One of America's most distinctive directors, Jim Jarmusch has been at the forefront of independent filmmaking since his revolutionary first feature, 1984's deadpan masterpiece Stranger Than Paradise. His other films have ranged from similarly unusual comedies like Down By Law and Mystery Train to the abstract, philosophical western Dead Man. A huge music fan, Jarmusch has used many musicians as actors (including Tom Waits, John Lurie, the late Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer, and Iggy Pop), many of whom have also contributed memorable scores to his films. Jarmusch's latest, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, features Forest Whitaker as a modern-day sword-for-hire bound by honor to his Mafioso master. Yet, like many of Jarmusch's films, Ghost Dog is also a tale of cultural intersection and exchange. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Jarmusch about his films, his use of music (Ghost Dog features a memorable score by Wu-Tang Clan member The RZA), and the definition of independent film.
The Onion: I saw Ghost Dog in December in Paris, which was interesting: All of the scenes with Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankolé [playing a French-speaking ice-cream man] were obviously not subtitled in English. In the U.S. version, their conversations [in which neither understands what the other is saying] are subtitled, right?
Jim Jarmusch: Yes, the French is subtitled in English, and in France, of course, they didn't need the French to be subtitled. You saw everything English subtitled into French, right?
O: Yeah. Did you ever consider releasing that in America without the English subtitles?
JJ: Yeah, I thought about it, but I thought it was really funny and important to know that even though they don't literally know what the other is saying, somehow they do know without knowing it through linguistics. I thought it was an important part of their friendship that they were sort of repeating what the other one said without knowing it themselves, so I decided to keep the subtitles.
O: A lot of your films are about the intersection of different cultures, whether directly or indirectly. That's almost more explicit in Ghost Dog than even a lot of your other films. You really go out of your way to have different types of people: Native Americans, black men, white men, Italian men, French men. Were you trying to go for a cosmopolitan feel, even within America?
JJ: That was one theme in the film, and in other films I've made: the synthesis of cultures and how that is inevitable. I'm not real analytical, so I don't go back and look at my previous films or even think about them, but I know that themes keep recurring, and that's one of them. I think it's because that's an inevitable part of the whole world, that cultures sort of cross-fertilize each other. There are a lot of beautiful gifts in that. America is an example, because we're a culture made up of people from other cultures that have mixed together. That will continue to happen, and that's given us so many great gifts, especially in music and other things getting synthesized together. I really love that stuff. I love being aware of where these things come from and having some sense of cultural identity, but I also look forward to them mixing together.
O: I think we're at a time when the average person is probably more receptive to different things than maybe ever before, which is somewhat contradictory, because the companies that might release movies like yours aren't necessarily as receptive to new ideas as they should be.
JJ: I think that is contradictory, and it's an interesting point. I get frustrated. The corporate world wants to homogenize everything, and that's the opposite of cultural synthesis. If everyone is eating McDonald's hamburgers everywhere in the world, that's a different thing than mixing African music with Spanish music with Irish music to come up with some type of salsa, or whatever, where things come from. That's different. That's things blending and evolving. It's de-evolution to have everything the same, so it is a contradiction. It's sort of a curious one, with the European Union, where the Belgians were furious because [the EU] was dictating to them what the contents of chocolate should be. Belgians take pride in making the best chocolate in the world, so they were infuriated, and with good reason.
O: It's strange that I was able to see Ghost Dog in a different country months before most Americans could see it here, considering that you're one of the better known American independent directors.
JJ: Those things are decided by the distributors in each territory based on what other films are coming out, when they think they have the best shot at a good release, when they get the theaters, what their preparations are. Those are really decided by the distributors in their own territory, and I don't really interfere in that, because I want them to do the best job they think they can do at the best time. In this case, yeah, the film came out first in France, then in Japan, then in Germany, and Spain, and Switzerland, and recently in Brazil. It still isn't out in the States, because Artisan, the distributor here, chose what it thought was its best slot for the film. That's all beyond my control. It changes with each film and each situation.
O: I once heard somebody say that the only two truly independent filmmakers in America are you and Woody Allen, because you both own your negatives. Is that true?
JJ: It's true that I do, but I don't know if Woody Allen owns his negatives. I don't know if that's the ultimate definition. To me, the definition is films made by people who retain creative control. That's an independent film. And a non-independent film is when the marketing decisions and the strategy of releasing the film as a product filters into the content of the film and what kind of film it is. That is not an independent film. Beyond that, I'm not sure how to define it, because it's become a label that gets slapped on products like The English Patient or Shakespeare In Love. They called those independent films, but I'm not sure on what criteria they were labeling them that way.
O: Like alternative music and independent music.
JJ: Exactly. Alternative music became mainstream music. It's tricky, but labels bother me anyway, because it bothers me that people break up categories like, "Okay, there were the beatniks and then the hippies and then the punks." That's like looking at the ocean from a helicopter and trying to numerically list or number each wave. The waves intersect and overlap, and it's accurate.
