’s an old friend, and someone I admire so deeply, but all of these people that are in the film, people think we had a big budget for them,” Jarmusch explains of his cast, which also includes Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Steve Buscemi, Carol Kane and his Only Lovers Left Alive star, Tilda Swinton. “They got paid in oatmeal, man. They got nothing. The actors were paid not well at all. They did this because they’re family, or my tribe. They’re like, ‘I’m so moved that, ‘Oh, Jim’s calling us in. We got to do it.’ Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton…my God. I can’t believe that they did all this. They were there for the film.”
Another one of those was RZA, the musical mastermind behind hip-hop groundbreakers, The Wu-Tang Clan, and a regular actor with credits including The Man With The Iron Fists, Derailed, American Gangster, and Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes. “They’re part of my tribe,” says Jarmusch. “And I’m in their tribe, somehow. I’ve been accepted by the Wu-Tang. When I worked a lot with the Wu-Tang, I’d be with them and their whole group, and RZA used to always be, ‘Yo, this is Jim. He’s my white nigger. This is my boy over here. You know what I’m saying?’ They’re going, ‘All right. Yo, Jim. What up?’ I know all of them, and I love them. They like me. I don’t know why, because of RZA, I guess. I love RZA. They’re very enlightened. RZA and Meth [fellow Wu-Tang Method Man] are now total vegans. They are super fucking ripped and healthy. The Wu-Tang supports vegetarianism all over the planet. Members of the Wu-Tang will do pop-up, unannounced, single rap shows in a fast food, vegetarian place in Chicago. They’ll put it online half an hour before. Like, ‘Ghostface Killah and Cappadonna will perform at the veggie burger stand on…’ They’ll do it. They’re there, because they’re trying to promote vegetarianism. They’re real concerned about climate change too. There is a huge map of planet Earth in New York showing you where things are getting too hot, by colour. The Wu-Tang paid for that. They’re like, ‘Wake the fuck up!’ I love the Wu-Tang. They’re philosophical, and amazing linguistic, acrobatic geniuses.”
Also in the film is Jarmusch’s longtime friend, Tom Waits – one of the most singular and breathtaking figures in contemporary music, and the star of the director’s Down By Law. A comment about the director’s habit of carrying notebooks into interviews prompts a great story about the wonderfully rumpled singer. “I always carry a notebook, yes,” Jarmusch says. “Well, I carry several. One is for ideas that I’m working on. This is for things related to The Dead Don’t Die, because I can’t remember. Like, if somebody wants to say, ‘What music have you been listening to lately?’, I’m like, ‘Oh, shit.’ I need back up, so I have my multicoloured thing. Unfortunately, for you guys, these answers do potentially pertain to your questions, unlike the greatest interviewee, who is Tom Waits. He always has a book of answers that have nothing to do with what you’re asking. Absolutely nothing. They are the best interviews ever. ‘What inspired your new songs?’ ‘Have you ever seen the incisors of a hagfish? I’ll tell you, they live in the South Pacific, at a depth of 30,000 feet. They’ve evolved over time to have special scales, so they’re the reverse of other fish.’ ‘What? What does that have to do with it?’ It’s oh so fascinating what he’s into. Sorry, but I can’t provide that kind of wonderful interview.”
Though filled with references and minute callbacks to his past films, Jarmusch claims that he doesn’t watch his old films, and he uses a famously recalcitrant rocker to explain why. “Why should I? I spent several years making them,” the director says. “They’re done. I can’t change them. I don’t want to sit there looking at what I did before. It’s over. Not to compare myself, but somebody in an interview asked Bob Dylan, ‘Do you listen to your records?’ He said, ‘Why would I do that? I already heard them when I recorded it. I play them live. Okay, I might hear it then. I don’t want to listen to the fucking records.’ It’s past. It’s gone. We only have the present, and we can think about new things. Wallowing in the old ones, good or bad, it’s not my thing. I’m not into nostalgia, or looking backwards.”
Jim Jarmusch is, however, into music…and he’s got a knack for it himself, collaborating with musician Carter Logan in the group, Squrl, “an enthusiastically marginal rock band from New York City who like big drums and distorted guitars, cassette recorders, loops, feedback, sad country songs, molten stoner core, chopped and screwed hip-hop, and imaginary movie scores” according to their website. They also provided the scores for Jarmusch’s films, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson and The Dead Don’t Die, as well as the doco, Living The Light, which is about Jarmusch’s regular cinematographer, Robby Muller. “Anyone making a film need a score? I’ll score,” laughs Jarmusch. “We work cheap.”
The Dead Don’t Die will screen at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 4, 6 and 17. For all ticketing and venue information, head to the official website.