This article originally appeared in the December 1989 issue of SPIN.
The train pulls into the station. Two Japanese tourists get off. She is wide-eyed and exuberant; he detached and cool. They’ve come to Memphis to pay homage to their patron saint. She, Elvis; he, Carl Perkins. An old black guy in the station asks them for a light. Neither realizes it’s Rufus Thomas, the real king of Memphis. They wander around downtown and check into a run-down hotel. They argue. They make love. They listen to Elvis’s “Blue Moon” on the radio. In the morning, they hear a gunshot.
An Italian woman wanders around Memphis in a daze. A stranger in a diner sits down at her table. He tells her he picked Elvis up hitchhiking and gives her the King’s comb. She shares a hotel room with a ditzy broad named DeeDee who just broke up with her English boyfriend and is leaving town without saying goodbye to her brother Charlie. DeeDee falls asleep to “Blue Moon” on the radio. The Italian girl, wide awake, sees Elvis’s ghost. In the morning, as they’re leaving, they hear a shot.
The same afternoon that the Japanese kids arrive, and the Italian girl’s wandering around, Johnny is in a bar, getting drunk. His girl has left him and he’s lost his job at the cotton warehouse. He pulls out a gun and points it at himself. His friend Will and his brother-in-law Charlie come to get him. They drive to a liquor store. Johnny steals two bottles of bourbon and shoots the owner. They drive around in circles. “Blue Moon” comes on the radio. They hole up in the hotel. In the morning Charlie awakes as Johnny points a gun to his own head. They struggle. The gun goes off.
A few months before going down to Memphis to work on Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch sees a turquoise ’66 Cadillac for sale in somebody’s front yard in New Jersey. The owner’s wife tells him to call back in two hours. By then some doctor has bought the Caddy and driven it away. Obsessed with owning a ’66 Caddy, Jim spends the next few weeks scouring the autos-for-sale section of the local papers. He finds a ’66 white Coupe de Ville w/blk int. ex. Cond. in/out. $1,700.
Jim looks like the kind of guy in the Shangri-Las’ Leader of the Pack, but he’s sophisticated, reserved and very shy, which is what really makes him cool. His black clothes, shades and premature white hair go perfectly with the Caddy. As soon as he buys it he thinks, “I got to put this in the movie.”
Jim describes Mystery Train as a temporal comedy that takes place within one 24-hour period in Memphis. This film is kind of a triptych, including three separate but connecting stories. Although the characters never really meet, in Mystery Train the episodic form is finally just a disguise, and the three stories are like three separate cars pulled by the same locomotive—a minimalist’s version of The Canterbury Tales.
Mystery Train is like a new wave film from the early 60s, in which the director is the star. Like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, it’s intentionally anti-suspenseful, anti-heroic and anti-Hollywood. It doesn’t explode or bowl the audience over, rather it envelopes you like a fine mist. The film is so understated, it’s almost a secret.
Yet there’s more poetry, imagination and mystery in its flatness than in most action-packed, star-studded thrillers. The anticlimactic ending, which in a more traditional film would have been underlined with tension and meaning, is a kind of throwaway. It’s not plot but characters that Jim cares about. His films don’t end, anyway, the characters just leave the screen.
When Jim watches a conventional film, he is often more interested in what happens during the pauses between the points of action than the action itself. He’d rather see the film that’s not in the film: A guy gets upset, rushes out of his apartment, cut to him at her apartment. Jim would be more interested to see him going there. What kind of car does he drive? Does he listen to the radio? How does he drive, maniacally or slowly? Is he pensive? Anxiety-ridden?
On his way to Memphis, Jim drove down the Blueridge Parkway like a maniac. He listened to tapes by Elmore James, Link Wray, Bo Diddley, and the Bar-Kays. He had already written the script for Mystery Train, which is a tribute to Memphis, without ever having been there. He was anxious to see if he could find good locations to fit what he had written.
Memphis is the crossroads of America, an empire obviously in decline. It seems to Jim that in the future the only things people from other cultures will come to America to see are remnants of rock stars’ and movie stars’ homes. That’s how Elvis got into the picture.
He is also attracted to Memphis because of its place in music history. The first records of Carl Perkins, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison were recorded at Sun Studio on Union Avenue. Stax, where Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, and the Bar-Kays recorded, is on the other side of town. Hi, where Willie Mitchell recorded O.V. Wright, Otis Clay and Al Green, is also in Memphis. So is the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated.
Jim arrived in Memphis in the midst of a major snowstorm. Driving around aimlessly in the blizzard of the first night, he was drawn to the intersection of a dilapidated hotel, the Arcade Diner and the train station. “Man,” Jim thought, “this crossroad is filled with so many ghosts. You know Robert Johnson walked down that street, you know Muddy Waters was in that train station.”
When Jim started writing Mystery Train, he was reading The Wild Palms. William Faulkner had written two unrelated novellas, but apparently the publishers wanted a novel, so they combined the two novellas into one story by alternating the chapters. Mystery Train doesn’t have that structure, but it’s nonlinear-ness gives it more depth than his previous movies.
Mystery Train was also influenced by two Max Ophüls films: La Ronde, which begins with two lovers, then one of those lovers with another lover, then the other lover with yet another lover, and then that lover with another lover; and Madame De…, a story about a pair of earrings that a woman loses and other woman finds, then she loses the, and someone else finds them, until they come back around again.
Other great films that have influenced Jim: The Story of the Last Chrysantheum by Mizoguchi; I Vitelloni by Fellini; almost everything by John Cassavetes, especially Shadows, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence; almost anything by Nick Ray, particularly They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, and Rebel Without a Cause; Shock Corridor by Sam Fuller; Pull My Daisy by Robert Frank; Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy; John Boorman’s Point Blank; Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood and Cry Baby Killer, with Jack Nicholson; Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive; anything by Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, Renoir, and early Godard; Elio Petri, Pasolini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and Buster Keaton, his favorite director of all.
