Friday, August 24, 2007

Aaron Katz: Quiet City, a Fuzzy Film

Aaron Katz: focused filmmaker, fuzzy photo.

Fuzzy. Fuzzy. I’ll stand by it, and let it hold you once more: fuzzy. That’s the word that came out of my mouth directly after my first viewing of the film Quiet City. I went with my friend David Kelly to take in a film at the Independent Film Festival of Boston last spring. We had one or two screening slots available, and as you may imagine, it was hard to decide from half a dozen or so films we knew next to nothing about. I pushed for films that seemed to be about relationships. It came down to three films. As terrible as it is, we decided to go for the poster that proved the most captivating. There was this out-of-focus shot of one person helping another over a wall of some kind. Being a photographer of the out-of-focus, and having taken to the too-short abstract the film was given, I held my vote steady for Quiet City. David liked the photo and wanted to know what the climbing the wall was all about. We took the Somerville Theater lobby to the stairwell and to the screening room we went.

We were both glad that we chose Quiet City, and gave each other excited and astonished looks about the film during the end credits. I told him it felt fuzzy, that it was a "fuzzy film", and he got what i meant. I laughed with a sympathetic knowing ("I've been there!") during many scenes. I loudly whispered "wow" more than a few times, on account of: the simple grace of a frame, the compelling connection softly emitted between co-wanderers Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau), or the way that time and events unravel in the film. Simple plot elements so that the interview will make more sense: girl comes to the city with potential plans, girl meets boy and lingers with him in lieu of plans not panning out, conversations are had, and the Brooklyn borough of loud NYC proves to be a good, quiet web for them to wander within. There's a party, but also many little things things to take note of, including: a hat, a bouncy ball, condiment sandwiches, drum beats, haircuts, and fleeting runs.

Flash forward to July. Right around the time I try to get a hold of director Aaron Katz and Cris Lankenau for potential interviews, I come to find that Quiet City is going to be gracing the Boston area again—that very same weekend, no less. This time, it played as part of Harvard Film Archive's "Under the Radar" festival of "New American Independent Cinema 2007." Emails and numbers are exchanged, and Aaron Katz is nothing short of interested in and accommodating about meeting with me under such short notice. We go to my local bar, Grendel's Den, where I have had many a fuzzy feeling and conversation about relationships, twentysomething-hood, and city life. We talk about mustard (a little bit), moments (quite a bit), and movies (mostly). I'll let the conversation unfold below, so that you can enjoy the way Aaron tells a story.

I will make note of a few more things, though:

1) The director's NY Mets cap and Sun Records t-shirt are worn sincerely. They are not donned in quotation marks or held up by any posturing. Consider this an analogy to his filmmaking. You can't really be fuzzy without being honest. There have been "cute" films and "telling" films made about current twentysomethings, but I don't want a teddy bear version, or even a pseudo-conclusive soap box version, of my generation up there on the screen, thank you very much. I want something that might include what I might say, but would also make sense to a friend I haven't seen in years. I want to be able to send the DVD to a close companion and an old, meaningful fling, and have them not just "get it", but bask in it. Quiet City is that imperfect postcard I would send to both. Lastly, when I'm something of a film teacher, I want to be able to share it with students, because it is not only formally conscious and aesthetically captivating, but it is also a film that, like a good fall sweater, you don't fall out of touch with easily.

2) After Grendel's, I skedaddled over to the film with a recent friend, a singer of indie pop songs (cultural critics, read: creative peer). She was quite taken by various scenes, as well. After the film, she spelled out the main reason why she liked it: at similar moments in her own life, she felt(on the inside) and acted (on the outside) not unlike the characters.

See, I'm not the only one taken by the collaborative efforts of the filmmakers behind Quiet City. Hopefully, after this interview, you'll go see the film (or buy the DVD in January), and take in the fuzzies. Trust me on this one: it's 1, 2, 3, Goooo!

* Quiet City will have a week long run at The IFC Center in Manhattan (August 29- September 4, 2007). It will be headlining the New Talkies: Generation D.I.Y. series there. The film will also be showing at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle (September 7-9, 2007). Future Screenings TBA. Dance Party, USA, Aaron Katz's first feature film, is also part of the festival (August 28-29, 2007). Some other films mentioned below are also playing in the New Talkies series, or at a cinema or DVD player near you!

In Medias Res (Interview) and In the Moment (Film)

CE: What was it like, working with Erin Fisher and Cris Lankenau, making this type of film?
It just seems like they were really cool with it, because neither of them were actors. I mean, they maybe both have done some acting, but they’re pretty much playing versions of themselves. They were also being open with what the script is about.

I had Erin in mind, actually, as I was writing the movie.

Erin Fisher, not to be confused with Anna Karina.

