With a filmmaking career spanning more than a decade, Mike Ott checked all the indie boxes in the United States and has frequently traveled to Europe as a U.S. in Progress participant in both Wrocław’s American Film Festival and Paris’ Champs-Elysées Film Festival. After releasing his successful debut Analog Days in 2006, the so-called desert trilogy — Littlerock (2010), Pearblossom Hwy (2012) and Lake Los Angeles (2014) — unearthed the acting talent of Cory Zacharia (Ott’s regular muse ever since), while Actor Martinez (2016) was a plunge into hybrid documentaries and an impromptu directorial collaboration with Nathan Silver, another household name in low-budget cinema, that traveled to festivals all over the world.
Mike’s latest work California Dreams, with a world premiere at Berlinale’s Critics’ Week 2017, is a return to the hybrid genre, and to his “desert family.” Bitter-sweet in its desire to render truth to the lives of a few wandering souls and in its tongue-in-cheek tribute to cinephilia obsessions, the meta documentary depicts the contemporary dimension of the American dream. As of this spring, California Dreams is being distributed via Amazon Prime, and I recently interviewed its director to discuss his characters, the notion of success in a post-Trump world, out-humoring Judd Apatow and producing Henning Gronkowski’s upcoming 2018 feature Yung in Berlin (where Ott is based right now).
Your latest work is dedicated to Cory Zacharia, and I think it is a really important starting point for discussion. In your first films, the so-called desert trilogy, he was present as a character but more as a trademark of authenticity. In California Dreams, he has a dual role — he is both a protagonist and your alter ego, interviewing other people who want to be actors.
For sure, yes.
Why did you decide to go for this approach?
Initially, when we started doing the movie, just shooting the interviews to figure out what it is going to be, I thought of this idea — having people do their favorite scene from a movie, the part that interests you and reflects something about you. So, we started doing these auditions, and I thought of Cory, as he would be funny and whatever he did would be [pause] insane. It is really interesting that he picks The Outsiders’ monologue that talks about his mom, and I don’t even think he is conscious about picking this thing, about this guy who hates his mom or whatever.
So, we had that, we just started shooting little things here and there, we were starting to come up with ideas, and we were editing as we were going. We would shoot two days, not shoot for a month, then cut together what we have, talk about more ideas.
Initially, Cory wasn’t gonna be… we didn’t know how to add a narrative to it. And I’ve had that footage for a long time, him being interviewed in the car, where he talks about sex and the mental institution. My friend said back then: “I think this is something that can really connect the movie,” and I started thinking about it. I was also thinking how I hate documentaries where the director is the one always interviewing people in a really boring way, “OK, so where did you grow up,” you know.
We just tried to see how Cory interviews Patrick [Llaguno], he was the first one. I’ve known Patrick for 10 years, he was in my short film A. Effect (2008), and that kid doesn’t tell me anything, like I see him and “Oh, how’re doing Patrick?” “I’m doing fine.” “What’s up?” “Nothing.” I put Cory in a car with him and within two minutes he is talking about blowjobs and handjobs, all this stuff, and I realize that Cory has this amazing ability to disarm people, because they are not intimidated by him — he’s so sweet and opens up so much, they just feel they could tell him anything.
So, I thought that it would be really interesting if Cory does the interviews aside from me, because even if I would give him questions, he would forget the questions I gave him, he would fuck them up, and he would ask something much more interesting. And he has the biggest balls in the world, like with Neil [Harley], the chubby kid, within two minutes he says “Do you ever worry about your body image?” It’s like he has no filter…
But he said it in a very sweet, respectful way.
It is always very respectful, but no sane person would be, in two minutes, like “Hey, is it tough to be overweight?” You know what I mean? And he does it in such a beautiful and charming way.
Then also Cory did meet Henning [Gronkowski] after the Viennale a year or so ago, and Henning invited him to be in this movie, and I knew Cory was never gonna go.
Unless he gets the money.
Unless he gets the money, so Cory just kind of forgot about it, that it ever happened. He would always be “So, what’s going on with that movie?” “I don’t know, man, you have to call Henning and ask him.” “OK, I’ll just see if he gets a hold of me.” So, we talked to Henning and said “Hey, what if we make Cory think it’s still an option, that we make Cory think maybe it’s still gonna happen, and we just start documenting.”
But the thing with Cory is hard, because I don’t know how much he is conscious of my tricks that I’m doing to him, or if he’s actually three steps ahead of me.
But you shot the film in Berlin with Henning, right?
