Jim Jarmusch on the Poetry of Paterson

One of the pioneering voices in the American indie film movement of the 80s and 90s as well as perpetually the coolest guy in the room, Jim Jarmusch remains one of those names passed as a secret handshake between cinephiles. He’s been cranking out distinctly personal films for decades, yet never dared step a toe outside of his own sandbox. From his “shot on leftover film stock” debut Stanger Than Paradise through larger projects starring genuine movie stars like Johnny Depp, Tom Hiddleston or Bill Murray, Jarmusch has always gone out of his way to satisfy himself as an artist above any commercial demands of filmmaking. He always ensures that he personally owns his films to avoid them being tampered with or shown in a means that he doesn’t approve of and while that’s ensured that he’s remained a perpetual outsider in the movie industry, it’s also led to one of the most eclectic filmographies of any director in his generation. Deadpan hilarious, poetically open to interpretation, gently paced, and beautifully photographed, there’s no other movie like a Jim Jarmusch movie.

Jarmusch’s latest feature Paterson has garnered especially glowing praise since premiering at Cannes last spring. He began working on the script about a bus driver/poet 20 years ago and in many ways it feels as close to autobiography as anything that he’s likely to make. Adam Driver stars as the titular Paterson and the film is structured around a week in his life. He repeats a ritualized daily routine that allows the world to gently pass by him with snippets of conversations and images of people around serving as inspiration for poetry and satisfaction. In many ways, that seems like a modus operandi of Jarmusch himself, a filmmaker fascinated in fringe figures who finds cinema and poetry in the mundane moments between the big dramas that typically serve as the subject for films. It’s a beautifully sweet, smart and funny feature that might not be a conventional crowd pleaser, yet is sure to warm the heart of any film-obsessed weirdo on the director’s wavelength. 

Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with Jarmusch at a roundtable interview when he brought Paterson to TIFF last fall. As always the filmmaker was both insightful and factious as he chatted about the motivations behind his latest feature and his mysterious working methods. It kicked off with a little deadpan address to the room before getting to the Q&A business at hand. So let’s start there, with a joke that quickly turns to a more thoughtful conversation. Not unlike so many of Jarmusch’s scripts. 

“Before we get started, I want you to know that I’m recording this, so that if any of you misquote me the New York chapter of the Hells Angels will appear at your home with hammers…no I’m not recording. I don’t even read this stuff. Say whatever you want, I’ll never know.”

I was wondering if you could talk about the significance of the matches and why you chose to make Paterson a bus driver?

Well, “The Blue Tip Matches” was a poem that existed before the film. All the poems in the film are by Ron Padgett, who is a poet that I love very much and who was part of what is now called The New York School of poets. Why a bus driver? I wanted the character to have a working class job and be a poet. I love the idea of floating through the city and receiving images and bits of conversation. No poets have ever been in it for the money. It’s not a lucrative job. So many poets had other jobs. William Carlos Williamson was a paediatrician who delivered over 2000 babies. Wallace Stevens worked for a large insurance company. When he won an award for his poetry one of his colleagues said, “Wait a minute, Wally writes poetry?!” Frank O’Hara, one of the greatest poets of the New York School was a curator at the Museum Of Modern Art, etc. etc. So a bus driver seemed like a beautiful way to float him through the city.

Music plays a big role in your films and it sometimes feels like Paterson been constructed to flow more like music than narrative. Could you talk a little bit about how you wrote the film to move in a way that’s not traditionally narratively driven?

Yes, music is very important to me and films are always very closely related to music because unlike paintings or novels because they pass in front of you with their own sense of time. So they are related for sure. This one I think of as being a film with a poetic structure more than a musical one although they are also related. The seven days of the week is a very simple structure like stanzas in a poem. The idea of variations within each day being different from the next, yet with repetitions of both little details and also the three worlds of the story (the home, the bus, and the bar) was very much like a poem. He has patterns that are helpful to him to float and think and be a poet. So I don’t know, they are all kind of interrelated and important to me.

You initially had this idea twenty years ago, what made you return to this now?

Well, it’s mysterious. I think things happen when they are supposed to and you’re never certain why. I wrote the script for Paterson before I wrote Only Lovers Left Alive, which had been a script that had gone through many versions over the years. I also started Gimmie Danger before I made Paterson. When I finished Only Lovers Left Alive, I had the script for Paterson ready and decided it was time. But it’s almost like they tell me when they are ready more than I tell them. I’m not very good at preparing myself. My favourite plan is having no plan. So I’m not really good at establishing what I do next. I kind of wait for them to tell me when they are ready, in a way. That’s not a very good answer, but it’s kind of the most honest. 

Did you find yourself in a better position now then if you’d done it 20 years ago?

Yeah, it would be different. I would probably cast it differently and have different inspirations. But they aren’t things that I can necessarily qualify because I can’t say what I would have done. This is so off topic, but once I did an interview with a film critic in Japan who was very intellectual so he asked me an extremely long question in Japanese. The young lady translating said, “Oh, he would like to know if your film would change, how would it be different.” I said somewhat factiously, “It would be longer.” And then she responded with a very long answer to him. (Laughs) So I don’t know. I was left out of that conversation. 

