2017 Berlin Critics’ Week: The ambitious docufiction, “California Dreams,” which is already garnering critical praise, debuted in Berlin. I had a chance to interview director Mike Ott and the film’s star, Cory Zacharia, who, essentially, played himself in the film. We discussed where the documentary ended and the fiction began, Ott’s influence for this idea, their favorite movies and the depressing lifestyle of aspiring stars on the outskirts of Hollywood contrasted with its facade of glitz, glitter and glamour. Next week, The film will have its U.S. debut at the prestigious SXSW. If you are in Austin, check out this distinctive and rewarding viewing experience!
Actor Cory Zacharia and Director Mike Ott
Awards Circuit: I enjoyed your film. Absolutely wonderful. Where did this inception come out of? Obviously there is a history of Hollywood chewing people up and spitting people out, that sort of barrier, right?
Awards Circuit: So, did the idea span out of that feeling, that sentiment of people on the cusp of Hollywood?
Mike: Well, initially we were just – the first thing we ever shot was just the auditions to try to find people to follow, and I had read this article that was talking about like famous people and their favorite films and it was talking about, way before Trump, but how Trump’s favorite film is ‘Citizen Kane.’
Cory: What, what is it?
Mike: ‘Citizen Kane.’
Awards Circuit: Are you serious?
Mike: Which I found like super interesting, like how it reflects his personality in a way.
Awards Circuit: Oh yeah!
Mike: You know? And so – so we kind of just started with the idea of we’re gonna do castings, and people were gonna read a scene from their favorite film to see what happens and try to figure out like the connections between the film that they like and what it says about them as a person.
Awards Circuit: That’s really cool.
Mike: Yeah, so that’s how it started.
Awards Circuit: Where does a documentary – the reality begin and the fiction end, or vice versa =
Mike: Yeah, yeah, I mean it’s so blurry I think, you know, because so much over this Mike’s life – you know, we like to fabricate things, but, you know, then it’s, I don’t know, yeah –
Cory: I think you can explain it better than I can.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, well I don’t know.
Cory: It’s super real life though, super real life. That’s what I like about the movies, is that like no movies are made like this –
Awards Circuit: Cory, your performance was amazing. I mean you throw it out all on the table but, you know it’s obviously – you took a lot from your life. I noticed that [in the film] – *pointing to the tattoo on his arm* – was that a tattoo you actually got that during filming?
Mike: He got it – he got it beforw, so –
Awards Circuit: So you kind of just went over it?
Mike: — Yeah.
Cory: It looks nice though.
Awards Circuit: I got one kind of similar as that, and another.
Cory: Oh, you got one too? What do you have?
Awards Circuit: I’ve got the album cover of Elliott Smith’s self titled album.
Mike: Oh yeah –
Awards Circuit: And then I got Edward Scissorhands’s mansion right there – *points to rib cage*.
Cory: Oh, wow! We were just talking about that actually.
Awards Circuit: “Edward Scissorhands?” It’s my favorite movie of all time. In fact, you know, if I was going to be choosing a scene and audition for my favorite movie, it would hands down be that. There was this moments towards the third act where your friend Henning from Berlin. He cussed you out and put you down, and then we hear you [Mike] in the background saying ‘cut.’ What was that scene about, how much that was real?
Mike: Well, Mike didn’t know that Henning was gonna chew him out. Like he just knew that he wasn’t going to be able to go to Germany, so he called him. So Henning was more in on it than Mike was. Um, but Mike had like a full breakdown afterwards. He thought Henning totallywas serious, and so he was like sobbing uncontrollably, and we had Henning call him back and tell him that it wasn’t real, so –
Awards Circuit: Wow.
Awards Circuit: So, in the other characters, these five characters, they’re all real people too, real stories.
Awards Circuit: I found it interesting – with Dog the Bounty Hunter you provided like humanity and the background to him that I haven’t seen before, it was really cool. I didn’t know he was a child model and then [in the] junior Olympics.
Mike: Oh yeah, but that’s not him.
Awards Circuit: Oh, okay.
Mike: That’s the impersonator.
