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Brief Encounters: Director Jim Jarmusch on the Poetic Downtime of Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes

The following interview with Jim Jarmusch was originally published as our Spring, 2004 cover story, and it is appearing here online for the first time. — Editor

“Why do people go to the cinema?” Andrei Tarkovsky writes in a book of essays, Sculpting in Time. “I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for,” he goes on, “is time: time lost or spent or not yet had.” 

Time lost, spent or not yet had is the stuff of Jim Jarmusch’s new feature, his ninth, Coffee and Cigarettes. Consisting of 11 short vignettes, all featuring two or three people meeting over, yes, coffee and cigarettes, the assembled project culminates a work begun 18 years ago when Jarmusch gathered comedians Roberto Benigi and Steven Wright and spun a funny B&W riff on chance encounters and overcaffeination. Over the years Jarmusch filmed more of these episodes, all comprised of the same sort of odd, out-of-time moments that are rarely captured onscreen. Tom Waits is late meeting Iggy Pop at a diner because he had to perform roadside medical service. (“Music and medicine are like two planets revolving around the same sun,” he explains.) Bill Murray plays Bill Murray moonlighting as a waiter serving the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and GZA; Cate Blanchett, in a stunning acting and technical tour de force, plays herself awkwardly reconnecting with her bitter cousin (also played by Cate Blachett) while on a publicity tour; Jack and Meg White discuss Nikola Tesla; a good-hearted Alfred Molina discovers that an arrogant Steve Coogan is a long-lost relative; and in a sublimely melancholic closer, underground film and theater icons Taylor Mead and Bill Rice toast “New York in the ’70s” during downtime on their no-frills production. 

But such simple plot summaries can do little justice to the real pleasures of Coffee and Cigarettes. As Tarkovsky writes in the same essay, a director’s true character is ultimately expressed by the way in which he “sculpts time,” the way in which his eye uniquely imprints lived human experience on screen. For the director of such independent classics as Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man and Ghost Dog, the Coffee and Cigarettes shorts may be lighthearted “pleasures” filmed away from the pressures of full-length features, but, collected together as a single work, they are as potent and poetic a realization of the joys of “Jarmusch time” as anything he’s done.  

Filmmaker: I saw Coffee and Cigarettes in a week in which I saw several other movies. I watched Greendale, the Neil Young movie. 

Jim Jarmusch: I liked that movie a lot. 

Filmmaker: Me too. And of course, that movie consists of 11 sequences scored to songs from the Greendale record album. I also caught up with Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, which is subtitled Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. And then I saw this Japanese horror movie Ju-on, or The Curse, which is considered the next Ring, and it’s a haunted house movie consisting of six episodes in which different characters come in contact with the same ghost. It’s like a horror movie with all the narrative between the scary moments edited out. And then I thought about films like Lord of the Rings and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2. My point, of course, is that none of these films adhere to a three-act structure. They are all films realized in chapters or songs or volumes. I remember a few years ago people were talking about how CD-ROMs and interactive media would create new storytelling structures. I’m not sure new media has influenced contemporary cinema, but in one week I saw several movies that were inspired by books, record albums or essays.

Jarmusch: That’s interesting. 

Filmmaker: And you’ve been doing this for years with films like Mystery Train and Night on Earth

Jarmusch: Yeah, and they have me so much shit for it. Like, “It’s just an episodic thing and it’s not really a feature film!” Now it’s okay.

Filmmaker: Is that a challenge that you are aware of or feel you have to respond to? How to compile these individual segments into one cohesive experience? 

Jarmusch: Well, once I’d made two of [the Coffee and Cigarettes pieces], I started thinking, if I made a bunch of these and thought about their interconnectivity in some vague way, maybe they would have a nice cumulative effect. Once I got 11, it was like, I got enough songs for a record album. Now, do they really work cumulatively or not? And then I started playing with them, and I felt I liked them more as an accumulation of things. The last one, with Taylor Mead and Bill Rice, is very different if you see it after you’ve seen 10 before than if you see it alone. It’s something mysterious that you can’t really analyze. I was conscious from early on to repeat dialogue or motifs or to checkerboard things or to shoot them all with the same setups and the same structure. I guess I kind of had it in the back of my head that I was going to shoot a bunch of these over a period of time and then make a single film out of them. 

Filmmaker: Are you happy with Coffee and Cigarettes as a complete feature? 

Jarmusch: Yeah, I am, but this whole project was something designed for my fun and pleasure. It’s not that I don’t get great pleasure from a feature film, but these [shorts] were so liberating to me. To shoot them in one day, to have a script but depart from it and play, to rope these wacky people into doing it and then write a script based on having gotten them—it was so fun. 

Filmmaker: What was your writing process with Coffee and Cigarettes? Some of the pieces seem to riff on the actors’ public personas, whereas others diverge from them. 

