The film centers on a deeply depressed underground musician (Tom Hiddleston) whose romantic seclusion in Detroit and Tangiers is restored when he is reunited with his strong and enigmatic lover (Tilda Swinton.) Their love has endured several centuries but their debauched existence is soon disrupted by the arrival of the her younger sister (Mia Wasikowska) and her boyfriend (Anton Yelchin). Disenfranchised by the way humanity has evolved, can these strangers on the fringes continue to survive in the modern world that is collapsing around them? It’s a thoroughly Jarmuschian film, surprisingly funny, romantic, and singularly odd.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” took 7 years to make...at least.
We all flipped in 2009 when it was announced that Jim Jarmusch was making a vampire film with Tilda Swinton (and Michael Fassbender in the lead back then), using a script that had apparently been written seven years ago. In fact, one of the film’s producers suggested the movie was in the wings circa “Broken Flowers” in 2004 or ‘05, but it just couldn’t quite come together and Jarmusch shot two pictures before it. Why a vampire film?
“We heard you could make a lot of money with these films,” Jarmusch quipped no doubt referencing the “Twilight” movies of the world. “I wanted to make a love story with vampires and it was a long process. I haven’t seen any of these current commercial vampire films, but I have a love for the history of vampire films, many beautiful films. Tilda and I were talking about this, and I had a script seven years ago.”
Evidently Swinton and John Hurt were on board since the film’s inception and stayed with it during thick or thin and when stars (Fassbender) dropped out. “Somehow they stayed with this project the whole time,” Jarmusch explained. “Tilda would never give up. She would say, 'It’s not the right time to make the film,' and in the end it was and she was right. John Hurt would tell me, ‘You just tell me when we’re gonna do it and I’ll be there.’ ”
Some of the press began asking somewhat direct questions about the film, its meaning, themes, the point of certain moments and Jarmusch politely explained that he wasn’t down with spelling things out.
“It’s difficult for me to answer these questions. I want to be gracious, but I need to prepare myself -- or maybe the press -- that I am not very comfortable talking about this film for reasons that are... I think the answers are in the film,” he said. “I really want this film to speak for itself. I don’t want to demystify it by analyzing or dissecting it or why we did this or what does this mean? I’m not sure I know what things mean in the film.”
Lest you think the “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog” director was being prickish, Jarmusch went on to qualify his comments. “Also I don’t want to discourage anyone from analyzing the film, I just don’t want you to ask me to analyze it.”
Why Tangiers and Detroit as settings? Jarmusch calls them “emotionally attractive” locations.
“I’m very drawn to both of [these cities] for very different reasons,” the filmmaker said. “I don’t know how to analyze why but they both seemed interesting and appropriate to me.” But despite his reticence, Jarmusch did exactly explain the allure of both cities, though maybe not exactly how they applied to the film.
As for Tangiers, the setting was influenced by Jarmusch’s love for the post-beats, postmodernist artists.
“Brion Gysin, [he was] an amazing artist, he did a lot of collaborations with William Burroughs, cut-ups, and he invented the dream machine,” Jarmusch explained. “So it was more of a reference from Brion Gysin who was a [British] expat living in Tangiers in the 1950s when Tangiers was known as the Interzone,” he said, referencing Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" and the various others Burroughs novels set in Tangiers, where he was living at the time, although the novels were described as taking place in the Interzone.
While the film was shot on location, some scenes were shot on film stages and studios, something Jarmusch had never never done before. Producer Reinhard Brundig jokingly remarked that he finally “convinced” Jarmusch to shoot his interiors on a stage.