Mike Ott's film stars unforgettable 'outsiders' with Hollywood ambitions
The unofficial slogan of the Texas capital is "Keep Austin Weird."
For that reason alone SXSW is bound to embrace the central character in one of the festival's most entertaining documentaries, California Dreams, from director Mike Ott. It stars the endearing and, it must be said, odd Cory Zacharia, a dreamer if there ever was one. Zacharia's goal is to become an actor, if he can get himself organized and move out of his mother's house in Lancaster, CA.
In truth he's been getting out of the house quite a bit recently to help Ott unveil the film -- first at Berlin Critics Week (Wochederkritic, if you prefer the German) and now at SXSW. To me he's destined to become one of the most memorable figures in any documentary, right up there with Little Edie from Grey Gardens, Robert Crumb from Crumb or any number of indelible people from Errol Morris films.
I still want to keep acting. I don't ever want to stop. Like it's my most favorite thing in the world.
I hesitate to try to describe Zacharia, partly because he seems at times like such a vulnerable soul -- a young man with possible mental issues, of a possibly uncertain sexuality (the film gets into his sexual identity with remarkable candor). He may or may not be an innocent, or perhaps he's someone who's way ahead of the rest of us and knows exactly what he's doing.
The best way to give a sense of Zacharia is probably by offering snippets of my conversation with him and Ott in Berlin. At times I felt more like an observer to their private back-and-forth, a repartee that left me thinking they are more like brothers than just friends and collaborators -- the kind of siblings who bust each other's chops.
For instance, when I meet up with them at the CineStar Theaters near the Berlinale main hub, I ask how the premiere of California Dreams went the night before. Zacharia answers, but in a curiously antique diction.
Zacharia: "I've never been out of the country before, so t'was really nice."
Ott: "Why are you talking like that?"
Zacharia: "I don't know. I'm sorry. I just woke up so I can't, like, form any thoughts right now."
I tell Cory that in the film he comes off like an alarmingly honest person who reveals much more of himself than most people would be willing to do. That triggers this exchange:
Zacharia: "I speak very truthful all the time."
Ott: "No, you don't. You're a total liar all the time. You're always lying. You're a master manipulator. You're not telling the truth all the time."
Ott: "That's why you're an interesting actor is because you're a total liar all the time."
I ask Cory what he sees himself doing in the future.
Cory: Still paying the bills.
Mike [to Cory]: What's your dream?
Cory: I think always to be doing what I'm doing. I don't think about it so much.
Mike: No, that's not an answer. What do you want to do?
Cory: No, I know. I know.
Mike: What do you want to do?
Cory: I still want to keep acting. I don't ever want to stop. Like it's my most favorite thing in the world and I want to get, like, my own place eventually. Like make sure that I'm all right. I think I've discussed this with Mike like a million times over.
Mike: It's an ongoing joke because I met Cory in 2007. And when I met him he was like not working, not going to school, wanting to move out of his mom's house. And now it's almost 10 years later and he's not going to school, not working and every time I see him it's like, 'Oh, I got to start putting in those applications.'
I observe to Ott and Zacharia that it's almost like they're brothers from another mother.
Mike: No, we're definitely really close.
Me: Do you go to the same tattoo artist?
Mike: We do, yeah.
Cory: That guy who was in the film, actually is our tattoo artist in real life... He did all these that I have, pretty much.
Me: Do you guys discuss what tattoos you might be getting next?
Mike: We have matching tattoos. We both have a 'Dang.' Because Cory says 'dang' all the time.
Me to Cory: In the film there's a scene where you're talking with a guy in a car about some of your sexual experiences. Most people would never be so revealing.
Cory: I don't think about it, though. A little bit.
Mike: That scene was in a short film that I did before this I did called "Lancaster," which is kind of a small version of California Dreams. I showed it to Cory and I was nervous about what he was going to say and after it was over I was like, 'What did you think?' And he was like, 'I thought it was going to be a little more interesting. I gotta be honest.' That's a great answer.
Cory: I only give him honesty, yeah. Well, he's like my biggest fan and I'm also like super critical of everything he does, for some reason.
Me: You don't cut him any slack.
Cory: Not at all. Not at all. He's my best friend so I don't say anything [to him] I don't mean. I give him the honest truth. I try to, most of the time. I think so, I'm pretty honest with you. If I tell you I don't like it, I don't like it. And then that's it.
Me to Mike: Do you ever feel protective of Cory in a way? Like if you feel people might not get him?
Mike: Yeah, totally. Like making a movie is like having a kid, so you feel protective of it and especially like the people that are in your movie. You worry about people saying something negative or whatever.
I ask Mike about the distribution plans for the film.
Mike: I don't know yet. Like I know it's a weird movie, you know what I mean? It's going to be someone who's going to really like it or probably really hate it. I don't know what kind of audience it has. We're just going to do the festival circuit for the next year and see. We're going to do our U.S. premiere at SXSW.
Me: I think it's a good place for the movie. I feel like it's the right kind of festival for it.
Mike: Sorry we're so hung over.
Note: California Dreams premieres today (Saturday) at SXSW at 2:45pm CT at the Alamo Lamar B theater. It screens two additional times: Tuesday, March 14 at 10:45am at the Stateside Theatre and Friday, March 17 at noon at the Alamo Ritz
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.