Only Lovers Left Alive
Any vampire movie that opens up on a 7-incher spinning out Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” has to be onto something more than the usual fang-banging cliches, especially when the tune itself is a cover version – slowed to a haunted crawl with a surplus of fuzz and grind – performed by the film’s director and his own band, named after a common rodent and bearing an umlaut.
Of course, no one would expect anything less from Jim Jarmusch, ever a jukebox-wise auteur whose movies have always displayed a keen affection for the untamed tangents of American music (and beyond). Whether it was the iconic use of Screaming Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” in his 1984 breakout Stranger Than Paradise or the doom metal acts Boris, Earth and Sunn O))) on his last film The Limits of Control, Jarmusch integrates music into his shaggy narratives as both tonal cue and incidental pleasure.
In Only Lovers Left Alive, the filmmaker – who still has his apartment on New York’s Lower East Side – helps supply a lot of his own soundtrack, in league with his band Sqürl and the lute-player Jozef van Wissem. It’s part of an unusually varied mix of tunes that catch the ears of the paramours alluded to in the title: Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), are ardent connoisseurs, and not only of the blood they consume in fancy flutes, which sends them spiraling into seemingly opiated ecstasy. The literary Eve hangs out in Tangier with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who got turned into a vampire while ghostwriting for William Shakespeare. Adam, who once helped Franz Schubert out of a composing jam, stacks his Detroit lair with obscure vinyl, tube amplifiers and rare guitars, all fetched by his human assistant/fanboy Ian (Anton Yelchin).
“I have a lot of friends like that so it’s not anachronistic, really,” Jarmusch says. He means friends who love vinyl, tubes, old guitars and good books not, um, the other thing – or not necessarily. Actress Mia Wasikowska, cast as Eve’s bratty kid sister, “wanted to call them snobs … because they are snobs,” he says. “Although, who wouldn’t be snobs if you lived for a thousand years? Everyone would say, ‘Well, aren’t you a know-it-all.’”
That dry sense of humor, a telltale trait of Jarmusch’s films, suffuses Lovers as surely as its eclectic soundtrack, lending warmth to a sympathetic portrait of a (really) long-term relationship between characters who are, by definition, cold-blooded. “When I started making it I thought it’s very serious and then it started getting funny,” Jarmusch says. “I’m happy in the end if it’s funny.” But not obviously so. During shooting and editing the rule was “if it looks like we’re making a joke, get rid of it.”
The director is conversant in vintage vampire lore, although the last such movie he’d recommend is the original Swedish version of Let the Right One In. “I like odd poetic ones: Vampyr by Carl Dreyer through the present,” he says. As a filmmaker, the genre framework is often appealing, even if a Jarmusch Western (Dead Man), gangster movie (Ghost Dog) or rom-com (Broken Flowers) detours pretty far from common expectations of such films.
“I like playing a little bit sometimes with genre. Immediately, when you have the frame of a genre, something metaphorical is implicit and that’s kind of fun.” Although he introduces some twists on vampire customs – Jarmusch vampires wear elegant gloves when they go out, and admire rock musician Jack White – the story is really about the dynamic between the lovers.
“My biggest inspiration was The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain,” he says. “It’s one of the funniest and most insightful books about the difference between male and female perceptions.” As he described the characters, “She’s very content to observe things and just appreciate her consciousness, whereas he needs some feedback of his own ego in the world, through his music occasionally, which really isn’t a good idea if you want to hang out and be a vampire.”
The patience and understanding Eve displays to her cranky mate in the film also is possessed by Swinton off the set. It may have felt like an eternity for Jarmusch to get the movie made during a seven-year process marked by on-again, off-again frustration. Swinton, associated with the film from the start, was steadfast. “Every time I would call her kind of in agony, she’d say, ‘Oh, that’s good news. That means we weren’t ready yet.’”
The performer was a fan long before she met the filmmaker. After first seeing Paradise decades ago with friends, she recalled in an email, “We thought it was a Hungarian film: Jim felt like a foothold, somehow, in a culture otherwise particularly foreign to us.” As she later came to know Jarmusch, acting in his films Broken Flowers and The Limits of Control, she found him to be “a masterly combination of self determination and real team player,” she added. “He is so sure of the atmosphere he is aiming for at every point and yet remarkably candid and communicative about needing the input of his colleagues to achieve it.”
She also noted how Jarmusch’s musical affinities influence the production beyond interludes with the band White Hills and Lebanese pop star Yasmine Hamdan, and an R&B flashback with Denise LaSalle, whose “Trapped by This Thing Called Love” spices up an undead and undying passion. “It occurs to me that he works – certainly this is most true in the studio – as the musician he is, assembling and tickling up a rhythm and a relaxedness in the scene by extended ‘jamming’ before eventually laying down tracks.”
Van Wissem first met Jarmusch on the street in Soho in 2007 and eventually began playing and recording with him, regenerating his interest in performance. “I love to play with him,” he says. “I love being responsible for him coming back as a musician. I know the way he makes his films is kind of like a musician. He has music in his head when he’s writing a script so it’s more informed by a tonal thing that it is by anything else.”
In composing music for the film, van Wissem took influence from Ry Cooder’s stark and powerful soundtrack for Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas. “There’s a lot of space. I grew up with that. That was my biggest influence, his first album. He did ‘Dark Was the Night,’ by Blind Willie Johnson, which is basically [the theme to] Paris, Texas, that slide thing. Jim emulated that, [like] Neil Young doing that slide.”
On that note, the vampiric shout-outs to Jack White were anything but random. Jarmusch gives the musician credit for helping him return to playing music, dating a few years ago to a project he worked on at the musician’s Nashville headquarters. “Every time he’d come home I’d be playing this very, very old Gibson acoustic guitar from 1905,” the director says. When White gave it to him, Jarmusch briefly protested. “He said, ‘Well, I have two of them. If I didn’t. I’d never give you one.’”