Oh, that was a different project we ended up doing in Berlin. Oddly enough, Cory ended up going to Berlin for California Dreams’ premiere [at Berlin Critics’ Week], so there is this weird meta thing that Cory went to Berlin but not for the same movie.
While I was watching California Dreams, I was thinking about this long way that your relationship with Cory went. When I first met you at the time of Littlerock (2010), you were more of a Truffaut person, while now you are straightforward Godard, because this dynamic that you have with Cory always makes me think of Jean-Pierre Léaud. With California Dreams, you adopt both Truffaut and Godard with Cory, you are both caring and exploitative. How do you feel about that?
I feel like whenever someone talks about exploitation in the movie, I would say that everyone on this film was exploited — me included. I worked on it for two and a half years, made no money. Mike G. [Gioulakis], who was the most famous person working on the movie, right, the most talented cinematographer I know, worked for free. We all did it for free, so everyone was exploited. And I would say the alternative was nothing; the alternative would be Cory not being seen at all. And also, for me, it’s a way of pushing him to do something, because otherwise… but even with me pushing him to do something, he’s still doing nothing, he’s still staying at home. He would be invited to the Las Vegas Film Festival and his mom wouldn’t let him come, and he is gonna be 30-year-old…
So, these tactics… I don’t feel bad about trying to get him out and put him into the world. Also, I think that in doing this, although I could see what people would think, I believe it is his best performance ever, the sweetest thing he’s ever created. He is so adorable in the movie, sometimes I think I had to push him with an iron rod to get something sweet out of him.
How about another cinematic obsession of yours, the 1970s attire that Cory was wearing in that Fassbinder moment — the leather jacket with a bare chest — having this conversation about sexuality, personality and mental problems?
I think all that was probably subconscious there, those things somehow leak in when we don’t even think about it. Yes, I’m really obsessed with Cory’s sexuality in a way, because I know that this is something he’s been dealing with his whole life, and he’s still not comfortable with it.
It’s this fascinating thing that he has, when he tells stories about sleeping with guys, then saying to the person — while the camera is still on — “And please don’t tell anyone!” Like he is telling me the story, and I’m “OK, I won’t tell anyone,” then we walk into another room, even with me, and he would tell you all of it, then the next person, and so on. At the end, I’m like “Cory, there’s no one else to tell, ’cause you told everyone!”
And then his tank tops, like he has one shirt, two shirts, he always wears the same things all the time. So, I would always tell him “Bring all of your clothes to the set, so we can choose from them” — then he brings his three shirts, and that’s all.
When you juxtapose California Dreams and the American dream as a whole, do you think that this is what really unites these people in the film, including Cory — this idea of success, or a particular way of living they want to achieve? Do you think that this is what makes them a collective character in the movie?
Yeah, two things. If you look at them as a whole, they all have this desire to have some kind of fame, because they think it’s gonna fix the problems in their lives (if they are lonely, they think they’re gonna get laid, or if they are depressed, this is gonna make them happy), which I find fascinating, because I don’t think it will change anything. It will just accentuate how terrible things are in your life if you’re famous. Also, I think it’s interesting because all of them have this dream, but none of them is actually doing anything to achieve it.
Cory is basically staying at home, waiting for someone like me to come to his house, pick him up, take him to audition. Carol has a book she still hasn’t finished, yet she has this dream of winning the Academy Award. Patrick, who is brilliant… I mean this kid is the biggest cinephile, he can tell you what Alfred Hitchcock ate on day 4 of The Birds on set, he wants to be a film critic and writer. He’s still too in his own head to try anything.
I’m fascinated by this idea that you want to achieve something, but you do not necessarily want to do the work that it takes to get there, because there is so much work and rejection.
But this is what dreams are for — not to be achieved.
Yes, but I think that Cory is one of the most fantastic actors in the world, and if he puts any effort in it, he could. Obviously, it takes the right kind of director, you know, someone who can deal with his idiosyncrasies. And Patrick is a fantastic writer, but no one wants to do the work to get there, and I think they are all capable of doing it.
To go a bit further into the subject of dreams, I know the Trump question is now very popular in the States, but I was thinking of this power/media dynamic that settled in since the beginning of this presidency. Do you believe that these people, or your documentary, let’s say, would be different in five years, and how fame and success would be articulated then? Do you think the American dream will change?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. As far as people’s desires are concerned, whether the characters would have the same things going on?
Do you think they would still like to be seen on Oprah, or they would rather be seen as a very popular person on Twitter?
Yeah, I think the latter. It is almost like the lowest common denominator of being like a YouTube star, it’s such an easy thing to achieve and so vapid, nobody cares about as long as you have followers and comments. To me, it seems that people are more interested in that than actually creating something they would really care about.
