Paterson: Interview with Director Jim Jarmusch

On Monday morning, as he does nearly every day, Paterson (Adam Driver) wakes up without an alarm and reaches for his watch to check the time. After verifying that it’s around 6:15am, he doesn’t immediately get out of bed.

He takes a moment to savor the loveliness of his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) lying beside him, before she tells him about a dream she had about twins. After speaking to Laura, Paterson picks up the neatly folded t-shirt waiting on his chair and heads for the kitchen, warily eyeing their bulldog Marvin along the way. As he eats his daily bowl of Cheerios, his eyes make contact with a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches lying on the counter. Something about the logo on the package engages him. Paterson has found the beginning of his next poem.

Paterson exits his modest home and walks through his namesake home town of Paterson, New Jersey, following the same path he always does, down his humble street, past rows of trees and decaying factories. As he walks, the words to his poem emerge. His verses advance all the way to the town depot, where he will begin his shift as a bus driver. Once he is finished writing, Paterson’s words will form a love poem, as plain as the matchbox and as beautiful as his love for Laura.

As we follow Paterson through seven days and seven poems, we see that his poetry is always triggered by simple things, like the matchbox. Because his senses are alive to the commonplace, the world is a special place for him. While he is not a big talker, his enjoyment of everything that happens around him is so clear that it’s easy to follow his lead and tune into the world as he does. “The film is designed to just drift over you,” says Jim Jarmusch.

Paterson’s wife Laura is also extremely creative, but she gives voice to her imagination within the home, which she has painted in a vivid black and white geometric style. “Laura is spontaneous and her intuition pushes her towards living an artistic life,” says Farahani. “While Paterson is internal, Laura expresses herself with things that are outside of herself.” Says Driver: “Laura is more curious about a lot of things than Paterson is, and she’s very much a muse for him. And maybe he is for her, too.” Paterson and Laura have a particularly harmonious relationship. “I think the beauty of Laura and Patterson is that they complete each other,” says Farahani. “They value each other’s characteristics, and they don’t want the other one to change.”

Paterson sets up each weekday to follow a set routine. “He has structured his life to be very much a creature of habit, which allows him to drift away and write poetry, or observe everything around him and be very contemplative,” says Driver. “Because he has a very strong structure, he can go on auto-pilot.” Says Jarmusch: “He observes things, he’s reactive, he likes details, but at the same time he has a part of his brain that’s protected for his poems—and that makes him kind of spaced out, too. Laura tells him three times about the cupcakes she’s going to make, but he still asks her, ‘What’s all that flour for?’”

While each day in Paterson’s life is extremely similar, there are tiny differences, and noticing them—or even feeling them—is key to experiencing the film. “Paterson comes out of his door every day,” says director of photography Frederick Elmes, “but Jim didn’t want me to look for a creative new approach to shooting him coming out the door every day just for the sake of the photography. Instead we built in things that are subtly visually interesting from day to day: the weather feels a little different; the neighbor is doing something new in the yard; or there’s a contrasting feeling about the light this day than the day before. There’s always that sameness, but when you look at that routine carefully, you find those subtle differences, and then they become important.” Says sound designer Robert Hein: “Paterson walks by the same places every day, but the sound is never exactly the same. His day is always colored by something new, and he’s very aware of his surroundings—sometimes you hear squirrels chattering at him, or you’ll hear a siren, or people in the distance.” Says Jarmusch: “We would discuss ‘Which birds do you want to hear?’ and ‘Which would be closest to the window?’ and ‘Do you like that sound of the motorcycle at 6:30 in the morning?’” Says Hein: “The sound is a big part of how he feels.”

Wry comedy springs naturally out of Paterson’s daily routines: Paterson’s tense relationship with their willful bulldog Marvin (“I think they are competing for Laura’s love,” says Driver.); whimsical conversations overheard on the bus (including one with MOONRISE KINGDOM stars Kara Hayward and Jared Goodman); fellow bus driver Donny’s (Rizwan Manji) extravagant tales of woe; bartender Doc’s (Barry Shabaka Henley) declamations on Paterson luminaries from Lou Costello to Uncle Floyd; and Laura’s detailed decorating of their house—not to mention herself—with her distinctive black and white artistic creations.

