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Jim Jarmusch On Iggy Pop, Hip-Hop And Finding Poetry In Mundane Things


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is screenwriter and director Jim Jarmusch. His new movie "Paterson" stars Adam Driver as a bus driver and poet named Paterson who lives and works in Paterson, N.J., and is inspired by William Carlos Williams and his epic poem "Paterson." The poems Paterson writes in the film are inspired by what he observes in the daily routines of his life. Almost all the poems used in the film were actually written by poet Ron Padgett. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody wrote (reading) Jarmusch has made a movie that's filled with poetry and that is a poem in itself.

We're going to talk about movies, poetry and music - three of Jarmusch's passions. The rapper Method Man has a cameo in the new film. Jarmusch recently made a documentary about the punk band Iggy and the Stooges. His other films include "Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Coffee And Cigarettes," "Dead Man," "Ghost Dog" and "Only Lovers Left Alive." Let's start with a clip from the film.


ADAM DRIVER: (As Paterson) Another one when you're a child, you learn there are three dimensions - height, width and depth, like a shoebox. Then later, you hear there's a fourth dimension - time. Then some say there could be five, six, seven. I knock off work, have a beer at the bar. I look down at the glass and feel glad.

GROSS: That's Adam Driver and Jim Jarmusch's new movie. Jim Jarmusch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So...

JIM JARMUSCH: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: ...Why did you want to make a film about a poet who drives a bus - or a bus driver who writes poetry depending on how you want to look at it (laughter)?

JARMUSCH: Well, I visited Paterson many years ago - 20 some years ago as a kind of day trip because of William Carlos Williams, because of Allen Ginsberg having lived there. And I went to the Great Falls and sat really in the exact same spot as Adam Driver does as Paterson. And I walked around the factory buildings, and I was rereading - I was reading at the time the epic length poem "Paterson" by Williams.

And it just really just stayed with me, and I had this idea for a long time to make a film about a poet in Paterson named Patterson. I wanted him to be working class. Eventually I thought a bus was a perfect visual way to move him, to drift him through the city, to have a measured kind of routine lifestyle. And all these things kind of congealed into the film "Paterson" eventually.

GROSS: I love that your movie is so much about a poet and poetry since, you know, it's not a typical subject for movies, and you wanted to be a poet before you became a filmmaker. So when you were studying poetry with Kenneth Koch, what were some of the things he taught you about language and about observation?

JARMUSCH: Well, he taught us so many things. He taught us to be playful, to be very appreciative of other poets, to appreciate all forms of expression. He taught us to be experimental. And Kenneth Koch taught - there's a great book called "Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?" a collection of poems that comes from a poem that a child wrote. He taught children in public schools in New York City to write poems and told them down worry about rhyming, don't worry about any of that stuff. You know, write a poem where you mention three colors and make it five lines - or he would just give them, you know, little strategies. And, man, they wrote some great poems.

GROSS: Well there's a scene in "Paterson" where Adam Driver's character, the poet and bus driver, is walking home from the bus depot, and he sees sitting on this kind of concrete ledge a 10-year-old girl who's all alone. It's not a great neighborhood, and so he's concerned about her safety. So he sits down next to her, and it turns out her mother and her sister will be back in a couple of minutes. But in the meantime, he sees that she has one of those like pink little girl journals with a little lock on it. (Laughter) And he says what do you write in it?


GROSS: And it turns out she writes poetry, so I want to play that scene. And it includes a poem that she wrote, and I'll mention this is actually a poem that you wrote for the film. So I want our listeners to listen to it, and then I'm going to ask you about writing it.


GROSS: So this is Adam Driver and the girl is played by Sterling Jerins, and this is a scene from "Paterson."


STERLING: (As Young Poet) Are you interested in poetry?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Actually I am kind of.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Really?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Yeah.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) I write poetry. I keep it all in this notebook - secret notebook.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Oh, you're a poet?

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Yeah.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) That's great.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Would you like to hear one?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Sure, sure.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) It doesn't really rhyme though.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) That's OK. I kind of like them better when they don't.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) Yeah. Me, too. OK. This one's called "Water Falls" - two words, though.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) "Water Falls" OK.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) OK. (Reading) Water falls. Water falls from bright air. It falls like hair, falling across a young girl's shoulders. Water falls making pools in the asphalt, dirty mirrors with clouds and buildings inside. It falls on the roof of my house. It falls on my mother and on my hair. Most people call it rain.