Do you see your characters actually being exposed to the danger of becoming these stars, in five or in 10 years, instead of actually achieving what they strive for?
Definitely, this could happen, but I also don’t know if they would really care. Any kind of attention would be good attention, even if we would rather view it as negative attention. As long as there was attention, that’s all that would matter, even if it’s just 14-year-old girls in Idaho making their posts, not even caring about what they’re creating.
One of the reasons the idea started is because I read an interview with these actors talking about their favorite movie, and Trump’s was Citizen Kane, you know. It was interesting, it is like this reflects so much.
Patrick came to see the film in San Francisco, and he told me he’s going to invite his entire family, and I was like “Wow, here is the thing: you should watch it first, then decide.” Because his family is very strict, Catholic. I sent him a link, two weeks went by, and no response. I talked to Jan [Bezouska], my sound designer, and I was like “Man, I think he saw it, and he’s really upset.” Jan said “Don’t worry, I’ll write him.” Jan writes “Hey, Patrick, are you gonna come to the festival in San Francisco? Did you get a chance to see the movie?” Patrick takes two days to respond “No, I’ve just been very busy, I haven’t had the time to get around it, but I’ll see what I can do.” So, I finally talk to him: “Listen, don’t bring your parents, watch it first, either way, because even if it was me, I wouldn’t be comfortable with my mom watching me talk about my desire to get a blowjob.”
So he brings his cousin from the Philippines, she is a doctor, really smart, 30 years old, and she comes to watch. I was super nervous, because they would watch it together in the theater, Alex [Gioulakis] and I would have the Q&A, and I was “Hey, I think Patrick is here…” And he pops out of his seat: “I’m heere!” — so happy. So, he comes down, we talk about the movie, and the programmer says “Well, Patrick, this is the first time you’ve seen the film, what did you think?” He’s like, “I’m going to be honest, I think there was a little bit too much Cory,” and then he proceeds to totally critique the movie in front of me, which was brilliant, such balls, and we were all laughing hysterically. But he seemed to really like it, and afterwards he got mobbed by all these people, signing autographs, it was a really beautiful moment to see it. Kid was just having this desire to be the center of attention, and for a moment he had it.
Then I saw his cousin, and I asked her “What did you think?” “Well, some conversations I never want to hear from Patrick…”
Do you feel this is some sort of déjà vu of what you had already with Actor Martinez in terms of outcome? Because you’ve been through this already, in a way, even if back at the time you shared the experience with Nathan Silver?
Well, I think it’s different, because with the characters in this movie, I have so much more affection. While with Arthur, I kind of wanted to kill him all the time. There is something about these characters that is so sweet and endearing, there is something so charming about all of them, while there is something about Arthur we just all…
But when Nathan and I first met Arthur, we saw him in this sweet way, and as we got to know him, we kind of felt like killing him.
Actor Martinez reads pretty much like a prank, but what comes out of the story still looks fascinating. Maybe it’s still the same desire — to be known, to be on the spotlight.
Yes, to be acknowledged. But then it becomes really frustrating to me, because I think that with Arthur, especially, we were all arguing about what art means, what it means to be an artist. For me, it was very frustrating, because I would always tell him “You’re not interested in the art of acting, you’re interesting in acting like this social tool, talking about filmmaking is like who is the audience and how many tickets would be sold.” Nathan would always say that this doesn’t matter, maybe no one would see this movie, and probably not. The important thing is what we try to create, when we make something interesting that we care about.
So, with Arthur, it was really frustrating, because he had such a gross view (at least to me) of what it means to be an artist. He didn’t care about acting, he cared about some social status that comes with acting, which I always hate about actors.
But at least you had some sort of back up, with another co-director, while for California Dreams you were on your own. How was it to be back to solo?
It was nice. Our crew [on California Dreams] was so small, it was just me, Jan, Mike G., one camera assistant and maybe one other person, so it was really like my best friends. Mike G. and Jan would add a lot to the movie — when I didn’t have an idea and would ask them what should we do today, they would suggest we shoot this and that. So, it was kind of in the same vein, it was really nice to have someone there to bounce ideas off of.
And that was also really great about doing a film with Nathan. Sometimes you just don’t have an answer, and you don’t know what to do, or you think you have a good idea, and it takes someone else to say “That’s terrible!” or “Yeah, we should go down that road!” With Nathan, honestly, it was such an organic thing, we never fought, he was never upset when I said “No, I don’t want to do this,” there was no ego.
