“It Was Important to Me Not to Fetishize a Classic Vision But to Look to the Present for Inspiration”: Director Aaron Katz on his L.A. Neo-Noir, Gemini
His fifth feature, and the first following his co-directed (with Martha Stephens) breakthough comedy Land Ho!, Gemini returns writer/director Aaron Katz to the character-based neo-noir of his earlier Cold Weather but with the cloudy Portland grays of that film replaced here with a sunlit sensuality befitting the picture’s L.A. setting. Indeed, shooting in his new hometown for the first time, Katz looks for inspiration to the kind of ’80s thrillers — American Gigolo and Bad Influence in particular — that found their treacheries and ambiguities within the city’s sunlit highways, dark nightclubs and oversized mansions. And while city geography is important to Gemini, as Katz says in our interview below, his is not a fetishized letter to a previous era’s L.A. noir. Space is both geographic and virtual here, as the film incorporates an of-the-moment understanding of celebrity, one locked within the feedback loop of social media, into its murder (?) mystery.
Lola Kirke stars as Jill LeBeau, the cool and resourceful assistant to star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). As is often the case, Jill’s job exists in that movie industry zone between employer/employee and friend/confidante, and, in fact, much of the film’s mystery hinges on our perception of what one character might be capable of doing to the other here. When Heather shows up dead one morning, shot by the gun Jill loaned her, Jill dyes her hair, grabs a scooter and turns hipster gumshoe as she tries to both unravel the mystery and save herself. Working with his regular cinematographer Andrew Reed, Katz pinpoints an essential loneliness about Los Angeles while the performers, particularly Kirke, find the right balance between sincerity and irony. I spoke to Katz about L.A. movies, the importance of good locations and why he likes to watch films on VHS.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the movie and L.A., or, perhaps, the movie within the tradition of films that are trying to figure out the DNA of how L.A. should be represented on screen within this kind of crime or detective genre.
Katz: I wanted Gemini to be in the tradition of those films where it really matters that the film is set in Los Angeles — that it’s not just incidental. It goes back to what I consider the primary inspiration, which is thrillers from the ’80s and ’90s. I think of American Gigolo being kind of the beginning of that, and then films like Curtis Hanson’s Bad Influence. But also it goes back further. I recently rewatched In a Lonely Place — there’s that opening scene where [Humphrey Bogart] pulls up at a stoplight and a woman is like, “Hey, I was in the last picture that you wrote!”
Filmmaker: And then there are those kind of shaggy-dog L.A. neo-noirs, like Mike’s Murder, Night Moves and The Long Goodbye. But you are playing more with the kind of stylization that, as you said, began with American Gigolo. And while it’s not an L.A. film, Body Heat is part of that latter wave.
Katz: We have been doing a little screening series leading up to Gemini, and we [screened] The Long Goodbye. But I think that my main point of inspiration really starts with Body Heat and American Gigolo. I feel like around 1980 something shifted. I WAS inspired by the kind of freewheeling, salacious spirit of the thrillers that started then. Those two really kicked off the decade perfectly, and they led to a kind of movie that is often considered B, like Bad Influence, Poison Ivy, Wild Things and so on. Those are the kind of films I really love, and because they weren’t considered art films, there’s a certain degree of fun and freedom that was allowed.
Filmmaker: Those films were associated with the start of home video. There was a new revenue stream coming in to support movies made at slightly lower budget levels and with new casts.
Katz: Some of these films that I saw for the first time in repertory contexts, like at the New Beverly or at IFC Center. But a lot of them I saw on tape, and watching some of the films from that era on tape just feels instinctually right. Like, if you’re going to see, for example, Jade, to me, there are two ways to see it: on the big screen, which is choice number one, or on VHS tape. My wife and I watch a lot of movies at home, and my VHS collection has grown quite large. Just the other day we watched Jagged Edge for the first time. I’d never seen it before, and this is going to sound insane, but I really think tapes are, aspect ratio aside, the format that to me feels the most in common with 35 millimeter. There’s some liveliness to it. The rock solid registration of a DVD doesn’t move the way it should, doesn’t have any roll to it. I like seeing that FBI warning and some trailers beforehand on a tape, and I don’t think it’s just nostalgia, although that’s part of it.
Films today, oftentimes I feel like there is this lack of grit or tactile-ness. Part of the process in color correction for us was adding film grain. We shot on the Alexa and then we worked with our colorist, Alex Bickel, and he has all these various film grains. I didn’t want to infuse [Gemini] with a sort of nostalgia or kitsch, but there’s a certain sort of instinctualness you almost need in order not to have this “uncanny valley” sort of sensation where it’s too crystal clear clear and precise.
Filmmaker: Did you do one grain overlay for the whole film, or different degrees for different scenes?
Katz: Alex has all these different film stock grains, and the one we used was actually an Agfa stock. And it is one overlay for the whole film, but it’s not like we’re on a 30-second loop. One thing I thought was funny in Grindhouse, in “Planet Terror,” is that the grain is on this very short loop — you see the grain effects and splices repeat every five minutes!
