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By Adam Nayman
Aaron Katz’s films are marked by a quality that’s unusual in American cinema: his characters really always seem to be listening to each other. This sense of information sincerely conveyed and received is central to the Portland native’s debut Dance Party, USA (2006), which pivots on an extended monologue delivered by teenaged protagonist Gus (Cole Pensinger) to a girl, Jessica (Anna Kaven) that he’s met at the edges of a house party. For reasons as vague to him as they are to the audience, Gus tells this perfect stranger—who is keenly aware of his reputation as a serial hook-up artist—a story about how he spent his previous summer vacation. What he reveals would be enough to break audience identification entirely, if not for the way that Katz shoots Jessica sitting, listening, reacting, hearing what this other person is saying and thinking about her response. “Do you want to go somewhere?” she asks him at the end of his confession, and while the question surely resonates within the world of the film, it’s also an entreaty to the viewer. Do you want to see where this goes from here?
In truth, Dance Party, USA doesn’t really go all that far, in terms of running time (66 minutes) or dramaturgy, leading Gus through some faintly redemptive paces and more or less abandoning Jessica altogether before a contrived yet affecting final scene. The film is shapeless, but it’s still a distinctive debut that demonstrates the power of simply finding the right way to film actors talking to each other. As such, it’s been reclaimed as a first-wave mumblecore movie, a designation made convenient by the fact that Katz relocated to Brooklyn for Quiet City (2007), a story about a girl, Jamie (Erin Fisher), who crashes in Park Slope for a weekend with a slightly dopey stranger named Charlie (Cris Lankenau) after getting stood up at the train station by her friend.
A film of modest but real visual acuity, Quiet City is charming, but also dotted with enough m-core tropes—including a grating cameo by Joe Swanberg, talking about leftover coleslaw—to ensure the disparagement of those critics for whom the mere whiff of tender hipster tendencies is noxious. There is a lot of haltingly inarticulate chit-chat in Quiet City, and the non-professional hesitance of its two leads isn’t always endearing. Nor is the film especially “Malickian,” a critical comparison trotted out to account for the fact that Katz likes shooting skylines against the sunset and, at one point, films his stars running away from and back towards a low-angled camera in lens-flared ecstasy. It is a lovely scene, but it’s also ostentatious compared to some of the director’s other, more subtly wrought effects, like the neatly spaced out, perfectly rhyming scenes of Jamie and Charlie each falling asleep while the latter is elsewhere in the apartment, or the consistently superb sound design by Alex Lipschulz, which makes good on the promise of the title not by blocking out the sounds of the city but filtering them through one another at credible distances. This film about the slowly collapsing space between two people also does nicely to suggest at all times how far they are from the nearest major intersection.
To call Katz’s new film Cold Weather—which, as with his previous films, debuted at South By Southwest—a step forward isn’t adequate praise. Its excellence synthesizes that which was already strong in Katz’s work—his patient way of shooting and cutting in dialogue scenes, his attentiveness to local landscapes, a reluctance to score points at his characters’ expense—with entirely new elements, chief among them a crackling plot. Katz’s script, which he wrote after collaborating on a story with long-time friends and producers Brendan McFadden and Ben Stambler, is a structural marvel, wrong-footing the viewer by adopting, refining, and then gradually dispensing with the rhythms that marked his earlier films.
For about half an hour, one could be forgiven for thinking that one is watching a close cousin to Quiet City, with Lankenau once again employed as an affable slacker protagonist, paired off this time with the feline Trieste Kelly Dunn as his older sister. Doug is a forensic-school dropout who has moved back home to Portland, into an apartment with Gail. The early scenes gently till this unfamiliar territory, sketching the duo’s half-nostalgic, half-urgent bond, leading to an unaccountably gorgeous passage where Doug convinces Gail to skip work to go whale-watching, ending with as shot of them eating together on a rainy beach that radiates with strange, ineffable comfort.