Your style has stayed consistent over the years, yet also has gone through so many manifestations. Where do you think you’re at now with your films?

Well, I’m not analytical about it, so I can almost not answer that. I don’t know. Certain people talk in a certain rhythm. I talk rather slow, so that’s my rhythm. It just comes to me that way. When making a film, I’m definitely not conscious of what kind of rhythm it wants. It just happens. So I’m not particularly conscious of that. I know that if you have children, they all have similar genetic material, but they are all different people. So my films are all different, but they all have similar genetic material. You don’t decide what your children will get. It just happens. I’m not analytical about my work because whatever strength I have is based on intuition and not thinking through too much why I do anything or what it means. I feel like that would diminish my strength. 

Adam Driver is very interesting that way as well. He won’t see any film that he’s in. He’s not seen Paterson and will never see Paterson. Because he knows his gift is reaction and Adam Driver’s worst nightmare would be to watch himself act out the meaning of a scene. He would commit harikari. He knows what he wants to do and he knows that he has a gift and his gift is to be reactive. And I know my gift is intuitive and not analyzing what I do. I protect that at all costs and run away from analysis. I remember an interview with Bob Dylan years ago where someone asked him what a song meant and he went nuts. “That’s not my fucking job to know what it means, man. I wrote it. What are you asking of me?” He got really angry, but I understood. He was trying to protect. The thing came to him, but he doesn’t know what it means. He was horrified. 

Paterson TIFF 2016

So much of the film finds poetry in small moments of daily life. I was wondering if you could say what space poetry has in your daily life?

Well, let’s see. [Holds up a book of poetry] I have this book with me today. I like poetry. I like poets. It’s not a daily ritual, you know. So, I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t have a plan for each day. I don’t read poetry from 9:45-10, you know? But I love poets. I realized at an early age that they weren’t in it for the money. They were rebellious and brave and they were sensitive. So they were kind of like rock stars for me. I still really admire them. People think of Dante as a high literature guy, but he was like the Wu-Tang Clan. Dante wrote in vernacular. He wrote in the way that people spoke on the street, which no one did in Italian literature at the time. So people were like, “What is this vulgar use of common language?” But he made it into the most exquisite poetry.

These characters are so fully fleshed out that they feel like friends by the time your movies end and we miss them. Have you ever considered revisiting your characters?

No. I kind of like to leave them alive and out there. I don’t like to draw a curtain at the end of the film. I like to think that they are still out in their world. But once I finish a film, I can’t look at them again. So I’ve never thought about bringing any of them back except for one case. (Laughs) In Dead Man the character Gary Farmer played was killed at the end and I was kind of heartbroken to kill him, so I brought him back in another century in Ghost Dog just so that he could live again. But it’s kind of ridiculous because it’s in another place at another time. But that was purely because he was gone. Other than that I don’t really even think about it. We’re talking about doing a TV series of Ghost Dog, but we wouldn’t bring back the character of Ghost Dog except possibly as a ghost. I didn’t write it. It’s a script that the RZA wrote with another writer. So we’re proposing it as a pilot. It’s really good. It brings in new characters. They just finished the script.

Would you direct it?

I might direct the pilot and be an executive producer. But I don’t know if anyone will go for it. Eventually the Ghost Dog character will be passed to a Japanese girl. It’s set a little bit in the future. I didn’t write it, but I loved it. So that’s as close I’ve ever gotten to bringing something back and even that has new characters. 

How much of the character do you allow the actors to define themselves outside of your scripts? The performances always seem so distinct and personalized.

I like to ask my actors to suppress parts of them selves that aren’t part of the character, but also express part of themselves that are in the character. For example Golshifteh Farahani is Persian, so I have this music and also some references to Persian calligraphy in some of her black and white painting. Adam Driver was a marine, so I have two little references. One was the picture of him in uniform and the other was when he takes the man down in the bar with a move that obviously came from military training. But these are the only references. I didn’t want the film to say how they met. Did it have to do with the military? Did it happen in the Middle East? I don’t want to know. I did tell them that if they wanted to find a backstory of how they met, do not tell me. I only want to start on Monday and I want to be in that moment, so don’t tell me. I think they did have something, but I still don’t know to this day. So they are still playing characters, but I ask them to bring little parts of themselves to those characters.  

It’s been over a decade since you shot in black and white, so I was wondering if you have any desire to return to that. And also did you design the cupcakes in Paterson yourself?

No the art department did although the script described them as being black and white cupcakes of various patterns. And I have two ideas for films that I’m working on right now and one would be in black and white. I don’t like to talk about them any more than that in advance because I’m superstitious about that. But yes, I still love black and white still and I have one movie that needs to be in black and white because it’s somewhat referential to a certain genre of film.