CE: She is a friend?
AK: Yeah, she is a friend, but she also she went to North Carolina School of the Arts [NCSA, hereafter]. She dated the producer of Quiet City for a while, many years ago. She’s interesting and has quite an ability to be in the moment—just in life, not only as an actor—just to really be there, and not be thinking about what’s going on tomorrow, or worried about this or that. She’s there for whatever is happening, you know?
CE: Definitely, Definitely.

AK: Plus, she is also very fun to hang out with. She’s, in some ways, very out of touch with the world at large—what’s going on in news or whatever—but, at the same time, that makes her observations about things neat and refreshing.
CE: There is definitely a large, well, they both [Cris and Erin] have a presence in the film, yet a subtle presence. Like in the beginning, when she’s walking underground, the way she’s carrying herself is like what you said, in the moment.
AK: Yeah, yeah.
CE: Not too much, and with a subtleness: without hitting you over the head in this long, drawn out Antonioni way, which is beautiful in its own right, but wouldn’t fit the film necessarily.

Then, there’s their pacing and the way they fit together well. The word I kept whispering in my mind was: almost. Almost. Because, throughout the film, as a filmgoer, I get this expectation that they might kiss (or might not kiss). It’s something that doesn’t have to happen, it seems. Still, I kept feeling “almost, almost.” Things happen so beautifully, naturally, in the way they would if you hung out with somebody often and you just began to connect more. And the way everything is shot, the one feeling that kept coming to me, emotionally, was fuzzy.

AK: I like your observation. That’s what that we were trying to capture. In a lot of movies about people meeting, the people say too much, or they say more than they would in life, to progress the plot. In life, I feel like there are a lot of things you’re not saying. You might say one thing and really mean another.
CE: Yeah. Plus, their body language and their phrasing. There are certain energy levels, rising and falling, subconsciously and back and forth, between them. At the same time, there are unexpected things happening, like that whole scene with the automated toy.
AK: With the crane.
CE: The crane. Oh, that was cool.

(Im-)Perfect Incidental Music

CE: Your friend did the music?
AK: Yeah, Keegan DeWitt. He did the music for my first film as well, Dance Party, USA. It’s coming out in January. It’s going to be a double disc with Quiet City. So, Keegan, we’ve known each other for a long time. I told him which scenes I wanted music for, and for each of those scenes—he didn’t do a spotting session—he just wrote two or three pieces.
CE: Is a spotting session where?
AK: A spotting session is where you’re sitting there and have the film playing on a screen, and everything is timed out to fit the film. For this film, it didn’t make sense. We felt that it would be too rigid. Erin’s playing drums in the beginning, but for the rest of the movie, he did the score.
CE: You went to NCSA, so did one of my favorite directors, David Gordon Green. I don’t know if you know the story of him and David Wingo. They were grade school buddies. He came to my college for a screening and Q&A of George Washington. It was in this packed room with around 300 people, some asking him pretty serious questions. He was asked, “How did you and the film composer meet?” It was funny, he nonchalantly told them they met at a screening for The Karate Kid, in 1984.

I’ve helped friends find pop music for their films. It’s interesting work. I’m interested in it on an academic level, too. Even when you’re caught up in the narrative, there’s so much going on with the music.

Did Keegan write the keyboard scene?

AK: No. Actually, that’s totally improved.

Test for Volume: SXSW Film &

Other Screenings


CE: I plan to get better equipment when I’m working more than just two part time jobs. Hopefully, even travel for the site.
AK: I did this interview with Filmmaker Magazine, and she had the exact same thing.
CE: Oh, you did an interview with them?
AK: Yeah, a few months ago. It’s in the spring issue. Alicia Van Couvering wrote it. Her article is pretty interesting. It’s about my films, Joe Swanberg’s and Bujalski’s, basically a lot of the people playing at the “Under the Radar” festival.
CE: How did you meet Andrew and Joe?
AK: Joe, I met at SXSW 2006. I went with my previous film, Dance Party, USA. His film LOL was there. I went to LOL kind of expecting it to be bad, actually. I had seen a bunch of stuff I didn’t like very much, and, I don’t know, I was getting a little jaded about what to expect. I went and thought, "Wow, this is great!"

They had this party afterwards, at this really cool bar. The Peacock, it’s called. All the people from my movie went there, and I met Joe and talked to him a little bit. Then, we stayed in touch through e-mail. When I went to the Chicago Underground Film Fest with Dance Party, I ended up staying at his loft there. Joe’s from Chicago.

And Bujalski is someone who I don’t know well at all, but who’s around every now and again. He’s in Joe’ movie, Hannah Takes the Stairs.

CE: He’s pretty big here. I guess he used to live out here, in Jamaica Plain. His movie Mutual Appreciation was huge last summer.
AK: He’s in Austin right now, making a movie, Reliable Responsible. I suspect it’s going to be really good.

