It’s precisely this preoccupation with art over commerce that attracted him to Only Lovers Left Alive, the new Jim Jarmusch vampire love story which screens on October 10 and 12 at the New York Film Festival. In it, Yelchin plays a Detroit record-store clerk who befriends a centuries-old vampire, and although he doesn’t have as much to do as co-stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, there was no way Yelchin was going to pass up the chance to work with the legendary Jarmusch. Here, the incredibly well-spoken Yelchin discusses working with one of his idols, the miracle of filmmaking, and going to whorehouses with Friedrich Nietzsche
What was shooting in Detroit like?
"It's interesting. I got there around July 4, and was cruising around when I started to hear this music. My character’s involved in the music scene there, so I went to this barbecue. There were all these garage bands playing, like Danny & The Darleans. I ended up meeting a lot of kids who were in the music scene there — specifically this guy named Scott Dunkerley. Everything he said about Detroit, and his awareness of the city's history — right now, there's a negative sense about the city. All of these kids had this desire to prove that that wasn't the case, that yes, Detroit is dying. But what's the point in saying that if you're not going to do anything about it? That really affected how I thought about my character. It allowed me to figure out who I wanted him to be on the inside. All the fieldwork helped me understand who he was and where he was coming from, and why he had such affection for Adam because Adam was this ray of hope for him."
What did you know about Jim Jarmusch before you met him?
"I had seen all of Jim's films before we started working."
So, what happens when someone like that approaches you?
"It's just incredible. I was so honored to even get the chance to speak with him."
And now you're texting with him.
"Yeah, it's insane to me."
What was your first meeting with him like?
"I spoke with Jim on the phone first, actually. He explained the movie, and told me to read the script and tell him what I thought. I met him in Detroit, and all I remember is that we were texting, and I was worrying I was texting him too much."
Were there any strange habits Jim had on set?
"I feel like Jim himself is a uniquely magical human being and filmmaker. His films are his films. That's what's so incredible about working with him. You get to experience that. If you love movies, to be able to be on Jim Jarmusch's set is really incredible."
You've dabbled in filmmaking before. When you work with someone like Jarmusch, are you studying his process with the hopes that it might inform yours?
"I always feel that when you meet someone who is really incredible, who's in your pantheon of filmmakers you respect, you study everything they do. I really tend to think the great filmmakers are the great thinkers. What you're really studying is their philosophy on things, you know? That, then, informs your own. I think that, like Adam's wall of heroes, it's the same thing. All those people — whether they're filmmakers, musicians, writers, poets — they're great thinkers. When you have the privilege of being around one of history's great thinkers, you soak it all in."
Do you ever marvel at the fact that Jim has been able to get so many small, personal movies made in such a difficult climate?
"It's really baffling to think about someone who has made so many fantastic films. Unfortunately, the film industry is a gamble for funding. The movies that get money are the movies that will return on the investment in the biggest way. It's irrespective of quality, and when you read about Max Horkheimer and Adorno talking about the film industry in the '40s, you'll learn the truth, the real value of what's being said is irrelevant. What's important is the actual business investment people make. It's obvious why it's difficult for filmmakers looking to make special films because their return investment isn't necessarily great."
So does the creative energy change on set between when you make something like Star Trek, which is for the masses, and when you make something like this, a smaller audience film?
"No. I mean, filmmaking is a lunatic collective endeavor that's always extremely difficult. It's a really bizarre thing to take on. To try and make a film with a collective of people trying to achieve something that will last forever, or however long it lasts, is a crazy idea. The best film I've seen comment on that is Beware of a Holy Whore, a Fassbinder movie that talks about all the collective emotions, all the collective mood swings, and that's the case on every set. The hair and makeup trailer is dramatic, the grip department is stoic. It's a hilarious, beautiful, sad, weird thing."
Do you believe in the kind of eternal love that exists between Adam and Eve? Do you think we're meant to be with just one person?
"I don't know. You know, I haven't really considered the film from that perspective. I believe that there are kind of mystical energies that unify all the beings on this earth and universe. There is a distinct mysticism to existence that I believe in personally. I think we try to build things to protect ourselves from knowing how confusing it really is. We build buildings, roads, and in the past 200 years, we've tried to structure life as best as possible to avoid the unknown, but it's always there. And yet, there's moments of truth and intimacy and beauty amongst creatures that exist."
This film spans various time periods. Is there a specific moment in time you romanticize?
"I try not to. I really try not to. I think there have always been fucked up, awful things happening. Then there have always been moments between people that no one will ever know about that were probably very intimate and beautiful for that time. But there have been atrocities committed by mankind in every century."
The film opens with Eve hanging out with Chris Marlowe. Is there an artist or someone you would grab a drink with?
"There's so many. I would love to have been around Walter Benjamin in the '30s. I would love to have met the pre-syphilitic Nietzsche. It would have been interesting to hang out with Byron and Keats."
Do you think you could hold your own with Nietzsche?
"I don't know! It's interesting because maybe if I had read what I read earlier now, I could go back in time and have an educated dialogue. We probably would end up at a whorehouse together. It might be fun."
Are you still taking photos?
"I try to. I don't have a lot of time. I don't really like social media, but I have a Tumblr. In a way, I understand Adam's thing of wanting to put something out there to see what happens, but I'm not exactly sure why. It's some trip of the ego that's probably unnecessary, but it freaks me out. I take photos all the time."
What do you see when you shoot? What merits a good photo?
"It's funny. My photography influences run a wide range. Cinema is a big influence on me. I love Ralph Eugene Meatyard and the Magnum photographers. We have a social responsibility to admit that photography has not just a superficial value, but some ability to document reality to make some politicized statement. It's also important to not overvalue photography as some tool. I like taking pictures of moments I experience, but not in the Nan Goldin way of documenting my life, but documenting creatures of the night I meet. I try to capture that one moment. I also like to take pictures of mundane objects. I've found that photography has become this William Eggleston x Nan Goldin hybrid. I sometimes worry I move in that direction, so I work against it. I'd rather my photos look shitty and bland because there's so much superficially beautiful photography that's all the same."
Does meaning have to be attached to every photo?
"I think we have a social responsibility when we know that there is a system at play trying to strip everything of social responsibility. I think we have to be aware that each photograph is a space of meaning, and in our culture, every space of meaning has a price tag on it. You have to be aware of that. You can't just sell meaning to people. The Internet will glorify you. Nan Goldin was trying to document a social happening, but suddenly that's fashionable. It was about her documenting her friends that were struggling with addictions. We now have stripped it of its social reality. I don't like things becoming fashionable. I like considering space and place and meaning."
Speaking of place, is Southern California a unique place for you to shoot?
"Yeah, I grew up there. I love The Valley. I feel like The Valley shares a lot with Detroit other than the fact that The Valley isn't bankrupt. There's a desolation in The Valley where you know that time has definitely passed. All along the Boulevard, there are these motels that people would stay at because it had something to do with traveling. Those motels are now hooker motels. You definitely see time moving there. People are contracting spaces with meaning, but time keeps going."
What's the one thing your career has given you that you cherish the most?
"Probably the opportunity to meet really extraordinary people. Jim, I really can't stress how grateful I was to meet him. I'm truly grateful to have met these people who have informed my life. I love what I do. I'm very grateful to be working."
Is there anything it has robbed you from that you wish you could have back?
"No, not at all. It's enriched my life tremendously."