Before independent film became an overused term, there were a bunch of filmmakers making movies for the sake of making movies, or rather art. Jim Jarmusch was one of those fledgling filmmakers. His 1984 film Stranger Than Paradise, his second feature, defined what was then a blooming indie film movement and inspired an entire generation of filmmakers to follow.
His subsequent features Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man, Year of the Horse, and now Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, continue to redefine the possibilities that cinema has to offer. Ghost Dog stars Forest Whitaker as a Mafia hit man who combines ancient samurai teachings with modern-day technology. He's a character stuck between the past and present, who follows a line of ethics that has been forgotten.
Jarmusch admitted that independent film has, indeed, shifted since he began. Once synonymous with low-budget, experimentation, indie film has now become, as Jarmusch put it, "a label they slap on stuff to sell a product."
Continued the acclaimed writer/director, "It doesn't mean much of anything now. To me, an independent filmmaker is someone like John Cassavetes or John Sayles, when he works independently of any studio. It really is when the people making the film have control over the film, artistically. To me, that's independent of the business side of filmmaking, and that's a valid side. I'm not against commercial filmmaking, but it's not my place.
"I don't think of my films as products. I think of them as small forms of narrative expression. My heart is with people who are making the films because they believe in the form, rather than they want to be famous or rich or powerful."
If Jarmusch had a Declaration of Independence, it would include the promise of equality for all. Unlike some directors who oversee a production as if they were the kings ruling over a caste system, Jarmusch considers everyone he works with his peers. That includes his treatment of actors. It does not matter whether the performer is Johnny Depp (the lead in Dead Man) or a relatively obscure character actor-they are equal in his eyes.
"A central role is a central role, but all roles are equally important to the fabric of a film, in the same way that all members of the crew, to me, are of equal value," he opined. "It doesn't matter what their function is. It doesn't matter if they're a gofer or the director of photography. Their value is equal because we can't make the film without them. An actor is certainly very similar. I'm really impressed by actors who don't reject a role because it's just not big enough for them.
"Victor Argo [Taxi Driver, Crimes and Misdemeanors], for example, agreed to play a fairly small role in Ghost Dog because he's a fine actor. He could have played larger roles in the film, probably beautifully, but I really thought of him as this guy [Vinny] and he agreed to play that guy and he did a beautiful job. I got to work with a lot of amazing actors on my last film, Dead Man, that were in smaller roles-actors like John Hurt and Alfred Molina-but they didn't say, "It's got to be a bigger role or I'm not interested.'"
Playing in a Sandbox
Another way that Jarmusch breaks from the pack of many directors is that he always devotes quality time to rehearsing with the members of his cast. For Ghost Dog, Jarmusch devoted three to four weeks of rehearsal time. He explained that this preliminary time is crucial for him and his actors to not only get to know the characters better, but to get to know each other better as well. A level of trust is developed that allows his actors to feel very comfortable once shooting begins.
Explained the filmmaker of his process, "Rehearsal is a way for myself and each actor to find that character together. And often I don't rehearse the scenes that are in the film, but scenes that are not in the film, because it's not about the scene, it's about finding that character together-how would the actor react to something that's not in the film. [That way] the actor has a center and foundation for his character to fall into when the camera rolls."
The rehearsal period is also a great opportunity for the actors to experiment with their roles, according to Jarmusch.
"To me, it's like playing in a sandbox, because when you rehearse, nothing you do is wrong," he said. "Some of it you may reject, because, together, you may decide it's not the right direction, but you learn from the things that aren't working as much as you do from the things that are, and there's no money rolling through the camera. There's no crew there. It's just you in a room imagining things. So you can try anything. I really like that. It's very liberating. We can do whatever we want, and we get ideas from it. There's no one pressuring us and saying we've got to break or this is costing too much or you did too many takes. We can do the scene 20 times with the dialogue never being the same and find things in it that we like. Rehearsing is hard work, but it's a lot of fun, too."
Jarmusch has also discovered that it is best for him to deal with each actor one on one when discussing a scene on the set.
"I learned way, way back that it's best never to talk about what the scene means to all the actors in the scene together, because it means a different thing for each one," said the director. "So I try to talk to them individually and keep it a collaboration on a individual basis. I wouldn't say the same thing to each actor about what's going to happen in the scene, because it means a different thing to each one."
If you're wondering what kind of actors Jarmusch likes to work with, you may have a hard time pinpointing it. His cast alumni have included everyone from Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Robert Mitchum, Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Billy Bob Thornton, Rosie Perez, Ellen Barkin, Roberto Benigni, Benigni's wife Nicoletta Braschi, and Steve Buscemi, to equally fine actors like Elizabeth Bracco, Sy Richardson, Tom Noonan, Gary Farmer, Jared Harris, and Ghost Dog's John Tormey, Henry Silva, Cliff Gorman, and Isaach de Bankol .
Jarmusch also enjoys working with actors who are perhaps better known for their work as musicians, and has gotten some fine performances out of such people as Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and John Lurie.
When asked what binds these diverse performers together, Jarmusch replied that each one of them exudes a humanity which touches his soul in some way that's difficult to define precisely.
Nevertheless, he tried to explain: "It's very subjective, but if an actor gives a performance and I forget they're acting and I'm involved in the human qualities of their character, that actor interests me."
Jarmusch also values a "childlike" quality that for some people is difficult to deal with, but for him holds the beauty of acting. He said it's not uncommon for people to say to him "Oh, you're working with that actor? He's going to be difficult." Jarmusch's reply is always, "Difficult for you, maybe, but I work in a different way."
He continued, "There is a childlike quality in actors that I think should be nurtured, that some people think is irresponsible at times. I think it's necessary sometimes. Actors are playing pretend. They have to become another person and that involves their imagination, and so their imagination has to be protected in a way that a child's has to protected. That childish quality is a gift that they have. It's not something to squash. It's something to nurture and allow them to have. A lot of actors are crazy in funny ways that I respect." BSW