DRIVER: (As Paterson) That's a beautiful poem.

STERLING: (As Young Poet) You really liked it?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Yeah. I really do. I think it's beautiful, "Water Falls." Thank you.

GROSS: (Laughter) What a nice scene. So, Jim Jarmusch, you wrote the poem that the little girl reads. What did you try to do when you were writing the poem and was it liberating at all to be writing in the voice of somebody very different from you?

JARMUSCH: Yeah. It was. Really what I was trying to do was imitate in a way the poems that Kenneth Koch got kids to write. So I was remembering those and those kinds of strategies, so I was just trying to be her for a minute. And I wasn't really satisfied with the poem. And I - when Ron Padgett did agree to write the poems for the film in Paterson's voice, I did ask him - I said now, do you want to write one for the girl? I wrote one in there, but I think you might want to write a better poem for her. And he said no, no, no, I like that one. That's perfect for her. So I kept that in. It's not my poem, but it's me sort of channeling her and writing a poem for her.

GROSS: So she writes her poems in a secret notebook. Paterson writes his poems in a secret notebook that he shows to no one, not even his wife. Did you have a notebook like that, too? Were you very reticent about showing poems to anybody?

JARMUSCH: Yes. I still do have my secret notebook.

GROSS: Why do you keep them secret? I mean, you have a public body of work - your movies.

JARMUSCH: Well. I don't know. I feel - I'm not really that confident in them. I will do a reading later this year in April at Princeton with John Ashbury because he asked me to, and I'm a big - I love John Ashbery. He's the - really the poet laureate of English language poetry, whether he's given that or not, he is to me. But I'm just a little shy of - I don't know.

GROSS: The poems in your movie - in the movie "Paterson" are the poems of somebody who has a daily routine. And the poems of the - are the poems of somebody who is observing things while living a life of routine. You know, he wakes up at 6:15 every morning - 6:15-ish - has a bowl of Cheerios, a cup of coffee, walks to work with his lunch box, goes to the bus depot, drives the bus, overhears interesting conversations from his passengers, returns the bus, goes home, has dinner, walks the dog. And this is what a typical day is like.

But, you know, in that typical day he finds either beautiful things or interesting things to write poems about or to be the kind of jumping off point, the point of departure for a larger reflection. And is that the kind of poetry you find yourself especially interested in, like, the poetry that reflects something of daily life?

JARMUSCH: Yes, for me certainly, but I like that also in cinema as well. I mean, I like all forms of movies. I'm a movie geek, so I watch all kinds of films, but - and I read all kinds of things, too. But the poetry that speaks to me the most directly will contain mundane things, will contain details. But there's also a great thing in the film - well, great, I will say it's great - that Method Man - Cliff Smith - plays a rapper in a laundromat who is working out some lyrics sort of to the rhythm of a washing machine. And something about hip-hop culture and hip-hop is the ability to use current language and slang and reference details of life is very, very strong for me.

I'm a big Wu-Tang fan, and I love the Wu-Tang Clan, the GZA and RZA and Method Man and Ghostface Killer (ph) and Raekwon and Old Dirty Bastard. Man, they were writing incredible stuff. Now, I know - I think we need to sort of broaden our definition of poetry, which maybe it's a good thing that they just gave this Nobel Prize to Dylan because blurring the lines of song lyrics and also hip-hop for me is like some of the greatest uses - most innovative uses of language in my lifetime.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jim Jarmusch, and his new movie "Paterson" is about a bus driver and poet named Patterson who drives a bus in Paterson, N.J. And we're going to take a short break and then talk more about poetry and about movies with Jim Jarmusch. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jim Jarmusch. He wrote and directed the new film "Paterson" starring Adam Driver as a poet and bus driver living in Paterson, N.J. Most of Paterson's poems in the film were actually written by poet Ron Padgett. When you were auditioning Adam Driver, did you have him read poems?

JARMUSCH: No, and I didn't audition him in any traditional sense. I just had lunch with him basically. I had seen a few films he was in. I had seen maybe one episode of "Girls." I loved his presence, his face, his physical present, you know, being, but I just wanted to meet him. And then he was so kind of humble and had a really nice sense of humor, but he was kind of self-effacing and I just loved him so I - we just talked for a while. And then when I left that lunch I - Ellen Lewis, who helps me cast my films always had hooked up this lunch. So as soon as I left I was on my phone like, Ellen, I'm in love with this guy, he's got to be Paterson. So I was just so happy to work with Adam.

