The Valley of the Maniacs

Why Mike Ott keeps making films on the Pearblossom Highway

I
Roberto Rossellini and the Italian neorealists reinvented cinema in the post-war rubble of Rome. The path-breaking auteurs of the French New Wave found freedom in the streets of Paris. Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and Martin Scorsese took Manhattan. The Coen Brothers, no matter where they roam, will forever be geographically pinned to Fargo, North Dakota.

Mike Ott has Antelope Valley. The 2,200-square-mile desert expanse falls between the San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountain ranges an hour north of Los Angeles. Engineers build space ships out there, and 1960s space cadets owe profound debt to its fecund dust, which nurtured freaky avant-gardists Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet—A.K.A. Captain Beefheart—who first met at a high school in the valley. As the tendrils of civic sprawl have reached deep into a terrain where no one ever had to worry about what their neighbors thought, grizzled desert rats who have made their own idiosyncratic habitats have run afoul of efforts to normalize housing concepts. People used to head out there to get lost. But times are changing.

Nonetheless. Much like the amorphous entity known as Los Angeles, the valley is too much to gentrify too quickly. It is its own unique vortex. For the last decade, it has been at once Ott’s geographical backyard and his creative vista. The filmmaker, who lives in Valencia, 45 minutes from the valley, has made four features there since 2006, including the so-called “Antelope Valley” trilogy of Littlerock (2010), Pearblossom Hwy (2012), and Lake Los Angeles (2014). He has mapped a terrain that could not be further away from the hipster precincts of mumblecore, and the clusters of urban aspiration where most American microbudget film happens, if he were making films on the moon. Which, come to think of it, much of the valley, in its crumbly, arid vastness, already resembles.

“I was struck by the landscape and how weird it was,” Ott says. “There’s this oddness and weird loneliness and Lynchian bizarreness. I think when I was a kid and would go out there, I found myself baffled as to how or why anyone could live out there… and it’s strange because the older I get, I find I have a better understanding of why one might want to, or at least a compassion for the idea of it.”

In each of his films, Ott taps into a tight, collaborative ensemble of friends and mostly non-professional actors who inhabit roles not too different from their own lives. Littlerock sets up a stranger-in-a-strange-land scenario, where a Japanese tourist (co-writer Atsuko Okatsuka) stays behind in the town of the title while her brother continues on a California road trip without her. A kind of love triangle ensues when she falls in with the local slackers, and language barriers strain a friendship with a hyper-emotional new friend (Ott regular Cory Zacharia), whose crush on her generates a surplus of sincere awkwardness. The dialectic abides in Pearblossom, as Okatsuka plays an illegal Japanese immigrant and sex worker who befriends Zacharia’s punk-rock frontman, an iconoclast mostly in his mind, whose anti-conformist values are challenged by the return of his older, more conventionally masculine brother from a military stint. While it still employs the improvisatory and written-by-the-camera strategies of the other films, Lake Los Angeles raises the stakes, emphasizing the desolate beauty of the landscape and making more evident the melancholy poetry of its dislocated characters lives: a 10-year-old Mexican girl (Corina Calderon) and an older Cuban man (Roberto Sanchez), both of whom are stranded in the desert far from their loved ones.

“I’ve found the people I’ve met out there to be genuinely weird,” Ott says. “And I mean that as a compliment. True individuals who own their views and are real outsiders. In a lot of movies, the idea of being weird and being different has been co-opted. A corporate idea of someone being weird is Natalie Portman in Garden State. I’m sorry, you’re not weird. Listening to The Shins doesn’t make you a weirdo. That’s the most mainstream thing in the world. I want to see movies about real weirdos and real outsiders. Putting glasses on someone handsome doesn’t make him weird.”

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II
Unlike a lot of kids who aspired to be the next Spielberg—or Godard—Ott slipped into film sideways, almost as a lark. He took a Super-8 filmmaking class in junior college and was happy to see that he didn’t suck at it. “I made some kind of dumb short film and sent it into Cal Arts to see if I could get in,” he recalls, “and I ended up getting in.” The piece was a mockumentary about “a legendary outlaw kid who rode a BMX bike and terrorized the town. He’d drink beer, get chased by the cops, like something from Over the Edge.” Although the character was real, Ott collected fake anecdotes that mythologized this small-town rebel, already showing a disposition towards fictions in the immediate shadow of real life.