Awards Circuit: Oh, oh, okay.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Awards Circuit: I didn’t even know.
Mike: I guess he’s a full time Dog impersonator.
Awards Circuit: No way.
Mike: Yeah, like he dresses up every day and like works at that fucking storage locker dressed as Dog the Bounty Hunter, yeah.
Awards Circuit: So explain – why does, in the film, is he continuing to pursue you and go after you [Cory]?
Mike: Well, I mean, in a way like, you know, he lives full time as Dog. But it was his chance to actually, his chance to perform Dog and he was chanced to like give out his kind of fantasy that he has. Otherwise he’s just sitting in the office dressed like Dog, you know? So its his one time he gets to try to perform it, I guess.
Awards Circuit: Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
Mike: He’s a trip.
Awards Circuit: These characters are so obviously real, anyone can relate to them. You know, I personally, myself, obviously being interested in the film industry – that’s why I’m here. But I would say I’ve had this idea of also pursuing this, you know, Hollywood dream for years. I haven’t gotten around to it.
Awards Circuit: It’s the same theme that you’re exploring.
Awards Circuit: What various people go through that postpones it; their insecurities, external factors you know –
Mike: But I also think, you know, a lot of it is like people seem to think that like being famous or being rich is somehow going to fix their problems of their life, like whatever. And I feel like all of them in some way in the movie are kind of, have this dream of Hollywood as this dream that’s like gonna fix all the problems, you know? And it’s weird to try up to fix your life to be a famous person overnight. It doesn’t make sense.
Awards Circuit: Right, right, like as if it’s gonna solve everything. Like the character who dreams every Oscar season of winning an Oscar,. Um, it’s equal parts, you know, comedic, but really kind of depressing on top of that. And is that sort of tone you were going for?
Mike: Well, with her, you know she came in and she didn’t have a monologue and she was like – and I was like, ‘well, that’s kind of what we are doing.’ She was like, ‘I have a dream, I wanna talk about it,’ and then she proceeds to tell us this dream and she’s like sobbing and performing and like talking about – I mean I was just so blown away, also because she’s talking about this book but she still hasn’t written it. It’s turned into a screenplay, but then kind of, I mean like she’s already five steps ahead and she still hasn’t written the book, you know, but she’s already dreaming about the awards and I was just like, What is going on?’ You know?
Awards Circuit: Yeah. I mean, it’s somewhat of a – almost a delusion, I don’t know.
Mike: Yeah, I guess, but I mean, because – but also it’s just like, this other thing that – no one really ever wants to do any work.
Awards Circuit: Yeah.
Mike: You know what I mean? People want like some easy ride like they don’t wanna actually like, if they realize to be successful in anything, you have to fail, you have to try like – people like want to, you know, write one script and you get an Oscar – it doesn’t work like that.
Awards Circuit: Right, yeah. They have to realize the work it takes to get there, if ever.
Awards Circuit: Mike, the [scenes] in you your house, those are all you know – that’s your mom?
Awards Circuit: The history of yourself, it’s somewhat fictionalized. Which aspects are real, which aren’t?
Cory: It’s probably all true.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, you did work at Toys ‘R Us 8 years ago. Yeah, I mean it’s all based around this real – what’s really going on.
Awards Circuit: I thought it was awesome and clever how, the whole film you’re trying to get to Berlin, and then here you are.
Mike: It’s super weird.
Awards Circuit: Was that intentional?
Mike: No, I mean we just like –
Awards Circuit: It’s a wonderful coincidence.
Mike: Yeah, totally, that was awesome.
Cory: I think you’d worked out actually pretty good, yeah.
Mike: It was pretty cool.
Awards Circuit: Cory, you’ve got a kindness and an earnestness, and a sense of wonder. I guess that’s just you; it’s a really relatable character.
Mike: But what I love about Cory is that he has like no sense of irony and no sense of sarcasm, you know? I think it’s a really beautiful trait that he has, like, you know, I feel like you can talk to people all the time and not try to be complicated and ironic. You know, and Cory like says what he thinks, like he says that’s the coolest jacket he’s ever seen like he means it, you know? It’s a rare quality to have.