And Adam is great to work with for me especially because - well, I can only speak for myself, but I'm completely intuitive and I don't like to analyze things. And I like actors who just become that person and then react, and Adam is completely reactive in that way. So every day working with him was really a pleasure. And he's in almost every scene in the film, so the poor guy had to work the - almost the entire 30 days of our film shoot. But, yeah, he was really a pleasure, and I really love what he - how he embodied this character.

GROSS: So because Adam Driver plays a bus driver, and there is a lot of scenes of him driving the bus and we see things from his point of view as he's driving the bus, did you spend a lot of time driving around in a bus in Paterson to get a feel of what it looks like through a bus window?

JARMUSCH: No. I spent a lot of time driving around in cars. We would just go almost three, four days a week in pre-production. But then, yes, I rode on the bus quite a bit to get that feeling of elevation. I love riding on a bus now because you're looking down on the world from not too high of an angle, but people on the street rarely look up into the bus. They're sort of oblivious to this big giant machine, you know, passing by. So there's something very beautiful about the angle that you look at the world through. So we try to capture that and give that feeling with a lot of point of views from the side windows of the bus and from the front windows.

GROSS: Did Adam Driver have to learn how to drive a bus?

JARMUSCH: Yes. Adam Driver - it's funny, we were - the producers, they were preparing so that Adam could get a bus license and go to bus driving school. So we called Adam to say, OK, we set this up so you can you can go to bus driving school, to which Adam replied, oh, no, I've been doing that on my own. I've been in bus driving school. I've passed the written test. I have my driving test next week.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARMUSCH: I think it's going really well. So Adam is amazing. This is the same when I got the 700-page "Collected Poems" of Ron Pagett or however big it is. I got a copy for Adam and I called him saying, oh, I got the Ron Padgett book, I'm going to send it over to you. He said, oh, no, I've had that for several weeks. I've been immersed in Ron Pagett, I love this guy. So, you know, Adam Driver, he thinks ahead.

GROSS: That's really great.

JARMUSCH: But he did drive the boss at times in the film, and I must say very confidently. It was very stable. He's a good bus driver. He's got a - if this acting thing doesn't work out for him...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARMUSCH: ...He could drive a bus in New Jersey.

GROSS: So, you know, the Adam Driver character as he's preparing to begin his shift or ending his shift, he's always kind of like taking notes and writing lines of poetry or thinking about a poem. And then usually that ends with him opening the door of the bus so he can talk to the dispatcher who's telling him it's time to start, and the dispatcher always has, like, a tale of woe. So I thought I'd play the first version of this scene between Adam Driver and the dispatcher.


DRIVER: (As Paterson) Good morning, Donny.

RIZWAN MANJI: (As Donny) Ready to roll, Paterson?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) Yeah. Everything OK?

MANJI: (As Donny) Well, now that you ask, no, not really. My kid needs braces on her teeth. My car needs a transmission job. My wife wants me to take her to Florida, but I'm behind on the mortgage payments. My uncle called from Indiana, and he needs money for my niece's wedding. And I got this strange rash on my back. You name it, brother. How about you?

DRIVER: (As Paterson) I'm OK.

GROSS: That was Adam Driver and Rizwan Manji in a scene from "Paterson," which was written and directed by my guest Jim Jarmusch. I saw that scene on the trailer for the movie and I thought, I am definitely going to this film. Once he said, and I have a strange rash on my back, I thought, this is great.


JARMUSCH: Well, he's a lovely - a wonderful actor.

GROSS: So there's a great English bulldog in the film who's named Marvin in the film. But it was actually played by a female dog named Nellie. And Nellie won the Palm Dog at the Cannes Film Festival for the Best Dog Performance. So why did you want to have a dog in the film? And how did you cast the dog, who's terrific?

JARMUSCH: Well, the dog was part of the film from the beginning because that was the kind of one silly, I mean, it's a ridiculous plot point. I won't give it all away now, but the dog was very important. In my first original script, the dog was a Jack Russell because I've had friends that have Jack Russells that are very mischievous and energized. I was talking with the trainer that we eventually worked with, a fantastic trainer, and he said, listen, I don't have a trained Jack Russell. I can train you one in time. This was some months before shooting.

