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From the Archives: Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (“JAR-mush”). His most recent “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” is now out on video. It stars Forest Whitaker. Jarmusch often acts as writer, director, and producer of his films. His other films include Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, Night on Earth, and Year of the Horse. (REBROADCAST from 4/11/2000)


Other segments from the episode on August 18, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 18, 2000: Interview with Jim Jarmusch; Review of Red Smith's and Ron Rosenbaum's essay collections "Red Smith On Baseball" and "The Secret Parts of Fortune";…


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch discusses his recent film "Ghost
Dog: The Way of the Samurai"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

(Soundbite from "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai")

Mr. FOREST WHITAKER: (As Ghost Dog) The way of the samurai is from death.
Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.

BOGAEV: That's Forest Whitaker as a hit man named Ghost Dog who follows the
code of the samurai in the movie "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai." It's
just out on video. On this archive edition of FRESH AIR, we're featuring an
interview Terry recorded last April with Jim Jarmusch, who wrote and directed
the film. Jarmusch also made "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down by Law,"
"Mystery Train," "Night on Earth" and "Dead Man." The hit man in "Ghost Dog"
lives alone on a rooftop and works for Louie, a small-time member of the Mafia
who once saved Ghost Dog's life. Louie is part of a gang of losers. In this
scene, Louie is told by his boss that he has to reveal the secret identity of
his hit man.

(Soundbite from "Ghost Dog")

Unidentified Man #1: Now what the (censored) is his name?

LOUIE: Ghost Dog.

Unidentified Man #1: What?

LOUIE: Ghost Dog.

Unidentified Man #1: Ghost Dog?

Unidentified Man #2: He said Ghost Dog.

LOUIE: Yeah. He calls himself Ghost Dog. I don't know, a lot of these black
guys today, these gangster type guys, they all got names like that they make
up for themselves.

Unidentified Man #1: Is that true?

Unidentified Man #2: Sure. He means like the rappers. You know, the
rappers--they all got names like that--Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube, Q-Tip,
Method Man. My favorite was always Flavor Flav from Public Enemy. You got
the funky fresh flying flavor. Live lyrics in the bank of reality. I kick
the fly ...(unintelligible) technicality. Do a dope drag. I love that guy.

Unidentified Man #1: I don't know anything about that, but it makes me think
about Indians. You know, they got names like Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Running
Bear, Black Elk, mmmmm.

(End of soundbite)

BOGAEV: The film "Ghost Dog" is both comedy and tragedy, a reflection on the
meaning of life and death and a study in contrast between cultures in America
and between the code of the Mafia and the code of the samurai.

TERRY GROSS: The Ghost Dog character follows the code that he's learned from
the book, "Hagakure," the book of the samurai. How did you come across this

Mr. JIM JARMUSCH (Filmmaker): Well, the book was actually given to me while I
was writing the script, and I had read other books about samurai culture and
Bushido. There's another book called "Code of the Samurai," which was written
also by an old samurai. But this book is particularly beautiful because it's
written in like little aphorisms, and each one is separated by a little
Japanese symbol called a mancho(ph). And they're not really hierarchical in
terms of content or subject, so you'll have one small text that is very
philosophical, and the next one may be about, you know, how to clean your
shoes. And I really like the kind of non-hierarchical guide to being a
samurai, and also the form of the book influenced the form of the film because
in the way that those little symbols separate each text in the book, I kind of
reversed that and used quotes from the "Hagakure" as little separations in the
film itself, like little breathing spaces, almost like a little running
commentary on what informs Ghost Dog as a samurai, like where does it come

GROSS: The Ghost Dog character is somebody who was nearly killed by some
neighborhood hoods, and he was saved by this multi-Mafia guy, and ever since
then, Ghost Dog has been the hit man for this Mafia guy in return for the
favor of saving his life. The Ghost Dog character, you know, in reading the
samurai book, reads this line, `Meditation on death should be performed daily.
In every day, one should consider oneself as dead.' And in some ways, I think
that's almost the theme of the movie, this meditation on death. Tell me why
that strikes such a chord for you.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Well, I started the real genesis of the project--and I don't
really know why--but I wanted to make a portrait of a character that was a
contradiction, that was someone whose life was very violent, who is a hit man,
but we would find some reason to respect him or even like him. And in the
"Hagakure" or preparation for being a samurai, one is prepared for death at
any moment, and that's one of the foremost, you know, elements of being a
samurai or Bushido. And, you know, why that appeals to me, I'm not exactly
sure, I'm not very analytical. But I do know that philosophies that consider
death as part of life and are kind of cyclical speak to me much more directly
than, for example, religious philosophies that are based on being rewarded or
punished, you know, in the afterlife.

