Thursday, 4 February 2010

from the archive: More More Mumblecore (Aaron Katz)

From The Pictures Issue 1, August 2008

Making a feature film for nothing has never been so possible. Getting together a group of friends, scavenging equipment and resources and getting your ideas produced, distributed and screened is well within the grasp of every aspiring filmmaker, requiring only the motivation to do so.

This is the ethos that unites the group of young American filmmakers whose films have been dubbed 'mumblecore'. The likes of Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, Aaron Katz, Chad Hartigan and Ry Russo-Young produce films that echo their lives and reflect their experiences with honesty, insight and inventiveness. Their budgets don't exist, they cast their friends, they work with improvised scripts, and speak volumes about the concerns, issues, friendships and connections that make up their everyday lives.

The catch-all term 'mumblecore', coined at the SXSW festival (where many of the films are screened and where many of the filmmakers became accquainted) is misleading. The filmmakers are following their own individual paths. Ry Russo-Young's Orphans (starring the late Lily Wheelwright) plows inense emotional depths in its portrait of two sisters. The Duplass brothers' Baghead is a horror picture. Joe Swanberg's LOL and Hannah Takes The Stairs look at the confusion that technology brings into modern relationships, while Aaron Katz' Dance Party USA and Quiet City are meditative reflections on the awkward, stumbling connections made int he beginning stages of relationships.

What links the filmmakers, aside from their friendships and the myriad collaborations on eachother's projects, is their DIY spirit and attitude that there's no need to wait for money or recognition to come in before telling the stories they need to tell. That so long as there's passion, and a group of people who share that passion and can work towards making something of it, teh films can and will be made with whatever resources can be sought.

Quiet City follows a young woman who has travelled to New York to meet a friend, who she can't find. She meets a youg man and they hang out and get to know eachother and, through a series of touching and beautifully shot moments, trips, parties, subtle romance blooms. It's the detail and the honesty in the film that grab you, the familiarity and mellow mood. The Pictures spoke to its director, Aaron Katz.

The Pictures: What made you want to get into filmmaking? Were there any particular films or influences that prompted your interest?

Aaron Katz: Well I guess I started being interested in film around middle school. When I was very young I didn't watch any films, you know a lot of people have seen all these films from the '80s. I feel like there's all these films from the '80s that everyone's always referencing and there's so many of them because I didn't watch movies til I was maybe 10 or so, so that would have been in 1991, so I've still never seen Top Gun and I've still never seen The Goonies and things like this that everyone's seen, but then when I was about 10 I started watching movies, my family got a VCR and I started renting movies from the library, and the first things I remember watching were comedies, old comedies like the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton are still among my favourite things that I've ever seen, and Charlie Chaplin's good too, but I like Buster Keaton better. I love The General, that's great.

TP: At what point did you realise on a practical level that filmmaking was something that you could do yourself without having to wait for any money to come in, or embark on a long career path before you could get there?

AK: Well really Brendan McFadden, who has produced both of my films, was the one who convinced me that we could and should do it, should do Dance Party USA, which was my first film, for essentially nothing, and pretty much everyone who's worked on both movies went to North Carolina School of the Arts, and Brendan and I and some other people lived together and a bunch of them worked on Dance Party, and I'd written the script between my second and third year of college and I had felt like, you know I couldn't really make this on my own and needed to just wait and do it the right way, and I think film school made me feel like you needed all these things to make a movie, adn it wasn't until maybe halfway through my last year, my fourth year that Brendan started talking about what if we did this right after school, instead of thinking of all these things we needed and going out and getting them, thinking of what we had and figuring out how to make the movie with that, so that's what we started doing. We started thinking of friends who had a camera and people that we'd want to work with, and we ended up making it with a really small crew, just 7 people, and borrowed a lot of equipment, and then we shot it in Portland, Oregon, which is where I'm from, and we ended up, what equipment we couldn't borrow with friends, we ended up, Brendan and Mark, the other producer and I, all got accredited at the local cable access station and borrowed a lot of their lighting and sound equipment, ostensibly to make a cable access TV show and we ended up actually showing Dance Party on cable access to fulfil that part of the deal, and that's where we got a lot of our other equipment.

TP: On the practical side of things, how do you go about making your films? What sort of processes would you go through as far as getting from your script to realising it goes?

AK: I guess there's two aspects to that. The most important thing for me is finding the right people to be in it and finding people who, and within that the most important thing to me is finding people who can be truthful and sincere, so yeah I mean I, for both of those movies cast mostly people I knew, moreso with Quiet City, that was almost everyon I knew, but with Dance Party we had a little casting thing in Portland and cast some people that I didn't know, so that's one main thing, and the other is just figuring out how to do it, and for both of them we borrowed everything. For Quiet City we borrowed an HD camera, an HVX200 from this producer that we were friends with named Jay Van Hoy, we met him at a film festival and he produced Old Joy, the Kelly Reichart film and so we borrowed the camera from him and we had a friend who had som accessories for that camera working on something new right now that will be quite different because the scope of it is a little larger, it's kind of a detective movie, so we're, you know in both the cases of Quiet City and Dance Party we finances them with our own money, a couple of thousand dollars, almost, almost for free, but this one will require a bit more.

TP: If somebody was to say to you that something was a mumblecore film, what would you think they were talking about? What kind of film would you expect to see?

