Bill Murray on the Catskills set of "The Dead Don't Die." Photo by Harold Goldberg
Jim Jarmusch directs Bill Murray and Larry Fessenden on the set of "The Dead Don't Die." Photo by Harold Goldberg
By Harold Goldberg
If it's not the weekend, the Catskills Mountain towns along Route 28 are bucolic places full of swallowtail butterflies and pesky young beavers seeking private ponds to make their twiggy dams and mate. Maybe the towns' peaceful weekday nature is why Jim Jarmusch decided to begin filming "The Dead Don't Die" in the quiet hamlet of Fleischmanns, a town of 325 named after yeast makers from the late 1800s. While dozens of films have been shot in the Catskills region beginning in 1921 with a silent version of "Rip Van Winkle," the zombie comedy starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Selena Gomez, Daniel Craig and Chloe Sevigny features the most star-studded ensemble cast ever to film in the area Washington Irving once described as a "dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family ... swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country."
A month before filming commenced, I listened to a picky eater/retired investor
at J. Rocco's Steakhouse in Shandaken as he bragged about helping to scout locations for a new zombie movie. "I do a lot of films," he said as if he were the primary creator. Then he focused his attention on the long-suffering bartender. "Why are you always out of Brussels sprouts?" he asked.
On that day of filming, a loquacious older adult at a morning exercise class in the Pine Hill Community Center complained about the crew taking up all of the La Cabana Restaurant and Bar parking lot in Fleischmann's. "I said to them, 'If you're taking up the whole parking lot, why don't you put me in the movie?'"
It was a topic, too, at Wendy Brackman's studio, where eight meticulous
women artists sat around a table, cutting pieces of mens ties into a varied quilt for a Baltimore museum exhibition called "The Ties That Bind." "I wish Bill Murray would show up at the Colonial Inn in Pine Hill so I could buy him a drink," said Gail Freund. "(It) has more ambiance and character than anything an art director could come up with...I wonder if they need any middle age zombies."
At the Delaware Court Motel parking lot in Fleischmanns, Jim Jarmusch, clad in signature black, directed Adam Driver in his role as a bespectacled police officer and Bill Murray, presumably the local sheriff, who conversed with actor Larry Fessenden, perhaps about the imminent zombie invasion. A swallowtail butterfly flitted near Murray as, across the street, a passel of townspeople watched. A family of Hasidic Jews wheeled their baby by, glancing at the set briefly, but not stopping. A few others casually stood in the shade of a building, transfixed. On the curb, Helen Pfeffer, a college professor, took brief videos of the scene when a PA, waving his arms frantically, ran over and asked her to delete them "because they could go viral." She said she had no intention of posting them anywhere, and
wouldn't delete them. "You can't film in a public space and expect to control what the public does there," she said.
Murray glowed about the movie in an interview with Philly.com in March, saying "Jim Jarmusch has written a zombie script that’s so hilarious and it has a cast of great actors. It’s titled The Dead Don’t Die, and it shoots over the summer. But, no, I will not play a zombie." Set in the fictional town of Centerville, the movie is being described as a companion to Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive," his 2013 vampire film nominated for a Cannes Palme D'or and starring Tilda Swinton.
In one scene shot that day, Selena Gomez' boyfriend, played Austin Butler ("Arrow," "The Carrie Diaries") has been mauled viciously by a zombie. His throat looked bloody, congealed, all bitten up. In the scene I watched, a town resident (actor Larry Fessenden in a white t-shirt) was interrogated about the invasion by Driver and Murray, both clad in cop uniforms. After the questioning ended, Murray walked around his police vehicle to get in on the driver's side and Jarmusch yelled, "Cut." Then, they did the scene over and over again. Not present for that particular piece of the puzzle were the other actors in the cast: Daniel Craig, Chloe Sevigny, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi and Rosie Perez.
Later at Oakley's Wood Fired Pizza in Arkville, a high school age dishwasher looked glum. He produced a photo a friend had texted to him from the set. It featured Selena Gomez in blue shorts and a bloodied red shirt. The millennial bemoaned his current fate. "I'm here working while Selena Gomez is in Fleischmann's." He shook his head and disappeared into the kitchen. The bartender laughed, and observed, "There's always people walking in the street at night in Fleischmanns, so it's pretty zombie-like in that way."
According to The Catskill Mountain News, "The Dead Don't Die" will continue shooting in the Catskills for approximately five more weeks. The butterflies, beavers and mid-street night strollers are expected to remain long after filming is completed.
Photo by Helen Pfeffer.
Photo by Harold Goldberg.