The Dead Don’t Die director is appreciating life, as screwed as things may be.
This right here is not the place most artists want to be. They want to get here, sure, but they don’t want to be here. At the moment, here is a sun-dappled windowside table inside the East Village’s leafy B Bar. But here could really be anywhere a table has been affixed with a figurative conveyor belt that brings journalists around every twenty to forty minutes like plates of sushi. And Jim Jarmusch, cinema’s unofficial poet laureate, who is actually physically here right now, is and isn’t an exception, in that he’d rather be elsewhere but he’s also very happily being here.
See, on the one hand, Jarmusch has been living in the world of the undead for two years, and he’s ready to move on. His new zombie comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, will be released on Friday, and after it’s out and this last, obligatory phase in its creation cycle is finished, he might fly to Italy, or he might retreat to his house upstate for what the Japanese call “forest bathing.” He also has ideas he’s eager to get to. Sitting here now, wearing his trademark boxy sunglasses, his white hair a cumulus cloud floating above his long face, he twiddles a small notebook that’s full of scribblings in various colors. He has notes on a next script, musical projects in the works (he plays guitar in ” an enthusiastically marginal rock band” called SQÜRL). It’s all more exciting, or fun, or relaxing than telling strangers about the time Bill Murray …
But by the same token, isn’t this fantastic? All these people eager to talk about this thing that he made, that both he and they find interesting. He’s got a cup of delicious coffee, and the sun is shining warm, bright light through the restaurant’s oversized windows. “It’s really amazing that we’re on this planet,” Jarmusch says, taking it all in. “And all the species of plants and animals, and all the things in the world, and the things humans have made, it’s remarkable.”
He’s not always able to maintain this awestruck zen perspective. But he’s trying. How else to cope with all of the world’s hatred, bigotry, and destruction than to appreciate the sublimity of the small beauties all around us? It’s what The Dead Don’t Die is about when you get past all the stars and the deadpan jokes and the zombies feasting on human flesh. For all its imperfections, as RZA remarks in the film, “the world is perfect.” Maybe if we appreciated that, we’d treat it better. Or maybe we’d just get more out of the finite time we have, be more present, less undead.
GQ: What was the germ of The Dead Don’t Die?
Jim Jarmusch: After we made Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda Swinton kept calling me up and teasing me. She calls me Jeem. “Jeem, when do we make the zombie film?” I made Paterson and Gimme Danger, but then I thought, Okay, I want to make something funny. My initial idea was a ridiculous comedy using zombies where different small groups of actors I love, their characters get holed up in separate places warding off the zombie attacks. The zombie attacks are kind of infrequent and violent. In between, they can have long lapses where they talk about any kind of stupid shit, like in Coffee and Cigarettes. And then I started writing it, and I was writing for Bill and Adam [Driver] and Chloë [Sevigny] and Steve Buscemi, and I thought, I want to make them in a town so I can expand to these little holed-up areas. So I started there, and then it became this.
Were there things you were listening to that were guiding you?
No, oddly this time not really. I wrote that Sturgill Simpson wrote the theme song into the script before asking him. I’d met him. But then we were going to give out the script for financing, and Carter and Josh, our producers, said, “You can’t give it out with this Sturgill thing. You’ve got to ask Sturgill.” And I was like, “Shit, yeah, right.” So I took it all out and put “TBD Theme Song.” But then I immediately called Sturgill, and he was like, “Yeah, yeah, cool.” We talked a lot about old Patsy Cline songs for rhythm, some George Jones, classic country stuff, early ’60s kind of feel. I wanted a beautiful ballad, not a novelty song. I said, “I just want it to be a beautiful Sturgill ballad called ‘The Dead Don’t Die.'” And then he would send lyrics, and from then on anything he sent me I just said, “Fantastic. Keep going. It’s all so beautiful.”
So why Sturgill?
