Jarmusch, known for quirky, independent films such as "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai" with Forest Whitaker and "Dead Man" starring Johnny Depp, has strung together in his new black-and-white movie a series of vignettes in which characters chat over a cup of Joe and a smoke.
The scenes in "Coffee and Cigarettes" range from silly, mundane conversations between the likes of Italian movie star Roberto Benigni and comedian Steven Wright to hilarious encounters such as an unlikely run-in between Bill Murray and Wu-Tang Clan rappers GZA and RZA.
The stories are unrelated to each other, but when they are juxtaposed have the effect of imitating real life with a twist. The scenes are often over-the-top, such as one in which Cate Blanchett plays both herself and her fictional down-on-her-luck cousin.
Jarmusch, who's not interested in making blockbusters and hasn't had any major Hollywood hits, has nonetheless managed to enlist a cast of well-known and respected entertainers including Murray, Blanchett, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, Jack and Meg White, Tom Waits and Steve Coogan.
Foxnews.com talked to the indie director about — what else? — coffee, cigarettes and Hollywood blockbusters.
I have to ask, are you addicted to coffee and/or cigarettes?
I still smoke cigarettes, although much less than I used to. Coffee, I stopped in 1986 and became a vegetarian. I do drink tea, though, so I still get some caffeine.
Do you consider them vices or social lubricants?
Neither, I just consider them very strong narcotics that are used by a lot of people and sort of condoned in a way, like working people get coffee breaks so they get jacked up on caffeine. I don’t know what the motive is. They are condoned narcotics in our culture. I think sugar is some kind of drug. I mean just give it to little kids and see what happens to them. It’s more of a context for the film, a kind of situation. Coffee breaks are not exactly dramatic moments out of your day, so I just used those as a starting points, a situation for, you know, other motives to get people to talk.
You also have a film called "Coffee and Cigarettes" from 1986 and "Coffee and Cigarettes 2" from 1989. What’s the obsession?
Those are included in this one. I started making them in 1986. The first one was with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright. The first three, for a while, I had licensed them as short films and when I realized I wanted to put these together or at least to try see how it works cumulatively, then I stopped re-licensing them and held them back until now.
Your film is striking because it has all these eclectic actors, and it seems like a reflection of your life and your friends. Are they people you were already friends with or did you seek certain people out through agents?
In fact, I knew everyone or had worked with everyone pretty much with the exception of Cate Blanchett and Steve Coogan. But both of them, I was sort of fans of their work and actually I had met Cate before a couple times — actually once for coffee and cigarettes. And Steve Coogan, I was just a fan of. But the rest of them are people I’ve known for quite a long time.
How much of the dialogue is improvised and how much was scripted?
Well they all have script, and I try to encourage improvisation and even try to trick them sometimes by telling the actors, ‘OK, the next take we’re just going to go up to this point in the script.’ And when they pass that point, I don’t cut and just sort of leave them hanging and see what happens. So, I try to encourage improvisation, but it’s really up to the actors. Some actors are more comfortable staying close to the map and others like to take detours. I encourage the detours, but it’s hard to quantify because each one was different.
There were a lot of stories about Sofia Coppola having a hard time tracking Bill Murray down for her film "Lost in Translation." Did you have trouble finding him?
Well, he and I were going to do a project together a few years ago and I hope we do in the future, but I … It was a film I wrote and decided I didn’t want to do, but Bill was interested in doing it. But I know how to find him.
You have the secret number?
Yes. He is very difficult, but I understand why. He has six sons and a lot of stuff going on and that’s his priority. So I just called him up and he didn’t really even ask me what it was. He said, "How long will it take?" And I said, "It will take one day." He said, "Oh, can we do it in half a day?" And I said, "Bill, I don’t really think we can do it in half a day. I can try.” And he said, “Oh you’re going to try. OK, it’s going to take a day. Listen, call me up the night before and tell me where to be, when to be there and what to wear.” And then he hung up. And then I did and that was like a week later and there he was. He keeps his word. He just doesn’t give his word very freely. But he was great. He came there on time and was really playful and helpful, and really helped GZA and RZA and made them really relaxed and was making them laugh a lot. He made it a lot of fun. That one was scripted, but during the shooting they kept losing track of the script and jumping. They never did it in the order of the script. That was fine with me. I just let them play it, whatever subject would come up next. But in the editing I kind of re-worked it back toward the script a little bit.
Some of the actors play themselves and some play parts. How did you determine how it would go?
Most of them are playing an abstraction of themselves. Obviously we are having fun and it’s not a documentary or anything.
For instance, Bill Murray is himself, but he's working in a diner and drinking straight from a coffee pot. That's obviously not what he would be doing in real life.
No, it’s a ridiculous premise. There was a little script and that’s what the deal is. What is he doing there? And they asked him that: "What, are you hiding out, Bill Murray? Are you on the low?" And he‘s like "Maybe I’m in delirium, maybe that’s my problem.” They’re ridiculous, but that’s what is so much fun for me about them. There weren’t any rules or anything that had to be tied to anything necessarily realistic. I mean, Cate Blanchett is neither of those characters really. She’s somewhere in between. So all of them are really abstractions off of who these people are. Steve Coogan is not an egocentric maniac, but he loves playing people that are sort of jackasses that still somehow you empathize with them.
The film is a series of vignettes, which is about as far from a blockbuster as you can get. And you are not a filmmaker known for blockbusters ...
The understatement of the century.
Do you ever have an urge to make a shoot 'em picture with blood, guts and chase scenes?
Honestly, not really. I love martial arts films and stuff like that. I love Westerns and I love film noir and crime films, but to use that kind of style, I’d rather use those genres as departures for like films I’ve made — like “Dead Man” is a Western and “Ghost Dog” is kind of a crime film/samurai film. I do have a few things in the future where I would incorporate those kind of things, but it’s just not my style. I think I should leave that to people who know how to do it much better than I would. I’m more interested in the little moments in between things. But there are elements of those things I’d like to incorporate, but not in the blockbuster style. It would be a bad film…. My brain doesn’t really work that way. Someone else could do a better job of making them.
What does it mean to you to be part of the Tribeca Film Festival?
It’s kind of great. I really like how they have so many different kinds of films there. It’s kind of amazing. I’ve always been a fan of the New York film festival, which is more rarified and selective. I like the fact that there could be two festivals in New York, and Tribeca’s scope is much broader. It’s kind of great. I’m really happy our film showed there.
What do you have on your plate in terms of future projects? Anything?
I do. I have two new feature projects. One I hope to shoot actually soon, maybe as soon as July or August. The other one the following year or so, but I’m very superstitious about talking about what they are. But they are both single-story narrative feature films and they’re both in color and they’re both very different from one another. I don’t mean to be vague, I’m just superstitious.