(Credit: Jim Jarmusch)

Jim Jarmusch on the similarities of making music and movies

As a filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch loves to create visual landscapes, often through musical soundscapes created by experimental exploration. As a director, Jarmusch sets out to “approximate real-time for the audience”.

Jarmusch is not somebody who likes to spoon-feed his viewers. In everything he sets out to create, whether they are films, musical compositions, or poetry – all of which he does regularly – he seeks to challenge his audience; he eschews natural narrative structures and disregards people’s contentment with lazy linear storytelling. As a result, his films are often fragmented, minimalist, slow-paced, but rich in tone and colour.

Therefore, his movies are very much based on mood which is established through the negative space – by everything that is not said. Fellow musician and collaborator, Josef Van Wissem, an electric lutist (yes he plays the medieval instrument – a lute) contributed music to Jarmusch’s 2013 film, Only Lovers Left Alive. In 2014, Wissem described Jarmusch’s attitude towards filmmaking and musicianship as being intrinsically linked, in which case he approaches both mediums from a similar place, creatively. “I know the way [Jarmusch] makes his films is kind of like a musician,” he said. “He has music in his head when he’s writing a script so it’s more informed by a tonal thing than it is by anything else.”

For artists like Jarmusch, it doesn’t necessarily matter which medium one works in. He is the kind of artist who has dabbled in various art forms over the years. Just as tones and moods make up his films – his creative process runs parallel to this. “I put ‘A film by’ as a protection of my rights, but I don’t really believe it,” Jarmusch told David Erhlich in an interview with The Guardian in 2014. “It’s important for me to have a final cut, and I do for every film. So I’m in the editing room every day, I’m the navigator of the ship, but I’m not the captain, I can’t do it without everyone’s equally valuable input.”

This was in response to Jarmusch being called an ‘auteur’, which means somebody whose film is defined by an autobiographical quality, so much that their name written all over it – it is undeniably theirs. “For me, it’s phases where I’m very solitary, writing, and then I’m preparing, getting the money, and then I’m with the crew and on a ship and it’s amazing and exhausting and exhilarating, and then I’m alone with the editor again,” he added. “I’ve said it before, it’s like seduction, wild sex, and then pregnancy in the editing room. That’s how it feels for me.”

Jarmusch is kind of like the Iggy Pop of filmmaking. This idea of equating sex to the creation of music is actually an age-long theory, first purported by the scientist Charles Darwin, who said in his book The Descent of Man: “Musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.”

In every film Jarmusch has created, in whatever themes he explores, there is always a symbiotic relationship between music and film. This has carried over to Jarmusch’s casting of musicians turned actors. Tom Waits, for example, has continuously appeared in Jarmusch’s films, as Waits as an artist, inhabits similar places of expression. Down By Law, Mystery Train, Coffee and Cigarettes, and The Dead Don’t Die, are all Jarmusch films that Waits has starred in. 

In an interview Jarmusch held with Alan Licht for the Invisible Jukebox Test as seen in The Wire, Jarmusch said about working with musicians in his film: “I think some musicians are natural actors because they are performing, and others are not, for whatever reason. And others vary by the director. I’ve seen Mick Jagger do some kind of not-so-interesting things, and yet I think his performance in the film Performance is fantastic, a great character they made, y’know? And I love watching that film, I’ve seen it ten times, and I’m always impressed,” Jarmusch told Licht, before adding: “So I don’t know what that equation is, for me it’s always intuitive anyway.”

Even on the mechanical level of acting, Jarmusch strives for mood and intuition. In his conversation with Licht, Jarmusch discusses the writing behind his 2005 comedy-drama Broken Flowers and how much of it was informed by a particular piece of music. 

Licht hints at the correlations behind African music, specifically Ethiopian musician Mahmoud Amed, and how the Western ear is not accustomed to this style. “In western music, it would end back up at the tonic note, and here it’s always just a little bit off, by a half-step in either direction,” he said. “There’s always these notes that create a kind of tension with the one droning chord. And I thought that was interesting in the context of Broken Flowers because the whole movie is kind of unresolved, as far as who wrote the letter, whether the letter is real, is he really a father, even in the end.”

To which Jarmusch responds that he was listening to a lot of Ethiopian music at the time, as well as free-form jazz; Licht was, therefore, correct to make that correlation. “Yeah, definitely, because to me filmmaking is like making a record, as opposed to the theatre, which is like playing live, probably, I’m not a theatre guy, but you only have that moment, you’re following your timeline in real-time.”

As previously mentioned, Jarmusch’s whole take on filmmaking is “approximating real-time for the audience.” In this sense, Jarmusch is a ‘live filmmaker’. On the side, Jarmusch records with his band, Bad Rabbit. Jarmusch continued to comment on the nature of first takes in regards to making films vs. music, explaining: “It’s kind of shocking to me, and maybe it’s true that often on a film the first take is the best because they’re not thinking about it as much. Different actors are different, but very often the first take is the most honest, in a way, and usually, it’s the one that’s fucked up for technical reasons, cause it’s the first take.”

Jarmusch, delving deeper, then relates this observation to his own experience of recording with his fellow bandmates – drummer, Carter Logan, and organist/sound engineer, Shane Stoneback: “But there’s something honest about that, and I think that’s true musically, and sometimes maybe it’s good that Shane says look, don’t over finesse it, you know, you’re a crude guitarist, and it sounds good that way. You don’t want to refine it, you know?”

In 1997, Jarmusch released his film Year of the Horse, which documented Jarmusch’s travels with Neil Young and Crazy Horse during 1996, which is probably the perfect marriage of ‘live film’ so to speak, as well as live sound. According to Jarmusch, Young told him, “We don’t think about our music – never.” When ruminating on this later during Jarmusch’s interview with Licht, the filmmaker added: “And it’s something true for actors too. It’s a very hard job being an actor, I’m very sympathetic to actors because they’re like children because they have to be a make-believe person on command.”

Equating this to the work of a musician, Jarmusch adds, “It depends on the kind of music you play; some you obviously have to think about and work on, and think through – not the way I play.”