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Dead Man talking

NEW YORK -- Jim Jarmusch has an eye for the mundane moments that perhaps aren't so mundane after all, whether his characters are visiting Cleveland in Stranger Than Paradise, or riding in taxis in Night on Earth, or wandering through the Old West in his current film, Dead Man. "Your life is an accumulation of a lot of things that are sad and stupid and funny and cruel and ugly and beautiful," he says. "I try to make stories that don't differentiate and focus only on the most dramatic moments of your life, because even the really little stupid things may be equally valuable and important."

Dead Man stars Johnny Depp as Blake, an accountant from Cleveland who finds himself an outlaw on the lam, and Gary Farmer (Powwow Highway) as Nobody, an Indian who feels equally displaced and who becomes Depp's spiritual guide. "I wrote this film with Johnny Depp in my head for the character of Blake and with Gary Farmer in my head for the part of Nobody," Jarmusch says. "I knew Johnny and told him the story before I even wrote it. Gary I had never met. If either one of them had refused or not been interested, I'm not sure I would have made the film.

"What I love about Johnny for this character is that he has the ability to start off very innocently. This is a difficult role to play, to start off as a passive character in a genre that is based on active, aggressive central characters. What amazed me about Johnny was his ability to go through a lot of very subtle but big changes in his character, out of sequence but without ever telegraphing that character development. He was much more precise than I thought he would be. He was also very inventive."

The project marks Jarmusch's first foray out of the contemporary pop-culture-strewn urban landscape that has been the setting of his first four movies. Of the Western, he says, "It's not one of my favorite genres. I like it because it's a frame that becomes allegorical, and you can put a lot of things in that aren't related to the period of the Westerns. I like the fringe Westerns, by Monte Hellman, Peckinpah, Leone. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term `acid Westerns,' which are Westerns made by people who have taken acid, I guess. He said Dead Man is an extension of that genre. Which I was happy to hear."

Has Jarmusch taken acid? "Not recently," he deadpans.

If not an acid Western, Dead Man is certainly a tobacco Western, given how many times Nobody and other Indian characters ask a non-smoking Depp whether he has any. This is not just a running gag, says Farmer, a Cayuga Indian from Toronto who explains that Jarmusch's Indian material was a mixture of research and serendipity. "There were some marvelous things that happened. Sometimes Jim would write things and wouldn't really know what the reference was in terms of the native world. So when I would tell him, it would go off like a light bulb. He was channeling.

"For instance, he didn't really understand the theology of tobacco. Among indigenous peoples, tobacco is a sacred, ritual offering. So when everyone kept asking for tobacco, I don't think he knew what that was about. It just kept coming up in the script. When I told him, it gave him a reference point to work from."

Farmer is pleased with the results. "This is one of those films where you walk away with a spider web on your brain. It doesn't just leave you. It sticks with you. Whatever you get from it is different for the individual. I think it's a great movie that way."

Certainly it's not a conventional Western. Jarmusch took pains to avoid the look of a typical Western. For one thing, this meant shooting in black-and-white. "That's because it's a story about a guy that goes into a world that becomes less and less familiar," he says. "We are so used to the colors of the Western landscape that they are not unfamiliar. To keep the atmosphere eerie and a little trippy, it was necessary to remove that information.

"Robby Muller, the director of photography, and I went scouting locations, and if we saw a landscape that looked so magnificent, like a calendar or a postcard, we would deliberately turn our backs. Instead of a John Ford-like vista, we would find a tree or a rock or something else interesting."

At nearly $9 million, Dead Man is Jarmusch's most expensive film to date. He knows its commercial prospects are limited, and he is superstitious about discussing what he will do once the movie is released. "If Dead Man doesn't go straight to video, I may make another film."

-- Gary Susman

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