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Interview: Aaron Katz and John Cho on Gemini and the Power of Fame

Interview: Aaron Katz and John Cho on Gemini and the Power of Fame

 

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Aaron Katz’s Los Angeles-set neo-noir Gemini is an examination of an affectionate and sexually charged yet manipulative and highly fraught relationship between a famous actress, Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz), and her personal assistant, Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke). A catastrophe occurs, and Jill is forced to confront Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho), leading to a very Katzian riff on the fluid borders existing between society and self, which blends the filmmaker’s sense of naturalism with a sleek and decadent stylishness.

This week, I spoke with Katz and Cho about Gemini. Both men are artists who’ve carved out distinct niches in the film industry. Katz is an acclaimed independent filmmaker, known for fusing genre films with piquant character studies, while Cho is a stealth mixture of character actor and movie star, capable of defining a role in a handful of seconds with a succinct selection of gestures. And both are adept with silence and bone-dry humor, recognizing how musical pauses can underscore submerged emotional tensions.

Our phone conversation was rich in segues and digressions—about L.A., fame, power, and more—that subtly illustrate how Katz and Cho weave their lives into their art. At times, it felt as if we were in a Katz film ourselves.

Aaron, you’re known for being a location-oriented filmmaker, and the settings in Gemini are characteristically striking. Did you write the screenplay with certain places in mind?

Aaron Katz: There were originally a lot of places mentioned in the script, and some of those made it from script to screen, though we also had to look hard for certain locations. One example is Heather’s house. That mansion was written into the script as a classic 1920s Spanish-style house, and we looked at so many of them without responding to their geography. They just didn’t feel right. Eventually, our production designer showed us this house and we knew it was the place. We tried to pick specially compelling places. We didn’t shoot at places that just felt like “Okay, this serves the purpose.”

John, how did you and Aaron first connect over this project?

John Cho: I was sent the script through my agent. I read it, loved it, met with Aaron, and really wanted to do the film. Actually, I was telling Aaron last night that I’ve made a decision to not think about whether I should or shouldn’t do certain projects and instead concentrate on whether or not I would want to personally see these films. That desire would be my guide, as well as choosing to work with people I like. Even if I fail in the execution, I figure that making the effort with people you like is going to be fruitful.

Watching you in Gemini, I thought a bit about your role in Kogonada’s Columbus. In both films, you’re giving us a lot in between the lines. You’re allowed to speak quite a bit with silence in both films.

Cho: Not only allowed but encouraged. In Gemini’s script, the plot is really moving sub-textually. The activity of the movie is decided somewhat by what the viewer’s thinking and what we’re guessing the characters are thinking. Aaron and I were talking about one of our favorite scenes, which is when Detective Ahn comes to see Heather’s interview at the end. The scene was covered very simply. There’s not, like, some zoom in on Ahn’s face as he raises an eyebrow. We’re allowed to observe the looks between Ahn, Heather, and Jill. I sort of thought it was like this Tarantino standoff but without guns.

That’s interesting.

Katz: The scene before that interview, there’s just the one kind of medium-wide, completely locked-off static shot of John. It’s all about stillness and the kind of tension that accompanies one of those standoffs from a Tarantino or a John Woo movie. It was a fun scene to shoot because of the simplicity of the coverage. I could watch the tension between the three players.

There’s also a deflation to that final scene with Ahn. He’s revealed to be susceptible to the Hollywood spell as well.

Katz: Yeah, I thought so.

Cho: No one in L.A. is immune to fame. In a larger sense, I think that’s what the movie is about. I feel like our whole economy in the United States is becoming based on fame as capital. Heather is a robber baron of fame.

Katz: For me, that scene encourages different interpretations. You could have the interpretation we’re talking about, which is that Ahn is, after all, enamored with fame and wanting to take the chance to overstep a boundary. But another reading is that he knows a version of the truth that’s not being spoken and that he’s there to observe and to let Heather know that “I’m here, and Jill’s here, and we see what you’re doing.” Have you seen A Bigger Splash?

Cho: No.

Yeah.

Katz: There’s a detective in that who pulls over Tilda Swinton’s character, a famous singer. There was a murder and we assume that her crimes might be coming back to haunt her, but the detective just wants an autograph.

