Aaron Katz Talks {Cold Weather

Director Aaron Katz takes us behind-the-scenes of this upcoming Portland-based mystery featuring Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn

After dropping out of college in Chicago, Doug (Cris Lankenau) returns home to rainy Portland, Oregon to live with his more stable and responsible sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Unsure of what to do next, Doug spends his days sleeping until noon and rereading old detective novels, while Gail goes about the daily routines of her quiet life. Eventually Doug manages to find a job working the night shift at an ice factory. There he meets Carlos (Raúl Castillo), a longtime employee who moonlights as a DJ. Carlos is initially skeptical of Doug. He's seen all kinds of people pass through the job. But the two become friends after Doug lends him a copy of his favorite book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Doug has not quite settled into his new life when Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), his former girlfriend from Chicago, arrives in town. Doug is wary of her, but he introduces her to Carlos and Gail. Later, when Rachel fails to turn up one night, Carlos is convinced something has happened to her. At first Doug and Gail think that he has read too much Sherlock Holmes, but soon they too start to suspect foul play. With Doug in the lead, relying largely on expertise gained from years of reading detective novels, they set out to investigate. What they discover is a complex trail of clues, leading them closer and closer to the mysterious truth about Rachel.

Cold Weather is simultaneously a story of a brother and sister getting to know each other after years apart and a mystery in the great tradition of crime and detective fiction. We recently caught up with the film's writer/director Aaron Katz to find out more about this upcoming film, which is being released in select theaters this Friday:

Everything is coming up Portland lately. Does it surprise you to see the media, and filmmakers in general, taking such an interest in the Northwest at this time?

Aaron Katz: I'm not really sure. For me? I'm from Portland. I love Portland, and making a movie in Portland was something I really wanted to do because of that. There are a lot of younger folks moving to Portland. There is a lot going on there. I was born in Portland, and the population has come up so much. I think there is a lot happening in Portland at the moment. That may be way people are drawn to it.

One of the things about Portland that will never change is the weather. And you capture that cold dreariness beautifully in this film...

Aaron Katz: That was something that was really important. Even in the first draft of the script, there is a lot of weather written in. When I think about Portland, that is where I go. Portland has summer just like anywhere else. It gets hot and there's not too much rain. But the rest of the year it is like it is in the movie. We talked a lot about how to capture that. The director of photography and I talked about how to capture the clouds. And how to make sure the sky was in a lot of shots. We had to make sure that everything was in exposure, so that in our color correction and exposure, we could heighten the way the clouds looked, and see all of the texture.

One of the coolest scenes featuring that aspect of the weather is where the seagull lands on the post, and Trieste feeds it a bit of her sandwich. Was that purely a happy accident? I know in that region of the coast, it's not too hard to attract those gulls...

Aaron Katz: It was not intentional. That was a scene where they were just sitting, eating sandwiches. We did some close-up shots. Then we did a couple of takes with a wide shot. In one of those shots, that seagull came around. He seemed to know where the edge of the frame was, and when it would be good for him to come back in frame. It was not a trained seagull. Nor did we expect that seagull. But that comes from our approach to shooting. I like to utilize extremely long takes. I don't normally break the scene down into parts. We shoot a scene from different angles for the whole thing. Because of that, we get a lot of accidents and things that we weren't expecting that make it into the film.

I don't want to give anything about the mystery in the film away, but the end of this movie is quite unexpected. Its almost like you are pulling a reverse of the twist ending. It's almost an anti-twist...

Aaron Katz: Ultimately, the relationship between the brother and the sister is the most important element in this movie. The two other elements that are of equal importance are the mystery and the setting of Portland. But in the end, it's about their relationship. That is the most important. In the scriptwriting process, we saw more of the mechanics about giving the brief case back. Making sure that Rachel was safe. Showing what was in the briefcase. None of that felt right. It felt right ending it with the evolution of their relationship.

Heading into this film, I had never seen any of these actors before. You really come out of this feeling that Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn are brother and sister. How did you go about finding these guys, and establishing this wonderful chemistry that they share between them?

Aaron Katz: I wrote this script with both of them in mind, actually. Cris Lankenau had been in my previous film Quiet City. And Trieste Kelly Dunn had gone to the North Carolina School of the Arts. Which is where I went to school, and it's where a lot of the crew went to school as well. I liked both of them very much. Something occurred to me. I don't know what prompted me to think about it. I just thought they'd make a great brother and sister. They felt, when imagining them together, like they were brother and sister. They had never met. Six months before I had them do the movie, I had them get together. I wanted them to get to know each other a little in advance. The relationship that they formed during pre-production was very brother and sister like, even when the camera wasn't rolling. I remember that we would go to this Lebanese restaurant after shooting for a day. It was close to the house we were all staying at. I remember watching them sit together, and their dynamic was a lot like it was on set. Actually, a couple of times, we would roll the camera when they didn't realize it. Maybe we were testing something, and they still had their mics on. We got a few funny bits of dialogue that way. When they didn't realize they were being recorded. It was brother and sister stuff. They were always giving each other a hard time.

Watching them in the movie, you get this true sense that these characters were best friends when they were growing up, and now they have grown a part a little bit. Did you put a lot of thought into what their life was like when they were kids? Or is that feelings something that rose out of the material organically?

Aaron Katz: We did put a lot of thought into that. The actors and myself did consider what they were like as kids. I think you are right. They probably were really close as kids. They are close in age. If one is ten and one is eight, there's a lot of closeness that is possible. But when you get to middle school, kids want to go off on their own, and they don't want to be siblings. I imagined them growing apart during high school. And then not having much to do with each other at all during their early twenties. I thought it was great getting to watch these two people get to know each other as adults. These are people who knew each, and know they are discovering who they have become.