Jim went to Columbia University to study literature, and to Paris for a semester to trace the steps of Andre Breton’s Nadja, but ended up staying a year. He saw so many movies that when he came back, he went to NYU to study film. While in Paris he got a job delivering paintings from galleries to private collectors. Some paintings were by Jim Dine, Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell, but most were by central European painters he had never heard of.
The guy who he worked with was an American who previously drove a beer truck in Chicago. One of the paintings, an abstract they were delivering to a rich collector’s elegant house, had been left in the road and backed over by the truck, which had left a tire track across the corner of the canvas. The driver told Jim not to worry about it; the guy wouldn’t know the difference, and he didn’t.
Most screenwriters start with the story line and work their characters into it. Jim starts with an actor he wants to work with, creates a character for that actor, and lets the story suggest itself. Sometimes he’ll write a character for an actor he’s never met. While promoting Down by Law in Japan, he saw Youki Kudoh in several off-beat Japanese films and had her in his head while writing Mystery Train. Then he went back to Japan to meet her.
Before shooting, he rehearsed scenes with them that aren’t in the movie—the first time they meet, their first date, the first they hold hands, the first time they ever kiss—so they would have a history, a sense of how long they had been together. They couldn’t go in front of the camera with no clothes on an be expected to start kissing. “If Youki and Masathoshi had been African,” Jim says, “their characters would have been African.”
One night while on location, Jim took the Japanese kids, who had never been to America before, to the only punk rock club in Memphis. Jim was making them laugh by talking in an American AM radio DJ voice. Jim taught Masatoshi, who doesn’t speak English but is able to imitate very well, how to say, “Hi, babe, how ya’ doin’?” In the bar there was a blonde girl. Jim told Earl—Jim calls Masatoshi Earl—to go up to the girl, as if it were an acting exercise, and say, “Hi, babe, how ya’ doin’? in this DJ voice, which he did reluctantly, in a thick Japanese accent. The girl took one look at him and fled.
Jim got the idea to write a character for Joe Strummer, who plays Johnny in Mystery Train, a few years ago while they were hanging out together in Spain. All Joe had to do was grow sideburns and the rest of Johnny’s character fell into place. “I had sideburns anyway,” says Joe. “But I grew them like Elvis during his glitzy, early Vegas period. Once I grew them I felt more Teddy. Johnny was obviously a teddy who drifted to Memphis. Then I had to go to New York to rehearse. I was down in Grand Central Station and there was a gang of b-boys loitering in one of the hallways, and they went, ‘Yo, Elvis, what’s happening, dude?’ After the film, it was hard to revert to being normal, I had Johnny’s sideburns on and I didn’t shave them off for months. It was like being inhabited by some other being.”
Jim met Screamin’ Jay Hawkins before he wrote the part of the night clerk for him. He used “I Put a Spell on You” in Stranger Than Paradise. At the time Screamin’ Jay was living in a trailer in New Jersey. The film helped him make a comeback, especially in Europe, where he has always been held in high esteem for being the most flamboyant R&B singer ever. “He’s a wild man for real. His flamboyance is repressed in the film. I had to keep him down, because I didn’t want any one character to be so much more out of style than the others, which was a little perplexing to him. He said to me at one point, ‘Jim, I don’t understand. It’s like you ordered a nuclear device and now you instruct it not to explode.’”
Jim’s mix of nonprofessional actors—John Lurie from the Lounge Lizards in Stranger Than Paradise, Lurie and Tom Waits in Down by Law, and Joe Strummer in Mystery Train—with professionals gives his films their naïve, almost home-movie effect. “I hate actors whom you can see through their method or performance,” he says. He’d like to be more like Cassavetes and let things boil. Cassavetes films are about love and how it goes wrong then goes right for a moment. Or about how men and women are different and why their relationships never quite work out. It’s not important to Cassavetes whether the shots cut together perfectly. A lot of his films are shot with a hand-held camera. Nothing is forced or manipulated. Jim admits he doesn’t have the courage to just let it happen the way Cassavetes did. “I’m not that kind of shoot-from-the-hip director. My aesthetic might be a little too mannered for that to work.”
Some actors Jim would like to direct: Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame, Billie Holiday, Samuel Beckett, Angie Dickinson, Linton Queezie Johnson, and the amphetamine-crazed cab driver who just drove him back from the airport.
Jim would recast The Wild One with Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot: Brando rides into a town on the French Riviera where Bardot’s working in her father’s restaurant. The bikers are Americans, but all the people in the town speak French. When someone asks Brando, “What are you rebelling against?” and Brando replies “What do you got?” they have to get out their phrase books to understand what he said.
Jim wants to change Guns N’ Roses’ name to Cocks N’ Pussies.
Motorcycles that have influenced Jim: the Vincent and AJS from Britain, the Indian from America, and the Moto-Guzzi California, with the big 1000cc engine.
Jim’s movies should be shown in theaters with big screens and the stars on the ceiling that move. Drive-ins would be perfect if drive-ins showed genre-less films instead of Attack of the Crab Monsters. Jim’s films probably wouldn’t hold the attention of most drive-in crowds, unless it was a drive-in with a doorman who looked like Robert Mitchum and wouldn’t let you in if you weren’t driving the right car. “BMW, get the fuck outta here, Mercedes, get lost. ’62 Pontiac, rust all over, you’re cool. ’66 Caddy with the rebuilt engine”—while Jim was driving back from Memphis, a $10 piece of radiator hose split and the anti-freeze leaked out, burning up the engine—“come right in.”