Early word is in from Cannes, and Jim Jarmusch’s new film “Paterson” has quickly risen to everybody’s must-see list for the fall (please Amazon, don’t make us wait longer than that). Indiewire talked with the film’s cinematographer Frederick Elmes (“Broken Flowers,” “Blue Velvet”) to discuss his collaboration with the great auteur. What we got was not only wonderful insight to how he created the look of “Paterson,” but a sneak peak into Jarmusch’s process of capturing all the subtle, textured detail that gives his films their essence and soul.
“After I finished shooting ‘Paterson,’ friends would ask what the film was about and I start to explain, ‘It’s about a bus driver who lives in Paterson, his name is Paterson, he’s a poet,’ and then I’d struggle and end up saying, ‘It’s a Jim Jarmusch film where nothing much happens, but in fact it’s rich in texture.'”
“Jim and I have known each for many years and have done several films together. The needs for each film are different, but the approach to details is always the same. It’s the details that are so important to his films. 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. As we shoot we find new elements and we remain conscious of finding ways to repeat and connect those visual ideas. It gives the film a great deal of depth. Even though nothing appears to happen on the surface, there’s a whole lot working underneath.”
“Like with his other films, Jim lived with ‘Paterson’ for awhile because he wrote it, so he knew exactly what he was going for and was really good at articulating that with me, which allowed me to prepare. When we talked about ‘Paterson’ 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. Part of my job was to make it visually refreshing every time. We aren’t duplicating the same shot five times as he walks to work. We approach it slightly differently [each time] to give it some visual style and a sense of what goes on in Paterson’s head, what he sees along the way that inspires his poetry.”
“One of the things that becomes a regular element of his routine is he eats his packed lunch in a park with a view of the waterfall, which drives the industrialization of the town. 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.”
“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. What remains is a town of very old brick buildings that have gone through several generations of different types manufacturing, and some are being renovated into lofts. It’s alive and vibrant — constantly being reborn and the clash of cultures brings a whole new life to those building. 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 store fronts. It’s that kind of clash and rebirth that interested me visually.”
“The lucky thing is that on a bus you get to see it all. In Jim’s eyes the town became part of the dream, part of the collage that drives [his main character’s] imagination when writing poetry. 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. Like the water in the falls, I found I could take little elements of light on the floor or a view of the trees, just little things that he saw that have no relevance in themselves, but were part of the larger part of his day and his poetry.”
“It’s hell shooting on a bus. It’s just awful. The mechanics of shooting on the bus are really difficult because of the vibrations of the bus itself — they have horrible suspensions — and the reflection on the windows. What’s worse is you form a route driving around the city and find blocks that you like because of the texture and colors is just right for a particular scene — and then you realize if you are driving north in the morning and the sun is coming in the right way, but when the loop turns and goes south, it’s only good in the afternoon. It complicates and confounds your day and your plans go out the window. So you break it up into parts and find routes that get you the right scenery, all with the knowledge you can’t afford to stop shooting because it’s a relatively small film and there’s time limit because their are children in the cast.”
“To stabilize the camera we had a bunch of special heads that absorbed the vibration. One of the cameras we used was a smaller Arri Alexa Mini which was easier to mount and light weight, so we could cram it into a corner. For all the bus shots — because of the limited time and once you get the bus in motion you want to keep moving — we used two cameras. While one camera was doing the dialogue, the other would either be doing a close up or something unrelated — like looking out the front window to capture those little details.”
“The footage from the mini matched well with the Alexa studio, which is a great camera. Arri has managed, as close as I can determine, to see things the way I see them. They see things similarly to the way film sees them and that’s what Jim and I grew up with. It’s flexible and all the lens I could want go on it. The studio version also has an great optical viewfinding system, so I can look through the lens so I got an honest picture of what the lens is seeing. All those things contribute to it being the right camera.”
Editor’s Note: This feature is presented in partnership with Arri, a leading designer, manufacturer and distributor of motion picture camera, digital intermediate (DI) and lighting equipment. Click here for more information about Arri’s products.