Navigating Through Bermuda: A Conversation with Jim Jarmusch

The American independent discusses his new film "Paterson," how he approaches cinematography, working with actors and his sound design.
Gabe Klinger

Jim Jarmusch. Photo courtesy of the Lisbon Estoril Film Festival.

This interview took place on an auspicious morning after the U.S. elections. The setting was placid: an oceanside terrace in the small casino town of Estoril, twenty minutes outside of Lisbon, where Jim Jarmusch was attending Paulo Branco’s Lisbon Estoril Film Festival. Despite the harrowing mood, the subject was focused and insightful, talking about his working method, collaborators, and the poetic influences and resonances for his latest film, Paterson, which opens in North America this week.

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to start by talking about technical matters.


NOTEBOOK: I’m curious…do you use a shot list?

JARMUSCH: No. Because, say, we go to the location, and it’s 4pm, and we’re shooting the next day at 9am… and now the light is coming from a different place, and maybe it rained overnight, and everything’s different.

NOTEBOOK: But does it drive anyone on set crazy that you do that?

JARMUSCH: Yes, it drives the production crazy. I have a joke that they do not find funny, which is an answer to the question: “How many set-ups are we going to do today?” Our response is, “We will tell you at the end of the day.” [Laughs] It’s not that [the crew] are our enemies; we are all on the same team, but in a way they’re fighting from a different trench.  The DP and I do often design a kind of plan. But we get to the set and maybe we take the three shots we had in mind and make them into one, or vice versa.

NOTEBOOK: With Frederick Elmes—

JARMUSCH: The wonderful Fred Elmes!

NOTEBOOK: —I imagine with Fred, since he’s worked on things like Eraserhead, he’s pretty open about the process, but you must have worked with technicians over the years who were frustrated by you.

JARMUSCH: Only once or twice. With Robbie Müller, he got a little mad at me when we were shooting Dead Man, because we were on a train that was on a set, and then we had to match the interior to shots we would do later, and so he needed a shot list so we could shoot out the window and it would connect. But actually it was Robbie who always told me, “We have to think on our feet!” DP’s are complicated people. They have to be technicians and artists. As my Native American friends say, “Going down the river with one foot in each canoe is difficult.”

NOTEBOOK: Will you take me through your blocking process?

JARMUSCH: The DP, AD, and I will discuss the shot first, sometimes with the gaffer. Then we bring the actors. We walk them through what we’re thinking. And sometimes they’ll do something where you’re like, “Oh, that’s way better.” Then we say, okay, take the actors, get them ready, we bring in the rest of the crew, and the AD tells everyone what they’re gonna do. I feel self-important if I act too much like the boss, the captain. The AD is the director of the set. I’m just the navigator, looking at the stars, wondering, “Well, maybe if we go through Bermuda…” But everyone is different. Some directors don’t even really talk to the actors.

NOTEBOOK: I saw this scene in a making-of doc about The Limits of Control, where Chris Doyle is running around and there’s a flamenco band and it all looks frantic, and

JARMUSCH: Does it look like I’m not doing anything?

NOTEBOOK: Yeah, a little bit—

JARMUSCH: That’s generally not emblematic of me!

NOTEBOOK: I imagine you do talk with your actors.

JARMUSCH: Yes, but I never talk with them about the scene together. I always take them aside separately. The scene may mean a totally different thing to one character than to another. By the time we get to the set we’ve already talked about the intention of the scene. Alone. I don’t want one to know the other is emotionally upset, or this one is off-balance, or this one is ecstatic… They have to find that when we shoot. No thing means the same thing to each person… in life.

NOTEBOOK: When you’re talking about intention with the actors, is it ever okay to say, “I’m not sure what this means”?

JARMUSCH: I hope so, because I do it a lot! To me, acting is about reacting, not acting out something. Your reactions change. I don’t always know. In Paterson, Laura, Golshifteh Fahrani’s character, is of Persian descent, and Paterson, Adam Driver’s character, was in the military. Golshifteh asked me, “So did we meet in the Middle East or what?” I said, “I don’t want to know your backstory. If you need to, find it with each other.” In the past I’ve had actors who want to work out all that stuff, and sometimes I’ve been included in it, but this time I didn’t want to know.

Part of our job is to not know what we’re doing. Life is full of possibilities. These films are about characters and their interrelation with the world. When you sit down with a person, you don’t know what they’re going to say next, or what the feeling is gonna be when you leave. Preserve the not-knowing thing. That’s a strategy. You know the joke, or half-joke, half-motto: it’s hard to get lost if you don’t know where you’re going. If you have an agenda, you can derail.

NOTEBOOK: How important are personal relationships in being able to derail or experiment?

JARMUSCH: Well, we make personal things, so it’s a huge factor. Fred Elmes, I’ve worked with him for so long. Drew Kunin, our sound recordist, I’ve worked with since 1984! We’re like brothers. Mark Friedberg [production designer], the same. They know I’m spaced-out, they know my strengths are intuitive, not regimented or analytical… so they accept me as that. For our kinds of films, that’s important. I have to keep bringing people back because they’re family.

NOTEBOOK: Let me ask you about sound.

