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Jarmusch shows 'the Money'

Actors Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and director Jim Jarmusch at the press conference after the first Cannes Film Festival screening of "Broken Flowers."

He always wanted to work with Bill Murray, Jim Jarmusch said. "He's got a big-brush style where he's a comic genius. But he can also paint with a one-haired brush." That was the Murray that Jarmusch wanted, the one he had seen in "The Razor's Edge," "Mad Dog and Glory," "Ed Wood," "Rushmore" and "Lost in Translation." So it should have been simple. Jarmusch worked on a screenplay for four or five months, went to Cannes in 2002 to raise the money for it, and came home with most of the financing in place.

"I have some good news and some bad news," the director told his star.

"Good news?" said Murray.

"I have most of the money."

"Bad news?"

"I don't really want to do this script."

The script was titled "Three Moons in the Sky." Doesn't much matter what it was about, since it will not be made. Murray nodded at the bad news, and said, "Well, what are you thinking of doing?"

"I have this other idea," Jarmusch said. He told him the story of "Broken Flowers." It was a project that had been accumulating for years, in notes and jottings and two and a half complete scenes, about a man who is told that he had a son 20 years ago. Now the boy may be coming to find him.

"That sounds good," Murray said. "Why don't we do that?"

So they did, and in May the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Now it is opening around the country, which is why Jarmusch was sitting in the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago talking about it and calling downstairs for a quote on a carton of cigarettes, "because in New York cigarettes are now $8 a pack."

Jim Jarmusch, like John Sayles, like Robert Altman, is a solo helmsman in an age of cruise ships. He makes his movies one at a time, proceeding from his own musings and inspirations, indifferent to "the carrots they dangle in Hollywood." His titles have included "Stranger Than Paradise," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Mystery Train," "Dead Man," "Down by Law," "Night on Earth" and "Coffee and Cigarettes." Either you know them or you don't; a description would not help. When a new Jarmusch film opens, there is a stirring in those circles where people really care about good movies. He makes the kinds of movies where Steve Buscemi is not considered a character actor.

"I'm stubborn," he said. "I have to fight. The studios want to be your partner in the creative process. That's why I find most of my financing overseas. I don't let the Money give me notes on my scripts. I don't allow the Money on the set. I don't allow the Money in the editing room. These days, even the little independent studios, they act like Hollywood. Some kid is making a movie for $500,000, and they want the final cut. Seems like the squares are taking over everything."

He doesn't sound angry. He is just describing how he works, and how he will not work. It is just as well the Money was not in the editing room the day he started to edit "Broken Flowers."

"I walked in and told Jay Rabinowitz, the editor, that I wanted to cut the film backwards. 'I don't know how to start at the beginning,' I told him. 'I don't know where he's going.' "

The movie follows Bill Murray on a curious personal odyssey.

When we meet him, he is Don Johnston, a retired millionaire who made a fortune in computers. His latest girlfriend (Julie Delpy) has just walked out, uneventfully. Now he sits on a sofa in his living room, looking at videos. Period. He lives next door to Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an ebullient guy with three jobs, a cheerful wife and a houseful of kids. One day Don gets an anonymous letter telling him that 20 years ago he had a son. The son may be trying to find him, the letter says, and so the writer thought Don should know.

Winston is delighted. He's an amateur detective, and extracts from Don a list of all the women who could possibly be the boy's mother. Then he devises an itinerary and hands Don an envelope with his airline tickets, his rental car agreement, his MapQuest routes, everything. Don begins, without much joy, to work his way through the list.

"This guy is a static lump," Jarmusch said. "The film was odd for me because, at the beginning of the story, I don't empathize with the character at all. But Bill can cumulatively make us identify with him by the end. So I started at the end, deliberately selecting the right pieces of Bill's performance. He provides you with a lot of subtle variations, within a certain range. How they accumulate into a character is very subtle. You don't know at first if he even wants a son at all. There's some hole in him. It's not explained. I didn't want a backstory, an opening scene about his mother or his neuroses, nothing like that. Just a man watching TV, who finds out he may have a son."

The women he visits, one after another, are played by Frances Conroy, Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton.

"A lot of it is not so realistic," Jarmusch said. "Why doesn't be just blurt out and ask the question: 'Did we have a child together?' But the paternity is just a device, really. This is a movie about a guy going back to see where his life might have gone. When he visits these women and their homes and families, he sees an edge of his own possible past."

The scene with Frances Conroy was the first one they shot, Jarmusch said. "I don't care about shooting a film in order. I focus on one scene at a time. That's a lesson I learned when I was an assistant to Nicholas Ray. He told me, 'Don't ever think about the whole film. When you're shooting a scene, it is all about that scene.'"

Do you rehearse the scene?

"I never talk to actors as a group. Only one at a time. I talk to them about being their characters. Never, ever, about the meaning of the scene. I don't want the actors overladen with research, so they grow stale.

"I love to rehearse when the actors want to, but I never rehearse scenes in the script."

I wrote that down, and then did a double take.

"Then what do you rehearse?" I asked.

"I invent scenes for their characters," Jarmusch said. "It doesn't make sense to lead them through a scene. They have to find their own way. But we can work on the characters. In 'Mystery Train,' Elizabeth Bracco and Steve Buscemi played characters who were related. So we rehearsed some scenes where they appear together, even though in the film they never meet one another. That way when he referred to her, you sensed he knew who she was.

"Forest Whitaker, when we made 'Ghost Dog,' he was Ghost Dog. He was walking around as Ghost Dog, and people who didn't know he was Forest Whitaker, they just related purely and simply to the character.

"Jeffrey Wright was my first idea for Winston. I wrote the role for him. He likes to go over a scene. 'That's fine,' I told him, 'but go over it with someone else. I don't want to be telling you how to do it.'"

In his "Dead Man" (1995), Jarmusch directed Robert Mitchum in his last film. What was that like?

"I have never felt intimidated working with actors ever," he said, "but Mitchum is such an icon. And he does not improvise. One day I wanted him to switch two lines around. 'Change?' he says. 'What do you mean change?' I told him I was sorry. 'Sorry. That's what they said to Gary Gilmore,' he says. But finally, 'all right, all right,' he agrees to it.

"He carried a big shotgun in the movie. I got all of these classic antique shotguns and took them up to his house in Santa Barbara, laid them out on the floor on towels, and told him to pick the one he wanted. He looked them over and said, 'Which one is the lightest?' "

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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