Aaron Katz Interview | Under the Radar - Music Magazine

Writer/director Aaron Katz (center) on the set of Cold Weather.

Aaron Katz

Interview with the writer/director of Cold Weather

Feb 11, 2011 Web Exclusive
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When writer/director Aaron Katz talks about the making of his third feature film, Cold Weather, the Portland native uses "we" rather than "I." "We" includes friends/producers Brendan McFadden and Ben Stambler, who share story credits with Katz on the film. All three attended the North Carolina School of the Arts, as did director of photography Andrew Reed, production designer Elliott Glick, and co-star Trieste Kelly Dunn, among other members of the cast and crew. Composer Keegan DeWitt is Katz's school friend from their teen years in Portland.

Katz has been working with some form of this core group since college. His debut feature, Dance Party, USA, premiered at the SXSW Film Conference and Festival in 2006, and his follow-up, Quiet City, premiered at SXSW a year later. Because both films were made with micro budgets (around $3,000) and dealt with twentysomething characters, Katz was recognized at the time as a mumblecore filmmaker, along with directors such as Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg, whose films also have been embraced by SXSW. Swanberg even appeared in Quiet City for Katz.   

Cold Weather, about a forensic science student (Cris Lankenau) who drops out of college in Chicago and moves back home to live with his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) in Portland, was produced on a larger budget and was shot on a Red hi-definition camera. Still, the film at first plays like something we've come to associate with mumblecore. The protagonist, Doug, is indecisive about his future and hedges when answering questions. He holds a low-paying job in an ice factory and sleeps on his sister Gail's couch. When friends visit, they sit on the floor to play cards and converse. But the film, which is interspersed with quietly picturesque shots of the Portland area, takes a fun, unexpected turn into the realm of genre.

Under the Radar spoke with Aaron Katz last week, prior to the theatrical opening of Cold Weather in New York.

Unless I missed something, is the relationship between Doug and Gail purposely undefined early on?

It is, yeah. We actually had a scene that we shot that had a lot more exposition about the nature of their relationship, but we decided that it was more interesting to have it come out just through observation. There's that scene with their parents early on; people might pick up that they're brother and sister. And then eventually it's said outright, maybe 15 minutes into the movie. But, in general, we gravitated toward ways of telling the story that the audience is an observer and not being told what's going on.  

It seems that it takes a while before their names are revealed as well.

Yeah. I don't think anyone says Doug's name until that scene in the office, when he convinces her to go, well, unsuccessfully, go whale watching. But yeah, we weren't too concerned about it. It's actually not come up much. We probably haven't thought about that in more than a year, since we were cutting it in 2009.

The only reason I bring up these questions is because I pretty much stumbled across Cold Weather at the L.A. Film Festival without knowing anything about the plot. So Doug and Gail's relationship, and especially the mystery elements came as a surprise to me. I know it's not at all practical, but I wish people could see the film knowing as little as I did. So, I was curious, how comfortable have you become in summarizing your film in a synopsis form?

More comfortable now, but I'd have to say that I agree with you. I wish people could watch the film and not have any idea what they were watching. When we were playing the film at festivalswe started out at SXSW and played quite a few other festivalswe definitely were conscious of what the synopsis of the film was and tried not to give too much away there. We had kind of a teaser trailer, and, of that we were very conscious too. It does suggest that there is some mystery element, but we tried not to give anything away, 'cause I think it is the most fun to watch it and have it be completely unexpected. Like you say, it's not practical to keep that up for long. At this point, mostly other people besides us are writing synopses or summaries, and it's more from reviews or interviews that it gets talked about. Ultimately, it's fine. I think the detective angle is something that's interesting to people, and you have to do whatever you can to get people out to see the film. If you don't see the film at all, then it doesn't matter if they're surprised or not.       

I know that you had worked with much of this film's creative talent before. At first, I was curious how Trieste Kelly Dunn cracked your circle, but then I saw in her bio that she went to the same school as you.

Yeah, she did. As did Robyn [Rikoon], who plays Rachel, as did almost the entirety of the crew. I'd never worked with Trieste in school. Or, I worked on plenty of films that she was in, but I never directed a film that had her in it. I always thought she was great in school. She was in a lot of student films, the quality of which varied pretty widely, but she was always great no matter what the film was like. So I was really excited to work with her, and wrote the script with her and Criswho's in my previous film, Quiet Cityin mind. They'd never met each other, but I thought they'd make a good brother and sister.

What inspired you to write a film about a brother and sister?

