Maze Called Life
Whitaker is as cool as you'd want him to be, thoughtful and wise, of course, but
also attentive and gracious. Dressed in casually elegant white slacks and shirt,
he's also got wide-ranging interests, being as into music, literature, and
social politics as he is into the movie business. He's serene and intense, and
almost humble, as well: when he talks to you, he looks at and into you, like
he's trying to hear you; I mean, he looks like he's paying attention, rather
than thinking about when the interview will be over and what he's going to have
We start by talking about his new film, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which he made with independent writer-director Jim Jarmusch and hip hop artist the RZA. I asked about how closely they worked together on the film.
Me and Jim started earlier I guess, because Jim came to me with this idea. We
had about three or four conversations and then started talking about music and
RZA's name came up. RZA really wrote the music to pictures, or, he wrote after
he saw the film; he was inspired by it. He'd write pieces and send them over to
Jim, and Jim cut it where it fit. The album's quite unique: it's inspired by the
film, including those sparse tracks he had in there, like the opening one you
hear while you see the bird flying. And they're so different on the album than
on the screen.
Did you study up on martial arts and samurai philosophy for the role?
I started reading the
Hagekure and other
books, including one called The Code of the Samurai
, and I watched a lot of films. I tried to find his mindset more than
anything. It's more like a trance-like state for this character than it is
anything else, based in the ancient book that he follows. But I did a lot of
different types of research.
Didn't you have a previous martial arts background?
FW: Thre's the one long sword technique, which I learned from the stunt guy; but the other techniques, with the machete and my hands, all that stuff that probably looks a little more flashy, is stuff I knew from studying it as a kid. I kind of remembered it, which is not to say that it would be that effectual on the street. And that was all improv on the roof: Jim just said, "Let's shoot." and I found a rhythm.
What's your thinking about
Ghost Dog 's place in
relation to, say, independent films and so-called hiphop films, or more recent
independent-hiphop hybrid films, like Marc Levin's Slam
and James Toback's
Black and White ?
FW: I guess that for it to be considered independent and not just an "urban movie" -- because there are lots of those made by studios and with low budgets -- might depend on who you define as "independent." I'd define it as someone having a unique vision, outside of the mainstay of Hollywood. There are films, like Juice or New Jersey Drive , obviously hip hop-flavored, but neither was independently financed. So I think the independent hip hop film is a new arena. This one started out of a desire, coming from me and Jim -- we met at a Super-8 camera store, I had my camera, he had his, I think he was doing Year of the Horse . And we said we'd like to work together. A year later, he said, "I think I have an idea." and we started talking. We weren't thinking of the film as part of a "movement," but if there is something, it might have to do with filmmakers looking at what they consider the "underbelly" of society, which really, in this day, is still considered hip hop, even though it's more popular than any other music form right now.
I just read a piece in the
New York Times (13
March 00), on the Wutang model of business, as it's been picked up by Ruff
Ryders and Cash Money, with family affiliations and members working together and
sometimes solo, with "home" labels.
FW: Yeah, they're like tribes, developing artists inside of themselves. They have a group mentality, they want to work together -- like Busta and his group too -- but they have to work so hard now to keep up. Before, years ago, you could drop like one album a year, but you can't do that anymore. I think Master P's system, last year, of putting out an album every month almost, started to make everyone think, "I gotta get my music out there. I can't be forgotten. I gotta keep going."
Let's talk Hollywood politics for a minute. How do you feel about the movies
you've directed, being categorized as "women's films"?
I understand why people say that. They're centered around female points of view.
Even though Waiting to Exhale
is about relationships, it's focused on four women's lives, and
Hope Floats is about one woman's life. I don't have a problem with the
classification of "chick flicks," or whatever it's called. I'm just
trying to tell the stories, about people's feelings.
What attracted you to those projects?
relationship issues. I don't really find it as different from myself, the issues
and the feelings; they're things I've experienced in my own life, in some way or
another, on one side or the other, and if not personally, then through someone
who was next to me. Feeling hurt or feeling loss, or being in relationships that
are destructive, I don't find this to be women-specific. Those kinds of needs
are pretty universal. And I never found myself at a loss, or at a place where I
didn't understand what was going on with the characters, not once.