Well Sturgill has a remarkable voice, and I don’t just mean singing, though he has an incredible singing voice. He’s also a fucking kick-ass, killer guitarist. He’s insanely great. But he’s such an interesting guy because he’s sort of a military guy. He’s from Kentucky or whatever. He’s a hillbilly in a way. He’s macho, you’d think. And yet he’ll do things like busk for LGBT stuff, for the Civil Liberties Union. He’s a troublemaker in Nashville, because they’re conservative and he’s outspoken. He’s a really interesting person as a person. But then he’s just a master musician. There’s his knowledge of country music, but he doesn’t want to be just country, so he’s kind of hard to categorize, and I think getting more so as he makes more music.
Over the last couple of years, everything has started to look… bad. There’s that Adam Driver line in the film, “This isn’t going to end well.” How did what was going on in the world bleed into the script?
I don’t know. I just wrote it in. This is still a comedy, with a kind of sadness at the end. But it’s not agitprop as far as politics-though it has a sociopolitical thread, of course. For me, something like the hat that Steve Buscemi’s character wears that says “Keep America White Again”-it’s not even grammatical-the film is reflective. Normally, that’s a little blatant for my taste. But I’m fed up with racist sloganeering. I find it appalling that we have a white supremacist president, which is the first we’ve had since-well we had Woodrow Wilson, who was a fucking white supremacist and a half. But I find that in this time when everything’s getting mixed racially and gender-wise and we’re advancing, then we have these old white men in power that just are greedy fucking rapists of everything. And I’m fed up with it.
Things haven’t changed since 50 years ago when [director] George Romero had similar sociopolitical threads in Night of the Living Dead. Someone asked me the other day, “Why don’t you have something new to say?” Because that shit hasn’t changed, it’s only gotten fucking worse! What am I supposed to invent? It’s just worse and worse. This endless consumerism-look at all the plastic-it’s going to be the detriment to us. This greed and denial of climate meltdown.
There are a lot of scary things both on the horizon and in the present. As someone who doesn’t like to look backwards, is it tempting to want to?
No. I don’t like nostalgia, and I don’t like looking back. Although obviously looking back and absorbing history is very valuable. As a filmmaker, as an artist, as humans, we learn the most from our mistakes. The things we do right are often mysterious. The things we do wrong are not mysterious. And you can calculate them. They’re quantifiable. So looking back’s valuable in that sense, but I don’t like lingering in the past. I don’t like telling people younger than me, “Man, you should’ve been in New York back when we were at CBGB’s.” It was different, and it was exciting, but that’s gone. I’m trying very hard to learn not to regret things, because it doesn’t help anything. I have a tendency to regret things, and it’s not healthy.
Have there been things recently that have led you to think about not wanting to regret things?
It’s more personal little things. I worry about things like, Should I have said that? or Maybe I should’ve ordered a different dish for dinner. Just stupid things that aren’t helpful. I’m trying to suppress that tendency.
How do you do that?
Being mindful of it. And following the fact that one should always focus on the things they can affect, and the things they can’t, don’t let them bother you. It’s a kind of zen lesson I’m trying to learn. In the same way, for a long time I’ve been trying to learn how to be in the present moment. I do yoga, I do Tai-Chi, and that helps me get there maybe a few seconds every week. It’s not easy. But when you are in the present moment, the thing that RZA says in the film is true: The world is perfect. And you should just appreciate the details. If you’re in the present moment, then there’s nothing else, and you have a consciousness. We’re here together talking about this thing that’s interesting to us, and the taste of this coffee, or the sun outside; it’s really amazing that we’re on this planet, that life on this planet’s like that, you know? That we’re experiencing it, that’s incredible. And all the species of plants and animals, and all the things in the world, and the things humans have made, it’s remarkable. So I try to uplift myself with that when I get really depressed and sad by my disappointment in humans.
I get from the film, and also from talking to you, that there are these two warring sides.
They’re contradictory, but they’re both there. I used to be a pretty militant atheist. I’m still an atheist, but also, doing martial arts and stuff, I really appreciate certain tenets of Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. I love that Buddhism embraces contradiction. Other religions, they don’t do that. You’re right or you’re wrong. In Buddhism, it’s not that simple. There’s not right or wrong. And the thing you think may be wrong may be the thing that would be most helpful in a larger sense. So never judge by that black and white. So that allows me to be contradictory in my own feelings and accept that.