GROSS: Well, when I was watching "Ghost Dog," I was thinking you must have
been thinking a lot about death, because both "Ghost Dog" and your earlier
film "Dead Man" are about people who have been saved from death but are facing
their imminent death. And in "Dead Man," a Native American prepares an
elaborate death ritual for this young white man who has been shot and is
dying, and this ritual is to create a decent journey into the next world. In
"Ghost Dog," the Forest Whitaker character has studied the book of the samurai
and has learned to face death through that. And in a way, by facing death, he
also learns how to live. I guess...


GROSS: ...I'm wondering how much reading you've done about other cultures'
philosophies toward death.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Well, quite a bit, and not in preparation for anything but just
out of interest. And, you know, these two particular philosophies, in "Dead
Man" it comes from aboriginal, North American aboriginal culture, and in
"Ghost Dog" it comes from an Eastern Zen culture, and both of those
philosophies are very much concerned with life and death being part of the
same thing; in fact, all things being one thing.

So, you know, over the years, I guess I've read a lot of different
philosophies from different cultures, but, you know, I'm really not a big fan
of religions or philosophies that seem to be intent on controlling people,
like the idea of--you know, I was raised a Christian. I sort of lost that,
well, pretty early on when I was told that animals don't have souls, which
kind of freaked me out because I had a dog and my dog had a soul. So it seems
almost like a game show technique, Christianity; like, if you behave well, in
the afterlife you'll either get paradise or you'll get the inferno. It's,
like, you know, what's behind door number two or door number three. It's kind
of an odd philosophy to me. So I have been drawn toward those that consider
things to be circular and cyclical.

GROSS: So you've done a lot of reading. Have you ever immersed yourself in
any of the disciplines that you've read about?

Mr. JARMUSCH: No, I haven't. I'm not very disciplined. I'm more interested
in the philosophies and how they--you know, how they affect my thought
processes rather than, you know, really disciplined. Although there's a guy
who worked on "Ghost Dog" briefly. He appears in the background in a scene
and performs a few martial arts moves on a guy that's, like, trying to

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. JARMUSCH: ...something from him. And that's Si Fu Yong Ming(ph); he's a
Shaolin priest from China that lives in New York. And I got a lot of respect
for him, and I may study with him on some level in the near future; I
certainly would like to, but I haven't started yet. I don't know how much it
would be, you know, physical and how much philosophical, but he said he would
like to, you know, devise some program for me specifically. Some of the
Wu-Tang study with Yong Ming, and they've actually given him some money for a
prayer room in his school and have been big supporters of his.

GROSS: So is your interest in studying martial arts to do it as a discipline
or to do it for self-defense?

Mr. JARMUSCH: It would be definitely as a discipline. For self-defense, you
know, I'd rather just carry a gun.

GROSS: Which you probably don't, right?

Mr. JARMUSCH: I'm joking. I don't, no.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JARMUSCH: No, but, you know, it's a combination what--and you see in
"Ghost Dog," for example, when Forest Whitaker became that character, he
studied martial arts since he was 10 or 11 years old; and in the film, when he
uses his weapons, which are modern handguns, automatic guns with laser sights
and silencers, he handles them like a sword. He even uses physical movements
that are similar to the way a samurai or a martial artist would use a sword,
and the sword is an extension of one's arm, which is an extension of one's
body, which is an extension of one's chi, or one's soul. And so, you know,
all those things are completely interconnected in Eastern philosophy and even
in the study of martial arts. So you know, I'm interested in the
connectiveness of those things, and if I do study it, it would be, you know,
trying to discover those connections.

GROSS: I don't know if you'll think this is a fair analysis or not, but it
seems to be some of your early films like "Stranger Than Paradise" were kind
of absurdist; you know, kind of searching for meaning and not sure if there
was any and having a kind of absurdist outlook, whereas your last couple of
films have, like, found meaning in understanding death and facing it.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Well, you know, it's hard for me to analyze those things. I
don't--once my films are done and I've seen them with a paying audience, I
really never look at them again. So I try not to, like--I don't know, to
analyze my own work. I'm really more intuitive and just like to go forward.
So it's hard for me to chart those things or say, you know, what affected you
at what point in your life and changed your work in that way. I don't really
know. I just try to keep making them, you know, intuitively, so I have no
good answer for that.