Filmmaker: Have you ever read Frederic Jameson’s classic essay on postmodernism, where he writes quite a bit about Body Heat? He dubs it a kind of nostalgia film, because its visual and stylistic references place it in an “indefinable nostalgic past… beyond history.” I was struck that while your film clearly references ‘80s cinema in terms of style, you’ve also worked in so many modern references that place it in the immediate present.
Katz: It was really important for me to set it now. It’s so tempting when writing a mystery to get rid of cell phones and social media, because at least on a surface level, [those things] just makes things less fun. Like, a lot of like threads that detectives follow are made a lot easier by the presence of social media. But it was so important for me not to simply fetishize or aestheticize a more classic vision but to update it and look to the present for inspiration. Working with Keegan DeWitt on the score, in the past we would have an idea before shooting, and maybe I’d even write while listening to the demos. In this case, we ended up shifting. Our original direction with the score was purely nostalgic and was engaged with sort of a sound reminiscent of Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream and so on. That kind of worked for the genre, but there was something about it that just felt wrong. And what we eventually realized is that it didn’t speak to the present. It didn’t speak to these characters. This is a story about people living now, and some of these circumstances are inspired by films from the past, but we’re not in that Long Goodbye space of “soft ’70s but it’s really the ’40s.”
Filmmaker: So what were some sort of plot elements that were important for you to include to root it in the present? We talked about social media being one.
Katz: Yes, and by extension, also the relationship with celebrity, and what celebrity means. Los Angeles has 100-year-old tradition of celebrities being elevated to something almost beyond human. But now the sense that anyone can cross that line —
Filmmaker: The democratization of celebrity.
Katz: Yes. If you post the right stuff on Instagram, you too can become a celebrity. Fame is a two-way street, and you can’t be famous without people who adore you, but the terms of the agreement are very different now on each side.
Filmmaker: Were there specific people that you based Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz’s characters on?
Katz: There’s no one person or situation that the movie is based on, but it’s based on a lot of observations and encounters with people in various situations that are not unlike this. I really like to base the beginnings of [my films] on a seed of truth and then use imagination to enlarge and enhance that. Sometimes I feel like when things are too close to the truth, rather than feeling more truthful, they actually feel more limited because you’re concerned about like, “Well, actually, in this situation, this happened….”
Filmmaker: This marks the fourth time you’ve worked with Andrew Reed, and the palette is much larger this time. Could you talk about your collaboration here, and how you matched your ambition with your budget?
Katz: We wanted the movie to feel elegant, and that’s one of the things I really appreciate from some of the films I’ve mentioned, like Bad Influence. Robert Elswit shot that, and it’s a salacious thriller that is so beautifully shot. We really wanted to capture some of that same feeling. Also, geography plays such an important role in thrillers — establishing geography and using the camera to set things up that are going to pay off later. So, stage one is finding the right locations, and we spent much effort finding places that were both visually compelling and that also gave us a lot of exciting opportunities for our shotlists. Every time we looked at a place we’d keep our eyes open and not go, “Okay, how can we fit in exactly what we’re imagining about some real place into this place” but instead go, “What is interesting and compelling about this place?” And then, in terms of the look of the movie, we felt very inspired by what it feels like to drive around in Los Angeles at night. We wanted to capture that not only in the driving stuff but in just the general feeling [of the film].
We looked at so many houses before we found [Zoe’s character’s house]. It’s in the script written as a Spanish-style house, which is perhaps the most classic kind of place someone could live in a film like this. We looked at a lot of versions of that. We looked at some of the more modern Mediterranean mansions, and nowhere to us felt like a really iconic location — you know, like in Body Double there’s that modernist house, and in The Long Goodbye, there’s [the detective’s] apartment. Eventually our production designer brought this place to us and said, “I know you said Spanish, but this is Moorish. What about this?” We looked at it and said, “We have to shoot here, whatever it takes.” It felt really unique, iconic to us. We were instantly thinking of how we could lay out dynamic shots [within that] glass Rotunda in the center.
Filmmaker: The production design is so spare in that house — it really is that movie-star home that the person hasn’t had time to personalize, to move her stuff into.
Katz: You know, the funny thing is that a guy has lived there since the 1990s, and there’s probably 20 times as much furniture in the house [in our movie] as he really has. If anything we’ve made it a bit more robust, but it does feel quite melancholy, this big sort of tomb-like space.
Filmmaker: What were some of the most challenging aspects of the production?
Katz: Every day there were production challenges. Like, for example, at Heather’s house, the big trucks couldn’t get up there, so everything had to be picked up by pickup trucks as smaller loads. Plus there was no cell service up. Shooting in Los Angeles, every day there’s going to be a challenge, and it’s about finding ways to wall that off from the actors and keep the focus on creativity.