Following a screening of The Dead Don’t Die at Metrograph in June 2019, the director discussed the origins of the film, teenagers, environmentalism, and working with actors.
ALIZA MA: Thank you so much for your film. I found it very funny, very moving also, and very urgent.
Thank you. I’m still not sure what it is, but we worked real hard on it...
Your last film, Paterson , was so steeped in the joys of everyday life by way of the poetry of William Carlos Williams. And I’m wondering if you can start by telling us about how you got from there to zombie apocalypse.
Yeah, I don’t analyze these things, I’m not analytical. I just do the next thing that’s coming.
You’ve made genre films before, Dead Man  was a bit of a Western and The Limits of Control  was a deconstructed hitman movie. And, of course, Only Lovers Left Alive , a vampire movie. What was it about the zombie genre that made you feel like you wanted to try?
I don’t know. It really started after we made Only Lovers Left Alive, which was a vampire film, but really a love story disguised by the vampire genre. Every time I talked to Tilda Swinton on the phone after that for a number of years, she was like, “Jim, when do we do the zombie movie?” I made Paterson and Gimme Danger  in between. And then I started writing this, and I like genres because they are a frame, as Sam Peckinpah said, within which you can do whatever you want. So zombies are a very, very broad, obviously metaphor. And The Dead Don’t Die is a broad or blatant film. Is blatancy a word? I know latency is a word... Anyway, we were embracing blatancy. The title alone would indicate that, I would hope. And zombies are a very, very obvious metaphor for the times we’re in. And our guide of course is the great postmodern zombie master, George Romero.
There are so many odes to Romero in this film, like the’68 Pontiac, so I wonder if you could talk about that.
Yeah, there are many Night of the Living Dead references layered in there, but the idea was just that zombies are not monsters from outside a social structure, they are from within, they are part of a collapsing structure. As a metaphor, they are us, they are not controllable like in early voodoo zombie things. They’re not tethered by identity or even meaning really. So it’s a very, very broad, obvious metaphor. And our film was intentionally embracing that obviousness. They’re also victims, like Romero’s zombies, because they don’t ask to be reanimated. It’s some stupid thing humans have done that causes the reanimation. So we used a device in our film for that as well. And a few people have said, “Wait, why isn’t the message anything new since George Romero?”
The sociopolitical thread running through Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead has only gotten worse. So I’m not sure what people are expecting. Should we have the zombies fly in the air and shoot fire out of their butts? I don’t really know what’s supposed to be new…
It seemed like you brought the canvas of the zombie genre onto an ecological scale.
Well, this film... it’s called The Dead Don’t Die, okay? It doesn’t take itself that seriously. It’s not a Tarkovsky film. It’s supposed to be a comedy, I think it’s funny. I’ve heard some people quibbling about, “Oh, you broke the fourth wall.” Like, “Wow, is that a crime?” We just wanted to make something amusing and funny that had a sociopolitical thread in it, given the state of things.
“I like genres because they are a frame, as Sam Peckinpah said, within which you can do whatever you want.”
The trope of the outsider looking in onto an American landscape is a familiar one in your filmography. And I wonder if you could talk about Tom Waits’s character in this film.
Well, in this film, Centerville [Pennsylvania] is a kind of archetypal, almost clichéd setting, and the characters are archetypal in that way, too. In the story, there are four characters that are outside of any social structure. Tom Waits’s character, who has, by choice, divorced himself from it. And the three teenagers in the detention center who obviously had some kind of problem in the social order and have been removed into a kind of jail. These are the four characters I let survive in the film, because they were not part of the thing in the first place, for whatever reason.
I love the teenagers. Can you talk more about them?
Well, I love teenagers. They’re always pushed around and told, “You don’t know how the world really works.” And they’re told to behave in certain ways, act like an adult.
Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote Frankenstein. Rimbaud stopped writing poems before he wasn’t a teenager [anymore]. Bobby Fischer was a chess master at the age of 14. If you look at what teenagers have given music, it’s endless. Billie Eilish is kind of a genius, she’s 17.
I feel for teenagers when they get pushed around because they teach us so many things, and their hormones are going crazy. They’ve got all kinds of things going on, but they are incredibly valuable to me.
Do you think that that’s the silver lining of optimism in the film?
I don’t know about that. But one of my leaders right now is Greta Thunberg from Sweden, a 16-year-old with Asperger’s who’s leading all of Europe and a lot of the world in awareness of a climate crisis. So there’s a hope, but it feels bad to dump it on them. But they’re the ones that have the future. They will be here for problems we’re facing. So wait, what was the question? I feel like I got serious.
