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Interview with Aaron Katz, director of Dance Party, USA

Aaron Katz is the director of the well reviewed ultra low budget indie drama Dance Party, USA (check out my review here, I enjoyed the flick). The movie recently started playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York City. I was able to ask Katz a few questions recently about his film work and some related topics during this e-mail interview:

Sujewa: Hey Aaron, I liked Dance Party, USA a lot. Since other recent interviews (GreenCine Daily's links for the movie) have talked a lot about the movie, I'll start off with a question about the movie that you just finished: Quiet City - what's that about?

Aaron: Quiet City is about a couple strangers, Charlie and Jamie, who meet and hang out in Brooklyn over the course of 24 hours. Jamie's supposed to be meeting her friend, but the friend never shows so she just keeps hanging out with Charlie. I'm excited about it. Cris and Erin, the two leads, were amazing to work with. They were both totally open.

Sujewa: And on to DPUSA; how did your $3,000 production budget break down? What did you spend what on? Also, how much did it cost for post-production? And for distribution so far (including fests & marketing for any theatrical, sending out screeners, etc.)? I think the cost of ultra-low budget indie film production & distribution going down due to DV is awesome.

Aaron: Well, we spent about $1200 getting everyone to Portland. Marc and Brendan (the two producers) and myself drove and everyone else flew in. We spent about $500 on equipment and tapestock. We had camera, sound, and a small lighting kit that we got for free, but we spent some money on some things from the department store. We got extension cords, some fluorescent fixtures and tubes that we put diffusion over to use as softlights, batteries, practical bulbs of varying types, and a few other things. I guess we spent a couple hundred on gas and a couple hundred on snacks. My dad made our meals though so we didn't pay for those. We did pay for beer to give to the people who let us shoot the party scene at their house. What does all that add up to? Is that $3000 yet? That's most of it anyway. As I've said in other interviews the big thing that made it possible was that it was a group effort. Everyone did what they could to scrap and scrape and figure out how to do it with what we had. In post I haven't kept track. It was never a lot of money at once, but I've definitely spent a few hundred. Postcard printing, festival submission fees, blank DVDs, things like that.

Sujewa: How is the "selling home made DVDs while screening your movie at fests & a theater (Pioneer in NYC)" going? I think what you are doing is a smart move for low-budget, self-distributed indies - opens up a path for some $s to come your way, kind of like indie rockers having their CD for sale while they tour.

Aaron: Yeah. It is kind of like that. And it's going well. I'm surprised at how many DVDs I've sold. It's not a lot by any stretch, but it's more than I expected. Over the last week I've sold four or five a day. And they're to people all over. I'm curious to know where exactly each person found out about the movie.

Sujewa: At another interview you said your day job is projecting film at the IFC Center. Are you ever tempted to screen DPUSA @ IFC Center w/ out the management knowing about it?

Aaron: So far I haven't been. IFC Center has amazing facilities and it would be great to see Dance Party here, but I like my job and I wouldn't want to do it under the radar.

Sujewa: The DPUSA lead actors did a good job I thought, what are they up to these days?

Aaron: Cole went to the Atlantic Theater Conservatory right after Dance Party. That's the Mamet school. He's in Mexico right now, I'm not sure what he's doing there, but I understand he'll be back in New York soon. Anna still lives in Portland. She does a lot of interesting things there. Painting and bookmaking and things like that. Ryan White is in a band, but he has no cell phone and no address. Every now and then I get a call from some random number and it's him saying that he's in town and wants to hang out.

Sujewa: It was cool hanging out with Stacy Schoolfield, a producer of the currently self-distributed flick Jumping Off Bridges, last night in Silver Spring, MD. We talked for a moment about the apparent low number of women & minorities in key positions in indie film production & distribution. I think the numbers are going up, but with the DV revolution I expected them to go up much quicker - since the cost of entry is now low & films can be made with just 1-5 or so crew members & very little equipment. Why do you think at the moment it seems like US indie film is mostly a liberal "white" male thing (not that there is anything wrong with that)? The indie film scene does not seem as diverse as the music scene.

Aaron: The film business has never been nearly as diverse as the music business. I can count American minority filmmakers prior to 1960 that I've heard of on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand black people are responsible for creating half of, or even more than half of, American music genres of the 20th century. Obviously this comes in part from the fact that minorities have had much less access to wealth. You don't need a lot of money to make music. Now, as you said, the price of entry into film has recently become low, but traditionally the price of entry has been very high. It takes time for the idea that you need all this expensive stuff and all these highly paid crew people to wear off. There's still this unnecessary mystique around film production that there's not around music. Really I think minorities, women, and liberal white guys alike are just now discovering what's possible.

