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on Feb 2, 2011

If you pore over writings on the loose grouping of “mumblecore” or “New Talkies” films from the past few years, writer-director Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City) is the young American indie filmmaker most often singled out for unqualified praise, regardless of the commentator’s assessment of this so-called movement as an artistic whole (or whether it constitutes a movement at all). And with good reason. A filmmaker attuned as much to the gestural nuances of his characters as he is to the expressive beauty of cityscapes and natural settings, Katz has a rigorous eye for the tiniest of details, bringing a sense of poetic concentration to his framing, lighting, and overall compositional sensibility. Moments of silence and stillness, rather than streams of maundering, ill-at-ease dialogue, are yet another point of departure for Katz, creating the dominant rhythm of his thoughtfully composed low-budget efforts, which look increasingly like the work of a confident, ambitious artist feeling his way into maturity.

Shot in Katz’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, Cold Weather retains all of the aforementioned meditative qualities while adding something entirely new to the mix: an element of mystery. The story centers around Doug (Cris Lankenau), a sleepy-eyed forensic-science student who moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) after taking an indefinite leave of absence from college. Generally aimless and unmotivated, Doug finds menial nighttime work at an ice factory toiling alongside aspiring DJ Carlos (Raúl Castillo), who becomes a friend, and slowly adjusts to day-to-day life with Gail, reading novels, visiting the coast, and chatting about their love lives on a rooftop as the sun sets. Then comes a dramatic turn: When Doug’s ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) comes to town for a job-related conference, they pal around for a few days until she promptly vanishes from a motel room, prompting Doug—an avid reader of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories— to assume the role of sleuth after his favorite literary hero. Jarred from passivity, Doug enlists the help of Carlos and Gail as he puzzles over a strange alias, a numerical code, and other clues that lead him into an intriguing tangle of deceptions and, quite possibly, danger. Beautifully lensed by DP Andrew Reed on the RED camera, Cold Weather is a wry, shambolic detective story that owes as much to Robert Altman’s exercises in anti-genre filmmaking as it does to the eccentric character studies of an earlier generation of indie filmmakers, like Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater. Even with a late action sequence, Katz has a cool, casual sense of how to handle the drama.

Filmmaker spoke with Katz about genre films, minimalism, and why actors should not try to be interesting. IFC Films releases Cold Weather on Friday.

Filmmaker: Cold Weather has been getting very good word of mouth, especially from critics. Any notion of what the sweet spot might be for people?

Katz: As an audience member, I really like well-done genre films. My favorites are ones that are more than that, where the characters are three-dimensional and are living lives beyond the needs of the movie’s plot. I’ve mentioned before that I really like Let the Right One In and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But it goes beyond that. I really like Die Hard, for example. To a lesser extent than the others, it spends time with the characters, it cares about them. In big-scale movies, I see that less and less, which is too bad. We’ve made a small-scale movie that deals with genre and people, and that’s what I like. I think maybe others do, too.

Filmmaker: Why was the mystery element something you felt could be explored effectively on a small scale?

Katz: I really enjoy watching a mystery or a thriller—and especially reading detective fiction—so it wasn’t so much thinking about how I could do it on a small scale but just that I really wanted to make something like that. For [producers] Brendan [McFadden] and Ben [Stambler], as soon as they read it, they also started thinking that if the circumstances are right, it’s absolutely achieveable.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the motif of “cold weather.” The film is set in Portland, Doug works in an ice factory, and it’s rainy and overcast most of the time. How did you want that to relate to the story of a sibling relationship?

Katz: Cold weather—snow and rain—is my favorite kind of weather, which everyone views as kind of weird. [Laughs] The reason is because it gives everything a sense of intimacy and coziness, and I always feel like I’m more engaged in conversations when it’s overcast and I’m inside. It felt like a really good setting for two people who had known each other in younger days pretty well, but had no idea what each other was like as an adult.

Filmmaker: And it kind of works with detective stories. It’s more cerebral.

Katz: When it’s sunny out, I feel everything’s in the light, and it’s all out on the table. When it’s cold outside, everyone is huddled up and it feels like there’s something more around the corner, which I think works for a mystery.

Filmmaker: You mentioned a Robert Altman film before, and I was certainly thinking of The Long Goodbye as I was watching Cold Weather, because Doug is kind of a shuffling, shambolic character, like Elliott Gould’s private eye. But did you have any reference points, either books or films, that tell the story of a brother and sister that you used as models?

Katz: Not really. The characters were modeled on Cris [Lankenau] and Trieste [Kelly Dunn]. I wrote it with them in mind. Even before the mystery elements came in, I was thinking of them as being potentially good as brother and sister. My original approach to the film was that I really like Ozu films that deal with family. The relationships feel more true to me than in almost any other kind of film. I prefer films that deal with complicated or family relationships by way of quiet moments. So I wanted to make a film that explored relationships in a truthful way.

