The Austin Chronicle

California Dreams' Postcards From the Edge

Hybrid doc explores the fringes of Hollywood hopefuls

By Joe O'Connell, March 10, 2017, Screens

The documentary film can be truth-filled without being "real."

That's the philosophy behind Mike Ott's California Dreams, a magician's trick of a film that grins at the hollowness of a certain Rupert Pupkin-esque desire for fame. "Living in Los Angeles are people outside the system who are trying to get in," he says. "That's always fascinated me. This idea that fame is somehow going to fix your life, it will help you find love."

Ott's efforts to get a larger film in production were hitting roadblocks, so he instead found inspiration in reports about celebrities' favorite films. "One article said Donald Trump's favorite was Citizen Kane," Ott says, "which made me wonder, 'How does what you like reveal you as a person?'" The resulting California Dreams was shot in fits and starts for almost two years before it found its center.

Ott sought the answer through auditions, asking people to read a scene from their favorite movie. That was culled to five: a woman who lives in her car and dreams of winning an Oscar, a wannabe screenwriter with an addiction to Taco Bell, a 28-year-old virgin named Patrick, a Dog the Bounty Hunter impersonator called K-Nine who runs a storage unit, and frequent Ott subject Cory Zacharia, whom the director famously discovered in a Home Depot parking lot. "He has a childlike charm that kicks in immediately," Ott says.

Lanky, loose, and smooth-talking, Zacharia was invited to the set during auditions and ended up at the center of the resulting film, which is part pure documentary, part scripted fiction, part dreamy prose poem about isolation that slithers its way across the California desert. "I like this idea that you're in L.A., but you're not," Ott says. "You can see the Hollywood sign from Cory's house, but he can't go there. He's always living as an outsider."

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's 1990 movie Close-Up, in which non-actors re-create their own stories, opened Ott's eyes as to what a film could be. "My mind was completely blown," Ott says. "I remember not knowing what I was watching." In California Dreams, he says, "There's a blurred line between what's set up and what's not. It's a way to get at the truth in a different way. A straightforward documentary doesn't affect me as much."

There's also humor melded to the existential sadness lurking in Ott's film. It harks to Chris Smith's 1999 documentary American Movie, which Ott dubs his all-time favorite. In it, Midwestern longhair Mark Borchardt chugs beer, tells shaggy stories, and stumbles toward crafting a low-budget horror film. Spurred by a chance meeting with Borchardt's daughter at a film festival, Ott convinced Mark, his beard now gray, to make an appearance late in the film as a cab driver.

"Mark is my favorite character in cinema ever," Ott says. "It was my own dream to have him in the film. He and Cory both speak in this straightforward way from the heart. They're not sarcastic at all."

California Dreams


Saturday, March 11, 2:35pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 14, 10:45am, Stateside
Friday, March 17, noon, Alamo Ritz

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