O: It's possible, I suppose, that a company like Miramax doesn't know how to deal with something that doesn't have a label, especially at this point.
JJ: Very possible, but companies that release films are [all about] marketing. Their whole function is to market the product, right? That's not my expertise.
O: After you've signed to a distributor, it must frustrate you when something happens like what happened with Dead Man, where I don't think Miramax pushed it as hard as it should have been pushed. On one hand, you could say that that's not your job, that it's their business what they do with the film. But it must be frustrating when that happens.
JJ: It is frustrating, but it's also out of my control. Miramax is a specific example. I don't really want to go into the whole history of it, but my expertise is not marketing—it's making films—so I have to concede the marketing to the distributors. What happens I can't control. It depends. Some distributors work much more closely and respectfully than others. It's a different game, in a way, and it's not really my expertise. Although I had trouble with Miramax myself, I do respect the way they've marketed and released a lot of films. When they're behind something, they do a really good job, and when they're not, it sort of falls by the wayside, which was the case with Dead Man. Also, I've got to say I never thought of Dead Man as a blockbuster hit movie: It's a really weird, black-and-white, psychedelic western of sorts that's kind of odd to start with, so I can't say, "Well, damn them, they didn't make it as big as Independence Day." I don't know how to evaluate those things, so all I can do is try to make films that those of us who make the film are proud of and happy with. Then, with the rest, you kind of have to see what happens. As soon as you start thinking like, "I want to make this a commercial film"… That's not my way. I wouldn't even know how to do that, so I avoid thinking that way at all costs.
O: Dead Man has been popping up on a lot of critics' lists as one of the better films of the '90s. That must be encouraging, because that means it did connect, even if it took a while to sink in.
JJ: Yeah, well, it made me very happy, because we are proud of Dead Man. We were happy that it did get some response, though it was somewhat delayed after its release. But it doesn't really matter when something reaches people if it does reach them. I'm happy that it did.
O: Ghost Dog is also a strange film in its own way, but it has a surprising amount of commercial potential. It's a real hip-hop film, both in attitude and execution. There aren't a lot of films quite like that these days. It's got a tone that Hollywood seems to avoid.
JJ: Man, I'll tell you, when I watch Hollywood movies, one thing that really bothers me is this: The world is so full of interesting, amazing music, so why do all the scores sound exactly the same? It's infuriating to me. I love music, man. Can't you put in some music that has something to do with the film, or is married to the film, or elevates the film? Why is it always the same hackneyed orchestral music that's telling you what to feel at each moment? It seems so timid or limited. That's something I find infuriating. In this whole world of music, you could score a film just using music from a particular pygmy tribe that would be beautiful and exquisite, but it's always got to be the same stuff. That I don't get. But, then, that's sort of the Hollywood way. Conventions are what people expect, so that's what we'll give them.
O: They probably end up filming with standard orchestral music as kind of a temp track and then just say at the end, "I want music just like this."
JJ: They probably do. I don't know. It's perplexing to me, though.
O: You could get someone like John Lurie, who can do two different scores that won't sound remotely identical, but I guess maybe people in Hollywood wouldn't want to gamble when they can spend more money and get John Williams.
JJ: Yeah, and then they know exactly what they're getting, and they've heard it all 100 times before, so no one's afraid of it.
O: The music in your films is really important. Do you have someone like The RZA or Lurie in mind when you're writing a film?
JJ: Yeah, I do. I start from the very beginning. Even before I'm writing, I'm collecting ideas. I have a pretty close idea of the kind of music or who I would like to make the music, and I've been lucky that it's worked out, especially in these last two cases with Neil Young [who scored Dead Man] and The RZA. I didn't know them before, unlike John Lurie or Tom Waits or people who are already friends of mine. I didn't know these guys, but it was my dream, and in both cases I got to them and they ended up wanting to do the music. I'm also, I guess, very lucky in that way. Even before I started writing Ghost Dog, I was getting a lot of 12-inch vinyl, where they have an album mix and then a radio mix and then an instrumental mix. I was pulling as much instrumental RZA stuff as I could find and making tapes of it, and it was really inspiring me. My dream was to get RZA to do the score, and ultimately that happened.
O: People like Neil Young and The RZA seem like really imposing figures. Was it difficult to approach them to get them to do music?
