Todd Lippy: When did you first move to New York?
Jim Jarmusch: I came to New York in 1974, I think, after spending a year at Northwestern University in the Medill School of Journalism. I was pretty much asked to leave the school because I wasn’t completing my requirements in journalism – I was taking classes in Literature and Art History and History and Philosophy. I was transferred to Columbia, where I studied English and Comparative Literature, so that’s how I got here.
Was the city everything you expected?
It was pretty intense, because I arrived here in late August to start classes in early September, and I had a dorm room right on whatever avenue is on the eastern border of Columbia – Columbus Avenue. It was really, really hot, and really, really loud, and I’d hear salsa music all night. It took me a little while to adjust, but I was amazed by the incredible energy of New York. And it was great to find a place that, no matter how strange you might be, you couldn’t go a block without seeing someone much stranger. It was a great feeling to be here – it felt like anything was possible in a way.
What happened when you finished up at Columbia?
Well, they had a programme in Paris my last year, so I said, ‘Where do you sign up?’ And I went there and ended up coming back with a lot of incompletes because instead of studying much, I discovered the Cinématheque. Back then it was still run by Henri Langlois. And that was an amazing birth of something in me – a realization of how wide the diversity of films could be and what a beautiful form it is. I saw films from Indian by Satjayit Ray, and films from Africa, and classic films from France and Japan and China and everywhere. Also, I learned a lot about Hollywood films from seeing them in that context. Nothing was presented in a hierarchical way; you just realized that the world of cinema was so huge.
When I came back here, I was still writing prose and poetry, but I started imitating film scripts in a way – not in a literal way, but making allusions to the form in my writing. And they became a little more visual. I realized from that that I was really thinking of movies all the time. So I applied to NYU Graduate Film School really on a whim, because I’d never made a film. But I submitted some writing and some photographs and I was accepted with financial aid really unexpectedly, so I decided to try that.
Weren’t you also playing in a band around the same time, and a part of the whole Lower East Side music scene?
Yeah. We played the Mudd Club, CBGB’s, Hurrah’s, Tier 3, Irving Plaza, Danceteria – pretty much everywhere in New York. Actually, the aesthetics of that scene really gave me the courage to make films; it was not about virtuosity, it was about expression. It was that way with all those bands at the time – The Ramones and Talking Heads, Television, Blondie and Patti Smith, Mink DeVille, The Heartbreakers, The Voidoids, Suicide…
Anyway, in my third year of graduate school I went to tell Laszlo Benedek, who was the head of the school, that I wasn’t coming back because I didn’t have any money – I had a lot of student loans and I just really didn’t see the point of returning to school for a third year. He said to me, ‘That’s really too bad, because I hired Nick Ray to teach here this year. He needs a teaching assistant and I thought you would be the perfect guy. He’s in the next room, and he’d like to meet you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, man…’ So I went in there, and the first thing Nick asked me was to define the word ‘dialectic’ – which I did – and then we started talking. And he said, ‘You’re my assistant – I need your help, and I’m going to teach you.’ In the end, Laszlo helped me get a fellowship – ironically, it was called the Louis B. Mayer Fellowship, after the guy who destroyed von Stroheim’s Greed. So I went back for a third year.
Is that when you made Permanent Vacation?
Yeah, which the school hated. I didn’t get a degree because I didn’t fulfill the requirements at the time for a thesis film – you weren’t allowed to make a film that long. But they didn’t like the film anyway – not Laszlo, particularly, but the school. They also made a mistake, because I think the fellowship money was sent to me directly rather than for tuition at the school, and of course I spent it on the film. We shot it in ten days on the street in New York for twelve thousand dollars total – the whole budget, including post. Then, somehow, someone submitted Permanent Vacation to a festival in Germany, in Mannheim. They sent me a letter saying they wanted to screen the film there, that they were inviting me and would fly me there. I was surprised and really happy. So I went, and then the film was given a prize, which included two thousand dollars! I had no money – I owed, like, six months rent – and I was ecstatic. And then a guy came up to me from German TV, saying, “We’d like to buy your film. We don’t pay a lot, but we can give you twelve thousand dollars for five years.” And I was, like, ‘Whoa!’
I’d left home assuming I’d never make another film again – ‘So the school hates it; I’ll be writer, or a musician or something’ – and I came back thinking, ‘I’ve got to make another film!’ Not only that, they invited the film to the Berlin Festival, and at the time it was very rate to have a film in two German festivals, but they made an exception. And I was so moved that they would respond at all to this odd, handmade, first-time film, which is not very good – I mean, it’s a first film, and I haven’t looked at it in a long time, but it’s probably not a good film. So I came home and wrote Stranger Than Paradise. Wim Wenders had seen my first film and he liked it, and I was Nick Ray’s gofer when Wim worked with him on Lightning Over Water. So he offered me this black-and-white 35mm film stock that he had left over from The State of Things, just raw stock. It was this odd film material, like 4X – high speed, very grainy. But he had a bout 50 minutes of it that he gave to me, and I though, ‘If I’m careful, I can make a half-hour film.’ So John Lurie and I had this vague idea for a story and I wrote a half-hour film script and we filmed it. That was the first third of Stranger Than Paradise.
