"My process really began in film school after a former classmate of mine finished his first film a year out of NYU - when Jim Jarmusch released Stranger Than Paradise. Here was someone I knew, someone who went to the same school that I did, who now had a hit film. I worked in the equipment room as a TA and I had checked equipment out to him, and here was someone who had an international hit. To me, that was when it first became do-able. I owe a great deal to Jim Jarmusch. He showed me and everyone at NYU that we could do this."
Outside of the closeknit world of New York’s independent film scene, maverick director Jim Jarmusch is little-known in America. A former classmate of Spike Lee, a protégé of Wim Wenders, an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, the tall, toe-headed Jarmusch is an easily recognizable figure, if he were to be recognized.
He isn’t terribly prolific. He has made only twelve films in the last eighteen years, four of them shorts, one of them a concert film of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1995 tour. What he lacks in quantity, he more than makes up for in quality. Jarmusch’s films are immediately distinguishable for his unique sense of pacing, his quirky characterizations, his anti-humor sense of humor and his use of rock-and-roll musicians as actors, underrated character actors and New York stage actors. He has introduced the world to several talented players, including Roberto Begnini, and his films have earned the highest honors. And yet, Jarmusch remains a shadow figure.
His latest effort, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, starring Forest Whitaker as an urban samurai seeking vengeance against an Italian crime family, contains all of Jarmusch’s tell-tale cinematic flourishes. However, with its gangsta themes and a terrific soundtrack by the RZA, Ghost Dog may be the Jarmusch film with the biggest crossover appeal.
I sat down with Jarmusch to discuss his influences, his quirks and casting a linebacker as a samurai.
You have one of the most unique signatures in filmmaking in terms of your perspectives and sensibilities. Where does that come from?
I’m not very good at describing it, because I’m not very self-analytical. I know that for me, in my own life, since I was young, the things just subjectively--the things like art or literature or movies or music--the things that attracted me were not mainstream things. The things that spoke to me were more in the margins. And so I think that formed a lot of my tastes, the subjects of my films and even the way I make them. There’s a place for the mainstream and you know my place is not there. And it’s not even something I calculated. I didn’t decide, “I will be marginal.” It’s where my stuff takes me.
But where and when were you first exposed to things that were in the margin?
When I was about 14, this one kid, a friend of mine, when his older brother wasn’t home, we’d go in his room and find books by William S. Burroughs, records by Ornette Coleman, The Mothers of Invention. And we’d go, like, “Wow, there’s a lot of weird stuff outside of Akron.” And so that was sort of a beginning for me.
You grew up in Akron?
Akron, Ohio. It’s very industrial. Everyone’s father worked for a rubber company, including my Father, who worked for BF Goodrich. My uncle, Goodyear Aerospace; my neighbor, Firestone; my other neighbor, UniRoyal.
Was there anyone in your family who shared your attraction for the margin?
My grandmother on my mother’s side and my mother was, is a writer and, was, in fact, the film reviewer for the Akron Beacon-Journal before she married my father. So she also wrote about movies, too. She was a very creative and imaginative person. Her mother, my grandmother, also was incredibly drawn towards artistic things. She didn’t have money, so she found a Rembrandt painting reproduced in a magazine. She cut it out and framed it, you know. So I learned a lot from her, as well.
She was also very interested in the Native American culture, so since I was very young, we used to go together to see the Indian mounds in southern Ohio, the burial mounds. We used to go into the woods and search for arrowheads. You know, to me it was like a magical thing. So I got a lot of inspiration from that side of my family.
How did New York become your home?
Well, at seventeen, I left, I went to Chicago for one year. I studied at Northwestern, the McGill School of Journalism. After a year, I was asked to leave there. I wasn’t studying any journalism, and I didn’t take any of the journalism courses. I was taking literature and art history and they said, “I don’t think this is the right school for you.” So then I transferred to Columbia in New York and studied literature.
How did a degree in literature lead to NYU film school?
I went to graduate film school on a whim, because I had never made a film and I had no money and I was working as a musician. I got accepted to the school with financial aid, so I said, “What the hell. I’ll try this.”
Were you successful in film school?
My third year I was given the Louie B. Mayer Award. Louie B. Mayer the man who was responsible for destroying Erich von Stroheim’s brilliant, Greed. The money was sent to me directly, rather than to the school for my tuition, so I used it to make a film and I didn’t get a degree and they didn’t like the film I made. It was called Permanent Vacation. Years later, they gave me a degree, though.
There always seems to be one form or another of religiosity in your films. Do you subscribe to a particular doctrine?
I’m drawn very much by Eastern philosophies and aboriginal philosophies. I was raised as a Christian and I don’t find Christianity very interesting because, although it’s interesting iconographically and mythologically, I don’t like the idea of punishment and reward in the afterlife based on your behavior. And also I don’t like the straight line theory--you’re born, you live, you die--it’s a straight line. I like philosophies that are cyclical, circular. It’s not by accident to that all the bodies we see in the heavens, the universe are spheres. They’re not cubes, you know. So there’s something in all of us. We are part of one thing, whatever it is. And so I’m really interested in those philosophies.
I became interested in aboriginal stuff from when I was very, very small, being with my grandmother, getting interested in Native American culture. Eastern culture started probably as a teenager by loving to watch marital arts films. And in the martial arts films, there’s always some element of philosophy that led me to get my interest deepened through them. And that led me to classical Japanese Cinema, reading books about Zen. It’s sort of an ongoing thing. I’m just drawn towards those things. I’m not a Buddhist. I don’t practice specifically any particular religion, although I’m very receptive to those philosophies.
Those philosophies are apparent in Ghost Dog and Dead Man, but how do they manifest themselves in your other works?
Well, I would say that even in my earliest films like, Strangers In Paradise, there’s definitely a very… there’s some influence of Japanese Cinema--stylistically--a kind of attempt to remain pure.
In Ghost Dog, you have two best friends who don’t speak the same language? Where did that idea come from?
I don’t know where it came from. I wanted to make two characters, who were believably best friends, who would do anything for each other. And then I thought, “What’s the most basic form of communication? Language. And what if you take that away? How can I still make them best friends?” And then it sort of circularly ended up that they do understand each other without knowing that they do. They don’t realize that they just said the same thing. They don’t know that.
How do you cast someone to speak a different language?
I try to imagine. I usually write for specific actors for the main characters. In this case, I wrote for Forest and Isaach de Bankole. I wrote for those two and I worked with Isaach before, and he’s really a wonderful actor and a good friend, so that was easy to visualize. And the other actors I cast after the film was written, and then I looked for qualities where I think we could collaborate and make a character that would be stronger than either one of us doing alone. All actors are different, so you have to work with each actor in a totally different way. You have to find that way. Anyone that thinks there’s one way to direct all actors is not real sharp.
What was there about Forest that made you think he’s Ghost Dog?
Well, a lot of things. I mean, I started off wanting to make this character that was contradictory. That was violent, but that everybody would respect. And then my next step was “Who can I imagine having that contradiction?” And it was Forest. Because Forest is very big and strong physically and centered, but he’s also very soft and gentle and quiet and so that was really perfect for me. He’s an actor I really respect for that. So that was the first thing. Other factors entered and led to other things like, okay Forest is black, well, then I want the guy to be like the OG-type, original gangsta-type style guy. The starting point wasn’t that Forest is black. He could be Asian. He could have been from Romania. That was just qualities he had, but then that informed other things in the film. He’s great to work with--what a generous actor. It was a great collaboration. He brought so many things to this film. I had a great experience working with him.