By Susan JAMES
Writer-director Mike Ott, his co-writer Atsuko Okatsuka, and leading man Roberto Sanchez sat down to talk about their new film, “Lake Los Angeles,” which premiered this month at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
The story is of Cecilia, a young illegal immigrant abandoned at a drop house just over the California-Mexico border. The film focuses on her struggle to survive in the desert and her relationship with Francisco, the Cuban immigrant who runs the drop house.
CVW: What was your inspiration for this film?
Mike Ott: I teach a summer school program at Cal Arts and I had one student who had crossed over who did a five-minute documentary telling the story. It was heartbreaking because he was so young he didn’t know what was going on. It was kind of like this “Life is Beautiful” thing where immigration would come by and they would hide in the bushes and his mom would tell him that they were just playing a game. I thought it was really beautiful.
CVW: You’ve made three films in the California desert; what is there about that location that interests you?
Mike Ott: The older I get the more I want to be left alone, so I’m fascinated by these places. There is a sense of community but hardly anyone knows each other. And there’s something very eerie about the landscape and what’s going on but there’s also something beautiful about it.
Atsuko Okatsuka: What do you do when you’re trying to comfort yourself in the middle of the desert, when you have gone into the wildness? [The character of] Cecilia hears voices and tells stories. Maybe you start hearing things or you keep a narrative in mind. You see waterfalls in the midst of the desert because you’re thirsty and you see what you hope for.
CVW: What was it like seeing your script come to life with these actors?
Mike Ott: My favorite thing about working with actors is how they bring something to life and change it from what you had in your head. The way Johanna [Trujillo as Cecilia] reads is what she brought to the character and her performance is so fantastic. What’s interesting about her is that I didn’t really have to tell her very much; she kind of just got it.
Atsuko Okatsuka: One of the big things we wanted to get across is that Cecilia’s father [who never appears] is someone she doesn’t know, she’s never met him. That’s frightening. So when the character that she creates in her mind, the old man that she’s telling stories to, viejito, turns out to be Francisco, it’s a big relief for her. She calls him her savior but in many ways she’s Francisco’s savior, too.
CVW: How did your own immigrant experience influence your performance?
Roberto Sanchez [who immigrated from Cuba as a child]: A lot of it was really hitting home as far as my personal experiences. There were days when we were shooting scenes and something would remind me of my childhood, of my mom and how she struggled because we didn’t speak the language and we barely knew anybody here. Sometimes it was difficult just to get through a shooting day because it was just draining.
CVW: What happens after the story ends?
Mike Ott: [Cecilia and Francisco’s] stories parallel each other. They’re both looking for the American dream and kind of find each other. So there’s a little sliver of hope in the middle of all this hopelessness. Those are my favorite endings of films, like the end of [Charlie Chaplin’s] “City Lights” where they look at each other and [the camera] ends on his face. And that was one thing that was written down in the script, that last [shot of Cecilia’s face].
Roberto Sanchez: You’re seeing two characters, one who’s been here awhile but that American dream never came. I felt that my character had failed. He’d failed for his family; he’d let his kids down. He didn’t do what he wanted to do. So when he sees Cecilia come, it’s like a redemption of sorts. Maybe he can somehow make up his failures and make a difference with her.
One thing I like about Mike and his films is he doesn’t give you that happy ending that Hollywood loves. I like the fact that his films are thought provoking and you’re going to leave that theater talking. And absolutely, you think, now what? What comes next? I told Mike, “I don’t care what you do, I want to be a part of it, but like, Dude, can we just get out of the desert for once?”
See you at the movies!