'Paterson': How Picture and Sound Created a Repeating Poetic World
Here's what it takes to build nuance into a film's narrative.
A repeating narrative, or "loop," is nothing new in storytelling. It’s a trope famously used in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day and in countless other films: Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Primer, Donnie Darko, and a personal favorite of mine, Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run.
Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is one of the same. It follows a bus driver named Paterson (Adam Driver) who lives in—you guessed it—the city of Paterson, New Jersey. He wakes every morning around 6 AM to his beautiful wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who saunters through her nightly dreams before Paterson heads down to pour a bowl of Cheerios. Each day, he walks the same streets to work, drives the same bus route, and returns home to walk the couple’s dog, Marvin, to the local pub, where he grabs a beer.
The one thing that breaks up his day is the poetry he scribes into a notebook. We hear his inner thoughts through voiceover and see the words written onscreen. His muse is the poet William Carlos Williams; Paterson is continually inspired while sitting in front of the town’s waterfall.
The story begins Monday and unfolds through the weekend. Though its plot points seem to repeat like a poem itself, editor Affonso Goncalves and sound supervisor Robert Hein were tasked with creating a rhythmic shift to the narrative with each passing day. No Film School sat down with them to discuss their technique.
No Film School: Did you talk about anything specifically with Jarmusch before starting?
Affonso Goncalves: We mainly focused on Adam’s performance and the relationship Paterson had with Laura. Jim wanted to make sure that came through and felt real.
Robert Hein: The first thing we spoke about was the repetitive nature of the film. Even though things are happening in a similar way, there are differences, so we wanted to make a soundtrack that evolved over the evolution of the character and the story.
NFS: What about how we see and hear Paterson’s poetry? Was it always envisioned to be written onscreen?
Goncalves: Jim had no real plans for what he wanted to do in terms of the aesthetics of the poems. He knew he wanted to use the poems written by Ron Padgett throughout the film and suggest we try to use something graphically. It ended up working quite well.
Hein: Our goal was to make a kind of poetic serial soundtrack so the sounds he hears. It affects how he writes poetry and how he reacts to the world.
"We didn’t want anything to get too over-planned or over-explained."
NFS: How did you differentiate each day?
Goncalves: We needed to understand Paterson’s world before we could make any changes. It was about setting up the first day and introducing Laura, Marvin, and Donny [Rizwan Manji], his boss at the bus depot. We had to set up his morning with Laura, how he gets out of the house, the path he walks down, his bus route, and his evening back home. We had to give the audience each step on that first day so on the following days we could use a different angle of the exact same pattern, or maybe a different sound of him doing the same thing.
Hein: We wanted the quality of every day to feel somewhat similar but not. In the end, it was a delicate balance to make it so that every day kind of feels the same—but every day is different and every day is special.
NFS: Any specific sound elements you played with?
Hein: There’s a bunch though out the film, but there’s this squirrel that’s always screeching at him. There are these things in the world that tend to get on his nerves as each day goes by, like the mailbox he moves back [to its rightful place]. Every time, it squeaks a little differently and gets on his nerves a little bit more. The world has a grasp on him.
NFS: When we get locked into seeing a pattern, it’s sometimes hard to notice subtle changes. Did you ever consider doing things “on the nose”?
Goncalves: Not at all. We kept playing with a lot of different things. We played with having the same shot and using a different set of sounds, so you feel like you are going the same way, but it doesn’t get boring. You sense the repetition without it being the same sequence of shots. We knew it would be tricky—almost mathematical, in a way—to make you feel that this is what he does every day.
NFS: Paterson spends a lot of time on the bus. How did you want to build those scenes and introduce his poetry?
Goncalves: We had to set up his stops first, then slowly introduce the poems. The hardest thing was figuring out how to transition from the bus to the poetry, which is somewhat inspired by the waterfall he sits by.
Hein: Jim wanted us to feel the waterfalls dissolve in and out of the bus ride. He didn’t want them to be overpowering, and he kind of likes things perceptual rather than full force, generally speaking. We would talk about how the character hears the world and spent a lot of time talking about the character and his feelings.
Sometimes it was difficult on those buses because they were live recordings. They were noisy and they were problematic, but we worked very hard on making them stand out.
NFS: It feels like he slips in and out of his own little world when he’s writing poetry. Did you want to blend the city of Paterson and its reality with his thoughts?
Goncalves: Yes. He is looking past the world and his mind starts to drift. I added a little bit of water sounds and imagery as if it were floating by, whether it be a flow of people or different layers of image before going back into the reality of what was happening on the bus.
Hein: We spoke about the actual sounds of Paterson and we recorded in Paterson. It’s a very diverse city and a pretty noisy one. It’s kind of an industrial section filled with people with their own vernacular. We wanted to get that across, and then have him go off into his own world, which is a reflection of it.
NFS: Because the poetry is so beautiful, did you want to make the imagery just as beautiful?
Goncalves: It was more about the simplicity of the imagery. We didn’t want anything to get too over-planned or over-explained on one side or another. There was a constant questioning to give you enough but not to overdo anything.
NFS: What’s interesting is watching the hostility growing between Paterson and the dog. How did you want to place that into the story?
Goncalves: We almost needed to work backward with those beats and amp up the animosity between them. A lot of it was finding the right sounds to place in the edit. The tension between the two of them had to permeate and come at the precise times in order for it to pay off.
"The first thing I am cutting is to try to get the feel for the actors. The way they approach the scene informs you."
NFS: One of my favorite moments is learning that the mailbox is actually being pushed over by Marvin.
Goncalves: I created those scene-stealing two moments. On the day they were shooting Laura playing her guitar, I took footage of her practicing before they said action and used it with when the dog jumping out of the chair and running out to push the mailbox over. It was a completely new scene, all fabricated from different footage.
NFS: Speaking of Laura, her energy is the opposite of Paterson’s. Did you want to place her into the story as early as possible?
Goncalves: Yes. Even though it takes her a while to have a conversation, we wanted to introduce her as a character in his world. We tried to incorporate her idiosyncrasies and the things she does as if Paterson is going about his day and she is going about hers. We didn’t want it to be where we only see her when he comes home. She is part of the fabric of his world and we wanted you to see how they interact right away.
NFS: Paterson faces an unexpected dilemma and ponders about uncertainty by the waterfalls. It’s a final scene that carries an emotional tone of reconnecting with inspiration. Masatoshi Nagase plays a visiting poet who ends up sitting next to Paterson and really drives the scene. How did you want to play that moment?
Goncalves: The first thing I am cutting is to try to get the feel for the actors. The way they approach the scene informs you in the way they say the lines. Both characters are in odd places. I ended up adding in and taking some lines out. It was the same with a couple of looks.
There is something kind of magical to the two of them. It’s not like any scene in the film. The pace of that scene is following Masatoshi, savoring the moments in his world and Adam being there in a completely different world. When they start talking and bond, you need to respect that pace and not have a fear of it being overly slow. It was about building the respect and admiration for each other.
Hein: From a sound perspective, we put little details of nature throughout that scene that are subtle but also poetic. You can’t take the beauty of nature away. That was the approach. The waterfall sound in that scene is always changing. It’s woven through many different sounds. So it’s moving and changing all the way through, creating a feeling of a peaceful experience between the two of them.