Six months after its debut in the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival, Mike Ott's Littlerock has become an indie/underground and film festival circuit favorite, garnering a Gotham nomination for Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near you just last week. The second feature from director Ott (Analog Days), Littlerock lets us in on the small town world of the settled, lost and yearning. Told from the perspective of Japanese siblings stopping off en route to the former sites of Japanese internment camps, the story explores how we connect across uncommon ground. Ott studied under Thom Andersen at the California Institute of the Arts and now teaches filmmaking at College of the Canyons in his hometown of Valencia, California. He directs music videos and runs Sound Virus Records when he’s not making movies. In this interview, which occurred during the course of SFIFF53, Ott, who recently was named a finalist for the Fall 2010 San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant, talked about the filmmaking process and why he made the film with co-writer and actor Atsuko Okatsuka.
SF360.org: So this is your third film, following up the feature Analog Days and the short film A. Effect. You co-wrote Littlerock with Atsuko Okatsuka and A. Effect with Jennifer Shahin. Can you talk about how the decision to write together shapes the filmmaking process?
Mike Ott: I had had this initial idea of what I wanted it to be kind of Lost in Translation from a foreigner in America’s perspective, but I didn’t know if it was going to be somebody speaking Spanish or whatever, but then I met Atsuko and we kind of went out there and did a temp shoot. We shot like a 30-minute kind of short version and experimented with how we were gonna shoot it and kind of what the story would be. There’s this film by Werner Herzog called Stroszek, which is about this guy coming from Germany looking for the American dream and it all kind of crumbles. One thing he did was go out there and meet the locals and made the story based around what was out there. So what we did was go out to Littlerock and we knew that there was a Mexican restaurant that we could shoot at for the story and we knew where the motel and all these things were. So, together we kind of saw things, met people and wrote the thing as opposed to already having a total narrative going out there. She has probably the best ideas of the film.
SF360.org: You were friends before?
SF360.org: How did you educate yourself on the topic of cultural isolation in rural America?
Ott: Going out to Littlerock is such a surreal thing, as Americans living in Southern California. I was thinking it was interesting, like, what would a foreigner think of this. It’s so weird to me. But a lot of it is Atsuko’s idea. What it was like for her when she first came here trying to assimilate. And those kind of themes are things that she threw in and would tell me what it was like and the language and what it means if you want to be an American if you can’t speak the language. In Valencia, where I grew up, it’s like my first film Analog Days was a lot about this where it’s separated by train tracks where basically all the white people live on one side of the tracks and there’s the poor Mexican neighborhood. It’s been something that I’ve always been around: Day laborers coming out every day looking for work. All the immigration issues that come up in California every ten years. It’s something that’s always interested me.
SF360.org: Did you interview anyone from the town?
Ott: We cast a lot of townies in the movie. Cory [Zacharia] lives out there. He’s in Section 8 housing. He lives five minutes away from Littlerock. All of his stories are his stories. He wants to leave. He wants to become a famous actor and model. But he’s stuck in this household where literally you go out into the desert and it’s like nothing and there’s like these ten houses and there’s nothing around. When we were out there, there were these locals and they would show us these weird speed freak dudes out in the desert and we would try and bring them into the scene.
SF360.org: What was your approach to casting? What are you looking for in relatively inexperienced actors?
Ott: The thing with acting, especially when you’re living in LA, there’s a lot of people that call themselves actors. Just because you have a headshot doesn’t mean you become an actor. You know what I mean? I feel like non-actors a lot of times are just as good if not better than people that call themselves actors because a lot of times people who say they’re good, are terrible. I guess that sense of realism is important. If they can make it realistic, are easy to work with, if they’re funny and they’re gonna come out there. The only real actor in the movie is this guy Roberto Sanchez.
SF360.org: What camera did you shoot with?
Ott: With the Sony EX3 HD camera.
SF360.org: Did you shoot with that for your previous film?
Ott: Previous film was on film. It was on Super 16.
SF360.org: Which do you prefer? Is it a matter of preference? How do you make the decision?
Ott: This was a matter of I don’t have the money to shoot on film. The last movie broke me, completely. Took me years to complete because I was always trying to get money. There’s something about the style of how I like to shoot now, of letting people improv. We shot a lot, way too much, but if we shot on film I don’t think we would have gotten as good of performances, where it’s like OK you have to nail it in one take. Where in this movie we had this scene where Cory’s smoking weed in the trailer and we’re there for four hours and there’s the most amazing moments in it that couldn’t have come across if we weren’t actually in there for four hours and actually smoking pot. If we shot on film it would have to be one take of everything. It would be terrible. It allowed us to kind of get past the rough parts, get people comfortable. We could shoot a lot until they got natural with their performance.
SF360.org: Did the cast just naturally come together or did you have some sort of icebreaker?
Ott: I had them all out for drinks one night. Just to hang out before we shot everything. We spent the five hours drinking and talking. Since it was going to be this intimate thing where they were supposed to know each other. So the first day that we shot, they had already had beers together. They already had inside jokes. Already had an idea about Cory, because I knew Cory was just going to blow their minds because he’s such a crazy character in L.A. and in the movie. And on the set we were always drinking and smoking pot, which seemed like a good idea at the time for most of the people.
SF360.org: You said you didn’t have the money to shoot on film. What was your budget and how did you find financing?
Ott: Atsuko’s uncle gave us some money. We really didn’t have a budget. We had the equipment. It was basically like whatever it costs for the day, I would just pay out of my pocket. Twenty dollars for this person to come, a hundred dollars for this location. It was all really cheap, in relation to a real movie. But we just went along and I kind of saved up money beforehand. But I didn’t really keep track. Not a lot.
SF360.org: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers, people who are starting out on their first or second films?
Ott: Well for my students that I teach at the school that I work at, I always tell them the only way to learn about filmmaking is to make movies and to watch movies. There’s this Tarantino quote, where he says, 'I didn’t go to film school, I went to films.' I learned about filmmaking from watching movies. And I think that’s a mistake a lot of filmmakers make. They think that they don’t have to know anything about cinema and they just go out and make movies. I think the more movies you watch, the more interesting your films are. Especially if the movies aren’t like the films you want to make, essentially the opposite, or something you might not like. Getting Netflix and watching as many films as you can is probably the best film education you can get. Way more than going to film school. You can’t learn about directing or filmmaking. You just have to go out and do it. There’s so many things that happen: an actor that doesn’t show up, or a location falls through, people aren’t getting along. All those things you have to learn by experience.
SF360.org: Which directors have particularly influenced you?
Ott: Well, John Hughes, of course. I grew up on John Hughes films. I think there’s an element of his stuff in all my films. And Werner Herzog. Stroszek, I love that film. Krzysztof Kieslowski. But lately I’ve been watching a lot of Herzog, a lot of Michael Haneke films. Even though Haneke films are totally not anything I would be interested in making, but I find that what he’s doing is really interesting.
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