They don’t make movies like Gemini anymore. Writer/director, Aaron Katz, believes Hollywood never really did. “It has to feel completely contemporary to stand out,” he tells me. Indeed Gemini is an unusual blend of old and new. It’s a neo-noir heavily influenced by the LA detective films of the 70s (The Long Goodbye, Night Moves) while still being rooted in the present-day (Instagram is involved here). Rolling Stone called it “LA Confidential for Millennials.”
They’re not far off. Katz cast Lola Kirke as the diligent personal assistant to Zoe Kravitz’s Hollywood starlet. When an ordinary day turns gruesome, Kirke is left to figure out what happened to her boss. Gemini isn’t exactly a whodunit. It’s more fascinated by fame and friendship than anything else—the limits of people, and what they’re willing (and not willing) to endure.
When we spoke with Katz by phone, he recalled the hardest day on set, how his job is to (mostly) be on damage control, and what he thinks every aspiring filmmaker should understand if they want to make movies for a living.
Sam Fragoso: There don’t seem to be many neo-noirs being made these days.
Aaron Katz: I think the similarities between the films that might be considered neo-noir is that they have something new to say. Like Nightcrawler in many ways feels of a piece with thrillers from the 80s as well as apiece with some of the classic noirs from the 40s, and especially some set in Los Angeles, but it’s completely contemporary. It couldn’t have existed any time previous to the year it came out. So I think that movies that are inspired by a previous era but have something to say about our era are maybe the ones that can connect more.
SF: Do you think Gemini is saying something about our era?
AK: I think so. At this point, it was almost two years ago when we shot it, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about it and I’ve seen it in a lot of different contexts. I don’t think there is anything overtly political about the movie but I do think there’s a reading of it that has to do with gun violence, there’s a reading of it that has to do with who gets to tell the truth, who has that platform. Beyond that, it’s exploring a relationship that I think is really rooted in right now. I feel like I’m never going to have an overt agenda as a filmmaker, like “I’m making this film to say this,” except for that I want to truthfully explore human relationships and to have the time to do that.
SF: Was there a day or a moment on set where you thought, “Oh, I think we have something here.”
AK: I’ll start this story by saying the first day was one of our toughest days, perhaps as always on movies. You’re still feeling each other out and I don’t mean just the actors but the crew. We ended up falling far behind that day and it felt like, “Ugh, do we have something here?” And it was a lot of action we were shooting that first day, and we lost a few shots, which we ended up picking up later. But then on the second half of the day, we got into a scene with John [Cho]. It’s a small scene, it’s the one where John stops Lola as she’s coming out of her apartment and says, “Going somewhere?” It’s a scene that only has maybe six or seven lines in it on the street, but as soon as we started shooting that scene I was like, “Okay, we have something here.” I could feel the energy of John and Lola.
SF: Do you think it would have been easier or harder for you to start a career if you were starting it now, in 2018 rather than 2004?
AK: I actually have thought about this and talked about this with some other filmmakers who are kind of on a similar timeline. At the time I started there were new kinds of technology that made it possible for people to make movies for $2000. Now there are even more opportunities, quality editing software, you can shoot a movie on an iPhone. Steven Soderbergh could do it and so can you. But I do think there’s just so much competition right now for attention. In some ways, you make movies you believe in but you also have to make them for someone to see. I always think about how in film school I thought I learned the path to independent filmmaking but that’s based on like ten-year-old information. I thought it was, you know, max out your credit card to $50,000 and have your parents’ dentist friends all contribute a few thousand dollars. That’s how it sounded to me like you make an indie film but that just wasn’t practical for me so we found a different way. I think probably younger filmmakers than me who are 22 and 23 now are finding their own ways that look incredibly different from my way.
SF: What do you wish a younger version of yourself knew about making movies that you know now?
AK: I wish I knew how many frustrations were coming and that it was okay because there were so many times when I didn’t feel like a filmmaker. I remember we premiered Dance Party USA (my first film) at SXSW. We didn’t have a distributor and we got a run in New York at a theater that doesn’t exist anymore. I remember on the first day, six people came to see it and I just felt like such a failure, like this was a death sentence that no one cared. I really, really felt it, and so many times going forward I felt like, “Oh my god, I’ve been trying to make this movie for two years. I’m never going to make another movie again.” Sometimes I wish I could go back to not feel this depth of despair that I felt at various times.
SF: What kept you moving forward?
AK: Just that there’s nothing else that I want to do. My composer Keegan and I went to the same high school and we had the same theater teacher who also taught filmmaking and a film writing class, and in the writing class his whole thing was like we would write something and he’d be like great, perfect, start something new. At first, it was so off-putting that he didn’t seem impressed with what we had written, but I really think it instilled in both of us this sense that you just keep working. The main challenge is to just keep working, keep writing. It’s like, you write ten garbage pages in a day that’ll turn into nothing, but you’re never going to get to the ten good pages unless you write [those first pages]. I cannot begin to tell you how many scripts I’ve written. I have literally no idea how many scripts I’ve written that became nothing, both when I was in college and early in my filmmaking career before they really had an opportunity to get made, and then later on. I think the important thing is to say, you know what? Maybe this one doesn’t work, but on to the next one.