Reflecting on how he came to be involved with the film, Farmer recalls, "I was touched by the way Jim offered me the part of Nobody. I live in Canada in the bush between Montreal and Toronto. My closest neighbor is two miles away so it's really the middle of nowhere, but Jim managed to make his way there--which impressed me--and spent a few days with me. It was this time of year, so it was really beautiful, and we spent a lot of time walking in the hills while he told me the story in the manner of a traditional storyteller.
"Then later when I read the script, it was easy for me to find the character of Nobody in my heart because my experience has been much like his," he adds. "Like Nobody, it took me a long time to get past all the things society laid on me and reconnect with who I really am."
Jarmusch also had Depp in mind for the part of William Blake from the start. "Johnny's a subtle actor, which I respect," Jarmusch says. "He refuses to telegraph things or be dramatic and is always completely on top of whatever he's doing. He's physically beautiful too, of course, but Johnny isn't just some model-type guy--as a person he has a very deep soul."
Says Depp of the character of William Blake: "The transition this man undergoes is a strange one because with each step his foot lands in another pile of crap, but at the same time, he's experiencing a kind of spiritual ascension. He isn't aware of any of this until midway through the film, however, when he has an encounter with a fawn and recognizes himself in this animal. At that point, he leaves the person he was behind and begins to merge with his surroundings.
"Technically it was a difficult role because physically the guy's in the process of winding down, but the film was shot out of sequence," Depp adds. "I really had to pay attention in order to remember where I was in that process. Before we started shooting, Jim and I talked a lot about what the emotional repercussions would be of the intense physical pain this man is experiencing, and that psychological preparation helped a lot during the shoot."
Keeping the film moving at a brisk clip is a far-flung cast of cameo performers that includes Mitchum, Pop, Gabriel Byrne, John Hurt, Crispin Glover, Jared Harris and Alfred Molina. One could make the case, however, that Depp and Farmer's key co-stars are the exquisitely photographed landscape--"Robby Muller made every frame look like a Cartier-Bresson photograph," says Depp--and the film's haunting score by Neil Young.
Of how he came to create the music for the film, Young explains: "I saw an early cut of the film and absolutely loved it--in fact, I thought it was finished at that point, so when Jim asked me about doing music for it, I was very interested.
"This is the first score I've done because I always thought scoring a film meant you had to sit there and count the number of seconds in the scene, then write music that matched up perfectly in terms of time," he continues. "I can't imagine anything more boring, so what I did instead was watch the film twice, set up a guitar, pump organ and prepared piano [one whose sound has been altered through the insertion of various objects into its inner workings], ran the film a third time and improvised along with it, changing from one instrument to the next.
"It's basically the same way musical accompanists worked in the days of silent movies. I did two complete takes--one very tender, the other more rhythmic and aggressive--and used parts of both in the final score."
Of the look of the film, Jarmusch says, "I wanted to convey a sense of how varied and magical the place of America is. The shoot went from the desert outside of Phoenix, to the high desert, to the Aspen forest, to the ocean, to the Redwoods, to a burned forest blanketed with snow in Oregon--like America itself, it's all so incredible and strong and fragile."
The film moves through all this beauty at a lyrical pace that makes you feel as though you're meandering across the West on the back of a horse. This hypnotizing rhythm is occasionally disrupted by jarring episodes of violence, about which Jarmusch says, "I'm not too analytical about my own work so it's hard for me to defend the choices I make. I love movies like 'The Evil Dead' as much as I love Carl Dreyer or Ozu, and I felt those scenes were necessary to the overall fabric of the film. With the cannibalism scene, I don't know--I guess I got carried away," he laughs.
The bits of violence in the film are pretty gruesome, but Jarmusch expects any quarrel critics may have with "Dead Man" to emanate from different quarters.
"I'm sure there will be some criticism of the film for making the white man the bad guy," he says, "but what are we to make of the fact that conservative estimates say 25 million Native Americans were killed? This suggests to me that genocide was attempted on these people, but America has been in a state of denial about it ever since."