CE: How hard is it to get into SXSW?
AK: I think it's hard. It’s hard for me to gage. I know there are definitely some people that made films that I like who weren’t able to get in. What happened initially was that Dance Party got in. I just submitted it without contacting anyone. Then I got a call in December of 2005 from Matt Dentler, who programs the festival. He loved it, and that was great. I kept him up to date on the progress of Quiet City, and he was expecting to get a cut. I sent him a rough cut. Quiet City turned out to be good, and he was excited to have it.

But, like I said: there a lot of great films that didn't get in, and some great films that do, and some films that I don’t like, personally, that do.

CE: Do you know how long they have been doing the movie component at SXSW?
AK: This is their 15th year, I think. They’ve been doing it for quite a while. I think it’s come into it’s own, as a film festival, thanks to Matt. He took a big chance on Dance Party, USA, and he took a big chance on a lot of the other films, like Joe’s first movie, Kissing on the Mouth. A friend of a friend told him about it. At the same time, it’s a chancy thing. It’s cool that he’s willing to take those chances.

CE: Definitely. With either Dance Party or Quiet City, were there any audiences that you were truly wowed by? Any you had great experiences with during the screening? Were there Q&A’s that kept you excited about the project?
AK: I think I've had pretty much the range of experiences with audiences. At the Independent Film Festival of Boston, both screenings were really good. The audiences were into it and excited to be there, watching the movie. I had a similar experience in Maryland. It ranges from experiences like that, to, I can’t put my finger on it, but the feeling in the room is sometimes half and half. For the most part, we’ve had positive experiences interacting with audiences; although, we haven’t played theatrically yet with Quiet City.

CE: Did you have a theatrical release for Dance Party?
AK: A very small one. In New York, we did for a couple weeks, and then in Portland, and that’s it. I think we probably could have played more places, but I didn’t know what I was doing and neither did anyone else. Pretty much every time we do something, it’s a totally new experience. Except for now. I’m glad that we have Ben Stambler. Ben produced this one, along with my friend Brendan McFadden, who produced both films. Ben was a second producer, and he has a lot of business savvy that I don’t have. He works for acquisitions at THINKfilm. He understands how the business side works. Luckily, we’re going to be in eight cities with Quiet City.
CE: I would love to work for THINKfilm or Plexifilm, to just work for a film distribution company.
AK: There are a lot of companies in New York doing cool stuff. Ben works for THINKfilm, and he worked for Magnolia before. Brendon moved to Mississippi to produce an IFC film. With all those companies, and with First Look and Zeitgeist, at least half their slate is really interesting to me, which is pretty decent.

Tell it Back To Me: Auditions, Keyboards, "..."

CE: You were saying at the IFFB screening that you had the auditions at Magnolia.
AK: We did. That was back when Ben worked at Magnolia. Cris was talking about that. I think he thought, "Wow, this must be a real movie, at a nice office and everything." We just went in there on a Saturday and used a conference room space. It was a nice place to have auditions.
CE: Did you have auditions between the male and female actors?
AK: I already knew I wanted Erin Fisher to be in it. I had worked on it while she was living in Charlotte. She came up for two reasons. One, to talk over the script: I wanted to adjust the character to what made sense to her. Then, to read her with the guys. I had five guys come in. Going into it, I had the feeling that Cris was going to be the best, and he was. There was someone else who was pretty good, but Cris and Erin worked well together.
CE: And so you guys read scenes?
AK: Not exactly. We did read some scenes from the movie. More than that, we hung out and talked about this and that. I brought along copies of Travels with Charley with me. I had them pick out a paragraph or two, and then make photocopies.

[The waitress comes by with the food. A plate of mashed potatoes with Gorgonzola's cheese for Aaron, and a Reuben with a side of mashed potatoes for myself. Beers during the interview: Original Sin Cider (AK) and Cambridge Amber (CE).]
Both: Thank you.
Waitress: You’re welcome. Do you need any ketchup, mustard or anything else?
CE: Mustard and mayonnaise.
W: Mustard and…?
CE: Mayonnaise.
W: Mayonnaise. Okay.
CE: It’s kind of awkward to say, “I want mayonnaise on top of mashed potatoes.”
AK: Dude, it’s really hot. Good call with the mustard. Anyway.
CE: Do you often mashed potatoes it with Gorgonzola cheese?
AK: Yeah, yeah, it's good. It’s really hot.

Erin and Chris, together, and not

worrying about being interesting or clever.

AK: Anyway, so I had them read bits of Travels with Charley. I really like that book.