JJ: The funny thing about both of them is they're people who do things their own way. I've heard RZA say, "Our music is underground. If it reaches a lot of people, we're really happy, but we ain't changing it in order to do that. We got stuff that's better than the stuff we've released that you're not even ready for yet." And Neil Young is very, very detached from what is trendy, what's in fashion, what would sell. He just has no interest whatsoever. He's just on to the next thing that's interesting to him and somehow, because they're so individual in that way, they weren't imposing. To me, it was like we were somehow linked in some ancient, tribal way, and that we did see things in a similar way. I think we all felt that. I know Neil felt that about me—he said that to me—and with RZA, although we come from very different worlds, we had real respect for each other from the beginning. He didn't know any of my films, so I gave him a bunch of them, and he really hooked onto Dead Man, which he loves. He started showing it to all the other guys in The Wu-Tang Clan. I really like that film, and it made me proud and happy that they would connect with that. But I couldn't have predicted that. It seems kind of odd to me that I had a few black members of the Wu-Tang explaining in very beautiful ways certain parts of Dead Man to me, like what it meant to them. It was kind of great.
O: Do you know how they feel about Ghost Dog?
JJ: Yeah, they like Ghost Dog a lot. They're really interested in the codes of Ghost Dog and in the character of Ghost Dog, and they like all the cross-referencing to the Mafia stuff, because that's been going on in hip-hop for a long time. They like the details of the violence, they love the scene where the cop gets shot, they love Ghost Dog putting tape over a piece of window glass before firing through it so it doesn't shatter. They love all those details, but they really like the character. I heard sort of a more slightly conservative—not conservative, but more academic—black guy saying, "Well, I don't like that Ghost Dog obeys his master, Louie, who's a white guy." And then some real gangster-type guys were really incensed by that, saying, "You missed the whole point of the film, man. Guy's got a code, he's a samurai. You can't take that away from him in death; it ain't got anything to do with whether Louie's white or black or he's his master; he's his retainer. He's a samurai. You missed the point: His code can't be taken from him even in death. That's the point." And I was like, wow, they were really understanding the intention of the film.
O: A lot of people don't understand that the world isn't just black and white people.
JJ: Exactly. A journalist said to me—I couldn't believe this—he said, "Well, is this a black film made by a white guy, or what?" I was like, "You know, I think you should ask yourself if you segregate things in your own mind, because I don't think of it in either of those ways. It has black characters and white characters, and I'm white and Forest is black. Those all get factored into the story and into the film, but those things are not segregated in my mind in the same way." It's kind of a shock to be asked that.
O: It's kind of like with Carl Franklin, when he directed One True Thing, people said, "Oh, this is a black director directing a really white film."
JJ: Yeah, what does that mean? Or Forest Whitaker: The last film he did [Hope Floats], is that a white film by a black director? That's just ridiculous.
O: How did you decide to cast Forest Whitaker? He's a frequently underutilized actor.
JJ: I first came up with the very vague idea of wanting to make a story about a killer who, in a contradictory way, we respected. I really loved a certain contradiction I find in Forest, in that he's very gentle and soft and contemplative, and he's a big, physically imposing type of guy. And I never really saw the balance of that contradiction in the roles he's played, though I haven't seen everything he's done, so I can't say he's never done that before. So that's the genesis of the whole story, and I wrote it for Forest and talked to him before writing it in a general way. He was interested, so I wrote it for him.
O: How often do people write roles for specific actors that the actor then turns down?
JJ: Boy, I don't know. I can't speak for other people. I almost always have the central actors in mind while writing, and that goes way back to Stranger Than Paradise through every film I've made. I've been very lucky to always have them accept the role, except in one case where I wrote something in Night On Earth for John Turturro. I said to him, "I'm writing this thing with you in mind." And he said, "Oh, man, I'd love to see it, please write it, but I do have a conflicting film project, and if I can't do it I'll let you know as soon as I know." So I did write it, he liked it, and he wanted to do it. But then something conflicted with our shooting period and I threw that story out and rewrote it as a different story for Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands. That's the only time it happened to me where they didn't do the role. But if Forest… If I had written this whole thing and he'd said, "You know what, I can't do this," I would have either had to start all over again with a different actor in mind or chucked the project and gone on to something else because, to me, it's that important. But I think I'm very backwards, because most people write something and then cast it. I have to cast at least the main character in my head in order to write it.
O: What do you think of Roberto Benigni's recent success? It must be kind of surreal to watch it play out. [Benigni starred in Night On Earth and Down By Law. —ed.]
JJ: Yeah. Anything he does would not surprise me, so it didn't surprise me, but it was really thrilling. And then I was a little worried about him, because I didn't want him to get eaten alive. Boy, it took a lot out of him, all of that. When he went back to Italy after the Academy Awards, he literally had to hide for three days because it was like he had single-handedly won the World Cup or something. They were so proud of him, so I got a little worried about all the pressure on him. But he's going on to make a new film, in his own way, in Italian, his own production, so he hasn't really been pulled out of his way of working or anything. I don't know. He's an amazing character. What an amazing person. We plan to do something, a feature, in the future together. I look forward to that, but it won't be my next project or his next project. It'll be sometime later.
O: Do you know what you're doing next?
JJ: I'm just starting to work on it now, but I'm superstitious. I never talk about it.