The Hardest Parts About Producing Jim Jarmusch’s 'Paterson'? The Bus and That Very Special Dog
Like a great poem, Jim Jarmusch's Cannes premiere Paterson makes the simple feel cosmic.
Sometimes the smallest story is the most powerful. This is a secret known to great poets and short fiction writers, but it often eludes feature filmmakers. Albeit, not Jim Jarmusch.
The prolific writer-director tells Paterson with economy, allowing its unadorned story to be a vessel for the magnitude of human life and longing. The Cannes 2016 premiere stars Adam Driver as Paterson, a New Jersey Transit bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey who rarely deviates from his daily routine: wake up, drive bus, come home, spend time with girlfriend, take dog for walk, sleep, and repeat. The only changing constant is his poetry. That's right—Paterson is "a bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson," as a nine-year-old fellow local poet remarks.
With his poetry, Paterson manages to stave off ennui. His universe—the man, the town, the movie—revels in the lyrical coincidences, repetitions, and disappointments that characterize a human life. Jarmusch has the unique ability to render seemingly inconsequential events catastrophic or victorious. The director's particular brand of humor is character-driven and patient; oftentimes a joke or a reference won't land until another connection is made, many scenes later.
At Cannes, No Film School caught up with the film's producers, Carter Logan and Joshua Astrachan. Logan got his start as Jarmusch's assistant on Broken Flowers and went on to produce Only Lovers Left Alive, while Astrachan has produced films as diverse as It Follows, Short Term 12, and Gosford Park. Together, they spoke about their admiration for Jarmusch, the challenge of finding the film's main prop (a bus), and working with Nellie, the hilarious English Bulldog who was just awarded the Palm Dog (a play on the festival's top film prize, the Palme d'Or) posthumously for her efforts in Paterson.
"We had the most remarkable team on this film. Part of that is the length of Jim's relationships with incredible collaborators, who were thrilled to be coming back to work."
No Film School: How does one come to produce a Jim Jarmusch movie?
Carter Logan: I've been working with Jim Jarmusch for many years now. He had written this film, and we had also been working on a documentary called Gimme Danger, which is also here [at Cannes], where I'm the only creative producer on it. When this script came around, it seemed like a great idea to partner with someone else. I really needed somebody great. Josh and I had numerous acquaintances within the New York film world. One of them set us up.
Josh Astrachan: Yeah, professional blind date.
NFS: And you hit it off?
Astrachan: It felt like such a privilege to get to be a part of any [Jim Jarmusch] film, but this particular film... I am a William Carlos Williams fan. My wife is born in Paterson. There were all these facts of life that made me feel particularly like, this must happen, this is just right.
NFS: What was the first thing that you did to get the ball rolling, in terms of producing the film?
Astrachan: Well, we had a beautiful script.
Logan: And an incredible, visionary director who wrote it. That's usually the first hurdle for most people. That one was done. We also had [Adam Driver]. I think the first things we started to do together were to talk about that script extensively with Jim.
Astrachan: And early on, Amazon was a partner on the film. Fair to say?
Logan: Yeah. We knew that we'd be working together with them, and also wanted some other partners.
NFS: What kinds of conversations did you have about the script?
Astrachan: I felt like all I needed to do was express how much I loved it. Jim is very thoughtful, as is evident in all of his work. There was already so much thought on those pages. Then it's just about how do we start to realize this? How do we start to give you what you need? What's most important? How do we make this work?
NFS: How did you assemble the crew?
Astrachan: It was really lucky. Part of that's just [tapping into] long, wonderful, rich relationships Jim has with incredible artists in their own right. Collaborators. That's Fred Elmes, the DP. Mark Friedberg, the production designer. Drew Kunin, the sound recorder. Of course, many, many people in post, including Affonso Goncalves, the editor who had cut Only Lovers Left Alive and The Stooges.
Logan: Rob Hein, the sound designer.
Astrachan: One of my favorite pieces of the movie was the sound design. So there was already a wonderful team in place that needed a few pieces.
NFS: What about working within Paterson and getting access to the locations there?
Astrachan: Well, the funny, obvious challenge for us was we needed a bus. We had a movie about a bus driver, and we needed a bus. That was a funny, long road. We worked with New Jersey Transit. The bus depot was actually the depot you see Adam driving out of and into. It's on Market Street in Paterson. And we knew that depot existed. We really wanted to shoot there. It's such an amazing building. It really became: How do we find our bus, and how do we work with New Jersey Transit to enable us to shoot there? That was the critical piece. Then finding the bus route. What can we control? What's going to work traffic-wise? How much can the town make that more possible for us? The town was great and incredibly willing and able to be helpful.
"Paterson is beautiful in its elegant simplicity. It wasn't, like, 'Okay, now we need to build a set that we can blow up.'"
NFS: On set, what were some challenges that you had to face?
