Culture Vulture
A conversation with Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch is a cultured individual. In fact, he consumes cultures the way most people gobble candy bars. His meditative mini-epics are a mishmash of influences refracted through his own laconic, laid-back demeanor. His upcoming movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is a gangster movie with a Japanese edge, starring Forest Whitaker as a shadowy hit man who keeps carrier pigeons in his rooftop lair and adopts Hiroshige's Way of The Samurai as a governing code. GettingIt caught up with the silver-haired auteur at the London Film Festival, where he was promoting Ghost Dog's European release.

See also...
... by Chris Campion
... in the Dirt section
... from January 4, 2000

GETTINGIT: Can you tell me where the initial idea for Ghost Dog came from?

JIM JARMUSCH: I can't, really, because I did everything backwards. I started with a really vague idea but wanting to work with Forest Whitaker. So I was trying to think of what kind of character I could make for the qualities in him as an actor that I liked -- that contradiction he has of being both gentle and imposing. I thought of a warrior character, but with a spiritual side so that I could get both aspects of him as an actor. Then the samurai thing became interesting to me.

Unlike Western warriors, who trained just as warriors, Eastern warriors like samurai, or more particularly, Shaolin monks in China, are also priests and teachers. Although samurai are not priests, there is a spiritual depth to their training. Then I thought about making a kind of Don Quixote character who follows an ancient code that is not part of the modern world. I started collecting ideas, as I always do, and eventually I sit down and weave them together and see what the hell I've come up with.

GI: RZA did the soundtrack and the story itself could almost come from one of the little episodic scenarios you find within the Wu-Tang lyrics.

JJ: Yeah, well, I've loved the Wu-Tang since they started. I love that mixture of things, their interest in martial arts films. And it goes deeper into Eastern philosophy for them, and for RZA. I was talking with him a while ago and he said, "Y'know, I make my songs like little movies and you make your films like songs." So we found working together worked out very well. Even though we come from very different places, we understood each other's processes and our own philosophies meet somewhere as well.

GI: You once said that Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law and Mystery Train formed a trilogy. Ghost Dog and Dead Man seem to be similarly connected?

JJ: Yeah, there's two connections and they're not conscious. I'm not analytical about my work. The obvious one is that they're both playing with genres, allowing them to be departure points for something that uses them in a way that's not necessarily formulaic. The other thing is the theme of death being part of life. It's the cyclical nature of life that comes from aboriginal or Eastern philosophy much more so than the Western or Christian philosophy of "behave in this world and you'll get a reward later." Those two things connect Dead Man and Ghost Dog. Beyond that, I don't know, and I don't really want to analyze them. Better to leave that up to someone smarter than myself who can explain it to me sometime.

GI: You've also said in the past that you have a very European sensibility.

JJ: I've said that! People always say that about my films. See, I don't know, because America to me is a place of great denial as a country. For thousands of years there was indigenous culture and then white European culture came and took it over, basically. I live in New York, which in a way is not part of America. In fact, I saw some graffiti on the Lower East Side a few months ago which said, "U.S. out of New York!" which I like a lot.

GI: When you were growing up in Ohio, what first drew you to the city?

JJ: Well, in the room of an older brother of a friend of mine we found books by William Burroughs, Rimbaud, records by the Mothers of Invention and Captain Beefheart. We were like, "Wow! There's other stuff besides what's here in Akron." Our minds were opened up so wide and so fast by these things. And at 14 years old we'd secretly pass around books by William Burroughs, because we didn't want our parents to know we were reading Junkie. But it really opened things up and from that point I realized, "I don't have to live here my whole life. There's a whole world." I don't know why I got drawn to New York rather than California, but I did. I love the way New York is always changing. But I love cities in general, they're almost like different lovers you've had.

GI: There's also that intoxicating clash of cultures in cities.

JJ: Sicilian Italians, Dominicans, there's Puerto Ricans, Hasidic Jews, Black, White, Chinese. In Akron, I never even heard salsa music. Just never heard it because everything is segregated and suburbanized. In New York, it's all there, concentrated. The energy is really exciting to me.

GI: Where was Ghost Dog's neighborhood set?

JJ: I didn't want the film to tell you where it is. It's just supposed to be an eastern urban area that's not really identifiable. We actually shot mostly in Jersey City because it looks very unrecognizable. It could be Cleveland, Philly, Baltimore or New York somewhere, but it doesn't look like Brooklyn and not like Manhattan at all. I like that look that's hard to place.

GI: I liked the idea that all the Italian mobsters in the movie have nice detached houses but congregate in this dingy social club.

JJ: Actually, it's the back of a Chinese restaurant. Which is a joke on the fact that they don't even meet in an Italian restaurant. That things are changing so much around them that they are, in a way, an anachronism.

GI: But these archaic men's clubs still exist in different parts of the city?

JJ: Yeah, and there is one scene where they're in a club like that. I lived for a long time, late '70s to mid '80s, right across from the Ravenite Social Club, which was the Gambino family social club. So I saw those guys, John Gotti, Sammy the Bull, Neil Dellacroce (before he died), all the time on the street in my neighborhood.

In fact, I had a strange encounter with them once with Tom Waits. It's sort of a long story. Tom had this big Cadillac that was being repaired, so they gave him a loan car -- a little Honda Civic, which was driving Tom nuts because he likes big cars. We were on Mulberry Street, which was blocked up by some big Lincolns parked in front of the Ravenite Social Club. Some wiseguys were talking to a guy in one of those cars and we were behind them.

Tom, who's a hothead, starts honking the horn and screaming out the window, [Adopts hoarse Waits growl] "Let's move along here. We got to drive through." I was like, "Tom shut the fuck up! Let them alone. That's the Gambinos." But he's not listening to me, just getting more upset.

So this thousand-dollar suit guy walks over to us really slowly, leans in the car and says, "You got a problem here?" And Tom shouts, "Yeah, I got a problem. I want to drive through here. The light's been red, green, red green, rah, rah, rah." I just said to him, "It's OK, man. We're cool. Take your time," while Tom blurts out, "Take your time!" The guy just looks at me, sort of smiles, and says, "I'll ask him to move."

He walks back really slowly, and talks for a little while longer. All the while, Tom's honking the horn. Finally we drive by and Tom gives him some brusque gesture. And I thought, "Oh, Jesus!" It was right in my neighborhood, but luckily we didn't get shot or anything. Later I got it into his head. "Y'know, that's the Mafia, Tom." And he's like, "Oh, really? You should have told me!"

Chris Campion hasn't sent us any alien space fetuses yet. Bastard.