Do you think your attitude is unusual for male directors?
to Exhale was so strong, women really rallied behind that movie,
Hope Floats was
successful in its own way. But Waiting to Exhale was
like an anthem -- people were using the phrase, it became part of the culture,
TV shows were doing parties -- so it puts me in a position where people say,
"You do these women's movies." I welcome that, but the fact of the
matter is, there have been a number of movies made about women, and there aren't
that many women filmmakers. It's just recently that we've had more female
filmmakers starting to work, and some of them don't even do
"women-generated films," like Mimi Leder. Her movies have strong women
in them, but they're more testosterone-driven. But no one has really asked Jim
Brooks about doing
Terms of Endearment , and
when they say in a review that Waiting to Exhale is
like George Cukor, that means that he was doing it already. I'm not the first.
So I don't have any lofty idea about my choice of subject matter.
It seems like all your films -- directing and acting -- have been concerned with
communication between people.
That's important to me, connecting with people, with feelings. That's always
been a goal in my work. In the beginning, that was the reason I was doing it, to
find some connection with everyone, not as a movie star, but to find something
in a character that would connect, that was part of the spirit that we're all
connected to. I don't think about it in terms like that anymore, but I know I'm
still guided to those kinds of projects, and I'll always be guided to them. I'm
not attracted to anything that doesn't have to do with real relationships. I
like fantasy, I like myth, and to me myth is even more connected to our core.
How did you get started in acting?
In high school I did some musicals, but I never took acting until college. I was
studying opera, classical voice, and a speech teacher asked me to audition for
this play and I got the lead. And she helped me to get into a conservatory, with
a scholarship as a singer, and then I was accepted into the acting conservatory.
This agent saw me, the summer before I went to conservatory, and while I was in
school, I started working right away. And it worked out.
So you didn't pursue this as your one and only career.
Not at all, and I was always kind of nervous that it wasn't the right thing for
me. I could have done what I wanted, I had like a 3.8 average. My folks wanted
me to be a doctor, but I figured it out and started to do it [acting]. I was
concerned that I couldn't do it well enough. I have a little bit of a demon that
follows me about mediocrity, in myself, and I used to judge myself really
Did it help that people around you were saying that you were fabulous and giving
you prizes and roles?
Not at all. I think I was a little arrogant about it in some ways, I was like,
"No, I don't care what they think." even after I won an award for
Bird , I was still chased by that demon, until a few years later,
another hit man movie I did, called
Diary of a Hit man , and
I said, "Okay, I can do this." I don't know why that little movie did
it. I think it was because I was so busy before it, and normally I spend so much
time to prepare, and I didn't have time in between. And I met with this hit man
in Pittsburgh, and I just jumped into it. He took me to clothing stores and told
me my shoes were all wrong: it was like
Pretty Woman for hit men. I liked working on that film, and lost some of my
You feel confident now, as you're choosing projects?
I feel more centered; it's not my focus. At that time I was so obsessive. Now, I
really care about my work but I have so many other things I'm dealing with, and
I try to look at my life more overall. I try to live my life as an expression of
my art, as opposed to, "That's art, and this is conversation." It
makes me enjoy things a bit more.
It looks like you might have enjoyed Ghost Dog . How
did you and Isaach De Bankole work out your characters?
He's great, isn't he? I only speak a little bit of French, I couldn't hardly
understand what he was saying, but you can understand him if you watch him,
because he's so animated. That was one of the brilliant things about this film,
how it shows true communication, sometimes in odd ways, like with the bird, the
passenger pigeon. And then that scene on the roof, where we're looking at the
guy with the boat, and there are three different languages. It's quite unusual,
and I like that theme, about transcending words. The movie is mostly about
spirit, the internal, I think. And that was the key to how I worked on the part,
to try to create an internal life, to sustain the character even though I don't
talk very much. I only talk for like thirty or forty minutes, when you see me.
So my whole life has been that kind of silence, you know? Even when I'm talking
to the bird that comes to me: "Yeah, there is something you could do for
me." Or the dog: I was having a silent conversation with the dog, until the
girl tells me I can tell him to go.