In a movie, there’s all this history that’s not their own. Instead of just saying it, I like people to be able to say it, and not be thinking of how they’re going to say it. But just be thinking about what it is, and then say it. So, Travels with Charley is great. It’s so specific and visual and a good thing to have them read at the auditions.

I had them actually tell it back to me: read the paragraphs, and then tell it back to me, in their own words. It was interesting to hear what different people took from it. And then we did another thing. I hate to call them acting exercises. I’m skeptical of a lot of acting things. I had them do a couple things. For example: talk over one another, back and forth, describing exactly what they saw. That was a good way to feel out if people were in tuned with what the other person was doing, and see whether they could just be in the moment, and not worry about being interesting or clever.
CE: What they saw in the room?
AK: No, behavior that they saw in the other person. If you and I were doing it right now, I might say: “You’re smiling, you’re nodding. You seem to understand what I’m saying.” You, simultaneously, would be giving it back to me. You end up describing behavior, and also what the other person is describing back to you. It’s an interesting way to see if actors will engage with each another. Some people have a very difficult time with it. Not to say that makes them necessarily a bad actor; but, for what I wanted to do, it was important for people to be there in the moment. Not to worry: “Is this interesting, is this good?” That’s not their job, to worry if it’s good or not.

CE: And they flow very well, Erin and Cris. The only way I could think of it is energy: that movement of energy between the two of them. It's not always balanced, but it doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t follow the typical genre convention, which focuses on: “Which side is the relationship side? Which side is the friend side?” The film has more of a “…” sentiment.
AK: Yeah.

Jamie and Charlie, lingering in "..."
of the
1, 2, 3, go! sunlight.

CE: Likewise, in an actual situation, the energy and the tone shift naturally between two people. This happens in conversations, too. If I were to say, “Let’s go to Davis Square! Let’s go on the swings there,” you would ask me, “Where and why?” At the same time, maybe you would be excited. This happens in the film, too. One of the sweetest scenes is when they’re running, and it’s Cris who’s saying, “Is it 1, 2, 3, go?” That scene! Or, when they’re jumping the wall, they way they work with each other is so…
AK: Yeah, it was really great to see. They didn’t know each other before the movie. They got to know each other during the movie. Like that running scene. We knew we were going to shoot it in Prospect Park. We didn’t know exactly where, and we didn’t know how it was going to go. In the script, there was not a lot of dialogue for that scene, but….

Mustard on potatoes is great. And I, uh, got my Gorgonzola, heh.

CE: Definitely.
AK: So, it was interesting to watch them. We did just one take of that running thing. Erin had to leave to go back to Charlotte. It was getting before sunset; it was probably six, five or six. She had a plane at 9:30, and we were running out of time to shoot. We just shot one take. It was one of the scenes that, right when we shot it, I was really excited about. Yeah, that scene’s good!
CE: Was it shot from the ground?
AK: Hmmm Mhmmm.
CE: Was that in the script or was that circumstantial?
AK: We didn’t have a shot list. On my first movie, we had a pretty rigid shot list. For Quiet City: a) we didn’t have a lot of time, and b) I wanted it to feel looser than that.

CE: I’m being kind of unprofessional, just glowing about your film, but, there are so many great moments. I would just want to send a scene to someone, like "Wow, look at this."

I think the time when it really, really hit me was during that keyboard scene.

AK: Hmmm Mhmmm.
CE: A) because the way it was done, b) what you left out, but also c) because anybody else would have done it differently. I don’t think I would have liked how someone who was making a gimmicky twentysomethings film would have done it, you know?
AK: Hmmm Mhmmm.
CE: I mean, the components are so part of twentyomething culture. A girl and a guy in a room. Keyboards are like the biggest gimmick in indie rock now. Yet, it's so sweet, it’s so natural. It’s so what these people would be doing.
AK: Yeah.
CE: And the way Cris holds off, and all of that.

Almost every, every drop of footage

CE: Were there any scenes that were hard to film?
AK: There were a lot of the scenes were hard to film. In a way, almost every scene was a challenge, because we just had so little time and so few resources that we were always battling the clock. Getting stuff set up in time and having enough stuff and having enough people to set things up was challenging.

An instance where we had a particularly tight schedule, or had to get out of a place was when we were shooting the party stuff.

CE: Yeah, yeah.
AK: That was at a friend's house. It was the seventh day of shooting. The second thing we shot that day. The crew and actors were already having a long day. It was my birthday, October 29, Friday. Everyone was having Halloween parties. It was in this former warehouse space in Williamsburg that had been converted into apartments. The whole building is nothing but hipsters living in cheap spaces. Of course, there were Halloween parties galore. It was loud and chaotic, and hard to keep a handle on things. Everything took longer than it was supposed to, and we ended up using almost every—every drop of footage that we shot wound up in the movie. Also, there was a party next door that had this thumping bass. We kept asking, “Can you turn it down for 10 minutes?” Things like that.