You actually filmed the whole thing with that fifty minutes’ worth of stock?
Yeah. Most scenes were shot in one, maybe two takes.
When you shot the rest of the film, did you use the extant footage for the first third?
Yeah, it was changed only slightly. I removed one little thing, maybe.
John Lurie and Richard Edson and Eszter Balint were all people you knew from this downtown scene?
Yeah, I hung out a lot – as everybody did – at the Squat Theater on 23rd Street, because it was a bunch of Hungarian weirdoes who were really amazing, inventive, creative people with no particular interest in traditional theatre. They weren’t interested in anything commercial, anything like that. They lived communally. It was an incredible group of people. I still try to keep in touch with them although they’ve dispersed – some are back in Budapest. And they had a lot of music – Sun Ra played there, for instance – and a lot of people hung out there, likes James Chance and Arto Lindsay and me and John and lots of different people. It was a really great atmosphere of ideas being exchanged. So I knew Eszter through that. I think she was fourteen when I first met her and she was seventeen or so when we were filming.
Stranger Than Paradise was a very good lesion because I wrote it knowing the amount of material I had, so the style of the film reflected that – every scene being a single setup was by necessity. Learning to do that was something I have continued to benefit from. And then, when I was cutting the short in my Lower East Side walk-up apartment on an upright Moviola, I was also writing the rest of the script, because I got ideas for making it much longer. So when I had the short film finished I also had a script to show. Then there’s a whole thing I really don’t want to go into – it was very hard for me to get the rights to the short film back from Wim’s partner at that time. It was a big mess.
And that led to you insisting on the ownership of your negatives ever since?
Yeah. It was a lesson that almost entirely formed my way of working. So it was very valuable, but at the time it was heartbreaking having to try to steal your camera negative back out of DuArt and stuff like that.
Do you know of any other film-makers who own all their negatives?
I don’t. I think John Sayles maybe owns some of his films. Cassavetes owned some of his films, some he didn’t. I don’t know of anyone else, other than, you know, film-makers like Michael Snow or Robert Frank. I own my own negatives and still produce all the films through my own company am very, very attentive to all the details. Maybe obsessively so, but I learned from that first incident that people’s intentions – or what they represent their intentions to be – are not always backed up by their actions. And keeping your word doesn’t necessarily mean much in America.
Right after Stranger Than Paradise’s success, you were quoted as saying, ‘Right now I could go out to LA and set up enough deals to buy a house and a swimming pool.’ What held you back from doing something like that?
It’s pretty much a personal reaction. I did get offers, but they were offers that I think were made by people who add up how many times your name or the name of your film appears in Variety. It really has nothing to do with your work or what it means, or what its content is. Also, I have always been drawn to things that were in the margins and not in the mainstream – this was true of me even as a teenager in Akron. I remember when I was fourteen or so, this friend of mine had an older brother who used to hitchhike to New York and other places, and while he was gone, we’d go into his room and find records by Ornette Coleman or The Mothers of Invention, and books by William Burroughs and Terry Southern. It was a revelation that there was more to the world than Akron, and that there were a lot of really interesting ideas that you could pursue and investigate that were very obviously not in the mainstream.
And also, let’s face it: Hollywood, for the most part, is about status and money and power – that’s like the Holy Trinity. And that is not and never will be my religion. At the time, I was living in New York very happily, finding a sort of ‘bohemian’ subculture here that was really invigorating and pretty adventurous. I met a lot of interesting artists, painters, writers, and musicians as well as plumbers and garbagemen and all kinds of people. So I don’t know, to just transplant myself and go to LA and be a hack director of coming-of-age teen comedies or whatever was not my thing.
Could you define the niche that your films tend to fit into? Would you consider them to be ‘arthouse’ fare, for example?
I hope that they are really difficult to categorize. I’m very intuitive and I never calculated or made a path to be ‘marginal.’ I just do what I do and where it is is where it is; it’s not something I have any desire to control. Those categories are somewhat annoying to me. Trying to categorize artistic movements or whatever is ridiculous – it’s like looking at the ocean from a helicopter and trying to number all the waves to see where they align themselves. It’s impossible. Those categories are mostly used for marketing or defining something, for reducing things.
