It's a brave thief who reveals his booty to the man from whom he stole it. But Jim Jarmusch could not resist showing his film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai to Seijun Suzuki, the 76-year-old Japanese director whose 1967 film Branded to Kill is echoed throughout Ghost Dog. Indeed Jarmusch's film is like a fresh coat of paint poured over the master's original masterpiece. It could not exist without Suzuki's stylish, almost garish thriller about a yakuza hit man who must pay for a job gone wrong. It would be too simple to say Ghost Dog tells the same story (though Forest Whitaker's title character, a self-styled samurai under contract to the mob, is forced to endure the same fate) but Jarmusch himself would admit as much. His movie would not exist were it not for Suzuki's template.
As such, he was more than a little nervous about showing it to Suzuki in Tokyo last year (the film opened overseas in 1999). Imagine the stress of screening your movie to the man who inspired it. It didn't help that Suzuki didn't ... well, see, he liked it. He just didn't get it, especially a scene late in the film, when the gangsters out to kill Ghost Dog instead massacre his pet pigeons. Suzuki would have had his hero seek revenge immediately; vengeance does not dawdle. Jarmusch, who never met a long pause he didn't like, waits forever for the payoff.
"Umm, Mr. Suzuki liked the film a lot," Jarmusch says, "but then I got him kinda drunk, 'cause I kept saying, 'Tell me what you don't like; tell me what didn't work for you.' Finally he said, 'Well, your sense of tension is very different than mine.' Which is certainly true, because after I finished this film I was wondering if I could show it to Sam Fuller -- if he were still around -- what would he think? And I thought to myself, he would say, 'Well, it lacks conventional tension or, you know, a killer or revenge motive or whatever,' which it certainly does, because that's not my approach. But finally Mr. Suzuki kind of said the same thing: 'After they kill his birds, he drives around for a long time before taking action.' He couldn't understand that at all."
Jarmusch is the film world's turntablist, mixing and matching samples until someone else's work becomes his own singular art. Ghost Dog, with its RZA-provided soundtrack and Public Enemy in-jokes and cartoon images that play nonstop on constantly blaring television sets, is a film you can dance to. Not since last year's Run Lola Run has a movie so propelled a viewer through its landscape. Yes, it may feel slow, but that's only because its thrills sneak up on you, like a shadow in a dark alley.
To that end Ghost Dog is the writer-director's most complete, satisfying film since his 1984 debut Stranger Than Paradise. It's more of a Western than his own Dead Man, the 1995 film that starred Johnny Depp as a white man lost in the Wild West frontier. Where that film was turgid, flat, and indulgent, Ghost Dog is so vibrant and alive (and, often, hysterical) it appears to have been shot in 3-D. No matter how leisurely Whitaker lumbers across the screen, he is always moving forward, dragging the audience along. It's a performance of brute force commingled with slow-mo poetry. He barely speaks. For the first half-hour or so, you only hear his voice when he's reading from the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai a centuries-old samurai text, though he need not say anything at all.
Which would make Ghost Dog the antithesis of Jim Jarmusch, who never met a question he didn't like to answer -- not once, but a handful of different ways. He's much like his own body of work, a series of notes constructed (sort of) to make a final, complete picture. The man doesn't write scripts as much as he assembles bits and pieces into a whole. Ghost Dog began as nothing more than a modern-day, East-meets-West gangster film written for Forest Whitaker. What it turned into is a profound, arresting work: the best of Jarmusch's career.
New Times: Since your films are assembled from a collection of notes, are you surprised by the way they come together at the end? Or are you so aware of it as you 're putting it together that when it 's done, you go, "Oh, this is what I always intended anyway? '
Jim Jarmusch: Well, I build into the whole process a kind of intuitive acceptance of its own organic nature, whereas most directors will get a script written by someone else, and then they start rehearsing that script, which has been okayed by the executive producers or whatever. They're basically following that map pretty carefully. And what I do is, my script is only a blueprint: It shows the shape of the house, but it doesn't tell you what the interior colors look like or the where the furniture goes or even where all the windows might be. So I do have a structure that I'm trying to build to the plan. But I'm also -- and I'm trying to learn this more and more -- I'm very open to things that might change. Like I've never used a storyboard, because I like to be thinking on my feet.... I try to be open to things, changing and adapting, and this goes through all the way to the end of the editing process.
When you say you 're learning how to be more "open to things, ' is this a process that has been an arduous and difficult one, or just something that evolved over a period?
Well, it's a pleasant one. Making a film is very difficult, but it's also really something I love. So, it's also something you learn from each time you try something. You learn a lot, more from your mistakes than from the things you did the way you expected them to work. So I really look at it as sort of like a craftsman that will get better the more work he does. It's like what Kurosawa said when he was very old. They said, 'When will you stop making films?' He said, 'When I figure out how to do it.' And he never did. Of course he was a great master and of course made incredible films, but he was still learning.
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What was it about Whitaker that made you want to write this movie for him?
I'd met him a few times, and we had talked of maybe working together. I didn't have a plan, and then I started with an idea of making a character that was contradictory: a killer but someone that we respect and like in some way. And then Forest was the perfect contradiction for me, because in person he's very gentle and has a very soft quality in his face and in his expressions and his voice. And yet he's very big and imposing physically, and I hadn't really seen the perfect combination of that contradiction.
This is the first movie of yours that seems not only to acknowledge pop culture, but that really makes use of it. It 's as though you 've sampled it all, from the hip-hop references throughout the movie to the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons the gangsters watch.
Yeah, I think I got worn down from years of really loving bebop and hip-hop music. In the past when I wrote scripts and something would occur to me from another film or book that I thought would be interesting, that I thought linked up to something I was working on, I would push it away and say, 'That's not my idea; let's get that outta here.' This time I opened those doors saying, 'Well, I'm gonna let those things just flood in.' And I think it's because of musical forms that sample and quote and weave other things from other sources into something -- they make it their own ultimately. Maybe it finally clicked, you know? Maybe I'm just very slow, and it was like I finally got it.