One day on campus, Ott and a friend ran into Thom Andersen, something of a legendary outlaw himself. The professor had been impressed by the film and wanted to know who made it. Ott offers his impersonation of the man who would become his mentor, dropping his voice an octave. “Yeah, a person like that, a lot of people think that kid’s a loser,” he said, quoting Andersen on the movie’s storied antihero, “but to me that’s what it’s all about. Being older and living outside the system.”

Film buffs revere Andersen as the creator of Los Angeles Plays Itself, a long-underground video essay finally released on DVD in 2014, that explores, through scenes from more than 200 films, all the ways in which the movies got their hometown—“the most photographed city in the world”—wrong. The project’s most engaging facet, besides its droll and cranky narration, is the way Andersen directs your attention away from the ostensible focus of any given scene (often an absurd action sequence) toward richly philosophical incongruities of location. He brings the background to the foreground.

“He looks at cinema differently,” says Ott, whose own perspective, shaped by a grueling effort to complete what became his 2006 debut, Analog Days, comes at life and art-making from a side angle.

“I spent an entire summer shooting a feature that was a complete nightmare,” he recalls. “It was a 45-day shoot, or something like that. Like American Movie, anything that could go wrong went wrong. Everyone, of course, is excited at first. You start. People quit. Actors quit in the middle of it. I had to reshoot entire scenes. We were shooting on Super 16mm so it was expensive. I had two different DPs because neither one could commit to the entire shoot. Some days I had two DPs, some days neither one would show up.”

Years passed, Ott says, but eventually Analog Days premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and launched him onto the international film festival circuit. “The experience of making that movie was really important,” he says. The big lesson: Screw convention. “I had this one actor who couldn’t remember his lines, and he would always fuck them up. When I got the footage, his stuff was always the best. It was this moment I realized that all the fuck ups and the mistakes and the things the actors brought to it were the things that I liked, not the stuff that I wrote.”

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III
Cory Zacharia first walks onto a Mike Ott film in 2007. He plays himself, because it’s a documentary, but then Zacharia always plays himself, because he’s so much better than any character anyone could write. The project is “Kid Icarus,” a nutty behind-the-scenes saga of a student film shoot gone badly awry in which co-director Ott captures one of his charges, a would-be Scorsese, as he engineers a trainwreck—ignoring the advice of nearly everyone involved. The film is like a lower-rent community college answer to Project Greenlight—or, as Ott prefers, his often-cited American Movie—and Zacharia completely steals it.

“We were shooting a scene in a restaurant and Cory shows up, and the whole focus of the movie changed,” Ott says. “He introduces himself. ‘Hi, my name is Cory, and I want to be an actor and a model, and I’m here to get my foot in the door of the industry.’ He shows up to set everyday, falls in love with the makeup girl, and we became friends.”

A citizen of Antelope Valley with Hollywood dreams, Zacharia is the purest embodiment of the outsider spirit in Ott’s work, which mitigates against calculated framing of character or prefabricated expectations. “He’s so magnetic,” the director says. “Actors would die to have the kind of charisma that he has. He’s so alien but familiar. He’s also so earnest, which is what I love about Cory. In independent cinema, whether it’s directors or actors, everyone’s trying to be ironic and complicated. Cory is none of that. What you see is what you get. He doesn’t know how to be sarcastic; he doesn’t know how to be ironic. That just doesn’t exist in most people.”

Urszula Śniegowska, artistic director of the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, champions Ott as a post-millennial American incarnation of “Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut mixed together (at the best, early times of their careers),” and likens Zacharia to a “punk version of Jean-Pierre Leaud,” the troubled kid Truffaut famously cast at age 13 in his 1959 breakthrough The 400 Blows—and who grew up to become one of France’s iconic movie stars.

For now, he is, at least, an iconic presence in Ott’s films, which share with contemporaries the Safdie brothers a deep affection for filming unusual characters with a loquacious knack for narrative and vivid personalities. “I like the idea that Cory can be a lead in a movie,” Ott says. “In any other film, he’d be the goofy sidekick who shows up every once in awhile and says something funny.” When Littlerock premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in 2012, Ott remembers a line of 30 people surrounding him and the film’s star after the screening. “No one wanted to talk to me,” he says. “They all wanted to talk to Cory.”

