"Gemini" opens with the instantly unforgettable image of an upside-down palm tree. Something like a distress signal for the laid-back cool of Los Angeles, the film is a glassy sleek, lightly sleazy murder mystery set in contemporary Los Angeles.
Written and directed by Aaron Katz, the movie had its world premiere on Sunday night as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival. If star-driven studio movies such as "Baby Driver," "Atomic Blonde" and "The Disaster Artist" tended to pull the attention of media and audiences at SXSW, "Gemini" looks to be this year's much-talked-about, indie-scaled breakout hit. It capably splits the difference between being an enigmatic art-house treatise on persona and a more straightforward mainstream-minded commercial thriller. This "Gemini" wants to have it both ways and succeeds.
In the film, Jill (Lola Kirke) is an implacable assistant to a movie star, Heather (Zoë Kravitz), capable of dealing with anything, including overzealous fans, intrusive paparazzi and neurotic directors. Heather is in the process of dumping her boyfriend to take up with a new girlfriend, Tracy (Greta Lee). After Jill becomes implicated in a crime, she has to evade a savvy detective (John Cho) and try to unpack a mystery on her own.
Katz has been to South by Southwest multiple times, with his early features "Dance Party, USA" and "Quiet City" and his 2010 Portland-set mystery "Cold Weather." His 2014 film, "Land Ho!" was co-directed with Martha Stephens, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to garner a Spirit Award. (Katz's actual Spirit Award statue pops up as a set decoration in "Gemini.")
On "Gemini," Katz worked with producers Mynette Louie and Sara Murphy, who he had previously collaborated with on "Land-Ho!" and for the first time with producer Adele Romanski, a recent Oscar-winner for "Moonlight." Katz, who also edited the film, also worked with other longtime collaborators, cinematographer Andrew Reed and composer Keegan DeWitt.
Katz wrote the script in summer 2015, after he had already been living in Los Angeles for a number of years. Katz found himself fascinated by the way the city continues to reveal itself, as he came to realize "that wherever you live and whatever places you usually go, there are just so many layers beyond that. I could live here for the rest of my life and still not know the whole city. I'm really fascinated by that and I think that's a really wonderful thing about the city."
Drawing from the literary influence of the how Raymond Chandler gave a romantic cast to the city alongside such stylishly moody L.A.-set movie thrillers as "American Gigolo" and "Bad Influence," Katz tried to capture the casual drift of contemporary Los Angeles.
"The thing that I've found myself increasingly interested in," Katz said, "is I keep coming back to an idea about identity and how much of our identity is deliberate and really coming from us and how much we don't even realize we've given up by crafting ourselves.… I feel like eventually it's really easy to lose what is your honest self.
"To me a celebrity is that times 100, because so much of your identity, and your whole public identity, is how much do people relate to you," he added. "How do other people perceive you?"
Even though he didn't know her, Katz began thinking of Kirke while he was writing, energized by her performances in "Mistress America" and "Gone Girl."
"I think it really helps. People are esoteric and weird and I think it helps to have one person in mind," Katz said.
Kirke did respond well to the script when it was finally sent to her and then collaborated with Katz in reshaping the character, forming a backstory to fill in her history and motivations. But it was the character's relationship to her job and her boss that would most inform their conception of who she is.
"First of all that relationship is very odd, because the lines between friendship and employee are very blurry," Katz said of being a personal assistant. "It seems more so than almost any other job. The personal assistant has this protector role in addition to just doing tasks. I just stared to think about what that relationship might look like in the context of a thriller and in the context of very out of the ordinary things. I think a personal assistant is sort of expected to deal with whatever comes their way."
"Gemini" is a film of such an unusual and delicately calibrated emotional tug, a character portrait and an enigmatic mystery with a solution that presents a whole new set of questions, that simply talking about its title can verge into spoiler alert territory.
"There's all kinds of things I wonder about," Katz said of spoiler concerns. "Like with our main still we're using, people wonder why does she have blond hair and why is she in a motorcycle jacket? For me the best way for people think about the title is after they see the movie. 'Oh, now I see why it's called "Gemini.''' I was struggling to think of a title to be honest."
"It's the kind of thing I hope people are thinking about going in but don't have the answer," Katz said. "'Gemini' to me is just the right amount of mysterious."
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