[Everyone laughs.]

Katz: That scene is a more overt version of what we’re doing. That film is saying that it’s all about fame, which is the only capital.

Cho: The other thing that I thought of when I read Gemini was The Godfather Part II. Do you remember the courtroom scene when Frank Pentangeli is a witness? And he’s under F.B.I. protection and the family can’t get anyone to kill him? And so they bring Pentangeli’s brother from Sicily, and he makes an appearance in court, and Pentangeli looking at his brother changes his…

Katz: Right.

Cho: It’s just the appearance of this dude. He walks in and changes everything. It was “I’m your brother and I’m watching you. What’re you going to say?”

To riff on what you guys are saying, the Detective Ahn scene at the end is also reminiscent of the ending of The Player. You’re not sure if an ax is still hanging over the hero’s head.

Cho: Right.

Katz: It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Player that I can’t remember it. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what movies influenced Gemini, and, in some cases, certain movies are very fresh in my mind even if I’ve seen them a long time ago. But there are others that almost certainly influenced Gemini that I haven’t seen in a long time and that are hazy in my memory. I used to ask my dad, “Have you seen this movie from the ’60s or ’70s?” And he’s like “Well, I really can’t remember.” I used to be unable to understand how you could see a movie and not remember it. Now I’m beginning to get it.

[Everyone laughs.]

Katz: It’s sort of troubling, how things can slide into obscurity in your brain.

Cho: I heard a preacher say something many years ago in my childhood, about sermons. He compared them to meals, saying that you can’t remember every meal that you’ve had but they all nourished you.

That’s lovely. It’s the idea of a collective culture that transcends any particular atom.

Katz and Cho: Yeah.

Aaron, did you ever think of Gemini as a companion piece to Cold Weather? Particularly their use of genre?

Katz: Yeah, they are stemming from some of the same interests. I love detective stories and thrillers, but I think of them so differently. To return to your first question, place is important to me as a filmmaker and as someone who likes watching movies. And so the Portland location and characters of Cold Weather feel far removed from the atmosphere of Gemini.

Cho [to Katz]: I meant to ask you last night, do you know Carrie Brownstein?

Katz: I don’t know her personally.

Cho: I recently worked with her and, this is neither here nor there, sorry to waste your time Chuck…

Go for it.

Cho: She was saying that she was associated with Portland, and that people ask her all the time “Where should I stay? Where should I eat? Where should I drink?” And she just has a PDF on her computer that she updates and emails to people because she’s just forever associated with one place.

Katz: Movies create a mythology around a place, or, in her case, it’s a TV show. I get so many questions about Portland too, though I’m sure not as many as she does. Or Iceland. I made Land Ho! in Iceland and I can’t tell you know many times people have said “I’m going to Iceland, where should I go?”

It took me a bit of willpower not to ask you that question as well.

[Everyone laughs.]

Katz: It’s kind of wonderful and also strange, how these pop-cultural documents blend into real life.

Cho: I got a real sense of place when I read Gemini. It felt like L.A. just reading it. The relationship between Jill and Heather was familiar to me.

As a movie star yourself, did you give Aaron advice about the milieu?

[Both laugh.]

Cho: No, I thought the script was really well observed. [To Katz] I never asked you, had you met many assistants? It was all so specific.

Katz: I feel like Hollywood is filled with so many people who’re doing what they not quite want to be doing. One of our producers had previously been an assistant. The film isn’t based on any single situation, but I wanted to observe this kind of relationship between an actor and an assistant. The personal and professional boundaries are very porous. I met one person whose assistant was their best friend from high school, and you could see this deep friendship, but you could also see these weird boundaries where one person was working for another, and had to be deferential.

Cho: I’ve noticed that different people prefer certain archetypes to be their assistant. Some want a pal, some want an older sibling, and some want a parent. I’ve also been around long enough to see assistants graduate. I meet the assistants to my first agents now and they’re high-powered producers. It’s funny that people shit on assistants because you really shouldn’t.

Katz: In this movie, you see how the power imbalance at the beginning of the story changes. By necessity, Jill gains power.