A Jim Jarmusch movie is unmistakable. He’s a storyteller who favors richness of detail over plot, whether it’s reunited vampires (“Only Lovers Left Alive”), escaped prisoners (“Down By Law”), or a cousin visiting from Budapest (“Stranger Than Paradise”). Small in scale, generous in production value, and tempered with idiosyncratic rhythms and dry humor, his films represent one the most original and uncompromised bodies of work in American cinema.
However, while Jarmusch might seem to be an auteur-theory poster child, the filmmaker told IndieWire’s David Ehrlich in 2014 (then writing for The Guardian) that he doesn’t believe, for him, the concept of director-as-author applies:
“I put ‘A film by’ as a protection of my rights, but I don’t really believe it. It’s important for me to have a final cut, and I do for every film. So I’m in the editing room every day, I’m the navigator of the ship, but I’m not the captain, I can’t do it without everyone’s equally valuable input.”
To that effect, Jarmusch works with a rotating stable of longtime, top-of-their field collaborators who relish the opportunity to plug their craft into his vision, often foregoing bigger movies with far bigger paydays.
We spoke to five collaborators who worked on Jarmusch’s latest film, “Paterson.”
- Frederick Elmes: The director of photography behind David Lynch classics (“Blue Velvet,”) first shot a Jarmusch film back in 1991 (“Night on Earth”).
- Mark Friedberg: The sought-after production designer is known for his collaborations with Wes Anderson (“The Darjeeling Limited”), Ang Lee (“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”), Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”), as well as Jarmusch (“Broken Flowers”).
- Affonso Gonçalves: The editor has cut Jarmusch’s last three films and is also frequent collaborator of Todd Haynes (“Carol”) and Ira Sachs (“Little Men”).
- Ellen Lewis: Best known for her three-decade collaboration with Martin Scorsese and as one of the world’s finest casting directors, Lewis has cast every Jarmusch film since 1995 (“Dead Man”).
- Carter Logan: Jarmusch’s producer and bandmate (their trio SQÜRL created the “Paterson” score), Logan started off as Jarmusch’s assistant on “Broken Flowers” and now helps run the director’s production company, Exoskeleton.
Fred Elmes / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street
Carter Logan (Producer): In 1989, Jim gave an interview with the writer Luc Sante, in which he said, “I’d rather make a film about a guy walking his dog than the Emperor of China.” So does that mean he had in his head, in 1989, that there would be this film called “Paterson” about a poet in Paterson, New Jersey, who’s a bus driver and walks his dog? No. But I think that concept could have been with him.
Affonso Gonçalves (Editor): He’s a guy who soaks it all in. He loves to constantly study new things: books, movies, music, painters, culture in general. He’s always renewing his love and appreciation. Everything he sees, everything he gathers, doesn’t matter if it has a plot, he really just goes after it. I believe there is a deep parallel between the way Jim does his art and the way Paterson [Adam Driver] writes his poetry in the movie.
Logan: It’s that accumulation of things he’s taking in from everywhere that feeds the writing and constant rewriting and taking in more ideas, but it is his conversations with key collaborators where these ideas really expand and start becoming the movie. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of these partnerships.
Ellen Lewis (Casting Director): Jim is creatively open, and therefore you feel creatively open with him. I feel very safe and free within his creative world.
Frederick Elmes (Cinematographer): The needs for each [of Jim’s films is] different, but the approach to details is always the same. It’s the details that are so important. As he writes the script, he comes up with little story elements that connect between conversations or scenes, and then as we go through the locations we find visual cues that are similar between locations and we figure out ways to join them.
Mark Friedberg (Production Designer): Our starting point was the car. It often has been. We get in the car and drive. Talking happens. In this case it’s a story about a place, so we went to Paterson. The William Carlos Williams poem “Paterson” [an inspiration for Jarmusch and Driver’s character] describes the place almost as an analogy to a person. So we looked at it and saw who it was, and how that affected our Paterson the person and “Paterson” our story.
Elmes: The town Paterson was designed by [Alexander] Hamilton from the ground up as an industrial town that he envisioned would be powered by the Passaic River, and that would encourage immigrants to come and work.
Friedberg: The Falls [of the Passaic River] inspired Paterson to be America’s first industrial city. Unfortunately, it also became our first Detroit and was a shell of a city for many years. On its face, it can look still run down. But the more we looked, the more we saw the colors of life, people struggling, but also making it.
Elmes: It’s alive and vibrant — constantly being reborn and the clash of cultures brings a whole new life to those buildings. So on one hand, you have that old red brick and then you have bright orange, blue, and red signs from other cultures and putting new stores in those old storefronts. It’s that kind of clash and rebirth that interested me visually.
Friedberg: [The character Paterson] is the city. He walks the same routes and lives his life on a schedule. We looked for his rhythm. Its simplicity and its heartbeat. We only see the city as he does. He walks to and from work and his dog walk every night. So in a way, Paterson [the man] is Paterson [the city].
Gonçalves: And that, of course, is all in Jim’s script. There’s an everyman quality to the poetry, especially William Carlos Williams [who wrote the poem “Paterson”] that inspired Adam’s writing in the film.
Elmes: Jim was focused on the routine of a man who eats the same breakfast, walks to work the same way, drives a bus on the same route at the same times — all of which frees his mind to focus on his poetry.