The sameness of Paterson’s routine continues until Friday, when it is interrupted by events in the bus and bar. “The bus breakdown is the most action-packed sequence that happens up to that point,” says Driver. “That, I think, is a testament to Jim’s sense of humor that it’s the most extreme thing that will probably happen to Paterson that week.” Later, when his friend Everett has an outburst in the bar, Paterson reacts quickly, perhaps revealing his military training. “In those two moments when something happens he’s not expecting, it shocks him out of his pattern and you get a glimpse of who he is,” says Driver.


One thing that’s impossible to miss in PATERSON is the way that certain things like twins turn up repeatedly. “In the original script, there weren’t any twins,” says Jarmusch. “Laura just said, ‘Would you like it if we had twins?’ I didn’t want a payoff, I didn’t want to end with, ‘I’m pregnant with twins,’ I just wanted that thing where people say something and then you start seeing it everywhere.”

Once the game of seeing repetitions is planted in the mind, it’s easy to discover, for example, circles everywhere you look: in Laura’s art, the Cheerios, the bus route, Paterson’s watch, the cupcakes, patterns on fabrics, even the wheels on the bus. “A lot of these things are in there by chance,” says Jarmusch. “But if you look for them, you can keep finding them, endlessly.”

Jarmusch sought an ambient, electronic-based music for PATERSON. “I wanted it to be dreamlike music that induces your brain to drift, just as Paterson’s does,” he says. His original plan was to score the film with an assembly of tracks by well-known electronic artists, but he wasn’t fully satisfied with the results. “Each cue was not quite right,” he says. “One would be a little too foreboding or another one would be too sweet.” Editor Affonso Gonçalves suggested that Jarmusch and PATERSON producer Carter Logan, whose band SQÜRL co-scored ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, try making some music of their own. While the music of SQÜRL is thick, distorted electric guitars and drums, Logan and Jarmusch had acquired vintage-sounding synthesizers for live scores they had recently performed for silent Man Ray films. Playing live music separately in their home studios, they passed tracks back and forth. As Gonçalves took sections of longer pieces and found spots to place them within his edit, Jarmusch and Logan recorded additional parts, including bass guitar, more synths, and glass harmonica. These layers were delicately added and subtracted to create music that follows Paterson’s wandering mental state. “The music is reflective, but it’s also sort of immersive,” says Gonçalves. “Something as little as a chord change becomes part of his thought process.”

Like the soundtrack, the film’s images are also often layered, notably in the dreamy montage that accompanies the poem, “Another One.” That sequence, driven by SQÜRL’s hypnotic music, features overlapping visuals in and outside the bus: people riding silently; getting on and off the bus; light streaking across Paterson’s profile as he drives; the bus turning; people running on the street; Paterson writing in a notebook; and even references to the words of the poem itself. “These images were never things that were intended to only be seen from the driver’s seat of the bus,” says Elmes. “We chose to see these details from all different places and to abstract them.”. Says producer Joshua Astrachan: “There’s literal music in this scene, but there’s also the visual music of the city, and we want the audience to feel that tangentially.” Says Gonçalves: “We wanted to try to capture the way the mind functions, especially when you’re trying to create. Your thought process taps into everything you’ve been gathering through the journey of your day, while you’re sitting down in one place.”

Poet Ron Padgett

Award-winning poet Ron Padgett wrote all of Paterson’s poems. After securing permission to use four of Padgett’s previously published poems, “Love Poem,” “Glow,” “Pumpkin,” and “Poem,” Jarmusch told Padgett that if he wanted to write something especially for the film, he would like to look at it. “I told him I probably wouldn’t,” says Padgett, “but the way he said it took away any pressure I would have felt, and thus made it possible for me to write three new poems (“Another One,” “The Run,” and “The Line”). I did so while pretending to myself that I was the bus driver in the script, but in the back of my mind I wanted the poems to be good on their own, film script aside. The first one started arriving as I was waking up one morning—an unexpected parallel with the film!”

Many people don’t know that when Jarmusch first came to New York in the late 70s, he passionately pursued poetry, studying at Columbia with Kenneth Koch (also Padgett’s teacher) and David Shapiro, reading poetry of all types, seeking out poets, writing—and very occasionally—publishing his own work. He liked a wide variety of poets, but his passion was for the New York School, which included Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry, Koch, and Shapiro. (Jarmusch’s bible in those days was Anthology of New York Poets, co-edited by Padgett and Shapiro.) “I learned from these poets not to take things too seriously,” says Jarmusch. “My films are comedies. Even when I begin writing something with the intention of it being heavier, I find I have to get funny things in it or it isn’t interesting to me anymore.”

