If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a polar ice cap rapidly melts in the Arctic and no one is around to see it, does climate change exist?
The answer to both is a booming yes, if you believe scientists and writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s new movie, The Dead Don’t Die, opening in San Francisco on Friday.
In the timely horror-comedy, starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA, Selena Gomez, and Tom Waits, whether the residents of the fictional small town of Centerville are alert to climate change or have their heads buried in more trivial phone notification alerts — the environmental destruction continues.
As many of these characters are going about their days, eating meat, wasting water and power, and driving to and from work, the polar fracking to the north, much covered by Centerville’s local news, is further polluting our environment and even awakening a horde of flesh-eating zombies. But will the townspeople even notice, if they’re glued to their phones, ordering their next Amazon delivery?
SF Weekly spoke to Sevigny — who plays Officer Mindy Morrison, one of three small-town cops tasked with saving the town from a zombie apocalypse — and RZA, who plays Dean, a “WuPS” delivery driver (perhaps one of the biggest environmental offenders in the film), about Jarmusch’s genius, the enduring appeal of zombie films and the end of the world as they know it.
You’ve both worked with Jim Jarmusch for years. How did you first meet him?
RZA: In 1998, Jim was looking for me to score Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. A great guy named Nemo was our same pharmacist and he brought Jim over to my office. He told me about the movie and his idea and he brought me on board to be a composer and we’ve been friends ever since.
Chloë Sevigny: He approached me about doing the 2002 short film project Ten Minutes Older, about an actress in a trailer in her downtime, because he liked me and wanted to work with me.
What excites you about working with him?
RZA: When I first met him, my independent game was kind of weak, so I studied a couple of his films to get where his head was at creatively.
I loved Down by Law, of course, but it was the movie Dead Man that really resonated with me as far as how he expresses his art through film. And after Dead Man, I remember calling him back and saying, “Yo, wow, I love what you do.” I became a big fan after that movie.
CS: I’m such a fan. I saw Down by Law when I was a freshman in high school — my cool senior friend showed it to me — and it just turned my world upside down as far as cinema was concerned. It was like, “Wow, movies can be like this?” And I have been a fan of his ever since.
There have been so many zombie movies and TV shows in the past 10 years. What appeals to you about the zombie genre?
RZA: The zombie genre, for me, picks up in the ‘80s with [writer-director] George A. Romero and all his movies. I always thought they reflected the society of their times.
This particular movie that Jim is doing is an apocalyptic satire about us becoming a zombie shell of ourselves through our habits. There is the person who is hooked on coffee every morning to start or the person who needs the glass of Chardonnay every night to unwind or the guy who just delivers the packages every day like clockwork.
CS: When you can’t rely on televisions, phones, and radios to survive, you’re reminded of a time before technology took over. Remember that one day when Instagram broke down? I remember thinking, “Oh, my G-d, we’re all free.” [Laughs]
How do you keep yourself from getting sucked in by your habits?
RZA: Fortunately for me, I’ve been blessed to express my art in multiple media, whether I’m onstage in front of an audience, writing a book, scoring a movie, or directing. So I’ve been blessed with enough excitement in my life that there are no habits.
But I can’t deny the convenience of [ordering things from your smartphone]. I ran out of underwear and the next day my wife had a whole box waiting for me. But the problem of it is that now that this device is in our hands, no one looks at the beautiful landscape. They’re not in outer space or inner space, but in cyberspace — and they’re missing it all.
CS: With the phone, I try to leave it at home sometimes when I’m running around and I keep it on silent so I’m not looking at it every time it goes off. That drives my friends, especially my family, insane because I don’t answer the phone when they call. So, for me, it’s putting it away, not having it next to the bed, and being conscious of how much I look at it.
With my shopping addiction, it’s purely vintage, so I don’t think it’s that bad of a habit. But I will go six months here and there not buying anything at all. I’m trying to find other ways to fill the void.
It’s like I’m going on a date and need a new dress to feel sexy or pretty, but can I find something else? Why do I need that? So I’m trying to examine that in myself.
In The Dead Don’t Die, every deceased person comes back as a zombie, engaging in the hobby they loved most when they lived. What would that thing be for you?
RZA: I would probably be that guy with his family in the house watching movies, which is not a bad thing. If I have pizza, some movies, and my family, I’m dying to repeat it.
CS: Probably chasing young men looking for sex. If you want a G-rated version, it would be to have a vintage clothing addiction, which I admit to, but I probably would still be looking for sex.
Do you think about the end of the world? Is this something that worries you?
RZA: No, actually it doesn’t worry me in that capacity. I have a different perspective on it. The end of the world is the day you die, man. That’s it. It’s the day each individual dies because it’s spinning, man.
My wife’s grandmother Betty passed away, and she was one of the last people that passed away in the last two years that really hurt our hearts. We were so heartbroken, because of Grandma Betty, wow. She made it to 88, so we were grateful, but we wanted her all the way.
I get the call in New York that I had to fly back to L.A. for the funeral and after I landed I realized that L.A. traffic is still the same. The point being, nothing changed. The only thing that changed is in her and our lives. Everyone else was on about their business.
One thing we have to understand, though, is that the infinite part of my life is in your life. That’s why The Dead Don’t Die title excited me. It’s poetry — and the poetry of it is that they don’t. Onstage, [Wu-Tang Clan] has the YDB, Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s son, and he has the crowd going crazy just like his father. And the audience is singing the words, “Yo, hut one, hut two, hut three, hut! Ol’ Dirty Bastard, live and uncut,” and it was like he was right there. So in that capacity of art, creativity, and passing on your genetics to your children, there’s always a chance of life.
CS: I’m trying to stay optimistic and hope we can turn it around in some way. It’s very hard, but in my life, I’m trying to do as much as I can. Of course, I’m flying in planes all the time and all of that outweighs all my composting and trying to not use single-use plastics, but garbage and my carbon footprint give me untold anxiety. It’s paralyzing me and I even have to talk to my therapist about it.
Of course, I think that the only way to change it is having initiatives and having the government changing things, which doesn’t seem very likely. But we’ve got to get out there and promote and vote for representatives who are concerned with that.
The Dead Don’t Die opens on Friday, June 14, at the Kabuki 8 and Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema.