Down by Law (1986)

R | 107 mins | Comedy | 20 September 1986

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HISTORY

       The first name of actor Elliott Keener is misspelled “Elliot.”
       A 4 Oct 1985 BAM news item, which announced the release of actor-musician Tom Waits’s latest album, “Rain Dogs,” stated that the performer was scheduled to relocate to New Orleans, LA, in late Nov 1985 to begin filming the role of “Zack,” in the “tentatively called” production, Down By Law. Two songs from Waits’s LP, “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore,” were featured in the Down By Law soundtrack. In addition, the film’s producer and distributor, Island Pictures, was the theatrical division of Island Records, Inc., the company that released “Rain Dogs.” A 26 Feb 1986 Var article noted that Down By Law was the first Island Pictures production after ending its corporate partnership with Alive Enterprises in 1985.
       According to various contemporary sources, including the 26 Feb 1986 Var article, writer-director Jim Jarmusch was deluged with offers from Hollywood studios after the release of his critically-acclaimed, second theatrically-released feature film, Stranger Than Paradise (1984, see entry), but he decided to remain independent. As stated in studio production notes in AMPAS library files, first-time feature film producer, Alan Kleinberg, agreed to work with Jarmusch on Down By Law before the script was written, because the men collaborated so well together on a 1985 music video for the song “The Lady Don’t Mind” by the band the Talking Heads.
       After Jarmusch started writing his Stranger Than Paradise follow-up “sketch of something,” featuring Tom Waits and fellow actor-musician John Lurie, he met comedian ... More Less

       The first name of actor Elliott Keener is misspelled “Elliot.”
       A 4 Oct 1985 BAM news item, which announced the release of actor-musician Tom Waits’s latest album, “Rain Dogs,” stated that the performer was scheduled to relocate to New Orleans, LA, in late Nov 1985 to begin filming the role of “Zack,” in the “tentatively called” production, Down By Law. Two songs from Waits’s LP, “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore,” were featured in the Down By Law soundtrack. In addition, the film’s producer and distributor, Island Pictures, was the theatrical division of Island Records, Inc., the company that released “Rain Dogs.” A 26 Feb 1986 Var article noted that Down By Law was the first Island Pictures production after ending its corporate partnership with Alive Enterprises in 1985.
       According to various contemporary sources, including the 26 Feb 1986 Var article, writer-director Jim Jarmusch was deluged with offers from Hollywood studios after the release of his critically-acclaimed, second theatrically-released feature film, Stranger Than Paradise (1984, see entry), but he decided to remain independent. As stated in studio production notes in AMPAS library files, first-time feature film producer, Alan Kleinberg, agreed to work with Jarmusch on Down By Law before the script was written, because the men collaborated so well together on a 1985 music video for the song “The Lady Don’t Mind” by the band the Talking Heads.
       After Jarmusch started writing his Stranger Than Paradise follow-up “sketch of something,” featuring Tom Waits and fellow actor-musician John Lurie, he met comedian Roberto Benigni while traveling in Italy, and decided to make him the film’s “central character.” Jarmusch wrote his first treatment of Down By Law in Rome, Italy, where he was able to confirm Benigni’s casting. Island Pictures later agreed to finance the film.
       Production notes reported that Jarmusch had never visited New Orleans or its surrounding bayous before writing the film, so he based his script on Tennessee Williams’ plays, pulp fiction, 1930s and 1940s crime films, and Rhythm and Blues music, originated in New Orleans. While scouting locations, Jarmusch listened to Tom Waits’s songs and later claimed that they determined both the development of the script, as well as the scenes’ rhythmic tempo. Conversely, John Lurie, who was known at the time for his band, the Lounge Lizards, scored Down By Law during post-production.
       By the week of 18 Nov 1985, Benigni was on his way to New Orleans, joining Waits and Lurie for his first feature film performance in the U.S., according to a 13 Nov 1985 Var brief. While production notes stated that principal photography was completed in six weeks, from Nov 1985 to Jan 1986 with several breaks due to illnesses, DV production charts published on 10 Jan 1986 reported that filming began on 5 Dec 1985, and the 26 Feb 1986 Var stated that the $2 million production ended in late Dec 1985. Production notes listed an exact cost of $1,030,000.
       After starting principal photography in New Orleans for the “first two-thirds” of the production, the filmmakers moved to bayou swamps, one hour’s drive from the city. The location of “Luigi’s Tin Top” restaurant was filmed in MS, just across the border from LA. As stated in production notes, Jarmusch and director of photography Robby Müller shot the picture with fine-grained stock film to accentuate gray tones, and used a single 25mm lens for most of the production. The filmmakers also excluded point of view shots, cutaways, and inserts. In addition, they sought to create a balance between the horizontal, landscape panoramas of Western films with the vertical, urban landscapes of crime pictures. According to Jarmusch, he asked the actors to “push the edges of the frame,” thereby stretching the composition, while Müller concentrated on “getting as deep a focus as possible.”
       At the end of Feb 1986, the picture was in post-production, as stated in the 26 Feb 1986 Var, with a release date scheduled for Jul 1986. However, its first U.S. screening at the sold-out, New York Film Festival opening night premiere, was not until 19 Sep 1986. The Nov 1986 Box review reported $50,000 in box-office receipts during its first two weeks of release in New York City.
       According to production notes and the 29 Sep 1986 New Republic review, the film’s title is a reference to a colloquialism used in 1920s African American culture, when blacks migrated North from Southern states. The phrase “down by law” described the assimilation of recent arrivals: when blacks became confident about their way around town and possessed newfound “control” of their lives, they were considered “down by law.” Although the term later fell out of fashion, it was adapted into prison slang, where “down by law” came to mean that an individual is trusted to become part of a gang.

      End credits are preceded by the statement: “This film is dedicated to Pascale Ogier and Enzo Ungari.” Credits also include the following acknowledgements: “Black and White by Du Art, special thanks to Don Donigi, Phil Sodano, Irwin Young”; “Special thanks to Bill Nisselson, Guy Spera”; “Special thanks to, in Louisiana: Claudia Normann, Robert Anderson, Bob Burnaman, Steve Sullivan, Barbara Hoover, Angelo, Julie Purcell and Melvin Pukowsky, Paul Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours, The Bayou Plaza Hotel, Kenwood Spring Water: The Official Drinking Water, Paretti Imports, Inc., and Delta Airlines. In New York: Matt Danowski, Tom Krueger, Daniel Joseph Dee, Cindy Belew, Simon Brook, Ruedi Hoffmann, and Paco De Zela. Lister International Travel. And our friends at Broadway Video.” The list is proceeded by another group of acknowledgements, “And Marijke and Nina, Kathleen, Robert, Rudy, June, Solveg and Wim, Pascale Dauman, Jim and Danielle Sotet.” End credits conclude with the statement: “’Down By Law’ was filmed entirely on location in Louisiana with the assistance of Mr. Phil Seifert and the Louisiana Film Commission.”
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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
BAM
4 Oct 1985.
---
Box Office
Nov 1986.
---
Daily Variety
10 Jan 1986.
---
Daily Variety
21 May 1986
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
19 May 1986
p. 8.
Los Angeles Times
3 Oct 1986
p. 1, 19.
New Republic
29 Sep 1986
p. 24.
New York Times
19 Sep 1986
p. 21.
