Struggling to find one last meaningful connection to your true love, and reason to remain alive and committed to each other, are often struggles people contend with as they reflect on their lives. But attempting to find a way to remain loyal and true to your one true love, as you ponder whether you have anything left to live for after many years together, can be even more difficult when you have lived through several generations together. Writer-director Jim Jarmusch new romance drama, ‘Only Lovers Left Alive,’ takes out the horrific visual elements, and the confusing emotions that drive newly turned vampires, to showcase the last few feelings of hope and despair in a vampire love story.
‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ follows 500-year-old vampire Adam (Tom Hiddleston), moonlighting as a reclusive musician in Detroit. He remains hidden from public scrutiny with the confidential help of Ian (Anton Yelchin), who’s even unaware of his boss’s lifestyle. After feeling sentimental and nostalgic for his wife, 3,000-year-old vampire Eve (Tilda Swinton), she leaves her home in Tangier to reunite with her true love. The two contend the meaning of their lifestyle, particularly after they’re visited by Eve’s irresponsible sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who irritates Adam and eventually causes trouble with Ian. Adam and Eve seek advice and solace on the meaning for their existences from William Shakespeare, who’s also living as a vampire under the guise of Marlowe (John Hurt) in Tangier. The dedicated couple reflects on their lives, and ponders if they have anything left to live for.
Swinton and Jarmusch generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference following the Press and Industry screening of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ during the 51st New York Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. Among other things, the actress and writer-director discussed why the filmmaker decided to create a character-driven exploration of vampires instead of a straight horror story, as he was drawn to Adam and Eve’s committed love over centuries, and the fact that humans don’t truly die as they transition into vampires; how Jarmusch struggled to make the romance drama for eight years, and many times considered giving up on the project, but Swinton insisted every delay was just a sign they weren’t ready to film yet; and how the scribe-helmer feels that balancing his intellect and intuition is important when planning and making a film.
Question (Q): Jim, what was your inspiration in telling this type of story about vampires, particularly since it’s not told in the traditional sense of the horror genre?
Jim Jarmusch (JJ): For me, obviously it’s not a horror movie, as most vampire movies are, although they are some that aren’t explicitly horror films. But I think it’s just the overview that it allows, because they’ve been alive so long, to show a love story that spans that amount of time.
After all, this is a character study; we’re just observing these characters who happen to be very strange and, to me, interesting. To be able to see their perception of history over a long period of time, and their own love story that spans that amount of time, is what drew me to it.
So obviously, you know I read something where the film, somebody said, “Well, they’re vampires, so they’re not human, therefore…” I forget what the point was. But they’re humans, as they start as humans. They’re not zombies that return from the dead-vampires don’t return. So in any case, they’re not just metaphorically humans, they are humans that have been transformed.
Q: Tilda, what was the experience of portraying a romantic relationship that has spanned for several centuries?
Tilda Swinton (TS): Sometimes when you’re in a long relationship like this one, which has lasted hundreds of years, they feel like they’ve been going on for hundreds of years, but they haven’t really. Those relationships are about rebooting one’s connection and the reasons to not get really depressed and sit in your underpants all day and do nothing else. Those relationships are about that feeling of being there in support.
That was something that Jim, Tom and I talked about for a long time before we started shooting. We were all so clear that what we wanted was a couple that really felt familiar, in a way that you do long after you’ve first been fancying each other and just end up in bed for a long time. It’s about people who have really, really talked constantly about everything.
Eve says at one point, “You love telling me stuff about all the fancy people you used to know.” That’s one of those things she’s learned to put up with and love. We talked about texture and really, really long friendship. We also noticed that we hadn’t necessarily seen that; a man and a woman who obvious really fancy each other still, but really, really love talking to each other as well. So we kind of cut that off by the yard.
Q: Jim, the locations of Detroit and Tangier aren’t usually seen in films. Why did you decide to set and shoot the film in those locations?
JJ: The locations evolved when I did this version of the film several years ago, with this script. A previous script was set in Rome and Detroit, but Tangier is one of my favorite places on the planet, so I just wanted to shoot there. Also, it seemed like a place that Eve would be drawn to. I like Tangier because it’s separated from European culture in a way. It’s not a Christian culture, and it’s not even an alcohol culture. It’s a hashish culture, so it’s a very different feeling there.
