Character Assassination

For Jim Jarmusch and Forest Whitaker, making Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was the merging of two creative minds. In fact, the film is all about cultural synthesis. Peter Bowen speaks with the two.

The following article was originally published in the Winter 2000 issue of Filmmaker Magazine to coincide with the release of Jim Jarmusch's film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.



In Jim Jarmusch’s latest adventure, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the title character, played by Forest Whitaker, is set on a collision course with the mob after a local boss’s daughter (Tricia Vessey) witnesses him making a hit. Soon, Ghost Dog is declared a “liability,” and a hit is ordered on him as well. Naturally, this mysterious urban samurai easily eludes the bumbling mob until he meets up with one final opponent––a two-bit foot soldier who saved his life years earlier.  And in the course of this battle, Ghost Dog faces his ultimate conflict, not with death, but with himself—between his identity as a warrior and his dedication to a code that insists that loyalty come before survival.

Of course, this plot synopsis barely illustrates the grander tapestry of eccentric characters, twisted sub-plots, and arresting images that make up Jarmusch’s film. It does, however, suggest a recurring motif. As in his other films, narrative becomes the inevitable byproduct of cultural collision. Whether it be the Hungarian cousin looking for a place to live in Stranger than Paradise, the Italian convict escaping through the Louisiana bayous in Down By Law, or the gleeful Japanese tourists paying homage to Elvis in Mystery Train, America is a place of cultural misreadings, psychological adjustments, and odd juxtapositions. It’s a place that continually shifts in and out of focus, resembling at any one time the American West, the Indian homeland or the land of the dead.

It is no wonder then that the word “surrealistic” so often crops up in defining Jarmusch’s work. But Jarmusch actually works at odds with the Surrealists. His aim is not to sketch the incomprehensible imaginings of the unconscious, but rather to capture the phenomenal reality of living in America, here and now. What high-school history books label as a melting pot is the basis for Ghost Dog’s cinematic vision: a kaleidoscope of cultures, genres, languages, and narratives, each mutating into something new before our very eyes. As seen from the multiple cars the protagonist steals, the world slides by, the neighborhoods, stores, and billboards all blurring to hip-hop artist and composer RZA’s soundtrack. The film’s genre is, as Jarmusch defines it, “a gangster samurai hip-hop Eastern western.”

True to the film’s Buddhist influence, perhaps the only consistent element in the film is change itself, a reality that Ghost Dog stoically embraces as part of his “way of the samurai.” And while the world of independent film has also changed drastically since his historic Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch has continually maintained his own code of artistic behavior—a belief in character-based stories, independent financing and the importance of directorial vision.

Download a PDF of this interview here.

Filmmaker: The world of Ghost Dog is such an amalgamation of different themes and motifs. Where did the idea for the film come from?

Jim Jarmusch: I wanted to make a film with Forest, so I needed to come up with a character. I was thinking about Don Quixote, about someone who follows a code the world no longer observes, and I have always been interested in Eastern culture and Japanese culture. And there is Melville’s Le Samourai, which has a samurai hit man, but there were other things as well: films by Suzuki and Kurosawa, and films like Point Blank, and books like Frankenstein and Don Quixote. And I was reading Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai and another book, Bushido: The Code of the Samurai. Somehow, it all made sense. But it is very hard for me to say, “Well, the ideas came in this order.” Because they don’t. I collect all kinds of fragments and then make a connect-the-dot picture to see what the story looks like.

Filmmaker:  How did you two meet?

Forest Whitaker:  We met at a Super-8 camera store.  You were working on Year of the Horse, and I was getting some stuff for my camera.

Jarmusch:  I always start with actors that I want to work with and then create a character with them. This time, I would fly to L.A., and even if I could only talk to Forest for an hour or two, I would throw things at him. Initially these were vague and disconnected ideas, and he would react with details and thoughts about the story and character. So our collaboration started earlier than I normally do when working with a particular actor.

Filmmaker: In the film, the mix of the samurai, the mob and the violent cartoons seem to suggest that the film is a meditation on violence.

Jarmusch:  No, not at all. The violence in the film is simply a reflection of the history of human beings. When people start saying, “You better watch out about the violence,” you might as well start banning The Bible. Certainly there are inappropriate ways, or ways that my own soul would not want to use violence. But this is universal.  As for the cartoons, it is another layer, resonance, or nuance of things. They are echoes of things happening in the story. What I don’t like is that some people have said that the cartoons are there because the gangsters are very cartoon-like. I just like cartoons, and I like the idea of adults watching cartoons.

Filmmaker:  Yes, but even the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons you reference appear in an episode of “The Simpsons” that deals with the representation of violence.

Jarmusch:  Violence is just who Ghost Dog is. He is a warrior, and he follows a warrior code. He acts in violent situations, as a warrior must. There is a guy in the film who just appears briefly in the background to perform a few kung-fu moves. That guy, Yan Ming Shi, is a Shao Lin monk who defected from China. He’s like a priest, but he is also a warrior; he is an expert in kung fu. The two things are completely aligned in Shao Lin culture.  You are taught to be a warrior and kill but also to be an enlightened priest.

Whitaker: To be whole, to have duality and knowing both sides of everything—I think Ghost Dog is aware of that, at least as a character. He is not content, but strong in what he knows to be the order of the universe and the order of his life. I don’t think he even views what he does as a violent act; it is just an extension of something he must do to maintain the order by which he lives.