He said, it's not a problem, I can get a Jack Russell to do the things in the script. However, I wanted to just bring to your attention this wonderful dog that's an English bulldog that is a rescue dog, like most of their dogs are. And he said, she is incredibly smart and funny. And there are two reasons why I think she fits your script very well. He said, I don't want to impose on you, I'm not - you know, I will get you a Jack Russell. But just two things - in the film, the dog pulls Adam Driver, his character around, and he's quite a big guy.

Now, a Jack Russell weighs about 20 pounds, an English bulldog about 40. And I think it would just be funnier and more believable to have rather than the dog bouncing along on a leash, like, really pulling him along like a little machine. And number two, you have this scene where these guys, maybe they're Bloods that pull up in a car and talk about dog jacking. And he said, just so you know, a Jack Russell is worth about half as much on the street as an English bulldog currently.

So I just wanted to plant those two things. And then I wanted to ask you to see a video or meet this dog. And then I saw videos of Nellie and I - and with these two comments he made, which I thought were fantastic and helpful, I was like, no, all right, we found our dog. And she was wonderful. All the vocalizations are her. Everything came from her. She's not dubbed with other dogs. There wasn't a second double dog, as there usually is. It's all Nellie doing all that stuff. And with respect to these incredible trainers, she was an amazing dog and very easy to work with.

We didn't have to shoot for hours and hours to get her to do things, even the - well, there's a very specific gag - well, I won't give it away if people haven't seen it. But, yeah, really a remarkable dog, fantastic.

GROSS: My guest is screenwriter and director Jim Jarmusch. His new film is called "Paterson." After a short break, we'll talk about his documentary, "Gimme Danger," about the punk band Iggy and the Stooges. An LA Times film critic Justin Chang will talk with us about the films he saw at the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with screenwriter and director Jim Jarmusch. His new film "Paterson" stars Adam Driver as a bus driver and poet named Paterson living in Paterson, N.J. Jarmusch also directed a recent documentary about the punk group Iggy and the Stooges that's named after their song "Gimme Danger." The documentary had a theatrical release and is now available for streaming on Amazon. You've known Iggy Pop for a long time. You came to New York in - what? - the '70s or late-'60s to study...

JARMUSCH: No, I came in the mid-'70s.

GROSS: Mid-'70s, OK. So what did punk rock mean to you when it was starting?

JARMUSCH: It meant a kind of real liberation of expression. It embraced amateurism in a way that I still am inspired by. It was not about trying to get, you know, stadium gigs or even commercial radio play or even record deals for that matter. It was about saying something 'cause you meant it, and expressing something that you felt. And that was primary for that - whatever the scene, whatever punk rock means, it was very, very important to me, very formative. And I still consider myself to be an amateur filmmaker. And I say that because in the Latin origin of the word amateur is the word love, and it's love of a form, whereas professional implies something you do for money or for work.

And I'm not putting down anyone that does look at their work in that way, but for me I am a hardcore amateur. And really that came to me through the music scene, through - you know, I kind of grew up in my early 20s in Max's Kansas City and CBGB, and these bands and that whole approach and all the artists inspired me. The filmmaker Amos Poe was a huge inspiration for me by making guerrilla-style punk films on the streets of New York and - well, it's just a lot of painters and artists and filmmakers all within that scene, and it's very, very important to me.

GROSS: So did that amateur aesthetic give you permission to make movies before you felt accomplished enough to actually make them?

JARMUSCH: Yes, completely. My first film I made, "Permanent Vacation," we shot in 1979 for like $12,000, part of which I got a fake car loan for that Amos Poe told me you could do that. And, yeah, I had no idea what I was doing. It was just like, well, we're going to try and do this. Partly because I had been following Amos Poe and Eric Mitchell around for about a year, and I worked on some of Eric's films as a sound recordist and stuff. And they were always saying, well, Jim, when are you going to make your film? When are you going to do it? So I was like, oh, I'm going to do it soon, and so I made "Permanent Vacation." And I'm still trying to learn how to do it, I'm still trying to figure out how to make films, but, yeah, it started then.

GROSS: One of the really interesting things that Iggy Pop says in your documentary is when he was a kid he loved Soupy Sales, the kid's show host who was kind of part hipster and part vaudevillian. He was really funny and kind of transgressive for a kid's show of his time. And Iggy Pop remembers Soupy telling the kids to write to him but to keep their letters to 25 words or less. And then Iggy Pop tells you that he decided to apply that to his lyrics (laughter), so can you hear that in his lyrics?

JARMUSCH: Yes, I mean - no fun, my babe, no fun. That's four words he makes into a whole chorus. So his reductive ability to be reductive with language is very much, you know, he's very open and sincere about that coming from Soupy.