So I don’t know where I fit in. I don’t feel tied to my time period. I’m an American by circumstance. I’m not really interested in nationalities or borders, though I am very interested in cultures and what makes them different from other cultures. And I’m also very fascinated by those areas where the lines of culture blur, because in those blurred edges is where synthesis occurs, and gardens grow. There are so many beautiful things that come from that blurring together of seemingly disparate elements.
Pardon my being literal, but your use of the word ‘blurring’ reminds me of those languorous tracking shots – usually from either a car or train window – that one can find in all your films. Why are your drawn to them?
Well, I love moving and being in motion, and I love being off-balance by not knowing everything about the place you’re in; it opens your imagination up. You have to fill in the blanks, and you fill them in with your imagination, not with facts. I like the simple landscape traveling shot because it’s the most pure visual reduction of moving and things changing around you.
My sense is that your first four films – well, the four after Permanent Vacation, which I’ve never seen –
That’s good. [Laughs.]
Those four films are really informed by the notion of travel – for instance, you picked a different location for each one, whether it was Louisiana for Down by Law, or Memphis for Mystery Train, or the several different cities visited in Night on Earth. And within those films, the characters themselves are all on their own various journeys through these places, which is, again, taken to a pretty literal extreme with Night on Earth. But your last two movies really have become more about interior – even metaphorical – journeys. Does that reflect a conscious decision on your part? You could almost call it a paradigm shift…
You know, I prefer not to analyze it, because I’m not very analytical. I can see what you mean by that shift and I don’t know how to respond to it that well. The only thing I can say – which is not a direct answer to the question – is that when I was twenty years old, I suspected everything; everything was a lie. I was inspired by the work of people like William Burroughs, or Sam Fuller (whose films really deal with the idea that the whole American Dream is a big lie, a deception). I suspected everything and always looked around to see who was controlling this and that, and what was being manipulated.
Now I’m in my forties, and I have seen so many weird things in my life that I’m willing to believe just about anything. So it’s almost like being in the same place, but with a different consciousness. I still very strongly believe that nothing is what it seems, but I’m much more willing to believe the possibilities of almost anything. So that’s kind of a big shift in perspective, and that may be why my films have shifted to being a little more interior in their themes. But I don’t really know.
Greil Marcus wrote about Dead Man: ‘There’s no hint in Jarmusch’s previous work that he was into anything but irony. This movie has no irony.’ Do you agree with that?
First of all, there are different forms of irony: there’s an ironic attitude towards the world, which I don’t think the films have, and there’s irony by situation. I don’t think my characters are flippantly ironic in their attitudes, but their stories – their circumstances – are very ironic. At the end of Stranger Than Paradise, Willie is on the plane going to Hungary, the girl, Eva, is back in the hotel, and Eddie is at the airport, about to drive back to New York. That’s ironic by situation. But I don’t find them ironic in tone, or in attitude. So I don’t know how I feel about that. One thing I’ve learned is that with anything that you create, your interpretation is of it is no more valid than the person who sees it. In a way, your interpretation is less valid because you can’t see it clearly. The beauty of cinema is that you can walk into a film, whatever it is, and if you’ve never seen it before, you are entering a new world, and you go with that world. Same with a new piece of music – it really takes you somewhere and you give yourself to it. I’ve seen each of my films a thousand times before it’s finished – I wrote it, I directed it, I was there for the editing – so it can never be fresh; I can never not know where it’s going to take me. Often other people explain things to me about my films that I wasn’t conscious of or that aware of, which is very interesting and valuable.
That’s also taught me to not be offended by any kind of criticism of my work. I’m not a person that has trouble with negative criticism at all – in fact, I generally prefer to read the negative criticism because maybe it’ll be an angle or perspective that’s different enough from my own and I might learn something from it. Greil Marcus, as a case in point, has explained a few things to me in his writing about Dead Man that I’m not sure I saw. To have someone with a mind like that looking at what I did and expressing his feelings or perception about it is really interesting.
In Year of the Horse, I was truck by how seldom during the concert footage we actually see shots of the audience and Crazy Horse in the same frame. You show lines of fans waiting to get into the concert in London, and you cut a few times between audience and performer during that same concert, but even then, the audience is shot in black-and-white and the bad is in colour. I really felt a formal divide between artist and audience, and it called to mind that ‘Warholian’ distance a lot of critics have characterized your films as having. Would you say that’s something you’re aware of when you’re working?
My job is not to presuppose what the audience wants or expects. I’ll leave that to a lot of other people. Commercial cinema is based on marketing analysis – you know, they show your film to a bunch of high-school girls in a shopping mall and then tell you to recut it because it was too slow. There are enough people who do that – that’s not my job. My job is to make films that those people with whom I choose to collaborate would like to see. We’re making a film for us. The rest of the world has to be ignored completely.
