“Gemini” Filmmaker Aaron Katz Explores L.A. to Create Contemporary Noir (Interview)

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Filmmaker might have been working in virtual obscurity on his earlier indie films, but winning the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Spirit awards for his 2014 film Land Ho! opened a bunch of doors for him. Setting his new film Gemini in Los Angeles also made it viable to start working with better-known actors while still maintaining his own vision.

Gemini stars Lola Kirke from Mozart in the Jungle as Jill, personal assistant to the young ingénue Heather (Zoey Kravitz), and at first, it follows the two of them travelling across Los Angeles trying to avoid ex-boyfriends and the angry director of a movie Heather is supposed to be making.  There’s then a murder, and Jill has to find out who is responsible as one police detective (John Cho) is convinced Jill knows more than she’s saying.

Gemini is very much a contemporary noir-thriller but being set in modern-day Los Angeles gives it a very different feel from Katz’s previous films, much of that having to do with the cinematography by his long-time collaborators, DP Andrew Reed and composer Keegan Dewitt.

The Tracking Board spoke with Katz just yesterday for the following interview. (And apologies in advance, but I’ve been quite obsessed with the film music of Keegan Dewitt, whose score for Gemini is quite impressive, but he actually has done the music for all of Katz’s films to date.)

AaronKatzGeminiI’ve seen Land Ho, and I think I saw Cold Weather, maybe around the same time. After winning the John Cassavetes Award, did you envision doing something bigger set in L.A. or did things just happen that way as they often do?

Yeah, well it kind of happened that way. In terms of doing something bigger, I mean, it has always been my ambition to be able to work with more scope and more resources, but to do it in a way where I’m true to what I believe in as a filmmaker. It felt like a really natural progression to make this movie, which came out of my interest in making something that… I had been watching a lot of Los Angeles-set thrillers and had moved to Los Angeles a couple years previous to writing this film. I also started to feel like I wanted to make something that lived in that genre and in the tradition of thrillers that really took Los Angeles, not as a place where the film was incidentally set, but as a real key to this world. When I wrote it, I guess I was imagining something that was on a bit of a bigger scope than the past films.

The movie doesn’t really start out like the typical murder-mystery or noir film, because usually someone would get murdered within the first ten or fifteen minutes and the rest of the movie would be used to find the murderer. Here, we follow the characters for a good section of the movie, and you might not realize that it’s heading into noir territory., and you might not realize it’s heading into noir territory.

I think it’s an interesting observation. I just watched Jagged Edge recently, and like the first scene is the murder of Jeff Bridges’ wife, which then becomes the… is he or is he not the culprit? That’s the question of the whole movie, but really, you don’t get a sense of their lives leading up to that, which I think, in that case, worked perfectly. I really did want to have that space to explore these people’s relationship and to immerse yourself in their world, and at the same time, there’s also clues being threaded in.

Did you start out with the murder-mystery idea and then work backwards to figure out how to introduce the characters?

Yeah, yeah, that was always the intent. I mean, there was really a few threads coming together. It was wanting to do a thriller, a murder-mystery. It was wanting to make a movie about this relationship between a personal assistant and the person that they were working for, and the very porous boundaries of personal and professional, and wanting to set something in Los Angeles. What really brought it all together was seeing Mistress America and seeing Lola for the first time. Actually, I had seen her before, but I didn’t realize she was in Gone Girl. I just really loved her performance in that movie and felt that that was the piece that had been missing. I wrote it with her in mind, not knowing whether or not she would do the movie, but from page one, I was writing with her in mind.

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You’re not supposed to do that, because you have no idea if she would say “Yes” to doing it.

Well, yeah, it would have been devastating if she didn’t. I don’t know. It’s so hard for me to imagine this with a different actor. I didn’t know Lola at the time, so I was just extrapolating from what I saw in Mistress America, which is a very different kind of film. It’s obviously hearkening back to 1930s comedies, but what I saw in that that I really responded to was — and which I think holds true in Gemini — is regardless of the genre, Lola takes things at face value and is just treats everything as like, “Well, this is the situation that my character’s living in.” Like she doesn’t play to the situation. She’s not playing to the jokes, I don’t think in Mistress America, nor to the thriller aspects of Gemini. She’s really living as though she was this person.

She seems older in this movie, so how old is she compared to Zoe?

They’re about the same age.

