Days Gone By

Fred Elmes, ASC, delivers a visual meditation on small town life in Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature Paterson

Over the course of his career, Director of Photography Fred Elmes, ASC, has enjoyed long associations with several notable filmmakers. Among them are Ride with the Devil, The Ice Storm and Hulk for Ang Lee, multiple projects for Martha Coolidge and John Cassavetes, and a trio of David Lynch features starting with his seminal AFI-sponsored Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart.

One of the most distinguished and long-lasting of these collaborations is his pairing with writer-director Jim Jarmusch. To date, their association includes Broken Flowers, Night on Earth and the “Somewhere in California” segment of Coffee and Cigarettes.

Elmes explains that Jarmusch had been toying with the idea of Paterson for a long time before the shoot commenced. “We had talked about this project a little bit in the past,” Elmes reveals. “He really liked a lot of the history and feel of this little town called Paterson, New Jersey. It’s very much a working-class town founded by Alexander Hamilton, among others, with the whole environment based on water power. That appealed to Jim, I think visually as well as thematically, and his story was about this poet—also named Paterson [played by Adam Driver]—who lives there and happens to be a bus driver.

“What intrigued Jim, and really got us all going creatively, was how this guy’s life is controlled by routine,” Elmes continues. “It’s an ordinary and rather uneventful existence, as everything he does is governed by his schedule; he walks to work via the same route every day, he drives the town bus on a set route, he’s in the same places each day and wears the same uniform. Not much varies. This routine lets him not think about his actions, which in turn fuels his creativity, and so he expresses himself through poetry. He overhears conversations on the bus each day that become fragments in the poems he writes.”

While Elmes has shot digital for many recent projects, this was the first Jarmusch feature not originated on film.

“Jim’s concern was that he wouldn’t be able to get the subtle tones and gradations he was used to achieving through film while shooting digital,” says Elmes. “I think we did pretty well with addressing that concern, but it was a very real challenge to control faces to his liking. It was mainly a matter of relying on the time of day we shot interiors to make the most of the light.”

Fred Elmes, ASC, delivers a visual meditation on small town life in Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature Paterson

Elmes usually relies on ALEXA cameras [provided by ARRI Rental] for acquisition. “I do like the way ALEXA sees light and color,” he explains. “At this point, because I’ve used it a lot in recent years, it’s a familiar tool, but what it captures is very close to how I personally see things.”

Most of Paterson was shot on the ALEXA Studio, which Elmes likes—especially its optical viewfinder—but some scenes in tight surroundings mandated use of the ALEXA Mini. The cinematographer deployed a mix of Cooke S4 and S5 lenses throughout. “They have a sweet quality; it’s sharp without being razor-sharp, and I still wound up using a bit of diffusion as well to help the digital sensor see things just a bit ‘better,’” he reveals.

Making the rather fixed routine of Paterson’s day a cinematic experience was a top priority for the filmmakers, one that other films have faced, though in different contexts.

Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC) featured a recurring “morning montage” that showed the lead character’s decline, while the Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day (John Bailey, ASC) likewise relied on the repetition of events as one particular 24-hour cycle repeats with limited variation.

“We had to illustrate his daily ritual without it becoming utterly boring,” states Elmes. “So that meant exerting control in the photography of these events while maintaining a specific point of view through each day of the week portrayed. We did subtly change lenses and angles to differentiate some of the time, while changes in the weather also became another way to distinguish the progression of days.”

Scenes aboard the bus were, according to Elmes, among the biggest challenges during production. “We spent at least seven days shooting dialogue with actors on the bus while it was in motion, usually being towed through the city,” he states. “In general, we kept the camera pretty static while the bus is moving. Even though we shot pretty much in sequence, it was still pretty chaotic, with weather changes experienced from rain one day to bright sunshine the next, but we made it work for us. It was basically taming the chaos of it all; when you’re looking at a great view headed south, but on the way back the other way the sun is on the other side of the bus, so you have a whole different scenario visually.”

Fred Elmes, ASC, delivers a visual meditation on small town life in Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature Paterson

Since production time was limited shooting aboard the bus on its route, Elmes wound up running two cameras throughout. Numerous bus drive-bys fell to second unit DP Lukasz Jogalla, ACS, ASC, who also framed a number of establishing views of the town, while Elmes had his onboard cameras covering the principal actors. Organic light filling the bus at unexpected times was also embraced.

“We’d shoot the passengers, along with close-ups of Adam driving as he listened to them, plus all the other things taking place,” Elmes explains. “These were usually shot from his perspective, like his views forward through the windshield. We were always looking to take advantage of unexpected gifts, such as those accidents of light when passengers entered or left the vehicle. We might catch a random glint on the bus door as it throws an interesting splash of light on Adam or a sudden hotspot from reflected sunlight that provided to be an interesting aberration.”

Elmes relied on a production package provided by ARRI CSC Camera, Lighting & Grip, using a variety of tricks to provide the necessary control while working on a scale that didn’t permit a huge array of big-movie-style tools.

