By Iain Blair
Over the past few decades, writer/director Jim Jarmusch has followed the beat of his own drum and built up a body of idiosyncratic films that include Permanent Vacation (1980), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Down by Law (1986), Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995), Year of the Horse (1997), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005), The Limits of Control (2009), Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Gimme Danger (2016).
His new film, Paterson, fits firmly in that tradition. Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver in the city of Paterson, New Jersey — he is also a poet. Each day he adheres to a simple routine: he drives his daily route observing the city as it drifts across his windshield and while overhearing fragments of conversations swirling around him; he writes poetry into a notebook; he walks his dog; he stops in a bar and drinks exactly one beer; he goes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).
By contrast, Laura’s world is ever changing. New dreams come to her almost daily, each a different and inspired project. They have a happy marriage and love each other. He supports her newfound ambitions and she champions his gift for poetry. The film quietly observes the small triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details. As Jarmusch himself says, it’s “a kind of antidote to dark, heavily dramatic or action-oriented cinema.” No kidding. The film’s big action scene is when Paterson’s bus breaks down.
In a rare interview — he doesn’t like doing press or promotion — I met up with Jarmusch about making the film, his workflow and poetry.
You’ve always been interested in poetry?
Yes, since I was a teenager. I studied poetry at Columbia and I read a lot of Rimbaud and the French poets. I then got into the American poets like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, who came from Paterson, so it all ties together. This is my first film where the main character’s a poet, but I’ve woven references to poetry into a lot of my films, such as Mystery Train and Ghost Dog and Dead Man, so there’s a thread there.
How long had this idea been gestating?
A long time. Some 20 years ago I took a trip to Paterson because of William Carlos Williams, and the whole idea of it being a utopian idea for an industrial city. Allen Ginsberg had also grown up there, and when I got home I made notes about a possible story about a guy named Paterson who lives in Paterson and writes poetry. I also got very interested in the history of the city, which is fascinating. Then I finally wrote the script about six years ago.
Fair to say it’s a wry look at the simple pleasures of domestic life?
Absolutely. I think it’s a comedy, like almost all my films — or at least, they have comedic elements. It’s a story about details, all the little mundane stuff of daily life, the slight variations in the days of the week, that might inspire a poet that is of that school. It’s not the poetry of exclamation. I intentionally avoided conflict, action and, to some degree, plot. For some time I’ve been trying to make films where you’re hopefully not always thinking about what’s going to happen next — Zen-like things where you’re just in the present all the time.
What did Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani bring to their roles, as you usually write with specific actors in mind?
Nearly always, but not this time, which was very strange for me. I’d seen him in just a few things and I love his look. Once we met I intuitively knew he’d be just right, because he has this very subtle, good sense of humor, he’s quiet and very observant. He’s not analytical, he’s intuitive like me, and I was so lucky to get him and create this character together. I wrote Laura as this all-American girl, but someone I know said, “Why don’t you cast Golshifteh Farahani, since you love her work?” Once we met, I thought, why not? And the city of Paterson is very ethnically diverse, so it made sense.
Do you like the post process?
I love editing and post. I love all parts of filmmaking, except getting the financing, which can be agonizing. But the rest is so much fun, and post is where you really make the film. Shooting for me, since I don’t have it all figured out, is just gathering all the material. In post is where you find the film and finesse it into the form it tells you it wants to be.
Where did you do the post?
We did it all — editing, sound and the DI — in New York at Harbor Picture Company.
You worked with editor Affonso Gonçalves, whose credits include Beasts of the Southern Wild, Winter’s Bone and who cut Only Lovers Left Alive for you. Tell us about that relationship?
He doesn’t usually come on the set — maybe a couple of times on this one. He got familiar with the dailies as we shot, but he didn’t really start cutting (via Avid Media Composer) until we were done shooting. Then a very important part of my job is to select the takes, as I’ve collaborated for a long time with the actors, and that’s not always obvious in the editing room. You could make a totally different film by taking, say, all the most light-hearted takes. So we go through all the takes and mark what I like, and then we start working and shaping it. He starts in the mornings and then I come in after lunch and we work together. Sometimes I get ahead of him, so some days I don’t come in, but generally it’s a daily thing.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
I have incredible sound designers I’ve worked with on many films over the years — sound designer Robert Hein and re-recording mixer Tony Volante — and it’s all incredibly important to me. Sound is half the film, so it’s very delicate and evocative, and the big thing I love about it is it’s the closest thing humans create to dreaming, drifting into this parallel world.
Robert Hein is this amazing artist, and we discuss things as detailed as, how many trees are close to the house? What types of birds and how many would be audible at dawn? Or you hear a distant motorcycle go by. We discuss exactly what type of bike is it, and what does that mean. What kind of people are around? The audience isn’t conscious of all that, but all these details form the fabric of the film and accumulate over all the scenes. The visual seems more important, more dominant, but it’s the sound and music that often tell the real story of what’s going on in a film. So I love love love working on all the sound. (At part of his process, Hein used Avid Pro Tools 12.5 Native during editorial, Pro Tools 12.5 HD in the mix studio and the Avid System 5 mixing console during the mix.)
How important was the DI on this?
We did it with colorist Joe Gawler, who did Arrival. In my opinion he’s the greatest on this planet. He is the man! I had the master Fred Elmes as my DP, and when I got the two of them together — I was thinking, “How did I trick these great artists into working with me?!” So I sat in on the timing, but I defer to them as they really elevate the look, which is really quite beautiful. (Gawler used Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve.)
What’s the state of indies today?
Financing is much harder now, and there are fewer companies, especially in the States. And the theatrical release used to be the big business part of it, and then the video release and so on was just ancillary. But now that’s totally flipped, and the theatrical release is just the promotion for the VOD and so on. It’s mind-boggling for me, though it doesn’t affect how you make a film. When people say, ‘The novel’s dead, it’s the end of cinema,’ that’s all nonsense. These art forms change and fluctuate and mutate, but they don’t die.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.