Back in 2010, Mike Ott's second feature film, "Littlerock," made a considerable impression on the indie-film world. Beyond winning top awards at AFI FEST and Independent Film Festival of Boston, "Littlerock" won both the "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" prize at the Gotham Awards and the "Someone to Watch" award at the Independent Spirits — pretty much the holy duo of support for an emerging American indie filmmaker.
Two years later, Ott has followed up the promise that came with those accolades with "Pearblossom Highway," which had its world premiere at the just-wrapped Vienna International Film Festival last week before heading to AFI FEST for its American debut this past weekend.
The film, in large part, continues both the themes and approach of "Littlerock," a risky move that pays off quite nicely. Ott again collaborates with Atsuko Okatsuka (co-screenwriter and lead actress) and Cory Zacharia (the lead actor) on "Pearblossom," blending both spontaneous improvisation and real-life elements of the lives of the actors into his and Okatsuka's screenplay.
"I was talking to someone the other night who said something to the degree of, 'You're not interested in making another kind of movie,'" Ott said in Vienna the night before he headed back to Los Angeles for AFI FEST. "I mean, I don't necessarily want to five years from now be making movies out in the desert with me and Cory and Atsuko and a video camera. However, at the end of the day, I want to make films… I've just met so many first-time filmmakers that have more success than me — or less success than me, for that matter — that still haven't made another movie. So initially I just wanted to make something."
Ott and Okatsuka cut and pasted ideas together for a while as they developed the story of Cory and Anna (Zacharia and Okatsuka), variations on the characters each portrayed in "Littlerock." Like that film, this one is set in a small California desert town (the title refers to the only highway leading out of it), and deals with themes of immigration, disillusionment and coming of age. Cory is a twentysomething who's having trouble going anywhere (his main goal is to get on a reality show), and who may or may not be significantly confused about his sexuality. Anna is a Japanese immigrant who's taken up prostitution so she can save money to go back to Japan and visit her sick grandmother. The film culminates in the two of them heading to San Francisco together to visit Cory's long-absent father.
Despite what it takes on, the film never feels heavy-handed. It also never feels as if Ott and his collaborators are simply repeating "Littlerock." "Pearblossom" easily stands on its own as a distinctive and engaging film that works so well because of the collaborative, unconventional apporach behind it and the organic-feeling cinema that results.
With the character of Cory, Ott used footage Zacharia had made himself to help guide his narrative. Ott had given him a camera before he started shooting, and told him to wake up every morning and just say whatever was on his mind into it.
"Talk about your mom, talk about your brother… whatever you're thinking," Ott would say to him. "And then I just started texting him questions like, 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' Or, 'What's the worst thing you've ever done?' Stuff like that. And he would answer those, but often go off on these rants that were way more interesting than what I actually asked him… I don't always know if he's performing or just being himself. And how that blurs together is what I like about it."
Ott and Okatsuka had written an entire script but started throwing things out when they began shooting.
"There were a lot of times where we had a scene written but what ended up happening was totally different than what was in the script," Ott said. This allowed Zacharia to bring the same kind of 'is he acting?' energy to some of the scenes.
The ambiguity of Zacharia's relationship to his performance creates some incredibly naturalistic moments, particularly when the topic is whether or not Cory the character is gay. It's a point of interest for both the other characters and Cory himself, who at one point gives a unexpectedly profound monologue about what it means to "act gay" and why people think he might be. The fact that it's somewhat unclear whether it's Cory the actor or Cory the character speaking makes it all the more remarkable.
"He's a friend," Ott said. "We talk once a week on the phone. But there's so much about him I don't know. So a lot of it was just putting him in situations and trying to figure it out."
Another element of "Pearblossom" that bucks convention, even by indie standards, is its festival plan, in that Ott doesn't seem to care about having one. Coming off of the accolades "Littlerock" received, it seems entirely reasonable for him to aim for a Sundance or a SXSW berth, but instead, "Pearblossom" had its world premiere in Vienna, a festival Ott holds close to his heart.
"I've met so many filmmakers who have this whole plan," Ott said. "And at the end of the day, I feel like people are going to like your movie or they're not…. There's also something to me about loyalty. Vienna was the first place that ever played my film outside the U.S. They've been super supportive of me. This is my fourth time here. And I like the idea of being involved with the people that helped me out and got me started. Same with Rachel [Rosen, of the San Francisco Film Society]. I feel lucky people like that cared about me at a time when no one else did."
Check out "Pearblossom" all over the film-festival circuit in the next few months, with Denver the next stop.