Jim Jarmusch takes control

The independent film icon talks about making a ravishing action movie with no action -- and why he'll never direct a Hollywood blockbuster.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 30, 2009 10:39AM (EDT)

Photo by Teresa Isasi

Listen to the interview with Jim Jarmusch

When you think about the American directors who embodied the independent-film wave of the 1980s, Jim Jarmusch stands alone in many respects. Peers like Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant and Wayne Wang moved on to a complicated dance between the mainstream and the margins, mixing bigger Hollywood pictures with smaller and ostensibly more personal projects. Other directors, like Alex Cox of "Repo Man," couldn't create economically viable career models and dropped off the film industry's radar screen altogether.

Jarmusch simply kept on doing what he started out doing. He probably could have parlayed the modest success of the laconic road movie "Stranger Than Paradise" and the equally laconic prison-break comedy "Down by Law" into a well-paying job infusing quirkiness into Hollywood scripts, but he never tried. As he said during our recent conversation in New York, he assumes each of his movies will be a "marginal cult thing," and that way he can be pleasantly surprised if it exceeds those expectations.

Maybe this sounds like an invidious comparison, but Jarmusch is the post-punk hipster generation's answer to Woody Allen. He makes the movies he wants on the schedule he wants, with little regard for current fashion or commercial viability. Although he's clearly American in orientation and outlook, he probably has more fans and followers in Europe than in America. Jarmusch works at a glacial pace that makes Allen seem positively prolific, having made just 10 features in 25 years, a number that includes his 1997 Neil Young documentary, "Year of the Horse."

But if Allen's films are more than anything about people talking, Jarmusch's films are about the silences between the words, a subject explored to perfection in his ravishing new slow-motion crime fable, "The Limits of Control." While I think Jarmusch's work is a mixed bag taken as a whole, his artistic ambition is exceedingly high and his best films are nothing like anybody else's. Taking his cues from such unpopular sources as Ozu and Antonioni, Jarmusch isn't much interested in plot for its own sake. He uses storytelling as a way to get from one perfectly framed and highly ambiguous moment to the next.

At one point in "The Limits of Control," the handsome, enigmatic and unnamed protagonist, played by Afro-French actor Isaach De Bankolé, has a cafe encounter somewhere in Spain with Tilda Swinton, also playing a nameless character and dressed in a ludicrous cowgirl get-up. The whole movie, in fact, is a series of such assignations, in which transactions occur that we can't quite follow. Swinton remarks that she likes those moments in movies where people sit there and don't say anything. Then the two of them sit there without saying anything. It's a highly Jarmuschian meta-movie joke, but it also begins to hint at the hidden meanings within the slowly unpeeling onion of "The Limits of Control."

This is not Jarmusch's easiest film, nor his most audience-friendly, but for my money it's the most rigorous and beautiful construction of his entire career. Maybe I can put it this way: If you liked Jarmusch's 1995 "Dead Man," which has a definite cult following but was a commercial failure, "The Limits of Control" is the movie you've been wanting him to make ever since.

Working with the Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who shot Wong Kar-wai's early films), Jarmusch has created something like a Bach fugue, a complex set of themes and variations. It has the suave hero and the visual vocabulary of a crime thriller, one in which De Bankolé follows a set of clues and codes from one strange encounter to the next, each one moving him from Madrid to Seville and onward into the Spanish countryside. (Let me reassure you about one thing right now: He does have a clear purpose in mind, and his journey does have a destination. This is not one of those postmodern stories with no ending.)

But the suave hero, the sharp clothes, the noirish atmosphere and the spectacular settings are only one layer of the onion. Jarmusch's title is meant to be metaphysically suggestive, referring not just to the limits of political control (that's a clue, but not a spoiler) but also to the fact that the movie itself is a fiction, and to the possibility that the world is not what we perceive it to be. There are hints that De Bankolé is able to control the landscape around him, at least at times, almost like the author of a story or like Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix."

Honestly, though, none of that would be worth talking about if "The Limits of Control" weren't a hypnotic and witty concoction of picture and sound. Doyle's spectacular but lived-in Spanish landscapes are supported by an amazing soundtrack from the experimental-rock trio Boris, and De Bankolé's nearly wordless protagonist bounces off entertaining cameos from Swinton, Bill Murray, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Hiam Abbass and others. It feels to me as if Jarmusch has shifted into a new gear at age 56, and that's very exciting.

Oddly, in 20-plus years of covering independent film, I'd never met Jarmusch in person before. He was relaxed and friendly, and he kept on talking long after our allotted time had run out. He announced early in the conversation that he was no good at speaking analytically about his films, but that did not turn out to be true.

This is another one of your films about a mysterious, lone protagonist. Talk about casting Isaach De Bankolé and how you see his role.