Jarmusch: I write almost always with specific actors in mind. I’m writing for qualities that I see in them as a person, but then they’re going to be a character—they’re not going to play themselves. So those qualities have to be accentuated, and then qualities that they have that aren’t part of the character have to be suppressed. That’s true for any performance, but this [film] was even more fun—and the actors like it too—because I could make fun of their persona by having them play exaggerated versions of themselves. For example, Cate Blanchett added a line in the script the night before shooting. The cousin says, “Oh, I saw a picture of you in one of those horrible tabloids.” She says, “Ew, yuck,” but she added in, “What was I wearing?” [Cate] says she does that a lot, and she wanted that in there to make fun of herself. 

Filmmaker: What about the Bill Murray piece—how did that one come about, the idea of him playing an actor on the lam as a waiter? 

Jarmusch: Oh, man, I don’t know, because I wrote that one literally the night before. I wanted to have RZA, GZA and GhostFace Killer from Wu-Tang. I love GhostFace and I thought he’d be a great actor to play with. And then I found out that Ghost was in Miami but GZA and RZA were definitely coming. So I call Bill and he’s like, “Jim, how long will this take?” “One day.” “Well, can we do it in half a day?” “I’ll try.” “Oh, you’ll try…Just tell me where to be, when to be there and what to wear.” Now, you can’t give Bill’s number to anyone on the crew—his agent doesn’t even have it. [On the day of the shoot] Bill walks right in, parked his own car and was there for the whole day, took RZA and GZA out to a Japanese restaurant for lunch. But I wrote that script real fast, and they followed it to a large degree. The thing about RZA being a doctor was a funny real thing. 

Filmmaker: Was it real? 

Jarmusch: Yeah, one night I was with RZA in the studio and he gets a call from the wife of our friend Sifu Wahnam, the shaolin master. RZA is the godfather of his kids. The kids are sick, it’s like 1:00 in the morning and we go to their place. [Sifu’s] wife Sofia’s all freaked out—one kid has a fever, one’s sweating. And RZA’s like, “Okay, here’s what you do, man. You take them off dairy, you take them off the citrus, you give them this mineral, you give them one aspirin each—no more!—one aspirin each and you call me in the morning!” We’re leaving and I said, “What the fuck, are you a doctor now or what?” And he’s like, “Hell yeah! You know, I studied that shit, I’ve been reading alternative medicine for three years.” So I put that in the script, the dialogue kind of imitating Tom [Waits] where he says, “Music and medicine are like two planets revolving around the same sun.” It was a weird coincidence. 

Filmmaker: I have to ask a film-geek question, but the Cate Blanchett segment is just so astonishing on a technical level. 

Jarmusch: Yeah, it was complicated. Here’s what we did. We shot her two days, one as Cate and one as Shelly. We recorded her Shelly dialogue and then we gave her an earwig [for playback when shooting the “Cate” section]. That worked for little sequences. But then she would get frustrated rhythmically and wanted us to just feed her lines. So we did that off camera. But even so, how the hell could she keep track in her head like a chess player all these little moves and still make them feel true and light and real? Even I was getting lost! 

Filmmaker: A lot of the piece is done in a two-shot, like the other episodes. But it’s not an obvious split screen. 

Jarmusch: I didn’t want to change the editing style [for this particular segment] and edit [out of the two-shots] too much. We did do a lot of split screen, and some guys at DuArt helped [d.p. Frederick Elmes and me]. We cut a curved matte.

Filmmaker: That’s what really threw me off, because I couldn’t find the obvious seam on the screen. 

Jarmusch: Yeah, they did a nice job. But the most amazing thing to me is not that but Cate’s ability to keep all that in her head, to not get frustrated or lost and still give two very different, beautiful performances. Bill Murray came to the premiere in Venice and afterwards said, “Cate Blanchett was really great, but who was that other girl?” He’s really savvy, so that was a huge compliment.

Filmmaker: After I saw Coffee and Cigarettes, I had to think to myself, When was the last time I sort of just hung out in a café with someone without any real social or business agenda? In this day and age, there’s something kind of radical about that conception of leisure and how purposeless some of these meetings are. Some of the meetings are more formal, like Alfred Molina’s character has a clear goal, but many of them are just about a kind of downtime. 

Jarmusch: Yeah, I like that one with Isaach De Bankolé and Alex Descas. Isaach thinks Alex called him to tell him something, and he insists he had nothing to say. And that’s the only thing they talk about! I don’t know, life goes so fast, it does seem like you have to have a reason to be in a café or something now. But maybe that’s why I’m very slow as a filmmaker, because I have to have time to get some input, time that’s not assigned for any reason. And it’s hard to find that time. 

Filmmaker: I loved the last piece because the presence of Taylor Mead and Bill Rice brings this whole host of connections to the film. That piece harkens back to another era of independent or underground film. 