Camille Winbush, who plays the girl, she's amazing.
She's got a really strong spirit. I read with a lot of girls, and she wasn't the
best, but she had the strongest samurai spirit that Jim was looking for.
How would you describe that samurai spirit she has?
It's something that's a little ancient, and by that I mean wise, internally
wise, something that's convicted, that knows where she stands. And a sense of
quiet strength, something that's a little bit of magic. I hope she's able to do
that as she grows older, it's hard for little kids to grow up, you know?
What do you make of the film's thematic interest in the ways the gangsters saw
all "others" as the "same thing"?
I think Jim was making a point, with the Native Canadian, or the black guys. The
common denominator: they all name themselves. So why are the gangsters making it
so separate? Why are you calling me names? The film makes the point about all
kinds of minority groups, even women. And it makes it with humor. I think the
movie is funnier than Jim thought it was going to be; I don't think he knew the
relationship between me and Isaach was going to be
The TV cartoons are another level of humor.
Yeah, like little commentaries all the way through. It's also reflective of the
hip hop community, the cartoons and the comic book world. It's cool, you know.
The comic books, it deals more with superheroes and archangels, and the
cartoons, well, there's Betty Boop.
But Felix the Cat, man, he's something else.
Felix the Cat was perfect for my character, because I am him, with my own magic
bag of tricks. Jim did a good job with that. He grabbed a hold of a lot of
components that seem superficial, but are also deeply-rooted hip hop elements.
Like the mob: the hip hop community embraces that image, the Godfather, even
evidenced in the names of many rappers. But you can see with the rappers in the
park, and the Bloods and the Crips in the movie: it's all there.
You mean when the rappers and the kids on the street all give respect to Ghost
They're tribes, knowing and seeing each other. And in the park, they're building
up a myth, making Ghost Dog into an urban myth, while they're staring at them.
He's here, but he's also mythic. Jim did good with this one, because he pays a
lot of homage, and like you say, respect, to a lot of other things, to other
films, filmmakers, and to tribes. And as a result, I think the film resonates.
Jim writes characters with specific people in mind, and I think that helps.
Have you ever thought about writing?
I don't have the time. I wrote when I was in college a little bit, a few
scripts. I'm telling myself that next year, I'm going to sit down and write
something to direct, something more personal to me. I make things personal to
me, but I think I'd like to take a story I knew, something I care about.
It is an interesting "moment," in filmmaking, in that, for all the
huge "product" available, there's also room for writer-directors,
small projects get some distribution. And then there's the cross-pollination,
between music and movies and TV.
Yeah, you know I wish the [Ghost Dog] album had dropped already, for that
cross-pollination. You have the movie money paying for the video and the video
sells the CD: it helps both. I just finished shooting the video with RZA, it
should come out in a couple of weeks.
Do you ever worry about too much commercialization, the "selling out"
anxiety that afflicts some hip hop artists and fans?
I go back and forth between indie and studio because I feel like it, not because
I feel obligated to do one or the other. The only reason to make a decision like
that is financial, you know, you can't live. That doesn't make my decision for
me, I do what feels right for me. I'm not going to do a bad movie just because
it's a studio movie or an indie film, and there are hordes of bad independent
movies. People tend to think that indie movies are always good, but I've seen
horrific ones, just as well as I've seen horrific studio films. So I just go by
how I feel, it's the only way you can figure it out. Otherwise you get lost in
the maze of trying to second guess the people, the studio, how you can make your
career long or short. It's easy to get lost in this maze, called life, really,
you know what I mean?
I don't think many people start off thinking, "I'm going to make a bad
No, they don't think that. Sometimes though, people will start a movie knowing
they don't have a lot of money and hoping they'll get some. Or, people get
caught up in the momentum of a film getting made, because they
can get it made. They don't spend the time to really work on the
script. A lot of times it's about money, which imposes a window of time, or set
of actors, or a script. It's really a mess sometimes. I've never been on a
movie, where the person thought, "I'm going to make a bad movie." But
I've watched people make films where they're going through motions, or doing it
for some other reason, like, it's a stepping stone (which I think is a mistake),
or, "I need to make the money, so I'll direct this film." There are
much better and more important reasons to make movies.