There are a few different perception's about Cris' girlfriend in the movie. Rachael. To me, I thought she resembled his sister a little bit. Was that intentional at all? Or do you not see that?

Aaron Katz: It's not intentional. The producers and I thought that Robyn Rikoon and Trieste Kelly Dunn looked quite different from each other. They both have dark hair. And it has come up at Q&As. People ask, "What is going on there?" Especially at European film festivals. It sounds like a joke or a cliché, but at European film festivals, there is a seventy-five percent chance that someone will ask this at a Q&A. They always say, "So, does he have the hots for his sister? What's the deal? Why do they look so similar?"

But that wasn't intentional at all?

Aaron Katz: That was just something that came through in the film after we were done shooting it. We cast Robyn Rikoon because we liked her as an artist. She also came out of the North Carolina School of the Arts. It was not something we thought of in advance. It is strange how things become questions that are asked quite often that we never thought about. Like the end. We anticipated people asking questions about it. But we thought it felt so right for the film. It's to our tastes. But people always have questions about the end. More questions than we thought they would.

Its kind of jarring. I wasn't expecting it. But that end does bring the whole scope of the story back on this relationship between the brother and sister. It does make sense when you think about it for a moment.

Aaron Katz: Exactly. As an audience member, I really like it when a movie ends right before you expect it too. I really don't like it when a movie keeps going. You think, this would be a really great place for the movie to end. And it goes on for ten more minutes.

Like Lord of the Rings...

Aaron Katz: That definitely keeps going and going. I think its pretty common, where there will be a moment where I will think, "God, this is a great moment to cut out." Especially in mystery films or horror films. Just genre films in general. You have to go through the steps of seeing everything get put back in its proper place, or they wrap it all up with a press conference, or something like that. I would usually prefer that they cut things off earlier. That they let you think about it a little more. I like it when they let you decide how the movie carries on. It's not all wrapped up neatly.

One of the most brilliant aspects of the movie is when Cris goes looking for clues in the Exotic nudie magazine. He's looking past the naked chicks in the pictures to study the background, and see if he can spot any clues. Did that idea come from flipping through truck stop nudie magazines and realizing that the backgrounds in a lot of these mags are pretty shady?

Aaron Katz: Actually, the idea came from the Palm tree. My friend lives in that building, the Rasmussen, in Portland. She moved in there three years ago. She told me she had moved in, and I said, "Oh, yeah, that is the one right across the street from the palm tree." As I said that, I thought, "That would be a good clue if I ever wrote a mystery that took place in Portland." I had the clue in mind. I was thinking about how best to place that clue. I thought it was interesting to have the focus on this girl, in a nudie magazine. But then there is all this stuff in the background. You can make some deductions about where it is if you look at that picture closely.

It was weird for me to watch Portlandia last week, and then see the same library used in a major scene in your film. Have you seen Portlandia yet?

Aaron Katz: I have seen a couple of clips from it, but I haven't seen a full show. That's the Portland State University Library. They also shot at the Portland State university Library?

They have one skit where they are playing hide and seek in there, and the joke is that an old dude has been hiding in the closet forever. As I was watching your move, I thought, "I just saw this library on TV the other day. It was a little odd. My parents live in Oregon, near Portland. So I thought it was fun seeing a place I was familiar with.

Aaron Katz: It is odd. Especially since Portland is very underrepresented. Except for Gus Van Sant, there aren't a lot of films shot with the specific idea that they take place in Portland. There are a handful of films that are shot there, and they try to make it as anonymous as possible. Portland is very underrepresented. Seeing it on TV is a little surreal. I remember in the 90s, there was a show called Nowhere Man. I don't remember who the star of that show was. But that was shot in Portland. Especially at that time, there was nothing shot there. So it was very interesting to see that. Where do your parents live?

They live in Philomath, right outside of Corvallis.

Aaron Katz: Yeah. I know where that is.

I remember there was a Tommy Lee Jones movie shot there around that same time, too. He is chasing Benicio Del Toro through the mountains with a big knife. Mary's Club is featured in that movie. I always thought that was a little surreal, seeing that.

Aaron Katz: Yeah, I remember that. Is that called The Hunted? I haven't seen that, but I remember that they shot scenes on the Max Rail in Portland. It's interesting to see that stuff just in the trailers.

I want to ask you about this scene in the ice factory. You have Cris and Raul doing a long, running dialogue as they pick up at least twenty crates of ice. Were your actors game for that?

Aaron Katz: They were defiantly up for it. I think they were glad to be doing the real work. I think it's always great when actors can be doing something real. It means they don't have to be pretending. They really were moving ice from one side of the room to the other. That is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Its one we shot four or five takes of. There were variations in each take, and I liked all of them. Its definitely one of my favorite scenes.

Raul is my favorite character in the film. When we first meet him, he is waiting for the bus. We get a sense of whom he is, but then every time we are reintroduced to him, we learn something new that we wouldn't expect. First he is a DJ. Then he is a Trekkie...

Aaron Katz: I didn't know Raúl Castillo at all when I was writing the movie. That character is actually based on someone named Raphael. Back when I worked in New York, I worked in a theater called the Pioneer Theater. It was right next to Two Boots Pizza shop. During breaks, I would actually go hang out at the pizza shop, and there was this guy named Raphael who worked in there, and that is who I based the character on. I forgot what Raphael was like the moment I met Raúl Castillo. Raúl was suggested to us by two producers who found an investor for the film. They had worked with Raúl on a film called Don't Let Me Drown. They thought we should meet this guy. We never auditioned him. We just met up with him for lunch one day, and we automatically knew that this guy was great. We definitely wanted to cast him. I think Raúl Castillo is amazing. He works mostly as a writer and a theater actor here in New York.