The connection between these two characters is so palpable yet mysterious (and funny) that it would probably support another fragile, lyrical two-hander, but instead, Katz stealthily introduces other characters who put that crackling plot in motion. These would be Doug’s ex-girlfriend Rachel (the impossibly named Robyn Rikoon), in from out of town and maybe interested in rekindling things, and his new co-worker at the local ice factory, Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a wonderful comic creation—a manual labour veteran with an un-self-consciously foul mouth who, as it turns out, contains multitudes beneath his ever-askew black baseball cap. He’s a nightclub DJ, an ardent Star Trek fan, and a voracious reader, devouring the Sherlock Holmes collection Doug lends him after a discussion about the latter’s aborted career in investigation.
Cold Weather’s gradual transformation into a genre picture (of sorts) is confirmed when Carlos shows up at Doug’s apartment in the middle of the night, worried that Rachel—who he’s been starting to see, to no overt objection from his friend—has disappeared. It seems that Doug’s angry, bleary-eyed skepticism is at least partially tied to unacknowledged resentment toward his ex, so it’s even more enjoyable when, confronted with a genuinely sketchy scenario—a hastily abandoned motel room, a pickup truck lurking in the parking lot—he swings into full sleuth mode to figure out what’s gone rotten. The writing and acting in the scene where Doug and Carlos try to book the adjacent motel room to aid their investigation is terrifically funny, but captures an even rarer feeling. The film is asserting itself through its lead character, with Rachel’s disappearance serving as a means for Doug to find his calling.
From here, Cold Weather proceeds as an ingenious exercise in (and slightly to the side of) detective fiction, aided by Keegan DeWitt’s wittily ominous score. Doug’s burgeoning investigative talents are taken seriously, even as he erects self-reflexive defense mechanisms, like the ironic purchase of a pipe. Katz does very well with the requisite twists, and the confidence of the storytelling is matched by the visual scheme. Andrew Reed’s cinematography is brilliantly sharp, with hard, clean colours and increasingly assertive moves, like a sideways pan against a horizontally striped background that unexpectedly reunites two characters, or an anxious passenger-seat shot that brings to a head an honest-to-goodness suspense sequence complete with a seedy diner, a snatched briefcase and a heroine in disguise—about as far from Joe Swanberg talking about coleslaw as Portland is from Brooklyn.
It should be said that even as Katz commits himself to his neo-Holmesian tale, he never loses sight of his central relationship. If the story is primarily about Doug realizing that he really is good at something—that it’s possible to follow through on one’s early-life aspirations—it’s also about how he couldn’t do it without his sister, and how he does and doesn’t acknowledge that fact. With her alternately avid and stunned comic style, Dunn is the key to the film’s oddball buoyancy and poignancy: watch her face when Doug asks Gail—who has made herself (and her car) available for every stage of his adventure—if she has any friends. It’s the expression of somebody suddenly perceiving herself through somebody else’s line of questioning, and it’s quite a moment, just like Anna Kaven’s mortified, empathetic silence in Dance Party, USA. It’s appropriate that Katz’s most (and most enjoyably) verbose film concludes with his characters simply sitting and listening in anticipation of a song from a high-school mix tape—an instant of silence as an affirmation of something that people, in movies and in life, can sound silly trying to say, but mean all the same.
CINEMA SCOPE: You’re from Portland, and Dance Party, USA and Cold Weather are both set there. Was it always the plan to make a movie about your hometown?
AARON KATZ: I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, which is where pretty much everyone who has worked on all three of my films went. In 2004, Brendan, Ben, and I drove cross-country and wound up in Portland and shot Dance Party over the summer. As soon as we were done, I packed up and went to New York. At that time, everybody told me that it was a choice between New York and Los Angeles if you wanted to make a movie, and I think there’s still some validity to that, although obviously with technology being so accessible, maybe there is less reason. I started working as a projectionist at the Pioneer Theater, which is closed now. And it took a couple of years while I was living there to finish cutting Dance Party.
SCOPE: Did the editing process take that long because you weren’t sure where to take the film after that centrepiece monologue?
