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Trust Fund Kids in Hollywood: Mike Ott on California Dreams

California Dreams

In Mike Ott’s California Dreams (which I reviewed here), five aspiring actors are shown giving auditions and later acting out scenes in a film-within-the-film. Although this nested film is supposed to be a fiction, and also looks like one thanks to the gorgeous work of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, the script is drawn – or appears to be drawn – directly from the actors’ biographies. One of the fascinating aspects of California Dreams is that Ott never allows you to know for certain how much is real and how much is fabricated. It was therefore a pleasure to be able to sit down with him during the Berlinale and get some insight into the ideas and processes that went into the creation of this ingenious cinematic hybrid. 

Filmmaker: How did California Dreams develop – did you start with the auditions and build from there, or did you already have clear concept in mind from the get-go?

Ott: A few years ago I’d read this article about celebrities and what their favorite film was. There was this thing about Trump, that his favorite film was Citizen Kane. I thought it was really interesting how much you could see him in that movie; I was fascinated by what it said about him as a person. So, initially the idea was just to hold the auditions, have people come in and do a scene from their favorite film, and then talk about how their life is represented in the character or why they picked that film. We started with that and from there we had to figure out where we were going to go.

We shot over two years. Most of the time we didn’t really know what we were going to shoot. We would have an idea and shoot a couple of things, but we would also always do things that we came up with on the fly. For instance, when Cory does the interview with Patrick about sex in the car: I had no idea that Patrick was going to open up and say all that stuff. Or, that same night we were wondering what we should shoot tomorrow, and we came up with the idea of the lap dance scene. So we texted friends to see if anyone knew a stripper. In that sense, the process was really fun, because we were going as we were shooting.

Filmmaker: In the press notes, you say that with California Dreams you wanted to consider how cinema influences our ambitions. Watching the film, I thought another intention was to explore the problematics inherent in making fictional films about working class lives. Is that fair to say?

Ott: Obviously, I knew some people would find it to be problematic, or exploitative, but I don’t really care. I live outside of L.A., so it’s something I can relate to: being part of something but not totally being part of it, being an outsider. All my films are about being an outsider; those are the things I’m attracted to.

Filmmaker: Can you elaborate on this attraction?

Ott: Cory is very interesting to me. He’s someone who lives 45 minutes outside of L.A. and has always wanted to be an actor. But because he’s kind of poor, he doesn’t have enough money to drive out and go on auditions. It’s interesting to me to be able to see the Hollywood sign but never be able to make it to Hollywood.

When you go to festivals in L.A., you meet these people who are basically all trust fund people. They come from money and they’re able to exist in this world even though none of them is actually making money from filmmaking. But they’re always at festivals for five days, staying at fancy hotels, going to parties. That’s interesting to me. How the fuck do these people exist? They’re able to exist because they come from money and if you don’t – like, Carolan’s homeless and Cory lives with his mom – you can’t accomplish what you want because of where you grew up, because of who your family is.

Filmmaker: So part of your intention with California Dreams was to turn the spotlight? 

Ott: Yeah, that was definitely one of the things I wanted to do. Initially, when we were talking, after the auditions, the idea was to let them be an actor in their own film for once: they’d actually get to play a role, even though they’d play themselves; it’s going to look cinematic, even though they’re going to be doing very mundane things. It was a chance for them to be in cinema, even if it wasn’t necessarily the ideal situation – it’s not a real movie, but it is kind of a real movie.

Filmmaker: To return to the question of exploitation: some of the scenes were difficult to watch, and I imagine difficult to film as well. How did you approach this sensitive material? Did you have limits that you set yourself, or limits the actors set on you?

Ott: There’s a lot of stuff that’s not in there because it was too insane, which is hard to believe as there’s already a lot of really personal stuff. But the reality of their lives is uncomfortable and without putting that in there, it’d be a really flat, boring movie. Any film that I’m attracted to pushes that boundary a little bit, and maybe it isn’t comfortable, and it shouldn’t be. Any good piece of art should possibly make you feel uncomfortable and that’s just part of the process. If we all make movies that aren’t uncomfortable, we’d all be making 20 Feet from Stardom – some really fucking dull, mundane filmmaking of talking heads, which is not something I’m interested in putting into the world.

Filmmaker: What role does humor play for you in this regard? I felt it was instrumental in causing this discomfort in the viewer.

Ott: Sure. But in life, someone like Cory is super funny, and that’s what I love about him. He can come over and tell me about failing with a girl, and be super sincere about it, but it’s funny. You laugh with people that you love. Laughter is really important and for me it was important to show the humanity of these people, that things are funny and not just serious and depressing – like, putting sad music over it, making you feel like you wanna cry for them. I think it’s OK to have this balance. And anyone who has a problem with it, if they’re laughing at them, it says much more about the person watching. Why can’t these people be in a film? Why can’t they tell their story? If you’re laughing in a mean way, that’s your own issue.