You’ve answered it, it’s okay. I just have one last question before we turn it over to the audience. I’ve read once about your process, that you start with an actor in mind and...
Yeah, I write for specific actors.
And from there, you go to notes that you’ve been taking and then after that a narrative emerges. And then the place and characters all come.
Yeah, it’s a process. I write only one draft of a script. And then I start working with the production designer, the director of photography. We find the locations, I start working or talking with the actors. So it continues throughout the whole process, and things change as we go. For example, I wrote the sort of meta fourth wall things in the film just amusing myself. I thought they were funny, but I wanted to see what Adam [Driver] and Bill [Murray] thought once we started talking about them and reading through. And if they had said, “Yeah, this isn’t working,” or, “We’re not into this,” I would have taken it out. But instead they were very enthusiastic saying, “No, no, no, this is good. This for us is very interesting.” So I left it in; it could have gone another way, but making films is a collaboration, so I embrace it. I am so lucky to collaborate with so many amazing people, not just the cast but the amazing people that helped to make this film.
Yeah, this was such an ensemble piece of art-making.
Yeah, it’s a character-driven comedy with a sad ending. It’s not a horror film. I like horror films, but to be a horror film, you need to employ a certain formulaic device, which is—and I’m not against it—tension, tension, tension, scare you. And I just had absolutely no interest in that here.
Audience Member: In light of the fracking narrative, would you say that our current administration’s denial of climate change was key to the development of the story? And am I wrong to assume that Adam Driver’s character was influenced by the scientists that have been telling us that the end is nigh?
Well, I don’t want to be that nihilistic about it. What can I say? The story wasn’t driven by that. I needed a device. Obviously scientifically polar fracking would not throw the earth off its axis. Although there are things that could, and the magnetic poles are...
You mean this wasn’t a documentary?
This was not a documentary. But there are things magnetically shifting in the poles, which would disrupt everything we know, but we don’t have to think about that. We’re in the sixth mass extinction on earth. I know a lot of people don’t want to hear that, they don’t want to deal with that. And the people in power, they can hide that, they can deny it, they can run away from it, but you can’t change science. You can’t change the facts. So dealing with them is important. But in the last 50 years I’ve seen a lot more sheep, a lot more reluctance to speak out against things that are bad. But I’m sorry, I’m from a generation where we’re not afraid of that. And so this is not an agitprop political film, it’s a kind of comedy. But as George Romero was not afraid to put these things in, neither were we.
So, yeah, I think the climate crisis is really a scary thing. And just before I came here, I saw Beto O’Rourke on TV saying, “Well, we know we only have 10 years. So by 2030, we want to half our emissions of CO2.” Like, “Hello, did you just hear yourself? Does that really make sense?” I’m just very tired of this bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. I’m not an activist, but I’m not afraid to say what I think, or even put it in a film. But the sheep don’t like when you take their blinders off. They freak out when you say, “But this is bad.” They don’t want to see bad.
So I had a funny thing. I read a critique of our film from one of these websites you’ve never heard of before, like Vox, Lux, Vice, Stock, you know what I mean? And the critic was saying, “Oh, well, Jarmusch is so full of himself and so superficial, he’s a rich guy.” And then I thought, “Well, let me look at what else is on this website.” And it was like “The 10 Hottest Pool Parties of the Summer,” “The Coolest Sneaker Colors for July.” So I don’t know, man.
Welcome to clickbait culture.
Yeah. But I’m not afraid. My friends are Patti Smith and Joe Strummer, and we’re not afraid to say this is fucked up. But a lot of sheep don’t like to hear that. Not my problem.
Audience Member: What amount of improvisation goes into your dialogue? Like are those your lines or the brilliance of the actors as well?
Well, good question. It’s really, really varied. There’s no [one] way that directors direct actors. There’s only one way for each director to collaborate with each actor, at least in my way of doing it. So some actors love to improvise. Caleb Landry Jones, for example, is very improvisational. He doesn’t do the same thing twice. Chloë Sevigny does not like to improvise. She likes to stay very close to the script. Bill Murray is somewhat in between. You would think he’s a big improviser, but in fact Bill likes very much to be directed and have a range within which he can play. But he doesn’t like to be just set free, at least not when I work with him.
So it’s very different, and I’ve worked with all different kinds of actors. I have the great honor to direct Robert Mitchum in his last film, Dead Man. And as his assistant told me very clearly, “Mr. Mitchum does not improvise.” And yet I worked with other actors who really loved to improvise.
Filmmaking’s the process for me. It’s never as Nicholas Ray, who I really admire, once said, “If you’re just going to shoot the script, why bother?” That’s only for certain directors. I mean, let’s face it, Alfred Hitchcock made very, very formulaic films and yet they are beautifully formulaic and they work kind of like a little mechanism and they are fantastic for what they are. But I could never do that. So I try to stay open and find the strengths and try to accept limitations as strengths.