Zacharia is grateful for the attention. It has made him Netflix-famous at the supermarket checkout, but still hasn’t gotten him out of the home he shares with his mother in Lancaster. “I’ve lived out here 16 years and I’m just itchin’ to get out of this place,” he says, sharing his thoughts about his acting debut in Littlerock. “But I think there is something very cinematic, the way the sun and the sky is, a lot of the landscape shots are really beautiful. When Mike asked me to be in the film, I was really taken by surprise. I hadn’t really ever acted before. It’s funny, you wouldn’t think something you did the first time would win some big awards and go places. Mike saw something that caught his eye. He caught a glimpse of something in the desert and thought he’d run with it.”

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IV
As he has evolved as a filmmaker, Ott has cultivated a process that favors the wisdom of uncertainty. “You can feel it from his films there is something different,” says Jan Bezouska, a former student of Ott’s who now designs the sound for his productions, including Lake Los Angeles. “It’s like he’s shooting a documentary with actors.”

Ott and his cinematographer, Michael Gioulakis, might follow those actors in a scene over multiple takes, eschewing conventional coverage to zero in on different facets of each variation. “Tighter on one performer, going to a different person, letting the cinematographer choose interesting moments, letting the actors get into it,” Bezouska says. “It becomes hypnotic. It’s like a rhythm, like a mantra. It feels so natural. Why is everyone not doing it like Mike?”

Not everyone can, of course. The location affords a certain freedom. “He knows the desert and he knows how to work there,” Bezouska says, recalling an instance from Lake Los Angeles that arose from happenstance when the DP and his girlfriend found a dog—which led to an emotional, improvised scene with the movie’s young star and the canine known as “Panchito.” “Mike is not afraid when he sees things. He had a plan, but he can adjust.”

The designer looked back to an evening spent on Ott’s porch, plotting a current project called California Dreams, a quasi-documentary about the over-the-rainbow hopes and fantasies of everyday folks living in the fallout of show-biz glory. “We’re thinking, ‘What are we going to do tomorrow? We always figure it out, and it’s always special.”

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V
Such filmmaking philosophies dovetail nicely with those of another process-oriented indie thingfish, the Brooklyn-based writer and director Nathan Silver—whose often savagely intense ensemble dramas overflow with psychological mayhem monitored at close range within intimate domestic scenarios. Silver’s work doesn’t look like Ott’s, but they share a love of non-actors, and the giddy blur between what’s “real” and what’s “performance.”

“Even though our styles are different, that’s where we merge: We both like messing with reality,” says Silver, who first met Ott in 2012 when their films showed at the Viennale. “We’re both fascinated by Iranian cinema and how it deals with documentary and fiction, and merges the two. That was the beginning of our discussion of how we can bring that to American cinema and what we can do with it.”

Their first collaboration—Actor Martinez—premiered at the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Shot last summer, the film concerns one Arthur Martinez, a computer repairman whose passion is acting. The filmmakers got to know Martinez during visits to the Denver Film Festival, for which he serves as a volunteer driver. Many of Martinez’s paid acting gigs are in crisis intervention reënactments, so he first offered to pay Ott to make a short film with him in the lead. Instead, it seemed like the ideal opportunity for Ott and Silver to pool their obsessions.

“We take people’s stories and think how we can translate them into a movie and work with all the things in their lives,” Silver says. “It’s like writing with people.” It is not uncommon, in this rather open-ended process, for the script to get flipped, which sounds like the case with Martinez—which was still being prepped for Rotterdam at press time.

“It’s us trying to make a certain kind of movie, and him not wanting to make that movie,” says Ott, ever-attentive to process. Meta? “It’s super-meta. Definitely the weirdest film I ever made, for sure.”

Yet, for Ott, the focus isn’t too different than the subjects of his other films. “A lot of times you watch a movie and the person you’re most attracted to is the person on the side,” he says. “A movie that was life-changing for me that way was American Movie.” The 1999 documentary by Chris Smith chronicled the efforts of a would-be low-budget horror auteur named Mark Borchardt, a working-class Wisconsinite who struggles with alcohol, unstable income, and domestic issues, but remains steadfast in his mission to become a filmmaker. “Mark Borchardt,” Ott continues, “is someone I want to watch all the time.”

Mainstream representations won’t cut it. “A true weirdo will always say that they’re normal,” Ott says. “You watch Garden State and I think she says it like 10 times in that movie. ‘I’m really weird!’ You ever meet a real maniac? They’ll tell you that you’re the weirdo and they’re the normal one. That’s always the test.”

 

Photos by Andrea Sisson