Up in Smoke

How Jim Jarmusch turned 11 shorts into one long laugh over Coffee.

Worth the price of admission: RZA, GZA, and - "Billmurray."
Worth the price of admission: RZA, GZA, and "Billmurray."
It might as well be an episode out of his new film: Over coffee and cigarettes, one man talks about his fascination with fungi, while another nods, listens, and offers the occasional and obligatory Uh-hunh, wow, hmm, that's crazy, man. "I'm really into fungi -- not just edible ones, but just the whole idea of what they are," says the white-haired man in black clothes. He's revving up; the motor's running hot. "Their DNA is closer to animals' than plants'. They're not plants. They're not animals. I could go on forever." And he could. He's not lying. "There's this new theory called 'panspermia,' of life being able to travel through the universe, but only in the form of spores, which only are fungi. So we don't know where the hell they come from. I believe, as do some of the leading mycologists, that they are a form of intelligence." There's more. But not now.

The setting is a historic hotel lobby in downtown Austin, Texas; hence the cowboy sculptures and cattle-brand carpeting. The man talking about mushrooms is Akron native Jim Jarmusch, maker of the new movie Coffee and Cigarettes, in which people drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and could go on forever about the things with which they're obsessed -- say, the inventions of Nikola Tesla or the relationship between rock music and alternative medicine. The movie is a compendium of short films made over the last 18 years, and Jarmusch says he will keep making them; you wonder whether he's not still rolling at this very moment, as the mushroom monologue sustains its momentum: The actual organism is mycelium, which is underground and is a threadlike network similar to neurons . . .

No one will come away from Coffee and Cigarettes proclaiming it one of Jarmusch's more significant films. It's no Down by Law or Stranger Than Paradise or Mystery Train or Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, among his miniature masterpieces about marginalized people living tiny lives on the gritty fringes of society. It is, rather, a giddy and occasionally contemplative collection of conceptual pieces in which famous people play abstract versions of themselves; they're just versions of themselves. Hence you get Bill Murray as a waiter serving coffee to Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA, Cate Blanchett as her glamorous self arguing with Cate Blanchett as her grunged-out cousin, White Stripes Meg and Jack White discussing Tesla, Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan trying to befriend and one-up each other, and Tom Waits misinterpreting Iggy Pop's small talk as insults.

"It was like making a record album," Jarmusch says of the film, whose first jittery segment out of 11, starring Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright, debuted on Saturday Night Live in 1986. Initially the shorts were larks to be licensed to interested parties -- not pieces of a larger whole. Yet the more he made, the more he realized that they came together like puzzle pieces with intersecting themes (fame, obsessions, dislike, medicine) and overlapping dialogue, and in January 2003, Jarmusch shot five in a few days.

"It was fun, because I had a script I'd written that I decided I didn't like," he says. "I liked the skeleton, but I didn't like the way it looked with flesh on it. I'd been starting to raise money for it, and I just didn't wanna do that film. I thought, 'Oh, man, I gotta write another script, it's gonna be another year, and I gotta shoot something. But I do have these Coffee and Cigarettes [films], so I just went out and put 'em together. It was good for me. A relief. There's no pressure."

The movie's more fun than filling -- an iced cappuccino, topped with a little whipped cream, if you must. It's a gas to listen to RZA and GZA refer to Bill Murray only as "Bill Murray," as though his name is Billmurray; it's a joy to listen to a gruff Waits riff about medicine to a goofy, wide-eyed, starstruck Pop; it's a grin to hear Molina explain to a disinterested Coogan how they might be distant, distant cousins. Jarmusch wrote most of the segments, often a day or two before shooting, but allowed the actors to contribute, giving Coffee and Cigarettes the vibe of a late-night improv project fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and the desire to crack up the guy across the table or behind the camera.

"They love playing an abstraction of themselves," Jarmusch says of his cast. "The night before we shot, Cate and I went over the script, and she added a few things. In the script her cousin says, 'Oh, I saw you in one of those horrible tabloids.' And in the script, Cate just said, 'Oh, how awful.' But Cate said, 'Can I add in, "Oh, how awful. What was I wearing?"' She said, 'I do that all the time. My friends will say they saw this picture of me in the Enquirer, and I will ask them if I looked good.'

"And Tom probably doesn't appreciate me repeating this over and over, but Tom was under a lot of stress when we did that one . . . He came in two hours late. Iggy and I are sitting there, and he walks in and throws the script on the table and says, 'Well, Jim, you said this was supposed to be funny, so maybe you'd better just circle the jokes in there, 'cause I didn't see any.' And Iggy's like, 'Uh, I'm just gonna go outside and get some air and let you guys talk.' Tom was really in a bad mood. We talked, he calmed down, but we kept that side of Tom being defensive. It could have almost been the other way, if Iggy had been in a bad mood that way. I've seen Iggy slam a guy up against the wall in a bathroom once, freak on him, but Iggy was in a really generous mood, and Tom was pressured, so we kept that. Tom understood that. I said, 'Let's keep that energy in you, Tom.' So he did that whole defensive thing: 'What are you saying? The drumming on my records sucks?' And it worked."