Variety
13 Nov 1985.
---
Variety
26 Feb 1986.
---
Variety
21 May 1986
p. 28.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
Island Pictures presents
A Black Snake/Grokenberger Films production
A film by Jim Jarmusch
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Co-prod
Co-prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
Key grip
Best boy
Best boy/Gaffer
Swing grip/Elec
Projectionist
Arriflex Camera and Zeiss Lenses
Available lighting
FILM EDITORS
Asst film ed
Apprentice film ed
Negative matcher
SET DECORATORS
Set dresser/Prop master
Asst props & sets
COSTUMES
Cost
Cost asst
MUSIC
Songs by
Guitar, Soundtrack mus
Percussion, Soundtrack mus
Trumpet and banjo, Soundtrack mus
Trombone, Soundtrack mus
Drums, Soundtrack mus
Percussion, Soundtrack mus
Acoustic bass, Soundtrack mus
Cello, Soundtrack mus
Mus rec and mixed by
at Sound Ideas
Addl rec by
at B.C. Studio
Mus coord
SOUND
Sd mixer
Boom op
Supv sd ed
Sd ed
1st asst sd ed
Apprentice sd ed
2d asst sd ed
Spec thanks
Spec thanks
VISUAL EFFECTS
Titles
MAKEUP
Make up/Hair
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod coord/Auditor
Prod troubleshooter
Unit mgr/Loc
Scr supv
Asst to prod
Prod controller
Addl casting
Asst coord/Casting asst
New York office coord
Asst loc mgr
Loc asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Intern
Post prod
Independent studios
COLOR PERSONNEL
Black and white by
Spec thanks [Du Art]
Spec thanks [Du Art]
Spec thanks [Du Art]
Col timer
SOURCES
SONGS
"Jockey Full Of Bourbon," "Tango Till They're Sore," written and performed by Tom Waits, from his "Rain Dogs" album, courtesy of Island Records, Inc.
"It's Raining," written by Naomi Neville, performed by Irma Thomas, used by permission of CBS Unart Catalog, Inc. and Jefferson Jazz, Inc.
DETAILS
Release Date:
20 September 1986
Premiere Information:
New York Film Festival screening: 19 September 1986
New York opening: 20 September 1986
Los Angeles opening: 3 October 1986
Production Date:
began late-November or 5 December 1985 in New Orleans, LA
Copyright Claimant:
Black Snake, Inc.
Copyright Date:
24 February 1987
Copyright Number:
PA333699
Physical Properties:
Sound
Sound One Corp.
Black and White
Black and White by Du Art
Lenses
Arriflex Camera and Zeiss Lenses by Otto Nemenz Int. Inc.
Duration(in mins):
107
MPAA Rating:
R
Countries:
Germany, United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In New Orleans, Louisiana, a radio disc jockey named Zack is berated by his girl friend, Laurette. She warns that Zack is sabotaging his future by refusing to defer to his superiors at work, and complains that he treats her poorly. Leaving her behind, Zack saunters down the street that is littered with music albums Laurette threw out her window. Elsewhere, a prostitute berates her pimp, Jack Romano, claiming he cannot live in the present. Just then, a hustler named Fatso telephones, asking for a meeting, and Jack grudgingly agrees. Fatso apologizes for a previous betrayal, asks to leave the incident in the past, and offers him the “gift” of a new, nineteen-year-old prostitute. Although Jack suspects a hidden agenda, he agrees to see the girl at a hotel room. There, Jack falls into a trap when he offers the girl work. Accosted by police, Jack defends himself, claiming the girl is his lover, not a prostitute. However, she rises from the bed and reveals herself to be pre-adolescent, making Jack guilty of pedophilia as well as sex trafficking. Meanwhile, an intoxicated Zack is greeted by Roberto, an Italian tourist who says in awkward English, “It is sad and beautiful world.” Just then, Zack is confronted by a gangster, who offers him $1000 to steal a Jaguar automobile and drive it across town. Zack performs his duty but is pulled over by police, who find a dead man in the car trunk. Sometime later, Zack and Jack are both found guilty of crimes they did not commit and share an Orleans Parish Prison cell. Although both ... +