But I have to temper that by saying very sincerely that the film doesn’t exist until somebody sees it and brings their energy, their life experience, to that moment. Even if it’s purely for entertainment on a Friday night, they came to see this film and reacted to it, and they’ve completed an electric circuit.
I was wondering if you would talk a little about Dead Man’s relationship to the Western genre.
The Western is such an important genre in America, because it’s like a fantasy world that people have used to stamp all kinds of ideology on. And it was really interesting to me to work with that, because I tried for the first time with Dead Man to make a film that had a lot of layers to it, if you wanted to think about them. And if you didn’t, it was hopefully an alluring surface that you could follow as a story. But the themes in Dead Man include aboriginal cultures, William Blake, violence, the history of America, white European responses to nature versus aboriginal responses. Death, religion, philosophy. It’s about language. It’s about guns, it’s about law, it’s about the status of an outlaw – there are all these levels to Dead Man, and maybe that was the first time I was conscious of working in that way while writing. Something opened up for me, and I think the Western led me to that, because the Western is such an open form; it’s such a strange frame, within which you can have things as diverse as The Searchers or a film by Monte Helleman. After I made Night on Earth or Mystery Train, if someone had said to me, ‘You know, in a few years you’ll make a Western,’ I wouldn’t have believed it. But I don’t know, I got drawn to it.
When did you decide to bring in the whole William Blake angle?
Blake walked right in at a certain point while I was writing. I was reading a lot of stuff written by Native Americans, about their language and their philosophy, and I was sort of getting overwhelmed by it. So I picked up a book of Blake just to clear my head. I was reading Proverbs from Hell, and parts of it sounded so much like Native thought – like ‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow’, or ‘Expect poison from standing water’. This was William Blake! At that point he walked right into the story. And I always loved Blake for so many reasons – I mean, he’s a really fascinating, amazing character.
A true ‘visionary’, in every sense of the word.
Exactly. And a guy who was able to publish only his first book legitimately – for the rest of his life he was considered to be an eccentric nutcase and had to publish everything himself. He really wasn’t respected in his time. But he lived at a very odd time – he’s the last great Christian religious poet, yet he’s right on the cusp of industrialization, and somehow he transcends both religion and science in his ability to be a visionary. He’s also very contradictory, which I like a lot. A Christian who hates the church. It’s like Pasolini – A Marxist homosexual Catholic. I love those kinds of contradictions.
Did the Hagakure serve as a similar kind of catalyst for Ghost Dog?
Very similar, because I was already in the process of writing the script when I discovered it. I had already read a lot about bushido and Samurai culture – not in preparation for the film, but in the past, out of a sort of dilettantish interest. And the Hagakure was the perfect thing to read. – it gave me a map for the character and also a structural map for the film, in a way. The book is composed of little aphorisms, each separated by a monsho, as a breathing space. And somehow it formally opened things up.
Would you consider either film to be an ‘adaptation’ of sorts, since both relate back to specific texts?
It was more that I was open to their influence – they both walked in the writing and affected me deeply, but without me having calculated or even expected that. So the texts got woven into the fabric of the film, rather than the stories of the film being adapted from them.
Ghost Dog was a big breakthrough for me. Though I refer to Chaucer or to Walt Whitman or things in passing in the earlier films, in this case I opened myself up to actually quoting other things, and that came, I really think, from my love of music. I love all kinds of music, but hard bebop, dub, and hip-hop, in particular, are forms that are very open about taking things from other places, and I think they gave me – well, ‘courage’ isn’t the right word, but my love of those forms of music somehow spike to me internally and said, ‘Don’t push things away just because they come from other sources’, which is what I often used to do. ‘Go ahead and open the windows and let them in, and don’t hide that you let them in’. I’m not going to play a game like all these ideas are original and they’re mine; I want to talk about where they came from, because if someone sees Ghost Dog and it leads them to see films by Melville or Point Blank by John Boorman or the films Seijun Suzuki or to read Don Quixote or something that I mention in the credits, then that’s a good thing. I didn’t hide that in any way in Ghost Dog. Maybe Dead Man was a precedent, because that wacky poet William Blake walked right into my damn script.
You mentioned Melville – there are some very conscious nods to Le Samouraï in Ghost Dog, starting with their similar hit-men protagonists…
With their own moral code that the world doesn’t really respect or respond to.
Could you talk more specifically about how you were influenced by Melville, and, that film in particular?
I was interested in taking things from Melville that I found really moving. And some of them are minor things, like the fact that in various Melville films, before his killers kill someone, they put on white-cloth editor’s gloves – I don’t know if that was an inside joke with Melville and his editor – that he was saying his editor was a butcher or whatever, but I used that, too.
