Broken Flowers: Interview with Jim Jarmusch

Dedicating the Movie to Jean Eustache

I have varied reasons for the dedication. He was an inspiration on a certain level, though not a direct one. His film The Mother and the Whore is one of the more beautiful films about male/female miscommunication, and there’s an element of that in our film. So there was only some minor connection to him in content. Stylistically, our film is not like Eustache at all.

But another way he was an inspiration is because I write in the Catskill Mountains, in the woods, and I have a little room where I write, and I have a photograph right next to my desk. The photo is of Jean Eustache on the set of The Mother and the Whore, and was printed with his obituary in The New York Times in 1981. He was kind of always looking over me; I wrote this script very fast, and he was always there when I got stuck or disillusioned. That was important to me–that photograph of him always being there.

The other reason is that the spirit in which he made films was completely true to himself and what he wanted to say with cinema. The Mother and the Whore is a three-and-a-half hour film, a great French film that’s not even available in France on DVD or video– which I find shocking and disappointing. There’s something in him that I want to carry in myself: making a film the way you choose to make it, true to yourself, without being concerned with the marketplace or anyone’s expectations–just the pure spirit of wanting to express something in your own style.

At first I felt, well, maybe it’s pretentious to dedicate my film to him. But, you know, I think if three young film viewers somewhere in Japan, or Hungary, or Kansas, or somewhere, see the film and theyre not aware of Jean Eustache, and they find out about his work he made very few films, only four then I would feel like, okay, that was worth it. That would be enough to make me happy.

Working with Bill Murray

In writing the script, I wasn’t consciously trying to write it imagining Bill Murray saying the lines, exactly. I was using a certain side of Bill, and I wanted to create a character where he wasn’t reliant on things we expect or know or appreciate from Bill Murray–his ability to make things hilarious. I wanted that other side; he’s always had that balance of mischief and melancholy. It’s that very rare thing he has. So I kind of wanted to create something that could give a little more weight to that other side of his abilities as an actor. He liked the script, so I went forward from there, based on his availability as to when to shoot it.

The Narrative Structure

This is a complicated character for an actor, because Don isn’t a character that youre intended to connect with immediately. He’s disconnected from himself, but the empathy accumulates. It was a tricky thing for Bill. He did such a beautiful job, and brought so much to it.

Approaching the Actresses

The four main ones Frances, Jessica, Sharon, Tilda saw the complete script. What I did with them was to have each one write a letter–the letter–so that I could plant in their minds the possibility of each being the mother of this son. I wanted them to write a character. I saved the letters, which were beautiful and each very different. That was the first insight into their characters between me and them. And then, for the filming, I rewrote the letter, using pieces of their own language, pulling things from their letters.

Dynamics between Jessica Lange and Bill Murray

Bill was very respectful and excited to work with Jessica on this. And Jessica seemed pretty particular about maintaining her character as much as possible while working. Her-Carmen’s-letter to Don was really funny; she said in her letter, “Under no circumstances will you insult or do anything rude toward this boy, if he does appear.” So I kind of took a lead from that on how to work with her as this character, and let her keep that resentment toward Don.

Jessica is a class act; she was very warm and lovely with all of us. I would occasionally tease her by saying, Let’s not forget, you were the Acid Queen of San Francisco in 1968!’ Id try to make her laugh at some points to break tension, being appreciative of what she was going through, what any actor goes through, to be a pretend person on command, with a lot of history that’s all made up in their head.

The sequences between Murray, Sharon Stone, and Alexis Dziena

We didn’t rehearse, but we all carefully went over the scenes together hung out in Sharon’s trailer for a few hours and talked through them. I did try to get a playfulness going, because it’s the first stop on Don’s journey, and the least abrasive for him, emotionally. Laura is not a victim, yet there are a lot of tiny sad things about her that Sharon was aware of and helped to bring out. I never wanted to talk about the meaning of the scenes, because it means different things to each character.

Alexis was quite literal; she wanted to talk with me about each line and what they meant. She was concerned about showing that while Lolita is, on one level, teasing Don in a sexual way, she’s really trying to show a stranger who had a connection to her mother that there’s something missing for her in terms of a father figure.

Sharon added some beautiful things. It was Sharon’s idea to be smashed up on top of Don in bed when they wake up in the morning. It was Sharon’s idea to, on leaving, kiss his hand. Her idea was, “What if we reverse the traditional gesture of a man kissing a woman’s hand, and I just take his hand and briefly kiss it in a little gesture to leave him with, showing that Im not needy or devastated but that Im appreciating a tender thing that happened between us, and whatever it means is okay.” And that was a perfect solution. I know it’s just a small thing, but all those add up in the film, so they were all considered as we went along.

Winston’s Role (Jeffrey Wright)

Bill and Jeffrey didn’t meet before. They only met when we first were doing wardrobe stuff and some test footage. I did have Jeffrey in my head while I was writing Winston, although Jeffrey’s such an incredible chameleon that it wasn’t any particular part of Jeffrey, except his ability to embody a character that I wanted to not be a stereotype.

