Broken Flowers : The Writer/Director: Q & A with Jim Jarmusch

Q: The beginning of this movie carries a dedication to Jean Eustache. How, as a filmmaker, did Eustache inspire you; did he inspire this particular story?

Jim Jarmusch: 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. And 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. That’s very important to me.

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 they’re 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 then. That would be enough to make me happy.

Q: As for Broken Flowers, with regard to the letter which initiates the story, whose penmanship was on the envelope?

JJ: It’s Sandy Hamilton, our incredible prop master; he’s very meticulous.

It was such a gift to work with this crew, and all of these people Mark Friedberg, our designer; Fred Elmes, the DP…I’ve mentioned only 3, out of maybe 60; grips, gaffers, interns, the craft service guys they were all just amazing.

Q: You’ve worked with Bill Murray before, just a couple of years ago, on the “Delirium” segment of Coffee and Cigarettes. Did you craft this film specifically for him?

JJ: Yeah. In writing the script, I wasn’t consciously trying to write it imagining him 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 – that’s Bill Murray. 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.

Q: The Coffee and Cigarettes segments were like riffs, and this was more like a full-on movement.

JJ: Yes, and it’s a complicated character for an actor. Because Don isn’t a character that you’re intended to connect with immediately. He’s disconnected himself, but the empathy accumulates. It was a tricky thing for Bill. He did such a beautiful job, and brought so much to it.

Q: How did you approach the actresses, most of whom hadn’t worked with you before like Bill had? Did they all see all of the script, or just their scenes?

JJ: 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 in-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.

Q: In this movie, you got Jessica Lange and Bill Murray into another movie together, 23 years after Tootsie. Actually, I don’t think they have any scenes together in that movie

JJ: No, but I think they were on the Tootsie set at the same time. They did meet, and knew each other from that time.

Q: So what was the dynamic like between them now?

JJ: 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.” laughs 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!” I’d 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. It’s a difficult thing.

Q: One of the surprising sequences in the film is where Don visits Laura (Sharon Stone) and meets Lolita (Alexis Dziena). How did you stoke the chemistry among these three?

JJ: 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’s a lot of tiny sad things about her that Sharon was aware of and helped to bring out. We tried to get that tone of what we wanted the scenes to feel like, what the mood would be. I never wanted to talk about the meaning of the scenes, because it means different things to each character.

Alexis was great. She 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.

And 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 I’m not needy or devastated but that I’m 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.

Q: The other significant male role in the movie, besides Bill’s, is the part of Winston. Did you script the character with Jeffrey Wright in mind, and did the two actors meet up beforehand?

JJ: They didn’t, really. They only met when we first were doing wardrobe stuff and some test footage. That’s the first time I got to have them together.

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. I wrote hoping he would be interested in creating the character based on what I had written – which he did.

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 – if there is such a thing – North African accent, and has a slight touch of South Asian to it. Jeffrey’s very meticulous, so he’d be on the phone asking the guy, “Are there any troubles on the Western border?” “No, I don’t know of anything. Why are you asking?” “Oh, I…” Jeffrey would hear the guy, hang up, and go, “Okay, I’m ready.” But, at first, I didn’t know who the hell he was talking to.

Q: Let me ask you about Sherry, and Julie Delpy. There’s an ambiguity about the character. She basically introduces the movie by leaving the movie.

JJ: 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 clichés 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, etc. I tried to use clichés, not to subvert them, exactly, but to put them in the film and have them add up to something not predictably clichéd.

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

Q: There’s a sense in the film that any given encounter with any person can turn momentous for Don…or not. This is perhaps something that is in your films; people come to each encounter pregnant with possibilities. Especially in this film, where Don is looking up all these women?

JJ: Well, it is something that echoes through my other films, I guess, 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; they’re usually emotional, or connections with other people – and those things are very mysterious. They add up to a whole fabric of life for me, and I’ve always tried to make films that were generally not of a genre. Dead Man used a Western genre as a kind of 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 – to me – a romantic comedy, nor is it a tragic, morose film. It’s something in-between that I hope doesn’t have a category.

That relates to the question only in that, 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 more of 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. You’re not walking away from it really changed in any way.

Q: So for you it’s not an issue of optimism or pessimism?

JJ: Not really. 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. For me, personally, I think my naïve side is optimistic. And I don’t mean “naïve,” necessarily derogatorily, because there’s a naïveté 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, I’m coloring. Isn’t it fun?,’ he’s not interested. But if you sit down and ignore him and you’re coloring and he comes over and says, ‘What are you doing?’ And you say, ‘Ehhh, I’m 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 – we weren’t shooting in their house – and he opened their door and disappeared inside. What do you do? Well, it’s Bill; I’m not going to do anything. Ten minutes later, he came out of their house with a plate of cookies they’d given him. Now, how much more childlike can you get? That, to me, is a beautiful part of Bill Murray.

Q: Do you think Don is optimistic, or pessimistic?

JJ: 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 backstory, which I’m 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.

Q: Since you don’t dictate to the audience how to feel and what to think, ideally what do you hope they take away from the movie?

JJ: Since I’m not interested in moralizing or teaching anybody anything, I don’t want to say “The film is supposed to have this effect – “ Because I’m 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, “You’re 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 you’re 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.

Q: That’s proven by what happens in the last moments in the film.

JJ: Yeah, he wants something. I think the film is somehow about yearning – and I don’t know where that came from. Yearning for something that you’re missing, and not necessarily being able to define what it is you’re 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.” I’d like the audience to carry that moment around somewhere in them for a little while.