Also, Melville has been a teacher for me in something I love, which is cross-referencing cultures. His films are very, very French in their rhythm and certainly in the street language of Paris, yet the gangsters drive big American cars, and war American-style sharkskin suits. And of course, Melville took his name from Herman Melville. Really, how more blatant can you be? So he was very interested in finding those things that he loved and mixing them up together and making something new out of it. So it’s more that kind of inspiration. There are specific details I took from Le Samouraï but I wasn’t conscious of where should I distance myself from Melville at all, or how should I make it different. It was just, ‘These are things I love and they seem to intersect here, so I’m going to put them in’. They’re like ‘Variations on a Theme’ in musical composition.
In the night scenes, in particular, there are all of these gleaming reflective surfaces – the cars Ghost Dog steals, the CDs he gracefully manoeuvres, even the guns he uses…
Locations have quite a different effect than in the previous film. In Dead Man, the landscapes were almost characters in the film. Since there were themes concerning America as a place, and nature and how different cultures relate to it, the landscapes became incredibly important – they’re a really essential part of the fabric of the film. They are living things that people move through and they envelope the characters, like when they ride through the redwood forest – it’s like a cathedral, or some gigantic thing that dwarfs them. In Ghost Dog, the locations are more background, in a way – it’s almost the opposite way of using locations. The characters are always in the foreground and the backgrounds are all atmospheric surfaces, which surround them somehow. That’s not really answering your question, but that’s the extent of my consciousness of the locations in Ghost Dog.
Where was the film shot, by the way?
It was intended to be set in an undefined urban location, so we shot mostly in Jersey City because it’s incredibly difficult to identify. The only thing we had to avoid was the Manhattan skyline, which isn’t easy because there are views of Manhattan everywhere there. There was one scene where two of the Mog guys go up on a roof and they kill a guy who’s keeping pigeons, but he’s the wrong guy. In the wide shot facing them, you could see the World Trade towers, but I really needed that shot, so we put a clothesline up and carefully placed the material on it to block them out so we could use that angle. I really didn’t want it to be a specific place. Even now, people ask me where we shot it – ‘Is that Red Hook?’ ‘That doesn’t look like Brooklyn; is it the Bronx?’ I really wanted to take a signature off the landscape, not let it identify itself.
In a way, the physical solitude of the ‘samurai’ in Ghost Dog is much more pronounced than in Le Samouraï, where we scenes of Alain Delon with is girlfriend, or him showing up at clubs. In your film, Ghost Dog’s connections to other people are minimal, to say the least – there’s very little ‘noise’ in the background. Was that something that you thought about a lot?
Yeah, I always consider that. Some people say my films have always been abstractly depopulated, which may be true, but less is more for me. It reminds me of a beautiful essay by Carl Dreyer, where he talks about how the less you use in the location, the more identification with the character those objects you leave will have. Like if you have a roomful of furniture, you eye doesn’t associate any of it with the character because there is too much information. Whereas if you strip it down and there’s one chair and one table and one lamp, the very form of those objects has some effect on the viewer, because that is the atmosphere within which the character exists. I’m very conscious of those things. I don’t want to have too much activity buzzing around. It’s like using black-and-white for certain stories rather than colour – black-and-white gives you less information. That’s the only real difference, psychologically speaking – you’re not giving the audience the information about what colour a shirt is, so it has a very strong effect. Those little things become big.
There’s a whole Rashomon subtext going on in the film, not only in the passing around of the paperback book, but also in the fact that you show two different versions of the scene where Louie saves Ghost Dog. The former remembers the assailant’s gun pointing at him; Ghost Dog’s version has it pointing directly at him.
Which is pretty subtle. Some people don’t even get that.
It reverberates in so many interesting ways, because both men have built their relationship on the particulars of that remembered event.
Their whole lives are changed by that moment, and they remember it in a different way, a way that suits how each one’s life has changed because of that moment. So your memory is not really to be trusted, because as your life goes on, you fashion your memories to fit the consequent results. You know, people always say, ‘There are only twelve possible plots’, or ‘Only this many stories can exit,’ and that’s true to a large degree. But what they seem to ignore is that even if there were only, you know, three plots possible, there are as many different perspectives on those plots as there are humans who have ever lived – and that’s why Rashomon is such a resonant story.
Why did you decide to give Ghost Dog the carrier pigeons?
Because there was an old Italian guy who had pigeons on his rooftop right behind my house. I used to watch him flying them. I loved the way the light would hit the birds – if they were backlit, they would look black and then they would flip and look white, and there was something magical about it. The guy would stand out there, smoking a cigar, and he’d have this flag to bring them back. That’s the visual reason, but I also had them because I wanted Ghost Dog to be someone who uses ancient things and modern things at the same time – he doesn’t differentiate between their value. (Oh, and it’s a reference, of course, to On the Waterfront, but that was not primary, that was secondary.)