The art gallery was hard, too. That was at a real art gallery.

A Real director (Aaron Katz) and a real actress

(Sarah Hellman) navigate the gallery.

CE: Whose art is on the walls?
AK: Her name is Arielle Assouline-Lichten. She’s a friend of a friend. My friend Caitlyn, whom I’ve known since high school, works in the New York gallery scene. She set us up at this gallery that she used to work for. She has, of course, friends who do artwork. So, that’s Arielle’s stuff, but it’s supposedly Robin’s (Sarah Hellman) artwork in the movie. When the camera starts there [in the gallery], Arielle is standing by her work, talking to Caitlin. Of course, no one ever notices that. No one would ever notice that, but every time I see it, I’m like, “Ha! That’s Arielle & Caitlin!”

And then there’s some other artists work.

CE: There are photographs, right?
AK: Those paintings are the ones that are supposed to be Sara's. There are also some photos that you see. And those are by someone that I don’t know. Actually, there’s four artist’s work there.

That scene was a challenge for the actors. I think that was our second day, and up until then, they had only been around a very small crew of five people and themselves. But now, with all the extras there for the opening, there’s this audience of twenty people. Cris and Erin both got really nervous, and felt that they looked stupid. They had a difficult time with that scene. It was a pretty difficult space to light, also. The area is so bright white, and to figure out how to shoot it in a way that was interesting was difficult.

CE: In the film, you get this nervous feeling from Chris, because he is seeing the friend and he's kind of awkward about it.
AK: Yeah, yeah. That comes from his nervousness about the people around, but it feels like it’s his nervousness from his asshole friend showing up and talking about some girl he likes in Miami. He’s also nervous because he’s meeting Sarah. I think it ends up working in the film. That was the scene when they were the most nervous about doing a good job. For the most part, they were cool about not caring if they were doing a good job, and being trustful of me to tell them or guide them where they needed to go.

High art filmmaking, with hoodie-style nonchalance.

CE: There's a restaurant in the very beginning. Where is that?
AK: That's a place called Phoebe's in Williamsburg. A friend of Cris's works there. Basically, locations, extras and everything were all via friends, or friends of friends. When we worked out a scene, we thought “Okay, what do we have access to, or what do friends of ours have access to?” Then, we molded the script to fit that. That ended up being both utilitarian and cool, because a lot of stuff had history. I like that. It’s also cool to see and use these places, instead. With locations where you don’t know the people, a lot of times it ends up being this nervous relationship where you feel they want you to leave, and are worried that you may break something.

CE: And, do you live in Williamsburg, or…?
AK: No, I don’t. I live in Gowanus, Brooklyn, which is way south of Williamsburg. No one really knows where Gowanus is. If it were triangulated: one side would be Park Slope, one side would be Carrol Gardens, and on the south side, Sunset Park. In between, there is a canal, and that’s where Gowanus is. When I first moved, I didn’t know too much about New York. My real estate agent told us it was Park Slope, but I've since realized that it's definitely not Park Slope.

CE: Ha ha.
AK: I like my neighborhood and I used my apartment in the movie several times, as different locations.
CE: Oh, using different rooms as locations?
AK: Yeah. When they're making sandwiches: that's in my apartment kitchen. When they hop the wall: that's my apartment, from the back. When Cris checks his mail: that’s my apartment hallway. A lot of the sunset stuff, that’s from my roof.

CE: And you guys filmed for how many days?
AK: Eight days. Well, Erin was there for eight days, and we shot on seven of them. I remember we had a Sunday off, and we went over to Alex Bickel’s place. He’s our gaffer, camera assistant, technical adviser—he’s very technically savvy. We watched a Steeler’s game and danced to Sam Cooke.
CE: Whoa.
AK: It was really fun. That was our one day off. It wasn’t totally off. Late at night, we shot some of the subway stuff.
CE: Hmmm Mhmmm. Watch out for Otis Redding, dancing to Otis Redding.
CE: And Sam Cooke has this gorgeous album, Night Beat. Ray Charles plays piano on it, but he’s not even mentioned on the front cover. It’s not like “and featuring.”
AK: Really?
CE: He does all these covers, like “Little Red Rooster.” You wouldn’t imagine it to be so sweet. I had only heard Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and The Grateful Dead do it, but had never heard it sung as such a sweet song.
AK: Yeah. We listened to Live at the Harlem Square Club. It was probably one of the best memories from shooting, or not shooting, I guess.

I remember, during the filming we were all so tired because all of us were working and shooting for 12 or 14 hours. We were all staying at the producer’s apartment in Fort Green in Brooklyn. We’d come home and then there’d be me and the producers basically doing everything. We would be on the phone about: locations for the next day, props and extras, and making sure we had food prepared. I think I was more tired during Quiet City than I maybe have ever been.
CE: Wow.