Detroit is also a city I really, deeply love. I’m from Ohio, but Detroit, wow. As a child Detroit was almost mythological, and was this Paris of the Midwest and very different from Cleveland, which always felt culturally secondary. What’s happened with Detroit is very tragic and sad. So I was drawn to it visually and historically, for its musical culture and industrial culture, and its kind of post-industrial visual feeling.
Q: What were some of the challenges of making the film?
TS: The biggest challenge for us was that we wanted to make this film for quite a while, and we had to be really patient. But once we started shooting, as always, when you’ve been developing something for a while, it’s like cream. “Oh wow there’s a camera, there are colleagues, there’s a schedule with a call sheet, there’s catering.” It’s just like Christmas every day.
But it was a challenge having patience, and pacing our energies for the years Jim was talking to me about making this film. Personally, it’s a challenge for me to know that Jim isn’t making a film every year, because that’s what I want. So that is literally the only challenge I can think of.
JJ: It’s been seven years or more, eight years, that I wanted to make this film, or a variation of it, and it was written with Tilda in mind from the very beginning. Whenever this production would fall apart or we’d lose financing or another element, I would just be ready to give up. It was like, “Okay, I’m going onto something else, this is a bad sign.”
But Tilda would invariably say, “No, this is a good sign. This means we’re not ready, all the pieces aren’t in place.” She was so optimistic and reflective in the way of Eve, in the spirit of Eve, that I could not give up this project.
Q: The hair on all the characters in the film is so unique. How did you come to design and create it?
JJ: I wanted the characters to have wild hair, and for them to look partly animalistic and even behave like half animals and half very sophisticated humans. So as we were trying to make wigs for them, we were trying on different things. We were in Cologne, Germany working with Gerd (Zeiss), our makeup/hair designer, who’s great. We just weren’t getting an interesting texture from looking at different hair online.
Tilda said, ‘You keep saying ‘animal,’ so why are we just looking at humans? Let’s look at animal fur.’ So we started looking at animals and monkeys and llamas and different textures of fur and hair. Then Gerd said that he had, in the past, mixed some goat and yak fur with human hair. Tilda was like, ‘Let’s try that.’ So we tried that, and in the end the wigs for John Hurt, Tom, Tilda and Mia were made of a certain percentage of human hair mixed with goat and yak. Again, why? I just wanted them to look kind of wild.
Q: The characters’ costumes had a timeless element to them. Since the vampires have lived for so long, what was the process of creating their clothing?
TS: It was a real leap of the imagination to free ourselves from anything that felt tied to any one time. We were making a bouquet, so we wanted to make it look like they had lived through all of these times. So if you put too much of one flower in a bouquet, it tends to overwhelm.
You just need to smorgasbord all these references, but for them to never look fashionable. I mean, they are too snobbish to be fashionable, let’s face it, too snobbish to be snobs. Jim was really clear with us and Bina (Daigeler), the great costume designer, trying to kind of strip all the elements from any contemporary or any remotely fashion reference. Although it had to feel like it could have been at any time.
Q: Another eccentric element of the film is the soundtrack. How did you come to create the music for the film?
JJ: Well, it partly reflects the fact that there’s such a wide range of incredible forms of music that’s certainly of interest to me. But the film could only use so much music. The music created for the film is kind of liquid and molten, in a way. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it seemed appropriate for the feelings of the film. Since Adam himself is a musician, we see him making music as well.
But I’m always shocked by the limited range of musical style used in cinema, especially American films, particularly commercial Hollywood films. It seems like they just buy the music by the yard and use the same five scores over and over and over again. When you see what kind of music is available and made all around this planet, it’s very strange to me that what’s in movies is often very limited. This isn’t always true, there’s some great non-American and American films that use great music. But still, it feels like not as wide a range being used.
Q: What was the process of balancing your intellect and instincts while making the film?
JJ: Intellect is very valuable and interesting, and intellect is something I pay more attention to, because I think you can overanalyze things. I read a lot about filmmakers and directors and writer-directors that I really love, and this is a weak generalization, but sometimes I think, Well, they’re not the most highly intellectual people.
I really think instinct and using your intuition is extremely important. While filming you are, in my case, gathering material that you will then make into a film in the editing room. It’s not a formulaic procedure, like Hitchcock’s films, which are fantastic for what they are, but everything’s decided in advance for this little machine to function in a Hitchcock-type film. What we’re making, the machine may not be visible until the end, when it’s cut.