My first two films are about a romantic relationship, or the beginnings of a romantic relationship, and I just wanted to make a film about a different kind of relationship, something that had a family relationship in it. Then, I have a sister. Our relationship is a bit different 'cause she's eight years younger than I am. But just having a sister made me think that that might be an interesting relationship to explore. And I started writing without having in mind the mystery elements, and that crept in unexpected even to me about maybe 30 or 40 pages into writing the script.   

After Dance Party, USA, Quiet City was written and produced rather quickly, in less than a year. Is that right?

Yeah, that movie took almost no time. Both the other ones actually took a long time. Dance Party, I wrote between my second and third year of college, which would have been 2002, and it wasn't done cutting until late 2005 and premiered at SXSW 2006. And Cold Weather took a pretty solid chunk of time, too. But yeah, Quiet City, we were, after SXSW 2006, thinking about what we wanted to do next, and just really felt like we wanted to not wait around, to really go out and make something. I worked on another script that none of us were really happy with, and just threw it away and started on a new thing that was Quiet City. And yeah, I wrote it in August of that year, 2006, and we shot it in October, and it was at SXSW by March, so about six months, I guess.   

After completing that process, did you have any inclination to repeat a quick turnaround, or did you have a sense that your next film would take longer to produce?

I don't know if we thought about it that much. I think maybe because it had been so long since we made Dance Party, and it finally premiered at SXSW, we really felt the urge to make something immediately, and after making Quiet City, I think we felt like we could take our time a bit more. I was working on a few different scripts that didn't really have much momentum behind them, and all of a sudden I came upon the idea of this mystery in this brother-sister script, and then showed it to Brendan and Ben, and we all felt pretty excited to make it. And then, again, from showing them the script to actually shootingeven though, in this case, we had to raise money for itit was pretty quick. I showed it to them in probably June of 2008, and we were shooting by March of 2009, which, for us, felt like a long time, but in the scheme of independent film financing, that's actually pretty quick.   

In the meantime, between films, while you're writing and planning projects, do you hold a day job?

Yeah, I used to be a projectionist. When I lived in New York, I was a film projectionist. I now live in Pittsburgh and make an extremely modest amount from the movies, and I also cut trailers for companies like Kino and Zeitgeist.

I read that you started making films at an early age. Was there a particular movie that sparked your interest in filmmaking?

Not any particular movie. Yeah, I started making films when I was real little. I didn't think of it as making films, but I would play with my mom's video camera and shoot little scenes of Playmobil toys or something like that. But then, in high school, I started making Super 8 films with friends. And I don't think it was any one film but more discovering that there's a whole world of films beyond Hollywood films. I grew up not watching many films at all. The first films I saw were probably Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton and things like that, because, when I was really young, I had seen Snow Whitemy grandmother took me to a re-release in the theaterand I was so scared of it at three or four years old that I thought movies in general were bad news throughout the late '80s. Thereafter, I just started getting anything that seemed to me like it was important. There was a lot of Kurosawa and Citizen Kane and all those kind of things, sort of film school things, and I got really excited about making movies.

So you weren't a kid that went to the multiplex to see the mainstream Hollywood films on weekends?

Not as a kid. As a kid, I didn't go to anything. I have a recollection that the first mainstream movie I went to, or at least one of the first, was Iron Will. It was a sledding movie that came out in [1994] or something. But then in the '90s, middle school and high school, any mainstream action movies At the time, I loved Jackie Chan movies and Bruce Willis, anything. I kind of loved all movies at that time. I remember thinking, sometime late in middle school, early high school, 'Is there such thing as a bad movie?! I love going to the movies so much! I love everything!' From there, my opinions on that kind of thing have changed. But yeah, even still, I love goin' to the movies, and moving to Pittsburgh has been a real boon to the watching of mainstream movies, because there's a dollar theater in Pittsburgh, and my girlfriend and I are frequently seen there taking in a double feature of dollar movies.

There's that great shot of the waterfall in your film. Is that a location that you've always wanted to use since you were a young filmmaker?

It's a location that's definitely iconic to anyone from the Pacific Northwest. It's Multnomah Falls, about 45 minutes east of Portland in the Columbia Gorge. I don't think I thought of it so much as a potential film location, but growing up, that would be one of the main places that your family was going to take a quick drive out of town for the day. That would be one of the main places you'd go. So, I don't think I necessarily thought of it as a location. It's a place that I really, really love and was really excited to include it in the film.

Does it have a history of being used in films?

Some recent history. It's not really featured, but it's in the background of the first Twilight movie. When they're playing baseball, you can see Multnomah Falls in the background. And not Multnomah Falls, but a lot of waterfalls nearby are used, or a lot of those locations are used in The Road. I actually haven't seen The Road, but apparently the next waterfall over, which is Horsetail Falls, is used in The Road.

