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SPIRITS 2011 | Someone to Watch Award Winner Mike Ott

SPIRITS 2011 | Someone to Watch Award Winner Mike Ott

Writer/director Mike Ott took home the Acura Someone to Watch Award for his second feature, “Littlerock.” The film tells the story of a Japanese student who finds herself stranded in a small California desert town during a sightseeing trip. Her newfound sense of freedom inspires her to extend her stay in the foreign country, but reality settles in with her as she discovers that this part of America isn’t exactly what she expected. Ott tells us about his accidental introduction into filmmaking, how “Littlerock” came about, and the next projects in store for him.

Filmmaking on a whim…

I kind of randomly got into filmmaking. I was lost in Junior College, taking classes here and there… and stumbled into a Super 8 class somehow. It was the first thing that I had tried that I felt I connected with artistically. I finished my first few Super 8 films, then the next year I applied to Cal Arts on a whim, but never really thought I’d get in.

Mike Ott on his Spirit nominated film, “Littlerock.”

The project I’m nominated for is called “Littlerock.” It’s a story about a Japanese brother and sister whose car breaks down in a desert town outside of Los Angeles and they have to try and assimilate with the locals they meet.

On how the story developed…

I feel like it was prompted by a bunch of different things. Originally we were toying with the idea of looking at the bizarre things in America that we see everyday, but through a foreigner’s eyes. I was also interested in writing a story around a specific location, opposed to finding a location that fit a particular story. So in a sense “Littlerock” started kind of as an experiment, going out to the town of Littlerock with the main actors and doing test shoots and writing the script based on the locations we found and people we met.

Our approach to the film was heavily influenced by Werner Herzog’s film, “Stroszek.” Studying a lot about how he made that film was really inspiring for us. Thematically as well, the idea of a character trying to find the American dream and what happens on that journey as it begins to crumble. I think one thing that was really helpful was that we had the luxury of going out about a year before we shot the actual film and did a bunch of test shoots. We experimented with a lot of things so we had a solid idea of how we were going to shoot it and what the style and tone would be long before we made the final film.

The challenges of getting started and getting townies drunk…

I think the biggest challenge with this project, along with every other project I’ve been involved with, was just getting the initiative to get started and embark on something new. It can be really intimidating to just get the motivation to take that first step.

I think one of the most memorable moments was when we were shooting the “motel room party” scene…which is where the Japanese siblings meet the townies for the first time, and they’re supposed to walk in on this party already in session. So we took all the people playing townies, about 15 people, locked them in the room with a bunch of booze and made them all get wasted. After an hour or so we sent in the actors to do the scene, but it was total chaos: people throwing up, girls crying, guys arguing, all kinds of madness. It was almost impossible to control. But I feel like there’s an authenticity to that scene and it feels like it’s a real party, so maybe it was worth it? At the time though I remember thinking, “Oh shit, this is a fucking disaster.”

Future adventures in producing and directing…

I just produced a film called “Sawdust City” which is set to premiere on the festival circuit this year. It’s directed by my good friend David Nordstrom who was the editor of “Littlerock.” The next film I’m directing is called “Teenage Wasteland.” We just got an amazing grant from the San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation to make the movie, so we’ll be shooting it later this year.

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