Jim Jarmusch: ‘The Dead Don’t Die cast were paid in oatmeal’

The director on fighting to make movies, climate change and teenagers who can save the world

Here comes Jim Jarmusch. There are only a few directors that even the most committed film fan could recognise from 100 yards. Jarmusch is one. The large waft of white hair – framing familiar prescription sunglasses – has been a feature of the movie community for some 35 years.

Jarmsuch first brought hair (and glasses) to the Cannes Festival in 1984 when Stranger Than Paradise won the Camera d’Or for best first feature. That dialled-down, low-energy drama launched one of American cinema’s great oddball careers. Broken Flowers won the Grand Prix at the 2005 festival.

More recently, Paterson and Only Lovers Left Alive have competed for the Palme d’Or. He approaches from the direction of the Mediterranean. No attendant pages fan his brow as he crosses the lawn. Yet he does count as Cannes royalty. Right?

“Oh, please don’t use royalty,” he says in his good-natured drawl.


The corporate overlords have sucked up everything, and for me to even get financing is difficult

How has Cannes changed since he was first here? You might still have caught sight of Bardot in a Ferrari back then.

“Cannes has got more staid and a little less vulgar,” he says. “But I liked the vulgarity. I like contradiction. I remember being at Cannes in the eighties. I’d see some amazing Romanian or Chinese film and I’d go outside into the sun and a naked girl on a parachute is descending into a circle of paparazzi. I thought that was amazing. That’s gone.”

He looks sadly across the grass to the back of large, anonymous, seafront hotels. This world has lost a bit of character since then. But Cannes does still find space for an eccentric like Jarmusch. His latest film, The Dead Don't Die, opened the 72nd iteration of event. It's a hoot. There are always jokes in Jarmusch's films, but the new piece, a zombie comedy starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton and many, many more, is in a zanier vein than any other Jarmusch release. Who else is lurking in the undergrowth? Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits.

Back in those early days, profiting from the boom in indie cinema that came with the rise of Miramax and the influence of the Sundance Film Festival, Jarmusch got films into production with casts of much lower wattage. But times really have changed.

“The same corporate overlords have sucked up everything, and for me to even get financing is difficult,” he says. “Even with this cast. They were paid in oatmeal. They were not paid well. They did it because we are from a tribe. ‘Jim is calling to us, so we’ll do it.’ That doesn’t help. They look at the bottom line and they say: ‘We think the worldwide box office will be five million. So you are way over…’”

You can read Jarmusch’s personality in his deadpan, sardonic cinema. He doesn’t sound exactly happy about the situation. But he’s not in despair either. He is able to extract dust-dry humour from the state of world cinema.

“And if you think you should share any of the money after the fact . . . ‘Wow, who do you think you are? Get on your knees and kiss the corporate wing. Be grateful we are letting you make this film’,” he laughs

Jarmusch did not take the obvious route towards the auteur life. Raised in Ohio to middle-class parents, he seems to have developed the most eclectic tastes – everything from grindhouse horror to William S Burroughs – in his teenage years, before drifting towards Chicago, Paris and New York.

“Ha ha! I’m from Akron. That’s below Cleveland in the hipster scale,” he says.

A lucky association with Nicholas Ray, legendary director of Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause, led him into the beatnik experimentalism of Stranger than Paradise. He's never gone away. Some old pals have stayed with him. Tom Waits worked on Down by Law, his 1986 comedy, and is back for The Dead Don't Die. Iggy Pop has also been a recurring collaborator.

"Well, Tom and Iggy and I are friends for a long time," he shrugs. "I admire them as artists. But they are also my friends. So we are able to work as actors very effortlessly. We don't have to talk much. Some musicians are good actors. Some are not. Some are good in some films. Others are not. I saw Mick Jagger be terrible in a few films and he was brilliant in Performance."

Most responses to The Dead Don't Die have picked up on apparent digs at the grim state of the American republic. This is a tricky one. It's true that a sense of dread hangs over the small town being slowly overtaken by zombies, but this wouldn't be the first Jarmusch film to deal in unease. Released in President Obama's second term, Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire romance starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, was, if anything, even more laden with disquiet. Still, an orange shadow does hang over US culture right now.

A lot of my friends who dislike Donald Trump spend all their time reading about what he did today. He means nothing to me

"This film is not about that. It is not inspired by that," Jarmusch says without malice. "I don't give a f**k about Donald Trump. He's not my concern. He's not my interest. A lot of my friends who dislike Donald Trump spend all their time reading about what he did today. He means nothing to me. What matters to me is the corporate disaster we face. He's a reality TV presenter. They asked Steve Bannon what Donald Trump's strength was and he said: 'He's a professional liar.' You put him out there and he lies. His dying words will be a lie."

If one were being picky, one might point out that it sounds as if Jarmusch does give a few “f**ks” about Donald Trump. It’s certainly true that there are no explicit digs at the current president in The Dead Don’t Die. But it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the zombie threat is a metaphor for something that’s happening in the real world. There are also nods towards climactic catastrophes.

"The only blatant thing in our film is the hat that says 'Keep America White Again'," he says. "Our president is a white supremacist. Not the first we've had. Woodrow Wilson was also a Klan sympathiser. Our president can't even form a proper sentence. That's the only really blatant thing. The corporations and the energy people say: this isn't a problem. That's the way of the world."

Despite this rant, Jim is not pessimistic about the universe. He visibly and audibly perks up when he addresses the potential he sees in contemporary teenagers. He regards the pop star Billie Eilish as an inspiration. "She's a musical genius," he says. He is equally impressed by Greta Thunberg.

“I look to Extinction Rebellion in Britain and Europe,” he says. “These people are really working for something. I am just part of the problem. We have plastic f**king bottles. I have credit cards. I drive in a fossil-fuel vehicle. I fly in aeroplanes. I am not in the middle of Pennsylvania building a wall against the sea.”

He’s on a roll now. The world is ending and too few people care about it.

“At any moment this planet of ours could be gone,” he says. “It could be gone by an asteroid. But it shouldn’t be gone because we don’t care – because we’re oblivious as we’re watching television.”

Jarmusch is man of great discipline. When asked about the contrast between vampires and zombies, he produces a tiny notebook and leafs to a page featuring closely written lists offering answers to that very question. “A script for me is always a blueprint,” he says. “The final cut is the final script . . . Nic Ray said: if you are just going to shoot the script then why bother?”

It is nonetheless obvious that he is an extremely clear and precise thinker. None of that matters in the new Hollywood. Nor does the prestige he’s accrued over the decades.

"Prestige is money," he sighs. "That's the only way of evaluating a film any more. Prestige is a phantom. David Lynch can't get money to make a film. He cannot make a feature. David Lynch! He could only make Twin Peaks: The Return because there was a precedent. After breaking his heart, they relented and he made the greatest 18-hour masterpiece of American cinema in recent years. If Terry Gilliam wants the money then just give it to him. He's Terry Gilliam!"

Again, the anger is tempered by a wry humour. He is appalled at the disrespect. He is amused by the absurdity of it all. He also has an impressive sense of perspective. Not every artist retains that over so many decades. The sun has worn us down. All life has been addressed this afternoon.

“I have friends who are activists,” he sighs. “I am just making a silly zombie movie. I can’t tell people what to do.”

The Dead Don’t Die opens on Friday, July 12th

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist