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Designing Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive"

“We’ve seen all this before,” says Eve (Tilda Swinton) to Adam (Tom Hiddleston) about humanity's latest fall from grace, in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. Happily, the same cannot be said of Marco Bittner Rosser's thrilling set design for this vampire romance set in the 21st century. Refashioning cultural, artistic and architectural styles across the centuries of our couple's enduring marriage, the Berlin-based production designer means to keep us guessing about the decadent pastiches they inhabit.

These days the vampyric twosome prefers to score contraband blood from a hospital than aggress the neck of a stranger. Not only must their O negative fix be certifiably pure and disease-free, but it would no longer do to be so brutish and insensitive. Adam, a musician, is such a fragile soul that he's even contemplating suicide. He and his eternal partner are increasingly at the mercy of human “zombies” who are out to trash civilization's great achievements as well as the natural world.

As we meet these two nocturnal creatures, they live apart -- Eve in the Moroccan port town of Tangier and Adam in the American ghost town of Detroit, Michigan. It's neck-in-neck which of their two haunts is the more seductively dissolute. One thing's certain: neither setting owes a stylistic debt to the Edenic realms portrayed in the canonic Adam and Eve imaginings of Michelangelo, Titian or Rubens. Not even Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights comes close (as seen in photo 1).

With mainstream credits including Inglourious Basterds, V for Vendetta, Bloodrayne: The Third Reich and Hellboy, Bittner Rosser may not be the first set designer we'd expect Jarmusch to tap for his latest artsy foray. Yet, as Bittner Rosser explains in his conversation with, the graphic novel origins of some of the films whose daring sets he has designed embrace an outsider ethos not unlike that of Only Lovers' retro-shadowy undeads.

thalo: How was Adam and Eve's sweeping knowledge of cultural and natural history reflected in the set design?

Marco Bittner Rosser: The set design was a mix of everything. That was the secret of it: to layer the times and references and not get stuck on one specific specific artistic motif. It was to create the sense that in every scene there is something that irritates you and takes you out of the feeling that you know what era you're in. For Adam and Eve and all the vampires, the theme that takes them out of the human cycle is that they have an eternal life. I wanted to visualize this in the production design by always having elements that were extremely old but also aligned next to a remote control so that you're never really sure what or where their roots are across hundreds of years of human history. 

th: What were your references from art history?

MBR: Adam is 500 years old, so we were constantly referring to Rembrandts and Carvaggios, but also to the whole the 60's counterculture. Adam has lived through so many eras that he's ahead of his time, but he's also a bit old-fashioned.

th: How did Carvaggio's dramatic use of chiaroscuro inspire your design, and how did you work with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux on this?

MBR: Yorick and (costume designer) Dina ((Daigeler) and I were working quite closely with Jim in a team effort to create dense images and to always have an air of history crossing over from set design to lighting design to costume design. We talked about Carvaggio and how the light should be captured. In the scene where Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) dies, the lighting was especially inspired by Carvaggio (as seen in photo 2).

th: As with other Jarmusch films, music is a big theme here. How did you visually tune in to references as diverse as Schubert, Thelonious Monk and Jack White, to name but three?

MBR: Jim put together a musical playlist for all of us that sparked a lot of ideas. I often listened to it to get the atmosphere and to get purely inspired. A lot of that music ended up in the film. Listening to the music is kind of like watching the film now, with all the different layers of cultural and musical influence.

th: So we know from the soundtrack and featured performance that you were listening to everything from stoner rock and rockabilly to the garage rock of the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Mid-Eastern fusion of Yasmine Hamdam. How did that translate into Adam's physical surroundings?

MBR: We were trying to mix art history references with real life references. How did rock-n'-roll people from the 60's live? What was their environment? Adam is surrounded by musical instruments that he collected of all the times and loved dearly and moved around the world with. He was particularly influenced by the aesthetics and guitars of the 60's. So there are shades of Rolling Stones studio setups and of (Pink Floyd founder) Syd Barrett along with instruments from that scene (as seen in photo 3).

th: How very British... Did you use any British motifs as an homage to the fact that vampires first appeared in literature in the 1819 poem written by Lord Byron's physician, John Polidori?

MBR: The British rock-'n-roll culture of the 60's figured in because it was the coolest, not because it was British. The idea was to always look for the peak or the best of a particular era, and I don't think national roots played any role in those decisions. There were no specifically British visual elements.

th: Where did the retro-futuristic gizmos come in?

MBR: Adam very much loves the 60's but also the 19th-century technology world of Nikola Tesla and his alternating current machinery. So there's the layer of the musical inspiration and the layer of the technological inspiration. We worked in steampunk design with the electric generator that Adam built himself. The technical wiring is steampunk wiring, but at the same time there are modern elements that are anachronistic, such as the modern record player, so it doesn't have one-layered inspiration.

th: Speaking of inspiration, did you watch any vampire movies?

MBR: Not at all. I didn't look at one vampire movie while we were making this film. These vampires are not the traditional monsters that are scary to human nature. The vampires in this film reflect a certain outlook on humanity and a certain philosophical view of the world. That's what gives the film an interesting depth. So it was their artistic and philosphical development that was more influential for the visual side.

th: Adam's wall is plastered with icons, from William Shakespeare and Mark Twain -- whose The Diaries of Adam and Eve allegedly gave Jarmusch the idea for his characters -- to Buster Keaton and Joe Strummer. How was it decided who got to be featured (as seen in photo 4)?