Awards Circuit: Yeah absolutely. Mike, you are from…?
Mike: I’m from Valencia in Los Angeles.
Awards Circuit: Okay, awesome. And you guys are next heading to South by Southwest (SXSW), right?
Mike: Yeah, and then we’re gonna be in San Francisco at the festival in April.
Awards Circuit: Oh, nice, I’ll be there, I’m from San Francisco. I’m a member of their society, so I go every year.
Mike: Yeah. I like that festival a lot.
Awards Circuit: How long did it take to shoot this film? I was curious about that as well.
Mike: I think we shot over like two and half years. Maybe two, like – but we were shooting like a weekend, or we were not shooting for like two months, or shooting for like three days, and it was very like pieced together, which is really cool because we were able to like change the direction of the story, kind of figure out what we were doing and like edit footage together and then keep going. I think it ended up like being 24 days of shooting spanned over two years I think.
Awards Circuit: And what kind of equipment did you use?
Mike: Um, the crew was just me, the DP, our sound guy, Jan [Bezouska], maybe one other person?
Awards Circuit: Okay.
Mike: So, super small crew and then –
Cory: I think if you just have me it’s good though –
Mike: Well, it’s nice to have someone filming, and the cinematographer’s becoming a really successful – I mean he’s incredible, he had a deal at Panavision, so they were able to like get us this deal. If it wasn’t for Panavision, we would never kind of made the movie.
Awards Circuit: Wow, that was really cool.
Mike: It was really cool.
Awards Circuit: That’s an awesome connection, for sure. When the credits rolled, I was deeply affected by this film; it’s hard to put into words, but I guess the fact of the matter is it’s, like I said, so relatable, anyone can relate to any of these characters, and they are real people. I think it harkens back to a movement in film in the ‘40s of Neo-Realism, especially in Italian cinema, where they used just real actors for their movies in everyday situations, and that’s what brought the realism to confront social issues.
Awards Circuit: What issues, societal, if anything, were you trying to tackle, you know, thematically?
Mike: I wasn’t trying to tackle any issues, really, I mean –
Cory: I think you just made everything about real life. It doesn’t make any sense, but you did. I thought it was like real true.
Mike: And I don’t know how that comes up, like now, I think it’s a bad idea to start a movie anyway and set out to like give a moral tale, especially something like this, like the message comes and process and like you know what’s on the take from that but I think that you set out to try to say like, I’m gonna say XYZ. A, like you miss an opportunity for something more interesting maybe or, you know should happen organically I think. Yeah, and again, I don’t know what the movie really is, so, to me it makes me laugh a lot.
Awards Circuit: Yeah. I definitely laughed. You know, and it deftly balances, I think, comedy and drama. (to Mike) So what’s next for you, Cory? What are you doing now?
Mike: He’s gonna travel the year.
Awards Circuit: That’s awesome, okay.
Mike: He’s got a couple more festivals, and then I’m –
Cory: More projects, more projects –
Mike: You got to get that job, yeah!
Awards Circuit: Da. Do you have any movie projects lined up on the horizon?
Cory: I think maybe like a movie I’m gonna film, like I wanna write it and direct it and act in it, but other than that it’s so – I kind of have to think about it.
Awards Circuit: Yeah.
Mike: You know, but it’s something – yeah, it’s gonna happen eventually I think.
Awards Circuit: Mike, how many prior films have you done for before this?
Mike: Well I did three features out in the desert: “Littlerock,” “Pearblossom Hwy”and “Lake Los Angeles.” Then last year I co-directed a movie Nathan Silver called “Actor Martinez,” and then IhS made a feature for my thesis in grad school.
Awards Circuit: Oh, where did you go to school?
Mike: I went to Cal Arts.
Awards Circuit: Cool.
Mike: So five, five movies before this.
Cory: That’s a lot.
Mike: Yeah. I try to keep working, otherwise I get depressed.
Awards Circuit: I think a theme that I noticed the film was escapism, obviously. That’s what Hollywood is all about and I love how you use music that harkens back to the golden age Hollywood and a bygone era, you know, juxtaposed with the present day.
