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Jim Jarmusch Talks ‘Paterson,’ His Love for Poetry & Hip-Hop, Tilda Swinton, and Being Grateful

Written by on May 23, 2016 

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Legendary American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been a frequent visitor to the Cannes Film Festival ever since winning the Camera d’Or for Stranger Than Paradise in 1984. He took the Grand Jury prize in 2005 for Broken Flowers but has never managed to nab the Big One. His latest film, Paterson, which premiered last week in competition here, is the story of a bus driver (played by Adam Driver) named Paterson who lives in Paterson NJ, walks his wife’s bulldog, Marvin, and writes poems in his spare time. We sat down with the great silver-haired Son of Lee Marvin to talk hip-hop, Tilda Swinton, and the poetry of everyday things.

Some critics have called this your most personal film. How do would you respond to a statement like that?

I don’t know. With our last film, Only Lovers Left Alive, everyone said “Aha! His most personal film!” I don’t know. I remember that with Broken Flowers. “Finally, his most personal film.” They’re all personal to me or not. I don’t know how to respond. I just follow my instincts. So I have a really hard time comparing the things I’ve done.

It’s a harmonious film in many ways. Can I ask what harmony means to you?

Gee, I don’t know. Harmony and music are kind of complicated because there are certain tonalities that, to some ears, are harmonious and, to others, are not (certain scales or modes of music). I guess, partly, harmony is subjective to a degree. But I will say what it kind of means to me as a kind of pseudo-Buddhist. I’m not a practicing disciplined Buddhist but I do tai chi and I do read a lot of Buddhism. I would say harmony has something related to the idea that all things are one thing. And the harmony of those things is everything. Whatever that means, I don’t know — good luck with that.

It’s as if Paterson is structured like a poem, with the daily routines and days of the week like a series of stanzas, and then the various patterns and repetition. Was this your intention?

Yes, maybe in a way. You know, I love variation and repetition in poetry, in music and in art. So I love repeated things, variations, whether it’s in Bach or Andy Warhol. In the film I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life, that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up. They’re just variations.

Is it the poetry of everyday things?

Yes. William Carlos Williams said “no ideas but in things,” which Method Man quotes. I didn’t tell him to do that. He wrote that rap and he included William Carlos Williams. That means to say that you start with the imperial world and things come from the small details of life.

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How early in your life was poetry an influence on you? And has it always remained an influence?

Well, when I became a teenager I started reading French symbolist poets — translated, of course. And I discovered Baudelaire — and, consequently, Rimbaud — and I started looking at American poets; Walt Whitman first. And then, when I escaped Akron, Ohio, where I was born, and eventually ended up in New York. I got to study in the New York school of poets and I got to study with Kenneth Koch, a great poet of the New York school and David Shapiro. Ron Padgett, who wrote the poems for our film and David Shapiro, who was my teacher, they both edited a book called the Anthology of New York Poets in 1970. I didn’t discover it until the mid-1970s, but it was kind of a bible for me.

I always wish that I could someday be considered, if there was a cinematic equivalent of the New York school. And the New York school is defined a lot by a little manifesto that Frank O’Hara wrote. He was also the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, so he had a real job and wrote poems on his lunch break, similar to Paterson. And he had a manifesto called Personism, in which he said, “Write a poem to one other person. Don’t write it to the world. Write it as if you’re writing a letter or a note.” William Carlos Williams’ great poem that is read in the film, This Is Just to Say, which is literally one note to one other person. The New York school of poets are also funny — they’re celebratory. Frank O’Hara used a lot of explanation marks. One poem started with, “New York, how beautiful you are today. Like Ginger Rogers in Swing Time!” They are my guides in many ways.

How much do you see your films as a kind of poetry?

I’ve made lots of references to poetry in my films. In the film Down by Law, they talked about Robert Frost. I used a quote from Rimbaud in the beginning of the The Limits of Control. So, I don’t know. I love poets because I never met a poet that was doing it for the money. William Carlos Williams was a full-time doctor and pediatrician. Wallace Stevens worked for an insurance company. Frank O’Hara was the curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; Charles Bukowski worked in the post office. They don’t do it for the money. So you know they mean it. They love the form.

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What came first, the story for Paterson, or his poetry?

I don’t know, because I wrote a treatment almost 20 years ago, so I don’t know where or what came first. And then I started becoming very interested in the history of Paterson just as a very odd city near New York that was sort of forgotten. In New York they don’t care and no one talks about Paterson. The most famous person right now from there is the rapper Fetty Wap, because he had a huge single, “Trap Queen,” which was a huge rap hit last summer. I’m a huge rap fan, but it’s not my particular style. He’s not my style; he’s too slick and commercial.

What is it about hip-hop that you like?

