Reading a mystery, Aaron Katz admits, is a lot easier than writing one.
That's what Katz found when, while writing the script for Cold Weather, opening in limited release today (2/4/11), he found himself sending his characters to solve a puzzle that cropped up.
"A good mystery is so convoluted that it's easy to lose sight of what's happening," Katz, 29, says. "For the script, I wanted it to have a big enough scope so people would take it seriously. But I didn't want it to be so big that the audience would wonder why these people are involved in it.
"In a couple of drafts, we pushed it to be bigger, with gunplay and conspiracy theories. But then we just thought, 'Wait - what's happening here?'"
Cold Weather focuses on Doug (Cris Lankenau, who starred in Katz's previous film, Quiet City), who has dropped out of grad school and returned to Portland, his hometown. When an old girlfriend comes to visit - and then goes missing - Doug and his pals turn sleuth to figure out what's happened to her.
The result is both more and less than you might expect. There's the missing girl and a suitcase full of money; on the other hand, there is no violence - neither fisticuffs nor firearms - and the film ends right at the point when other films would go into full recap mode.
Part of that stems from Katz's writing process. He began Cold Weather with the idea that it would be a story about a brother and sister who, having not seen each other in years, reunite as young adults.
"But then the mystery came up mid-script," Katz says. "I had an idea for a good clue - there's this apartment building that has one of the only real palm trees in Portland. Then I had to start figuring out the events.
"We broke it down on note cards and had to work hard to make the plot make sense. Of course, even Raymond Chandler said that he didn't know what the hell was happening in some of his books. We just had to figure it out as we went along."
A graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Katz is a Portland native (though he now lives in Pittsburgh) who grew up without much awareness of movies: "My grandmother took me to see 'Snow White' when I was little and it terrified me," he says. "I thought all movies were like that. So I didn't see many movies from about ages zero to 9.
"Then my family got a VCR in the late 1980s and my father began to bring home movies from the library. We watched a lot of Marx brothers' movies and film noir and I started to like movies. I got one of those Leonard Maltin guides - which was the equivalent then of IMDB now - and found a lot of movies that way. That was in middle school. And in high school, I made a bunch of Super-8 movies with my friends."
Since college, Katz has made two well-received features (Dance Party, USA and Quiet City) for a pittance, using his own money. For Cold Weather, which begins its video-on-demand window on Feb. 9, he was able to put together a budget of $100,000, which allowed him to pay his crew and use a Red camera.
"The first two movies bought us a little trust," he says. "It will be interesting to see what happens after Cold Weather."
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine