With his third film, Cold Weather (opening today after a lauded festival run last year), Aaron Katz engineers a meeting between diffident young people from a very familiar demographic, and Nick and Norah Charles, after a fashion—the lovingly bickering sleuths also being the young, low-key brother and sister pair Doug and Gail (Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn), who dig into a disappearance in Katz’s native, overcast Portland.
Katz’s first feature, Dance Party USA, was also set in Portland, though after art school in North Carolina, where he met many of his collaborators, he lived in Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy), and made the platonic-in-Park Slope Before Sunrise riff Quiet City, the highlight of IFC Center’s reluctantly epochal mumblecore series. Katz, who moved to Pittsburgh last year, spoke to us about writing a mystery, working with his friends, shooting his hometown, the ambivalence of young urbanites, and more.
I had a professor explain once that in a Hitchcock movie there’s a genre plot that also serves as the basis for bringing together a couple, like the amateur detectives in Rear Window. In Cold Weather the relationships that are driven by the plot are more contemporary and subtle: reconciliation of an accidentally estranged pair of siblings, a college dropout deciding to go back to school and getting over his ex. How much did you think of the mystery plot as a way to explore these concerns?
At first it just seemed like an exciting left turn to take. I got maybe 30 pages into it and thought it was just going to be a script about family and then had the idea to start putting some of the mystery stuff in. At first it just seemed like, I dunno what’s gonna happen, I’m not sure what this mystery stuff is gonna add up to, or if something is good, but it’s fun to write… But then towards the last third of the first draft, it started to seem like this great way to bring people together—the most conversation Doug and Gail have is when they’re on a stakeout and talk about some of their past relationships, and there and elsewhere throughout the mystery they get to know each other a little bit better as adults.
It seems like the three features that you’ve made deal with relationships and moments that a colleague has described as “slippery.” I’m curious about the challenges of dramatizing something that’s less classically cinematic.
When I write I really am not thinking at all about themes or in most cases where I even want the script to go—I usually start writing a few things that’ll get to 15 or 20 pages and then I’ll stop and I’ll move on to the next one, and eventually I’ll move onto one that does feel like it has momentum, and once I get started I’ll write something in a week, two weeks. The way I like to write is to trust that whatever’s in the subconscious or in the non-intellectual realm is good, and more interesting than thinking things through.
So I try getting everything down and then start shaping the script, usually with the help of Brendan (McFadden) and Ben (Stambler), my producers, and even our director of photography, Andrew Reed, who came in pretty early in the process. I guess that first stage is trust in myself that it’ll all work out, and second stage, filming, is trust in the actors.
When you’re filming, are there aspects besides performance that you’re thinking of as a way to externalize these more minute shifts in emotional weather in character?
That’s one of the reasons why Reed, our cinematographer, gets involved so early. Performances that are the thing that, on set, I’ll have to focus on the most, but I come up with a plan beforehand with Reed about how to use the camera to help the story along—especially on this movie, we came up with very distinct plan for all the locations. I’d say the same thing applies to music. Keegan (DeWitt), who did the music for all my films, got involved early on this one and was writing cues before we’d even shot the film. I’d send him the first draft and he’d start to write stuff, and we’d be driving around Portland looking for locations and he’d send us a brand new sample—we’d put it on an iPod and listen to him.
There’s a song of Ben’s, too, right? Was that a high school band?
Yeah, that was his high school band, Death Race. Yeah, Ben was a big hardcore fan at that time. Originally actually there were supposed to be two hardcore songs in the movie, [Doug] was gonna flip the tape and there would be yet another hardcore song. Keegan also had a hardcore band in high school called All Against One, but we ended up using Ben’s. The tape deck we were using was really junky.
High school is a reference point here. This is the second consecutive movie of yours in which the female lead mentions having run track in high school. There are scenes in this movie where characters explicitly talk about “clues,” and try to figure out what they’re “supposed” to be doing on a stakeout, or go out and buy a pipe. Modeling yourself after something seems to be a way of dealing with mysteries beyond just the obvious mystery of the plot.
It’s funny that you bring up that running track in high school thing because I’m working on a new script, and it wasn’t intentional that that was in the first two movies, but then we realized that was in Cold Weather and we were like “Oh, that’s kinda funny. Let’s leave that in.” ‘Cause it’s kind of funny—it’s a weird thing to reoccur in two movies. And then I was writing and realized there was an opportunity for one of the female characters to say that she ran track in high school, so it’s in the very very rough draft of the thing I’m working on now.