I was wondering about that relationship when there’s a young actor with a personal assistant around the same age. I don’t really know much about personal assistants.

Well, it can be. There’s a lot of different ways that that relationship can go, and I think that people chose different styles. It can be friends and contemporaries, and some people even chose their sisters or high school best friends, whereas other people might chose an older figure who would have, of course, a very different relationship, or for an older actor, they might choose someone much younger who is just starting to work in Hollywood. But yeah, I think this reflects them, something that speaks to the choice a lot of people make, which is someone who’s sort of a very close friend and also your assistant.

I read that you actually developed the characters with the two actors as well? That was after you finished writing the first script, I guess?

Yeah, yeah, but we sent Lola quite an early draft. First of all, because, well, we wanted to get it to her as soon as possible when we felt it was in a readable state, because it could really make a difference whether she was going to do the movie or not. But second of all, if she was going to do the movie, I really wanted her to be involved early on. We live fairly close to each other in Los Angeles, and we would often spend time, not rehearsing, but just talking through things, and I would go home and revise based on our conversations. There’s just so much in terms of, like, we would spend a day talking about the character history, and how did this person get to LA, and how did this person that doesn’t seem so enamored with celebrity, like how did they get into this job that is a very intense job? So yeah, Lola had a big impact on who this character is.

Have you done that with some of your other movies, too?

Yeah, yeah, it’s definitely a part of it. I mean, I’ve always written with at least one person in mind. Land Ho! I co-wrote and co-directed it with a friend of mine from college, and we wrote that with those guys in mind. Earl Lynn and Paul, and Earl Lynn especially is not like a professional actor. He’s a guy who is very charismatic and who is very good at acting, so for him, it’s a little bit different.

With Lola, we could talk in a more analytical way, and Lola’s enough of a professional to be able to switch out of that and be more intuitive when acting. Earl Lynn, for example, he’s always just kind of on, and so as we were developing it, it wasn’t talking with him about what the character’s background is, more like feeling him out and feeling how this guy’s going to thrive in a particular circumstance.

 

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Besides working with better-known actors and this being set in LA, was it a very different procedure going into this one?

No, not really. I mean, I would say that the difference in procedure really are just personal differences between actors. I graduated from college in 2004 and made a movie, Dance Party USA, right away. At that time, I had all of these very specific ideas about acting, and I thought, basically, that everything should be derived from a sort of Misner variation that I really, really believed in.  I still really believe that there are great parts of that, but what I’ve come to learn over the course of five movies, is that the most important thing is to hear what people are saying, hear what actors are saying. Explore together what’s going to make you thrive. What’s going to make you feel comfortable? What’s going to make us have a trusting relationship? And for some people, you know, for some people, it’s like hanging out and talking and getting to know each other. For other people, it’s a really intense process, really pulling the script apart and assigning things line by line, and all these other things that maybe, at one point in my life, I would have been skeptical of. But for me, it’s just everyone within this movie has a different approach and process. Hearing that and using that to our advantage, I think, is really important.

I’m amazed that you’ve worked with DP Andrew Reed from the beginning, as well as Keegan Dewitt doing music. How did you and Andrew decide how to shoot Los Angeles when there have been so many movies set there?

By far, it was the most challenging [thing] from a production point of view, because… you know, I think New York is probably equally challenging, and I’ve shot one film here, but that was at a time when we were so small and light on our feet that no one cared or even noticed we were shooting anything.

No one thinks it’s cool that you’re shooting a movie in Los Angeles, and everyone knows what their locations and their parking is worth, so you really have to get creative. Also, a lot of things have been shot a million times, so you want to find locations that are compelling and feel specific to the movie that you’re making and tell the story of Los Angeles in your way.

So yeah, it was a big challenge, and I gotta say we spent a long time looking through locations before we found the ones that spoke to us. You know, there’s many things written specifically into the script, and a few of those make the movie, but a lot of times, it just wasn’t feasible to shoot in those places, so we ended up finding different places. The weird thing now is looking back at the script, and it’s sometimes hard to imagine, for example, not having Tonga Hut, which is the tiki bar. I can’t imagine that not being in the movie.

Is that bar in Silverlake?

Oh, so you’re probably thinking of Tiki Tea, which is a variable tiki bar in Silverlake. Tonga Hut is in North Hollywood, and it’s the oldest operating tiki bar in the city. I mean Tiki Tea is a wonderful and very classic place, but very, very small — probably couldn’t shoot something there — but Tonga Hut ended up being a perfect location for us and felt like a great thing to feature in the movie.