BOGAEV: Jim Jarmusch. His film, "Ghost Dog" is just out on video and DVD.
Terry Gross spoke with Jim Jarmusch this spring. We'll hear more of their
conversation after the break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, we're featuring an interview Terry Gross
recorded this April with director Jim Jarmusch. His film "Ghost Dog" is now
available on video and DVD.

GROSS: Now you wrote the part of "Ghost Dog" for Forest Whitaker. What was
it about--did the character happen first, or did you decide to write something
for Forest Whitaker first?

Mr. JARMUSCH: Well, I had a vague idea for this character, this desire to try
to make a contradictory character who was violent but we would see something
deeper in him and respect him; and that was the very beginning. And then, of
course, I started searching in my head, like, well, who can I imagine as this
character? And Forest Whitaker kept returning and returning, and so I called
him up and talked to him. I had met him a couple of times briefly, but I
called him up and said, `Look, I have this idea; I want to proceed writing it
with you in mind. Is that OK with you? I'm not gonna, you know, try to
commit you to the project until I have a completed script.' And he said,
`Yeah.' You know, I told him what I knew thus far.

And so I started there. And, you know, what attracted me to Forest is his
presence is somewhat contradictory. He's very gentle and there's definitely a
kind of depth to him that you feel right away, and you feel it when you see
him on screen. And yet, he's also a big, imposing guy, he's studied martial
arts. There's another side to him, and I wanted to get that kind of a
balance. And it's a very difficult character to ask an actor to play, a
character who doesn't talk much. He doesn't really act out. He's very
centered and reserved and reactive. And Forest is a really, really amazing
actor in terms of reacting, which I think is the essence of acting.

GROSS: You know, he has one eye that's kind of swollen and hooded and, you
know, looks different from his other eye. And I think it's a real asset for
him. I think he knows how to use his eyes in such a way that sometimes that
more swollen eye makes him look more vulnerable and bruised; and other times,
it can make him look more kind of threatening and unpredictable.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Yeah, that's true. You know, and I was somewhat aware of that
just not designing the shots, but I was aware of that from different angles,
too, but it's really something--I'm not sure how aware of it he is or not.
But, you know, there's a kind of asymmetry that has a real emotional effect in
his face, definitely.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. In your acknowledgments at the end of the credits,
you thank Jean-Pierre Melville, the French filmmaker. Tell me about his
influence on you and on this film.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Well, Melville made very, very beautiful French gangster films,
and what I really love about Melville is that he did mix different things
together, like his films are very, very French in a way. "Ghost Dogs" quotes
"Le Samourai" that starred Alain Delon. I really love all of his films.
Like, he will have these French gangsters dressed in a very American style
with sharkskin suits, and they drive through Paris in big American cars. And
he kind of mixes things together. There's something--even his film "Le
Samourai," of course, was a big inspiration for "Ghost Dog" because he uses a
kind of Eastern style; the center of the character of Alain Delon is
essentially a samurai. He doesn't go as far as "Ghost Dog" does to give you
references as to, you know, what code he follows, but he definitely refers to,
you know, an Eastern way of thinking or of acting. And I don't know, I
really--I love the way Melville mixes things together, and he's very
particular in that way.

But there were other films, too. There's a film that was also very
inspirational, my second-favorite hit man movie of all time after "Le
Samourai," which is a film called "Branded To Kill," a Japanese film from, I
think, 1967, by Seijun Suzuki, that is a really bizarre, beautiful mixture of
many things. It's a black-and-white CinemaScope film, and it really verges at
times on surrealism. But it is also certainly a gangster film, and it pretty
much ended the career of Seijun Suzuki with the Japanese studio that he worked
with because they considered the film to be just too strange.

GROSS: In "Ghost Dog," Forest Whitaker lives on a rooftop. He's created a
little shack on the rooftop, and he lives there with a lot of pigeons. He
sends messages by carrier pigeon, and he loves these birds. I really only
know of carrier pigeons through movies, you know, particularly "On the
Waterfront," which the Marlon Brando character, you know...

Mr. JARMUSCH: Right.

GROSS: ...has pigeons and really, you know, loves them and they bring out his
sensitivity. Have you ever, like, actually seen a rooftop with carrier

Mr. JARMUSCH: Oh, yeah, definitely. Well, not carrier pigeons; they have
been extinct since 1914. But, yeah, right behind where I live on the Lower
East Side, for years and years there was a coop in the building just behind
mine, and I used to watch them often, especially on weekends when he'd fly
them on Saturday and Sunday mornings; and it was very, very--just visually
interesting because when they flipped directions, depending on how the light
was hitting them, they would often flip from being back-lit to front-lit and,
therefore, from black to white, and would fly in these swirling patterns.
And, you know, it was some old Italian guy that had them and so he's smoking
cigars out there and waving his flag to bring them back down. And then in
researching the film, I met quite a few different guys that keep pigeons, both
in Manhattan and up in Spanish Harlem, in Manhattan and in Jersey City and
other places, in Brooklyn. And, boy, I'll tell you, it's a really weird
subculture of people who keep birds.

