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JIM JARMUSCH – GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI. A 1999 interview by IAN JOHNSTON Copyright © Ian Johnston

Born in 1953, Jim Jarmusch is as enigmatic, laconic and humorous as the movies he writes and directs. Since the classic 1984 picture Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch has clung tenaciously to total artistic independence, producing a series of critically and financially successful pictures, such as Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989) and Dead Man (1995), incorporating actors and friends like the late Joe Strummer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Tom Waits and Lounge Lizard John Lurie into his idiosyncratic, elliptical tales of everyday madness.
Jarmusch’s 1999 picture, Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai, was something of a departure for the filmmaker; a marital arts genre movie. But this was unlike any action genre film yet made. Much like a hip-hop musician, Jarmusch adapted disparate sources ”“ Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 Alain Delon film Le Samourai, Seljun Suzuki’s surreal 1960’s Japanese gangster pictures (specifically, Branded To Kill), Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure: Code of the Samurai, RyÅ«nosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon (with elements of Kurosawa’s 1950 film adaptation), Boorman’s Point Blank, Scorsese’s Casino (the casting of the comedic Italian American character actors Joseph Rigano and Vinny Vella) ”“ to create a lyrical, moving tale of a contract killer (Forest Whitaker) who only works for his ”Ëœmaster’ (John Tormey, a Mafia stooge who saved his life years before. When the disintegrating Mafia betrays Ghost Dog over a hit they ordered him to execute, the monastic assassin proceeds to unrelentingly follow the strict Samurai code.

“People don’t seen to follow any codes anymore,” lamented the director, when I began the interview in Soho House, London, during the late Autumn of 1999, enquiring about Ghost Dog’s underlying theme of the clash of ancient cultures and codes. “The margins in which organised criminal groups like the Mafia exist are getting smaller because corporate crime has usurped them. So, I guess the film reflects our society in a way.”

What brought you to the Samurai philosophy?

JIM JARMUSCH: “Actually, I didn’t start with the Samurai thing. I started with the character and then he became a Samurai. But I’ve been interested in Samurai culture after first seeing Kurosawa’s interpretation of it in films, and then I found this book, Hagakure, when I was half way through the script. Then it wove its way into the film itself, somehow, I don’t know how to explain it. I guess what I’m most interested in is that in Western culture warriors are for a specific purpose, which is to do battle for war, and in Eastern culture warriors are also prepared on a very deep spiritual level, the Samurai code, and even deeper the Shaolin priests, that are Kung Fu masters but are also enlightened priests. The difference interested me a lot, to have spiritual depth to a character who is a warrior.”

Ghost Dog is obviously heavily informed by Melville’s Le Samourai, but it also seems equally influenced by the Wu-Tang hip-hop cult, using the founding member RZA, for the score and so on”¦.

JIM JARMUSCH: “Definitely. I like synthesis. In the past, writing a film or starting to think about a film or story, if something came from another source, a book or another film, I would push it away, because it wasn’t original, whereas in this case I welcomed those things. I think that came from the music, from be-bop and hip-hop. In be-bop you can play within an outside solo and you can quote the standard, weave it in there, and your not playing the standard but you are referring to it. And hip-hop takes things from many sources. So a lot of those things came in there”¦. Certainly Le Samourai, as well things in films by Seljun Suzuki, a Japanese director of gangster films from the 60’s”¦..”

The shooting through the plughole scene?

JIM JARMUSCH: “Yes, exactly. And things from Mary Shelley, from Don Quixote, from Rashomon, from Hagakure, the Wu-Tang; all kinds of places. There is a film I love by John Boorman called Point Blank. That is based on books by Richard Stark, also known as Donald Westlake, and I’m a big fan of his (Stark’s) work and the character in those books, Parker. In the film they changed his name to Walker. That character, Parker, is very focussed when he’s on a criminal job. He is relentless in his focus and not distractible, like Ghost Dog. I opened the door for those things to come in, which was a little bit different for me. “

How did you find the RZA to work with?

JIM JARMUSCH: “Well, it’s like, if you want to find a criminal you don’t go to the police, you go to other criminals. So I realised I’m not going to get the RZA through his lawyer or management, I’ve got to find people I know who know him. So, I did and they got me to him. At our very first meeting we had a very strong understanding, an easy way to communicate with each other, even though we are from very different places, we got along really well. From the first meeting he said he wanted to do it, which surprised me because people are always hitting on him to do so many things.”

If this is a genre film, which genre would it be?

JIM JARMUSCH: “I don’t know. You know, I’m not analytical about my own stuff; I’m so intuitive that it’s hard for me to say because it has a lot of genres in it. I think of it as a ”ËœGangster/Gangsta/Hip-Hop/Samurai/Eastern/Western’, you know? So, which genre is it exactly? I don’t know.”

How did the story come to you?

JIM JARMUSCH: “You see, I start with actors that I want to make a character for. Then I collect a whole lot of details and then I sit down with them and make a connect the dots drawing out of them; see what for of picture it is becoming. I don’t know what the story is or where it’s going, at all. I just sort of jump in and start. In fact, I think I do it backwards. Most people have a story idea and in the end they cast it, but I start with the actors first.”

So was Forest Whitaker the first actor you had in mind to play Ghost Dog?

JIM JARMUSCH: “Yes, he was the starting point of this film.”

Did he help build the character with you?

JIM JARMUSCH: ”He did. Even when I was writing. I live in New York, but I would go three times to LA to talk to him, even before I was writing, when I was just making notes and sort of trying to come up with a character, I would run things by him and see what he thought. He helped a lot with little details, mostly focussing on the character. I didn’t know that Forest had studied martial arts. The scene when he works out with swords on the roof, that was something I wanted him to do, but I thought that he’d have to train to do that. But he already knew that stuff, and his way of using the guns as an extension of his body, in a way you’d use a sword in martial arts, came from him. Certain ways he moves physically. He brought a lot of beautiful things to the film, but mostly concerning his character rather than the story, although he was interested why his character would do certain things. He was really, really helpful, very generous, really there for the film, a hundred and ten per cent. It was a really good experience to work with someone so focussed.”

Ghost Dog features a brilliantly monosyllabic performance by the legendary 1960’s tough guy actor/part time Rat Pack member Henry Silva, as the Mafia crime boss Vargo. How did he become involved?

JIM JARMUSCH: “I went to LA, met him and I love this guy. He took me out to his car. In the trunk, he had tapes of his work that he’d made himself. It wasn’t his classic films like The Manchurian Candidate or Viva Zapata!; it was all stuff of him with Steven Segal and Chuck Norris. He gave me that and I gave him the script. I said,’ Please, don’t show this to anyone’. And he said, ‘I’ll keep it in the trunk of my car, I’ll read it and put it back.’ I thought he was joking. When I was in LA again, months later, and I met him, he took me out to his car and said, ”ËœYou see.’ My script was still in the truck of his car. I love this guy.”

Is the humour in Ghost Dog, a picture that appears to be concerned with the fragility of mortality, laughter in the dark?

JIM JARMUSCH: “I love that quote from Oscar Wilde:’ Life is far too important to be taken seriously.’”

This interview was previously published on Popcorn, the long closed Carlton television online movie website.

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