The gentle hand of Anlo Sepulveda’s direction culminated “Otis Under Sky” as an unscripted story that discovered its characters through filming. Though, Sepulveda’s ideas and influence for Otis run deep, which he shared here, along with filming guerrilla style in Austin, turf wars and serendipity as a form of screenwriting. “Otis Under Sky” premiered at SXSW 2011.
What influenced the idea behind “Otis Under Sky” for you?
A lot of my influences are spiritually based. I grew up as a Bahá’i and we believe that all the religions come from the same source. A lot of the spirituality in the film is derived from those influences in my life. Being able to look at spirituality from many different angles, appreciate many different religions and not necessarily look at it like this is one religion and this is the right way and everything else is wrong. Otis has a lot of that in him by searching for something more than just what comes from pop culture or society. He’s looking for the higher ground and trying to reach out to people who are looking for the same thing.
We’ve all experienced negative things in life and with the unrequited love story I wanted to show someone who experienced something emotionally distressing, such as Otis losing his parents when he was young. He never fully recovered from that and just buried himself in the Internet. He’s trying to reach out to people, but doesn’t really know how. He’s closed himself off in a lot of ways, even though he’s opened himself up to the world through Vlogging like a blanket of protection. When he finally does have that human interaction with the character Ursula, I wanted the audience to wonder what was going to happen by the inevitable loss of that. He figures out a way to bring his humanity and spirituality out through that experience with love and loss. I hope people see that it inspires him and he creates something positive out of a life of not so positive things.
That was the idea behind it, but I actually meet this spiritualist cowboy that was a bull rider about 10 years back. Just this real interesting, cool, soft spoken, gentle guy who loved talking about philosophy, religion and eastern philosophy. He was this interesting contrast of being a Texas bull rider that was just completely not what you would think of as a bull rider: he lived in Morocco, wore a turban, grew a beard and learned Arabic and then he’d come back and tell me about his adventures. That was actually the inspiration for Otis.
Of course when I meet Anis Mojgani, who plays Otis, he had to change, because Anis couldn’t necessarily be a bull rider. We changed Otis to make it closer to what Anis could offer and it was a good thing, because it would’ve been difficult to shoot bull riding scenes.
So Anis Mojgani brought a different layer to the character you had developing in your mind?
Absolutely. A lot of the key parts of Otis are in both what I had in mind and what Anis brought. I wanted the actors to take the foundations of their characters and then add to it, take away from it, feel free to make it their own. They really made it their own and I think it plays a lot better.
With an unscripted story, did the characters evolve as you were filming?
Yes, in a lot of ways. It took a little bit before we really dialed it in… zeroed in on what we wanted them to be. There are some scenes there weren’t necessarily Otis-y or Ursula-like, but the more I looked at the footage, the closer I got. We basically discovered the characters through filming and that was a benefit of using that process over the span of 3 years.
That’s interesting in that “Otis Under Sky” is a self-discovery tale; it makes it genuine.
The process that we used is very much evident in the storyline itself and it closely matches. That was intentional in that I wanted the film to feel organic and unforced. I wanted it to serendipitously happen and that comes off as Otis’s experience, because that was our experience making it.
Another character in the film seemed to be Austin itself, even though it wasn’t overtly Austin, did you intend for the city to develop as a character?
That was almost one of those happenstance things. I definitely gained a lot of inspiration from how would these 2 characters exist in this city? What would they be doing; where would they be going? We really tried to get the environment and atmosphere by getting a sense of place in how the characters interact with Austin, which I really wanted to be part of the film. I wasn’t saying, ‘hey, this is filmed in Austin, check out these Austin landmarks’ or anything like that; I wanted to go deeper than that surface level and really develop the city as a character, which gives you a little more to chew on. You find yourself asking ‘what is this place, this beautiful lake’ and then there’d be this crazy power plant. A lot of it was juxtaposing beauty and nature surrounded by this city and how those things co-exist.
There’s a scene where Otis is mediating on this serene island, but a train comes rumbling on the tracks overhead, this seems to embody that co-existence, how did you find locations like that?
That particular island I had been to before and actually when we went to shoot the scene, some homeless people were there and didn’t really like our presence. They started brandishing knives and apparently the problem they had was because we had sunglasses on; if we took our sunglasses off we were ok.
So you won the turf battle?
We won the turf battle man, we had our cameras, our actors, we were like ‘hey we have to shoot today, I don’t care you’ve got a knife.’ Eventually they relented, so we were ok.
You had some inventive guerrilla style filming, particularly in shooting Otis under water; how’d you do that on a shoestring budget?
I had this little Sanyo camera and it’s like a $200 consumer grade camera that goes under water. It worked, but most of the footage I shot was not that usable. I really tried to get certain shots that would work even if the quality wasn’t great. I actually borrowed the camera from a friend.
With the guerrilla aspect of the filming, we had a low profile. It was basically me shooting with the HVX (Panasonic), on occasion with a boom operator whenever I needed good sound. We literally wandered the streets looking for interesting things. We really tried to create some interesting texture in just walking around, filming randomly. Things would just happen, like this random dude in a giant bear costume with a heart on his chest. He just started interacting with the actors and I just happened to be filming, it was very cinema vérité. Things like that made it into the film, but we had a lot of footage we just had to be selective of.
Did it help to shoot a lot of footage, even if it didn’t get used?
We had tons of footage and I wanted to do that for a reason. I wasn’t trying to shoot a film in 12 days with every shot going into it. We took our time and focused on getting the best that we could. We didn’t have light kits, trucks or crews and it helped not having to rent a bunch of equipment, so I was able to shoot more.
What are some of your filmmaking influences?
I love storytelling that relies heavily on visuals to tell the story and give you another point of view as far as characters. I love Wong Kar-wai films and Terrence Malick is a heavy influence. Even just documentary films like the “Qatsi Trilogy” and “Baraka.” I love the idea that film can be more than just a screenplay or a play that’s on the screen. A lot of films focus on the story, dialogue and plot structure. I actually wanted to move further away from the plot structure and make it more stream of conscious, but I would’ve had to shoot even more footage to make that happen and it was time to finish the film.