I also wanted to ask about the shot of Doug and Gail eating lunch by the water. Did you determine the length of that shot in editing, or did you have the sense that it would be a long take while you were shooting it?

I had the sense that it would be a long take while we were shooting it. Probably not as long as it ends up being in the movie, because we weren't expecting that seagullnot a trained seagull, some people have asked that in Q&Asbut I tend to like long takes. Even if the long, uncut take doesn't make it into the final film The way I shoot scenes, I shoot from beginning to end, so I don't break a scene down into parts. I really like the actors to have the chance to go through the whole scene and kind of live it, rather than being like, "OK, now I've just done this part." So, I think that's the product of shooting scenes like that. The style of the scenes in the movie all have a decent amount of cuts in them, but I think that the actors feel a lot more loose, and they can see themselves in the fictional circumstances of the movie if they don't have to dial in on one tiny part of the scene.

I read that your cinematographer interned on All the Real Girls. Is there a strong film community in North Carolina, and have other members of your crew had associations with David Gordon Green?

Yeah. All the Real Girls is actually why Reed went to North Carolina School of the Arts. He was going to Amherst, and he loved George Washington, and he found David's email, emailed him and said, "Hey, could I work on this movie?," and David said "Yeah, fine, come on down." So yeah, he worked on All the Real Girls and ended up going to North Carolina School of the Arts, which is where I went, and pretty much everyone from the crew went. And yeah, David and Jody Hill and Danny McBride and some other guys, they graduated before us, but I actually think that going to a relatively small school in kind of an isolated part of the country like that, it creates a sense of camaraderie, and so everyone from school has been really supportive of us, and there's some people who graduated after us who are making films. A girl named Martha Stephens made a great film called Passenger Pigeons that was at SXSW last year. I've gotten some questions like, "Why are so many people coming out of that school and making films?," and I think the reason is because the school creates this sense of camaraderie that you end up getting to know people really well, and you end up coming out with a bunch of collaborators and people that you want to make films with, and I think that when you're making films for no money, that's so important to have the right collaborators and to have people that you really trust.

What brought you to Pittsburgh?

I'd been to Pittsburgh a couple of times to visit, because one of our producers, Brendan McFadden, is from Pittsburgh, and we lived together in college, so a couple times we went up to Pittsburgh during a break from school, and I thought it was a really cool city. I'd lived in New York six years almost, and my girlfriend and I were looking to move somewhere else. I love New York, but I feel like five or six years of living there is enough, and the pace of life I like is a bit more low key. So we picked Pittsburgh because I'd been there, I liked it, and I think it's a city that has a lot of history and also retained a lot of its history. It's been a really great city to get to know. I still feel like I'm just getting to know it, really.

You're talking to me from New York, right?

Yeah, I'm calling you from Brooklyn Heights. We're staying at our colorist's house. He colored this movie and also Quiet City. A lot of people don't know what that is. In Q&As, it comes up sometimes because it's a really important part of this movie. It's just like color timing for film, except you have a whole lot more in the digital world, and that was a really big part of our plan going in, and I think color is really important in the movie. He's in L.A., working on some other movie, so we're staying at his place.

I read an interview you did with Film Threat after Quiet City, where they asked you what you were working on next, and you rattled off a number of potential follow-up projects, and none of them seemed to resemble Cold Weather. I'm gonna ask the same question, "What are you working on now?," but is it likely that could change at a moment's notice?

Yeah, it could. I mean, I'll rattle off a whole bunch of projects, like you said, and we'll see what happens. Brendan and I are working on a werewolf/buddy cop comedy, sort of in the spirit of fun '80s blockbusters like Beverly Hills Cop or something like that. And then, solo I'm working on a cat burglar movie and a movie that's sort of about a treasure hunt. But we'll see what happens. I don't know. I think it will depend a lot on the kind of financing we can get. The werewolf movie is not something that can be produced for the kind of money we had on Cold Weather. But we're hopeful that, having made some movies on our own and not having to answer to anyone, that people would trust us to do that with more money.

Do you have a desire to shoot in Pittsburgh?

Yeah, one of the scripts, the one I've been working on most recently, is set, in part, in Pittsburgh. I really like to shoot movies in places that I'm familiar with. I just like watching movies that are set in a location that's very specific, and I think the more you know a location, the more you can get out of it. I would love to shoot something in Pittsburgh.

Cold Weather currently is screening at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, the IFC Center in New York, and also is available on Video on Demand.

On Friday, February 11 and Saturday, February 12 in Los Angeles, Aaron Katz will participate in Q&As after the 7:10 screenings and introduce the 9:55 screenings at the Sunset 5.

http://coldweatherthemovie.com

www.sundanceselects.com/films/cold-weather

www.ifcfilms.com/films/cold-weather



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