I know that as a filmmaker you believe that you need to be interested in other things besides film, to be a dilettante. On this film, were there certain things you became interested in?
I became interested in how visual effects are created. I haven’t experienced it to this degree, and wow that was fascinating. Trying to train my brain to imagine something before it’s there. Like that whole battle scene at the end, we’re just choreographing it with stunt people, and Adam’s got a sword this long [ measures a foot with his hands] because we’re going to digitally make the machete. And Bill’s shooting nothing, not even blanks. He’s just cocking the gun and clicking. So all the muzzle flash and exploding heads, it’s not there. Training your brain to imagine things that aren’t going to be there until later was really interesting to me.
Bill Murray has a meta line in the film where he’s mad he didn’t get the full script, and he says, “After all I’ve done for that guy [Jim]-and it’s a lot you don’t even know.” So what has Bill Murray done for you that people don’t know?
I don’t want to exactly go into it, but Bill has done remarkable things for me. If I make a film with Bill, I may not have control-let’s say in this case, I don’t have final say in all the poster art. So for Bill’s deal, he’ll sign a deal saying he has to have a say in how many of the main actors are with him on the poster and they can’t use him alone or with less than three, or something like that. He’s only doing that to protect me, because he knows I don’t have control of that. Stuff like that.
But also, I’ve had the key to Bill Murray’s guest house for ten years in the glove compartment of my car just in case I have any problem. Bill’s like, “You know the code to the gate. You can go there any time. If you ever need, it’s there for any emergency.” There are things like that that he’s done for me and for other people. He’s really a wonderful person, and protective as a friend.
With this film, you’re juggling all these different balls, with all these amazing, big name actors. Was that a struggle?
It was a little bit unusual for me because usually I write stories that have central characters that we follow and other characters come and go but we have a through line. This was not that. The cops are the center. But we have all these different little stories going on around that. And in the editing room, you have to make that work properly. So some of them were kind of modular and some of the scenes, the order shifted a bit. But not in too dramatic a way. And there weren’t scenes that I took out, so most of the scenes are in the film-for a change. Most of my films, I end up with four or five scenes that just aren’t going to make it.
Shooting the film is gathering. You’re gathering the things from which you’ll make the film. But you make the film in the editing room. And the film has to tell you what it wants. I’ve learned this very clearly: If you try to bludgeon the film into what you want it to be, it will be weaker than if you allow it to tell you what it wants to be. That’s a hard lesson to learn. I made a film years ago, Mystery Train, and there was a crane shot with a train, and it cost $20,000 for that day of shooting. Now every day costs that much, but it was a lot then. But the film just didn’t want it. And I kept saying, “But I want that shot. It was so hard to get. It’s really important.” And then Jay Rabinowitz, the editor, and I would say, “Let’s take it out. We could put it right back.” And we’d take it out, and the film was so much happier. So you have to learn to listen to the film.
This movie is about the undead, but a lot of people you came up with have died recently. In making this, were you also thinking about the dead?
I wasn’t consciously thinking about it any more than I always might. But it’s true that I’ve been working on this film for two years straight, and in the past two to three years I have lost a remarkable number of people close to me, like a waterfall of loss. So it has affected me. I’m not real analytical about how, but I know there’s been a deep sense of loss. It’s empowering in a way, loss, because it makes you want to go on. It makes you really value having a consciousness and still being here. I believe in the law of thermodynamics, so energy cannot be created or destroyed. So I believe that when you die, you don’t go to heaven or any of that-that’s all, to me, superstition. But I believe your energy goes into a stream of energy in the universe. We know that there’s energy throughout the universe, and you are energy, and you can’t destroy it. So what happens? Your physical body goes to dust eventually, but your energy can’t be killed. So what is it? I don’t know.
This interview has been edited and condensed.