Interview with Musician Jack White and Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch
February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
Hailing from Akron, OH, Jim Jarmusch first began making films amid the distorted wail of the late 1970s post-punk chaos. Fueled by the anarchic, stick-it-to-the-man energy emanating from the stage of CBGBs and the streets of Iggy-era Detroit, Jarmusch chose a 16mm camera over a battered Fender guitar and directed his spit into the face of Hollywood glam.
Funded by overseas cash, Jarmusch managed to work autonomously, subverting the studio system from the outside in and a producing a series of films which joyfully abandoned traditional storytelling in favor of eclectic, self-reflective moments, narratives linked at times only by esoteric ponderings and wry humor.
Eager to explore his own obsessions, Jarmusch’s work has been continuously inspired by a wide range of personal passions, his fascination with music perhaps the most resonate.
As a result Jarmusch has been responsible for some of the best soundtracks of the last two decades -the lonely poetry of Deadman was held aloft on the haunting guitar work of Neil Young, Ghost Dog shimmered with RZA’s urban Samurai menace. Music provides the landscape for his films, the background and the setting and at times, the stage as well. On numerous occasions he has populated his stories with musicians rather than actors, casting everyone from Lounge Lizard John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise to the grizzled Tom Waites in Down By Law.
Jarmusch’s newest film, Coffee and Cigarettes is a collection of shorts culled from the last decade of his career, a sly sampling clearly reflective of his own particular aesthetic. Bound by the narrative echo of black coffee and burning cigarettes, the movie is a scrapbook of sorts, featuring a who’s who of Jarmusch-approved icons. Tom Waites and Iggy Pop banter in a Northern California dive, Bill Murray discusses the effects of caffeine with Wu Tang’s RZA and GZA and in one of the film’s finest segments, a deadpan Jack White delivers a monologue on the 19h Century inventor Nikola Tesla to mildly-impressed fellow White Stripe Meg.
Mean- So, do you actually have a Tesla coil?
Jack- I don’t as of yet, but I’m trying, I’m trying my damndest to get one. I’m trying to work on that in my ten minutes of spare time.
Mean- Don’t you have minions to do that kind of thing for you?
Jack- No, actually, I don’t have any minions yet either. I’ve got to get some of those as well.
Jim- Where do you get them? I’d like some of my own. Can you find those at “Minions R Us”? “Yes, I’d like the really short ones that can hide behind the couch when I don’t need them.”
Mean- “Minion” would be a good name for a heavy metal band.
Jim- Yeah, Minion Dominion! So what have you been up to? You’ve been in Nashville a lot working on Loretta Lynn’s record right?
Jack-Yeah, it’s coming out next week. We’re shooting a video for it next week as well, just kind of simple thing shot on the front porch of her house.
Jim- Well, you recorded it pretty simply, the songs that she wrote.
Jack- Yeah, we did it really traditionally.
Jim- so a simple video, a front porch video, seems appropriate.
Mean- How did you two meet?
Jim- Well, we were in Vietnam together.
Jack- Yeah ,that first time. That was rough.
Jim- We first met in NY because I was a White Stripes fan. I got to go backstage and meet you guys.
Jack – You tried to go backstage.
Jim- That’s right I tried, but there were minions preventing me. But I took care of them and I fought my way back.
Jack – Those were actually Meg’s minions.
Jim- That’s right, Meg’s Minions, they were protecting Meg. The Megnions.
Jack- Meg and her Megnions.
Jim- She deserves to have Megnions.
Mean- I’ll sign up for that job.
Jim- I’ll be a Megnion too.
Jack- See- she’s already got two more minions than me!
Jim- But anyway, we were talking about doing a video together. Jack and I are both Nikola Tesla fans and we wanted to do a video. Jack had a beautiful idea where he was going to play Tesla in the video. And I forget what happened, but we didn’t do that.
Jack- It was too expensive.
Jim- Yeah, we couldn’t figure out how to reduce our epic idea to reasonable record company prices.
Jack- Philip Seymour Hoffman was going to play opposite me as Thomas Edison and execute an elephant. Which Edison actually did, trying to disprove Tesla’s theory of alternating current.
Jim- We even had the actual footage of the elephant execution, which was very grisly and upsetting. So we were trying to figure out how to do it, but-
Jack But Meg wanted a couple million to appear in it and –
Jim- Yeah, well, she’s worth it, but the record company didn’t see that way. So then we were just hanging out. I remember Meg and Jack came by my office once and Jack was looking at all my Tesla books.
Jack- I stole one actually.
Jim- I wondered where that went! Then we did Coffee and Cigarettes for fun. I tricked them into agreeing to do it somehow. I put some drugs in their coffee- “You are under my power!”
Jack- We thought we were gonna star opposite Robert Mitchum, that he and Jim were making a film.
Jim- Yeah, they fell for it too, the suckers. But anyway, I don’t know. To me, music is such the perfect form of expression, I’m a huge White Stripes fan. I get so much energy from seeing them play and when you find out that people whose work you love are also incredible great people, that’s always exciting. I just fell in love with these two crazy creatures and now they can’t get rid of me. I’m trying to get backstage every time they play. They send guys out looking for me- ‘Don’t let that white-haired guy in!’ But I get back there anyway. I have my ways.