Sujewa: David Lowery & also Pioneer's blog has grouped yourself, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski, & the Duplass brothers together as a new low-budget filmmaking movement. One thing I noticed about all of your good/interesting/excellent movies is the lack of minority/non-"white" characters in lead roles (except the supporting role of the DJ in Mutual Appreciation, if I recall correctly). How do you think that came about? Is it because you guys don't have any minority/non-"white" friends that are into filmmaking (since you use a lot of your friends in your low budget movies)? As an audience member what is interesting to me about indie film is seeing people that you do not see a lot in Hollywood movies on the screen (post-Down By Law Jarmusch movies are a good example, also the queer film movement), in non-stereotypical roles.

Aaron: I've definitely noticed this and tried to figure out what it's all about. For me it's circumstantial. Had, say, a black guy or a Japanese girl come in to audition and they were better actors than a white guy or white girl I would have cast them. I had imagined Gus, the main character in Dance Party, as a white kid in advance. In part because the guy he was based on is white, but if a black guy came in and he was great I would have figured out what that changed and gone with it. As long as we're talking about the issues of race in independent filmmaking, I'd be curious to get your take on it.

Sujewa: The indie filmmaking scene is getting more diverse - but there is a long way to go. Most people - indie film fans - will only be able to identify a handful of currently active indie filmmakers from minority backgrounds at this point. But, also at this point in time, the tools/the means of production & distribution are more accessible than ever - so all kinds of people who were shut out of filmmaking in the past can now try it - thanks to the digital production revolution, the internet as a cheap publicity tool, the growing interest in self-distribution, DVD players everywhere, etc. I think within 5 years there will be many more minority indie filmmakers - just sheer quantity wise - & out of that should come some excellent filmmakers - film is a hard art to master, takes a lot of work, failures & attempts. I think US indie film is generally open to ethnic diversity. At least I have not felt any hard resistance against my new film from the US indie film scene because I am a filmmaker from an ethnic minority group. I think at the moment Hollywood may be more diverse ethnically, but pretty soon I believe the US indie filmmaking arena will be much more diverse than Hollywood - which will affect Hollywood soon after - because the indie arena is a place most filmmakers like to pass through on their way to Hollywood.

Back to your movie, how did the Dance Party, USA opening at Pioneer go on Wed 11/15?

Aaron: The run has been good. I was nervous about it. The first couple nights we had about 15 people and then on Friday there were only 7. I was really depressed about that. I kind of got disproportionately upset for a while, but then I realized that it wasn't that big of a deal. When I made the movie I had no idea it would come as far as it has. I lost sight of that for about an hour. Either way the rest of the screenings have been better. Last night, weirdly, we had a lot of people. I'm not sure why they chose Tuesday to come out.

Sujewa: If $s were not an issue, what kind of subjects, themes would you want to explore through your upcoming movies & why?

Aaron: I would make some things in a similar vein to Dance Party and Quiet City, but I also have a couple of projects in mind that would take a lot more money. There's this satirical British novel from 80's called Flashman and the Redskins that I want to adapt the first half of. It would be called The Forty-Niner. It's a western about this supposed war hero, who is actually despicable. The weird part is that despite its bleak point of view and bleak humor the book gets to you emotionally. I also want to do a movie about a black jazz drummer and a white country musician in early 1960's Oklahoma City. The jazz guy plays as part of the bland house band at a posh dinner club and the country guy hangs around bars, getting gigs here and there. The jazz guy has big ideas about composing music, but can never seem to accomplish anything. The two hang out and drink and smoke and eventually start to figure things out. The vibe I imagine is a little like Fat City.

Sujewa: Is there going to be a sequel to DPUSA? It would be interesting to see what happens to those two lead characters after high school.

Aaron: No sequel. I agree it would be interesting, but the moment is gone.

Sujewa: Thanks a lot for the interview Aaron. Best of luck with Dance Party, USA.


Dance Party, USA has three more dates at the Pioneer coming up soon: November 24, 26, and 27, all at 7:15 PM. Additionally, there will be some late night dates added in December. Go check out Aaron's movie if you haven't yet. Here is my review of it, originally published on this blog on 11/15/06:

Dance Party, USA is a $3K digital video feature with some excellent cinematography; specially the night time driving scenes of the city, the colors reminded me a little of a DV version of Mystery Train. The story DPUSA tells is a sly coming of age story. Cole Pensinger (who looks a little like one of the SNL actors) plays Gus, the male lead of the story & Anna Kavan plays the somewhat mysterious female lead Jessica. The two meet at a party, Gus tells Jessica a dark secret, and then we are not sure exactly where the story is going to go. It is a pleasant unpredictability. DPUSA is quietly pleasurable & absorbing. First time feature writer & director Aaron Katz has crafted a very impressive debut. The party goes down every night for the next week and a few nights more at the Pioneer Theater in NYC, starting tonight [wed 11/15]. If you are open for some low key escapism through reflections of simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary events from the border years of official adulthood, then Dance Party, USA is the movie for you.

- Sujewa


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