This is not any of those ones. The baseball thing doesn’t exist yet, that’s just my idea. The other two scripts are I think in pretty good shape—I think the issue with those aren’t so much the state of the scripts but the feasibility of someone wanting to give us much more money than Quiet City to make a movie.
This one is in rough shape but I’m beginning to get kind of excited about it. It’s about this guy who goes to his ex-girlfriend’s house to lay low, because his aunt is onto the possible whereabouts of a revolutionary war treasure and he knows too much and is about to be subpoenaed to appear in court and testify about what he knows and so he goes to his ex-girlfriend’s place to hide out and they end up getting drawn in. It’s a really weird script and I’m not exactly sure what to make of it. It’s kind of got elements of the three films I’ve already made—it’s a lot about the relationship between this guy and his ex-girlfriend, but there’s also some treasure hunting stuff in it. So I’m not quite sure…
Where is it set?
It’s set in Pittsburgh, which is where I live now.
I love the locations in Cold Weather—you said it was mostly driving around your hometown, trying to find places. How much of the script for Cold Weather was written in response to locations, to set a scene there?
A lot of the locations are written into the script. And a few of them changed. There used to be a scene toward the beginning of the movie where Doug and Gail go out for dinner, and talk about whether he’s going to go out and get a job—we condensed that into the scene with the parents—that was going to take place in Montage, the restaurant we ended up shooting the end in. And the end was going to take place, or in my mind it took place, at this place called Ringside, which is a really old-school steak place that’s been there since, I dunno, the 20s, and it has a real Hemingway-slash-boxing aesthetic, there’s black and white photos old-time photos of old-time boxers. But it’s on a really busy street and we deemed it unworkable. It seemed like Montage would fit perfectly for that scene, and that’s a place that a lot of us went in high school—there were only a few places besides Denny’s that were open late in Portland.
One of the ways you maintain the sense of low-key personal drama is with the interludes of overcast Portland skies, which create more contemplative, private space within the movement of the plot—but they also look great. You shot on the Red, right? What was Quiet City shot on?
Quiet City was HBX 100. Dance Party USA was DVX 100. I have good things to say about those previous cameras, especially the DVX100, that’s super accessible. But with the Red you have so much more opportunity to customize what you’re doing in terms of lens selection, and control over color in the post-production process.
A lot of really artificial light looks actually very good, very full, in the motel and storage lockers at the end. Those are some very unfriendly lights, I would imagine.
Yeah, especially the storage lockers. We location scouted and came back with the tech scouts. Not only is that light really harsh, but we couldn’t really do that much lighting. We had to backlight, but for the most part we used the fluorescents—it’s good that there were so many. The Red needs a lot more light than the cameras we’ve worked with. The Red is a lot more comparable to a film camera in terms of how much light you need to expose them properly—you can push things, make things brighter in the post-production process, but it gets real grainy real quickly. Reed and our gaffer were very inventive in using whatever lighting situation.
I’ve started to notice now when movies get unlucky with weather—but it seems with a movie that’s called Cold Weather… Was the mood of the film always going to be somewhat rainy and overcast?
There’s probably even more rain written into the script than there is in the finished film. We shot in late March through late April, and we wanted it to be rainy all the time or at least overcast, and oftentimes it would be kind of sunny. That’s the kind of Portland that I’m familiar with. Thinking about Portland, I never think about summer in Portland. Portland has a hot summer just like anywhere else, but I think about the other eight or nine months of the year where it’s just drizzly and cloudy.
I feel like everybody at some point or another takes a shot at writing a mystery. Do you think you could have done it if you hadn’t been able to talk it through with your producers?
No. Writing a mystery is really hard. Someone in another interview asked me this morning if writing a mystery was harder than you thought it would be. My response was, No, but that’s only because I already thought writing a mystery would be really hard. Raymond Chandler talked about how he has no idea what’s going on in his books half the time. In the first draft—some of the clues are in there, but it’s just so hard to come up with something that’s not jumbled, and also has the right scope for the kind of movie that it is. So, there’s the threat of danger, but there’s not some vast conspiracy or gunplay, for example, pushing it too far in that direction. But also we didn’t want it to be in that “Oh, it’s not really a mystery, don’t worry about it” place that would be possible for a real low-budget mystery. We spent a good month working on the mystery, specifically—Brendan and Ben would come over to my place and we’d just throw notecards around and write new things out, talk things out. I feel like the most productive part was looking at the notecards and talking out loud about what it is that we were seeing with the notecards laid out, and I think that’s hard to do by yourself.
