By Bears Fonte
For every story of how hard it is to be rich and famous in Los Angeles, there is the story that doesn’t get told, the story about how hard it is to be that person’s assistant. In Aaron Katz’s slick film noir GEMINI, Lola Kirke plays Jill, assistant to the glamourous Heather (Zoe Kravitz), and left to pick up the pieces when Heather turns up dead. In addition to losing her employer, she has lost her best friend and somehow appears to be suspect number one in her murder. John Cho plays Detective Ahn, assigned to the case and trying to figure out just why Jill keeps avoiding him. In fact, there is no end to people who wouldn’t mind Heather getting was what coming to her, including her agent after she bails on a film set to shoot the next day, the director of that film, the ex-boyfriend, the new girlfriend, the crazy stalker fan, even the paparazzi.
Katz’s film, pulling the entourage out from the backdrop to front and center, captures a Los Angeles rarely seen but instantly recognizable (or suspected), especially if you’ve lived there (and escape to write about it, like me). From an opening scene at Eagle Rock’s Casa Bianca, the best pizza in LA, onto Yamashiro and the Tonga Hut in Hollywood, the film avoids the obvious and delivers authenticity in a story about artifice. “We wanted to make a film that represented Los Angeles both in terms of where we shot and the kind of people who live in Los Angeles,” says writer/director Aaron Katz, “I think every experience is defined by place. I really wanted to be able to capture what it feels like to be in those places while these events are happening. I really like to shift attention to the side of what you might expect to see in those places.”
It’s this swing of focus that makes GEMINI so original. I had a chance to sit down with Katz and actors Lola Kirke and John Cho during SXSW shortly after the film’s premiere. The talk kept circling back to Los Angeles and what it means to the people living there, the people outside it, and how to capture that on film. “It’s a bizarre land of dreams,” says Kirke about the town she moved to from New York. “I think our movie does this really good job of exploring the mythology of Hollywood and the smoke and mirrors of this thing that is so appealing to so many people.” And yet, people find the residents of LA vapid and cultureless. Jill is one more in the long line of people arriving in Los Angeles with dreams that end up running into a wall of shallow soldiers posted as sentry to their stardom. Maybe that’s why so many people leave the city, broken and bitter.
“I have this theory of why New Yorkers talk shit about LA,” offers Cho, “It goes back to the Dodgers and it’s passed from generation to generation, the resentment for taking the Dodgers.” Like Cho, his character finds himself chasing a case that no one seems particularly compelled to help him solve. “It kind of reminds me of – it’s a totally different genre – but THE BIG LEBOWSKI,” he says. “They’re sniffing around, it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s not finding it. It’s the act of following that’s the story, or the experience of the story.” In fact, Detective Ahn never really solves the case. Without revealing too much, at the conclusion of the film, he happens to be ‘on set’ when one of the major players in the case makes their exclusive interview, and he asks if he can stick around to watch. It says to the audience: it’s okay if you didn’t get everything. Because even he didn’t get everything and he gets paid to get everything. He still has questions. “It’s in the great tradition of all these real life LA mysteries that are unsolved,” the actor suggests, “like the Black Dahlia. Or what really happened at Nicole’s house with OJ that night. We like to obsess and make more stories off of the first story and speculate.”
Katz took a lot of inspiration from the classics of film noir where the stories are really about the journey. “Chandler was always talking about how he doesn’t even know what the clues all mean in his novels,” the director says, “there’s this belief that we have as Americans that the justice system is going to get to the bottom of everything and find the truth. I think the reality is that the truth just keeps shifting to the point where a lot of people aren’t sure what the truth is. Justice is not necessarily served.”
Part of the fun of the journey in GEMINI is the bold supporting cast, like Reeve Carney as the spurned ex, who stumbles over himself looking incriminating, or Michelle Forbes as the bitter agent, who will say flat out she wished Heather dead. “The most writerly scene in the movie is so well handled by Nelson Franklin,” says Cho, referring to the actor who plays the director of the now-cancelled film that Heather was to star in. “He’s going, ‘if I were writing this screenplay,’ and he handles that in such aplomb.” Bordering on self-aware at the moment, Katz’s film then delivers the reality of the stuffed octopus he is packing, and being caught with it. It’s a moment of truth that says, yes, these are real people here, they are sometimes ridiculous people, but this industry makes you ridiculous. “I love the octopus,” exclaims Kirke, “even in the screenplay, I think it was one of the moments where I was just like, ‘oh my God, I really want to do this movie,’ before I even met with Aaron.”
As Jill pursues clues to prove her own innocence, she sees just how precarious stardom can be. But in the end, she too only discovers her biggest leads by chance. And by nature of her place in this world, there is only so much she can do. She is a strong female character, forced into a role of subservience, and she finds herself still doing Heather’s dirty work after the murder. “There’s an element of Jill coming into power in the movie that I think is really cool,” says Kirke. “It’s that master-slave question. Who really is in power? How much power do the people we give power to actually have?” In many ways, Jill knows more about Heather’s life than Heather, so it makes perfect sense that she is the one that is able to crack the case, or at least see it through to its open-ended conclusion.
“It’s not to say the ending of a movie is a dead end,” says Cho. “There’s a certain satisfaction in agreeing that no one can know anything or something like that. To me, it is very satisfying to end on a question mark.” GEMINI works so well because the film captures that air of enigmatic uncertainty. The industry is so tied into dreams and pretense that to try to ‘solve’ it seems equally unobtainable. “The nature of the mystery is circuitous,” explains Katz, “There are no answers. I think everyone at the end of the film all have their own version of what events happened, and then how they feel about those events and then how they’re going to present those events to themselves. Which may be different from what they believe to be the truth.”
I will admit, GEMINI covers a bit of the same territory I did in my feature ICRIME, so I was either going to love it or hate it, but I can unequivocally say the film excels in putting a Los Angeles on screen that few people see. If the mystery is a bit unknowable, the characters flicker and glow like the bold choices of a Hollywood long-gone, and Katz toys with his audience through pitch-perfect pacing and visual splendor. It conjures up memories of my favorite film about Los Angeles, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, although it’s like MULHOLLAND DRIVE with the lights turned on. Lynch’s film is so dark and shadowy and GEMINI is like ‘let’s see behind shadows . . .’ I offered the comparison to Katz who jumped on it, although he says he feels like Lynch’s film is more heightened and has a supernatural thread running under it. “Maybe you’re right,” he suggests, “we’re kind of shining a light into the seemingly supernatural thread and realizing oh, these are just people who are trying to live their lives.”
GEMINI made its world premiere at SXSW and was immediately acquired by NEON. I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that GEMINI is yet another genre-toying film from producer Mynette Louie, who also brought THE STRANGE ONES to SXSW and claims THE INVITATION, BUSTER’S MAL HEART and COLD COMES THE NIGHT in her credits. I’ve learned to trust her instincts.