Riley Stearns (Faults) Talks Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive

Watching this richly musical vampire movie is like lying on your bedroom floor with headphones on, listening to a great record for the first time.

Over the first two weeks of January, Talkhouse Film is running the “What We Missed” series, comprising pieces on notable movies from 2014 which were not previously covered, (almost) all of which were released prior to the launch of this site. — N.D.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a film that watches like listening to music. I’ve seen it twice now and though I liked it even more the second time around, there was something about watching it that first time that gave me the same sensation I used to feel lying on the carpeted floor of my childhood bedroom with my big over-the-ear headphones on, listening from start to finish to a new album I’d just bought. In fact, as I write up this “talk,” I’ve got a pair of over-the-ear headphones on, listening to the score for the Only Lovers Left Alive. Instead of laying on the floor, though, I’m sitting on the couch because I’m an adult now and I don’t have the back of a 16-year-old. The soundtrack, written and performed in part by director Jim Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, is such an integral part of Only Lovers Left Alive that as I listen to it I can’t help but see images of the film in my head. In that same way, I feel like I’m able to visualize the droney, sludgy, feedbacking guitars and the sleepy drums because they were recorded with a slow-motion camera in 35 mm. Unlike other films, where the music seems like a separate entity or an afterthought, here both parts are entwined. I’d rather not separate the two parts from each other… so I won’t.

Track 2: “Funnel of Love”
What’s so great about this song is that it sets the pace and tone for the film to come. We spin towards two people, separated physically but connected to each other in every other way. The song is the cinematic representation of this and it gives me chills how well it works.

Track 8: “Streets of Tangier”
Jozef van Wissem picks the strings on his lute in such a way that I will never not associate the city of Tangier with this song, and Morocco should probably just make it their national anthem. The song takes us to the other side of the world but the backing accompaniment of SQÜRL lets us know that Eve (Tilda Swinton) is still connected to Adam (Tom Hiddleston). Adam and Eve, get it?

Track 1: “Streets of Detroit”
You couldn’t set Only Lovers Left Alive in any city other than Detroit. There’s a perfect quietness that hangs in the entirely nighttime air of the film that only Detroit could offer. Its rich history of music and current post-apocalyptic qualities marry so well with the self-imposed isolation musician Adam desires that it’s easy to see how he settled on it as his home. The scene in which the camera tilts up from the parking lot to reveal it was once an ornate theater is one of the most beautifully sad bits of film of the year.

Track 3: “Sola Gratia, Pt. 1”
Continuing with the pairing of van Wissem and SQÜRL, connecting Adam and Eve, this song plays over the scene that lets you know you’re watching a vampire film. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention earlier that Adam and Eve are vampires. Thankfully, Only Lovers Left Alive doesn’t use vampires as a gimmick. It takes a very human look at what it would be like to be in love with someone when you live more than a thousand years. Adam and Eve have been living apart from each other for an unknown amount of time (at least as I recall it). Years? Decades? What I love about this is that these are two people who are still very much in love and yet they choose to live in different parts of the world. I love this. I know married couples who can’t stand to be around each other for more than a couple hours and here is this couple that has been married for over 200 years. Of course, they would take a decade away from each other here and there! And yet, every time they feed they both touch a piece of jewelry that connects them. I don’t care if they’re vampires, that’s as human as it gets.

Track 7: “Spooky Action at a Distance”
Not only is this a great song, but again, the scene that it plays with is, in a way, a great song too. Adam has just video-chatted with Eve, something even vampires do, and he immediately begins recording a new song. It starts quietly, still melancholic and downtempo. But as each instrument is put to tape and the tracks begin to swim over each other in the mix, the song becomes something more. It builds in energy and feels strangely optimistic, especially for suicidal Adam. The images on screen begin overlapping each other more and more with each additional instrument Adam records. Shots of Eve spinning from overhead blend seamlessly with a shot of the reel-to-reel tape the song is being laid down to, which blends with shots of Adam recording barefoot in his living room. Everything we watch feels like it’s a part of the music. Again, it’s all connected.

Track 4: “The Taste of Blood”
This is the song of the film for me. Please do yourself a favor and just purchase the soundtrack, even if you haven’t seen the film. Your listening experience will definitely be more fulfilling having watched the film first.

Only Lovers Left Alive may be a musical film but my favorite scene in the film is near the end when Adam and Eve, together in Tangier, sick with hunger, sit on a bench and contemplate their mortality and their entwined relationship. This scene plays without music and it’s perfect without it. Out of clean blood and slowly dying, they watch as a young couple walk into the moonlight and begin to kiss, almost as if they’re an offering from the universe. Adam and Eve basically say, “Fuck it,” and “In Templum Dei” sneaks back in. The music has returned. They will live on.

Riley Stearns is the writer/director of Faults (SXSW 2014) and the short The Cub (Sundance 2013). He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Mary and his dogs Didy and Ambrosius. You can visit his website here.