WHEN HE WAS YOUNG, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) was saved from a group of street thugs by Louie (John Tormey), a low-level Mafioso who just happened to be passing by. In thanks, Ghost Dog pledges to serve Louie for the rest of his life, as faithful to him as any ancient samurai was to his master. Their relationship forms the core of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jim Jarmusch's latest.

Don't be fooled: Despite the impression you may have gotten from the trailer, Ghost Dog is a modern-day samurai who dispatches people with guns -- not some freak who cuts people up with a sword. And don't get me wrong: Ghost Dog is a freak, just not that kind of freak. In an era when action heroes are portrayed as wounded, flawed, and conflicted, Ghost Dog hearkens back to a time when the hero never questioned himself. Whitaker's Ghost Dog is like Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name," coldly professional when it comes to killing -- but instead of Ennio Morricone's strings and whistles, he's got Wu-Tang Clan's RZA doing his soundtrack.

Louie actually knows very little about Ghost Dog, mainly because Ghost Dog communicates with Louie by passenger pigeon. Once he lands a job, though, Ghost Dog uses high-tech equipment to break into and steal the fanciest of automobiles to get himself there. These low-tech/high-tech contradictions permeate the fabric of Ghost Dog, which is the best spaghetti Western-inspired, modern samurai gangster epic you'll ever want to see.

The plot of Ghost Dog is simple and direct. Ghost Dog is hired to kill Handsome Frank, a "made man" who happens to be dating the Mob boss' daughter. Then, to avenge the death of Handsome Frank (whom they consider one of their own), the Mob puts a hit out on Ghost Dog, not caring that they were the ones to hire him to do the deed in the first place. Needless to say, the mobsters' violence turns back on them. But the movie isn't all guns and bloodshed. Thanks to the relatively simple story, Jarmusch has room to play with some of the characters and situations, often for comedic effect, giving Ghost Dog the same deadpan humor of his earliest films.

Given the chance to interview Jarmusch, and wanting to mix it up a little, my first question was about his strong connection to Asian filmmaking -- not just because he's got a samurai as his lead character, but also because of his restrained style.

Jarmusch's first exposure to Asian films was martial arts movies, like a lot of us, but then he discovered Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, not to mention the grace and static beauty of Ozu. "That's something that perhaps directly inspired whatever I can call my own style," he says. "That kind of simplicity in my earlier films is very careful. Not overexplaining things, trying to find strength in limitations... I know that came from Ozu." Of course, there were other influences on Jarmusch's style -- European filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, not to mention books and music.

We continued talking.


I was going over my notes, and recalled the first passage you used from Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai: "The way of the Samurai is a daily meditation on death. Every day one should consider himself as dead." I wondered if this might be a sequel to Dead Man?

Not consciously, although both films do involve death -- life and death being cycled, intertwined -- but they're quite different. The main character in Dead Man is a passive character that people project things on, whereas Ghost Dog is a very non-passive character, very centered; he rigorously follows his code and adheres to it. He's very sure of himself. Ghost Dog is inspired in part by Don Quixote, a character that is considered mad by most of the world, because the bounds of chivalric code don't really fly anymore.


Is Hagakure an actual book?

It's an actual book that was written by an ancient samurai in the 18th century, and he left it as a text for future samurai. In Japanese, it's a very long book but with short passages, each one separated by a little symbol. It deals with the whole varied details of what it means to be a samurai. It's really a beautiful book. There are other books, also written by older samurai, that I read also.

Hagakure even inspired the form of the film, because the book has these little aphorisms separated by a little symbol which gives you, like, a breathing space until the next thought. [In the movie] we present a section of our story and then break for a quote from Hagakure, to reflect or resonate with what's happening in the story. I like that structure.


I liked the simple rhythms in the pacing and the editing.

Yeah, I mean, when we -- Jay Rabinowicz [the editor] and I -- tried to find the rhythm of the film, of what we shot, we tried to have the film at a certain point tell us what it wanted. The movie refers to action filmmaking, martial arts filmmaking, Westerns, yet I don't know if it is exactly any of those things. A lot of people say my films are slow, and they're certainly not super-quick cut -- that's not my taste or my way of telling a story, although there are films which are very fast that I like a lot. It's a style, but it doesn't seem to be mine. See, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, impressions that were made on me by very pure and aesthetic styles of people like Ozu.


I was wondering what you like about hiphop in general, and your soundtrack in particular?

Well, I love all kinds of music. I love a certain percentage of hiphop for sure, though there's a lot of it I don't like. What I love is that it's a natural extension of blues to hard R&B to soul music to funk to, like, dub music. Hiphop seems to grow out of those things. It's a logical extension. And I love the way music is used by the really great musicians of hiphop, as a kind of almost cinematic backdrop behind the lyrics, and that can be very atmospheric and strong. It induces a flood of images when you hear it instrumentally, and when it's married to a lyric track, I don't know, there's something really, really beautiful about it.


Are there any particular artists you're listening to right now?

There's a new Ghostface Killah. I've been listening a lot to Ol' Dirty Bastard's record, and GZA's last record, but I like -- I don't know. I like a lot of stuff. I like the Ruff Riders and Eve and Lil Wayne and Mission stuff. I like Outkast. I sort of try to check out as much as I can. I love Killer Army, which are like a Wu-Tang off-shoot. Killer Priest, I love. [Morning Disciples], Nas, DJ Premiere. I like Kool Keith a lot. There's a lot of great stuff.


How'd the soundtrack come together?

Well, I collected a lot of stuff that, you know -- you can buy, like, 12-inch DJ vinyl that will have an album track and a radio track and then an instrumental. I was collecting a lot of Wu-Tang stuff that RZA had created music for, and taping off the instrumental versions. I was listening to that stuff, with other things -- early, very heavy dub stuff and stuff from the early '80s, that was really inspiring me. First, before I even wrote the script, I was just getting into the ideas that I had. The sketchy ideas. And I just, you know -- RZA was my dream composer. Then, before shooting the film, we talked about it, and he basically agreed to do the score before the film was even shot. He didn't create the score until after the film was shot, but he was interested.


Forest Whitaker is generally considered more of an introspective actor, and I like the way you used him as an action guy.

What I loved about Forest before I worked with him were certain contradictions within him -- and the whole premise of Ghost Dog is a contradiction, in that I wanted to make a story, the portrait of a character that was a killer but that we really liked or respected. And Forest -- I wrote it for Forest, because when I was trying to imagine the perfect actor to embody that contradiction, it was Forest. He has that internal gentle quality, and yet he's capable of being a big, imposing, physical character. He's actually studied martial arts since he was eight years old. To me, he was the perfect actor for that, and I don't think I would have made the film if he had declined. And it was really great working with him. He's really an amazingly generous actor, really focused, and wow -- he just really became Ghost Dog.

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