Originally posted on November 7, 2010 by Katie Datko
The San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles create more than just a physical boundary between the vast urban megalopolis and the windswept desert. Their sharp 9,000 foot peaks embrace a rugged wilderness that almost seems to cushion the Antelope Valley from the frenetic city. Small towns such as Littlerock dot the landscape, specks along the Pear Blossom Highway running parallel to the mountains, so much so that visitors are often mere passersby en route to other places (such as a few parks or winter ski slopes).
LITTLEROCK, the second feature film from CalArts grad Mike Ott, however, forces the viewer off the road. An opening shot of the San Gabriels with a voiceover of a Japanese woman humming above the drone of a bus engine imbues the scene with an almost ethereal quality; the mountains becoming something intangible, unfathomable. With a cut to a black title sequence and a close-up of the young woman, there is no other choice but to stop, to step into the dusty world beyond the asphalt. There is a strong sense of dislocation, particularly when we see the main character, Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka) and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) stranded at the bus stop after their car breaks down; the first line of dialogue (in Japanese): “Is this the right place?” In fact, add a couple of prefixes to the word “location” and it’s easy to get a sense of what LITTLEROCK is about: dislocation and relocation, both the physical and psychological spaces the characters inhabit.
Several Littlerock natives befriend Atsuko and Rintaro, most notably an awkward and blundering townie, Cory (Cory Zacharia). Cory may seem like the quintessential geek who is picked on by others. But as the narrative unfolds, we see that Cory is also a victim of place. He’s a dreamer, hoping to make it in Los Angeles, which although a mere 65 miles away, is in fact worlds apart from his small town reality. It’s almost as if the mountains are a shield keeping him confined to Littlerock. Ott’s camerawork captures this brilliantly with his judicious use of mid-shots and close-ups, it’s easy to see how Littlerock frames and restricts the characters.
When their car is fixed, Atsuko–who has fallen hard for both Littlerock and Jordan (Brett L. Tinnes), one of Cory’s friends–stays behind. Through the coming days, Atsuko tries to fit in. But, because she is confined by her inability to understand English, she only skates the surface of town life. Like Cory, she can never truly belong. Both characters are foreigners in the town, a theme which plays out time and time again.Several Littlerock natives befriend Atsuko and Rintaro, most notably an awkward and blundering townie, Cory (Cory Zacharia). Cory may seem like the quintessential geek who is picked on by others. But as the narrative unfolds, we see that Cory is also a victim of place. He’s a dreamer, hoping to make it in Los Angeles, which although a mere 65 miles away, is in fact worlds apart from his small town reality. It’s almost as if the mountains are a shield keeping him confined to Littlerock. Ott’s camerawork captures this brilliantly with his judicious use of mid-shots and close-ups, it’s easy to see how Littlerock frames and restricts the characters.
At this point LITTLEROCK could have rested on indie film clichés–a desert Madame Butterfly with a compelling soundtrack featuring the Seattle-based group The Cave Singers. But Ott deftly leads us in unexpected directions, most notably integrating a subplot about the relocation of ethnic Japanese to Manzanar, a Japanese American internment camp during WWII a few hours drive north of Littlerock. By the end of the film, we have a deeper understanding of the poignant impact place can have on one’s psyche. Littlerock becomes more than just a point on a map.
Q. One of the ideas you have running through your film is limerence (intense romantic attachment). Can you comment on how you came across this concept and why you decided to base your film on it?
A. Limerence, this intense romantic desire and how long it can last, is something I’ve kind of been kind obsessed with for a long time. I like thinking of the idea of limerence not only as a desire for another person, but maybe also for a place, ideology or passion. And, I realized while I was writing LITTLEROCK that Atsuko not only has this feeling of limerence for Jordan, but also has it, in a way, for Littlerock itself–maybe even for America as a whole.
Q. Part of the film is a journey to Manzanar, a subject which is not often tackled in our media. What made you decide to make Manzanar a focus of your film?
A. Well, I’d argue that not only is it not often tackled, but it’s really barely even known about. I was amazed when we were telling people we were going to shoot there, they would say, “What is that?” or “What Japanese internment?” This was coming from people of all ages, especially people under 30, almost like it wasn’t ever discussed in school or it was erased from the history books. And, that’s something I found really interesting–why doesn’t anyone know about this place and what happened there? As we were writing the script, we went to visit Manzanar. Once we saw it firsthand, we knew it had to be in the film. Seeing all the things that took place there was such a moving experience.
Q. You worked with Atsuko Okatsuka and Carl McLaughlin on your script. What are your thoughts on the collaboration process?
A. This was honestly the best artistic experience I’ve ever had–a huge part of that is because it was so collaborative. Filmmaking is all about that for me–finding artists I trust, who are talented and passionate and bringing their ideas and strengths to the project. It was the best part of the process.
Q. My perception of Cory shifted during the film. At first I felt that he was obnoxious but gradually I found that I had a lot of sympathy for him. Was this intentional in your approach to his character?
A. Well so much of the script is based around Cory’s real life story. In real life he actually lives five minutes away from Littlerock. He grew up and still lives on welfare and he’s always had dreams of becoming a model and an actor. However, Cory is a very unconventional leading character for a film, and I knew that going into it. He’s not your typical misunderstood guy who is “so great but no one realizes it.” Cory as a character is flawed, at times ignorant and self-centered.
In a way, it’s a big risk, because Cory is such a huge part of the film and has such a presence that if you find him completely annoying, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else in the movie. Luckily most people share my affinity for him, though. To be honest, I think it’s a real test of the viewer’s character, because if they can’t find sympathy for Cory by the end of the film, then I think they must be pretty heartless.
Q. Your film has a great sense of place. Why did you decide to film in Littlerock?
A. Littlerock is just such a bizarre town. It’s a place I passed through from time to time growing up, and I was always baffled by it. A friend shot his thesis film there while I was in grad school, and I got the chance to spend some time there and became even more curious about it. But it’s a strange, strange place. I initially thought when working on the script: If this place is weird as an American, what would a foreigner think? What would be like to be stuck here? Where would people go? What would they do?
Q. How do you think the lighting you used in different scenes in the film (particularly in the scene when Atsuko first stays at Cory’s house) reflects your own experiences of Littlerock?
A. Littlerock, as a place, was a great experience for me, so when we lit things, it was very intuitive. The interiors, like at Cory’s, were designed after places I had been in Littlerock, so as to give it a sense of realism. I think the lighting that best represented my experiences there is in the beginning, when Atsuko and Rintaro are walking through the field with the sun setting behind the water tower. Something about those colors and imagery encompass my feelings for the place.
Q. LITTLEROCK is part of the AFI FEST Young Americans series. How do you think your generation of filmmakers will propel the film industry forward?
A. I think something interesting is going on right now, this kind of cinema with a blurred line between fiction and non-fiction. There are a lot of elements of that in my film, and in Matt Porterfield’s film PUTTY HILL. I think if our generation can propel things forward, the best thing we would be to actually move backwards–-toward a return to realism, to naturalism, to the Nouvelle Vague. That’s the kind of cinema I like, and something I feel is sorely missing in the film industry. But, I can see a new wave of films with this kind of realism. However, whether it will be acknowledged by the mainstream is another question.
Q. Do you have any other projects you are working on?
A. I have a new script I’m hoping to shoot in February or March of 2011. It’s called TEENAGE WASTELAND, and Cory and Atsuko are both in it. Again, it’s going to be a very region-specific place–this time in Lancaster, California. A huge part of it is written around what Cory is going through right now in his life as well as Atsuko’s experience growing up here. I’m excited about it.
Katie Datko is a writer and essayist.