Jarmusch: When Taylor proposes that they drink to Paris in the ‘20s and then Bill says, “And to New York in the ‘70s,” that was a very important line for me. When I first saw Bill Rice in movies by Beth and Scott B and saw Taylor Mead do his theater stuff and read his poetry, that’s when I started making movies. They were an inspiration, and they’re sort of a dark little crown on the whole [film] somehow. They’re real artists, and it’s not that everyone else in the film isn’t, but [Taylor and Bill] will never be mainstream because they’re just a little too authentic. That segment is also a little tip of the hat to a filmmaker who we just lost, Gary Goldberg. He made a number of  beautiful experimental films with Taylor and Bill, but all of them with no dialogue. So this is the first with them where they’re alone together and talking. 

Filmmaker: I remember that time as well, and what was interesting looking back on that scene is that there was no anticipation that these films could have been mainstream. People would just make them and the next week they’d screen at a gallery or a club. 

Jarmusch: Yeah, it was do-it-yourself. It was like, “We’re doing this because we want to do it, not because we’re ‘professionals.’” You know, I think of myself as an amateur filmmaker, and I mean that in a good way, because the word “amateur” comes from the “love of” something. The New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place, films by Vivienne Dick, James Nares, Charlie Ahearn, Amos Poe, Eric Mitchell, Betty Gordon—there was so much going on. That whole scene developed my own self-identity as an amateur, and I retain that. There are other directors of my generation that I think of as amateur directors. Claire Denis, Aki Kaurismäki, and Emir Kusturica—we’re not professionals, we don’t do it because it’s our career. We do it because we love the form. And we don’t have much money!

Filmmaker: Hal Hartley interviewed—

Jarmusch: And Hal Hartley! 

Filmmaker: Hal interviewed Jean-Luc Godard for us years ago, and they had a very similar exchange. 

Jarmusch: Well, Hal’s an amateur too. 

Filmmaker: How do you think filmmakers today can carve out an identity like the one you created for yourself given the way are financed now? 

Jarmusch: I don’t know. I kind of don’t want to think about it too much—the game is always just, How do I get to make another one? Where do I get the money, and who do I have to trick into doing this [laughs] so I can make another film? I was in Cannes two years ago with a film script that I don’t want to do right now. I love the story, the skeleton’s good, but I don’t like how it’s fleshed out. But anyway, I was trying to raise money there, and man, it was weird. I’d have meetings and they were like, “We’ll put in $500,000, we want all of France, we want to back end, we want final cut, and you have to have Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow!” And I was like, “Whaaaat?” Now, I did meet with some other people and I could have financed the film, but that experience showed me how much things have changed.

Filmmaker: When you start to work on a script for one of your features, where do you start from? 

Jarmusch: I usually start with a character and an actor. But sometimes I have a thin thread of a plot that might be a starting point. Sometimes it might just be as abstract as a piece of music that I don’t even intend to use in the film, nut which has opened something in my head that makes me think of a certain landscape or atmosphere or emotion, and then that leads me to a character. Generally I’m much more interested in characters than in stories. I love stories, and I try to make my films have stories, but I’m more interested in the details of human interaction, the gift of having consciousness in the world and where that leads you whether you’re conscious or appreciative of it or not. 

Filmmaker: What’s exciting you right now? 

Jarmusch: You mean inspirational things? Oh, man, the wealth of incredibly strange pop music from Ethiopia in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, which I’m just discovering. The lectures of John Cage, especially his lecture on nothing. The Reverend JM Gates—Tom Waits sent me some CDs of this guy, a preacher. These [recordings] were made in the ‘20s and ’30s, and they’re scary and incredible. There’s a new Rimbaud translation I was just checking out, and I read some poems this morning by Sherman Alexie. I don’t know. It’s a bunch of things every single day that inspire me. 

The best films I saw recently were Crimson Gold and an old Jacques Becker film, Touchez pas au grisbi, at the Film Forum with Jean Gabin and Jeanne Moreau. It predates Bob le flambeaur of Melville, but it’s a similar milieu, and I think Melville was really influenced by it. I listen to hardcore hip-hop, and I listen to vocal masses by William Byrd and Thomas Tallis. 

I listen to Albert Ayler and Link Wray. The artist Mark Lombardi, who had a show at the Drawing Center. And I’ve been looking at books of Shaker furniture recently as a way to calm down. And I need to meet people who I don’t know for inspiration. 

I’m always amazed by filmmakers who live in L.A., for example, and their whole life is that world of “gotta see the agent, gotta go to the studio, gotta go home and take these calls and get up and go to a party the next day,” and it’s all people from the same industry. Where do they get their inspiration? I need to talk to people who install heating equipment or people who remove air conditioners and come from Senegal, or drive a cab or a girl who is a bartender. I need to talk to them, observe them or just hang around there they’re working. And then I need nature too—wild animals, trees, plants, rocks, the sky. I learn a lot from those things too, oddly enough.

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