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause the funny thing is, I mean, he's so well-spoken and so smart and so kind of aware of the arts and the avant-garde, so people who don't know better might think that he wasn't as intellectual as he is (laughter).

JARMUSCH: Well, he's one of those remarkable people that is - you know, he has an incredible mind. He is very intellectual, but it's not refined by academics or school.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly, exactly.

JARMUSCH: I find this too in members of the Wu-Tang Clan that are amazingly intellectual, but they come from, like, the streets of Staten Island. And they don't - they didn't go to Harvard or whatever, but their mental abilities are staggering and remarkable. And Iggy's seems like that too, and he's very self-taught, self-educated, but, man, that guy knows about so many things.

And what's really beautiful about him - and other are people like that like the Wu-Tang people too - is that he never stands on his laurels about his knowledge. Like, every day is what can I learn, what don't I know? And if something comes up people are talking about it and he doesn't know about it, his curiosity is like an antenna. He's like, well, what's that? You know, he wants to - he's just absorbing things. So, yeah, he's a remarkable - I think he's an aberrant mutation because of his physical being and his mind. That's just not fair that...


JARMUSCH: ...He has that body and that mind. Come on.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear one of Iggy Pop or Iggy and the Stooges' most famous songs? And this is the song that gave you a documentary its title, "Gimme Danger."


IGGY POP: (Singing) Give me danger, little stranger. And I feel you at ease. Give me danger, little stranger. And I feel your disease. There's nothing in my dreams, just some ugly memories, hits me like the ocean breeze. Now, if you will be my lover, I will shiver and sing. But if you can be my master, I will do anything. There's nothing left alive but a pair of glassy eyes. Raise my feelings one more time.

GROSS: That's Iggy and the Stooges doing "Gimme Danger," it's the song that gives Jim Jarmusch's documentary about The Stooges its title. And Jim Jarmusch is my guest, he also directed the new film "Paterson" which stars Adam Driver as a bus driver and poet inspired by the work of William Carlos Williams in Paterson, N.J.

So I'm interested in your early movie life. Your mother reviewed films for the local Akron newspaper. Was that a weekly or a daily?

JARMUSCH: No, it was a daily, the Akron Beacon Journal.

GROSS: Did she take you to the movies a lot?

JARMUSCH: No, not so much. She mostly - she used to drop me off at the State Road theater near Akron in Cuyahoga Falls, or maybe it was in Akron, it was right on the edge. I grew up in a suburb of Akron. And she used to drop me there on Saturdays sometimes when she had things to do, and they had double and triple features of really monster movies, Sci-Fi movies, horror movies. So this was my first real experience of movies, so it was "Attack Of The Giant Crab Monsters" and that kind of stuff. But she later was very - she always would talk to me about movies. She had quite - still has a quite good sense of memory, of knowledge of Hollywood actors and directors, and, you know, we still - we talk about movies still.

GROSS: So when you were alone in movie theaters 'cause your mother dropped you off while she did errands or whatever...


GROSS: ...Did any strangers ever approach you?

JARMUSCH: No, never. It was more like a lot of wild kids. Like, you had to kind of learn the ropes of the theater so that if you - you didn't want to sit - I learned the hard way, you don't want to sit under the balcony because projectiles are going to come down...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JARMUSCH: ...Including, like, half chewed milk duds and popcorn and stuff. So you kind of learned where to position yourself, where the best seats were. I still kind of prefer being, like, two-thirds of the way back in the center of a theater, depending on the screen size. But that became a bit problematic with its positioning under the balcony. So I had to kind of learn these things. But, no, I never had, you know, there were a lot of wild kids. It was our - we were kind of in a kind of lockdown where we got to go crazy. And it was very enjoyable.

But I never quite knew what was going to happen in there. There were a few fights that broke out, but we're talking - these are fights among 10-year-olds. So it wasn't (laughter) - it wasn't, like, gang violence or anything. And - but, yeah, often she'd leave me there alone. So I would - I wasn't with friends. But nothing really weird ever happened to me.

GROSS: Jim Jarmusch, thank you so much for talking with us.

JARMUSCH: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed the new film "Paterson" and directed the recent documentary "Gimme Danger" about Iggy and the Stooges. The documentary is now available for streaming on Amazon. Coming up, LA Times film critic Justin Chang talks about the Sundance Film Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.