Did you shoot in some of the same locations as Tangerine? I saw James Ransone in your movie, and it looked like the same area where he shot that film.

No, it’s actually not.  The funny thing is I used to live right in that area where Tangerine is [set].  Which is around Santa Monica. Not in Santa Monica, the city, but on Santa Monica Boulevard and Vermont in East Hollywood and Los Vilas is where that movie mostly is. Yeah, we really don’t shoot at all where they shot, but yeah, it is funny that Ransone makes an appearance in that.

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I’ve only been to L.A. a few times and most of the time I was staying in my hotel, so I don’t really know the city at all.

I think locations are so important to thrillers, and there’s such a great tradition of great buildings in thrillers. I’m thinking of the modernist house in Body Heat and of course, the apartment in The Long Goodbye, the house from Double Indemnity, and so on. We really hope to live in that tradition.

Heather is staying at a very contemporary and fancy place, so where did you find that home to shoot in? 

You’re talking about Tracy, right? So that place is actually brand-new, like it had just been built and they had just finished construction, but it hadn’t been sold yet.  Someone, I don’t know who, tracked that place down. Again, we looked at so many places. It felt like we really wanted to have a place that had a view over vast Los Angeles. That felt like a really important part of the fabric of the city that we wanted to include, so we looked at a lot of places before we found that, and [I] feel very lucky to have found that place.

Also being new, it has that glossy look of a place that would have been bought by someone who is barely home.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, both of the big houses in the movie feel so … Well, Heather’s house feels almost tomb-like in its vastness, and that house feels so unsettled-into. I feel like that speaks to a lifestyle that people who are quite busy have. There’s this grand house, but maybe it doesn’t feel like home.

 

Has Gemini been done since it premiered at SXSW last year or have there been changes?

Yeah, it’s been done, but it’s been interesting for me because typically when we premiere at a festival, whether it’s Sundance or South by Southwest, the movie will be out, I don’t know, four to six months later. In this case, it was really a long process — it felt like we lived a lot of life since then, but it also afforded me something that I feel like is very interesting, which is we’ve did a lot of festivals that I hadn’t done before because they would be in the schedule after the release. So for example, Fantastic Fest, which was quite interesting.  It’s a genre festival that’s a totally different perspective on the movie than something like South by Southwest, even though, of course, it’s in the same town. But it was very fun, and the atmosphere of the screening was very buoyant and cool to see, “Oh, these people are interested and thinking about this as a genre film.” And from a different perspective, you might think of it as a film about these two characters with a genre element. I like that there’s kind of multiple ways to see the movie, and I’ve had a chance to get to see the movie through different perspectives based on different audiences.

Let’s talk about Keegan Dewitt, who I’ve become quite obsessed with since seeing Hearts Beat Loud at Sundance, not realizing that he’s been scoring all these cool indie movies for years. I also was surprised when I rewatched Alex Ross Perry’s Golden Exits and realized he scored that and then saw Gemini and realized he scored that, and all these movies have very different music.

Yeah, Keegan is so versatile. Like you mentioned in Bret’s movie, it’s a very commercial, poppy sound.  In Listen Up, Phillip, it’s like totally jazz and then in Queen of Earth it’s like this very unsettling kind of orchestral score. But Keegan and I went to high school together. We went to high school in Portland, Oregon. We went to a very small, very, I don’t want to quite say hippie-ish, but a school where there was a hundred kids, and everything was decided by a community meeting. Yeah, I mean, we’ve been friends for over twenty years and we made like Super 8 movies together in high school, and yeah, Keegan actually was the first one who … He graduated a year before me and went to SUNY Purchase for film school for a year. At that time, I was a senior, I thought I wanted to be an actor and then realized that what I really wanted to do, in part, because Keegan was going to film school, and I was really thinking about that other side of filmmaking. I decided that I wanted to be the director instead. So anyway, we’ve known each other for a long time, and Keegan, as an actor is in my senior thesis movie from school. The first score that we ever did together was my first film, Dance Party USA. It’s a really raw recording of Keegan playing the piano at his, I think it’s at his parent’s house in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Yeah, it’s gone from there.

I guess Brett Haley and Alex must have seen your movies and decided to use Keegan to score their own films.

Yeah, I mean Alex and I are very good friends., and then Bret also went to North Carolina School of the Arts with me, so I feel comfortable taking credit for Keegan in some ways.

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Hopefully, he’s still enough under the radar that he isn’t scooped up to do all these studio movies, because I’m just amazed by what he brings to these films.

Yeah, definitely. I can’t imagine making a movie without Keegan doing the score. Even though that’s the same for a lot of my relationships on the movie. Over the course of making five movies, I’ve gained a lot of collaborators who I really hope to continue working with — Andrew Reed on the director of photography side, and Alex Bickle, who’s done color for all of my movies with the exception of the first one, also went to North Carolina School of the Arts.  Yeah, they’re just a lot of great collaborators.

How did you want to approach the music for this one, because the film has a very specific sound, which I’m not sure is representative of Los Angeles, but it feels very contemporary.

I’m glad you mentioned the contemporary sound of it because this is the first time where we’ve changed directions in a score. Usually, Keegan does demos before we even shoot anything and then is developing stuff as we’re shooting, and then once we get into the editing process, he’s like starting to move from demos to the real thing, but it’s all kind of within the same sound. In this case, we went down a path and ended up switching directions once we got pretty deep into the editing process. The reason was because the original sound that we were working on was, we realized [was] very nostalgic, and it was kind of in a Giorgio Moroder Tangerine Dream mode. We thought, “We like all these tracks, like it feels good in the moment, but then the totality of it when you watch the movie, there’s like something that’s not adding up.” What we realized is that it was purely nostalgic, and it spoke to some of the origins of the genre that we are paying homage to. But what it didn’t feel like is that it related to our characters and that it was a score that could exist at no other time except for right now. We realized just how important that was to us. We ended up discarding almost everything we’d been working on and moving in this totally different direction, which we felt spoke to the sound … If you turned on Showtime in the middle of the night in the early nineties, but also right now, and was music that we felt like these characters might want to listen to.

But that might also be because Giorgio Moroder has been influencing a lot of modern dance music in the last few years as he’s being discovered.

Oh, definitely.

Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Obviously, you’ve had about a year since Gemini premiered at SXSW, so have you been developing something else to do next?

Yeah, I’m working on a couple of things right now, and I’m not sure which is going to happen, but I think we’re getting close on a couple things. I don’t want to go into specifics, but I’ll just say that I’ve been reading a lot of Victorian horror fiction and that my head is filled with that kind of thing, and we’ll see what comes of it.

I feel like there’s this interesting horror renaissance going on with a lot of auteur filmmakers exploring horror like Soderbergh and Darren Aronofsky, and it’s intriguing to see prestigious filmmakers exploring the genre.

It is, yeah. It’s funny, because I’ve been figuring out what I mean when I say “horror.” I have to say, a lot of the contemporary forays into horror are not for me, exactly. For me —  I’m about to say a movie that’s not a horror movie — but the atmosphere that really appeals to me is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which though not a horror movie, has that kind of gothic feel to it. I just love the idea of the tension and the exploration of these complex relationships that, you know, movies that take place in this atmosphere dread, can have.

Do you feel like you need to keep moving up in terms of budget or do you feel like with Gemini you’ve reached a budget where you’d like to stay for a while?

No, I mean, to me, I want to be working with studio-level budgets. I hope and think that the fact that I’ve made five films with incrementally more money each time. In all cases, I’ve been very fortunate that once it stopped being my own money for like two thousand dollars in the first couple movies, and someone else’s money, starting with Cold Weather, that in each case, the premise of us getting a movie financed has been… “We’re really excited about what you want to do, and we believe that you can do this.” I think that we’ve proved at different levels that we’re capable of being quite thoughtful, practical, etc. at the same time as executing our creative vision that going forward we’re able to do that in even bigger ways. Because there’s just some stories that you can’t tell with a limited budget, and as an audience member, I love the idea of a movie that is broadly appealing and fun for a large group of people, but also is an exciting, artistically fully-realized movie. I feel like there’s this idea that those things have to be mutually exclusive, no matter how many times that’s been proved wrong.  You have people like Denis Villeneuve, who are proving that wrong right now, soo I feel like there is a lot of space for that, a lot of appetite for that, and I feel like we’ve seen some great examples of that working recently.

Gemini opens in select cities on Friday, March 30.

  | East Coast Editor
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Still quiet here.sas

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