In New Orleans, Louisiana, a radio disc jockey named Zack is berated by his girl friend, Laurette. She warns that Zack is sabotaging his future by refusing to defer to his superiors at work, and complains that he treats her poorly. Leaving her behind, Zack saunters down the street that is littered with music albums Laurette threw out her window. Elsewhere, a prostitute berates her pimp, Jack Romano, claiming he cannot live in the present. Just then, a hustler named Fatso telephones, asking for a meeting, and Jack grudgingly agrees. Fatso apologizes for a previous betrayal, asks to leave the incident in the past, and offers him the “gift” of a new, nineteen-year-old prostitute. Although Jack suspects a hidden agenda, he agrees to see the girl at a hotel room. There, Jack falls into a trap when he offers the girl work. Accosted by police, Jack defends himself, claiming the girl is his lover, not a prostitute. However, she rises from the bed and reveals herself to be pre-adolescent, making Jack guilty of pedophilia as well as sex trafficking. Meanwhile, an intoxicated Zack is greeted by Roberto, an Italian tourist who says in awkward English, “It is sad and beautiful world.” Just then, Zack is confronted by a gangster, who offers him $1000 to steal a Jaguar automobile and drive it across town. Zack performs his duty but is pulled over by police, who find a dead man in the car trunk. Sometime later, Zack and Jack are both found guilty of crimes they did not commit and share an Orleans Parish Prison cell. Although both are victims of set-ups, they refuse to be friends. As days pass, the men reveal their stories, and Jack is impressed that he is sharing a cell with popular radio personality, “Lee Baby Simms,” Zack’s alias. In the coming days, the two men brawl, leaving each other bruised and angry, but they are joined by Roberto, whose knowledge of English consists of colloquial phrases he collects in a notepad. Months later, Roberto steals charcoal from the sleeping Zack and draws a “window” on the wall. When he later learns that both Jack and Zack consider themselves innocent, Roberto admits to killing a man in self-defense during a card game. Although he was cheating, he claims to be a “good egg,” not a criminal. Sometime later, the men play poker, wagering cigarettes they are unable to smoke because lighters are prohibited in the cell. Pulling out his notepad, Roberto begins to chant “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” and the neighboring prisoners sing along. Later still, Roberto suggests he and his cellmates plan an escape. During a routine walk, the three men break away through an aqueduct. Outside, they are chased by dogs into a bayou. At a riverbed, Jack and Zack insist on swimming across, but Roberto is unable to swim and calls for help as they leave him behind. However, Zack returns and pulls the Italian across the river. As the fugitives reunite, Zack warns the area is full of alligators and snakes. Days go by and the men traipse through the bayou to come across an empty, ransacked cabin that resembles their prison cell. Zack proposes they steal the cabin’s boat and cross the border into Mississippi, but Roberto suggests they head toward Texas. The next day, they row aimlessly through the swamp, but the boat sinks, leaving them cold and starving. At night, Roberto disappears and Jack suspects the Italian of colluding with Zack to lead them astray. The two men fight, then wander through the woods in separate directions, unaware that Roberto is cooking a rabbit over an open fire. The men eventually reunite and eat the rabbit. In the morning, they continue through fields to a road and randomly choose a direction. Arriving at the secluded “Luigi’s Tintop” restaurant, the men nominate Roberto to go inside first, since they are still wearing their prison uniforms. As Jack and Zack wait outside, they grow impatient and peer through the window to see Roberto dining and flirting with Nicoletta, a beautiful Italian woman. When the fugitives join their friend at the table, Nicoletta explains that the house was given to her as a gift from her deceased uncle, Luigi. He won the cabin in a card game. On the same day, Luigi died and her boyfriend left her, so she decided to immigrate to the remote cabin in the U.S. Isolated and lonely, Nicoletta asks Roberto to remain with her and tells the men that they are near the Texas border. After spending the night at the café, Jack and Zack dress in Luigi’s clothes. Although Roberto intends to stay, Zack and Jack decide to move on in opposite directions, with Zack headed to Los Angeles, California, and Jack to the East Coast. Nicoletta instructs the men that an upcoming fork in the road will lead them on inverse routes, but she does not know the direction of each. As the fugitives walk away carrying knapsacks, they reach the divide and argue about which course the other should take. Exchanging jackets, Zack extends his arm for a handshake, then jokingly recoils and the men go their separate ways, not knowing where they will end up. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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