How Jim Jarmusch Made an All-Star Indie Zombie Movie

The writer-director Jim Jarmusch is not a zombie buff “as much as a vampire appreciator,” he said. (See: his 2014 film “Only Lovers Left Alive.”) But he does genuflect at the altar of George A. Romero, whose oeuvre inspired Jarmusch’s latest, “The Dead Don’t Die,” a self-aware dark zombie comedy. It features a cast of Jarmusch all-stars, led by Bill Murray, Adam Driver and Chloë Sevigny as small-town cops, along with Tilda Swinton as a samurai-wielding Scottish mortician. Iggy Pop is a shirtless zombie and Tom Waits is the extravagantly bearded Hermit Bob.

There are Jarmusch friends in unexpected roles, like Steve Buscemi as a hateful farmer, and the Wu-Tang Clan rapper and composer RZA as a delivery driver for “WuPS,” plus newcomers like Luka Sabbat and Selena Gomez, who was dodging paparazzi during the shoot in upstate New York. Much of the ensemble was on set only briefly, but spent nearly three hours daily in the makeup chair to be transformed into flesh-eating ghouls who moan about the things that obsessed them in life. (Ambien, Siri, chardonnay.)

Production was coordinated around Driver’s schedule for “Star Wars.” Jarmusch said that between the budget constraints and the new-to-him special effects, “it was the roughest film I’ve had to make.”

That made him extra grateful for the camaraderie of his cast and crew. “Not even knowing if you’ll be able to make this thing, and then you suddenly are there with Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray and whoever,” he said, “it’s just kind of a magical and amazing thing.”

Here, his cool-kid cast reflects on how he pulled it off.

Recruiting His All-Stars

CHLOË SEVIGNY He doesn’t do email. He sent me some snail mail saying he had written a ridiculous zombie movie and wanted to know if I wanted to read it. This was two years ago. Of course I accepted the part without even reading it, but I said I would, just to do my due diligence.

RZA Jim sent a very eloquent letter, in his own handwriting. He starts his letters off very cordial — Peace, Abbot. He calls me Abbot.

JIM JARMUSCH I asked Tilda before I even wrote the script — I said, “If you were in a small town in America as a foreign person, in a zombie thing, what kind of profession would you like to have?” And she said, “Oh, a mortician.” I said, “Bingo! You got it!”

I wish she was the queen of the world, because I would do whatever she said. We’d live in an incredible world.

STEVE BUSCEMI I hadn’t worked with him in like 30 years. We did “Mystery Train” [1989] and I was in “Coffee and Cigarettes” [2003] — I actually filmed it the day after we finished “Mystery Train,” so he just held on to it. But we became good friends. We’d just be hanging out, and he’d tell me what he was working on, and on this one he said he had a part for me.

SELENA GOMEZ We had a meeting to discuss the film. I am sure he wanted to see if we would vibe before offering me a role. Jim mentioned his daughter was a fan of mine, which was very sweet.

JARMUSCH It’s true that I’m listening to avant-garde jazz, experimental music, underground hip-hop, 15th-century British polyphonic music. But I have one ear open to current pop music, and Selena is quite amazing, particularly “Bad Liar,” “It Ain’t Me” and “Wolves.” I thought of her as an actor when I saw her in “Spring Breakers.” I respect her, too; she’s a role model for a lot of young people.

IGGY POP We’re sitting in the Lincoln Center dining room, waiting to host a screening of “Gimme Danger” [Jarmusch’s 2016 documentary about Pop’s career with the Stooges]. He says: “I’ve got this movie I’m making. I want you to play a coffee zombie.” And I said, “Yeah, O.K., whatever you want.”

I mean, it’s like stage diving. A little voice was going, this sounds really weird. But he’s asking you to do it, just say you’ll do it. I thought it was just going to be this little cameo. Suddenly I was in the trailer with all these great actors. I’m getting emails from my friends from high school going, “You’re in a Bill Murray zombie movie, wow! How cool is that!”

JARMUSCH I wrote a part for Daniel Craig, who I love. And he said, “Jim, I got 10 days, and they are yours, but that’s the only thing I have all summer.” Those were the only days when I had Adam, who I had to shoot every day. So I just took [Craig’s] character out of the script, because I didn’t want to do it at all [if he couldn’t]. I probably had too many characters anyway. But that was my only disappointment.

Directing the Undead

SEVIGNY I went to [Jarmusch’s] office and went through the script. I think he might have referred to her as kind of a scream queen. He was slightly apologetic that she wasn’t the feminist force of the movie. I was willing to play that, but I was nervous acting alongside [Driver and Murray], knowing they were doing the deadpan thing, and knowing their stature and that I had to be really dramatic in between them. I was afraid I was going to look like an idiot. But I liked the tenderness in the end between us.