It also showed Ghost Dog’s respect for animals and other life forms, the absence of which I think is maybe at the heart of a lot of stupidity on the part of humans. This will get way off on to a long subject which my friends are, like, ‘Oh no, he’s going to start talking about the food chain again…’, but I really believe that once humans took themselves off the food chain they lost the understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. You know, the law of nature is Eat and Be Eaten, and life and death are part of the same thing, and animals that are predators are not more powerful than animals that are prey, because without prey there can be no predators. You can’t evaluate things in a human-centric way when you think about nature and animals and plants – all things are part of one thing. And that’s a part of Ghost Dog that certainly relates to Zen philosophy and to aboriginal philosophies, too. I’ve been interested in all of that since I was a child, but I really started to understand it more deeply while preparing and making Dead Man.
I love Ghost Dog’s motion of deference paid to the dead in the graveyard every time he passes it.
Respect to the spirits. That’s something Forest brought to the film, all those wonderful little moments. The first time we did just a run-through of that shot tracking alongside him, he gave that motion to the spirits. And we were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s part of Ghost Dog’.
You generally write scripts with your actors already in place, don’t you?
Yeah. The central actors. I do it backwards. [Laughs.] I cast before I start writing the main characters, because I have to visualize them. I can’t write a vague character and then go out and see who fits it. I have to have them playing around in my imagination so I can visualize them moving down the street or whatever they’re doing.
I loved the way the cartoons you selected for Ghost Dog played against – or even prefigured – certain scenes in the film. And their illogic – like the one with the bullets being shot up the drain and coming out of the showerhead – really deepened the poetry of the film when it referenced them. How did you choose which ones to use?
It was an odd thing, because first of all, the cartoons I originally wanted – like the Tex Avery stuff, Hanna-Barbera – I couldn’t use, because they refused to license any clip to a film that had any violence in it. The irony of that was kind of surprising, but predictable. Stacey Smith did a lot of research on who would license clips, and collected hours of odd cartoons. So then we just sort of amused ourselves hunting for things that I could license that did play off of stuff that was happening in the film. A more Hollywood, or commercial, way to do it would have been to have the cartoons always come right after the action, so you would see them echoing it. But instead, they usually come before, and you don’t immediately get the connection. I just love animation, and I thought it was an interesting way to have another layer in the film that came from popular culture, and one more element in there that could make things that were happening in the story resonate even more. In the way that the Hagakure echoes things that are happening, the cartoons echo them from a totally different place. Cartoons are incredible because your imagination as an animator is not restricted by anything in the physical world at all. I love it when Heckle & Jeckle, for instance, always say in those cartoons, ‘How did that happen? Because this is a cartoon, we can do anything!’ [Laughs.] I love that freedom of imagination.
I love popular culture, and I hope all my work indicates that. When I was in college at Columbia, my friend Luc Sante and I used to argue with academics about the hierarchy of culture. We’d say, ‘Okay, we love to listen to Bach, but we love the Ramones just as much. We love Dante, but we love Charles Willeford, too.’ And how can you say that Charles Willeford is just pulp crap, but Dante is classic stuff? Dante wrote in the vernacular of his time, which was unheard of. He was the first person to use spoken Italian – that’s like hip-hop today! So how can that be different from listening to the Wu-Tang Clan? I don’t see the difference. Of course, now that I’m older, I find myself arguing the reverse side of the same thing, saying ‘You know, I love popular culture, but are you guys familiar with Dante?’
Speaking of the Wu-Tang Clan, I wanted to talk about RZA’s score for Ghost Dog. In a piece in the New York Times, it was reported that you had a sort of clandestine meeting with him in a blacked-out van in the middle of the night, where he handed you a tape –
That was an abbreviation – it reduced the whole story of our collaboration to one little anecdote taken out of context. What happened was, I always listen to music before I write a script – I sort of hone in on things that firing my imagination for the film’s atmosphere. In this case, I was listening to a lot of dub stuff, outside jazz, and hip-hop – particularly instrumental mixes of different DJs, like DJ Premier and 4th Disciple. But RZA is my favourite, and I was madly taping off any instrumental mix by RZA I could find, because my dream was for him to do all the music for the film. I hadn’t even started writing at this point. And then, after I finished the script, I tried to find RZA through his manager, his lawyer, his agent – and it was, like forget it. As I said to RZA, it was like trying to find a criminal by going to the cops. That’s not the way it works.
