Old MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Familiar FLOWERS: Screenwriter Accuses Jarmusch of Theft

The Boston Globe has an interview with New York University instructor and screenwriter Reed Martin, who believes that Jim Jarmusch lifted his idea–his whole screenplay–for BROKEN FLOWERS (2005).
Reporter Joseph P. Kahn gives Martin an uncritical hearing of the charge that Jarmusch saw his screenplay, which was being circulated by an agent, and used it to write his own. Of course there’s money involved: Jarmusch scored a $40 million hit with this road movie about an emotionally closed-off man (Bill Murray) who learns that he might have fathered a now-grown son with one of four ex-girlfriends.

“Virtually all the film’s characters, scenes and sequencing were his creation, or slight variations thereof, Martin concluded, from the ex-girlfriend who talks to cats to the pink envelope that propels [Bill] Murray’s odyssey. There were differences, to be sure, but there were more than enough similarities to convince Martin that he had been wronged.”
The Globe story also uses a few quotes from Jarmusch (from interviews done when he was promoting his film) that would paint the filmmaker as one with a casual view of “borrowing” material. “Nothing is original,” Jarmusch wrote in MovieMaker magazine. “Steal from anywhere that resonates from inspiration…And don’t bother concealing your thievery–celebrate it if you feel like it.”
Hang on a minute: Jarmusch was talking about being inspired by classic films–he told me in a 2005 interview that he’s addicted to Turner Classic Movies, where he caught THE PRIVATE LIFE OF DON JUAN (1934)–one of the movies that helped him write Broken Flowers. (Murray’s character is seen watching a clip from the Douglas Fairbanks movie early in the film.)
What Reed Martin–and the Globe story–don’t mention is that the basic plot of Broken Flowers (a man revisits long-ago lovers to discover a secret about his past) is not an uncommon one. Wim Wenders‘ DON’T COME KNOCKING, which also debuted at the Cannes 2005 festival, had Sam Shepard learning that he was the father of not one but two grown children. Even those critics who noted the similar plots remarked on the distinct differences between the movies. For each director, a screenplay is a framework. Though the two directors share some sensibilities, a Jarmusch film won’t be mistaken for a Wenders film. Neil LaBute’s play SOME GIRL(S) has a soon-to-be married guy in his thirties taking a road trip (or memory trip) to meet his old lovers–in the playwright’s distinctly scabrous style.
And those are just three in the last twelve months. Martin’s copyright-infringement claim will eventually be sorted out by those who can do close readings of both screenplays. I hope someone involved is a TCM viewer–and that they’ve seen a few Douglas Fairbanks swashbucklers and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, the original missive-melodrama movie.

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5 Responses to “Familiar FLOWERS: Screenwriter Accuses Jarmusch of Theft”

  1. Josh Boelter says:

    Heck, the plot is remarkably similar to High Fidelity (sans the question about a son), but I don’t hear Nick Hornby bitching. There’s a reason an idea isn’t copyrightable. Ideas are easy. Execution is what makes those ideas stand apart from each other. How many modern books and films steal their plots from Jane Austen or William Shakespeare? But does anyone really confuse Bridget Jones’s Diary with an Austen novel? Of course, Jane is dead, so she can’t file a lawsuit.

  2. High Fidelity!
    How could I forget? That’s the bestselling book that started two huge trends: lad lit and the plot of “guy revisits several former lovers.”
    Josh, the name of your web site is so borderline nasty I had to check it out. And I had to click on “Kangaroo Porn.” Twisted! I love it.

  3. Bob Jacobson says:

    Methinks you protesteth too much in Jim’s behalf. Living in LA, with a treatment of my own in circulation, I’m well aware of how much thievery goes on. Let’s hope our hero’s not involved.
    An attorney friend, one of those high-powered Hollywood film guys, recently announced at a luncheon I attended that a certain prominent film studio regularly engages in optioning properties for nada, puts them on the shelf, and then has its own writers rewrite the material so that it’s “clean.”
    BTW, he reports, the executive in charge has transported this practice to the Internet, where his portal buys others’ creative material on the cheap and then extracts a healthy margin.
    It’s all legal…almost.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon