I first met Aaron Katz at the South by Southwest film festival in 2006 when he was there with his cool little flick, “Dance Party, U.S.A.” While I admittedly didn’t see the film at the festival, I found myself running into Katz all over Austin as he and I discovered we had the same circuit of film festival friends. I finally got a copy of “Dance Party, U.S.A.” and loved it’s simple story mixed with crisp close-ups of young people forging relationships. Or, at least trying to forge relationships. I couldn’t wait to see what he would cook up next.
The answer to my question came in the form of a screener DVD about a week and a half before SXSW, 2007. I’m like every other writer here at Film Threat in that I have a stack of DVD’s I need to watch, but I had to put Katz’s “Quiet City” up to number one with a bullet. Blame guys like him and their great films if you’re still waiting for a review. As I watched “Quiet City” unfold I started getting a feeling in my stomach that I was watching something really special. By the time the film ended I found myself with the same sort of cinematic crush one gets after watching a movie like “Say Anything” or “Before Sunrise.”
Since that happy day Katz and I have seen each other at film festivals as “Quiet City” made the rounds. Now all those days and nights spent at fests has paid off as “Quiet City” is getting some much deserved buzz. On the eve of the films opening at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, I took the opportunity to pick Aaron Katz’s brain about his films, his actors, his crew and just how he got Brooklyn, NY to become a quiet city.
You’re a guy from the Pacific Northwest and your first film, “Dance Party U.S.A.” was set in Portland. How did you end up crossing the U.S. to land in New York?
I went to school at North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC. After school I went back to Portland to make “Dance Party” and after that I moved to New York. I moved here because after film school it seemed like I should move to either New York or LA and I liked LA less. In retrospect I’m not sure that it’s true that you “should” move to one of those two cities, but as it turns out I like living in New York a lot.
The setting for “Quiet City,” which is basically an eerily quiet New York City in the span of a day or two, is key to the film. Which came first, the idea for “Quiet City” or your relocation to New York?
My relocation to New York. I had been living in Brooklyn for two years by the time I wrote the script. I think I wrote it in part because I started to love living here. When I first moved I found the city overwhelming. I still do, in some ways, but over time I’ve come to appreciate things that I didn’t notice at first. For me that eerie silent quality is something that’s present all over the place in Brooklyn, especially when you’re walking around late at night.
Erin Fisher and Cris Lankenau are awesome in the film. Can you talk about the casting of these two unknowns? Did you do a standard casting session or were these friends or acquaintances of yours?
Erin was someone that I had in mind as I was writing. Her character had a small part in a script I abandoned right before writing “Quiet City.” I was sitting in the Cincinnati airport on a layover thinking about this other script and how frustrated I was with it when it occurred to me that the most interesting thing about it was the character of Jamie. I bought a blank notebook and started writing something totally different with Jamie as the main character. Cris was a friend of a friend who came into our casting session about a month before production. The casting session only had five people in it, all friends or at least acquaintances. We mostly hung out and talked so we could get an idea what it might be like to work with each other.
How long was the shoot for “Quiet City” and how difficult was it to kind of… cull out these silent moments in such a bustling city?
The shoot was eights days long, right at the end of October 2006. Most of us stayed on couches and on the floor of our producer’s apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Finding the quiet parts of the city was sometimes easy. For example there’s parts of Prospect Park that are almost always empty. There’s some places where you can’t even see any buildings on the edge of the park. At other times we had to wait out a place being busy or shoot very late at night. The shot of the empty subway car at the end of the movie was hard. We shot that near the end of the line on the G train around 4am. The G train is fairly deserted at that time of night, but we had to wait a while to find a car with absolutely nobody on it.
“Quiet City” has some really terrific shots of rather mundane things (traffic lights, neon lights, etc) and Andy Reed did an amazing job shooting the film. What were some ideas or films you and Andy looked at while gearing up to shoot the film? What inspired you visually in films you’d seen in the past.
Before production started, Reed and I set up some general parameters for how we wanted to shoot things. We agreed on shooting with mostly long lenses and keeping the color temperature warm. For the shots of the city we decided that we wanted them to be static and to keep people and moving cars out of the frame. We wanted to create the sense that the characters were secluded from the kinds of things you usually see in a film set in New York.
What influence did Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City” have on your film of the same name?
I didn’t know that it existed until after the script had a name. I told my dad what I was up to and he told be about the Aaron Copeland piece. He had it on CD and sent me a burned copy. The title actually came from Brendan. He called me up one morning before we had a name for the script and told me he had just had a dream where he was watching a black and white version of the movie and it was called “Quiet City.” We thought it was a good name so we started calling it that.
Many of these new DIY-by-way-of-Cassavetes type films rely on a type of filmmaking where what you see on the screen isn’t “really” what’s going on in the hearts, minds and actions of the characters you see. While preparing and shooting for the film, what kinds of discussions did you have with your cast in terms of motivations versus outward gestures. (If that makes sense) And again, what were some cinematic influences for the kind of… secret motivations of the characters in the film. Or, were they secret? What guy wouldn’t want to hook up with Jamie and what girl wouldn’t be charmed by Charlie?
We tried to combine elements from the script with elements from Cris and Erin’s real lives. It was more about making the actors clear on the circumstances than it was asking them to go after specific things. Not to say that they weren’t going after specific things, it’s just that it was a result of circumstances rather than goals unto themselves. Erin and Cris also have such a great natural chemistry that often I would just let them go and respond to each other. They were really inventive without being too clever or calculating.
The editing of all the silent, visual scenes mixed with these great scenes of true “moments” mixed with awkwardness all play out like a mini-symphony. Can you talk about the editing process you used? I mean, was there a conscious decision in the shooting to be sure to capture these cool visuals and funny little moments in order to have your vision represented onscreen or did you just shoot with a certain thing in mind and go through later and mix them together in the edit?
I had some idea of how it would cut together. Originally we shot some different stuff that didn’t quite work. Later, in January of 2007, Erin came back up to New York and we shot for one more day. One thing we picked up was scene at the corner store with all the fruit. Keegan’s music also played a big part in setting the pace and tone of that last sequence.
“Quiet City” has been completed for close to a year…what’s next for you?
I have a whole bunch of ideas that I’m excited about. Once things calm down from “Quiet City” we’ll see which one picks up steam. Right now the one that I’ve got the most work done on is about a black jazz drummer who’s friends with a white country musician in the 1970s Midwest. I finished a first draft of it a few weeks ago. I’m looking forward to getting back to it soon. Other projects that I’m interested in include one that’s a western, one about a guy lost in the wilderness, one about a failed minor league pitcher, and a comedy about a super modern airport.
How can people see “Quiet City?”
People can see it at IFC Center in New York through September 4th. After that it will be opening in Seattle at Northwest Film Forum, in Portland at Hollywood Theater, in Minneapolis at Oak Street Cinema, and in a few other cities later this fall. In January it will be available on DVD from Benten FIlms as part of a double disc set with “Dance Party, USA,” my first film.