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Zoe Kravitz in Gemini
Zoe Kravitz in GeminiNeon

Speaking to Aaron Katz about his Zoe Kravitz-starring, neo-noir thriller

Gemini is a whodunit set among the glamour of Hollywood, and a new experiment from the celebrated mumblecore director

The city of Los Angeles is a mystery unto itself: a sun-kissed paradise with a homelessness crisis; a dream factory where promises are made to be broken; and, if the movies are to be believed, a vicinity rife with hard-boiled detectives. Yet even Philip Marlowe, a private eye capable of solving literature’s most intricate murders, struggled to comprehend his hometown’s contradictions.

That is all to say that new film Gemini is more than a simple whodunit. The neo-noir, written and directed by Aaron Katz, stars Lola Kirke as Jill, a personal assistant and part-time amateur sleuth. One night, her employer, A-list actor Heather (Zoe Kravitz), decides to piss off a movie director, a stalkerish fan, and countless other enemies. A few hours later, Heather’s dead in her own hallway. With Detective Ahn (John Cho) immediately suspecting Jill of foul play, there’s only one solution: Jill has to catch the real killer, and it involves exploring the sleazy, slippery surfaces of LA along the way.

As a leading figure of the mumblecore movement, Katz made his name with lo-fi dramas like Dance Party USA and Quiet City, both made for $3,000 and $30,000 respectively. However, his third feature, Cold Weather, hinted at a preoccupation with genre movies: its protagonist, Doug, an avid consumer of detective novels, purchases a pipe because “Sherlock Holmes is the pimp”. If Doug himself were to write a screenplay, it would probably resemble Gemini.

At the last London Film Festival, Katz told me that Gemini, his fifth film, mirrors his own experience of moving to LA. “I’d been there for three years when I wrote it,” the director explained. “The city has a bad reputation, and people think it’s shallow. But it spans so many different milieus and places. Geographically speaking, it’s vast, and I was interested in expressing that.”

Below, Katz discusses the meta casting of Zoe Kravitz, the secrets of a successful mystery, and his complicated relationship with the mumblecore movement.

You initially planned for Cold Weather to be a more traditional detective story. Was there a similar evolution with Gemini?

Aaron Katz: Yeah, I’d been reading a lot of crime fiction, like Ross Macdonald, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler. I was watching early Curtis Hanson films like Bad Influence. I was also getting to know Los Angeles, and seeing all these relationships between assistants and people they work with. I very much wanted to make a thriller in that genre.

From what I understand, it’s quite common to have an assistant in LA, even if you’re not Zoe Kravitz.

Aaron Katz: Yeah. I’d been trying to make this other film that never got made, and I was meeting with people who had interesting relationships with their assistants. The lines between personal and professional are very murky. People are reticent to make films about Hollywood because can it feel a bit self-indulgent. But I’m an outsider to that world, so I felt compelled to explore that.

Kravitz’s character has to hide her sexuality and the existence of her girlfriend, because it could damage her career – or at least affect it in a way she doesn’t want. Is that kind of thing an open secret in Hollywood?

Aaron Katz: Yeah. There are definitely open secrets like that in Los Angeles, and people are very conscious of wanting to protect a very managed image. But people have lives, and I think that the intersection between what people want to project and who they really are can be very confusing. People have fame thrust on them at a young age, and they’re still becoming who they are. I think it can be very difficult to even know who they’re trying to be.

I also think with anything that the tabloids are interested in, it’s just things that people want to avoid. I think people want to be noticed in every way, except for the way that they – or their management – have decided they want to not be noticed.

“I have such a weird relationship with mumblecore. The reality of the time is, a lot of us were like, ‘Why are you talking about mumblecore? It’s such a boring thing to talk about’” – Aaron Katz

Was it intentional that the film’s fictional celebrity is played by Kravitz, a real-life celebrity?

Aaron Katz: Yeah, Zoe knows the world, but also she’s just a great actress. That’s the number one reason. Zoe also has insight into the world that’s definitely layered into the film. With the paparazzi stuff, she’d be like, “No, he’d be really in your face, and way more aggressive. He would tape no matter what. He would just keep it rolling.”

Keegan DeWitt’s score isn’t typically something you’d have for a noir film. Were you looking to go against genre expectations?

Aaron Katz: We were inspired originally by VHS thrillers, and George Romero and Tangerine Dream and these synth scores that thrillers from the 80s and early 90s would have. But we also wanted it to feel contemporary, like music that these characters would listen to, and that we would like to listen to. It was a challenging process, but we’ve worked together five times, Keegan and I, and this is the score I’m most proud of.

The other thing is that the film has all these different tones going on. It’s a crime film. It’s also a film about this relationship. There’s moments of humour. So the score is really important to bind all of that together and make it feel consistent.

The line about how every murder needs a motive, opportunity and capacity – is that real, or something you made up?

Aaron Katz: (laughs) No, I just made that up, that feels instinctually right. I read a lot of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. I feel like a lot of Los Angeles writers are often more interested in the feel of the city, and someone like Raymond Chandler is so convoluted and confusing. But with Agatha Christie, those things are really important. I think she’s a great writer in terms of characterisation, but also the puzzle of it is really important.

And also, Nelson Franklin’s character, Greg, who says that, is, in a way, a bit of a riff on Scream, where there’s the late-90s deconstruction of genre, which I really feel like is the end of the great era of American genre films.

It’s interesting you have these reference points, because critics have made so many comparisons with Mulholland Drive and Personal Shopper.

Aaron Katz: I know! It’s funny. I’ve not seen Personal Shopper. I want to. I very much like Olivier Assayas. I haven’t seen Mulholland Drive in years. I’m actually not the biggest Lynch fan. If anything, the biggest inspirations for me are early Curtis Hanson films like Bad InfluenceThe Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The Bedroom Window; John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow; and an LA movie like Double Indemnity.

What about Claire Denis? There’s a 35 Shots of Rum poster on the wall.

Aaron Katz: That’s my house. That’s my poster.

Oh, really? What’s it like shooting a movie in your living room?

Aaron Katz: Well, it was a free location. I sort of regretted it, because shooting a movie is stressful, and you’re having to get up extra early because the art department shows up at 5am to make sure everything’s dressed alright. It was maybe a mistake, but I think it looks good. It’s my real poster, and I love that film. It’s maybe my favourite film of the 2000s.

Your last few films seem to be rebelling against the “mumblecore” label. Is it frustrating to still be associated with that movement?

Aaron Katz: I don’t know. I have such a weird relationship with mumblecore as an idea. The reality of the time is, a lot of us were like, “Why are you talking about mumblecore? It’s such a boring thing to talk about.” I think there’s a lot of good films that we made. But it’s hard to find attention, because there’s a lot of films in the world, and these were small films without a lot of publicity behind them.

So mumblecore helped (Andrew) Bujalski, (Joe) Swanberg, (Mark and Jay) Duplass, me, etcetera. It was a good thing, mostly, but none of us knew each other before SXSW 2005 and 2006. In terms of leaving it behind, yeah, I think the things that were compelling to me about making those first couple of films was we were just exploring the human relationships that I saw in life.

As I’ve gotten older, I’m interested in continuing to explore human relationships, but to do it in a context of genre filmmaking. I just like watching genre films. I like watching mysteries. I like watching science-fiction. I love watching suspense films. And I very much like working in that, but also not leaving behind the part where I care about these people.

Gemini is available to stream and on DVD now