Logan: Before he went to film school, Jim studied literature at Columbia. He studied with a few poets, specifically David Shapiro and Kenneth Koch, who were contemporaries of Ron Padgett [who wrote all of Paterson’s poems for the movie] in the “New York School,” which really nurtured his love of poetry. He then spent time studying abroad in Paris and when he was supposed to be taking classes, he spent all his time in the Cinémathèque devouring all kinds of movies he’d never seen before. He came back knowing he didn’t want to be a writer in the formal sense, but wanted to make films. Yet poetry is something he’s always loved, and “Paterson” was his way to bring the two together.
Elmes: In doing research, I visited Paterson a number of times and rode the bus around town for a couple of hours. And what struck me with the visual texture outside the bus — all those things that pass by, all those faces and the quality of the light inside the bus and how it changes. All those things became little visual cues that we could once again abstract, and then put them together as you were seeing his poems unfold.
Gonçalves: I had the wealth of beautiful images, and I just started exploring knowing Jim wanted to do the poems on screen. I wanted the audience to have the same process as Paterson as he’s driving and soaking it in, something that he sees and maybe it’s not obvious to you or to him, but when he starts writing you realize, “Oh, it’s the little boy with mother in the street, or there’s a couple on the corner,” so there’s all the fragments from passing by and the water — you always use the reference of the water, because it’s the place that’s most inspiring for Adam’s character.
Elmes: The waterfall is this beautiful chasm of rock and falling water. It’s inspiring to sit there and look at it and see how it changes day to day with the light. Because of the structure of the story, I knew he was there to create and write poems, and the falls were part of that inspiration. It gave us every excuse to look closely at the falls and to abstract it. To take parts of it away and see just water falling, to see water flowing, or swirling, mist, foam, and the birds. To take all those bits apart and kind of let them come back together in a visual that stands with the poem.
Gonçalves: Jim will be in the editing room saying [through his accent, Gonçalves does a solid Jarmusch impersonation], “I don’t know what this is man, not sure what I was going for.” He’s so self effacing and then we start putting it together, and he’s really specific: “This needs to happen here, and that there,” but those just become markers and we have so much fun filling in how we get from here to there. That’s by design. It’s what he loves. That process of discovery and possibility of what’s in the footage is what drives him, and it’s remarkable how open and collaborative he is in that discovery.
Mary Cybulski / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street
Lewis: One thing each of Jim’s main characters have is a pathos to them and empathy and a compassion. If you think about all those lead roles from Tilda [Swinton, in “Only Lovers Left Alive”] to Forest [Whitaker, “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”] to Bill Murray [“Broken Flowers”] and now Adam, there’s a depth and some unspoken qualities that all of those people are able to bring to their roles that make them alive, and at the same time make you feel for them.
Logan: He didn’t write the script initially thinking about Adam specifically, but then arrived at Adam through conversations with Ellen and looking through his work.
Lewis: Actors love Jim. They want to work with him. When I put that call into Adam’s agent, I think it took all of five minutes for her to call back. Literally. And that was after a lead in of, “Let me see, it may be hard to reach him.” And then truly, five minutes later, “Let’s put them in touch right now.”
Logan: [When Jim] meets with actors, they sit at a table like this, they have a tea or a meal, and they talk about their work, their life, what the movie is and what the character is. He gets a pretty good sense from those meetings.
Gonçalves: He has a deep appreciation for what the actors are bringing, but he can break them down to, “This is why I’m using Tilda, this is why using Johnny Depp [‘Dead Man’].” There’s an essence to them that he wants to access in a specific way.
Lewis: Part of my job is to see the cast through the director’s eyes. I think that with Jim, it’s interesting because there’s a feeling of reality in his films and kind of another-worldliness as well. It becomes Jim’s world, embodying that specific pace and cadence. Jim has his own rhythm, which you can sense in his films, and I would say that extends to the casting, which is very thoughtful. My time with him is this incredible, quiet focus.
Logan: He doesn’t put them on tape, he doesn’t do a table read or traditional rehearsal. It’s about having enough time beforehand for them to talk, it’s a lot of conversation, and for the actor to inhabit those characters and the world.
Gonçalves: That’s what’s so amazing about Adam’s performance — you really believe he belongs to that world. He’s so appreciative of Method Man doing his thing in the laundromat, the little girl with the poem. Like him, they are artists, they are trying things, it just sparks that curiosity in him that makes him such an interesting poet. The connection between Jim and Adam in this film is so beautiful, you can feel it on screen, he’s essentially channelling Jim’s artistic process.
Mary Cybulski / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street
Friedberg: Jim is a visionary. But he’s one who embraces the process more than any other. He trusts himself to know when he has found what he is looking for, even if he’s not sure what it is when he sets out on his journey. It’s more about creating a framework. A place where truth happens. Jim is, I guess, looking for artistic truth, whatever that is. Generally, what is made up of simple, ordinary ideas that by virtue of their simplicity and organic to our process ended up seeming profound. “Paterson” is a story where very little happens on the face of it. But in the end, it’s a journey.
Gonçalves: Jim loves to talk about the movies when they’re done. It’s the process — the writing, the shooting, the cutting, the music. Like Paterson in a way, the process is almost more interesting than the actual finished product. [SPOILER] Once his poems vanish with the dog, Adam just starts again. He did the job, he did the work, he loves so much going to the work. The process of making the movies is so pleasurable for him.