Cris Lankenau plays an aspiring detective who moves home to Portland, Ore. (IFC Films )
Family dramas are a dime a dozen in the low-budget independent film world. But family dramas combined with the conventions of a film noir — set in present-day Oregon, no less — are few and far between.
That's the unusual mix of "Cold Weather," a microbudget feature (it cost about $100,000 to produce) from 29-year-old writer-director Aaron Katz. If it sounds like a surprising blend, it may help to know that the man who created it was taken aback too.
"I don't know, I didn't mean to write something like this," said Katz, sitting outdoors at a Los Feliz restaurant on a recent publicity stop in Los Angeles. "It was just something that was on my mind. And once I started it, it kind of felt right."
A phenomenon on the festival circuit since it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival nearly a year ago (and made an appearance at the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer), "Cold Weather" is at last getting its theatrical opening this weekend.
Noir has influenced other contemporary independent films, most notably Rian Johnson's 2005 cult hit "Brick," a hard-boiled, fast-talking mystery set in a California high school starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Katz is less literal about the form — the patter of "Cold Weather" is more Pacific Northwest slacker than hard-boiled Raymond Chandlerese — but the spirit of "The Big Sleep" is very much intact.
Aspiring detective Doug (Cris Lankenau) has just returned home to Portland after dropping out of a Chicago-area program in criminal forensics. With few employment or life options, he moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and takes a job at an ice factory, where he meets the streetwise Carlos (Raul Castillo).
Things seem to be moving in an unremarkable direction as Doug adjusts to his new life — until Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel, who is passing through town, goes missing. The disappearance first sets Doug and Carlos, and then Doug and Gail, on a quest through the streets of Portland to uncover Rachel's real identity.
The plot is not as complicated as that of a Philip Marlowe tale, but "Cold Weather" has enough noir trademarks — a disappearance, a trail of clues, a missing briefcase, even an adult dancer — to evoke that Chandler feeling. Katz had to fill a wall with notecards just to diagram the plot.
The director, who said he indulged in a lot of Sherlock Holmes and Chandler growing up, had been reading a book in the "Raffles" series — the British tales of a cricket-loving crime-solver — when he found his writing taking an unexpected turn. "I remember staying up one night until 2 a.m. and writing 15 pages of this mystery," he said. "I didn't expect to do it and I didn't think it would be very good, but when I read it back in the morning I kind of got excited about it."
His actors, too, were surprised. "I was reading [the script] just thinking it was going to be a movie about a brother and sister," Dunn said. "And then a girl goes missing and I thought, 'What?'"
Though the film is shaped as a mystery, its heart is the relationship between Doug and Gail, who are quietly trying to find common ground as adults after an adolescence that, one senses, was neither dysfunctional nor terribly close.
"You don't see a lot of brother-sister movies in the first place, and when you do, oftentimes there's a lot of yelling and something terrible has happened between them," said Katz, who has a younger sister. "I much prefer family dynamics in the Ozu vein," he added, referring to Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, who was known for his anti-melodramas. "People love each other — there are just these little lack-of-understandings that make them drift apart and come together."
Despite the small budget and a lightning-quick 18-day shooting schedule, the movie features numerous exterior shots of Portland. Katz favors metallic blues and grays, an in-the-gloaming palette that alternately conveys ominousness and peace. "I know it's kind of a cliché to say 'Portland is a character in the movie,'" said Katz, a thoughtful, if at times earnest presence. "But I think in this case it's true — I wanted the movie to really feel lived in, not just throw in a few landmarks."
One of the film's producers and co-writers, Brendan McFadden, said that shooting on location wasn't always easy — a beach scene replaced a zoo scene when the zoo wanted too much money — and Portland may not be as sleepy a town as one might think. "You never realize how much traffic there is on a street until you try to shoot a scene on one," McFadden said.