Jim Jarmusch interview: “As we film, my movies just get funnier”

The coolest director on the planet talks Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton and mushrooms from outer space

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The 61-year-old Jim Jarmusch is the lone wolf of American indie cinema. After DIY beginnings, he found his niche as an idiosyncratic auteur able to take on different genres—the western in 1995’s Dead Man, the romcom in 2005’s Broken Flowers– and inject them with his unique brand of hipster humour, wry intelligence and wistful romanticism. His latest experiment is Only Lovers Left Alive, in which Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries-old vampires struggling to come to terms with modern life.

What made you look at Tilda Swinton and think “vampire?”
Vampires aren’t lumbering mindless monsters, they’re sophisticated. Tilda seems very vampiric to me. She’s pale, she’s fine-featured, she moves in a graceful way. When I was filming her walking through the streets of Tangier, I realised there was a kind of predator in her.

Tom Hiddleston stepped in to replace Michael Fassbender. What was it about Tom that appealed to you?
At first I was at a loss, because I love Michael, but I think there was a reason it became Tom. Michael has a visceral quality, but Tom was able to bring something more cerebral. I’d seen him in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and I thought: No, that’s not my guy. But I had the chance to meet him in New York and it was incredible. He was so tall and graceful and physically elegant, and he got every reference I threw at him.

Over the years, every time this project fell apart I’d call Tilda and she’d say, “It’s good, it means we weren’t ready yet.” We had to wait until we had all the right parts, and Tom was one of them.

There’s a lot of dry humour in this film, as there always is in your work…
I start every movie thinking how heavy and purposeful it is. But as we film they just get funnier. In the editing room I ended up saying to myself, hey, it’s really just a comedy, Jim. I don’t seem to be able to remove that inclination to humour if I try.

What made you decide to use music by your own band, Sqürl, in the film?
I always wanted the movie to be drenched in music, but our budget was limited and Sqürl work very cheap! Also, I’d decided that our musician character, Adam, should be anti-virtuoso at this point in his life, so to use Sqürl just made sense: we make slow, molten drone rock.

The film is steeped in a kind of sensuous decay. Are you a romantic at heart?
I don’t know about that, but I do find romantic appeal in desolation and post-industrial landscapes. The cities in the film are very important, Detroit and Tangier. Detroit is a depopulated ghost town, and Tangier is a crumbling place that’s full of life. These locations help define the characters.

One of the great lines in the movie is when Adam says: “We don’t know shit about fungi.” Is that true?
Ha! It is true! I became an amateur mycologist years ago when I had a very nice plate of pappardelle and wild mushrooms in a restaurant in New York, and by midnight all my internal organs were beginning to shut down. I was rushed to hospital, and if I’d gotten there one hour later I would’ve been gone. So I became very interested, and I discovered how much we don’t know.

Their DNA is closer to animals than plants. They obviously have psychoactive properties. Some believe they arrived from outer space and affected our evolution. They’re the largest organism on earth. Many believe they have a powerful intelligence. They are quite phenomenal. I could go on, but I’ll spare you…

Watch the ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ trailer

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