The clues that made their way into the movie are in some ways as organic as locations. Obviously seeing evidence of a real person inside of a skin mag, as Doug does, is incredibly creepy for a number of reasons, but the fact that there’s a clue in a trashy porn magazine reminded me a lot of Flesh World, from Twin Peaks. I don’t know if that was conscious or not. But it occurred to me that Twin Peaks, Washington, or Lumberton, aren’t bad analogues here as far as fresh-faced amateur detection and the intrusion of mystery into the everyday…
I like Twin Peaks quite a bit. Or the first season of Twin Peaks, or the first season and a half. The atmosphere I think is really great—it’s not so much exactly like Portland, but it really captures the sort of “town hidden amongst the mountains” feel. And the clue of the palm tree, which is that thing inside the magazine—another spoiler for people who haven’t seen the movie yet—was one of the things that started me thinking about the mystery really early on, because a friend of mine had actually moved into that building, The Rasmussen, across the street where the photo is taken from. And when she moved there, I was like “Oh yeah, that’s the building with the palm tree across the street,” and I thought, “That would be a good clue for something. There’s not many palm trees in Portland—that’s a good clue.”
They immediately recognize that that’s the only palm tree in Portland…
Maybe there’s like three others somewhere, but I’m proud of that clue, ‘cause it’s a good, legit clue that they deduce and is deducible under real circumstances. So yeah, that’s one of the better clues I think.
Did you come up with the code?
I had the idea for the code [which Doug and Gail decode] being the baseball stats, but Brendan was the one who came up with the players. He’s from Pittsburgh—including Al Oliver was him. People ask in Q&As sometimes about the specific baseball players that are mentioned. Someone said they were a Clete Boyer fan. And someone’s question was “Why does she say ‘Bower’ when it’s ‘Boyer’?” and I said that Trieste (Kelly Dunn) literally could not say “Boyer.”
I like to shoot a whole scene from beginning to end. I don’t like doing pick-ups, really. I like people to have a chance to just to do the whole scene. And by the time she’d get to that part of the scene, every single time I’d remind her, you know, “it’s Boyer, not Bower” and I think at some point she just started to psych herself out and every single take, she says Bower.
It’s like a bizarrely complicated code though.
Yeah, the real thing about the code—you might wonder if there’s not an easier way to do it. But the basic idea is that whatever letter you want, you find a guy with a last name that starts with that letter, and then whatever his batting average and on-base percentage is, then you put those stats down.
They really comb through the Baseball Encyclopedia pretty fast.
The book is not organized exactly as it’s presented on screen.
Actually, there’s a lot of the movie in the library—there’s a lot that’s analog. Maybe detection is more easily dramatized if you’re going to a library and doing research, then if you’re looking stuff up on baseball-reference.com?
The modern world of the internet or DNA testing, all modern advancements in crime-solving or research in general, make everything that’s cool about solving crimes much less cool. So much of what Sherlock Holmes does could be done a lot easier today, but it’s way less cool.
But at the same time I don’t like to fetishize this analog world. I wanted to include the internet and cell phones at least in part and not—I feel like there’s a temptation, a amongst our generation, amongst people let’s say 25-35, to look at the pre-internet, pre-digital world, and fetishize stuff—like I do, too. I’ve been listening to some audio tapes and watching some VHS lately, and I know they’re not better, but I just enjoy that format.
Well, the Joe Swanberg cameo in Quiet City—I really liked his coleslaw tangent, because it speaks to a suburban nostalgia and anxiety over urban living, for somebody in their 20s to say, “Our generation doesn’t appreciate coleslaw.” I just did this other interview with somebody who just made a movie about someone who graduates college, moves to New York, and then moves back to Bloomington, Indiana. And she was talking a lot about, You could pay god knows what for this two bedroom house in another city, near all these things that are still cool. I liked that part in Quiet City because it gets at the uncertainty about living in the city which I think a bunch of people in their 20s have.
Honestly, it’s part of the reason why I moved to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s a pretty big city, and it has a lot of the cultural things I appreciate having close at hand, but the pace of life there is something that I enjoy more. This is such a tangent off a tangent but it came to mind so I’ll say it anyway. A friend of ours’ dad has this cabin that we went to one time—there’s a bunch of random books there, including this Nora Ephron book that’s full of hilarious Nora Ephron essays about stuff including living in New York. And the way she talks about living in New York is, basically, paying people to take care of any problem that you might have—Cooking is for chumps! Just order out, every night, and pretend you cooked it if you have a dinner party! It’s like advice like that—I don’t want live like that. I do love New York in many ways, but the idea of living in a city where the best you can do is to get rich and pay people to take care of the problems you face every day is kinda depressing. As I said, not relevant at all, but…