Cold Weather's Aaron Katz

An indie filmmaker forecasts the postmumblecore future with this quirky mystery.

FREEZE FRAMERS Lankenau, left, and Katz keep things nice 'n' cool.

FREEZE FRAMERS Lankenau, left, and Katz keep things nice 'n' cool.

A guy in his early twenties named Doug ambles around his apartment. Technically, the place belongs to his older sister, Gail, but he's staying on her couch until he figures out his next step. Once upon a time, Doug studied to become a forensic scientist; now he works in an ice factory in Oregon. In his off-hours, this slackerish dude reads mystery novels and hangs out with an old flame who's visiting. Nothing much seems to happen. So far, so very microbudget cinema circa 2010.

Then a very curious thing transpires in Cold Weather, the latest movie from 30-year-old filmmaker, SXSW MVP and mumblecore alumnus Aaron Katz (Quiet City). Doug's ex-girlfriend inexplicably goes missing from her motel room. He and his sister, along with a coworker, find clues that suggest foul play may be involved. Suddenly, the movie morphs into a deadpan whodunit that feels like the freshest indie flick in ages.

"It wasn't necessarily that I'd set out to make some sort of genre hybrid movie, really," Katz says, warming his hands in his publicist's midtown office. (Appropriately, the director has come out to do press on one seriously freezing New York day.) "Originally, I wanted to do a story about a couple going camping. Then the couple became a brother and a sister, which seemed a little less generic. Still, I wasn't getting anywhere with it. I liked the characters, but everything was hitting a dead end."

"At the same time, I'd been reading E.W. Hornung's Raffles stories," he continues. "They're about a guy who's like a criminal Sherlock Holmes. It suddenly occurred to me: What if the brother and sister stumbled across a mystery? I write before I go to sleep at night, so just for fun, I thought I'd try ten to 15 pages with that angle. I'd assumed I'd wake up and think, Well, that was a lark. Then I read it back the next morning, and it was like, Wait a minute...there's something here."

That "something," in the form of an oddball gumshoe story line involving baseball stats, Internet porn sites and a suitcase, takes Cold Weather through some unexpected detours, with Doug and Gail (played by Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn) snooping around like some gender-bent hipster version of the Hardy Boys. Doug even purchases a pipe (though not a calabash; it's out of his price range), in order to get into character. As Katz is quick to point out, however, he's not trying to subvert or mock a form that he happens to love dearly.

"Some of my favorite movies are ones that are true to the rules of, say, a Western or a horror film," the director says, "but are also performance-driven films. Look at Let the Right One In: It works as a genre piece, but it's blessed with these three-dimensional characters that you get to know beyond how they fit in the plot. So it was great to stick to the conventions of a somewhat traditional mystery while also exploring the dynamic between two grown siblings. On the one hand, you've known this person your whole lives. On the other hand, there is a sense of removal, like, I'm living my own life, and it may not necessarily involve you on a daily basis. There's a closeness and a distance to a brother-and-sister relationship past a certain age."

"It's almost like Doug stopped aging around 12 years old and my character peaks at about 19," Dunn, 30, says. "They're each stuck in a rut, and they have to help each other out of it. I credit Aaron for giving Cris and I the space to figure out the dynamic of that on our own; he'd essentially allow us to do a lot of improvised ideas around a scene, then after a few of those, he'd say, 'Okay, now let's shoot.' You end up going back to the script with a host of ideas."

It's certainly not unusual for a young filmmaker toiling away with tight purse strings to be highly collaborative or tell character-driven stories. It is unique, however, for someone working on the fly to also be so concerned with an immaculate visual style and establishing a sense of place—Brooklyn's Park Slope comes off like an outer-borough Paris in Quiet City, and Cold Weather's Portland seems to be both cozy and ominous. Those elements have always set him apart from his lo-fi peers, though the director points out that audiences tend to seize on another difference between him and other filmmakers at screenings. "At every Q&A, there's always one person that wants to know why we don't wrap everything up at the ending like most people would," he laughs, referring to an anticlimactic conclusion regarding the story's sleuthcentric bent. "Some things are left out there, but without giving anything away, one crucial problem does get solved—and that tells you what the story has been about all along."

Aaron Katz on some pulp-fiction influences

"He's a cat burglar and safecracker who robs the rich...kind of like a Robin Hood figure, except he doesn't give to the poor."

Raymond Chandler
"I love his Philip Marlowe stories, and that everything happens on the periphery of L.A."

Jean-Pierre Melville
"Those French thrillers from the early '60s are elegant; the storytelling is simple and straightforward."

Sherlock Holmes
"He's the best. The film has a line in which Doug's coworker says, "Sherlock Holmes is a pimp!" That kind of says it all."

Read our Cold Weather review.

See more in Film