Jim Jarmusch had been thinking about doing a western for a long, long time, at one point collaborating with Rudy Wurlitzer on a cowboy opus called Ghost Dog. But a western imbued with the spirit of the English visionary poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827)?
“Blake just kind of walked into the story on his own accord,” explains the writer-director about Dead Man, his trippy, black-and-white, Johnny Depp-goes-west odyssey. “You can’t keep that guy out.”
Indeed, not only does Blake’s verse spring from the mouths of Dead Man’s cast—mainly that of Gary Farmer, who plays a hefty, oddball Blood-and-Blackfoot wanderer named Nobody—but Depp’s character is called William Blake. It’s a running joke in the film that Nobody, a kind of mystical guide during Blake’s post-Civil War sojourn from a grungy one-horse town to a Makah encampment in the Pacific Northwest, thinks William Blake is the William Blake.
“I was carrying around a lot of notes on this film for years,” says Jarmusch, whose ‘80s pics Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and Mystery Train spurred a renaissance of American independent filmmaking. “And just before I was about to write the script, I had been reading a lot about Native American thought and writing. And to take a break from that, I picked up William Blake. I hadn’t really read Blake for a number of years, and I was struck by how similar a lot of things were, a lot of his thoughts were to those that I had just been reading about American Indians . . . For example, I picked up Proverbs of Hell, and one of the proverbs is ‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow.’ Another one is: ‘Expect poison from standing water.’ . . .
“These just struck me as so similar to what I was reading about the native tribes. So he just walked into my story at that point. I hadn’t even thought about it until then.”
It isn’t necessary to be a Blake scholar to appreciate what Jarmusch is doing in Dead Man, which opened Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse. In fact, it may be more helpful to be a pop scholar. Although Dead Man is by far Jarmusch’s least ironic, most ambitious movie to date, playing with allegories about life, death and the hereafter, it is also chockful of jokey allusions to rock and roll. There is a character named Benmont Tench, which happens to be the name of one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. There is Johnny “The Kid” Pickett and Cole Wilson, so there’s Wilson Pickett.
“Yeah, I stuck a lot of things in while writing just to amuse myself,” he confesses. Like a couple of marshals named Lee and Marvin: “On the wanted posters, their full names are Lee Hazlewood and Marvin Throne-berry,” the former a ‘60s songwriter and producer, the latter a famous New York Met.
And then there’s Nobody’s full name: He Who Talks Loud and Saying Nothing. “That’s from one of my favorite tracks by James Brown, called ‘Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.’”
A more substantial rock presence in Dead Man is Neil Young, who composed and performed the film’s jangling, haunting score. Young, whom Jarmusch met backstage at a concert in Sedona, Ariz., during a day off from filming (Dead Man’s locations also include sites in Nevada, Northern California and Oregon), recorded the music in a unique way.
“He set everything up in a big warehouse with monitors and all this equipment running to a remote truck, and insisted on playing directly to the picture without stopping the film,” says Jarmu
sch. “He did that three times over a two-day period—a lot like old silent movies, where you have a guy playing in the theater . . . It came out really beautifully, like an emotional reaction of Neil to the film . . .”
Dead Man also boasts some entertainingly odd little cameos by the likes of Gabriel Byrne, John Hurt, Alfred Molina and Crispin Glover (as a soot-smeared train fireman). And it features the iconic, thunder-timbred Robert Mitchum, in the role of a dangerously eccentric metalworks company chief. Getting Mitchum meant meeting Mitchum, which Jarmusch did over lunch near the star’s Santa Barbara home.
“Oh man, for three hours he talked nonstop,” recalls Jarmusch, happily. “I was sitting in an outdoor restaurant overlooking the ocean, and I would look out at the ocean and then I would realize that this voice talking to me is Robert Mitchum’s! It was quite an amazing experience. I can’t even repeat a lot of the things he told me . . . old Hollywood stories, stories about particular films that I liked, particular actors and actresses, some of his drug stories, a little bit about his arrests—all kinds of stuff.
“At one point, he said to me, ‘It’s too bad we can’t go meet Jane Russell, she lives right near me. I’m sure you’d like to meet Jane, I think she’d like you, she’s a hell of a broad.’
“He smoked a pack of Pall Malls and he drank quite a few double martinis, maybe six or something . . . but he was not fazed. I don’t drink very much, and I don’t drink in the daytime, and I told him that. He said, ‘You don’t drink in the daytime, what kind of thing is that? Half your life’s in the daytime!’”
Directing Mitchum was not without its moments, either. There was the night Jarmusch decided to rewrite a scene so that Mitchum would deliver his lines to a stuffed grizzly bear.
“I didn’t know why I wanted him to do that,” says Jarmusch, “and I stayed up half the night trying to think of a good reason to tell him, because I could hear him saying, ‘Now, why the hell do I talk to the damned bear?’ But I went to his trailer the next morning and I told him, ‘I want you to walk up and deliver this part of the text to the bear.’ And he said ‘Fine, let’s shoot!’ and he never asked at all.”