The American Society of Cinematographers

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Quotidian Vision

Fred Elmes, ASC reteams with frequent collaborator Jim Jarmusch for the poetic drama Paterson.

Unit photography by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Amazon Studios and Bleecker Street.

Photographed by Fred Elmes, ASC, Paterson is a film about finding poetry in the small details of everyday life. Adam Driver plays the title role, a reserved bus driver in the New Jersey city that shares his name. Paterson is a man of routine: waking up at the same time every day, eating the same breakfast, walking the same path to work, driving the same bus route. After work he walks his dog, drinks a beer at the neighborhood bar, then goes home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who couldn’t be more different, with her myriad interests and whimsical aspirations. Amid these rote customs, Paterson keeps a written journal of poetry inspired by things he sees and hears throughout the day.

Paterson marks the fourth collaboration between Elmes and director Jim Jarmusch, following Night on Earth, Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers. “The years I’ve spent working with Jim have taught me a lot about his creative process, both in his approach to character development and the design of the world they inhabit,” says Elmes. “We’ve also achieved a camaraderie where we can both challenge each other as well as have a good time.”

American Cinematographer: How would you describe the basic approach to your work on Paterson?

Fred Elmes, ASC: Jim didn’t want it to be tricky. It should be honest, like the character is, and straightforward, without any fanciness. In fact, when Jim and I first spoke about it, he said, ‘Look, this man is a bus driver. He drives the same route every day. He wears the same uniform. His life is controlled by these givens.’ So there’s a routine. He’s going to leave and return to the house at the same time every day, so it’s going to look the same. I said to Jim, ‘It might be nice to have some gentle differences between them, to define one day from the next.’ That became our task, finding ways to keep things visually interesting without going too far.

What kind of gentle differences are you talking about?

Elmes: For instance, each day opens with an overhead shot looking down on Paterson and Laura as they wake up. The only thing that changes is their position in bed. I thought, ‘What if we also changed the frame size a little?’ One day is a little closer, and the next day closer still, but on the same axis with the same lens. Towards the end of the story, a dramatic incident occurs, and I thought it would be fitting to see their morning routine from a different perspective. So, that morning, the camera is in a completely different position when they wake up. It was an effective change.

There’s an almost expressionistic quality to the camera-work when we’re riding the bus with Paterson, and we can hear his thoughts or see him eavesdrop on peoples’ conversations. What was the concept behind these sequences?

Elmes: When I first spoke to Jim about this, he said, ‘Well, his mind is set free by this experience of driving the bus. It’s the routine that he can do every day, and because he knows it so well, that allows him to free his mind to think about other things, which he expresses in his poetry.’

So I went to Paterson, New Jersey, and I rode around on the bus and took a lot of pictures — passengers coming and going, the views, the neighborhoods. The little details of operating the bus became these abstract moving images. I put together a sequence and showed it to Jim, and he felt he could use this as a blueprint for the montage sequences. 

We also see these sequences during Paterson’s lunch breaks, when he’s sitting and writing next to the Great Falls of the Passaic River.

Elmes: The falls are fascinating because they change every day. It’s very subtle — depending on the light and the clouds, the feeling can be very different. I thought we could explore this if we got closer to the falls, taking a point of view from his imagination. If you look at the water closely it becomes quite abstract.

Is there a difference in the way the camera behaves when it’s with Laura as opposed to Paterson?

Elmes: When the camera is with her, it doesn’t move at all. It’s reporting where she is in that moment of the day when Paterson’s in the middle of his. The camera is there to keep her presence alive and tell us more about her, but the focus of the story is on him.

Paterson doesn’t seem to be concerned with digital technology. He exists in this largely analog world with his pencil and paper, and doesn’t even use an alarm clock in the morning. Because the story is largely filmed from his point of view, were you compelled to take a more analog approach to the camerawork?

Elmes: That didn’t really influence us. We approached the story traditionally. We shot digitally, with an Alexa Studio and Alexa Mini. I like the Studio because it has the spinning-mirror shutter, and you’re actually viewing through the lens, which I find is an easier way to light. The Mini proved to be particularly useful in the bus because we were in cramped quarters, and we needed two cameras running most of the time.

Was there ever a discussion about shooting on film?

Elmes: We talked about shooting film, but given our modest budget, we decided that it was better to keep as many shooting days as possible so Jim could have more time with the actors. He had worked with the digital medium on Only Lovers Left Alive and found it satisfying, but that was a movie shot at night. It’s a little tougher to make a digital camera look great when you’re shooting outside during the day. That was part of the challenge.

How would you describe that challenge?

Elmes: Sometimes digital cameras fail to capture the subtle gradations of light and shadow on a person’s face in bright sunlight. Other times the contrast range is too great, for instance when there is hard sun in one part of the frame and the actor walks into deep shadow in another. With a combination of diffusion overhead and soft bounced lighting, I think we handled it pretty effectively.

Sometimes we lit the actors with bounced 18K HMI lights to imitate sun hitting a nearby building, but other times I could plan our shooting day effectively around the direction of the sun and simply control the natural light we had. Often this meant making the most of the beginning and end of the day to take advantage of the low angle of the sun.

What lenses did you use?

Elmes: For the most part, I used [Arri/Zeiss] Variable Prime lenses. They are available in three sizes and the middle one, from 29 to 60mm focal length, is my favorite. The lenses are kind to faces and look very good shot wide open. It’s also easy to change the focal length between takes without having to move the camera or the dolly because it’s a short zoom lens.

Did you or Jim have a preferred focal length?

Elmes: I don’t like to concentrate on the technical aspects too much, but around 29mm was a good feeling for most of the film.

How would you describe the specific look of Paterson, the city?


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