Thursday, May 29, 2008

The long and winding road: A conversation with independent film producer Jim Stark

Jim Stark occupies the unlikely position of independent film producer. Originally from Ohio, he’s based in Manhattan, though most of his contacts are in Europe, South America or Asia. He’s helped some of the landmark indie films of the 1980s get made and get seen. Most recently he produced and co-wrote the Charles Bukowski adaptation Factotum, a movie about a guy who accepts and abandons a seemingly endless string of jobs. I spoke with Stark on behalf of Vue Weekly about his own string of jobs, the many roles he’s inhabited in a career of making the sort of movies that, as Stark says, “no one makes for the money.”

Vue Weekly: Your film career begins with Jim Jarmusch’s early features. Did you guys know each other from Ohio?

Jim Stark: No, I was a corporate lawyer in New York and had met his girlfriend Sara Driver, who’s also a filmmaker. She approached me, and I got involved in
Stranger Than Paradise, which starred my 86-year-old grandmother, among other people. She plays Aunt Lotte. Some people think she steals the movie.

VW: Had you been practicing law long?

JS: About four or five years, doing mostly corporate litigation, trademark, contracts, intellectual property stuff. Jim and Sara needed help on this movie and they couldn’t afford to pay anybody. The last person Jim wanted to meet was a corporate lawyer, but we were both from Ohio, both Indians fans. We got along well and worked on the film together for a couple of years, which turned into a surprising success. He made some others I was involved in—
Down By Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth—and then made somewhat bigger films, where I wanted to stay doing what I was doing. I’ve worked with a number of different directors since.

VW: Did you always have aspirations to work in film?

JS: I took film classes as a teenager. I was very interested in European films, much more than American films. I spent a week at USC until I realized that, at that point, there was no use in getting a film degree. So I returned to New York and went to law school.

VW: Once into film, were you happy producing or hoping to be involved more creatively?

JS: I enjoyed being involved in the process of making movies, particularly starting at the beginning. Some I’ve had more creative involvement in, some less. I had a tiny bit of creative involvement in
Stranger and Down By Law, but as time went on Jim insisted that he make all the creative decisions. With other directors, I’ve been more involved in terms of casting, editing or, in a couple of cases, writing. My entrée into this was through being able to organize things and get the money, push the project through to completion, which is often the hardest part.

VW: Cold Fever was your first screenplay. How did that come about?

Mystery Train was invited to the Reykjavík Film Festival. Jim, not being a big Festival guy, didn’t want to go, but I’d always been fascinated by Iceland, so we asked if they’d invite the producer. They would have taken the gaffer, because not so many people come up to Iceland, so off I went. The airport’s about 40 minutes outside Reykjavík, and the landscape is this sort of unbelievable moonscape of lava fields. I’d never seen anything like it. For somebody who does road movies, it was like a billion dollars in free production design. By the time I got into town I really wanted to make a movie there. I’d enjoyed working with Masatoshi Nagase on Mystery Train and somehow these two ideas got entwined in my head: I thought, I’m going to do a movie about a Japanese guy who comes to Iceland and goes on the road! Anyway, I had a good experience collaborating with Fridrik Fridriksson, but that was my only writing experience until I met Bent Hamer, who already had this idea to film Charles Bukowski’s Factotum.

VW: The novel’s quite episodic. Was it an arduous adaptation?

JS: The biggest challenge was to give the film multiple layers. When you read the book, it’s just full of ironic observations; if you take away the descriptions, and just show what’s going on, you don’t get a feeling for this man’s keen intelligence. That’s why we inserted the poetry, which is largely from sources other than

VW: What about updating the novel from the ‘40s to the present?

JS: It’s funny. I had people telling me nobody drinks anymore, it should be about drugs. Well, these people don’t get out much. I remember the last night we were shooting in a rooming house, and as I was sitting on this very decrepit furniture in the hall, these people would come out, use the communal toilet and go back into their tiny rooms, living very much the life Bukowski was describing. When we took a break, somebody came in and stole all our liquor bottles.

VW: The sense of alcoholism and loneliness is addressed quite differently in Factotum than it is in Barfly (the 1987 film written by Bukowski). I wonder if that doesn’t have something to do with Hamer being from Norway, where alcoholism is less veiled in the culture.

JS: Probably. I drink very little, but Bent, as you pointed out, comes from a society where drinking’s very much the norm. He was fascinated from the beginning about alcoholism and what it takes to stay there, the work involved.

VW: Did Bukowski’s concerns resonate with you?

JS: I was very admiring of his style. I wasn’t as attracted to the lifestyle, as many fans of his are. Neither Bent nor I were Bukowski fanatics, and I’ve run into a bunch of those since we started with this. We had our own take on it. For me, what was most interesting was this need of Bukowski’s to reject all of the trappings of bourgeois society, not to have a house, not to have a job, not to have a relationship, because all of these things will interfere with and cheapen your art, that to be a real artist means to be an outsider.

Factotum premiered in spring 2005, finally opened in US theatres in autumn 2006, and, as we speak, is still making the rounds. Is it draining to sit through this protracted process of watching a film get distributed?

JS: Well, people think that everything that happens in a movie happens on the set, but that’s not making the movie. It’s the year or two or more before, the script, the casting, pre-production, financing. Then a year of post-production, editing, sound, all the technical work to get a finished print. Then it circulates for a year, year-and-a-half, sometimes more. Canada’s not the last country. I think they’re waiting for
Factotum in Japan. Then there’s licensing, DVD, and later re-licensing ... it goes on forever. But it’s always been this way. It’s just a little harder now. You just have to get out there, try and get people to see it, to be interested in it, because no one’s going to do it for you. 

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