We talk to Mike Ott, the director behind one of the standout films at the Reykjavik International Film Festival
One of the standout films Dazed managed to catch at the Reykjavik International Film Festival was the American auteur Mike Ott's strangely compelling Littlerock, the story of a Japanese brother and sister who come to the United States searching for the American Dream and end up drawn into a desert community in nowheresville USA. It's an interesting and poignant look at people trapped in communities that hold little hope for those with ambition that goes beyond working in a pizzeria. It's a gentle and haunting film, kind of like Mystery Train meets Paris Texas with a little of Hal Hartley's surrealism thrown in for good measure. One of the most interesting characters is Cory – a non-actor whom the writer/director came across in a small desert community not far from where the film takes place, and we are predicting very big things for him...
Dazed Digital: What were your inspirations for the film?
Mike Ott: The main inspiration for this film is Werner Herzog’s 1977 film, Stroszek. It’s one of my favourite films and a movie that I watched a lot when writing Littlerock. I also listened to his commentary over and over to study his process on making that film. He's just one director I admire as it changes all the time, lately I've been really into Krzysztof Kieslowski, Robert Altman, Kelly Reichardt, Terry Zwigoff. Some of them for their films, but some of them just for their approach and views as artists.
DD: Where did you find Cory? He has a really incredible quality to him...
Mike Ott: Cory is a gem. He’s like no one I’ve ever met... and working with him is great because he's so present and earnest ,and when he's in a scene he makes choices as an actor that are always fresh and different. We actually found him out in the desert – he lives about ten minutes away from the town of Littlerock. This was his first film, but he plans to continue acting.
DD: Ae any of the characters based upon people you know?
Mike Ott: Yeah, the milieu of Littlerock isn’t that different from the town that I grew up in. And I hung out with a lot of characters like the ones from my film – burnouts, lost souls, druggies, etcetera. Some of the characters are named after people I grew up with, so hopefully they won’t sue me!
DD: Were you primarily interested in the portraying a clash of cultures?
Mike Ott: I think it started based on the idea of these weird things in America that I’d see all the time, but found really bizarre or odd, things like the town of Littlerock itself and the fourth of July parade. I began thinking, 'If I find this stuff surreal or strange and I’ve grown up around it my entire life, what would an outsider make of it? I wanted to experiment with the idea of seeing America through a foreigner’s eyes.
DD: Do you think there is a part of America that is utterly lost and disconnected from the world. Do you think there is any hope for those lost communities?
Mike Ott: That’s a good question. I mean, what are your options when you grow up in a place like Littlerock with parents that are broke and who have abandoned you? And that actually is Cory’s story in real life. So, unless you’re born into money, which almost no one is in Littlerock, then you’re stuck being disconnected. There’s no culture, no art, no anything in that part of the desert… and this is a town only an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles, but when you’re there you might as well be in the backwoods of Alabama.
DD: Although the film is very gentle, there is an underlying threat... it's almost as if the girl is taken away at just the right moment before things turn bad, how did you go about creating that aura? Is the girl kind of a metaphor for an innocence that doesn't exist in America?
Mike Ott: Well, I think there a lot of people who come to America with this idealised version of it… and that’s a version that doesn’t really exist. I think Atsuko shows up to the States expecting this idyllic America and that’s why she’s willing to trust people and tries so hard to assimilate. Creating that aura of underlying threat was something that came organically because it’s something so present in where I live and how I grew up. In a lot of places in the US there is this constant uneasiness… a feeling that some local who one minute is buying you a beer, might flip on you in an instant and decide to break a bottle on your head.
DD: Do you think american has a habit of hiding from its past? Is that why you have the scene with the camps the Japanese were set to during WW11?
Mike Ott: Yeah, one of the reasons we included Manzanar was because the lack of knowledge about it. I met people who grew up in America who are in their 50s or 60s who couldn’t even tell you what happened at those camps. It’s like a secret we don’t talk about – it’s barely touched on in history when you’re a kid in school. So for me it was my way of learning about it and exploring it. But for Atsuko, I think it’s her seeing another side of America that she doesn’t fit with her initial idea of the “American Dream.”
DD: What is next for you as a director? What are you working on right now?
Mike Ott: I’m in the process of applying for a grant for my next film Teenage Wasteland. If things come together we’ll be shooting in early 2011. Cory and Atsuko are both in it as well… it’s a road movie but a lot of it is based on Cory’s real life experience and the things he’s going through right now. I’m really excited about it.