AK: Because Dance Party, USA was done at a leisurely schedule. We shot that over a month.
CE: Did you shoot that during your senior year?
AK: No, I graduated in 2004, from NCSA. Right as soon as I graduated, I went with Brendan and Mark.... At the time I had this 1963 Chevy Nova. It was totally falling apart. I loved it, everyone else hated it. We drove from North Carolina and went up to Pittsburgh to get Brendan, where he was living at the time. We drove to Portland and shot Dance Party. We had all summer: we had a month to do pre-production, then a month to shoot it. Everything on that was very much like: “Oh, we’ll shoot for six or eight hours today, then take a two day break.”

CE: Ha ha.
AK: It was the opposite for Quiet City, which was great in some ways, but I really don’t know if I’d ever been that tired, ever before.

CE: Yeah, I was going ask if you had ever shot in Portland [Aaron’s home town] for a film, but…
AK: Dance Party was shot in Portland.

I love Portland and I would definitely shoot something else there. Portland’s a very friendly city. We shot on the train there, and did it legitimately. We didn’t just get on or whatever, like we did in New York. In Portland, Trimet is the transportation authority, and they’re very nice. There were like: “Yeah, you can do whatever, as long as it’s Saturday or Sunday.” They were a little more concerned that people would bother us more then we would bother anyone else.

In Brooklyn, shooting at night, we never had a problem. There was this police officer, one time, wondering what we were doing: “Yeah, what are you guys doing?” He turned out to be nice. He said, “Be done by the time it gets to be rush hour,” so we would be out of people’s way. Everyone was very nice. It would be different if we were shooting in mid-town. Brooklyn is very low-key.

A Great Movie: It is What it is

CE: So you wrote and directed Dance Party, USA and Quiet City.
AK: Hmmm Mhmmm.
CE: I hate lists of top fives, so I will just ask for movies you feel strongly about. From a screenwriter, director, or cinematographer’s point of viewinstead of just “your top five.”

AK: Yeah, yeah. Well, this will be disorganized. I will just rattle off a few, and maybe say what I like about them.

I really like Jean-Pierre Mellville and especially Le Samourai. His work couldn’t be more different, in a way, form what I do, but I love his stuff. His camera direction is sparse and great. Have you seen Les Samurai?

CE: No. I have yet to get into his work. I’ve always wanted to see Bob le Flambeur.
AK It’s good, but in my opinion, Le Samourai, Le Circle Rouge, and Un Flic, those are the three best. Also from that era and French, I love Jacques Tati films. Again, totally, totally different from Dance Party & Quiet City. More similar and probably an influence, more directly, is Ozu.
CE: Oh, sure.
AK: And, you know, his stuff is more formal. The camera almost never moves place in an Ozu movie. I love how everyone in his movies is so sad and can’t get what they want, but they’re so polite about it. It’s not like they’re screaming about it. They’re just sort of polite about it, but you feel their pain. I really like Ozu.

CE: Other filmmakers whose work you see, over and over?
AK: Yeah, I’m trying to think what I see the most. I’d have to say, as much as I’m sure everyone who has graduated from film school in the last ten years would say: Paul Thomas Anderson is probably the current, is one of the contemporary filmmakers that I just—I mean—I love all his films. And there’s a trailer for his new film, called There Will Be Blood.
CE: Oh, wow.
AK: I love Paul Thomas Anderson. I’ve seen all of his films many times. Actually, I love Renny Harlin, which seems kind of crazy.
CE: No.
AK: I love some of those mid-90s action films.
CE: The Long Kiss Goodnight?
AK: Yeah, The Long Kiss Goodnight. Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and The Long Kiss Goodnight are three great films. Renny Harlin: his sense of camera direction is so good, and his sense of the outrageous is so good. His recent films are awful, mostly I think, not his fault. Cutthroat Island, the Gina Davis pirate movie, was an enormous financial disaster. Ever since that, he’s had to direct crap, like Driven, with Sylvester Stalone. I like Deep Blue Sea, it’s kind of amazing. I don't understand why Renny Harlin didn't direct the new Die Hard movie.

