Those who’ve followed the work of Jim Jarmusch had no reason to suspect his current film, Dead Man, was percolating away inside him. An accomplished poet of urban life, Jarmusch has always worked with a decidedly light touch, constructing lackadaisical narratives populated with low-rent hipsters prone to casual flourishes of irony and wit. Dead Man, which opens Friday, departs dramatically from all that.
An epic odyssey set in the Old West, Dead Man chronicles the final days of a hapless Midwestern clerk who finds himself tossed about by the warring forces that gripped the U.S. frontier at the turn of the century. Starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer and shot for $9 million over a 10-week period that began in October 1994, the film is alternately a love letter, a condemnation and a eulogy for America on the eve of the industrial revolution.
Deviating significantly from formulaic westerns, Dead Man synthesizes allusions to the mystical traditions of Native American culture, 18th century British visionary William Blake and the existential theater of Samuel Beckett. Equally noteworthy is the fact that this is far and away the most nakedly emotional movie the New York-based filmmaker has conceived—which isn’t to suggest he’s lost his sense of humor. There are moments of great hilarity here, among them Robert Mitchum blithely conversing with a stuffed bear, and Iggy Pop wearing a dress and bonnet as he reads passages from the Bible. For the most part, however, Dead Man is a deeply philosophical film that poses some very challenging questions.
That Jarmusch would create a cinematic homage to Native American culture actually makes sense; beginning with the 1984 film that launched his career, Stranger Than Paradise, his work has always been profoundly American, and Dead Man cuts to the very heart of U.S. history.
“This is the story of a man forced to surrender to his own destiny,” the 43-year-old filmmaker says during an interview at a Hollywood hotel. “Having said that, I should add that I intend the story be open to interpretation—and apparently it is. When the film played in Europe, several people told me they thought the lead character died in the first 10 minutes of the film, and literally was a dead man for the rest of the story,” he laughs.
An articulate conversationalist with a broad frame of reference, Jarmusch speaks knowledgeably about topics ranging from world literature, U.S. history and Native American ritual to music, Darwinian theory and, of course, film. Now in the midst of an international promotional tour that ends in early June, he’s clearly weary of explaining himself but does his best to be engaged and accommodating.
“The western as a genre doesn’t interest me,” he says in explaining why he opted to make a western. “I don’t like John Ford, for instance, because he idealizes his characters and uses westerns to enforce some kind of moral code. It seems as if he’s telling nice American stories, but his films actually reinforce all the worst things about America, and I don’t like that subterfuge.
“The westerns I do like—Blood on the Moon, for instance, or Johnny Guitar—appeal to me because they deviate from the formula. Johnny Guitar is almost a Brechtian western—the main set in the film looks like a ‘50s ski lodge and the costumes also look ‘50s. Blood on the Moon is a western that’s shot and lit as if it were film noir—they’re both oddities that don’t fit with the westerns made of the same period.”
The same could be said of Jarmusch’s western, riddled as it is with references to William Blake. Asked how Blake wound up in his vision of the Old West, he laughs and says, “It’s his fault—he walked into my damn script!
“The way I work is I collect notes for years, then I block out a month to sit down and actually write the script. In preparing to write this script, I read lots of material on Native American culture, and the night before I planned to start writing, I wanted to read something totally different to clear my head. Blake was important to me when I was in my 20s, so I picked up one of his books and was just blown away by how much he connected with the stuff I’d just put down. The character named Nobody, who’s played by Gary Farmer, quotes Blake throughout the film, yet it sounds like Native American philosophy.”
Jarmusch wrote the part of Nobody specifically for Gary Farmer, whose performance in the 1988 film Powwow Highway made a big impression on him.
“In that movie, Gary played this selfless, sweet, emotional human who isn’t complicated by ego or driven by the normal things that drive people in such annoying and often insidious ways,” Jarmusch says. “I just fell in love with that human being—and Gary is that guy to a large degree.”