MBR: The Wall of Fame is Adam's wall of heroes even though he says he doesn't have any heroes. He does. It's very personal, and it's about people who have great importance for Jim. We had a lot of discussions about who would be on the Wall of Fame. There are the great masterminds. Wow! -- these characters really inspired humanity and art and philosophy in the last 500 years. It was a touching moment to see them all come together on one wall. I don't think any of my heroes played out with Jim. I was thinking along the lines of Charles Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, but that also shows that I'm coming from more of an architecture and design background than one of drama or art.

th: Had Eve had a Wall of Fame, who would've been on it?

MBR: Eve goes back to the time of the Druids, more than 3,000 years ago. There's a moment in the film when she refers to the time of the pyramids, though she laughs and says she's not quite that old. But her icons may have been older than Adam's.

th: Eve emitted a glow, however eerie, of reason and intellect. How did you visually reference this?

MBR: Eve is on the light side and Adam is more on the dark side of their relationship. She's softer and the colors of her set were a lot lighter and warmer. Her space was basically white with pinks and yellows; those were the dominant colors. Eve's color palette was intentionally contrasting with the color palette in his space. Her color palette was trying to represent or support the side of her character that was the more enlightened and more positive and reasoned part of their relationship (as seen in photo 5).

th: And what guided Adam's color palette?

MBR: Generally the color palette for Adam was a lot darker. I was trying to put Adam in an old color environment, so he's got a lot of the blues, greens and blacks in his house. In a way I was trying not to be too conceptual about the design, but to take an inspiration and work it in like making a picture. He spends virtually the entire film on his bed and his couch. In significant areas I was using red around the couch and the bed, since that was the cozy and safe space environment. We were also using some reds on the bed and the carpet. The red was used for the color the characters are drawn to (as seen in photo 6).

th: How did the almost neon red of the coveted drinking blood affect your use of red on the set?

MBR: Red is a strong color in the film used for the moments of blood drinking and dripping. We were careful about our use of red so it'd stand out when you see it as blood.

th: How did Tangier and Detroit factor into your design?

MBR: They're both visually and historically inspiring places. Tangier was colonised by pretty much every nation that was in the colonising business, from the Carthaginians to the ancient Greeks and Romans and beyond. They all left their traces in architecture, religion and arts. The kasbah that we used as the exterior for Eve and Marlow's world is a labyrinth you can easily hide or get lost in. Tangier was always of great attraction for artists and writers, tradesmen, spies and smugglers. I took this history, mix of cultures and sense of disorientation as an approach for the interior sets. The fact that there are both very ancient and very modern elements, with details that don't necessarily match, gives an organic and slightly messy ambiance that makes the Tangier sets more of a cave.

Detroit in the film has historical interest for Adam. He loves to go out exploring at night. Detroit was once the second most successful economic metropolis, and within one lifetime it went bankrupt, yet it was still an inspiring place. That's the attraction for Adam, this layering. It's like a plant that blooms and dies; that's what Detroit stands for. I was trying to design a grand home for him in a structure that has seen better days. It shows the grandness of a certain period, but it's overlayered with the decay of time and the period that reflected the downfall of Detroit. We found a very beautiful house that we used for the exterior, but the interiors were built in a studio in Cologne, Germany.

th: Americans might think of Motown, hard rock and cars when thinking about Detroit in its heyday. Coming from Europe, what does it bring up for you?

MBR: I'm a great fan of Detroit. For me it was very touching in that it reminded me of the east side of Berlin -- that sense of decay and the kind of emptiness of Berlin in the 90's, where there was a lot of empty space and unutilized buildings that didn't belong to anyone and that no one was interested in. That inspired an artistic community to use it in creative ways. I found this as well in the street art in Detroit and in the bars and clubs that had an amazing sense about them. I think it's got a lot of great potential.

th: What were you flagging with the parking lot set under the Michigan Theater ceiling?

MBR: The Michigan Theater is an amazing location that tells the story of Detroit in one image. It tells of the layering of history presented in one building. Before it was a theater it housed Henry Ford’s first garage. I found the fact that you see this parking lot with this Renaissance-style theater above depressing and beautiful at the same time. It's depressing that something so beautiful could be used for something so banal, but that in some sense has beauty itself.

th: How did you weave your past experience into the set design of Only Lovers Left Alive, and what was different about working with Jarmusch? 

MBR: I've worked on a lot of films that have a graphic novel background to the script. So I tried to use my past experience on films like Hellboy where the production design was kind of bold. I'm not a typical arthouse production designer, but I was trying to find a good balance and mix with the production design on this film. As a script this film suggests a lot of freedom for visual development. I was very touched to be able to work with Jim. He's one of my absolute heroes. Every one of his films is so different. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him.

Photo credits:

Photo 1: Left to right: Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in "Only Lovers Left Alive." Photo by Gordon A. Timpen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 2: Left to right: Tilda Swinton as Eve and John Hurt as Marlowe Adam in "Only Lovers Left Alive." Photo by Sandro Kopp, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 3: Left to right: Tom Hiddleston as Adam and Anton Yelchin as "Zombie" Ian in "Only Lovers Left Alive." Photo by Gordon A. Timpen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 4: Tom Hiddleston as Adam Ian in "Only Lovers Left Alive." Photo by Sandro Kopp, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 5: Tilda Swinton as Eve in "Only Lovers Left Alive." Photo by Sandro Kopp, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 6: Left to right: Tilda Swinton as Eve and Tom Hiddleston as Adam in "Only Lovers Left Alive." Photo by Gordon A. Timpen, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Photo 7: Marco Bittner Rosser on the set of "Only Lovers Left Alive." Photo courtesy of Marco Bittner Rosser