Mike: Which is like the most boring stuff which a lot of, some are locked in and just like epic kind of old school.
Awards Circuit: Yes, exactly and, and the film is predominantly in Lancaster, right.
Mike: Yeah, pretty much they are like Lancaster or Littlerock.
Awards Circuit: Okay, and I noticed the weather is also kind of depressing. Did you choose days that maybe were more overcast a sort of emulate the mood?
Mike: We just kind of looked out.
Awards Circuit: Yeah.
Mike: There’s a shot of him on the bike, you know in the opening shot.
Cory: Beautiful shot, by the way.
Awards Circuit: That was a fantastic shot.
Mike: We just looked out and noticed that it was overcast that day?
Awards Circuit: Yeah, it’s hell of a way to hook the viewer with that shot, with the Cory’s narration over of it, his dreams of going to Finland, which isn’t a bad idea given fucking Trump, excuse my language.
Mike: No. Of course it’s necessary.
Awards Circuit: I think it’s necessary to drop the F bomb with that guy.
Mike: It’s so tiring, man.
Awards Circuit: Yeah.
Mike: It’s exhausting.
Cory: Fucking A.
Awards Circuit: You know, every morning I wake up and I check the iPhone news, and it’s like, are they trying to like make you depressed? Like can I get something funny on the news?
Mike: Have you seen the doc, “HyperNormalisation” by Adam Curtis?
Awards Circuit: No.
Mike: Actually it just came out… it’s on YouTube, it’s a BBC doc, it’s fucking fantastic.
Awards Circuit: Really?
Mike: He talks about, he connects all these things. He connects the crisis in Syria with Trump, [talks about] who began suicide bombing. Like it’s amazing.
Awards Circuit: Oh shit.
Mike: It’s amazing, but one of the other things he talks about is that, you know – one of the things Putin did when he came into power was put out this information. So all kinds of crazy stories left and right, and then people are just utterly confused, and then they just stop listening or stop caring as much. And you completely see it’s the same thing that he [Trump] is doing, like, making up like shootings that never happened – like what was it, the Bowling Green’s Massacre and like saying that the news doesn’t cover all these terrorist attacks in Europe, I mean, like, it’s insanity!
Awards Circuit: It is. And here the right-wing conservatives are calling the liberal media fake news. It’s ironic. What’s your next project, Mike?
Mike: I’m trying to – I wrote this script that’s loosely based on Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. So I’m trying to get that made, I think in this Trump Era it’s a perfect kind of movie.
Awards Circuit: Yeah, very timely, very urgent.
Mike: And I’m just really obsessed with the story, like having watched all these documentaries and stuff it’s like, so fascinating, all the conspiracy theories, like wether he did it alone, it’s really good.
Awards Circuit: Yeah, or like if he was attached to like an organization.
Mike: Yeah, you know, all these people who said – two people in the van, you know, he took credit for all of it, you know, he blows it up and then he hops into a car with no license plate, you know. Like everything like – nothing makes sense, you know, the get away car – it’s real good.
Awards Circuit: How did you choose the sound track, which I loved, like I mentioned.
Mike: Yeah, I don’t know, I mean – I think it just made sense to do these kind of old Hollywood scores – initially we had put in all these like really expensive stuff that we couldn’t get the rights to obviously, I mean like the “Out of Africa” soundtrack and stuff like that. So we got replacements, but they’re pretty similar to what we had.
Awards Circuit: Yeah, I Shazam’d the first song and it’s called American Dream by, I forget the artist, but I immediately downloaded it. I thought it was awesome. When you [Cory] were, in the third act, talking about spending time at a mental hospital, who was talking? Was that you [Mike] in the front seat?
Mike: No, it was a friend ours and another actor.
Awards Circuit: Was he in the film before or they just didn’t show his face?
Mike: Yeah, this – I mean it was actually a scene from – we were shooting another movie, “Pearblossom Hwy” and we were waiting for the light to change, and they ran the car, and Cory just started to tell me these sex stories, so we just started filming as he was talking and –
Cory: I didn’t even know you were filming actually.
Mike: Yeah, it was hard to see this huge camera here (sarcastically).