Well, I've known Isaach for like 25 years. This is our fourth film we've made together. And for some years now I wanted to make a film with Isaach in which he was a very controlled, quiet, centered criminal of some kind. One of the elements I started with writing this was, he's not very verbal but he expresses things through the tiny details in his face, or gestures.

It's an extraordinary performance. He's in, if not every single shot, the vast majority of them, with relatively little dialogue. It has to all be in his expression or his body.

Yes, he speaks very little. He only speaks when it's necessary.

And in fact one of the -- I don't know if you want to call it a joke -- but one of the running themes of the film is, he has these recurring meetings with people in public places. And the first question is always addressed to him in Spanish, "Do you speak Spanish?" The answer being "No."

Right. It's a kind of code. Yeah, he encounters these characters throughout. The film is very much about variations. And scenes recur, but they're with a different person in a different place. Fragments of dialogue recur throughout the film, repeated by different people. He's always traveling and waiting and getting the next piece of some puzzle where he'll make his next move, and then wait. You know, I love variations. It's used so much in music and painting, and it's in architecture and fashion and pop music. It's something that we're celebrating, this idea of things that repeat but are slightly different.

You've always seemed to me to have an attitude toward the patience of the audience, which I admire greatly: You're not afraid to ask them to wait, and to allow some space for things that are not explained to happen in the film.

For me, film is very related to music, in that it flows before you in its own time signature. And my own musicality is on the slower side. Maybe it's like the way I talk. Maybe I think slowly.

Then there's the aspect that, I don't know why ... I'm attracted to the moments that are somewhat -- maybe completely -- devoid of something dramatic. My films are built around those things. "Coffee and Cigarettes'' is just little moments out of a day that are not considered important. Or I made "Night on Earth," in which the whole film is made up of cab rides that, in a dramatic narrative, would be the part you would leave out.

I noticed that somebody online had described your film, based maybe on having seen the trailer and some of the images, as being a suspense film or a crime film. And it's not that it doesn't have elements of that, but people who go into it with that expectation may be a little bit disappointed.

Yeah, I think that they should be warned that it's an action movie with no action. And we were alluding to crime films and action films on a lot of levels, but we were not employing the same conventions, basically. The film is almost devoid of a lot of them. But it has the atmosphere of those kind of films.

Isaach De Bankolé carries mysterious objects whose purpose we're not sure about. He's making exchanges with people. There are things like that, which certainly signal a crime film.

He keeps getting coded notes, but they're never decoded for the audience. So you know what they're for, but you don't know what they say. Or, you know that he has to exchange certain things, but we don't know what their value is for who's going to ultimately receive them. They're only conventions to move him along. So, yeah, we took away a lot of the information that normally would be important but isn't ultimately important in this story.

You talked earlier about the fact that certain snippets of dialogue reoccur. There's this suggestion that there may almost be -- if this isn't totally pretentious -- like a metaphysical element to the story. And that the world that we see in the film is not ultimately real, or not ultimately the most meaningful level.

Well, some of it is kind of a dream logic, rather than rationality. So you don't quite know what things are, what they mean. He goes several times in the film to museums and sees only one single painting, and leaves. And I carefully picked Spanish painters in a kind of chronological order throughout the 20th century. And the first one is Juan Gris’s Cubist painting of a violin. And that's a kind of clue, in my mind anyway, to the film. Because cubism is a fracturing of your perception of the physical properties of an object. So the film uses that in a way so that a lot of these things -- I hope -- are interpretable from different perspectives. There isn’t a right way to interpret them.

It's not nearly as straightforward as something like "The Matrix," where we see that reality is actually totally constructed. But one could go in that direction in interpreting your film.

Yes, there's certainly that theme in there, it's even in the title ... What if you just flipped around these arbitrary values that are put on things? We are constantly told, "We drive these fossil-burning vehicles because that's just the way it is." But the imagination and science have a thousand different possibilities, so why is one of the worst ones the one that's employed? And the answer is obvious: because it's profitable for people that control this. That is a theme repeated several times: "Reality is arbitrary." It is a theme in the film that your consciousness and your perspective on anything is your own and should be valued as your own and not just be part of a herd of sheep because that's the direction we were told to go.

We shouldn't just act like this movie is just existing in the realm of ideas, because it primarily is not.

I hope it's entertaining. I mean, it's not supposed to be an intellectual exercise. You don't have to go in thinking about these themes. They’re just kind of swirling around within the film.

It was a really beautiful film, visually and sonically. You shot in all these very beautiful locations in Spain.