“You can’t rig on the outside of the bus very easily,” he declares. “So we did what we could. ND gels went on the windows, and sometimes we bounced an HMI inside. We also had LED lights on dimmers positioned inside the bus, as they’re efficient and cool to run. There were some problems with LED color inconsistencies for a while, but now they’re reliable to the point that I describe them as ‘great!’”

When discussing the overall feel of Paterson, Elmes feels it’s primarily “a film about faces. Jim describes it as being something that’s about all the elusive moments in between the drama. Those ordinary experiences are what Jim treasures, and so you don’t need the camera to always be performing a lot of tricky shots, so long as you can just capture that moment. In this film, each moment experienced serves to inspire Paterson’s poetry.”

One of the lead’s principal inspirations is the town waterfall, a natural power source that drove the Industrial Revolution in this part of America where the shoot took place.

Fred Elmes, ASC, delivers a visual meditation on small town life in Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature Paterson
Jim Jarmusch returns with Paterson, a film exploring the triumphs and defeats of daily life. It follows the story of a bus driver (Adam Driver) who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, an artist who writes poetry in his spare time. Repetition plays a large part in the film, as its lead, also named Paterson, adheres to his daily routine of driving a bus while mining inspiration for his prose from everyday life.

“It’s in a little park where he goes to eat lunch each day,” says Elmes of the waterfall. “It was a great place to show the quiet wonders of nature, a place where I was able to explore that image in various ways. I used a much longer lens for some of those shots, which gave magnified views of water particles and their interaction with the sun. The mist and rainbows and other colorful, atmospheric ‘accidents’ were elements we definitely took advantage of.”

Scenes of Paterson at home were accomplished largely at two locations, one for the exterior and another for most interiors. Large HMIs were bounced into a rag outside windows to achieve a sunlight look to interiors, while hard HMIs also assisted. Inside, the house was further illuminated with LEDs to give interior bounce.

“Paterson’s girlfriend [played by Golshifteh Farahani] is an artist, someone who likes things to be black and white, someone who also favors geometric patterns,” says Elmes. “Her energy is a big influence on the look of the home. We had curtains and shades to keep from seeing anything that looked wrong outside, and also added bushes outside the windows to match the exterior house.”

A set was also built on stage to shoot action in the couple’s bedroom. “It was “built to tie into a hallway in the real house and was a simple build,” Elmes reveals, “but it gave us the control we needed to shoot what we wanted. Also, since we were covering them in bed at the start of each day, it became a go-to throughout the movie, where he wakes up and looks at his watch before getting up.

“Being on stage also allowed us to shoot from overhead,” he continues. “We were able to get up much higher than would have been possible in a conventional, practical environment. We’d be nine feet high in the air and not have to resort to doing some crazy wide-angle-lens shots.”

Elmes employed a single LUT that would work for each different situation in which Paterson found himself.

Fred Elmes, ASC, delivers a visual meditation on small town life in Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature Paterson
Paterson marks the first film Jarmusch has shot in digital format. Cinematographer Fred Elmes, ASC, opted to use ARRI Alexa Studio and Alexa Mini equipment along with Cooke optics to capture subtle tones and gradations that recall 35mm film stock. Elmes also made the most of available light, especially on interiors, to light actors’ faces to Jarmusch’s liking.

“I was fortunate to have Abby Levine as my DIT,” he admits. “He’s a very energetic and creative force on set, and we chose a CDL that gave us the look and feel we specifically wanted for the bus interiors, knowing that the bus gets a bit out of control at times, but that this would let us put a harness on how far out it would get.

“There was a setup for the house interior during the day and another for the bar Paterson frequents for his daily beer,” Elmes adds. “This helped a great deal for when I needed to show Jim the image on the monitor, and to see exactly what I was aiming to achieve. It helped no end to give him this true vision, and it also assisted in the editing room, as we had dailies that were doing a good job of representing my intentions.”

Digital dailies were handled by Harbor Picture Company in New York. “We captured in ARRI Log C and put our look on it, plus I kept an index of stills with the correction added onto it,” Elmes remarks. “Harbor could check my stills while handling the Log C footage and make minor tweaks and corrections. Overall, they did a pretty great job, allowing editorial to see a handsome version to work from. This also put us ahead on the DI, as well; colorist Joe Gawler had a hand in dailies and also saw the tests beforehand.

“I can’t wait to see Paterson for myself,” Elmes enthuses. “Jim and Mark Friedberg just caught it at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival], where Jarmusch’s documentary Gimme Danger [on the rock band The Stooges] also debuted. All of us collaborating on Paterson agreed that it was very refreshing to get work on a project like this. This is a character study that doesn’t get undermined by forced storyline and drama. These moments we captured are only there because they’re expected to be. The interplay afoot in these very simple life experiences are very subtle, and keeping that balance right required a very deft touch by all concerned.”

With Paterson wrapped some time ago, Elmes has continued to keep busy. He just finished work on Going Places, a film featuring John Turturro wearing his The Big Lebowski bowling shoes to reprise his iconic role of Jesus Quintana, but this time the actor is pulling double-duty as star and director.

Paterson is distributed by Amazon Studios. Check out the trailer at