Mike Ott on Survival and Escape

11/04/12 - Chinese 6, 7:00 p.m.
11/07/12 - Chinese 1, 1:45 p.m.

By Katie Datko

On a map, the real Pearblossom Highway looks kind of like a scar bisecting northern LA County, a jagged stretch of mostly two-lane highway heading from the suburbs just north of LA east to the high desert. It’s probably no coincidence, then, that PEARBLOSSOM HWY, Mike Ott’s follow-up feature to his multiple award-winning indie film festival sensation LiTTLEROCK (which played at AFI FEST 2010 and won the Audience Award) is about wounds — specifically, the need to heal the fractures caused by denial or neglect and the longing for belonging and acceptance.

Partly based on the real lives of the main characters, Cory (Cory Zacharia) and Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), PEARBLOSSOM HWY is a humanistic yet barbed tale, darker and in many ways more poignant than its predecessor. The characters may be familiar to Ott fans, but both Cory and Atsuko have been given new back-stories. Cory is an unemployed whippet-huffing, orphaned rockstar-wannabe who longs to make it on reality TV. Atskuo, Cory’s friend and videographer who’s also an urchin of sorts, has been sent by her Japanese grandmother to live in Antelope Valley with her uncle’s family while trying to pass the U.S. citizenship test.

In PEARBLOSSOM HWY, Ott pushes the envelope on all levels. The intertwining narrative threads of the two main characters’ rites of passage mirror each other: Cory makes tapes for his TV show audition and manages to reconnect with his older brother, Jeff (John Brotherton); Atsuko raises money to go back to Japan to visit her ailing grandmother the only way she knows how — by selling herself — becoming increasingly more detached as the film progresses.

It might seem as though Cory’s story is front and center, but it’s really Atsuko’s journey that commands the viewer’s attention. Even though it’s unnerving on many levels, we get a clear sense of her slow unraveling — framed through mirrors, windows and montages of highways and truck stops. Atsuko’s first scene with a Japanese client shows her standing against a curtained window, her client’s voice off-screen. While she may seem childlike and innocent, she nevertheless stands her ground, asserts herself and, interestingly, speaks back to him not as a coy, deferential call girl, but using an informal, familiar tone. Even though Atsuko’s image becomes increasingly refracted, it is through her language that she seems to hold onto her sense of ‘self.’

The rest of the film involves Jeff taking Cory and Atsuko to San Francisco so that Cory can meet his dad (who denies paternity) and visit his mom’s grave. Once in the new environment, Cory, who usually uses sophomoric poetry and rock lyrics to express himself, starts to reveal hidden facets of his character, speaking more openly and honestly to the camera. Atsuko, while still taciturn, also exposes the depths of her emotional development through her reactions to classic films and music.

It is this interplay of filming, being filmed and watching film that makes PEARBLOSSOM HWY more than a typical road trip movie. Instead, it’s a reflection viewed through multiple lenses of the human psyche’s capacity to salvage what is left after the hurt of rejection, and to sublimate those aspects of ‘self’ that hinder any chance to break free from the constraints of everyday existence.

Interview: Mike Ott Speaks Out

AFI FEST Now: A lot has happened in the past couple of years. Your second feature, LiTTLEROCK, swept the film festival awards circuit, most notably garnering the 2011 Someone to Watch Spirit Award. Did that affect how you approached filming PEARBLOSSOM HWY in anyway?

Mike Ott: I think it definitely opened doors for the project. But as far as the approach to filmmaking, it was much the same as before. I still focused on writing about and working in the locations that I was interested in and incorporating personal aspects from the actors’ real lives into the film.

AFN: How did you get from the working title ‘Teenage Wasteland’ to PEARBLOSSOM HWY? (Otherwise known as the “Death Trap Highway.”)

MO: It’s funny that every film I’ve made has started with a different title than the one I end up with. I usually know I’ll find the right title while working on the film. I didn’t pick this title for the “death trap” aspect. For me, PEARBLOSSOM HWY is a very fitting title for the film, because so much of the movie is about people who are stuck in this nowhere place and can’t escape. And really, Hwy 138 (Pearblossom Highway) is the only route out of town.

AFN: What do you find compelling about Atsuko’s prostitution?

MO: I find compelling how secretive it is to everyone around her. I’ve been meeting people in the last five years who do some kind of “sex work” and they are not the clichéd idea of a prostitute that one might have in their head. Most look like squares and they lead this double life. I don’t even think they would consider what they’re doing “prostitution” (or at least not call themselves that) and to me that is interesting. The things we do to survive in life and how the idea of what a prostitute is seems to have changed in a way.

AFN: Technically PEARBLOSSOM HWY differs quite a bit from LiTTLEROCK. What new challenges did you face (or set for yourself) during production?

MO: Everything is always a challenge it seems, no matter how much you prepare. Going from the desert, where it’s quiet and calm and no one was around to bother us while we shot, to San Francisco, where it was complete chaos everyday, was a huge challenge. Mixed into this, of course, was Cory always wandering off and getting stoned with strangers in the Mission District, which happened multiple times.

AFN: Your films tend to mirror some of the things Cory is going through in real life. What’s the real Cory up to these days?

MO: The real Cory is a mystery. So much of this film is about trying to understand him better. Without Cory’s real life, there would be no film. He’s still living out in the desert, minutes away from Pearblossom Highway. Last he told me, he was looking for a job and thinking about moving to Los Angeles.

Katie Datko is an LA-based writer who has written for the LA Weekly, DailyOm.com and the LohDown on Science.


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