If the striking opening shot of “Gemini” takes you aback, the image of an upside down palm tree that perfectly sets the tone for an L.A. noir that turns the genre on its ear, it came as a surprise to writer/director Aaron Katz as well, even though the tree is right around the corner from where he lives.
“It was actually walking back from scouting another location, the Italian restaurant at the beginning, [which] is also close to my house and my DP [Andrew Reed] and I were walking back and we thought we should maybe shoot on this street and we started looking at it and then we got the idea to do this upside down thing,” recalls Katz. “As soon as we thought of that, we were thinking, ‘Okay, how do we do we actually do this? Is it going to be like it is in our imagination?’ Once we did it, it’s pretty much exactly like it was in my head.”
Of course for many who flock to Hollywood, what’s in mind rarely manifests itself physically once they arrive to town and in “Gemini,” Katz splits the difference between what one hopes La La Land to be and its grimy underbelly so vividly that he renders truth about the city that reality itself isn’t so immediately forthcoming with. There’s a gauzy quality to way he and Reed envision Los Angeles as if dreams have fogged up the lens, often cut through with the bold colors that light up the city at night that can be as intoxicating in their sharpness as much as they should be read as signs of caution. The distance between what’s real and what’s not in in Katz’s latest can also be felt, if not touched, in the relationship between a movie star named Heather (Zoe Kravitz) and her assistant Jill (Lola Kirke), which confuses the issue further by making the latter the star of “Gemini.” Inspired by interactions that he witnessed while considering a pop star to cast in a potential sci-fi project, the writer/director mulls the proximity to fame and the blurred personal/professional lines that Jill experiences in her work maintaining the illusion of her boss’ lavish lifestyle, scanning social media for threats to the actress’ carefully curated image and covering for her professional tardiness after late nights of karaoke in Koreatown, until something happens that simply can’t be excused.
Katz, whose brilliant third feature “Cold Weather” imagined an avid reader of detective fiction stumbling into an actual case to solve in the Pacific Northwest, once again finds someone unprepared to pursue a criminal investigation to be plunged into one headfirst, ending up with a cop (John Cho) tracking her moves while she attempts to get to the bottom of things before he does, if for no other reason than damage control. Naturally, this being Tinseltown, there’s no shortage of persons of interest, and a wicked ensemble that includes Michelle Forbes, James Ransone, Greta Lee and Ricki Lake(!) make things especially interesting for Kirke’s Jill, as does the fact that the case takes her to every nook and cranny of Los Angeles in search of clues. Although satisfaction proves constantly elusive to her, “Gemini” is supremely edifying in getting past artifice in all its forms in such an image-conscious community to speak to something real, as the question of whether Jill’s relationship to Heather is as intimate as it seems becomes as riveting as any of the other entertaining twists and turns Katz has up his sleeves.
Following its premiere at SXSW last year, “Gemini” is arriving in theaters around the country starting this week and Katz was kind enough to talk about the inspiration of his (latest) adopted hometown and the films of Curtis Hanson on the film, as well as the desire to push past them to make something original and finding the right architecture, both physically and narratively, to construct such an engaging thriller.
How did this come about?
It really came about by bringing a few different threads together in the summer of 2015, one of which was that I had been living in L.A. at that point for two-and-a-half years and was really beginning to love the city and another was that I was watching a lot of thrillers from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I really liked the idea of finding my own way into a story like that. And the last piece was seeing Lola Kirke in “Mistress America.” I just I loved her in that film and I had already been thinking of this relationship between a movie star and a person assisting her, but once I saw her, I started to get my imagination sparked by what that would be like if Lola were to play the part, so I wrote it for her, but I didn’t know if she would do the movie or not.
Was she everything you thought she’d be once you actually met her?
She was every bit as great an actor as I thought she would be, but she surprised me in many ways. Of course, I hadn’t met her, so there was so much that we learned about each other and about how we like to work. We happen to live pretty close to each other in the eastern part of Los Angeles, so we had an opportunity to not only rehearse, but just talk through the script and watch some thrillers together. So much of the character comes from Lola – things that I wouldn’t necessarily expect or things that I wouldn’t think of, and really if I can be an enabler or a facilitator for the actor’s imaginations, I feel like I’ve done my job well.
I seem to remember hearing that you also had quite a bit of time with Lola and Zoe before shooting. Did that help foster that relationship onscreen?
It’s such a luxury, which is not always possible. Zoe was here shooting “Big Little Lies” and we just got an opportunity to rehearse over kind of a long period of time. Sometimes Zoe would get busy and we wouldn’t see her for a couple of weeks, but then we’d all get together and talk things through. It was just such a great opportunity, especially on a film where you had to move quickly. Once you’re on set, things move fast and if you don’t have that relationship, it can be really hard to trust each other. There are so many scenes that are just Lola and Zoe, so having that kind of rapport was really essential.
Where did you find Heather’s mansion?
Our production designer found that. In the script, it’s written as a Spanish-style house, the kind you see all over Los Angeles from the ‘20s and ‘30s and we looked at many different kinds of houses and nothing felt quite right, quite special enough. I think thrillers have this great tradition of having really memorable, specific locations. I’m thinking of “Body Double,” which has the modernist house, or James Spader’s apartment in “Bad Influence,” which is just such a perfect example of an ‘80s corporate Los Angeles-looking apartment, so it was really important to us to have memorable buildings in this movie and to have the characters occupy these places that where you might say, “I wonder where that is. I want to see that place.”