But it’s a really interesting question because, when I started Paterson, I gave the script to Adam Driver and Golshifteh [Farahani] and I said, “You guys can play a bit with this if you want.” And they both said, “No, we’re doing the script, man, we like the script.” So they did not improvise any dialogue. They elevated it above my imagination, but they didn’t want to add dialogue per se.
Aliza Ma: Did you derive some sort of pleasure out of seeing all your dear friends turned into zombies? Like Sarah Driver and Iggy Pop and eventually RZA?
Yeah, not really pleasure. I mean, the coffee zombies are maybe my favorite part of the film, I just love them and I don’t know why. And I wanted to get the bloody part out of the way fast because I don’t like splatter movies and I’m not a big blood guy. So that’s partly why I came up with the zombies being dust inside. Imagine if they were bloody. The end battle scene would be for me unwatchable. I couldn’t deal with it. But also when we die, we turn to dust, there’s no fluids, even embalming fluid dissipates. There’s no fluid in the dead. I don’t know how many reanimated zombies or ghouls you’ve encountered, but the ones I know seemed bloodless.
Audience Member: I’m a big Tom Waits fan, and I just saw a documentary where he was talking a lot about some of the things that you seem to be very concerned: our future, our children, and so forth.
Well, I wrote all that stuff, maybe overwrote it a bit, and I gave it to Tom and said, “Tom, if you have any ideas to help me write this or make it better, I’m really open to it.” And he said, “No. You’ve got to write it and I’ll just do it.” We’re very old friends, so our concerns have been quite aligned for a long time.
Aliza Ma: I just have to say that his reading of tasty porcinis had me on the floor, I was dying. Did you write that?
Yeah. I’m an amateur mycologist, the studying of mushroom identification. She’s laughing, but it’s true. And Tom... he’s been studying animal tracking and identification of animal scat for many years. So he knows a lot of things about natural phenomena, as well as all kinds of other things.
Can we have three more? Do we have time? I’m very superstitious, I need a number three.
Audience Member: I don’t know if this is really question, but I admire you so much and I love your movies and it was sad. And like, do you really think it’s that bad?
Yeah. Yeah. It gets sad. I get very disappointed in human behavior very often. A few weeks ago I was very depressed by human behavior, and I called Tom and found him in a kind of similar state. And then I said, “But Tom, on the positive note, humans three days ago released a photograph of M87, a black hole,” which was photographed using technology of multiple cameras developed by a young woman. And I said, “So that’s pretty amazing. That’s pretty cool, right?” And Tom said, “You’re right. That is amazing. But, Jim, it’s out of focus.” But I do get very sad… though my favorite Oscar Wilde quote is, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” So I keep that close to my heart, in this serious way. Just joking. No, I’m serious. I’m not. I don’t know what I’m doing…
Audience Member: I was wondering about Chloë Sevigny’s character. She’s crying for like the whole timeline, and I usually see her play stronger characters. So I felt like the women in the movie were kind of weak...
Selena’s weak? She’s sort of the leader. What about the teenagers? One of the females is sort of their leader. But Chloë’s character is intentionally a kind of cliché. And when I gave the script to her, I said, “Chloë, we’re old friends, this is not a feminist character. This is like the scream queen of this ridiculous film.” I love Chloë and she’s a very strong woman, so I said, “How do you feel about it?” And she said, “Well, it’s a movie, it’s a character. I get it. They’re kind of archetypes. And I’m the archetype between these two males. And I’m the one that has the emotional reaction, whereas their emotions are guarded.” So she said, “No, I’m down with that.” And I said, “And then you got to scream like six times.” And so we were fully aware that this was not a feminist representative character. But I would not say the females are weak in the film. I would say the opposite: I’d say the men are weaker.
Audience Member: Did you have choreography for the zombies or did they have free range in their movement? Especially the coffee zombies, because they were really good.
Well, two things. With those zombies, and all of them, I said, “Okay, I don’t want any of this, ‘I’m a zombie’ thing. I want you to find something broken in your body and then find how that would affect how you move as a reanimated ghoul.” And then on top of that, for all the zombie extras we had a wonderful choreographer, a dancer. They were very receptive and really wonderful. I don’t like zombies, but I love our extras.
Aliza Ma: Jim, we love you. And we love your film and thank you so much.
And I want to thank Metrograph… man I love this place. A journalist asked me recently, “Okay, if you were a zombie, what would you be haunting?” And I said, “I’d probably be in front of the Metrograph or the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.” •