Director and co-writer Aaron Katz‘s “Quiet City” follows 21 year-old Jamie [Erin Fisher] who travels to Brooklyn, NY from Atlanta, Georgia to visit her friend, but she’s nowhere to be found. While looking further, Jamie meets Charlie [Cris Lankenau] who she asks for directions. Nothing to do and nothing but time leads them to bowls of coleslaw, footraces in the park, art shows, and after parties. The film is screening at New York’s IFC Center in the series “New Talkies: Generation DIY” (also dubbed mumblecore by the press, including iW). This is Katz’s second solo feature after last year’s “Dance Party USA.” “Quiet City” premiered at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival in March.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?
I got into watching films in middle school [and] would check out a ton of movies from the library and rent them from this place in Portland called Movie Madness. In high school I made Super 8 movies and cut them with a little super 8 viewer and splicer. Those films were fun to make, but at the time I wanted to be an actor. I had a teacher named Barry Hunt who taught acting and dramatic writing and it was his writing class that got me thinking about going to film school. I remember I had a talk with him during senior year of high school where I decided not to apply to acting school.
How did the idea for “Quiet City” come about?
I was frustrated with a script that I had been working on. I was thinking about how frustrated I was with it as I was waiting in the Cincinnati Airport on a layover and decided to purchase a blank notebook and start something totally new. The character that Erin Fisher plays in “Quiet City” had a small part in the script that I abandoned. I decided that I wanted to make her the main character in the new script and had Erin in mind as I was writing. I finished the first draft and then spent a few nights over at [THINKFilm exec and “Quiet City” producer] Ben Stambler and Brendan McFadden‘s apartment playing cards and talking it over. From our conversations I revised the script and a month later we were shooting.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I wanted to have some guidelines to work with so that, within those, we could be very loose. Andrew Reed, who shot the film, and I talked about our shooting approach and made some general decisions. That allowed us to be adaptable while being confident that what we were doing would fit into the overall look. With the actors, each of the scenes came from the script and they stuck, for the most part, to the structure and content, but they put everything into their own words. I also encouraged them to respond to what was happening and not feel constrained by feeling like they had to deliver a certain “thing.” Sometimes when they got onto something new in a take I would have them follow it further in the next take.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?
Development happened very fast–from writing to shooting was less than three months. It was one of those fortunate circumstances where everything just came together. Theatrical distribution has been a longer and tougher process since we’re doing it ourselves. The series at IFC Center has been good–getting programmed there opened some doors. Despite being a challenge, the road has definitely been smoother than it was with “Dance Party.” We’ve got runs planned in several cities through the end of September with a few more in the works for October. As far as DVD, we’re coming out on Benten Films in January 2008 and am really excited to be working with them. The way they run their DVD label reminds me of an indie record label in the ’90s. A lot of small DVD labels have either a genre thing going on or a niche thing. Benten seems really committed to finding small, interesting films that don’t fit into those models.
How did the casting come together?
As I mentioned before, I had Erin in mind as I was writing. I also had Tucker Stone and Sarah Hellman in mind for their parts. I wasn’t sure about the male lead though. The actor needed to be a very particular kind of person to pull off the character. He needed to be instantly trustworthy for the viewer to believe that Jamie would respond the way she does to him. And for the trustworthiness to pan out as the film went on it had to not be an act. We brought Erin up to New York from Charlotte about three weeks before production to have her read with a few people. We only had five people in, all of whom I knew at least tangentially. Cris was the last person we saw. He was a childhood friend of a friend’s ex-girlfriend. We had only met a couple times, but I had a good feeling about him. As soon as everyone left we all agreed that Cris was the best person for the part.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I’d like to do a little more acting, but mostly I’d like to continue writing and directing and I’d like to have the chance to make many different kinds of movies. I have several ideas right now and they’re all pretty different. One is a Western, one is a relationship drama, one is a comedy about airplanes.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I’m still thinking about that Western I mentioned in my previous indieWIRE interview, but I haven’t done anything with it yet. What I’m working on right now is a script about a black jazz drummer who’s friends with a white country musician in a small Midwest town in the 1970s. I’m excited about the possibility of shooting in a small town or somewhere even more out of the way. I have an idea for some mainstream actors who I think could be great, [though]I have no idea yet how realistic that is. I think it might be possible to combine some of the things that are possible on a larger production with the kind of small collaborative environment of the the films I’ve made so far. I’d like to find a daring soul who would go for a pitch like that.
What are some of your recent favorite films?
Recently I loved “Syndromes and a Century.” That’s the film that’s stuck with me most all year. It’s a film that I think about all the time. I love that it’s so quiet and ethereal in a way, but also funny–really funny. And there’s this overwhelming but almost silent humanism. The more I think about it the more I love the film.
I also very much enjoyed “The Bourne Ultimatum.” Paul Greengrass is a great action director. It’s one of my favorite action movies since the heyday in the ’90s of “Speed” and “Die Hard 2” and films like that. I’ll also take this opportunity to express my love for Renny Harlin. He’s directing the wrong kind of movies recently, but as a straight action director he’s one of the best.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Make a film. Figure out what you have access to and make a film. Don’t wait around for your “big chance.” Don’t try to copy things that you’ve seen in other films. I tried to do that in film school and it lead to a lot of bad movies. Make a movie about things that are close to you. I saw this movie recently called “Loren Cass” that was so strange and unique that I actually think I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s set in St. Petersburg, Florida and it’s this tapestry of punk rock (possibly neo-nazi) slackers, field audio recordings of a crazy guy, a girl who works at a diner, footage from a hardcore show with tonal music over it, and a bunch of other stuff. When I’m talking about it here it sounds like something I would hate, but in practice it was really inspired. Seeing something like that, something unexpected from a world that’s not my own, is a great experience.
Share an achievement from your filmmaking career so far that you are most proud of…
I’m proud of making movies with friends and making movies that everyone on the crew is excited about. I hate the idea of some P.A. sitting around miserable for every minute of a shoot. I hate the idea of some people on set being on the inside and others being on the outside. I’m proud to have collaborated with people like Brendan and Ben and Reed. It’s been an exciting process that everyone is a part of.