I also wanted to ask you about the music in California Dreams, as it is very cinematic and provides a really interesting contrast with the imagery. The visuals made me recall Baudrillard and “the desert of the real,” whereas the music adds a whole different level. Could you please tell me a bit about it?
We definitely knew we wanted to have references to old cinema, classic Hollywood. And also, I just loved the idea of this epic music when someone is eating a sandwich. It’s so epic, you think of someone flying on an airplane, saving the princess or something, except it’s just Cory packaging his tape. I love this contrast. But then his moments in the movie are epic. He would walk around with his video camera, getting ready to send his tape. Within his life, it’s an epic moment, possibly, but within the context of everything else, it’s just a guy walking in the desert, with a video camera.
So, I think it makes it kind of funny and silly in a way I like, because subject matter can be seen as so depressing, and dire, I think it’s important to find humor in it. And I think this is why so many people have a problem with the movie, because it’s not OK to laugh. Which is so frustrating, like you can only make movies like…
It has to be a tearjerker, you mean?
Yes, it has to be a tearjerker, or it has to be this sad character — it can’t be someone who is saying silly stuff and being funny. And I think it is more about the person watching it than it is about me. Because if you look at them like that, it’s your vision, as if Patrick or Carol are not worth of being a lead in a film, but why not?!
You only wanna see a movie about someone like Patrick, as long as it is Ryan Gosling, wearing bifocals, having his hair combed, then it’s OK. Or when it’s a Judd Apatow movie, it’s fine to watch nerds talk, but as soon as you see the real person do it, somehow it’s exploitation, and I think it’s so silly. You know, this moment of Cory and Patrick talking about sex in the car is literally what Judd Apatow has been trying to do his entire career — find a moment about these two guys, talking about sex in a real way.
There was this woman, I think I was in Florida for a Q&A, and she gave me the dirtiest look, raised her hand, and she was like “I have big problems with your movie! This scene with Patrick talking, this is just not right! You just pushed it too far!” And I said the same thing “But you like it in a Judd Apatow movie, or when it’s Ryan Gosling looking like a nerd? What makes it any different?” Sometimes real life is uncomfortable, and sad, and depressing, but that’s also what’s beautiful about it. The fact that there is this moment with these two guys who both are never really having sex but talk about it as if they have sex all the time.
To go back to the music, you would say that you tried to cinematize this discourse that you have with your “documentary,” or to rather pun this authenticity?
I think we tried to make it cinematic in a way, but also tongue-in-cheek. So much in the movie is about these people having these cinematic moments. Visually, I think Mike G. made these simple, boring moments look very beautiful and cinematic, as if these characters are playing a role in their own life, so it was important to have this type of music, but at the same time it was silly and over the top.
My last question is about this hybrid documentary genre. Do you think you will ever find you way out of it? Do you feel like going back to 100% fiction cinema?
I don’t know. I’m trying to make my next movie made, which is scripted, and in a way I’m excited to do it, but I know my interest is so much more in this place. If I had to make a straightforward narrative, I know at some point I would get lost in trying to do these things with the actors.
I guess it is a difficult decision from a directorial point of view — what I know as a viewers is that I take out so much more from documentaries and hybrids than from pure fiction.
I was watching this movie Lion (2016) on the plane, and there is this beautiful little kid in it that is probably the best part of the movie. And then the main guy comes, recreating the scenes — like I guess they really happened. When you see him at the end, when he finds his mom, you can just feel the artifice of it. I can see the actor trying to cry for the audience, and it feels so fake and uninteresting to me. Even though with the music and the performances I’m sure it’s fine, but I just don’t find it necessarily inspiring.
Watching a Kiarostami movie, with these weird things he does, it is so much more fascinating. So, I don’t know if I’ll ever find my way out.
Also, I don’t know if I’m doing these because I can’t find enough money to do a really big movie. But even if I find a bunch of money, I don’t know… I could totally fuck it up.
But Europe is helping, right? You’ve been traveling a lot around here? You meet a lot of new people, new opportunities come up?
Yes, the one we did in Berlin with Henning, he just did his first movie [Yung (2018)], for which we ended up making him throw the script out, because the script was so bad. But at the end, it became this meta thing, where all the characters are playing themselves, being interviewed.
And you were a co-producer of this?
Yes, but I ended up telling him like “Come on, this would be so much more interesting than these kids playing gangsters, let them talk about themselves!” And I think his movie is much more interesting because of it, I hope. Or we totally ruined it by trying to make something we wanted to do.
Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer, currently based in Paris. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.