Friday, May 13, 2011

Aaron Katz's Cold Weather

Aaron Katz has experienced festival and critical success for his first two feature films, Dance Party USA and Quiet City, primarily coming out of the South by Southwest Film Festival’s affinity for so-called mumblecore filmmakers.  (The New York Times wrote an excellent piece a few years ago about this film movement.  Generally speaking, mumblecore is--in addition to being an obsession of mine--a contemporary approach to indie filmmaking with a focus on character development and spending as little money during production as possible.) Like Andrew Bujalski or Joe Swanberg, mumblecore’s other major players, Katz creates features that are grouped in this movement.  His newest film Cold Weather, which premiered at SXSW this year to positive reviews, both draws and deviates from mumblecore traditions while maintaining a playful relationship with genre and style.

Cold Weather is about a young man who moves in with his older sister in Portland, Oregon, and gets caught up in a good old-fashioned mystery: missing person, stolen capital, tire slashing, the whole nine yards.  The protagonist, Doug, is a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and the film is inspired considerably by the detective genre.  Against this backdrop, though, the movie maintains many mumblecore characteristics.  Small moments of connection between characters, mundane conversations, and an obvious low-budget stylistic approach connect Cold Weather to Katz’s other films.

In a recent conversation, Katz told me about his perspective on Cold Weather’s differences from his previous features.  “We didn’t say ‘this movie is different, how are we going to approach it,’” he reflected.  “We were just trying to make the best movie we could.  Obviously that included elements of genre and elements of personal connection between people.”  The creators of Cold Weather use this appraoch to their advantage, allowing for honest and often hilarious moments of genuine personal interaction between the characters.

Katz’s “we” approach towards filmmaking is important to note.  He’s worked with the same group of people since they were all film students at North Carolina School of the Arts, with a few exceptions: a friend from high school, a few friends of friends.  Such a perspective creates a personal, comfortable environment for filmmaking, and Katz says “it’s really important to find those people you can work with… Film is a collaborative medium.”

Embracing low-budget filmmaking isn’t necessarily something Katz intends to stick with.  Like the Duplass brothers, who moved from The Puffy Chair to FX’s hilarious TV series The League to the Jonah Hill and John C. Riley film Cyrus, Katz is certainly considering his future in filmmaking outside budgetary limitations.  With consistent critical success and a growing familiarity with filmmaking, he’s looking further towards the interaction between genre and character: in addition to “a werewolf buddy-cop action movie,” Katz is also working on a western-inspired script and another mystery story with a “gentleman thief.”

Such a wide variety and range of filmmaking interests is rare, in the movie industry.  Many excellent directors are pigeonholed—either by the studio system, their reputations, or their own conscious efforts—into certain genres or categories.  Excitingly, Katz seems to be looking beyond that established structure and attempting to make something of both commercial and artistic value.  He spoke about the value of drawing inspiration from non-filmic sources, as it’s more productive in generating a unique voice when you’re not subconsciously imitating an admired director.  While Katz mentioned some specific movies (among them Sweetgrass, True Grit, 35 Shots of Rum, and The Social Network) of which he's a fan, he seemed more interested in talking about alternate sources of inspiration (particularly books).

In that context, Cold Weather makes a lot of sense.  It draws visibly from Sherlock Holmes (Doug even buys a pipe to help him think) but also maintains and develops the voice which Katz has spent years creating.  A few particularly affecting moments, like a scene in which a seagull miraculously circles around the characters as they sit on the beach, are actually unplanned, but that level of magical coincidence wouldn't be possible without Katz’s collaborative and open directing style.  The dialogue itself genuinely relishes awkwardness and humor alongside the plot development, and the cinematography enhances every scene.  This kind of film, in which conversations are often the best part, and characters become like friends to the audience, is rare and special.  Katz’s upcoming ventures sound hilarious (can I emphasize the phrase “werewolf buddy cop action movie”) and his transition to a larger scope will be an exciting one.

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