JARMUSCH: Oh, Drew Kunin, our recordist, is the one person on our set that I will talk about content with. He’s very literate and we both read lots of books, but he’s read more books.  We’ll walk off the set and I’ll ask, “What do you think of that one line? Do you think the dialogue sounds forced? Do you think we should do a take where we remove half of those lines?” And he’ll be very direct and say, “Keep what you have but let’s do another take without these two lines and let’s add a pause.” I’ve worked with other sound people, rarely, when Drew’s not available, and I don’t have that thing.

Sound is half the movie. The mix is so important. It’s the thing. Our sound designer, Bob Hein… talk about poetry. His work is so subtle, and rich, and beautiful. Occasionally while we were shooting Paterson, trains would go by with a lonely whistle. And Bob would say, “I’m gonna take that and add it back in here.” He would create these very striking, emotional details that give you another dimension. He’d ask, “How many insects would be around [Paterson and Laura’s] house at this time of the year at dusk.” In the wide shot of their house you see a tree and a bush so maybe the crickets are a little dense here… all that kind of shit.

NOTEBOOK: Shifting gears for a moment… I wanted to talk in a more general and philosophical direction. I mean, we’re sitting here the day after

JARMUSCH: The day after Trump becomes Emperor…

NOTEBOOK: …And I’m just wondering, do you ever feel the need, in your films, to engage with the world in a more explicitly political way?

JARMUSCH: Well, you know, when we’re shooting films we’re a little pirate ship. The world goes away when you’re making a film, because you’re working so much and you have so little time to sleep, and you don’t even know what’s going on anymore. And I always say at least once during a shoot: let’s remember we’re just making a fucking film here, you know? It’s entertainment. And at the same time we’re giving it all we believe in. My religion is the imagination. Human imagination is the strongest thing we have, whether we’re scientists or artists or whatever… I’m thinking about someone like Bach. He invented some beautiful forms of variation by some economic necessity, to feed his children. But the point is: who were the most important, powerful men when he was around? We don’t know, and we don’t care, because Bach was more important than any of them! You cannot kill ideas. You can kill people. You can imprison people. You can never kill ideas. Anyway, that’s a roundabout answer…

NOTEBOOK: For me Paterson is about the simple necessity for poetry in our lives, and the character of Paterson can be seen as political because he’s so set apart from everyone—and to me he’s also a bit tragic in that way. Do you agree with any of that?

JARMUSCH: I’m not sure how to answer any of this. Godard said everything is political. Well, that’s true to a degree. Paterson is an intentionally slight story, and I don’t mean that as a negative thing. It’s not dramatic, it’s not dazzling, there’s no clever plot. The structure—the seven days of the week thing—I’m sure that’s been done before. Formally it’s kind of obvious almost. It’s a simplification of things we expect. We were happy to celebrate that slightness.

There’s a deceptive sophistication in simplicity. I’m not attributing that to our film necessarily, but there’s something very strong in reduction. Ron Padgett [whose poems are used in Paterson] is a member of the New York School, which grew out of Frank O’Hare’s manifesto “Personism.” The idea of it was writing a poem for one other person. . A great precedent for this idea is the poem by William Carlos William, “This is Just to Say.” And it’s literally a note left on a table that says [paraphrasing], “I ate your plums for breakfast. I’m sorry, but they were so delicious.”

The New York School are my aesthetic godfathers. I studied with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro. They’re real guides for me in their self-effacement, in their deep love for the forms that they choose to express themselves in. Koch once gave me a poem by Rilke and said, “Jim, I need you to translate this poem by Wednesday.” It was Monday and I told him, “I don’t speak German.” And he just said: “Precisely.” So the idea was, bring back something from this poem, which you can’t even read! Maybe you’ll just use the number of lines. Something. So the idea was he didn’t want a translation but a variation. I learned so much from this playfulness and lack of restrictions.

NOTEBOOK: I can see it bothers you to interpret too much.

JARMUSCH: Obviously with films we love we see them more than once, but when you see it for the first time… that’s the strength of that world. And [as artists] we’re robbed of that, because we labored over them.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel elegiac about art today? Do I detect a mournfulness in Paterson? Does it celebrate a simpler time?

JARMUSCH: Some people said that about Only Lovers Left Alive too. Like this is a negation of the current time or an expression of frustration with the current time. But I don’t feel that at all! I feel like it’s all waves in the ocean. It’s the same when people say, “Oh, your guy doesn’t use cell phones or the latest laptop—“ I love all those tools! Painting didn’t die when photography was invented. I embrace all those things. If you look in the margins now, you will find incredible things. We just have a problem of dissemination, which is totally corporately controlled and therefore the margins are getting a little trickier to investigate than in other periods. But I think we have incredible breakthroughs in art. The more people there are, the more beautiful things there are… but they’re harder to find.

NOTEBOOK: I think you can find a simultaneity of celebration and lament in your work.

JARMUSCH: I hope that you can. There’s a lament of not appreciating the previous things. Why can’t you listen to the latest underground hip-hop and then listen to William Byrd music from the 16th century? I love electronic music and also pre-polyphonic music. Hieronymus Bosch and Gerhard Richter. I’m also super anti-hierarchical. So I love lowbrow things and so-called sophisticated things. And people misinterpret things as sophisticated. Dante wrote in vernacular. He was writing like the Wu-Tang Clan!

You know… I’m still kind of a luddite. I carry around a notebook. I write my scripts by hand. But then my films are edited on digital equipment. Why can’t I have both? It’s one big ocean.

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