Yes. And also, it follows the storyline of the film in that the first act of the film is in Madrid -- the kind of quotidian Madrid that you would see if you lived there, not necessarily if you were there as a tourist. And then going to Seville, one of the jewels of Spain of that period when Islamic culture, Judaism and Christianity coexisted and flowered, until about the 14th century, you know? And then the Christians killed the others. The last act of the film is almost like a western, where he's outside of Almeria. Where, incidentally, and not accidentally, all the spaghetti westerns were filmed.

I didn’t know that, but right at the end of the movie I started thinking: Here we've got a protagonist with no name in this dusty, small town. We're a little bit getting that Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood territory.

As film viewers we know all those landscapes from all those films. Maybe we’re not aware they were Spain. And … no character reveals any real name. The names in the credits are Lone Man, Nude, Blonde, Guitar, Violin, that kind of thing. I was just trying to further abstract them and name them only like they were paintings rather than characters.

You have these great, fairly small-scale performances by actors, many of whom have been in other films of yours: Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, Bill Murray … And all these people seem to want to make some sort of personal connection with Isaach’s character. And he's resistant to that.

I don't see him as resistant, because he kind of lets them talk about subjects that they are obsessed with or interested in. And they ask him each time. They say, "Are you interested in science, by any chance?" And he never answers, but he allows them to go off on it for a while, and he listens. So they talk about painting and music and science and hallucinogenic drugs and the origin of the word "bohemian." He's interested, as he is in all things around him. But after a certain point, "OK, that's enough. I gotta do the thing here. I gotta go."

After the fact, I recognized that there were a few hints earlier in the film about where he's going and what he's doing, what his assignment is. Although it's not even clear when he knows exactly what his assignment is.

Yeah, it's not very clear. I think the only people that know are the Creole guy in the beginning that sort of launches him, and then the driver who takes him at the end to the act. But all the people in between, I think, only know their piece of the puzzle. They only move him along to the next thing.

I interpreted the title, "The Limits of Control," as referring to the limits of political and/or military control. And also maybe to the more kind of existential question that the hero is going through, like: What is his level of control over his environment?

Yeah, that's perfect. I liked the title because it seemed two-edged and contradictory in an appealing way. That you could look at it as, What are the limits of our own personal control? What do we have control over in our lives, and how do we respect our consciousness? And conversely, what are the limits to which our consciousness is attempted to be controlled by outside things? For me it holds both meanings, which I liked. It comes from William Burroughs.

Talk about working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and what he brought to the film. This was a special visual experience.

Chris is, for me, like a river full of fish -- ideas swimming past continually. And you can fish out however many or however few you want, and Chris is there to realize them … Now, I've worked with great cinematographers. And what they brought to all those films was way above my ideas, because we collaborate. But I still wanted to remove myself from being quite so controlling of every setup. I'm a formalist, and this film's very formal in a lot of ways. But I just really appreciated Chris' ability to always have alternate ideas at any instant. I think he's one of the great living directors of photography at this moment in time. But he's also wild. You know, somebody said that Keith Richards met Chris and said, "Well, Chris Doyle is the Keith Richards of cinematographers."

That's a hard burden to carry.

I would say Keith Richards is the Chris Doyle of rock and roll … I did some funny things though. The film's so very carefully composed throughout, but the very last shot of the film, the camera throws away that precision. And that was because that last shot, Chris couldn't turn the camera off without pulling it off his shoulders. So the camera had to throw the frame away before he could turn it off. And when I saw those, I was like, "Oh man, I want to use that." I didn't tell Chris until I'd edited the film. He was like, "Oh you looked for some mistakes. You looked for the strikes and the things other people would throw away. That's good. I like that." I was trying to give a little gift back to him for all the amazing things he put into this film.

Have you ever felt any personal or professional desire to do anything on purpose to get a larger audience for your films?

No, I really try very hard to protect myself from ever thinking that way. I block it right away when people start talking about things like, "Well, but Bill Murray, he's known to be funny. So people are going to expect him to be funny. What are you going to do about that when he's not funny in that film?" I take the approach that every one of my films is going to be a marginal cult film, if I'm lucky. And so if it does that, I'm happy. I did that at least.

Some of the people in the American independent scene in the '80s that you know, and who began their careers around the same time -- Spike Lee and Wayne Wang, to name two examples -- went on to make Hollywood films in addition to more personal small films. You probably had those opportunities?

Yeah, I respect them. Or like Gus Van Sant, or Rick Linklater. You know, they all make different movies for different reasons. But me … I'm not attracted to the mainstream in my own aspirations. I mean, every once in a while something is incredible like, say, Nirvana -- there's no way you could hold that back. Generally my narrations don't come out of the mainstream.

But I'm also not calculatingly trying to avoid it. I just do things my way. And I really don't have the confidence to make a mainstream film, or I don't have the temperament to have people tell me how to make the film. I guess that would be a really big problem for me. Because I am a control freak. So that would be a big mess. Blood would be shed.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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