A lyrical filmmaker and an art-house icon, Jim Jarmusch has written and directed Paterson, an unordinary movie about the ordinary life of a poem-writing New Jersey bus driver and his artistically souled wife. The Globe and Mail spoke with the philosophic American director about dog walking, the film's star Adam Driver and the significance of insignificance.
Someone once said of your work that "nothing and everything can happen in a film by Jim Jarmusch, that master of Zen mesmerism." A fair statement?
I like that description, because it's almost a Buddhist statement, that embracing opposites or contradictions is possible. So, nothing is everything, and everything is nothing. That means that all things are possible. So, I like that. That the impossible is possible.
Poetry by Ron Padgett and William Carlos Williams is a big part of Paterson. Where does poetry fit in, in general, as far as what you try to achieve as a filmmaker?
I don't analyze what I do. The poem by William Carlos Williams, This Is Just to Say, is actually a note left on a table about some plums. I would hope my films are in that kind of vein, rather than something that tries to teach you or tell you something universal from the mountaintop.
In 1989, you said you'd rather make a movie about a guy walking his dog than one about the Emperor of China. And now you've made a film about a guy walking his dog.
I'd like to make a movie about the Emperor of China walking his dog. [Laughs.] Adam Driver plays a bus driver who writes poetry and walks his dog every night. His life, as you present it, is repetitious and mundane. And yet he seems serene and content. It's very mundane. The film follows him seven days on one week, with each day as a variation on the previous day. It's a very simplistic metaphor that was attractive to me. I love variations in music, and in art. If you look at Mark Rothko paintings, they're all variations.
Or Andy Warhol.
Right. There's something very honest with it. It defies the idea of originality or significance, in a beautiful way. It frees you from those things. This film is trying to free itself from significance.
My take on the film is that it is an homage to the simplicity of a bygone era. I'm thinking of the 1950s, where the working class could work simple jobs, punching a clock, living a repetitious but stress-free life and being able to provide for their family. We've lost that, haven't we?
I don't think of Paterson as a nostalgia film at all. They have a modest house. He has a municipal job, but it's hard for them. They're working on it, but they're not living large. So, it's not a throwback to the domestic world of I Love Lucy or anything for me. It's not about looking back.
As far as the casting, did you write the male lead for Adam Driver?
I didn't. Usually I write for actors, but I didn't know who was going to play these two main characters. But then I was very attracted to Adam – how he looks, and his quietness as an actor. I hadn't seen him much. He did a lovely little thing in Inside Llewyn Davis, and he was in Frances Ha.
You don't watch him in the HBO series Girls?
I think I saw part of one episode. I'm not a big TV guy. I heard Adam in some interviews, and I loved the idea that he had been a Marine and also had studied at Juilliard. And here I have a character who's a bus driver and a poet. I loved how he talked about acting, and that he refuses to see any film he's in, because he doesn't want to jeopardize his ability to be a reactive actor. I love that kind of acting.
I'm guessing you were pleased with his work in Paterson.
He was really fantastic. There's a scene in a bar when he takes a guy down, and afterward a woman says something like, "Thanks, Paterson, that was really heroic." And the first take that we did, he just said something like, "What, I don't know."
It just came out of him, as if he was traumatized. It was so real. I was, like, "That's it."
So, just one take for the scene?
He asked if we could do a couple more takes. I said sure, but that's the take that was going to be in the movie. He's something special, that guy.
Paterson opens in Toronto on Feb. 10