Cory: You just let me ramble though, sometimes.
Mike: Yeah, and it works. It was a great ramble.
Awards Circuit: Yeah, your rambling is awesome; I mean it seemed equal parts improvisation and scripted. It’s weird, because it’s hard to believe that you’re not acting in the film because it seemed like you were – I don’t know – it’s hard to explain.
Mike: Yeah, but there was a line.
Awards Circuit: I found the sexual conversations in the car [to be] the best part of it the film I think.
Mike: Yeah, I think so, too. Cory has an amazing ability to get people to open up, you know, and he got Patrick, I’ve known Patrick for a long time, Patrick’s maybe said like three words to me. ‘How are you doing? What’s going on?’ Nothing. And, you know, Cory gets in the car with them and in three minutes Patrick was talking about mutual masturbation and 69.
Awards Circuit: How did you manage to do that? I guess it’s just your personality?
Mike: It’s his talent.
Awards Circuit: Yeah. You’ve definitely got like an approachable openness and earnestness, like I said, about you; it’s definitely infectious. This [film was] certainly an ambitious endeavor, I hadn’t really seen anything like this before; you know they call movies docudramas –
Awards Circuit: But they are not documentaries, they are just dramas in a documentary style –
Awards Circuit: Everyone is acting. But this is actually something entirely different. Had there been anything, I don’t know, but had there been anything that set a precedent for your inspiration before this concept?
Mike: Well, I’m a really big fan of “Close-Up” by Kiarostami. I saw that movie and it just totally blew my mind about like what a movie could be –
Awards Circuit: What’s it called?
Awards Circuit: And who was the director?
Mike: Abbas Kiarostami.
Awards Circuit: Okay.
Mike: And it’s just fucking fantastic, and it’s about this guy in Iran who was impersonating a famous director. And he was like on the bus and these people utter this famous director, and he went along with it, and he kind of started scamming them, and then he gets arrested for it, and that’s where Kiarostami comes in and like does this documentary on the guy who was then playing himself in the movie. And he recreates all the stuff that happened, all the stuff he did, with all the real people recreating these scenes – and it just becomes this blurred line, if you don’t know like what’s performance and you know what’s real, what’s not. It’s really interesting. So that movie has been really inspiring for me.
Awards Circuit: I’ll definitely put that on my list. And (to Cory) is your actual favorite movie, “The Outsiders?”
Cory: Yeah, well I like “Edward Scissorhands” actually the most.
Awards Circuit: Really?
Cory: And I do like “The Outsiders” a lot. Well, I mean, there’s ton of movies. I could say “Interview with the Vampire,” but like I don’t know if you’d [Mike] take me seriously. I don’t know if you would have done that. There’s a lot of movies I like.
Mike: But the thing is also interesting, I mean like, in you picking “The Outsiders,” like, only that he picks this scene where this kid is talking about like, ‘get them out of here,’ like, ‘I don’t wanna see her,’ like all this weird subtext that comes in and subconsciously I mean. You know, and Patrick picking for his gun and he’s like, I’m gonna survive, get laid.
Awards Circuit: (to Cory) So your favorite movie is Edward Scissorhands? That’s my, that’s my all-time favorite movie. I have like six copies. I get the anniversary edition every five years. Did you think of it as more of a comedy or just like a kind of fun movie? Like what makes it your favorite movie?
Cory: That’s a good question. I just like how it was like super goth, like it was super goth, really dark and like very cool.
Awards Circuit: (to Mike) So is “Close-Up” your favorite film as well, or do you have another favorite?
Mike: One of my favorite films is Uncle Buck.
Awards Circuit: Uncle Buck?
Awards Circuit: Hell yeah, John Candy.
Mike: It’s like the most watchable film ever.
Awards Circuit: Yeah, John Candy, Macaulay Culkin…
Mike: Yeah, it’s fantastic.
(PR Rep informs us that it is time to wrap up the interview)
Awards Circuit: Well, that was cool, thank you guys for taking the time to talk. You guys made an awesome film!
Mike: Thank you so much!
Cory: Thank you very much!