Famed writer/director Jim Jarmusch, to the surprise of many of his fans, prefers to call himself an amateur. "I consider myself an amateur filmmaker, not a professional one, because the root of the word 'amateur' is lover of something, of a form, and 'professional' means you do it for money, for career, and I don't think of myself that way," says the filmmaker.
For the uninitiated, Jarmusch is considered one of independent film's crown jewels, a highly respected auteur who broke new ground with his 1983 feature, Stranger Than Paradise, and has continued to put his distinct stamp on film, with Down by Law, starring Roberto Benigni, Tom Waits, and John Lurie; Mystery Train, featuring a then-obscure Steve Buscemi acting opposite the late, great musicians Joe Strummer and Screamin' Jay Hawkins; Night on Earth, an ensemble picture revolving around taxi cab conversations; the spiritual Western Dead Man, starring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer; and 1995's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
His love for film, for visual artistry, for deadpan human, and for flawed but relatable characters is again evident in his latest project, Coffee and Cigarettes, a feature-length string of black-and-white vignettes, opening this week in theatres, that the New York–based Jarmusch has been shooting, off and on, for a dozen years. Some of the performers on-screen are familiar faces from his work, including Benigni, Buscemi, Cinqué Lee (Spike Lee's brother), Waits, Alfred Molina, and Isaach de Bankolé. Others are performers whom Jarmusch has long admired and, in some cases, hopes to work with again, including Cate Blanchett, British comedian/actor Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People), and Bill Murray. (Jarmusch is currently working on a screenplay with Murray in mind to play the lead.)
There also cast members in this film who are not well known by the mainstream but are well loved by Jarmusch. Such is the case with Bill Rice and Taylor Meade, who co-star in the final Coffee and Cigarettes installment, titled "Champagne," in which these two "underground actors," as Jarmusch refers to them, toast (with cups of coffee, of course) to New York in the 1970s, a personally significant period to the filmmaker.
He explains, "Taylor Meade is a poet, and he was in a lot of the films of Andy Warhol—from that Factory scene. He's done a lot of theatre and a lot of underground films. Bill Rice is an underground actor and painter who was in a lot of films in the late '70s. In a way, that's the most personal of all the sequences in Coffee and Cigarettes, because in the late '70s, when I lived in New York and started to form my desire to express things somehow, they were stars to me."
The late '70s was also a time when Jarmusch began to immerse himself in the music scene, and it's his love of music and his friendship with musicians that led to him casting many of them in his films. In addition to Waits, Coffee and Cigarettes features acting performances by Iggy Pop, the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA and RZA, and the White Stripes' Jack and Meg White.
Explains Jarmusch of frequently casting musicians in his work, "I love music. I sort of came to life in the musical scene in New York in the late '70s; I have a lot of friends that are musicians. I follow music. I love hearing live music. So out of that world I meet people that inspire me to think of them for characters. It's not like, 'Well, let's see … what musicians can I get in my film?' It's not like that."
But can any great musician make a great actor? Jarmusch bristles at this question, as he prefers not to categorize artists by what their main form of expression is. He responds with this: "Fellini once told me that he could make a great scene with Marlon Brando and his electrician, together, if they both trusted him, were relaxed, and could react in front of the camera. So it's really a personal thing. There are some musicians that I love and I love their music, but I don't think of them as someone I would work with [as actors]. Again, it's not calculated; it's not something you can quantify. It's intuitive."
Intuition is the key when it comes to Jarmusch's casting preferences. "I hate auditions, and I hate them because I don't like the hierarchical feeling of them—of an actor walking in and being put on the spot, you know? It's nerve-racking for them. I don't like the games that some people play in auditions, that kind of power game. So what I like to do is meet them, talk to them about what I'm thinking about for a character, sometimes have them read something and sometimes not—if they don't feel like it, or I don't feel I need to do that. It might be more interesting to have them just read something that has nothing to do with the film that we're making, or I talk to them about what kind of character it is and what the story is like. I just try to get a kind of intuitive sense of them and how would we work together.
"It's a very uncomfortable and kind of ridiculous process, and I don't do it conventionally. Man, I've seen people that want their chair higher than the actor's. You know, that whole power trip thing. I mean, fuck that. I can't do that to actors. This is someone I want to collaborate with, not someone I want to order around. I don't want them to work for me, I want them to work with me. And it's complicated. Sometimes you have to meet them a few times, too, because they might be really nervous, or they might be really hungover, or they might be really tired. It's hard to get a sense of someone on one meeting. If I really am interested in them or see potential, I'll maybe want to see them a couple of times. It's all by depending on a particular person."
To illustrate how unconventional his casting process is, Jarmusch shares a couple specific stories: "Once, I forget what film it was for, I met Patricia Arquette, and she had to go to the grocery store to get something for her kid or something like that, so I just went with her. And that was cool, that was nice, and I liked her a lot. It was like a way to just talk, and see what she [was like]. It was very unorthodox. It wasn't like, 'Sit down, read this, and I want you to get up and walk over there,' you know?"
Or take the way he initially considered Forest Whitaker for a lead role. "I met Forest when I was in the Valley at Super 8 Sound, where they rent cameras and process Super 8 film, and Forest was there. He came in when I was going out. And we were like, 'Alright, hey Forest,' and, 'Hey, Jim. Nice to meet you,' and I was like, 'You mind if I wait while you get your things?' Then we go outside and we're talking, we're hanging out by his car, and he said—and other actors have said this, too—'If you ever think of me for a particular thing, man, I'd love to do it. And I'm not hustling you, but I just like your stuff.' And that was mutual. That was the first seed of eventually writing Ghost Dog for him. Sometimes it just happens randomly, like that."
As Jarmusch goes on to explain, he prefers to write his lead characters with a specific actor already attached or in mind. However, there are plenty of roles for supporting actors to play in his work. For smaller or harder-to-cast roles, he relies on casting director Ellen Lewis, whose many credits include HBO's Angels in America, Pleasantville, The Birdcage, Big Night, Forrest Gump, and much of Martin Scorsese's work. "She's amazing," says Jarmusch. "If I have ideas of who I'm thinking of, she doesn't want to know yet. So she gets her brain working and then gives me lists of possible ways to go, and often they're ways I don't think of, or sometimes actors I'm not that familiar with. She's really valuable to me. She just likes the sense of possibility or directions you could take, and she knows a lot of interesting people. So she's really my guide."
Lewis, for example, brought to Jarmusch's attention the work of character actors Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella, who co-star in the Coffee & Cigarette's vignette "Those Thing'll Kill Ya," and were previously cast in Ghost Dog. Both are often cast as tough guys in films and combined their credits include work by Scorsese, Coppola, and Woody Allen.
As for what qualities he admires in actors, Jarmusch says he's drawn to those who innately prefer to collaborate with those around them, as opposed to thinking of their work as insular. "For me, acting is about reacting," he goes on to explain. "It's not about having someone act out the thing you wrote. It's about collaborating and making a character, then putting them into the thing I wrote and then they react to it. It's a very different thing than, like, regimentally acting out the meaning of the scene. I hate that. And I hate when I see it on screen a lot. Friends of mine used to call it ackin'. 'Damn, man, they ackin' their way through that scene!' They're not reacting. You don't buy it."
Again, Jarmusch brings up the notion of "professionalism" as being an off-putting quality. "I'm not drawn to really slick, icy professionalism," he says of certain actor's styles. "I want to feel them as humans—the subtleties and flaws that humans have. If they can represent those, and include them in a character, I'm drawn to that." BSW