Recently, I programmed a series at the Alamo Drafthouse San Francisco where we played “Dead Again” and “Jade” and I’m not a hundred percent sure about this, but I’m pretty sure “Dead Again” uses the apartment from “The Long Goodbye” and the house from “Double Indemnity.” So it’s just a fun thing to do. I’m sure that comes out of the same instinct to include these places that are part of a fabric of the city and when our production designer suggested that place, we went and looked at it and we all just loved it.
You’ve spoken about this idea of layers, which I’ve taken to reference how history is visible in the present day since you can see where the city has been rebuilt over itself, but hearing you talk about Curtis Hanson as an influence, who of course was greatly influenced by film noirs of the ’40s and ‘50s – do those layers appear as easily in front of the camera as turning it on or is it something you actively had to work to capture?
There’s definitely a lot of layers of influences, starting with the original wave of film noir, especially some that feature location work like “Double Indemnity” and “In a Lonely Place,” and also in the text literature at the time, Raymond Chandler, but then a little bit later, Ross Macdonald and then moving into revisionist noir of the ‘70s and [eventually] an era that speaks more to me is the Curtis Hanson movies. I really love “The Bedroom Window” and “Bad Influence,” which of course is really in touch with some of the films from the ‘40s and ‘50s, but I feel that era starts off and really gets strong with “American Gigolo” and “Body Heat” at the very beginning of the ‘80s and it just sets the tone for so many great thrillers up through the mid ‘90s.
One really fun scene in the film, especially for noir fans, is when you bring in Greg, the screenwriter who outlines all the characters’ potential motives for wanting someone dead. Is that a tricky scene to write when it could become tedious exposition if not done exactly right?
A lot of scenes got revised along the way and Nelson Franklin, who plays that part is an improvisationist, but it’s really close to the first draft of the script. For me, it was important to acknowledge this is a movie about the movie business and they’re like talking about how it would happen if it were a movie. Of course, it is a movie and that’s something that’s a lot of fun for me and something that is done in some great detective novels. There’s an author I really like – John Dickson Carr, who has a book, “The Three Coffins” [where] this amateur detective Dr. Fell has this 10-page monologue about “Lost Room” mysteries and all the different ways that they can be solved. It acknowledges that this is what it would be if it was a book, but of course, this is real life, except we all know we’re characters in a book, so I really wanted to be playful.
Another amazing scene, particularly from a visual standpoint, is one where Jill drives up a hill and you’ve got a bird’s eye view from presumably another hill, so you see her coming down the hill as well, all in one shot. How did you achieve that?
We spent a long time looking for where to stage that and there’s a lot of hills and circuitous roads in L.A. so there are many considerations in terms of what streets you can shut down, what streets have the right atmosphere and what streets you’re going to be able to shoot it the way you want to shoot it. We finally looked at this place, which is in the hills of Glendale, and I thought I knew how I wanted to shoot this scene, but what I was looking at was a less memorable kind of shot. Then I looked at my side to talk to our director of photography Andrew Reed, and he’s not there. I see that he’s on the edge of this precipice, looking out at this spot where you can see the two sides of this road on the same curve. When I went over there, I knew that we had to shoot it like that. And I feel I’m always looking to my side and finding Andrew’s not where I expect, climbing up on top of something and he’s found something much more exciting to shoot. [laughs]
Another ongoing collaboration is with your composer Keegan DeWitt. What was it like cracking the score to this?
Looking back on it now, I think the key was Keegan and I realizing that we had elements there that weren’t there in our original version. We were were really looking at a lot of the thrillers I already mentioned and some John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder scores [as references], but we realized that our score was purely nostalgic in its first iteration. The aspect it was missing – and [the score] was living in the thriller world and it made sense in that way – but it was missing the characters that inhabit that world and we realized it was really important for the music to reflect the two main characters and be the music that the two main characters might want to listen to. [Suddenly] it felt like it was music that could only exist in the now, it could only exist in a contemporary setting and not just be looking back at some of those composers we really admire and riffing on that, so it was actually creating something that we feel is very original and we’re really proud of.
Almost after everyone of these movies that you’ve made, which have been set where you lived at the time, you’ve decamped for somewhere else. Is it safe to say you’ll be an Angeleno for a little while longer?
I am in L.A. to stay, yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately actually because I’ve made five movies and four of them take place in a city I’m living in or the city I’m from – Portland, Oregon, which is the only place I’ve shot twice – two movies in Portland, one in Brooklyn when I lived there, one in Los Angeles when I lived there and the only movie that I shot that’s not in a city that I lived is “Land Ho!” which is in Iceland where the main characters are tourists, so I’d just conclude that place is really important to me. Aside from being a filmmaker, I think it just informs our experiences as we go through life and where you are really matters. So I expect to have another Los Angeles movie at some point, but some of the things I’m working on are places that I haven’t spent much time, so we’ll see what happens.
“Gemini” opens on March 30th in Denver at the Alamo Drafthouse Sloans Lake, Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Century City 15, and New York at the Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn.