Director Puts Much Value on Tough-Sell Reputation : Movies: Jim Jarmusch calls ambition 'evil' and sticks with his small, personal projects. But overseas he is regarded as a great foreign film maker.

Jim Jarmusch, the writer-director of "Stranger Than Paradise" and the current "Mystery Train," is a film maker with no yen for deals, huge contracts or big egos. "Ambition" he says, "can be very evil."

So he sticks with the small, personal projects that have won him a reputation overseas as an American equivalent of Eric Rohmer or Ingmar Bergman.

Many young film makers would hock body and soul for the chance to sell out. Jarmusch fears it to such an extent that he's erected a whole support system--his own company, his own distribution deals, a network of collaborators--to protect himself from the possibility.

Of all American film makers, he may be the most uncompromising. He shoots on his own terms, on his own time, owns his films--and it's doubtful that a single detail in any of them isn't what he wanted it to be at the time. Yet, this tall Ohioan with prematurely gray hair and the diffident, measured speech of a collegian hipster, strikes you as the least arrogant, most self-critical of artists.

"I don't look at my movies." he says. "I haven't seen 'Down by Law' in two years. I haven't seen 'Stranger' in four."

In countries like France and Japan, Jarmusch is regarded as a great foreign art film maker. Probably more people saw his 1986 "Down By Law" in Paris than in all of the United States, where his work is generally confined to the art-house circuit. It's doubtful that few in the major studios regard him as a "force" or a "player," which is fine with him.

"I have a very simple rule about people I work with or deal with. The rule is this: All the business stuff is there so that I can make films. As soon as someone's orientation--and it's very easy to find out--is that the film is there to serve the business, then I don't want to get mixed up with them."

Although Jarmusch shows the American landscape and its people with unusual clarity and vision, he dislikes most conventional American studio products and has no desire to be a part of making them. "I can't get interested in characters that have the kinds of motivations you see in most movies today: sex, revenge, making a lot of money. I don't want to make stories like that. I would feel like a traitor to myself."

He says the kind of characters that do interest him often spring from personal relationships.

"It would be very hard for me to write a script and then go out and try to find the characters." Jarmusch says. "In 'Mystery,' as in the past, I started with actors I wanted to write for. . . . It was the most complicated film to write and execute. Part of the reason it's in three sections is that I had so many actors or people I had in mind to make characters for. I wasn't sure how to fit them into one story. "

One newcomer, Yuki Kudoh, playing a beguiling Japanese tourist who worships Elvis, was spotted by Jarmusch in "The Crazy Family." Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the vintage rocker who plays the arcade's desk clerk, was a friend. Cinque Lee, the Arcade's bellhop, is the younger brother of Jarmusch's longtime friend and ex-NYU college mate Spike Lee. Joe Strummer, the morose Elvis look-alike, was the lead singer of Jarmusch's favorite '80s rock group, the Clash. Tom Waits--"L.A.'s best poet," in Jarmusch's opinion--is in "Mystery Train" as a mellow radio dee-jay, spinning early Elvis and Roy Orbison hits.

"Screamin' Jay, I met after 'Stranger Than Paradise,' " Jarmusch says. "At that time, I think he was living in a trailer in New Jersey, with no phone. We became really good friends . . . and I said to him, 'If I wrote a character for you, would you act in a film?' And he said, 'You mean, as me: Screamin' Jay Hawkins?' And I said, 'No. Screamin' Jay Hawkins as a character in the film.' And he said, 'Well, I don't know. That sounds kinda odd. But, Jim, if you call me, I'll be there. I'll do whatever you want.' I didn't take him seriously at first, but he's really a man of his word."

With the cast in place, Jarmusch deepened the characters. "With more time and money, I was able to rehearse a lot of scenes that were not in the script. I would start the characters way, way back--like the Japanese couple. We rehearsed their first meeting, their first date, the first time they held hands, their first kiss. . . . I started really wide like that, let them improvise and slowly brought them to my dialogue.

"In a way, the situations I put my characters in are so mundane. They're like the spaces between what most films contain: Dramatic moment B to C. I'm more interested in what happened between those two moments. It's those little spaces between the dramatic moments that interest me most.

"Most people think a good story is based on conflict." Jarmusch says wryly. "But, in my stories, the characters aren't really aware of any conflict. . . . There's no psychological setup. The story begins in the middle of their journeys. In the end, they continue. . . . The characters are always the center. I have to fall in love with them. . . . I can't even figuratively, at the end, have the curtain close and the story tied up, because, to me, that would be like killing them. 'It's over; go home.'

"I don't want them to be dead. I want them still out there somewhere, still going off somewhere, continuing."

"Mystery Train" is playing at the Balboa Cinema, 709 E. Balboa Blvd., Newport Beach. Show times today: 7 and 9:15 p.m. Information: (714) 675-3570.

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