Jim Jarmusch Biography

Director, Filmmaker (1953–)
Jim Jarmusch is an independent film director known for such works as Down by Law, Dead Man, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Only Lovers Left Alive.


Jim Jarmusch was born in Ohio on January 22, 1953. He started his college experience at Northwestern University before heading to Columbia and then NYU's prestigious film school. His first feature film, Stranger Than Paradise (1984), put the young filmmaker on the map and established Jarmusch as new voice in cinema. He soon followed with Down by Law (1986) and Mystery Train (1989), films that would solidify both Jarmusch's style and place in the independent film world. Later films such as Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog (1999), Broken Flowers (2005) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) would show a new diversity in Jarmusch's work, but his style has always very much been his own.

Background and Education

Jim Jarmusch was born in Cuyahoga Fallas, Ohio, near Akron, on January 22, 1953. Following in his mother’s journalistic footsteps, in 1972 Jarmusch enrolled in the School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 1970, although he transferred the following year to Columbia University to focus on literature. There he studied under some heavyweights in New York’s circle of avant-garde poets and began to write short, abstract works of his own.

The World of Film

In 1976, Jarmusch was accepted to New York University’s graduate film program, where he became a teaching assistant to Nicholas Ray, the director of such films as Johnny Guitar and Rebel without a Cause. He also worked as a production assistant on Wim Wenders’ documentary about Ray’s last years, Lightning Over Water. It was this experience that led Jarmusch to pursue filmmaking as an art form and career.

In spring 1979, Jarmusch used money from a fellowship grant earmarked for his tuition to shoot his student film, titled Permanent Vacation. The film was finished in 1980 but did little to establish Jarmusch’s reputation (and it did less toward impressing his NYU administrators, who denied Jarmusch his degree).

Early Features

In 1981, Jarmusch started writing the screenplay for The New World, a short film. The project was made possible by Wenders and producer Chris Sievernich, who gave Jarmusch about 40 minutes of raw film. Jarmusch shot the short over a weekend and ended up with a 30-minute film, which he later developed into his first feature, Stranger Than Paradise. The longer version went to the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, where Jarmusch won the prestigious Camera d’Or for best first feature film. The exposure led to critical praise, and Jarmusch was the new unofficial spokesman for the indie film world.

Jarmusch followed Stranger Than Paradise with Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991), the last of which broke Jarmusch tradition by using bona fide movie stars Roberto Benigni, Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder—a trend that would continue in Jarmusch’s next string of films.

'Ghost Dog' and 'Broken Flowers'

In 1995, Jarmusch set out on a filmmaking path that produced vastly different movies, beginning with that year's Dead Man, a western starring Johnny Depp. Next up came Year of the Horse (1997), a documentary about Neil Young, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), which focuses on an African-American hitman, played by Forest Whitaker, who follows the way of the ancient Samurai. The film was Jarmusch’s most successful venture at the box office at the time.

Since Ghost Dog, Jarmusch has made four feature films, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control (2009) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Flowers, starring Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright and Sharon Stone, became a modest box office hit, earning more than $46 million worldwide. 

Never one to wander into familiar territory, in 2014 Jarmusch started working on a documentary film about the band Iggy and the Stooges.

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