KATZ: It was mostly just a practical thing, because my editor Zach Clark and I were in different places. I was in New York and he was living just outside of Washington DC, in Virginia. Plus, Zach was actually working on paying jobs, whereas Dance Party wasn’t paying anybody anything. So things that might have taken five minutes to try out if we’d been closer together ended up taking weeks. But the duration also had something do with it being our first feature, and we weren’t sure what we were making. The film was originally 105 minutes, with more material involving Jessica’s father, and also her brother, all these characters who were sort of superfluous to the story. It ended up being all about narrowing the focus to what was really important to us. At the time I was disappointed it was barely feature length, but now I think it’s just the right size.
SCOPE: It’s interesting that you talk in terms of narrowing the focus, because that’s also what you do in Quiet City, which is basically a two-hander with a few appearances by unimportant supporting characters.
KATZ: I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but I think that’s true. The difference is that in Dance Party that quality of privacy came out of those choices we made editing, whereas with Quiet City, it was in the script. I had been working for a while on a different script, one that took place in Pittsburgh. It was this sprawling script about a guy who comes back from college to his hometown, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing there. He ends up meeting up with his ex-girlfriend, and all these former friends of his and his family. It was very broad in scope, and it just wasn’t working. I was on an airplane to Chicago to show Dance Party at a festival, and I had a layover and decided that I needed to stop working on this difficult script and start something new. So I went into a store and bought a new notebook, and started writing Quiet City. At that point, I’d been in Brooklyn for two years, and I felt like I knew it.
SCOPE: It sounds like the basic genetic material for Cold Weather might have been in that screenplay: a guy goes back home, and sees his ex-girlfriend, and tries to figure out what he’s doing with his life.
KATZ: I guess that’s kind of true, actually: I think that by moving the action to Portland and changing the central relationship to a brother and sister rather than something romantic, the problems worked themselves out, although I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I write better when I’m writing about places I know, like Portland. And the brother and sister thing, I felt like there was so much unexplored in that sort of relationship. I can’t think of too many films that get into that stuff, except for You Can Count on Me (2000) or The Savages (2007).
SCOPE: Yes, Cold Weather is the only film of its kind that does not co-star Laura Linney. Do you have a sister?
KATZ: I do have a sister, but our relationship is a lot different from Doug and Gail’s. My sister is eight years younger and, although we’re really close, we’re not peers in the same way that Doug and Gail are. I thought the script would be only about family, but once the mystery elements appeared I liked the idea of exploring family without that seeming to be the film’s overt purpose. I’m interested in the idea of siblinghood as a kind of co-dependency, at once very intimate and oddly removed—like when she tells him she had a boyfriend for six months and he had no idea. I kind of feel like Gail deserves her own movie, although by the end, I guess she’s sharing this one with Doug. I think that because you have so much shared history with a sibling you can feel close even if you’re not part of the day-to-day events in each other’s lives. Often siblings can pick up where they left off and not remember that they need to explain what’s happened recently in their lives. Even though Doug and Gail live together, they don’t, especially at first, feel like they need to make an effort to include each other. Also there’s a little mistrust there or an assumption that the other wouldn’t understand or be compassionate. Gail is reluctant to talk about her romantic life and Doug seems to want to avoid entirely the subject of why he dropped out of school. By the end of the film though they feel a connection that’s not based just on being siblings, but also based on liking and trusting each other.
SCOPE: You say that the mystery elements “appeared” in the script. How did that come about?
KATZ: At the time I was writing, I had been reading a lot of early 20th-century detective fiction like Raymond Chandler and also a lot of P.G. Wodehouse, which often features elements of detection. I didn’t really even consider whether or not it was a good idea. I was writing a scene between the brother and sister, I had the idea, and suddenly I was veering in the direction of a mystery in the next scene. After I finished a first draft I showed it to Brendan and Ben. They both got excited and we got together to work on revising the script and spent a long time trying to figure out how to make the mystery elements work in balance with the characters. Eventually we wrote down each plot point on these note-card sized slips of paper that were inside this little gold-coloured notebook I had gotten for free from somewhere. Anyway, I remember the three of us standing over the slips of paper one night drinking sodas, moving them around, taking some away, and adding new ones when we thought of ways to solve problems. At the end of the night we taped them all to my wall and I spent the next few days revising. We had the script in solid shape as we approached production, but we kept discussing and working on things until just a couple days before shooting.