Filmmaker:  While the violence does in a way preserve order, the film itself, with its mix of genres, cultures and languages, performs a certain formal violence.

Jarmusch: Or, I would say, synthesis. America is about the synthesis of a lot of different cultures, and beauty arises out of that synthesis. I don’t see this as violence or about cultures clashing but rather as being all part of one thing. The Italian guys don’t even work out of an Italian restaurant anymore; it’s a Chinese restaurant. Ghost Dog himself is an urban black character, but he follows a code from another culture and another century, the Japanese Samurai culture.

Filmmaker:  The film morphs. It starts off seeming to be a gangster film and then turns into something quite different and unexpected.

Jarmusch:  Yeah, I don’t know what it is. Is it a gangster samurai hip-hop Eastern western? I want it to have elements of all those things, but not be any one. Filmmaker:  Obviously it is difficult trying to pitch a movie that cannot easily be categorized. How did you secure financing?

Jarmusch:  I put it together in the same way I have for the last number of films. I go outside of the U.S. and get investors from Japan (JVC), from France (Bac and Canal Plus), and from Germany (Pandora). It is not a huge-budget film, so they respect our right to make the film the way we want to. It is a business deal for them, and also for me. I have complete artistic control. By avoiding American money, there is no one on my back telling me who to cast, how to cut it, what music to use. Nothing. I don’t even have to show them a rough cut if I don’t want to. I can just wait until the film is finished to show it to them. And they are fine with that.

Filmmaker:  Why is that? Why do foreign investors behave so differently than Americans?

Jarmusch: I think we have a track record now. They have always made their money back, more or less.  Well, I am not completely sure about Dead Man. But they have been happy.  And I am happy that way. And I am pretty good about coming in on time and on budget. I never go way over.  And if I were to get American money, they would want to be involved in the creative part of the film. Whitaker: If I were to produce a Jim Jarmusch film, I would feel very comfortable just letting him go off and doing what he needs to do. Otherwise you would be just destroying his film.

Jarmusch:  It is mutual respect. I don’t tell them how to run their companies, and they don’t tell me how to make a film. It’s a very happy collaboration.

Filmmaker:  And very un-American.

Jarmusch:  Here, if you want to make even a two-million-dollar film, you have to sit with a bunch of guys in suits who say, “Let’s go over the story points. Shouldn’t the chick take her shirt off in the first 15 minutes?” I would be in jail if I had to do that because I would certainly knee-cap some guy, or go nuts.

Filmmaker:  Something must have happened spiritually, intellectually, physically for the earlier Ghost Dog in the flash back to become the later Ghost Dog.

Jarmusch:  that is a difficult question. That is like asking, Why does someone become an enlightened teacher? Or, why do they become whatever they become? We came up with lots of details, personal things in his life that happen — like some violent situation that is echoed in the lurid cover on the book Rashomon, with a girl being raped and a guy tied up who can’t protect her. And we imagined a story sort of like that might have happened to Ghost Dog. There is a photograph of a girl in his apartment and we used to have a little dialogue that spoke about it. But we took it out because I thought it was trying to justify something and to give the audience some motivation. I think it weakened the power of his transformation in the end. There is just the fact that he went through that, and now is this guy.

Filmmaker:  Even Ghost Dog’s actions seem to synthesize different cultures and icons. Like the way he handles a CD or puts his gun back into his holster.

Jarmusch: Forest brought all those things to the film. The idea came from the way a sword becomes an extension of your body. Ghost Dog uses his guns in his work, but he treats them the way a samurai would have treated a sword. He does everything in a very deliberate way. It is not ritualistic. Rater his actions are an extension of himself, as with martial arts.

Filmmaker:  In a similar way the music in the film always seems to be an extension of the story. Not so much a commentary, but sort of a partner to the image.

Whitaker: When we first started working on the project, Jim would give me tapes — things, ideas that were inspiring him at the time — music that would guide me or inspire me. He dealt with the music all the way through as part of the process.

Jarmusch: Music is the most beautiful form of expression. Music inspires me all the time. And while I am writing or thinking, I get more inspiration from music than I get from movies or literature. I had the dream from the beginning to get RZA to do the music. The only problem is that RZA did not place the music as I hoped he would. His idea was to work in a complete hip-hop style: “I will give you music that is inspired by what you are doing. I give it to you, they you put it in the movie.” Then I would try to get RZA to come in with me and give me comments, but his comments were like “It’s all good.”

Whitaker: You placed the music really beautifully. The music is really the soul of the film.

Jarmusch: I don’t like film music that tells you what to feel. I like music that is woven into the fabric of the thing. I sometimes get personally offended when music makes me feel like a chump, when it me, “This is very sad.”

Filmmaker:  What’s the difference? How do you create a conversation between the film and the music?

Jarmusch:  I don’t want to sound pretentious but it is a very Zen thing where the two tell your what they want you to do with them. If in your mind, you are trying to force one into the other, it seems false. On the other hand, I don’t want to impose this how-are-you-feeling image and music. “How do you feel here?” And then they tell you.  I don’t know how to explain, but it works. And when it doesn’t work, it is that the image and sound don't want to be together. I know that sounds rather abstract and goofball, but it is like that.