Infusing "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" with the essence of hip-hop, writer-director Jim Jarmusch has freely reworked ideas and borrowed symbols from a wide range of movies.
References from karate flicks to westerns and everything in between appear throughout the Artisan Entertainment film, which opens nationally today. Still, the project, which stars Forest Whitaker in the title role as a stoic hit man, is difficult to classify.
" 'Ghost Dog' is a mixture of a lot of things, almost a collage," says Jarmusch, who has also directed "Year of the Horse" and "Dead Man." "It isn't a gangster or a samurai or a western or a hip-hop or an action film, but it has references to all those things."
That blurred line of classification and the eclectic cinematic references give "Ghost Dog" a decidedly hip-hop edge, and the film was scored by the RZA, a premier hip-hop producer. The Staten Island, N.Y., artist joins fellow rappers-producers Wyclef Jean (who scored "Life," which starred Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence) and Schoolly D (who scored a number of Abel Ferrara's films) in the growing ranks of hip-hop musicians being hired to score films.
Although hip-hop artists are often criticized for using the work of others in their material, Whitaker says that a blend of musical styles, specifically from a hip-hop perspective, had to be used in order for "Ghost Dog" to have a score that effectively follows its plot.
"The style of the movie is hip-hop," Whitaker says. "Because of the way [Jarmusch] references these other movies, it has to be hip-hop. That's what he does throughout the movie, he's sampling pieces of other things. The movie is designed like a rap song, where it would borrow something from another source. It's very simple, because at its core it's all about the eternal. That's why it's so" minimalistic.
Jarmusch became a fan of the RZA in 1993, when the Wu-Tang Clan, a group the RZA produces and raps for, released its debut album. The RZA's use of sound bites from kung fu movies as well as the sometimes awkward feel to his music captivated Jarmusch. In his lyrics, the RZA, as well as other members of the Clan, has regularly incorporated Eastern philosophies and referred to ancient Eastern texts.
As a man who relies on music when developing a script, Jarmusch felt that hip-hop and the RZA would be essential to a film that would pay homage to so many sources and would be presented as a mosaic of thought.
"Before I start writing a script, I listen to a lot of music and I home in on a lot of music that is feeding my imagination for the particular atmosphere I'm trying to get to," he says. "I was listening to certain jazz and a lot of early dub stuff, but I was listening to the RZA's instrumentals and they were really inspiring me. It was like--yeah, this music is really opening up my imagination to a certain rhythm of images that were just in the stage of being imagined. It just was working for me. It seemed appropriate.
"RZA's music is very evocative, very cinematic to me," Jarmusch continues. "It opens up my imagination to certain atmospheric things that are not necessarily contained in the music but [that] make your mind open to things. To me, RZA makes little films with music."
Jarmusch and the RZA met before Jarmusch started shooting the film. They discussed sonic ideas and themes for the score, but the first batch of music the RZA gave the director sounded too much like a traditional score for this nontraditional movie. It didn't fit with the RZA's signature, "damaged" sound, and it certainly didn't jibe with Jarmusch's vision.
The original music failed to embody the hip-hop sensibility of Ghost Dog, a character who wears cornrows, sports military gear and wears a thick chain around his neck much like many hip-hop aficionados. Ghost Dog also shares another common thread with the hip-hop community: his respect for the mob. He works for the mob, which has been idolized on a number of songs by a variety of hip-hop artists.
With a clearer understanding of Jarmusch's intent, the RZA produced a new set of music for the film. This new music, for the most part, is lean, drum-driven work, both simple and powerful, like much of the RZA's better material. It serves as a suitable backdrop for the seemingly hip-hop Ghost Dog character.
In addition to the appropriate musical score, the actor portraying the main character had to fit into Jarmusch's vision. After several meetings with Whitaker, Jarmusch molded Ghost Dog with Whitaker firmly in mind.
"I'm attracted to actors who don't act out the intention of a scene on screen," Jarmusch says. "I really get annoyed when they have to theatrically telegraph to you immediately what this means. I like actors that become a character and then in the world of the film, they're in certain situations in which they just react as that person. I find that believable. Forest is a classic example of an actor who understands that. You can use very little and say a lot more."