AK: Well I guess I'd expect something that was loose in style, truthful in approach to the story, that is to say it's not about big drama or people yelling at eachother, although I guess that could happen, but hopefully approaching human relationships in a truthful way, very natural, and usually more about the small moments in life. All those things I think are good. The term mumblecore itself is not oe which I like very much, it sounds stupid, or it sounds like it's going to be, and I take that people's negative impression of it might be that it's twenty-somethings whining about their fake problms instead of addressing the real issues of the world that are going on.

TP: I think when I first heard it I thought it was going to be musical...

AK: Yeah, it sounds like a music term. I think core is more often, I can't really think of a film genre that core is applied to.

TP: I quite liked that though, like maybe starting a band and making a film were similar.

AK: I think that, yeah, really moreso now you can start making films with people in a way that previously you couldn't, you know, it's a lot more like starting a band with people because you know, you have ideas that you want to do, and it's not preventatively expensive the way film has been up until pretty recently.

TP: Do you think you'd ever consider doing something without your riends, that was more a big production with name actors, maybe through a studio, or do you think there'll always be an element of that DIY attitude?

AK: Well I'd very much like to do something bigger at a studio, if I could choose the way everything would go, I would be able to make smaller movies that are just about a couple of people, but then there's also some projects I have ideas for that I think you'd need to do them on a bigger scale, but I'd still like to work with, I guess I'd like both, I'd like to have friends on those big movies and have stars in them, but also have some friends in them certainly and some people who've worked on the movies, but the one thing I most want to do, which is totally different from anything I've done before, even this next movie is... you actually might be more familiar with this, most Americans haven't heard of it, but do you know who George Macdonald Fraser is?

TP: I don't...

AK: He was a Scottish author, he worked on a series of books about this guy Flashman and he was basically a historical expert who, I don't know exactly what he did in life, but he was in teh army for a long time and got really interested in history, he basically knows everything about British history, and especially British colonial history in the 1800s, and anways, so it's set during, the first book is in 1839 and goes on through almost 1900 and it's about this guy Flashman who everyone believes is a real hero, but in fact he's truly a rogue and a coward and really is out for his own good, but circumstances always sort of... he's sort of like Blackadder, but maybe less silly than Blackadder, and the history elements are more real instead of just a setting for Rowan Atkinson to do whatever he's doing... So anyway, I love this series of books, and this one book takes place in the American West when he's on the run from the law and forced to flee out of New Orleans west because he can't get out of any ports, and it's got this great cast of characters, and I think it'd be a lot more fun to do, even though I haven't done anything like that before, it'd be really fun, it's sort of Barry Lyndon in the American West, but funny.

TP: How do you feel about the internet as a means of distribution, youtube and so on? Would you ever consider using that yourself?

AK: Possibly. I think the internet for me is like, I think watching short films on the internet can be good, but there's something about watching a whole feature on the internet, and I think the internet encourages impatience you know, and I don't know, I really like the experience, personally I like the experience of going to theatres myself and watching films, and that's the way I'd like for people to watch my films, is to go to a theatre with, that has other people in it, and everyone has this experience that's not interrupted and once you're there you're there, and even DVD, you know obviously you ca pause it and you know get a sandwich or whatever, I feel like there's a feeling that TV's sole purpose is to watch different visual entertainment or art or whatever, and it's not like when you're watching on a computer, it's like you're watching it in a little window and there's other programmes open and other things going on that I think is problematic and I really don't like watching, even like a full length TV show, a lot of TV shows you can watch for free on the internet, like I watched an episode of 30 Rock and it seemed like a good show but I didn't really enjoy the experience of watching it on the internet, I think I'd prefer to rent the DVDs or something.

TP: Yeah, you can't really take a date to your computer either.

AK: Exactly, yeah, and I think there is, even though you're watching something and it's something that's already created, the thing isn't interacting with you that you're watching, I think there is, like having that experience you know as you're saying like a date, an experience between two people watching a thing, and the internet is more like one person trying to get stuff done or watching something funny for two minutes. So it's not to say I don't like youtube videos...

TP: Would you consider the way you make films at the moment, and the way that other people who've been labelled mumblecore filmmakers make films, do you think there's a statement or ideology even behind that, or do you think it arose out of necessity?

AK: I think both. I think certainly myself and Andrew Bujalski and some of those people, although Andrew shoots on film so maybe he's a bad example, but Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers let's say, you know, we'd have had a lot harder time getting films made, or we couldn't have made these films in the '90s because we just couldn't have afforded to, but I think, you were saying that it's like a statement or this is how we want to make films, I really think that, hopefully I'd like to think that this is how I would have wanted to make films anyway had I not made films like this and got to make a bigger movie right away, but certainly now that I have made films this way, as I was saying before, I think it's really important to me that if I were to make bigger movies, this thing I'm working on now, it's still important to me that it's a collaborative effort with people who are friends, people who aren't just there to do a job, and even with bigger things like Flashman, although the subject matter is different, I still want to explore who this guy is like in a personal way and a truthful way, like it's funny, but it hopefully won't be funny because there's jokes, it's funny because this guy is who he is and it's hopefully a truthful exploration of this guy who's kind of a funny one, and who this larger than life character is, so I guess, yeah, that's the long way of answering your question.

(in the years since this interview - during which the term mumblecore has become something of an albatross, Katz has completed production on his latest film, Cold Weather, to premiere at SXSW 2010 - looks fantastic, can't wait)

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