Logan: The challenges, I think, were kind of the usual challenges of every film. The film Paterson is beautiful in its elegant simplicity. It wasn't, like, "Okay, now we need to build a set that we can blow up." We had the regular challenges. Time, weather, schedules to juggle, and all of that is just nuts and bolts of getting a movie shot.
Astrachan: Every film has its own life, its own challenges. This will sound like a cliché, but it's true: we had the most remarkable team on this film. Again, part of that is just the length of Jim's relationships with incredible collaborators, who were thrilled to be coming back to work. We had the happiest—I don't know if I want to say happy, but the most fortunate shoot. If anything, this was the model shoot. People were talking to one another, sharing things, making the same movie. Everyone was happy to be making the same movie.
There's a great Robert Altman line—I was privileged enough to work with Bob on a couple of pictures—where he turned to the cast and said, "I know you're all doing this for the right reasons, because I can't afford to give you the wrong reasons." I don't mean to put those words in Jim's mouth at all, but if you're making an independent film, everyone's going to be coming for the right reasons. The passion. We really had that.
NFS: Sounds like you had a charmed shoot!
Astrachan: Well, there was one peril. On our first days of shooting, there was a hurricane charted to come up the East Coast and into New York City. We had set up plan A, plan B. Where are we going to go for cover? How are we going to manage this? It would have wiped out days of our shoot. But the hurricane went into the Atlantic, and it felt like everything else followed that was good fortune.
NFS: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming producers?
Astrachan: I'd go back to passion. It must be something you love. It will require that of you. It'll require years from you. Almost certainly. You won't have the appetite to continue working unless you love it. That's obvious, but it's true. This has nothing to do with Paterson, but I think when you're beginning, especially, you also want to find the colleagues that you want to be working with. That you want to be at dinner with, you want to be at breakfast with, you want to be stuck in the foxhole with, because you're going to be stuck in the foxhole. Especially when you're beginning, you're going to have very few resources, so you really need to feel that way.
"You're committing to being a part of that idea, that story, that concept, that collaboration forever. You have to think about it that way."
Find things you can realize beautifully at a price that you have a chance of actually getting to make the film. There are laudable projects—wonderful projects—that no one's going to give a first-time director $5 million to make. Not without strings attached that are just ruinous anyway. And will also take you three years to get to the end of. If you can make beautiful things cheaply when you're starting, I think it's a huge advantage.
Logan: It's about finding a project that truly speaks to you, that you want to be a part of for life, really. You're committing to being a part of that idea, that story, that concept, that collaboration forever. You have to think about it that way. It's not just a job that's going to last a few months.
Astrachan: It's not a job. It's a life.
Logan: If you think about what you want to surround yourself in life, that's going to lead you to an enjoyable career. That's what it really should be. It's about that project and about the people.
Astrachan: People who will be as passionate as you are, and ideally bring their own gifts that complement yours.
NFS: The bulldog who plays Marvin is a main character in the film. He just won the Palm Dog, Cannes' most prestigious canine accolade. Was it a challenge working with the dog?
Astrachan: Yes. A big pre-production challenge was finding Marvin, the dog. As our joke goes, the dog would be number three on the call sheet, if it only had two legs.
Logan: Finding that dog took time. Really, it ended up being a wonderful conversation between Jim and the animal trainer about what Jim had written for this dog to be doing, and what a dog might find difficult to act.
NFS: Did you have to audition a couple of different dogs?
Astrachan: We looked at a lot of tapes.
NFS: Of dogs just sitting there barking?
Logan: We just had them show the dog, try and to get them to bark, like you said, and jump on a chair.
Astrachan: Because Marvin did it on the page.
Logan: We're like, if we can see a dog do this, and you as a trainer can tell us with confidence that the dog can do all of these other things by the time we shoot, that's cool. ... Animal training is very complicated because you ... It's not that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. A great trainer can teach an old dog any trick with enough time.
"There's no CGI of the dog. It's pure Nellie. She was a very, very special dog."
NFS: He had different pitches in his barks. It sounded like he was talking.
Logan: It was a very unique dog that vocalized in very special ways.
Astrachan: We did gender-fluid casting, since Nellie is female. Nellie plays Marvin. Nellie did vocalize that way.
Logan: A hundred percent of the sound that the dog makes is that actual dog.
NFS: You didn't ADR at all?
Astrachan: There's no foley for dogs.
Logan: There's no library of dog barks that we went to.
Astrachan: That's Nellie's organic performance.
Logan: There's no CGI of the dog. It's pure Nellie. She was a very, very special dog. Sadly, we lost her.
Astrachan: Nellie had a cancer in her leg, which was discovered this spring, so we wrapped last fall. English bulldogs are built so close to the ground, and the respiratory situation is challenged. She could not have survived without the leg.
NFS: That's so sad.
Astrachan: It's really sad.
Logan: We were all devastated and heartbroken, but it makes this Palm Dog all the more meaningful.
NFS: She's immortal now.