Filmmaker: This is your fourth film with Cory. How did you guys meet and start working together?

Ott: I was working at this shitty junior college and I had a really obnoxious student who was making this kind-of Scorsese student film about rape and murder and drugs. I told the kid not to make it. I was, like, “What do you know about this stuff? Why do you want to put this into the world?” He said he was going to make it anyway, so we started documenting the making of this movie. One day Cory showed up on set. I guess he was friends with the kid and he came to be an extra, trying to put his foot in the door of the industry. Of course, he’s super magnetic, so the whole focus of the documentary shifted to Cory. Cory fell in love with the make-up girl, had a breakdown on set, smoked weed between takes and got caught. I was so fascinated by him, like, “Who the fuck is this kid?” After that I made a narrative called Littlerock and I realized he lived out there, so I called him out one day just to improvise a scene. It was fantastic and we wrote the movie around him, which is how we started working together.

Filmmaker: He exposed himself more than anyone else in California Dreams. I’m guessing it’s because you knew him best out of all the actors?

Ott: All the scenes where Cory’s talking, I didn’t give him any notes on things to say or things to do. The camera was running and he decided what to talk about. He watched the movie and I asked him before we put it out if he was comfortable with it. He said he was fine with it, he just wished it was a better movie. [Laughs What’s fascinated me about Cory is that he’s had to spend his whole life acting, in a way, to get through traumatic experiences – either with his family, or getting picked on in a small town, people calling him a faggot, saying he’s a weirdo – and he’s had to come up with all these ways to navigate through life and try to shield himself. Still now, I never totally know when Cory’s performing. In this scene with Patrick, where he’s talking about having slept with his second cousin, he says, “Patrick, please don’t tell anyone.” They both have lavaliers on them, they know the camera’s rolling, and you can even see Patrick being, like, “Why are you saying that? We’re on fucking camera, what are you talking about?” This is the weird thing with Cory: I don’t know when he’s full of shit and when he’s being sincere. That’s why I think he’s a fascinating actor.

Filmmaker: I’d like to pick up on what you mentioned about your student and how you told him, “You can’t do this, what do you know about this?” What’s different between your approach and your student’s?

Ott: This was a class where the first assignment I gave was for the students to write something they knew. I always think that when you’re making a movie, you should start with something you know about, rather than try and tell someone else’s story. You should try and tell something personal, just as an exercise. If you’ve never done drugs, or known anyone who does drugs, why do you want to make a movie about drugs? Hanging out with druggies is so fucking boring; watching people do drugs in real life is super boring. Only people who don’t know anything about drugs think it’s exciting. For me, this is a world I know really well. I live in a small town. The bounty hunter guy lives five minutes away from me. These are people I’m attracted to and that I want to spend time with.

Cory’s one of my best friends, we hang out all the time and for me telling his story is something really important. I find it really fascinating that since I’ve known him, he’s had this dream. After we did Littlerock, he was traveling the world, doing interviews all over the place. He had no idea who the people he was doing interviews with were. One day he called me and was, like, “This place called the Huffington… Postal, or something?” This is what’s brilliant about him, he has no idea. An actor would love to have their own article in the Huffington Post. But he’s also a true slacker. He wants everything to come to him. The way I come and find him and put him in movies, he thinks that’s how it’s going to work for his career. I’m always trying to tell him, “If you want to be successful, man, you gotta get in that fucking car and drive and go on an audition. People aren’t just going to come find you out in the desert.”

All the characters in the movie have this thing where they’re not really pursuing what they want. They’re kind of hoping that it’ll fall in their laps. And I think that’s what’s happening with reality TV, where people just think you’ll suddenly become famous. Also this idea that fame is somehow going to fix your life – going to help you find love, help you go somewhere, help you with your family problems – which I don’t think is true.

Filmmaker: Is this how the fictional story about Cory being offered a dream role in Germany was born?

Ott: It’s fictional, but it’s also not. Henning came to California and offered to put Cory in a movie in Berlin. He said, “I don’t have money to fly you out but once you come, I’ll pay for everything.” For me it was really fascinating that Cory had this huge opportunity and never tried to get a job to try and raise the 900 dollars [for the flight]. He could have worked four hours a week and got the money, but he never did. He blew his money on smoking weed and whatever. That’s where the initial idea for that came from. I’ve known Cory for fucking nine years and he’s never had a job. Yet every time I see him he talks about how he has to get work. One time he had a résumé for, I can’t remember, Wendy’s or something. For two months – and Wendy’s is across the street from his house! He always had an excuse why he didn’t walk over there and turn it in. Till the end, it’s this constant ambition without having any ambition.

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