Reflecting on how he came to be involved with the film, Farmer recalls, “I was touched by the way Jim offered me the part of Nobody. I live in Canada in the bush between Montreal and Toronto. My closest neighbor is two miles away so it’s really the middle of nowhere, but Jim managed to make his way there—which impressed me—and spent a few days with me. It was this time of year, so it was really beautiful, and we spent a lot of time walking in the hills while he told me the story in the manner of a traditional storyteller.
“Then later when I read the script, it was easy for me to find the character of Nobody in my heart because my experience has been much like his,” he adds. “Like Nobody, it took me a long time to get past all the things society laid on me and reconnect with who I really am.”
Jarmusch also had Depp in mind for the part of William Blake from the start. “Johnny’s a subtle actor, which I respect,” Jarmusch says. “He refuses to telegraph things or be dramatic and is always completely on top of whatever he’s doing. He’s physically beautiful too, of course, but Johnny isn’t just some model-type guy—as a person he has a very deep soul.”
Says Depp of the character of William Blake: “The transition this man undergoes is a strange one because with each step his foot lands in another pile of crap, but at the same time, he’s experiencing a kind of spiritual ascension. He isn’t aware of any of this until midway through the film, however, when he has an encounter with a fawn and recognizes himself in this animal. At that point, he leaves the person he was behind and begins to merge with his surroundings.
“Technically it was a difficult role because physically the guy’s in the process of winding down, but the film was shot out of sequence,” Depp adds. “I really had to pay attention in order to remember where I was in that process. Before we started shooting, Jim and I talked a lot about what the emotional repercussions would be of the intense physical pain this man is experiencing, and that psychological preparation helped a lot during the shoot.”
Keeping the film moving at a brisk clip is a far-flung cast of cameo performers that includes Mitchum, Pop, Gabriel Byrne, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Jared Harris and Alfred Molina. One could make the case, however, that Depp and Farmer’s key co-stars are the exquisitely photographed landscape—“Robby Muller made every frame look like a Cartier-Bresson photograph,” says Depp—and the film’s haunting score by Neil Young.
Of how he came to create the music for the film, Young explains: “I saw an early cut of the film and absolutely loved it—in fact, I thought it was finished at that point, so when Jim asked me about doing music for it, I was very interested.
“This is the first score I’ve done because I always thought scoring a film meant you had to sit there and count the number of seconds in the scene, then write music that matched up perfectly in terms of time,” he continues. “I can’t imagine anything more boring, so what I did instead was watch the film twice, set up a guitar, pump organ and prepared piano [one whose sound has been altered through the insertion of various objects into its inner workings], ran the film a third time and improvised along with it, changing from one instrument to the next.
“It’s basically the same way musical accompanists worked in the days of silent movies. I did two complete takes—one very tender, the other more rhythmic and aggressive—and used parts of both in the final score.”
Of the look of the film, Jarmusch says, “I wanted to convey a sense of how varied and magical the place of America is. The shoot went from the desert outside of Phoenix, to the high desert, to the Aspen forest, to the ocean, to the Redwoods, to a burned forest blanketed with snow in Oregon—like America itself, it’s all so incredible and strong and fragile.”
The film moves through all this beauty at a lyrical pace that makes you feel as though you’re meandering across the West on the back of a horse. This hypnotizing rhythm is occasionally disrupted by jarring episodes of violence, about which Jarmusch says, “I’m not too analytical about my own work so it’s hard for me to defend the choices I make. I love movies like The Evil Dead as much as I love Carl Dreyer or Ozu, and I felt those scenes were necessary to the overall fabric of the film. With the cannibalism scene, I don’t know—I guess I got carried away,” he laughs.
The bits of violence in the film are pretty gruesome, but Jarmusch expects any quarrel critics may have with Dead Man to emanate from different quarters.