SCOPE: A lot of people have already pointed out how different Cold Weather is from your other films, in that it has a very involved plot. Do you enjoy those sorts of narratively propulsive genre films?
KATZ: I really enjoy genre films, and I also enjoy movies about real people. We liked the idea of combining those two things, to try and make a film that doesn’t ignore its people in favour of those tropes but that also doesn’t turn genre into a joke.
SCOPE: You’ve just described the majority of contemporary genre films, which are so self-reflexive that it almost feels like they’re condescending to the material.
KATZ: In this decade especially there haven’t been a lot of good action movies. I love ‘80s and ‘90s action movies, though. I love John McTiernan and Renny Harlin…
SCOPE: Deep Blue Sea (1997) is a great film.
Katz: Yep, and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and Die Hard 2 (1990). I was in New York the other day and I caught a midnight screening of The Rock (1996), which I hadn’t seen since I was 16 or 17. I didn’t like it then, but watching it now it’s totally excessive and juvenile and genuinely fun. It’s nostalgic now to see actual things blowing up, instead of computer-generated things blowing up. This might be sort of a pointless digression…
SCOPE: It’s never pointless to talk about those films. It could lead us to discuss the visual style of Cold Weather, which favours a harder, cleaner image (and a more dynamic colour palette) than Dance Party or Quiet City.
KATZ: Part of the look of the film—maybe not the colours—was inspired by late ‘60s and early ‘70s detective and thriller movies. At least I think it was. Brendan, Ben, Andrew Reed, and I intended to watch a few films for reference, but getting ready to shoot took up so much time and energy that we didn’t watch a single movie. That said, I love the camera direction in Bullitt (1968), Point Blank (1967), The Parallax View (1974), and several other movies from that era. It’s very exact and efficient and at the same time elegant and full of kinetic energy.
SCOPE: Speaking of kinetic energy, is it a coincidence that the action ends up in the “Montage” café? Were you making a joke about this major shift in your rhythmic sensibilities?
KATZ: No, not at all. I should say that I dislike symbolism: I like things to be what they are, and for people to take from them what they will. My only agenda as a filmmaker is to make the sort of movie that I would want to see and to treat the characters with some measure of respect, as human beings. That café is a real place in Portland, it’s been there since the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. The scene was originally set in an even older bar with kind of a ‘20s boxing theme, but it was on a big, uncontrollable street and we couldn’t pull it off within our budget.
SCOPE: Talking about small budgets does seem like a way to segue into asking you about your associations with the mumblecore thing, unless you’re sick of talking about it. It must come up in every interview.
KATZ: It does come up in almost every interview, and I guess it’s inevitable. It’s worth talking about. At first, when nobody had heard of us, the label was useful: it was a way of getting people to see the work. And then it got very tiresome: wasn’t there something else to talk about except how my films were like Joe Swanberg or Andrew Bujalski’s or whatever. It doesn’t bother me that much, because I understand why people do it, but I think that films should be discussed on their individual merits. One thing that doesn’t come up enough when people talk about the way movies are made, by the way, is the fact that they’re collaborations—I couldn’t make the movies I make without Brendan and Ben. We spent pretty much every day together from the time I finished the script through editing and colour correction. It’s important to me that I mention that.
SCOPE: We should also mention your actors, who are of course excellent. How did you cast them?
KATZ: I like to write while thinking of particular people. I knew Cris from Quiet City and I had gone to school with Trieste. I thought that they looked similar in the way that siblings look similar. As soon as I was done with the script, I brought them together, because they had never met. This was before we even had the money to do the film. We went to a bar and spent a few hours hanging out and chatting. Cris had skated a lot in high school and was doing that again, and Trieste had been having some relationship adventures, so we just talked and the dynamic between them just started coming through.
