Starting this Friday in New York, Mike Ott’s “Littlerock” will finally find itself in theatrical release some six months after winning the Gotham Award for “best film not playing at a theater near you.”
After making the festival rounds since its debut at the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year, the film quickly found screenings at AFI, Vienna, Melbourne, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Thessaloniki, Vancouver, Denver, Rhode Island, Seattle and countless others. indieWIRE caught up with Ott at the Reykjavik International Film Festival last year, where the film had its European Premiere and won the festival’s audience award as a result.
Ott’s filmmaking days date back to junior college, where he stumbled into a Super 8 class and ended up making a short film.
“It was the first thing I ever did that felt like it came naturally,” Ott said. “Or maybe not even naturally, but in that I didn’t feel out of place. So then I applied to CalArts just to see if I could get in. And then I did get in, and it just went from there…”
Ott ended up sticking it out at CalArts through grad school, which resulted in a student feature, “Analog Days,” about a group of youth working at a video store. The film made the festival rounds back in 2006, premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival and going on to screen in Denver, Vienna, Cinequest and CPH DOX, among others.
“It was my thesis film and it was a huge learning experience,” he said. “I had no idea how hard it was to try and make a film… It was shot over 45 days and everything that went wrong went wrong. I didn’t have money to process the film, so I had to wait an entire year before I even saw any of the footage. And then there was another year of editing, so it was just this really long, horrific process.”
The second time around, things went much more smoothly.
“It was a really organic process making this movie,” Ott said. “It started with this idea I had after going to South America for a film festival. And I met this girl when I down there that only spoke Spanish. And I only speak English. So we kind of had this romance, but I mean she didn’t speak a word of English and my Spanish is minimal. And then I tried to phone her after I left and it was just this super awkward conversation just trying to express that I had a good time hanging out with her. It just doesn’t translate. So I just started thinking about that.”
Ott’s friend had made a film out in Littlerock, California. Ott became enchanted by “this weird, bizarre little town,” and decided to merge his experiences in South America with his interest in the town.
“This sort of turned into this idea of ‘what’s it like to come to America,'” he said. “All these little things I see everyday through the ideas of someone whose never been here. And from there it was this slow process where we’d go out there, bring actors out and tried stuff. We made a 30-minute short that we didn’t send out just as sort of a test. And based on what happened on these experiences, we made the script. It was like improving and then basing the script on that improv.”
The improv resulted in a story of a Japanese brother (Rintaro Sawamoto) and sister (played by the remarkable Atsuko Okatsuka, who also co-wrote the script) who find themselves in Littlerock when their car breaks down. After meeting locals (including a particularly eccentric loner, played pitch-perfect by newcomer Cory Zacharia), the sister is charmed into staying behind while her brother continues on.
It’s a tender, affecting and unexpectedly funny film that has become a favorite on the festival circuit.
“Between here in Reykjavik and January, I think we’re going to 14 or 15 film festivals,” Ott said. “So we are going to be on the circuit for at least another half year or so… But it’s really hard to navigate. I’m still learning how to really do it… How the process of these festivals work. It’s daunting. Especially when you’re doing it on this scale. I mean, I’m doing everything. Sending stuff out, making phone calls, I don’t have someone doing these things for me. Which is fine, but it’s a really fast learning curve.”
Obviously, Ott managed the curve. “Littlerock” will be playing at a theater near you, after all.