CE: How about movies you try to get people to see?
AK: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the Fassbinder Film. I love that film. Or, Sullivan's Travels. I had an argument with someone recently about whether Sullivan's Travels was better than The Lady Eve. Two people were asserting that The Lady Eve was better, but I disagree. Sullivan’s Travels is more fun, and Veronica Lake is more appealing. And then I really love 70’s American filmmaking: Peter Bogdanovich, Hal Ashby, so on and so forth.
CE: Yeah.
AK: I recently saw Killer of Sheep. It’s by Charles Burnett. It’s a film which no one has seen, from the 70s. He went to UCLA. He made it in ghettos of Los Angeles. He is black and he felt that in a lot of films from the 70s, black people were marginalized, or exploited in outrageous, heightened ways, like in Shaft or Superfly—the blaxploitation films. He wanted to make something that was totally real. It’s just absolutely amazing. He was trying to figure out their relationships and figure out their lives. This company Milestone just re-issued it. I highly recommend it. It was shot in black in white for like no money at all. It is shot in this way that seems like it’s not using any of the type of film language that anyone knows about.
CE: Oh, wow, wow.
AK: It’s totally, totally unique. It’s like nothing else.
CE: But it makes sense within itself.
AK: Yeah, but it makes sense within itself. Exactly. Also from the same era, if someone asked me what people have to see, I would say Fred Wiseman documentaries of the 60s and 70s. Especially Titicut Follies, about an insane asylum. His stuff is totally verite. There’s no narration, there’s no interviews, no nothing. Except for Titicut Follies, which has more a filmic name, it’s just the name of the thing. Everything is just what it is: one's called Juvenile Court, one’s called Hospital, one’s called Meat. Meat’s about meet packaging, Hospital is about a hospital. It is what it is. That's great!

They're hard to get your hands on. I believe he’s retained the rights to all his films, He screens them occasionally, but they’re very hard to see. Ronnie Bronstein, who is part of the “Under the Radar,” knew Fred Wiseman, and Thursday morning I got to see Juvenile Court. It’s absolutely amazing.

Books and Other Hoopdedoodle

Are there any novels or writers that you read or re-read? Some that may influence your filmmaking? For example, Raymond Carver is quite filmic.
AK: I love Raymond Carver. I read Raymond Carver regularly. I love Travels with Charley. I love his Steinbeck in general.
CE: Have you read Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday?
AK: No, I haven’t.
CE: I recommend it. It starts with him dissing himself, essentially. His characters are talking about Cannery Row, saying that he knew nothing about Monterey. It’s a seedier book, and it’s so lively. One of his characters says that he wants descriptive parts, but he wants the author to come out and tell when he’s doing that—he should call those chapters “hoopdedoodle.” That’s rather self-reflexive, as Steinbeck usually goes at length about things.
AK: Yeah, Steinbeck. There’s actually a novel I really want to adapt. It would be a miracle if I ever get to make it. It would need a huge budget. Have you hear of this guy, George MacDonald Fraser?
CE: No, no.
AK: He’s a British author. He’s still writing now, but his best stuff was in the 70s. He wrote a series of novels about this guy, Harry Flashman. They're set in Victorian England. Flashman is this supposed hero, this hero-soldier. In fact, he’s a coward who doesn't care about anyone except for himself. Fraser creates a series of humorous incidents and Flashman always ends up looking like the hero. They’re these great books.

The first one is called Flashman. The one I want to do is called Flashman and the Redskins. It's his adventures in the American West. It’s cynical and it’s an indictment of colonialism and westward expansion. Nobody comes out looking good. The Americans don’t, the British don’t, and the Native American’s don’t. Basically, everyone is greedy and cares only about themselves, and how they can manipulate the situation to benefit themselves. Flashman is caught in the middle of it. He would rather laze around, not do anything and skate on by. In a way, he's the sanest person there. He’s sort of a pacifist. He would rather not fight.

But when it comes down to it, he’ll do anything to save his own skin. There’s faithfulness to him, and humanity. It’s like Apocalypse Now but funnier, set in the American West. Apocalypse Now meets Barry Lyndon. I don’t know what it is, but it’s great.

I’m thinking of dividing it in two halves. The first half would make a great movie. But, it would need big stars and a big budget.

CE: Any other books that captivate you?
AK: I’m not sure what the through line is to what I read. At times, I’ll get into reading historical fiction books, like Patrick O’Brian or C.S. Forester. Sometimes, I’ll end up reading funnier stuff. I have this James Thurber book. He wrote for The New Yorker.
CE: Funny stuff, like poetry, right?
AK: Poetry, and his best things are from people writing in questions about animals. He gave these absurd responses.
CE: He wrote a book about it, right?
AK: I forget what it’s called.
CE: The Thurber Zoo. Not that?
AK: The Thurber Carnival is the one that... I forget the pet questions [book]. It’s another one, with witty turns of phrase and puns. I like that stuff a lot.

I should probably get going. I’m supposed to meet Bronstein pretty soon.

CE: Bronstein is the guy who…?
AK: He made Frownland, which is playing right now, but it should be around again.
CE: Yeah, yeah, a lot of films look good. I want to see Frownland and Finally, Lillian and Dan.

Other Cities, Other Dudes

CE: Some last questions.

