Aaron Katz on his new thriller “Gemini” and popcorn problematics

Katz's fifth feature stars Lola Kirke and Zoe Kravitz in a Hollywood-set mystery

“Gemini” is a sleek, entertaining new thriller set in the glamorous world of Hollywood and drenched in celebrity culture. It’s also directed by Portland-raised Aaron Katz, and for anyone familiar with Katz’s previous work, that synopsis might come as a shock. “Sleek,” “glamorous,” and “celebrity” are not words one would typically associate with Katz’s films, which include the “mumblecore” (more on that loaded term later) landmarks “Dance Party USA” (2005) and “Quiet City” (2006) and the quirky Iceland-set buddy film “Land Ho” (2014, co-directed with Martha Stephens).

Katz experimented with the thriller form, sort of, in 2010’s “Cold Weather,” a reserved, Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery that was also the last film Katz shot in Portland. Relocated to Los Angeles, he’s made the city, as so many filmmakers do, a major character in “Gemini.” Without giving too much away, “Gemini” centers on Jill (Lola Kirke), the devoted personal assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). After Heather backs out of a big role at the last minute, she suddenly has plenty of enemies. It’s Jill, though, who becomes the prime suspect after stumbling upon a violent crime scene at Heather’s mansion. It’s up to the intrepid but somewhat hapless Jill to clear her own name and dodge the suspicions of a detective (John Cho) full of wry insinuation.

Lola Kirke in “Gemini”

I interviewed Katz at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival when “Land Ho” screened there, but I didn’t have to go nearly as far when he returned to his hometown for “Gemini”’s screenings during February’s Portland International Film Festival. We chatted at a Southeast Portland coffee shop about the evolution of his filmmaking, life in L.A., and the evils of movie snacks.

You’ve been in Los Angeles for five years now. Is it mandatory for a director to make an “L.A. movie” and address the city as a subject once they’ve lived there for a certain amount of time?

I felt that way, for sure. I didn’t know what I’d think of the city when I moved there. Once we’d been there for about three years, it began to feel like I was going to write something about Los Angeles.

I’m sure you’ve seen the documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself…” [Thom Anderson’s ode to the city, composed of edited-together scenes from films shot there]

I haven’t seen it since I lived in New York, but one thing I remember about it is that so many of the clips are from thrillers. Thrillers seem to do a great job of evoking place, and there was something really exciting about trying to carry on that tradition in “Gemini.”

One of the films that’s a clear influence, not only on this film, but on “Cold Weather,” is Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” which is a thriller, but not one with what you’d call an excess of narrative momentum.

Yeah, there’s a real looseness to it. That’s probably my favorite Altman movie. Even though it’s less narrative than most detective movies, it’s more narrative than some other Altman movies. I really like the collision of his style with a genre that requires some shape to it. That film was one that I revisited before making this one. “American Gigolo” was another one. Curtis Hanson’s “Bad Influence”—I watched that one more than once in preparation.

James Spader at his most Spaderian. What you said about Altman makes a lot of sense because, watching “Gemini,” I wonder how consciously you’re engaged in taking this genre and subverting it, versus how much you’re just telling a story in your own personal style.

I think more the second. I really love genre films and detective stories, and I wanted to make something that honored the rules and the structure of those kind of films. One thing that’s come up in Q&A’s recently is the fact that the two lead characters are female. I’ve been programming some rep series to coincide with “Gemini”’s opening, and it’s really brought into stark contrast how few of these movies in this genre there are with women. One of the things I did want to do with the genre was to approach it from that point of view.

And you do so without being didactic or self-conscious about it, which extends to the treatment of some of the fluid gender dynamics depicted in the movie.

To go back to your question about subverting the genre, both with respect to this film and “Cold Weather,” I tend to not want to make films where the point of the film is to make a point, even if that point is only to subvert a genre. I like to make films where I’m truthfully getting into who these characters are and what these humans are like, as well as genuinely getting involved in a world that appeals to me. That tends to be the kind of film that I like to watch as an audience member, also.

“Gemini” will be the most commercially visible and viable film you’ve made. Is the prospect of that exciting in terms of opening up further opportunities? Does it present any pressures or anxieties about being forced into stricter boxes with regard to genre, story, or characters?

My hope is that because I have now made five films where no one told us what to do, and people have responded positively to that, I’ll be able to continue making stuff the way I want to make it, but with more resources. There are a lot of stories that I can’t tell with limited budgets—period stories, for example, would be really, really hard.

There seem to be a lot of cases recently where filmmakers move from relatively modest beginnings to major big-budget projects, without a lot of action in between.

I think “Creed” was a great example of that working. Ryan Coogler was able to bring a lot of his point of view to that movie without making a lot of compromises. I think it works as a great commercial movie and just a great movie.

The performance of Lola Kirke as Jill was so wonderfully unforced, and it made me realize that the two leads in this movie set amid the world of celebrity and the entertainment industry are both daughters of rock musicians. [Zoe Kravitz is the daughter of Lenny Kravitz, and Kirke’s father Simon Kirke was the drummer for the band Bad Company.] Do you think those backgrounds helped them feel at ease in the world of the story?

It definitely was coincidental, but I think that in both cases they have an understanding of what this world is like but enough perspective to engage with it in a way that’s not centered around anxiety about how it’s going to be presented. Lola got involved early in the process. We reached out to her with a pretty early draft of the script, which was intentional because I really wanted her to have a lot of authorship of who this character is. After every rehearsal I would go in and change lines.

[Caution: crypto-spoilers ahead]

I don’t want to talk about the movie’s central inciting event, but I do want to address how frustrating it is as a critic or as a moviegoer to worry about quote-unquote ruining a film by describing accurately something that happens fairly early on in its plot. It’s either that or become complicit somehow in the filmmaker’s deception towards the audience, which feels inappropriate.

It’s challenging for us, too, to figure out the right way to talk about the movie. It’s important for people to know that it’s a genre movie, of sorts, but you’d read the first 35 minutes of the movie very differently if you knew literally nothing about it versus if you knew that something is going to happen. In some very early test screenings, we tried telling people nothing at all, and it turned out it was good for people to have a little bit of information. The movie is informed by what I call the “VHS era” of thrillers, from the early 80s to the late 90s, and it’s being playful with the rules of those kinds of movies.

[Crypto-spoiler zone ends]

I’ve spoken with Andrew Bujalski a couple of times, and he’s expressed repeatedly how annoyed he is by the use of the term “mumblecore” to lump together the early work of him, yourself, and a few other filmmakers [including Jay and Mark Duplass, Joe Swanberg, and Lynn Shelton, whose latest film, “Outside In,” is currently playing at Cinema 21.] I can feel my own shoulders tense up a bit when I hear the word these days. If you could replace “mumblecore” with a different word, what would it be?

I don’t know! I’ve obviously thought about this a lot more than most people have. Any sort of narrow categorization is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I think it kind of helped a lot of us, because we were making very, very small movies, so by giving critics a way to talk about them, our movies were more seen that they otherwise would have been. It’s a way for programmers to program the movies together, which happened a lot in the mid-oughts. On the other hand, it’s just a terrible word. The other proposed term was “slackavettes,” which is maybe even worse.

It’s inevitably reductive, but some extent any label is.

I use the term “shoegaze” without a second thought, but if I was in Joy Division, I’d think it was the stupidest sounding thing.

Fortunately, the term has kind of faded away as you and the other filmmakers identified with it have gone on to do fairly diverse work.

We all did start out from kind of a similar place: making movies with our friends, shooting in their apartments, telling truthful stories about people because we didn’t have the resources to make bigger movies. And now we’ve all gone into different stuff. I mean, the Duplasses are, like, comedy moguls.

The earlier films were a function as much of economics as aesthetics, and now the economics allow for a broader range of expression.

For sure.

I read something in another interview you did that I need to address. You were asked what you like to eat when you’re watching a movie and you said “Nothing.” As someone who sees a lot of films and can’t stand the sound or smell of popcorn, I was pleased to have found an ally. Why are we right?

I just find it incredibly distracting. Maybe there’s popcorn in my teeth, maybe my hands are greasy, maybe I realize I’ve got butter on my pants now. Candy has its own problems. I will occasionally enjoy a soda. For rep screenings, for some reason, I like to have a soda. But my preference is to eat nothing. Even at home, sometimes I’ll eat something if we’re watching something very low stakes. It’s funny that popcorn has become such a visual motif for the movies. I feel like there are even some rating systems that use, like, how many buckets of popcorn does it get.

And it’s simply the loudest possible food one can eat.

I would contend that hard candy getting unwrapped is one of the loudest things. And people always save it for the quietest part of the movie.

(“Gemini” is currently playing at Cinema 21. Go ahead and get some popcorn if you must.)

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