“Society these days seems to think you aim for twenty-one and then just stay there,” Tilda Swinton declares wryly to me. “So I love what Jim does here about how one goes on living, one goes on loving, on goes on rebooting. It seems strangely radical and unfashionable that they are trying not to be young.”
Tilda Swinton has never tried to be young—or anything else the Doxa demands. Now fifty-four (an age well-past the “sell by” date Hollywood has stamped on actresses), she is busier than she’s ever been in her near thirty-year-long career what with Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel now in theaters, and Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer on the way. But what she’s come to Los Angeles to talk about on this occasion is her friend “Jim”–Jarmusch–and the great role he’s created for her in Only Lovers Left Alive– that of a many thousand year-old vampire named “Eve”and her relationship to her much younger (only 500 years-old) lover “Adam” (the thirty-three-year-old Tom Hiddleston).
For its friendship that has sustained Swinton throughout her career from her films with Derek Jarman (The Last of England and Edward II being especial standouts) to her work with Sally Potter (Orlando), Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), Lynne Ramsay (We Need To Talk About Kevin) which have offered her the opportunity to play everything from gender-morphing Elizabethan aristocrat, to an adulterous Italian “trophy wife” to the mother of a homicidal maniac. And that not to mention her Oscar-winning turn as a ruthless corporate attorney in Michael Clayton. But it’s the likes of Jarmusch who truly sustain her.
“Jim and I are friends now and part of the reason I love to work with him is to hang out with my pal. Like I Am Love, this film was another long-gestation affair. So that meant many trips here and there and many conversations in dark corners and over the phone. The wonderful thing about those long-development projects is when you come to shoot it’s just great because you’re so relieved to finally put it down and because you’ve had so much time to talk about it you don’t talk about that much.”
But talk they did, for while Only Lovers Left Alive is the title from a 1964 dystopian fantasy by David Wallis (once optioned by the Rolling Stones for Nicholas Ray to direct) Jarmusch’s film has more in common with his own non-fantasy related sorties in bohemia particularly the last scene in Coffee and Cigarettes) than it does to anything related to vampires of Twilight, Hammer or Bela Lugosi variety. They’re vampire-hipsters.
“We talked a lot about what it would be like if you were that ‘un-socialized’—lifted out of human society. Very quickly we started to talk about ‘lone wolves’ and seeing them as animals. That became part of the ‘look’ we gave them—yak’s hair and wolf’s hair. The heartbeat in the film that we hear at one point supposedly emanating from ‘Adam’ was a wolf’s heart. So I thought a lot about that for the scenes in the film where ‘Eve’ would walk about. If you’re not in the pack and alone and at night and can take your time you can pick your rhythm. Music with Jim is always a lifeblood, but also the camera, the movement, the theme of movement. And this one particularly, because of this passage through these two different wildernesses.”
The “wildernesses” in question are Tangier and Detroit. The two cities couldn’t seem more different. One ancient a redolent of bohemian associations, the other relatively more modern, but currently an abandoned ruin for the most part. Yet Jarmusch and his cast make these disparate locales “rhyme” cinematically. “Detroit was always ‘The Emerald City’ for Jim. Tangier was kind of a newer idea. For a minute it was going to be Rome. But now Tangier seems to be a natural home for her. It’s packed full of people from all corners of the planet and probably others. And other centuries. You really get a sense that Paul Bowles is still living there and that William Burroughs is that guy in the corner. All corners of time and space are in Tangier. And you can walk about Tangier at night and cause no ripples at all with a big wig on and fantastic pants. It’s a ‘Hot Spot of Spirit’ and felt like a good partner to the relatively unpopulated Detroit.
“One of the first bits of sand in the oyster that Jim immediately told me about in a telephone call eight years ago,” Swinton recalls, “was this book by Mark Twain The Diaries of Adam and Eve which is so delightful and playful, which spells out immediately that this is an enormous love affair between two opposites. That was the foundation for us—that they would be in it for the long haul, but completely different people. We wanted it to be about a marriage in which they talk—as long relationships do. There’s a tradition of showing people coming together and then—The End.’ And you never see them living it out—the ups and the downs and talking it through. This film does that. Adam is very young. He’s only 500 years old. Eve is 5,000 years old. She’s seen it all and knows that survival is possible if one keeps one’s eyes open and take it all in. He talks about turning one’s face away. She takes about witnessing the Inquisition, the Middle Ages, the Holocaust. She’s seen all those things, and yet sees humanity, nature and knows as long as one keeps looking up, as long as one keeps breathing. She wants perspective. When she says to him ‘You’re immersion in your own despair is vanity. Get your advice from nature.’ Especially in Detroit, to see the way Nature is taking over there is a really positive thing. And kindness, friendship and dancing. She’s got her priorities right.”
“The relationship with Marlowe,” Swinton continues “ is a very precious part of the film for me. It was very close to my own experience, in part because of my relationship with Derek Jarman whose disappearance from the building I had to witness. Marlowe’s a different kind of partner for her in a way that ‘Adam’ isn’t. He also feels like family.” And as the Elizabethan playwright—sustained over the centuries by having become a vampire—is played by John Hurt, the “family feeling” came naturally, Swinton says.“ Funnily enough last year John and I made two films together, this one and Snowpiercer. We’ve actually known each other for years. John is actually convinced we were lovers once.” But his heady alliance is a “side dish” compared to the main one.
“It’s interesting that ‘Eve’ is not an artist. ‘Adam’ an artist. He’s a musician. ‘Eve’ is like a lightning conductor. She’s a notice. She’s the eyes and the ears and the fingertips. That’s from Mark Twain.” The rest is of Jarmusch’s own device as this pair of virtually immortal lovers live the kind of deluxe bohemian existence the “Beats” only dreamt about. As for horror and fantasy “purists,” Only Lovers Left Alive may well upset them.
“We were slightly messing with the form. We liked the idea of playing with the myths, the tropes and inventing new ones. So we hope vampire films from now on will have them wearing gloves. They’re very evolved vampires. They’re very humane. They’re virtually vegetarian vampires.” That’s because they buy blood from doctors “with it” enough to sell to them, rather than prey on mortals. Best of all they drink not from goblets but little aperitif glasses. Tres chic . And ever-so-up-to-date for creatures of this kind.
And this in turn leads to the paradox that in doing a film about immortality, Swinton found herself facing its opposite. “My mother died during the course of making Only Lovers Left Alive, and suddenly the film threw me into a great reflection. It’s all about mortality in the strangest way. It’s got a lot to do with people preparing how to die—or how to survive death. Even Marlowe when he speaks of death is kind of up for it. By the by my parents celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary before she died. So for me they were the real Adam and Eve.”
As for Swinton she’s most interested at this point in getting back home to Scotland to ten her twins Xavier and Honor who have now reached sixteen—an age she considers crucial. But the calls for film work won’t stop, be they “mainstream” or “indie.”
“I come from a kind of cinema that grew out of the art world. Working with a naturalistic grain is something I’ve rarely done. But when I have done it has had a special atmosphere, like Michael Clayton with Tony Gilroy or the film I did with Lynne Ramsey, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Just trying to spin the realism has been really interesting. It’s all fun to me. It’s all dressing up and playing.”
Ebertfest 2013 Dance Along from Ebertfest on Vimeo.