While we were shooting, Jeffrey sometimes would be on his cell phone right before we shot a scene. At one point, I was disturbed and said, “Jeffrey, is everything okay You were on the phone.” And he’s like, “Yeah yeah, no no; I call the Ethiopian Embassy all the time, and I make up questions to ask them out of the blue, just so I can hear the guy’s accent on the phone.”

We had talked a lot about an Ethiopian accent; it’s a little different from a generic North African accent, and has a slight touch of South Asian to it. Jeffrey’s very meticulous, so hed be on the phone asking the guy, “Are there any troubles on the Western border” Jeffrey would hear the guy, hang up, and go, “Okay, Im ready.” But, at first, I didn’t know who the hell he was talking to.

Sherry’s Character (Julie Delpy)

We don’t really know what her motive is, and Julie was great to work with to make that natural. She has some admittedly ridiculous lines to deliver; the film has some intentional clichs in it, like the French girl’s name is “Sherry,” and a guy goes to see his dead girlfriend in the cemetery in the rain. I tried to use clichs, not to subvert them, exactly, but to put them in the film and have them add up to something not predictably clichd.

Ive known Julie for some years now, and Ive loved getting to hang out with her occasionally, because we talk about books and old films and music and things that interest us. Ive always liked her natural feminine intelligence.

Interpersonal Encounters

It’s something that echoes through my other films, because it’s such a valuable part of life. Randomness, or chance and coincidence, these things guide our lives. You can plan things out as much as you want, but the most beautiful, deep things in our lives are not rational; theyre usually emotional, or connections with other people, and those things are very mysterious. They add up to a whole fabric of life, and Ive always tried to make films that were generally not of a genre. Dead Man used a Western genre as a frame; Ghost Dog makes allusions to different genres of film, but hopefully isn’t any particular one of them, in the way that this film is not a romantic comedy, nor is it a tragic, morose film. It’s something in-between that I hope doesn’t have a category.

I like to make scenes where you have no idea what’s going to happen next and it’s not a formula. It’s sort of like Chaos Theory: things don’t happen in a rational way, they happen in an emotional way or a random way or by molecules in the universe moving in a way we don’t control. You can encounter any other person at any moment in your life without knowing exactly what’s going to happen. If you know exactly what’s going to happen, it’s not very interesting. Youre not walking away from it changed in any way.

Optimism Vs. Pessimism

My other side of experience is not optimistic because I see how people treat each other in the world, and how things that are valuable seem very rarely to be respected. And I get very disillusioned. So, I guess it’s a contradictory Zen answer, which is, it takes both sides to make the whole thing. I think my nave side is optimistic. And I don’t mean “nave,” necessarily derogatorily, because there’s a navet that allows people to create.

Bill Murray has a valuable childlike part of him. Somebody asked, while we were shooting, “How do you get Bill’s attention” I said, “Well, if you sit down with some crayons and a coloring book and say, Look, Bill, Im coloring. Isn’t it fun’ he’s not interested. But if you sit down and ignore him and youre coloring and he comes over and says, What are you doing’ And you say, Im coloring.’ He’s like, Oh, can I color’ Yeah, let’s color.”

One day, he walked right off the set, Don’s house, and walked across the street. I watched him; he didn’t knock on the neighbor’s door, and he opened their door and disappeared inside. What do you do Well, it’s Bill; Im not going to do anything. Ten minutes later, he came out of their house with a plate of cookies theyd given him. Now, how much more childlike can you get That, to me, is a beautiful part of Bill Murray.

Is Don Optimistic or Pessimistic

I don’t think Don, at the beginning of the film, is either. He’s static; he has a big hole inside himself. If I were interested in back story, which Im not, I would have an answer to that. I don’t want to know where the hole came from; the film starts and it’s in him. At the beginning, he doesn’t have a sense of himself, and therefore I don’t see him as knowing whether he would be optimistic or pessimistic.

Attitude Toward the Audience

Im not interested in moralizing or teaching anybody anything, I don’t want to say, “The film is supposed to have this effect,” because Im not exactly sure. I know I don’t want to close curtains at the end of the film, and have it all tied up. I want the character of Don to still exist in audiences’ heads when the credits roll; I want the guy to still be out in the world, in their minds. Any kind of storytelling is partly a diversion for people; it’s a way to enter another world that isn’t theirs and watch people interrelate with that world and each other.

When Don’s asked, “Do you have any philosophical advice” his first reaction is, “Youre asking me” And then he comes out with the only thing that he’s learned, which is, I think, the only thing one can ever learn, philosophically: “The past is gone, the future’s not here and I can’t control it, so I guess it’s just this.” To me, if you can live that way, then youre a f—kin’ Zen Master. The highest thing I could aspire to is to be in any given moment at that moment. Real easy to say, real hard to do.

The Film’s Tone

Don wants something. I think the film is about yearning, and I don’t know where that came from. Yearning for something that youre missing, and not necessarily being able to define what it is youre missing. I don’t want people to feel despair or tragic at the end; I also don’t want them to feel like it’s a light romantic thing and, “let’s go get a pizza.” Id like the audience to carry that moment around somewhere in them for a little while.