SCOPE: I’d imagine your manner of directing your actors was very different than on Quiet City, because the script is more tightly structured—less room for improvisation. I’m thinking of the great exchange between Doug and Carlos while they’re moving the buckets of ice back and forth in that tiny room.
KATZ: There’s a lot of dialogue in that scene that sets things up to pay off later. Raúl has a theatre background, and pretty much every scene with him was 95% on script. Cris doesn’t have a professional or an amateur background, so it was great to watch him staying “on book,” which was definitely different than on Quiet City.
SCOPE: Carlos is a supporting character, but all the revelations about his interests seem to me to very much what the movie is about, the idea that people can be more than they seem to be.
KATZ: In that first scene in the factory, both guys make assumptions that they wouldn’t have much in common with each other, but when they get to talking they realize that they have more in common than they think. When I wrote the script I wanted the characters to be like real people who don’t fit into their expected likes and dislikes. I try not to think too hard about things when I write and it leads to a lot more things like that because I’m not coming up with character traits in a premeditated way. A lot of things came out in the writing and the revising with Brendan and Ben, but where it really came alive was working with Raúl. He brought so much to the character. We talked about pretty much every circumstance in the script. It wasn’t just that his character liked Star Trek, it was important for Raúl to know his character’s history so that it felt real when he was talking about it. And the same is true for Robyn’s character. It turns out she really did like Star Trek and watched it with her dad growing up. When Carlos and Rachel eventually connect on that it’s something real that comes from their circumstances.
SCOPE: You said that you didn’t have any specific filmic influences, but watching the film, I thought about The Long Goodbye (1973) and The Big Lebowski (1998), films about these decent, naïve guys who are addled by the times they live in. Doug seems of a piece with the characters in your previous films, but you’re tackling something a little more substantive here: a generation with advantages that has opted for deferral.
KATZ: I don’t think my generation wants indefinite deferral. A lot of people seem to think that my generation enjoys drifting around aimlessly, but I think that we’re actually a very idealistic generation that’s at the same time somewhat cynical. I think it’s a misperception that it’s a lot of slackers just sitting around criticizing things. Doug is truly interested in becoming a detective, but he’s also too idealistic to deal with a lot of the realities that come with that vocation. I think he needs to take time to figure out how to stay idealistic and enthusiastic while fitting into a non-ideal system. I don’t want to go into a whole political thing, but I think that people my age have seen a lot of things recently that feel hard to overcome, that make it feel like it’s all rigged. We’re trying to figure out how to overcome that, and to do something worthwhile.
SCOPE: Speaking of doing something worthwhile, can you say what you’re working on now? Are you going to continue to experiment with genre material in your next projects?
KATZ: I very much enjoyed figuring out how to make the genre elements in Cold Weather work and I also found that the same approach to acting, despite the genre elements, felt right to me. No matter what the genre, people are still people and it’s still important to do all of the same things to put the actors in the best circumstances to be natural. That makes me feel comfortable when I think about the two scripts I’m working on right now, both of which are pretty plot-oriented. One I’m writing with Brendan, and is a buddy cop/werewolf movie. The second one, which I’m writing solo and am a bit further along with, is a ‘20s cat burglar/con artist movie inspired somewhat by the fictional gentlemen thieves Raffles and Arsène Lupin, but my protagonist is female). That one would require a significant amount of money, but I hope I might find a way to get it made because I think it would be a really fun movie. I get excited when I think about how I would approach it. Despite the bigger scale and the fact that it would definitely need movie stars, it would be important for me to work in a lot of the same ways that we’ve worked on the last three movies. In thinking about that, I’m very grateful to have the chance to make movies that I care about and to have great collaborators. Going forward I know that no matter what the genre or scale I want the process to involve people like Andrew Reed, Ben Stambler, and Brendan McFadden. When we work together, we all bring something different to the table and at the same time are working towards the same end. I’ve also been reading a lot of natural history writing, especially David Quammen and Gerald Durrel, and watching a lot of baseball, especially the New York Mets and members of my fantasy team. I’ve been thinking of ways to include natural history and baseball in a script and I have a few ideas, but nothing solid yet.