JARMUSCH Adam’s very focused, and Bill loves direction.

BUSCEMI [My character’s] this racist guy. I don’t think I would do that part for just anybody, but there’s something about Jim’s work where I felt like he wouldn’t just be two-dimensional. I’m not trying to make the guy sympathetic, but I think he operates out of a place of fear.

SEVIGNY It was pretty interesting to watch [Swinton and Jarmusch] working. He was testing her, and she was having fun finding the right tone of just odd enough. They were really riffing off each other. I think she got more takes than any of us, because you could tell he just enjoyed watching her work.

JARMUSCH [For Iggy Pop’s long-dead character], I said O.K., in 1973, you were coming back from a Blue Oyster Cult concert on a motorcycle, and you had an accident and you died. Iggy’s like, “Cool, I got it.”

POP I was actually part of a triple bill at the Palladium in 1973 that was Blue Oyster Cult, Stooges and Kiss.

Dressing the Part

POP The makeup is, they’re hovering over you with these latex guns, shooting this weird latex all over your body. They would spray this cold spray to make it set and you’d shiver, and then you’d get hot because your skin can’t breathe. They just cover the costume in grunge and filth, and there’s filth in your hair, in your ears, giant contact lenses in your eyes. Because you’re a flesh-eating zombie, there’s guys constantly coming up between takes [to] squirt zombie grunge into your mouth and wipe it on your gums. The first time that I had to get down on my knees and eat [another character’s] guts [laughing], I did not want to do that. I wanted to do it intellectually, but I had a dry heave. After that, I got into it.

And I did get a free William Murray golf shirt out of the experience. I don’t play a lot of golf but it’s an amazing shirt, and I wear it around Miami here; I fit right in. It’s polyester.

Yes, There Are Bill Murray Stories

JARMUSCH The inimitable Bill Murray. We had a lot of rain, and we’d have to stop [shooting]. So Bill had Adam and Chloë [in their cop uniforms] in that police car, and he just drove off with them. For about an hour.

ADAM DRIVER We didn’t tell anybody. He was like, “Do you have any phones?” No. “Do you have any money?” Nope. He was like, “Well, we don’t really have a lot of gas, either.”

We had no map, [except] one of those tourist maps with drawings, like in Disney World. He was like, “I think I remember this farm stand.” So we went.

He turned on the lights. We got out, as if we were cops.

SEVIGNY I was like, we’re going to get arrested. And then we go in and get all this bounty on an I.O.U.

DRIVER He just said, “Do you mind if we get some stuff, and we’ll pay you back?” When they saw the lights, they were confused, but once they saw Bill, it was all fine. I don’t think they knew who Chloë and I were — we were just his backup.

And then we miraculously found our way back to where we were shooting. I feel like everyone was like, let’s pretend that didn’t happen.

SEVIGNY The producers were furious.

JARMUSCH That’s typical Bill Murray. You can be shooting, he will stop and walk into someone’s house that you have nothing to do with, and come out a half-hour later with a plate of cookies. And you’ll say, Bill, what the hell did you do? “Eh, I just went in there.” And what did they do? “Well, they were eating breakfast and they just said, ‘Hey, you’re Bill Murray!’ Look, they gave me these cookies for the crew.”

He’s not controllable, so I’ve never tried to control him. He’s just Bill Murray.

The Jarmusch Vibe

SEVIGNY I don’t want to say chill but — there’s an ease.

POP Everybody’s just sort of having a nice time hanging out at this strange cemetery. A lot of directors that I’ve worked for, they tend to be really hyped up and you feel their nerves. That’s not the case with him. He never really forgets to be personal.

BUSCEMI I think he’s truly interested in character and behavior, and not so much plot — there’s always a good story, but the characters drive the story rather than the other way. That’s Jim’s timing. He’s a very thoughtful person, and he’s very smart and he’s very funny; his movies are like him.

RZA If you take a look at his body of work, you will see how many people he’s pioneered in the business. Why am I even talking to you? It’s because Jim Jarmusch gave me a job as a composer [on the 1999 film “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”], and that sparked a whole other world for me, and that’s before me and Mr. [Quentin] Tarantino got together.

DRIVER The reason everybody kind of drops things to work with him is — he’s an example of, you can be true to your convictions and still make something. You can know what to compromise on and what not to. What’s the most authentic, what’s truthful, his way of working — he’ll never compromise that.

But at the same time, he’s one of the most unpretentious people. He always used to say on [the 2016 film] “Paterson,” “We have to get it right, because dozens of people watch my movies.”

Melena Ryzik is a roving culture reporter and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. She covered Oscar season for five years, and has also been a national correspondent in San Francisco and the mid-Atlantic states. @melenar

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