So I talked to my friend Nemo Labrizzi, who is so much like family I call him my ‘nephew’. He’s very street-connected, so he put me in touch with a friend of his, Dreddy Kruger, who’s an associate of the Wu-Tang thing, and Dreddy hooked me up with RZA. I met with him a few times and I told him a little bit about the project. We come from different places, but it was very easy for us to talk with each other about a lot of different things, so after our second meeting, RZA said, ‘Yeah, I’m down, I want to do this.’ The film hadn’t even been shot yet. When I had a rough cut – he has a brief cameo in the film – I showed it to him, and then he called me a few weeks later and told me to meet him in a blacked-out van on 50th and Broadway at two in the morning, which I did, and he handed me a little DAT tape with nothing written on it. A lot of the music on it was not exactly what I had thought it would be – I wanted that spooky, minimal, beautiful, slightly damaged, awkward sound of RZA’s Wu-Tang stuff. Some of it was like that, but most of it was more like a traditional score – well, not necessarily ‘traditional’, but a score that would be perfect in, like, a John Woo film from Hong Kong. And it was great music – he should use it for another film – but I told him that those pieces were not what I was really looking for. And he said, ‘Okay, I know what you want.’ Three weeks passed, and he calls me and I get another tape from him, and this time the music is incredible, it’s exactly what I want, all kinds of stuff. Then he came back a few weeks later with even more. By the end we had more music than we could use in the film, but it was incredible stuff.
The score is such a perfect marriage of music and image. That ‘awkwardness’ you talked about, for instance, plays so beautifully against the repeated images of the pigeons flapping their wings…
The weird thing is, RZA did it all by memory. He did it all via his feeling for the film. When he gave us music, rarely did he say anything about where it should go. He had a few ideas for the opening sequence, but otherwise, nothing was written for a particular place. So Jay Rabinowitz, the amazing ‘samurai’ editor, and I played with the music and placed it. RZA said, ‘Cut it up, edit it, mix it together – I don’t care.’ It was just incredible to me that his sensitivity to the soul of the film was so strong that he would create very different pieces of music that were all perfect for it, but it was up to us to choose how we used them.
There’s a wonderful poignancy – not to mention hilarity – to the exchanges in the movie between Isaach De Bankolé and Forest Whitaker, where, even though they don’t speak each other’s language, it’s clear that they’ve formed a deep bond. When the film came out in New York, weren’t the subtitles for De Bankolé’s French dialogue left out?
Yeah, that was a big mistake. It was only in New York, where Artisan released the film first. Fifteen screens with no subtitles. It was particularly painful because they had put the film in several ‘urban’ theatres – in other words, in predominantly Black neighbourhoods. Whatever – these kinds of categories are so foreign to me. But if you show the film in Newark to that particular audience and one-third of the humour and part of the plot is missing, then the guy with a similar theatre in Oakland is going to look at how it did in Newark and probably not book the film. So it was fucked up.
But Artisan came through, admitted the problem, and did free screenings, which is pretty much unheard of. I told them I wanted to do that, and I think most film distributors would have said, ‘Fuck you, you’re crazy! We can’t say that there was a fuck-up – are you nuts?’ But they stepped up, and I respect that about them.
How involved are you in the marketing of your films?
I have some input and I make comments on details, but I don’t evaluate the overall thing – it’s another world to me. As soon as the Ghost Dog marketing strategy started referring to separating ‘arthouse’ audiences from ‘urban’ audiences, you’ve lost me already, because that’s against everything I stand for. But’s that the way their thinking and their operations are, and I can’t change that. So I look at it, I make comments; sometimes I change things in the trailers or TV ads. But I’ve begun to sort of step back more and more – I’m more open to them doing what they want, as long as I feel they’re not really misleading the audience.
You know, when you think about it, getting people in to see a film is the oldest con in the world, because you are hooking them into paying for a product before they see it, and if they don’t like it, tough shit, you’ve already got them in there. It’s pure carnival hustle, with the poster, the trailer, all that stuff. I just don’t want them to misrepresent the film and put some chick with no shirt on the poster if that has nothing to do with hit – which they do all the time. A case in point was Eyes Wide Shut. They marketed it as a ‘sexy’ film, and yet the people who did that are the same fucking morons who blocked out the sex scenes in the actual movie! You can’t get more transparent than that. That sums it right up: We’ll use the sex to sell it, but we’ll take the sex out.
Obviously the New York indie scene has changed enormously in the past fifteen years, particularly with the rise of Miramax, and, more recently, companies like Artisan, and with them the notion of the ‘indie blockbuster’. Do you have a sense of where things are heading, or whether these developments are good or bad?