The setting of Paterson, New Jersey might seem like an unlikely choice, but as the movie reveals, it was the subject of the epic poem “Paterson,” written by William Carlos Williams, published in five separate volumes between 1946 and 1958. Jarmusch takes little from the Williams’s poem aside from his metaphoric use of Paterson as a man as well as a city, and his words: “no ideas but in things.” “What Williams meant by that,” says Jarmusch, “is that you start with the things around you and the details of daily life, and you find beauty and resonance in them—and poetry grows out of that.”

Williams approached Paterson as a site of great historical significance. The nation’s first planned city, Paterson was built from the ground up around the Passaic River’s Grand Falls in 1792 to realize Alexander Hamilton’s vision of harnessing the Falls’ water power for industry. Today’s Paterson has fallen from its illustrious past. “If you look at Paterson, at first glance, it’s a decaying place,” says production designer Mark Friedberg. “It’s poor. Its nobility is seemingly very former, certainly architecturally. At the same time, it’s a beautiful, colorful collage of life, and I think we were interested in that dichotomy—we were looking to find that sense of both despair and hope.” While the filmmakers used Paterson as a backdrop for the film, it isn’t intended as a realistic portrait of the city. “It’s a Paterson we created,” says Jarmusch. “It does reference many people who were from or lived in Paterson, like Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, Italian anarchist Gaetano Bresci, Sam & Dave, and Lou Costello, but it’s not a social document.”

The Grand Falls are central to the history of the city, to Williams’s poem, and to Paterson the character. It’s a place where he is able to find a refuge from the cacophony of his day and write. In reality, the site can appear to be a somewhat forgotten place. The filmmakers cleaned up the weeds, installed benches, and used camera placements to instill the site with the feeling of grandeur the scenes required. Elmes used a long lens to get very close to the falls and explore the facets of the cascading water. “In reality, it’s quite a ways away, but we needed to make the audience see it and feel it,” he says. “It’s quite beautiful and dramatic when you get close to it and you get a true sense of the power of nature and how man relates to it.” Those images really fed into what Affonso did with the montages, because they became a visual poem linking Paterson writing on the bench, with Laura, and the visual textures of driving the bus.”

The production thought it would be helpful to have Driver learn how to drive a bus, but by the time they contacted him he had already signed up and begun classes on his own. “Driving a bus is second nature to Paterson, and I knew that once we started shooting I didn’t want to suddenly not know what was going on with the bus and start flipping things that made no sense,” says Driver. “Also, I think usually if there’s something physical that I latch onto when it comes to acting in film, I’ll just hold onto that because that’s the only thing that I really have control over.” As soon as Driver found out that Padgett’s poetry would be used in the film, he picked up Padgett’s 800-page volume, Collected Works. “Jim told me that Adam was acquainted with the context in which these poems were drawn, having looked through this giant book about it,” says Padgett. “I think both Adam and Jim were very respectful about the material, without being pious.” While Paterson’s poetry was written by Padgett, the penmanship is all Driver’s—a special font was created from his handwriting.

Laura’s omnipresent artwork—adorned on curtains, walls, dresses, pillows and cupcakes—was devised by Mark Friedberg and the art department, with a little help from Golshifteh Farahani herself. “Laura takes a simple little house, and without any money, just ingenuity and curiosity, and makes it into what she wants it to be,” says Friedberg. Farahani wanted to become the artist that she would play in the film, so she came into the art department for several days of pre-production and worked with the painters. “Mark said, ‘Let’s build this world together,’” says Farahani. “And he set me free to do whatever I wanted with bleach, with color, with tissues, with potatoes, with whatever I had. In the end, he chose some of them and brought them into the house.”

Nellie, the female English bulldog who played Marvin, won the Palme Dog at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, given by international critics for the best performance by a canine. Sadly, the award was given posthumously, as Nellie, a former rescue dog brought in by trainer William Berloni, passed away a few months before the festival. “Nellie was a beautiful dog,” says producer Carter Logan, “and her facial expressions were really great, but what made her particularly special was her unusual set of vocalizations—she did these kind of guttural, growly sorts of noises, and those sounds made Marvin into a real character.”