Filmmaker: I was thinking of the way Ozu uses transitional stills while I was watching your film, too, especially while glimpsing the interstitial shots of cityscapes and landscapes, something that characterized Quiet City as well.

Katz: We knew we wanted to have shots like that in the movie, so we just tried to stay alert. Anytime we were scouting a location to shoot a scene, we’d also look around to see if there were shots of the city we could get. Also, sometimes the clouds would be nice or we’d have a little extra time and I’d say, “All right, Reed [Katz’s DP is Andrew Reed—Ed.], let’s go up on the roof and shoot some stuff.” We have a lot more shots than ended up in the film. To me, setting is important. I really like films that are set in a specific city. I don’t understand why people in Hollywood [do otherwise]. For instance, I recently saw Love and Other Drugs, which is set in Pittsburgh, where I live now, and [the movie] tries to make it generic. Setting a film in a specific place gives it so much more personality. Anything you can do in a film to make it more specific is always a good thing. So that’s why we wanted those shots in there, and why we have them in Quiet City. I wanted the audience to know what it was like to be in Portland at this time.

Filmmaker: I also noticed you incorporating some new formal techniques. There’s a great long shot on a walkbridge bisected by a waterfall, with a slow zoom-in on Doug and Gail. And in another, there’s a dolly shot of Rachel walking along a terraced embankment. What protocols did you establish with Andrew Reed that determined how you would shoot a scene, and whether or not to use handheld cameras?

Katz: Well, there were two things that dictated how we approached the look of the movie. The films we like that have those elements [of mystery] are very precise in how the camera is placed. At the same time, in terms of acting, looseness was really important to me, so the actors didn’t feel like they had to hit a specific mark or feel like if they move six inches to the right, they’d be in bad light. Trying to reconcile those two things and make them work together was how we made every choice. We would do a lot of lighting setups, especially for dialogue scenes, where people would have a pretty wide area to move around in. For the more suspense or action-oriented parts, we had very extensive and precise shot lists, much more so than on Dance Party USA or Quiet City. Another part of it was working with the RED camera, which has a lot more flexibility than the cameras we’ve used in the past. You can use any 35mm lens. We ended up with a great Zeiss lens package and so we were able to find the right lens for any situation. For that zoom shot, we actually rented a specific lens, an Angenieux 25-250. And actually, that shot of Rachel you mentioned is not a dolly shot: it’s on the longest setting of that zoom lens, 250. We’re so far away that the panning motion appears to be a dolly.

Filmmaker: Why do you think your preference is to make movies rooted in everyday life, to tell stories that are smaller and more contained?

Katz: I think that everyday life is really interesting. As we go through our lives, things that are small in the grand scheme of things matter a lot to us. Some of my favorite movies are even more minimal than my own, like Chantal Akerman’s movies or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. But then something strange happens—I feel that people have guilt about making movies that are so minimal, so “nothing.” In Jeanne Dielman, there’s the thing with the scissors in the end, and the murder. And in Gerry, one of them dies at the end. I almost feel like movies like that have a guilt complex about not being about enough. With Jeanne Dielman, I thought it was enough that it was about how she can’t relate to her son, and she’s peeling potatoes and trying to find a button for her dress. That, to me, is really compelling, and that movie does a great job of making you feel what she’s feeling, through observation. I like to do that as well.

Filmmaker: Your films are quieter, though, stiller, than anything grouped under the “new talkies” label. Why do you gravitate toward silence as opposed to dialogue and noise?

Katz: I think it reflects how the real world is. Sometimes being silent and taking something in can say a lot. It also has to do with the actors. I really like actors who are able, in improvised situations, to let things be silent or really do something for as long as it takes to do it, instead of pretending and then going on to more talk. I think it speaks to their ability not to act natural, but to be natural. The best thing an actor can do is to be themselves in fictional circumstances. The worst thing an actor can do is try to be interesting.

Filmmaker: How have things evolved for you since Dance Party USA and Quiet City in terms of how you think about filmmaking and also where you want to take it?

Katz: Thigns have changed a lot. Going into Dance Party USA, I really had no idea how to make a feature film and the performances are pretty close to the script. On Quiet City, even though it was fully scripted, which acted as a rough blueprint, the specific words are almost completely improvised. I think I learned a lot about how to blend improvised parts with things that needed to be closer to the script. In terms of shooting Cold Weather—and this is really weird—I used to be afraid of the combination of handheld and static or zoom shots. One thing that really bothers me is when handheld is used as an indication of things being intense—all of a sudden, handheld is used for a big argument scene or whatever. I just feel that it stands out too much and is telegraphing how the audience should feel. It’s not that I necessarily learned how to integrate the two, it’s that I realized if you just shoot each scene how it feels appropriate and have an overall idea of the look of the movie, it’s all going to work out.

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