‘Cold Weather’ takes a mysterious turn

“Cold Weather,” the third feature from filmmaker Aaron Katz, fuses the untethered emotions and ambient anxieties of his earlier work onto a purposefully off-beat detective story that launches him in a new direction. Where his previous features, “Quiet City” (2007) and “Dance Party, USA” (2006), were diffuse romances, making Katz seem something of a lo-fi sensualist and new American independent variation on art-house stalwarts Michelangelo Antonioni or Wong Kar-wai, “Cold Weather” has just enough of a jolt of conventional plotting to make it a more audience-friendly and, dare one say it, commercial picture.

“Cold Weather,” currently looking for distribution, premieres this weekend as part of the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, where both of Katz’s earlier features also first screened. He is among the filmmakers, along with such micro-auteurs as Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski, who have been nurtured by the festival into modestly homespun marquee attractions.

As the film opens, a young man and young woman go about the routine of life in their apartment. Perhaps a couple, due to their seemingly unspoken communication, it is soon revealed that they are brother and sister. Doug (Cris Lankenau) has recently dropped out of college, where he was studying forensic science, and has moved in with Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) while he figures out what comes next. He takes a crummy job at an ice factory, where he meets Carlos (Raul Castillo). When his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) passes through town for work and then mysteriously goes missing, Doug, an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes stories, reluctantly springs into action, having maybe found a purpose at last.

“It actually started out not as what it became,” explained Katz, 28, by phone from Pittsburgh, where he moved a few months ago from New York City. “It started out really focused on the family, the mother and father and a third sibling. But I happened to be reading a lot of detective fiction at that time and so I just started to think, what if these people who are living these ordinary lives and connecting and disconnecting as a family, what if elements of a mystery started to come in?”

Producers Brendan McFadden and Ben Stambler -- who had both worked on “Quiet City,” McFadden having produced “Dance Party, USA” as well -- helped Katz with structure, breaking the story down to note cards and working to organize the storytelling. (The trio share story credit; Katz receives writing credit.) Having made “Quiet City” for only around $5,000, they knew they wanted a higher production value this time. They approached the established indie producing duo of Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudson, the team behind such films as “Old Joy” and “The Exploding Girl,” to assist in finding financing.

Shot in Katz’s hometown of Portland, Ore., in less than three weeks in late March and early April of last year, “Cold Weather” was shot by “Quiet City” cinematographer Andrew Reed to capture the vibrant, rain-soaked richness of the city. Made on a budget in the low six figures, the film is, by the standards of Katz and Co.'s previous films, a major production, but still shot for far less than what most Hollywood productions spend on a week of craft service.

“I did feel like we were making more of a real movie,” said Katz of the modest step up in budget. “It’s just nice to be able to pay people and not ask them to sleep literally on the floor. The upgrades were slight, but it was from all of us crammed into Brendan and Ben’s apartment to us renting a house and being able to buy air mattresses. It you’re asking people to work really long hours and work really intensely together, it’s nice to be able at the end of the day to have some nice food in the fridge and a semi-comfortable bed.”

Breakthrough role

The film features a surprisingly deft lead performance by Lankenau, whose only other acting experience was as the male lead in “Quiet City.” That film was shaped around largely improvised dialogue scenes, but this time Lankenau had to be sure he actually got out all the lines that pertained to the mystery story.

Adding to the pressure for the unschooled Lankenau were his costars: Dunn has numerous TV and movie credits and Castillo is a member of New York’s acclaimed LAByrinth theater company.

“Cris really rose to the occasion and exceeded all our expectations,” noted Katz. “The talent he has is he can stick to the script but make it feel like he’s not, make it feel like he’s coming up with it right there. He just feels alive.”

With “Cold Weather,” Katz has taken a conscious step forward not only in the size of his budget and production but in his deployment of genre narrative devices to push his action along, creating a mystery film and a look at brother-sister bonds, a movie that is at once driven by the quirks of its characters and the machinations of its wayward detective plot.

“I wanted really normal people to have to deal with these things,” said Katz. “I would say the chief goal was to be really faithful to the people and be really faithful to the genre and not sell either one of those things short.

“I think a good genre film is ultimately about the people in it.”