Well, I don’t know how to predict anything any more. Everything is controlled by corporations now, and that’s depressing. One thing you have to remember about New York is that there are no natural resources here. The city has always been based on trade, and that means con men, and money changing hands, and who can cheat who out of what. That’s why we have Wall Street. You know, the tip of Manhattan was originally a trading post for Native people. So that means that things are always in flux here – if you don’t like change, it’s not a good place to be. Many of those changes are really heartbreaking, like when they tore down Penn Station, or the way Times Square is now Disney World. But it’s inevitable. Now we’re at a particularly bad time because we live in Giulianiville, and it’s all about selling out to the highest bidder and corporate greed. As far as independent film goes, that, too, it just a label they slap on to sell things, and now Hollywood imitates independent films. Todd Solondz made Happiness, which allowed Hollywood to make American Beauty – basically a watered-down version with no teeth to it. And it cleaned up at the Oscars.
But this is a culture that always usurps and repackages its own waste products and sells you shit. They always do that. It’s like what happened with the counterculture in the Sixties – Time magazine called them hippies, the government made them seem like whacked-out drug freaks and then a couple of years later they start selling tie-dyed shirts at the mall.
And suburban housewives are wearing peace symbols around their necks.
Exactly. That’s just the way it works. So I don’t know how to even assess or predict what will happen. New technology is always interesting as a tool, but it does always get usurped very quickly. My favourite example is television. What a beautiful, incredible idea. But it’s become like a big river that everybody throws their garbage into. And people say, ‘Oh, TV sucks, the river is ugly.’ But the river isn’t ugly, it’s all the garbage that’s in it. Similarly, it’s not the concept of the Internet that makes it into a shopping mall, it’s the way people use it.
Digital video is very liberating for a lot of people because they can avoid the middleman – now they don’t have to get on their hands and knees and genuflect to the studios to get money out of them. But you know, it all gets turned around. Like with Sundance. I read some account a few years ago of someone who showed his first film there, and it was a nice film, and he was a promising director, but there was a feeding frenzy, and a distributor bought it for, like, eight million dollars. And of course on that level the film was a failure, and then director’s career was ‘over’.
Do you feel that there’s still a viable creative scene here in the city?
Less and less. It was much more evident back in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when there was a creative burst here, particularly in music. As people slowly got signed to major labels and pulled away, the scene was dismantled. Now I really feel there’s no scene in New York, which is partly an economic thing because so many young people – the new blood – can’t afford an apartment in the city. It’s no longer, well, you walk out at night and go to CBGB’s and you’re going to find something happening there. It seems like there is no centred new wave of energy coming from anywhere, because corporations decide what we’re going to hear – what music they’re going to push down our throats.
I’m sure there are little enclaves here and there where you’ll find exciting things happening – probably in the places you’d least expect. Iran is a good example – their films are so good; there’s a garden of beautiful things growing there in a place you’d least expect to find them. So I don’t know. Also, I don’t like getting too nostalgic, because things always change – it’s like the ocean: they keep rolling and a lot of interesting things have happened during this change. But they’re harder and harder to find. As RZA said, ‘Wu-Tang shit is underground. And if a large audience reaches out for it, we want it to be there for them, but we aren’t going to change what we do in order to facilitate them finding it. Our shit is still underground.’
That sounds pretty close to what you might say about your own work.
Yeah, it’s very close. Same with someone like Neil Young. I love Neil because he doesn’t give a fuck about what’s fashionable. He’s also completely contrary. If I was his advisor, I would have told him not to go back out on the road with Crosby, Stills and Nash, but that would just make him more inclined to do it. He’s say, ‘Oh, you think that’s a bad move, do you? Then I’ll definitely do it.’ Or Tom Waits. He lives in his own world. His last record was probably his best-selling one. It’s a great record, but it doesn’t really make sense that Mule Variations sold more than Swordfishtrombones – and it was certainly nothing he planned.
He doesn’t give a shit. And we need people that don’t give a shit, because there are already more than enough people who do – there’s enough prefabricated garbage out there. I am very, very critical of people’s expression. I have particular tastes. Whether it’s hip-hop or rock ‘n roll or gospel music, there’s probably no more than ten percent of it in any given genre that I’m going to respond to. But now, as I’m older, there may be parts of, say, Gummo that I think are embarrassing and horrible, but there are other parts that I think are beautiful and sublime. So rather than saying, ‘There’s a lot of that film that’s shit and I don’t like it,’ I’m going to say, ‘Bring on Harmony Korine and let him make more movies,’ because he’s following his own vision. When I was twenty, I would have dismissed it; now I value it more, because I think that these days, the strange stuff – and the original stuff – is less valued in the marketplace, and everything is evaluated by the fucking marketplace. So even tough I’m still very critical, I really try to look for the value in something if it’s clear that the intention is not for profit or fame, or all that superficial stuff that means nothing to me.
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Transcribed by Larry DaSilveira
Transcribed by Larry DaSilveira