Jack- You have your Jimions.
Mean- Jack, how do you feel about film? Do you feel in some ways the inverse of what Jim feels about music, are you inspired by film?
Jack- Absolutely. When I came out of high school I was really, really into the idea of becoming a director, working in film in some way. I started doing it as a job, PA work on commercials, car commercials. I figured that was one way to get my money back from the Big Three. And I was amazed at how hard it was. To me, it’s the most difficult art form, in my mind. It’s so hard to get all these people together and somehow get your idea through the people’s heads and somehow have your vision emerge intact. I don’t know how Jim does it. It was really fascinating being part of it, working with Jim and on Cold Mountain. It’s hardest thing in the world to make a great film, it’s really, really difficult. To me making some three-chord rocknroll song seems so easy in comparison. I mean, the actors, the lighting, the sound-
Jim- Hey, take it from me, it’s just as hard to make a bad film! To me, film’s a drag because it takes two years for me to make a film from start to finish and Jack can sit down and play a song right there in front of you and it goes right into your soul or your heart. It seems so much more direct. Music is so magical and film, I don’t know.
Jack- The trick is disguising how much work actually went into it. It’s just not something that happens easily. I think the trick is making it look easy, that’s the hard part.
Jim- In film, you play this game, you get people to watch these shadow plays on the screen, the whole procedure is ridiculous. I always think if aliens watched you making a film, they’d be thinking- “what the hell are they doing? They’re carrying this heavy outdated equipment-“
Jack- That’s so funny! I always think the same thing! I always think that! If aliens and turned on television they’d be like – “why do you guys watch each other?”
Jim- Yeah. I mean “what are you doing? You go through all of this to recreate life and it’s all fake! Why don’t you just walk outside! Then you corral all these people into a room and project all these fake images?” The aliens are like, “What the France? What are they doing?” Well, we’re earthlings, we haven’t quite figured it out yet.
Mean- The evolution is happening, slowly.
Jim- Or time’s running out, depending on how you look at it. I mean, really, don’t you think that if earth were some alien’s high school science fair project, they probably got a really bad grade. Like , a D+ for trying. “Interesting, but not really happening.”
Jack- I can’t believe you said that! I think the same thing!
Jim- But Jack was really great to work with. He had to deliver a monologue in the film, a mini-lecture on Tesla and electricity.
Jack- The hardest thing was to pretend to lecture Meg on anything. I’d never done that before. She’s usually lecturing me. You know when I was watching the movie, I was really amazed at how good Meg was.
Mean- she’s really intriguing to watch. She reminds me of a silent movie star, she’s got these expressive, dreamy eyes.
Jim- Me too, I agree. She’s really subtle. She understands. Hey, what did you think about Jimmy Fallon playing you on Saturday Night Live?
Jack- That was trippy! That was funny. I don’t know where he got that voice for me, but it cracked me up.
Jim- I liked it when he jumped up on the couch and played the guitar and was doing all my favorite Jack White moves. Hopefully he’s coming to the premier of the film, so if you didn’t like it, I was gonna say we could take him out in the alley and pummel him!
Jack- Or have my minions pummel him.
Jim- So what kind of stuff are you listening to lately?
Jack- I just went to Japan and got a lot of traditional Japanese folk music and that’s pretty interesting stuff. And I’ve been listening to a lot of country doing the Loretta album.
Jim- That’s quite a range.
Jack- Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, you know how you have the painting of Lee Marvin in our scene? Is that because you look like him?
Jim- Well, you know we have this secret organization called The Sons of Lee Marvin. Tom Waites is in it, Nick Cave. You could become an honorary member.
Jack- I thought maybe it was a joke you were playing.
Jim- No, I’m, a huge Lee Marvin fan and we have this secret society. But to be honest with you couldn’t really be a full-fledged member because you’re not ugly enough. But I love Lee Marvin and I had a painter make that painting of him for the film so you could have Lee presiding over you. I have a great story about him actually. Some director, I think it might have been John Boorman, was with Lee one night and Lee was really drunk and he insisted that Boorman let him ride on the roof of his car. He wanted him to take him home on the PCH on the roof of his car. And he couldn’t be dissuaded so Boorman was like, “aah, what the hell.” So he’s driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with Lee Marvin on the roof of his car and the cops, of course, pulls him over. They walk up to his window- and the cop says to him- “Excuse me sir, but are you aware that you have Lee Marvin on the roof of your car?” That’s a true story. Lee Marvin.
Jack- Did he and James Coburn ever do a movie together?
Jack- I don’t think so, but they should have. They should have been brothers. Just like you and Johnny Depp should be brothers. Lee and James should have been brothers, that would have been the coolest thing. I love Coburn too. Those Flint movies!
Jack- And Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
Jim- They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Jack- No. No they don’t.
Originally published in Mean Magazine