Is there a city you want to film?

AK: A city I want to film? Maybe a couple places. Olympia, Washington I really like. I have an idea for a mid-nineties slacker movie set in the K Records, Kill Rock Stars kind of era in Olympia. I have an image of this rainy, small town, sort of a grainy, small town. I have this memory of reading some zine in this store 10 years ago. I can't think of what it was called, but it was about this guy who was living in Olympia, working for a record label, who ends up just hanging around. I wish I could think of what it was because I really liked it. I read 10 pages of it, but I had no money. I couldn't even buy it. So, I always thought that Olympia would be a good place to make a movie.

Other than that, I want to make something in the wilderness, somewhere. I don't know where, exactly. Maybe Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska—somewhere in there. To add one more to that, I love Lexington, Kentucky. I just had a great feeling for that city.

CE: That’s just so key. I would rather live in a warmer place than Boston. Albuquerque, even, has such a nice feel. I'm sick of the harshness. Anyway, I was just thinking how cities play a role, directly or indirectly, in so many films. Like Wim Wenders and Berlin, or…
AK: I really think cities make a difference, and I love trying to capture the feel of a city. I love when a film accomplishes it. This isn’t a city, but I think Stranger than Paradise captures the feel of dilapidated, tourist Florida, like off-the-beaten-path tourist Florida, so well.
CE: So well.
AK: I don’t know what it actually felt like, maybe it’s totally different, but it capturedat least my in my imaginationwhat it would be. Jarmusch, in general! Mystery Train is so great at capturing what Memphis feels like. I’ve been to Memphis—I was there 15 years after Mystery Train was made—and maybe it’s me projecting what I wanted to see, but I feel like there’s something there that’s really captured by Mystery Train. And Down by Law captured Louisiana so well.

CE: Yeah. The cinematographer for Stranger than Paradise is the filmmaker Tom DiCillo. He made Johnny Suede. Have you seen that?
AK: I have seen that.
CE: I highly recommend his film Box of Moonlight, with John Turturro and Sam Rockwell.
AK: Speaking of John Turturro, he's in Transformers and gives one of the most ridiculous, uncalled for performances that I’ve ever seen in my life. Transformers is awful, and I kind of can’t believe I saw it (although I did have a good time watching it). It’s as though Michael Bay said, "I don't care. Do whatever you want to do. I don’t care how crazy or ridiculous.” John Turturro. I don’t even know what to say.

Which reminds me of another film I see over and over again, The Big Lebowski. I think it is absolutely amazing, and really funny. There’s also something sad about The Big Lebowski, which I love.

CE: You know, that had some the worst reviews when it came out in the theaters.
AK: The Big Lebowski did? Really?
CE: 1 ½ to 2 ½ stars, most places. And it’s funny, because it’s become a classic, a cult film. Sitting in the theater, opening day, I saw it with two people.

It’s strange, because it’s part noir. If you do go back and see The Big Sleep, you see the scenes they were paying homage to and pulling from. I read this very awkward review. It said something like: "What do you do with a film like this?"

AK: That’s funny. I saw it when it came out, but maybe I was young enough at the time that I didn’t notice the reviews. I think it's the Coen Brother's best film. I like Miller's Crossing, but I like The Big Lebowski a bit better.
CE: Every moment is memorable, without trying to be.
AK: Yeah.
CE: Did you hear about their next movie?
AK: No Country for Old Men. It’s supposed to be great. It was at Cannes, and people flipped for it there.

[Grendel's logistics.]
Waitress: Anything Else?
AK: No, that’s it.
W: All done?
AK: Yeah, thanks.
[We prepare to leave.]
AK: I’ve got to get back.
CE: I’m sorry I couldn’t cover it all.
AK: No, no that’s okay. I understand. Um, let’s see. Not sure, about 11 or so? Here's about eleven.

Aaron Katz, mashed potatoes, and a film called Quiet City. I'm almost about to say it... f-u-z-z, 1, 2, 3, Goooo!


filmhead said...

Just a few corrections for this interview:

QUIET CITY played at the Independent Film Festival of Boston (, not International. Also, the festival abbreviation is IFFB or IFFBoston, not BIFF. Those are the initials of a different film festival in Boston.

Shahin I. Beigi said...

Thank you, filmhead. Corrections are being made in the next 10 seconds. Come back for conversations with future filmmakers and other creative folks.

Shahin I. Beigi said...

Screenings of Quiet City update:
- September 14-20 @ The Hollywood Theater in Portland, OR (

- September28-October 2 @ Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis, MN

Shahin I. Beigi said...

Screenings of Quiet City update:
Playing Through Sept 27 @ The Hollywood Theater in Portland, OR (

& To see the Prospect Park scene of the film, and even a great trailer, go to .