“There’s no palm trees in Portland.” It was this simple observation that changed the course of Aaron Katz’s third feature from being a family drama into a thriller and may well change the course of his career. Not that any change is necessary on Katz’s part, but “Cold Weather” represents the film that could push the conversation about the writer/director beyond the cineastes who bring up his name to impress in conversation like a well-kept secret, knowing full well that loaning the DVD double feature of his first two films “Dance Party USA” and “Quiet City” is akin to turning a friend onto some really good drugs. Whereas the director’s last films indeed felt like trips – beautifully composed and immaculately realized dramas that captured the exuberance of youth – his latest, which sees Doug and Gail, a brother and sister (Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn) try to solve the mystery of his missing girlfriend, takes the form of a tantalizing brain teaser.
Which is where the palm trees come in. When Katz was talking to a friend who moved into the one building in Portland with a palm tree out front, “I thought that would be a good clue,” the director says now. “I thought I should keep that in mind for something if I ever write a mystery in Portland.” Sure enough, the Rasmussen Village apartment building shows up in “Cold Weather” as part of a stakeout, just one of the many conventions Katz turns on its head. As it turns out, a detective story was a natural fit for the filmmaker, considering that his films to date have taken great pride in the accumulation of small details. Here, Katz talks about all the minutiae that went into filming “Cold Weather,” from his work with the RED digital camera that illuminate the cloudy Portland skies to the film’s vibrant and unorthodox score.
How did you get interested in doing this film?
I started writing a script that was supposed to be about a brother and sister because there’s not really a lot of films about that relationship and I thought it was a really interesting relationship. I got about 30-40 pages in and I happened to be reading a lot of detective fiction around that time and I was up late at night writing and just started putting some mystery elements in it. I wrote about 10 pages introducing the beginnings of the mystery and figured I’d wake up the next day and say, well, that was fun, but let’s get back to the script I was writing. But actually I reread it and felt really excited and wrote the rest of the script really quickly. And I was actually reading the book that the main character Doug is reading in the movie, “Raffles” by E.W. Hornung.
When you do this kind of film, how much of the mystery do you need to solve for yourself before realizing this could make a movie?
The first draft I came up with was pretty much a mess. I think it had all the right elements in it, but I had written it not knowing what was coming next, so Brendan [McFadden] and Ben [Stambler], two of our producers, and I sat down and spent about a month probably reworking stuff in the script, especially the mystery – on notecards. We made one for the entirety of the script, including the non-mystery portion of the movie, and it changed a lot. We had a lot of different ideas about how far to take the mystery, the stakes. That was one of the toughest things because we wanted the stakes to be high enough that it felt serious – it wasn’t like a spoof or something really silly – but also keep the stakes low enough so it doesn’t take it into traditional thriller territory where it’s some big conspiracy.
We had the idea that maybe there was this whole conspiracy about the lumber industry and it wasn’t money in the case, but some kind of documents or something like that, but that really felt wrong, so we dialed it back from there and came up with the thing that’s in the movie. One thing that we came up with as we were going through various permutations of the mystery is that we kept coming back to the most important thing was the relationship between Doug and Gail, that’s the note we wanted to end the movie on. So for us, it was about finding a way to resolve enough of the mystery to our taste, at least, and then bring it back to being about Doug and Gail.
One of the most striking things to me was just how great the RED Camera made this film look. Did it allow you to play with different colors and textures than you had before?
It opened things up for us a lot. And I think that the process, working with myself and Andrew Reed, our director of photography and also our colorist Alex Bickel, who was involved even before we shot the movie and we talked a lot about how to get those colors out of the RED camera. I think what you said – textures – actually is a good way to describe it. We talked a lot about textures. For example, we wanted to get the textures of the clouds in the sky in Portland and one of the great things about RED is you have a lot of flexibility in the look of the film and post-production, but you don’t have that if you’re not real careful to make sure everything is in the exposure. In many movies, parts of the sky are a little blown out and it doesn’t read as odd or anything, it’s just that’s normal, but we really wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case in this film – that you could really see all the texture of the clouds and in the color process, we really spent a lot of time bringing that out and bringing out the texture of, say, the asphalt when they’re driving, bringing out the texture of dirt or the texture of a stucco building.
I had gotten some warnings going in from the very first generation of people to shoot on the RED saying that things can look plastic-y or things can look almost fake [or] eerily sharp beyond how life looks. I actually didn’t find any of that. I found that we had so much control over the look of the film with the RED because unlike cameras we used on the previous two films, you can shoot with any 35mm lenses, so we were able to have so much control over the look in a way that we had never had before, so it was really great.
This is probably going to sound like a naïve question since Portland is your hometown, but you show a side of Portland that might be surprising to even some who live there. Was it hard keeping a sense of mystery even when you knew the locations so well yourself?
I tried to pick out places that to me evoked what I think of when I think of mysteries. For example, I’m a big Raymond Chandler fan and there’s a quote on the back of fairly recent editions of his book — I forget who the quote’s from — but the gist of the quote is that Raymond Chandler gave L.A. a sense of romance it didn’t have before and I think that’s really true. I think part of that is that he doesn’t use Los Angeles as just a convenient place to set it just because that’s where he is or whatever. It’s really specifically set in Los Angeles and so I really wanted to take that idea and apply it to Portland, to really specifically set it there. Portland has an interesting combination of having a similar look to L.A. in terms of architecture because it was built up around the same time, a lot of the buildings that were built in the teens through the ’40s, so there’s a lot of stucco and a lot of old brick buildings and I really wanted to use those.