“I’m sure there will be some criticism of the film for making the white man the bad guy,” he says, “but what are we to make of the fact that conservative estimates say 25 million Native Americans were killed? This suggests to me that genocide was attempted on these people, but America has been in a state of denial about it ever since.”
Surprisingly, this is something Jarmusch has thought about for a long time.
“I grew up in Akron, Ohio, and spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who was really interested in Native American culture,” recalls Jarmusch, the second of two children born to a former newspaperwoman and her husband, a businessman who worked for Goodyear. “My grandmother instilled a love for Native American culture in me at a very young age and once took me to southern Ohio to see the Great Serpent Mound.” [A massive sacred burial site visible only by air, that was created by the Adena-Hopewell people around AD200.]
As Jarmusch was learning about Native Americans, he was also immersing himself in popular culture. “The first movie that made an impression on me was Thunder Road, a B-movie about moonshiners that starred Robert Mitchum,” he recalls. “My family was on vacation in Florida and my mother and sister took me to see it at a drive-in. I was 7 at the time, and it was the first movie I saw that wasn’t a children’s film. It was a violent story set in a dark, criminal, adult world, and I remember there were lots of speeding, throbbing, hopped-up cars.
“Like all kids, I loved movies, but literature was the most important thing to me then, and it played the biggest role in shaping any understanding or beliefs I have about mysticism and metaphysics,” he continues. “My parents were Episcopalian but I never wanted to go to church with them because I didn’t like the idea of sitting in a stuffy room wearing a little tie, so I used to hide on Sundays. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that I started thinking about theology, and it was literature that led me there. Starting with Dante and Aristides, the English poets and the Romantic poets—there are so many writers I love.”
Enrolling at Northwestern University in 1970 as a journalism major, Jarmusch transferred to Columbia the following year planning to become a poet. In 1975, while in his final semester at Columbia, he visited Paris, where he discovered world cinema through the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise. Returning to the States, he noticed his writing was becoming increasingly cinematic, so he transferred to New York University to do graduate work in its film department. Hanging out in Manhattan’s punk scene in his free time, he spent four years at NYU, mastering the basics of filmmaking, working as a teaching assistant to Nicholas Ray and as a production assistant on Wim Wenders’ Lightning Over Water.
Two weeks after the 1979 death of Ray, Jarmusch began work on his debut film, Permanent Vacation, which was released the following year. His career didn’t break until 1984, however, with the release of Stranger Than Paradise, which attracted the core audience that supported his subsequent films: Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991).
It’s hard to know how his longtime fans will respond to the radical turn he takes with Dead Man, but regardless of how it’s received, Jarmusch asserts “it was easily the hardest film I’ve made. We built a village in Oregon in the style of the Macaw people, then brought some of them down from the northern peak of Washington, where they live, to be in the film. That was quite a lot of work, as was the cutting process, which was incredibly drawn out. The shoot itself was unbelievably grueling, and though I have great memories of it now, at the time I wanted to cry, ‘I wanna go home to my mommy—I don’t want to be an adult anymore!’
“The fact that the final scene exists at all amazes me, because we picked one location after another and they were all washed away in heavy storms,” he adds. “We finally managed to shoot the scene on a beach also in the process of being washed away, and by the time we wrapped, our base camp was flooded. The Coast Guard kept telling us we had to get the hell out of there, but we just ignored them until we got the shot.”
“That experience left me craving to make a more guerrilla-style film, because I love working with a small crew, filming in the street unencumbered by trucks and all that. I sort of know what I’m going to do next, and hopefully I’ll start my next film as soon as I’m done promoting this one, because I’m dying to do something different.
“But it isn’t the rule with me that I go from one film to the next,” he says. “Between Night on Earth and this film, there was a long period when I had nothing to say. It wasn’t a negative thing like, ‘Oh man, I’m blocked and need help’—I just needed some time where I was left alone and could hang out at the bus station again, checking out the traffic and the flow.”