GROSS: What's weird about it?

Mr. JARMUSCH: Well, they're just such strangely different kinds of people,
you know. I met these people up in Spanish Harlem; I'd really like to make a
documentary film about them. Wow, they have this wild rooftop setting in an
abandoned building that's like a kind of drug building. And they have, like,
some kind of rottweiler up there that they say is very gentle but is chained
up because she'll jump on you. And they have maybe 600 birds, and they just
really--two guys really interesting, wild characters. There are birds that
will--homing pigeons that will return to them, so those are the birds they
choose to sell. Like, they'll sell them for five bucks and a couple days
later, they're back, you know. So they were really fascinating.

Also, across from them in Morningside Heights, there are some peregrine
falcons that are nesting, and they sometimes come and snatch a bird from, you
know, their flock of pigeons while in flight. And they were really, you know,
fascinated by that. It was horrifying to them, but they said, you know, `It's
all part of survival. You know, we got to give in order to survive as far as
our birds go.' So, you know, sometimes we watch some falcon come and snatch
one of our birds away.

GROSS: It seems that now there's a lot of young, independent filmmakers who
make that independent film and then land that big commercial deal and get
catapulted into the world of major motion pictures. You haven't really done
that world. Would you like to stay out of it and just keep going your own

Mr. JARMUSCH: Yeah. I'm happy being whatever I am, marginal or--as long
as--you know, I am tired of my films being called `quirky,' I must say. You
know, I think any critic or reviewer who uses the word `quirky' in reference
to anything that's, like, slightly left of the mainstream should be hunted
down and I don't know what--shipped off to Gilligan's island forever or
something. But I don't...

GROSS: What's so irksome about the word `quirky'?

Mr. JARMUSCH: I don't know. Every review--any film or record that's, like,
alternative or whatever label they use is always called quirky, and, you know,
I'm starting to get ready to, I don't know, take action against the word

GROSS: Well, watch out.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Yeah. You know, like, do you ever wake up and just feel
quirky? I don't know. `I got a quirk in my neck.' I don't get this word
`quirky.' But anyway, now I lost the question. Oh...

GROSS: Oh, about making it into major motion pictures.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Yeah, 'cause I'm just too damn quirky.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. JARMUSCH: Yeah, I'm just too damn quirky for that. No, you know, I
didn't calculate, like, I will make films, like, outside the mainstream or I
will make this type of film. I just intuitively--I love the form of cinema,
and I'm just trying to learn how to do it and how to use it. And, you know,
this is a world where almost everything is valued--or its value is assessed in
the marketplace, which doesn't interest me. And I don't know. I'm just not
really--I think I would make very bad commercial films, so I'd end up in jail
for having to work with--having people tell me how to make a film, it's not my
strength, that's for sure. So I'm going to keep trying to do what I do as
long as I can, and eventually, if they stop me, I don't know, I'll figure out
something else to do.

BOGAEV: Director Jim Jarmusch spoke with Terry Gross this spring. His film
"Ghost Dog" is now available on video and DVD.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Review: Summer reading list choices, "The Secret Parts of Fortune"
and "Red Smith on Baseball"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

Even the best newspaper columns are ephemeral, read in the morning, tossed out
with the trash in the evening. But two new collections have preserved between
hard covers some memorable essays by the roving literary journalist Ron
Rosenbaum and the legendary New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Red Smith.
Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews both.


The literary category `summer reading' usually conjures up images of a big,
fat novel heavy on plot, light on ambiguity. But there's another kind of
summer reading for us vacationers to lose ourselves in, reading that's often
more intellectually stimulating and, at the same time, more compatible with,
say, the choppy rhythms of a beach house shared with kids. I'm talking about
essay collections that you can dip into for short periods and then resurface
with your brain cells tingling. Two collections I just sampled have almost
nothing in common, except the most important thing of all: They're both
chock-full of good writing. And what makes writing good? Well, as Ron
Rosenbaum would say, `Let's not fall easy victim to the dream of
decipherment.' Instead, I want to mull over that big question as I consider
new collections of both Rosenbaum's writing and the writing of the immortal
sportswriter Red Smith.

Rosenbaum's essays are immensely learned and funny, as well as quirky and
cranky, two adjectives that usually go along with a third, `affected,' but in
Rosenbaum's case don't. I always emerge with at least the delusion of being
smarter after reading a Rosenbaum essay, and so I feel really brilliant after
perusing "The Secret Parts of Fortune," a collection of 30 years' worth of
essays on everything from the odes of John Keats to the enigma of evil that is
Adolf Hitler, to the secret rites of the Skull and Bones Society at Yale.
Rosenbaum's trademark method is to pair old-fashioned, close readings of his
subjects with wide-ranging allusions to everything else under the sun.

For instance, in an essay here on Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists,
Rosenbaum tosses in asides on Aldous Huxley, Kirkegaard and the classic
Savarin coffee commercial featuring El Exigente. In the hands of lesser
writers, this hectic referencing becomes a cheap trick, a way to say, `Look at
me and how idiosyncratic I am.' But Rosenbaum, as a writer, is neither cheap
nor tidy. He likes to leave ideas lying around. In that Kennedy
assassination, which was written in the 1980s, Rosenbaum ultimately comes to
an uneasy acceptance of the Warren Report. But then here's what he says in
a postscript: "Two decades after my inconclusive conclusion to this story,
one mystery of the assassination continues to deepen: the mystery of Oswald.
He may have been a lone gunman, but there was never a lone Oswald."

Almost all of Rosenbaum's essays end with paragraphs that could be subtitled,
`Case open.' Thinking about things is just too much fun for Rosenbaum ever to
call it quits.

Speaking of unsolved mysteries, I'm still clueless about the national pastime
of baseball, and I've tried for years to get it. Red Smith, the man many
claim was the greatest sportswriter of them all, once wrote that, "Baseball is
dull only to dull minds." Yeah, well, he would say that. He only obsessed
about the game in print for decades. "Red Smith On Baseball" is a collection
of some of his great columns from the 1940s to the 1980s. And the amazing
thing is that even to a dullard like me, Smith's baseball writing is
compelling. His smarts about people, his hard-boiled sentimentality, his
understated morals; no wonder Hemingway was one of Smith's famous admirers.

Here's his lead for a piece about the 1948 World Series: `It was a day when
malice lay over everything thick as mustard on a frankfurter, and you could
reach out and feel it like something tangible. The Yankees, killed off by the
Red Sox yesterday, were out here in Fenway Park to gouge back an eye for the
one they had lost. And the Red Sox, inspired by the loftiest sort of
cupidity, wanted that World Series money so badly they could taste it.'

I haven't forgotten about our home-run question: What makes writing good? In
the case of these two essayists, I think it's the sense that they're earnestly
trying to capture something elusive and true in their writing, and that
they're not constantly nudging us readers to applaud their efforts. And as
for how they produce such good writing? Well, I'll quote Smith. He once
said, "There nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and
open a vein."

BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Coming up, John Irving, on the trials of being a novelist in the movie
business. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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Interview: Author John Irving discusses the movie made from his
novel "The Cider House Rules"

"The Cider House Rules" is a movie adaptation of a novel by John Irving. It
won two Oscars this year. Michael Caine won for best supporting actor and
Irving won for best adapted screenplay. Irving worked on the movie for 13
years, with a total of four directors. Lasse Hallstrom ultimately directed
the film. In Irving's recent memoir, "My Movie Business," he explains why it
took so long to make the movie, and offers some insights into the differences
between writing books and writing films. Earlier film adaptations were made
of his novels "The World According to Garp" and "The Hotel New Hampshire," but
Irving didn't write those screenplays. "The Cider House Rules," which is just
out on video, stars Michael Caine as a doctor at an orphanage. He also
delivers the unwanted babies of women, babies who will remain at the
orphanage, and he performs abortions. His apprentice, played by Tobey
Maguire, is a young man who grew up in the orphanage and has learned how to
deliver babies, but won't perform abortions.

Here's a scene with Caine and Maguire early in the film.

(Soundbite of "The Cider House Rules")

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE: First pregnancy?

Mr. TOBEY MAGUIRE: Yes, for both.

Mr. CAINE: I presume you prefer handling the delivery.

Mr. MAGUIRE: All I said was I don't want to perform abortions. I have no
argument with you performing them.

Mr. CAINE: You know how to help these women. How can you not feel obligated
to help them when they can't get help anywhere else?

Mr. MAGUIRE: One, it's illegal; two, I didn't ask how to do it, you just
showed me.

Mr. CAINE: What else could I have shown you, Homer? The only thing I can
teach you is what I know. In any life, you have to be of use.

BOGAEV: Terry spoke with John Irving last January. He said that "The Cider
House Rules" was inspired, in part, by his grandfather, Dr. Frederick C.
Irving, an obstetrician who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1910.

Mr. JOHN IRVING (Author): He was the chief of staff of the Boston Lying-In,
which was the country's foremost maternity hospital. He was a professor of
obstetrics at Harvard. I know him better through his writing, through his
several books on obstetrical and gynecological procedure, than I ever knew him
as a kid. I can't recall, in fact, a single intimate conversation with him.
He died Christmas Eve when I was 15. So it's through his writing that he made
a principal and powerful influence on me. For reasons that are still unclear
to me, I was 14 at the time I felt certain that I wanted to be a writer. It
was about the time I started reading Charles Dickens, my earliest fictional
hero. And I told my parents I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and they
said, `Oh, you should read your grandfather's books then; he's a writer.' I'm
not sure that obstetrical and gynecological procedure was entirely suitable
for a 14-year-old.


What was it like for you at the age of 14 to...

Mr. IRVING: Riveting.

GROSS: Were there illustrations...

Mr. IRVING: It was riveting.

GROSS: ...of gynecological surgery and of childbirth and things like that?

Mr. IRVING: No, no; no illustrations, except for the fact that he wrote very
descriptive, if Victorian, prose.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. IRVING: And I think I learned more about him and reproduction from those
books than I probably learned in school for--well, maybe ever.

GROSS: Do you think that reading your grandfather's Victorian language and
describing medical procedures affected the way you thought about the body or
later wrote about the body?

Mr. IRVING: That's a good question, but I've not thought of it before. I
don't know so much that I was affected in that way as that the life of a
doctor of medicine at that time, and an obstetrician/gynecologist in
particular, was one that I could imagine in full detail. So that in the early
1980s when I began research for a novel about an orphanage physician and his
relationship with an unadoptable orphan who's born in his orphanage and who is
unsuccessfully--repeatedly unsuccessfully adopted, I had already in mind the
kind of detail that I was looking for, the kind of detail that I would find.

The surprise, of course, was the abortion subject, because I hadn't set out to
write a novel or, in the case of the film "The Cider House Rules," a
screenplay that was on or about the abortion subject. It was the relationship
of that old physician and orphanage director and this unadoptable kid that I
had foremost in mind. But when I began to read the histories of abortion and
the histories of orphanage hospitals and the lives of orphanage physicians,
that procedure and the life of an orphanage hospital was inseparable, of
course; understandably, because if any physician, qualified physician, would
take the risk in those days when that procedure was illegal, if any physician
would take that risk and perform that procedure, who else but someone who had
the sympathy for the condition of those women who came there and left children
behind? And more importantly, or just as important, the fact that many of
those orphans would not be adopted. The older they got, the less likely it
was that anyone would take them and they would eventually become what, at the
time, was called wards of the state.

That made a powerful impression on me, and I decided that the issue of
performing that procedure or not performing it would become a crucial area of
conflict between the young orphan whom the old physician apprentices, whom he
trains to be a doctor, that that would be a point of contention between them;
not that the orphan would ever disapprove of the old doctor performing
abortions, nor would that orphan believe that women shouldn't have the right
to have an abortion if they wanted one. It's just that he didn't want to
perform the procedure himself. That is the argument of the story. It is by
no means the current political so-called right-to-life or pro-choice argument.
The novel and the film of "The Cider House Rules" is unequivocally pro-choice.

GROSS: As you point out in your memoir, you created a compressed version of
the story of "The Cider House Rules" for the screenplay, and you say the
passage of time is so important in your novels but that's not easily captured
in the film. Can you talk a little bit about the difference in how time
elapses in a novel as compared to on the screen?

Mr. IRVING: I felt it was essential in taking a long novel and bringing it
down to film size. And so the first decisions, the most radical decisions,
were what were you going to lose and who were the characters and their
attendant story lines that had to come out of this story whole? Because I
feel strongly that if you can't honestly say that a character has the same
emotional effect on an audience that that character had on readers, that
character shouldn't be in the story to begin with. If you're only going to
marginalize that character's emotional effect, lose the character.

Those were essential choices and, well, painful ones. But the most radical
decisions of what to cut out of "The Cider House Rules" were made before I'd
collaborated with the first of these four directors. They were made when I
wrote the first draft of the screenplay; I made them myself.

GROSS: Is pruning your own novel to make a screenplay a little bit like
performing surgery on yourself, you know, that you're too close to it?

Mr. IRVING: No, I don't think so. I think it's a matter of how
wholeheartedly, or not, you believed in the potential of the novel to be a
film in the first place. In some cases, I look at my novels and I just don't
see the potential film that's there, or if I do, it seems too much of a
compromise at the outset and I'm not interested in it.

The thing about "The Cider House Rules" that made it instantly attractive to
me as a potential film almost from the moment the novel was finished is that,
unlike all of my novels or unlike most of the others of my novels--it was the
sixth; I've written nine, I'm finishing a 10th--but it alone has the symmetry
that only a journey away from home which ends up back in the same place can
have. And symmetry is very gratifying in films; it's very gratifying. And it
had, in other words, a structure that was instantly visual to me at the
outset. I could see that orphan coming back to that orphanage. That was
always the end of the story. And I could see it in film terms. I believed in
its possibility as a film, which is why I wanted to be involved not only as a
screenwriter, but to have approval of the director, to have approval of the
cast, to ensure that the director had approval of the final cut; all those
things that writers aren't generally afforded and which, in the case of other
novels of mine made into films, I really haven't been concerned enough to ask.

GROSS: Did adapting your novel "Cider House Rules" into a screenplay lead you
to reconsider any of your opinions of your movies that were adapted by other

Mr. IRVING: No. I liked those films. I liked George Roy Hill's "The World
According to Garp." I liked Tony Richardson's "The Hotel New Hampshire." I
just felt detached from them. I liked Mark Steven Johnson's "Simon Birch," as
it was called. I simply didn't think it was close enough to the novel to be
called "A Prayer for Owen Meany" or to use the names of my characters; and
Mark and I were in agreement about that from the moment I read his screenplay.
I just felt it was too divergent from my novel to use my novel's titles or the
names of my characters. Contrary to everything I've read wherein I'm
described as ultimately despising the film or whatever, I liked "Simon Birch."
I just didn't think it should be called "A Prayer for Owen Meany," and it

GROSS: In the 13 years that it took to actually get "The Cider House Rules"
to the screen, did you lose interest? Did you ever feel, `I'm just really
sick of this'?

Mr. IRVING: No, you don't lose interest in an experiment as long as you don't
change your mind. The experiment was--I've seen films of my novels made other
ways, namely, by letting them go--let's see, if I don't let one go, how long
it takes and if it'll ever get made. I was prepared at the outset that the
film would never be made, but I knew that if it were ever made, it would be
made with my approval; and so that was the game. If somebody had told me at
the beginning it was going to take 14 years, I might not have been so eager to
play the game. But once you start, I don't think you can back out. I mean,
you've got to be faithful to something and follow through on it; and however
long it takes, I intend to do the same thing with the "Son of the Circus."

GROSS: When you're on a plane or train and you see a passenger reading one of
your books, do you introduce yourself?

Mr. IRVING: No. No, I kind of hope I won't be recognized. I wouldn't want
to interrupt them from reading the book. They're much better served to be
reading the book than they are to be having a conversation with me.

GROSS: Say they're just carrying the book and they're not reading it at the
moment you see them, wouldn't say anything?

Mr. IRVING: Well, that would make me cross, yes. I would think, what are you
doing instead of reading this book? I did see--I had the misfortune once of
seeing a woman on a plane, back from Los Angeles, actually--I was traveling
with my eldest son, and the woman diagonally across the aisle was reading "The
World According to Garp," and at some point she closed the book and stuffed it
into the air sickness bag in the little envelope in the seat in front of her
and never took it out again. And my son was dying to draw her attention to
the fact that the man who had offended her so was sitting right across the
aisle. So we had a very tense trip all the way to New York, but I was never
identified as the culprit who had written the offending passage. Whichever
one it is that made her close the book, I'll never know, but it was a
highlight. I'll never forget it.

GROSS: Well, John Irving, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. IRVING: Thank you.

BOGAEV: John Irving, from an interview Terry Gross recorded in January. "The
Cider House Rules" is just out on video and DVD.

Coming up, a review of the new movie "The Cell." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Movie, "The Cell"

Jennifer Lopez enters the mind of a serial killer in the new horror thriller
"The Cell." Film critic Henry Sheehan tells us how, in this review.


Moviegoers may be forgiven if they sometimes get the idea that the human race
has been reduced to, on the one hand, the professions and, on the other,
psychotic killers. In one movie after another, doctors, lawyers, highly
trained law enforcement personnel--or Hollywood's favorite, architects--are
forced to grapple with enthusiastically perverse murderers. The crucial
factor in all these dramas, whose mama is "Silence of the Lambs," is that the
hero or heroine, despite having spent a life's work in the courthouse at the
drafting table or tracking down everyday crooks, has a special mental link
with the drooling killer.

So when I say that in "The Cell" Jennifer Lopez plays a child psychiatrist
named Catherine Deane and Vincent D'Onofrio a psychotic killer called Carl
Stargher, I've told you nearly half of what you need to know about the movie.
I can finish off the description with two words, `virtual reality.' Virtual
reality in the movies means the creation of sets, backgrounds, costumes,
effects and even characters through computer technology. "The Cell," like
"The Matrix," uses this technology to an extreme, putting its characters into
what is supposed to be a succession of mental landscapes, each radically
different from the one before. The reason is that most of the movie is spent
inside Stargher's mind.

We end up there because the psycho has just been arrested after kidnapping his
latest female victim. The FBI, led by a hard-bitten but young agent, played
by Vince Vaughn, hoped to learn from Stargher where he hid her. But the
killer goes into a seizure-induced coma. There's only 40 hours until the
victim succumbs to Stargher's fiendishly constructed booby trap, so the FBI
trots the killer's body over to Catherine Deane's lab. The doc has been
experimenting on entering the mind of an autistic child. Now she's got to
enter Stargher's sleeping consciousness and figure out where he stashed the

Virtual reality is the most Barnumesque technical advance in film history, at
least when you look at what it has promised versus what it has delivered. For
example, once we get into Stargher's mind, everything on screen looks looney
as hell. Everyone walks around in elaborate costumes. At times, the whole
movie looks like Lopez' personal fashion show, with fanciful "Through the
Looking Glass" dresses, featuring push-up bras and protuberant bustles.
D'Onofrio, never what you'd call a quiet or studied actor, gets to do one of
the maddest John Malkovich imitations since "Being John Malkovich," all the
while dressed as a satyr, a mad king, a regal devil or other various
incarnations of Carl Jung's workbooks. In Hollywood you can never be too
young. But does this virtual world differ from ours in any non-superficial
way? Well, let's listen in on this exchange between Vaughn's FBI agent and
Lopez's colleague, played by Dylan Baker.

(Soundbite of "The Cell")

Mr. VINCE VAUGHN (Actor): So she's made contact.

Mr. DYLAN BAKER (Actor): Oh, yes. She's gone very deep into his world,
sometimes too far.

Unidentified Actor: It's cold.

Mr. BAKER: It could be dangerous.

Mr. VAUGHN: What are you talking about?

Mr. BAKER: Well, if she came to believe that Stargher's world is real, then
theoretically her mind could convince her body that anything that was done to
it there was actually done. It's like the old wives' tale, you die in your
dream, you die in life.

Unidentified Actor #2: Henry, could you raise the temperature in here,

Mr. VAUGHN: Dr. Kent?

Unidentified Actor #2: Just a moment, please.

Mr. VAUGHN: Dr. Kent, could I come in there and speak with you?

Mr. BAKER: We have to be patient. I mean, look at her. She's drowsy. Let
her wake up.

Mr. VAUGHN: We don't have a lot of time. Do you understand that?

SHEEHAN: So Stargher's mental landscape isn't all that different from any
other movies; it's just the same old, same old--girls with guns chasing boys
with toys. Unfortunately, director Tarsem Singh is, yes, you guessed it, a
commercial and video director making his feature debut and has all the
shortcomings associated with his crafts. The worst here is an inability to
pace his film for the long haul or to establish any continuity of suspense.
Every interlude spent in one or another's character's mind plays like a
self-contained episode. About the only links between them are those supplied
by sentimentality and sadism, the cheapest coins of the horror film realm.

Because this is an election year, "The Cell" may well catch some notoriety for
one particular scene. It takes place when the G-man joins Catherine in one of
Stargher's nightmarish realities and ends up locked down on a torture table by
the killer. Stargher takes a pair of scissors, cuts open his victim's
stomach, pulls out an end of an intestine, attaches it to a barbecue spit and
begins turning. Aside from being a dime-store version of one of David
Cronenberg's brilliant visions of horror, as well as a cheap way of getting a
rise out of Joe Lieberman and Bill Bennett, this scene has little impact. It
takes place within such an aura of unreality and happens between characters of
such skeletal substance that it's like watching one paper doll cut up another.

BOGAEV: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.

(Closing credits)

BOGAEV: Terry Gross returns on Monday. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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