Hip-hop is a beautiful extension of blues and soul music. It’s related to calypso, in a way, with battling DJs and toastmasters. Kool Herc, one of the originators of hip-hop, was born in Jamaica. His father had sound systems, so it’s definitely related to that type of music. And the lyrics can be incredibly complex and amazing. I once had an argument years and years ago with a friend of mine who was a rock critic for Rolling Stone and he was a big blues fan. He said, “Jim, what’s your deal, man? You’re, like, a white boy from Akron. Why are you into this ghetto music about drug dealers?” Well, you listen to blues and you never drove a mule to the levy to fix the flood? You never put cotton in an 11-foot sack on your back? This is storytelling. I embrace all these types of music. Hip-hop is very rich, I love hip-hop as a culture, too, but there’s a lot of it I don’t like. I don’t like everything about the money and the bling and the treatment of women.

Any favorites right now, from the modern era?

Nothing so close, but I like some of this west coast stuff. I like Earl Sweatshirt; I like some of his less commercial stuff. But Kendrick Lamar is obviously a brilliant genius of music.

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You once said in an interview that you’d rather make a film about a guy walking his dog than a film about the emperor of China?

Wow, I don’t remember that. Next I’d like to make a film about the emperor of China walking his dog.

So you settled for a film about Adam Driver walking a bulldog instead?

Yes. In the script it was a Jack Russell, but Adam Driver is a large guy; a Jack Russell is a 20-pound dog. It’s not going to look like he’s pulling him along. A little 40-pound muscular bulldog would be much better. She was fantastic.

Is it true she’s no longer with us?

Yes, she’s gone; she died two months after we finished filming.

There’s also a suggestion in the film that Paterson might be ex-military. Why didn’t you elaborate on that more?

I just didn’t think it was necessary. It’s like Malcolm X said: don’t shoot the puppets, shoot the puppeteers. I’m very anti-war and anti-American-policy and policies around the world that are war-like and murderous and just stupid. But I’m not against someone being a soldier. Adam Driver was a marine and went to Juilliard. That’s very interesting to me. I wasn’t referring to him; I just wanted it to be mentioned in there. He seems kind of disciplined in his job. I didn’t want to tell you what to think of any of it; I just wanted to say, “OK, he was once a marine when he was younger,” but I’m not judging whether that’s good or bad. It’s just part of who he is. I think it’s important to not be against people in the military. It’s the people who tell them what to do that should be fucking held for war crimes.

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You have two films in Cannes this year. How did Gimme Danger come about?

I’ve known Iggy Pop for a long time and, maybe 8 years ago, he said, “You know, they’re gonna make movies about me, and somebody might make a film about The Stooges. Damn it, I hope it’s you.” And I said, “Man, are you asking me to make a Stooges film? Because I will start tomorrow.” And he said, “Man, I would love that because I want you to make a Stooges film.” I love The Stooges, so I said I’m starting.

How did you decide on that song for the title?

Well, I love that song. It’s one of his greatest songs, lyrically, and it seemed appropriate when you know the history of The Stooges and all the hell they went through.

Tilda Swinton described you as being a rock star yourself. Would you disagree?

I would disagree with nothing Tilda Swinton ever says. She is my fearless leader; I will do whatever she says. I wish she were the queen of the world.

How do you experience aging now that you’re in your early ’60s?

Gee. I don’t know. I don’t know how to even answer that. It was funny: I was getting in the car two days ago in New York to go to the airport, and there was a lot of traffic so we couldn’t go on the highway. The driver wanted to go through the back streets of Brooklyn and Queens and it was a Saturday afternoon, a very beautiful day. And I’m riding there and possibly going to be late and I didn’t worry. I don’t know why. And I was just watching people doing little things — a guy fixing his door, little kids chasing a ball and adults chasing children that were laughing, people that were going shopping, a couple arguing on a corner — and I just felt like, sometimes, the world is perfect just because this is what it is. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt exactly that same thing some years ago.

I don’t know. I’m more resigned to accepting the world and, of course, I don’t like a lot of things in the world, the way people treat each other. Maybe it’s because we humans are very limited with our time on this planet. It’s just very obvious. There are too many people and nature is going to rectify this very soon and take a lot of people away and it’s going to be very difficult and tragic. We have to be very grateful for the tiny details of life. Like that we’re here talking together about a film that’s really just some ridiculous thing. We have to remind ourselves of this because, when we’re shooting a film, it’s so important to all of us and we’re so tired and we’re fighting to make our film. And it’s the most important thing. And every once in a while I stop and say to our crew, “OK, everybody, let’s just think for a minute.” We’re just making a movie. What difference is it really going to make? Maybe that’s something that’s changed in me.

Paterson and Gimme Danger premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and are now in theaters. See our festival coverage below and the press conference above.

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