This may not be the Zellner Brother‘s first rodeo but it’s likely to be the one to put them on the map. In addition to acting in small supporting roles across a sprawl of independent features, David and Nathan Zellner have stirred up a tight knit circle of fandom with their earlier works Goliath and Kid Thing that have gone on to tilt their filmography in new and interesting circles. But neither of those features quite inspired the near unanimous support that Kumiko the Treasure Hunter has and here to tell us about the process of turning an urban legend into a stunning feature film are the sibling twosome themselves.
Debuting at Sundance before moving onto Berlin and SXSW, Kumiko looks to be the tipping point in the brother-brother duo’s career, the catalyst to jump from celebrated indie guys to larger circuits of mainstream acclaim. As noted in our review of the feature, their film is one that keeps you on your toes, making you an active participant and never a lethargic bystander:
“Before the movie has even begun, we’re wondering whether we’re watching fact or fiction, true events or some yarn, and what the difference is anyways. In one fell swoop, director David Zellner has planted a seed of doubt, leading us to question what qualifies a true story anyways and asking whether that “based on…” disclaimer at the forefront is meant to alter the way that we then consume the film. Zellner’s rapping is a smart feat of intellectual manipulation but it’s only the tip of an iceberg of misdirection to come.”
When speaking to this dynamic duo, I wanted to unearth some of their more cagey intents, to summon what inspired this wackadoo narrative and how Kumiko the Treasure Hunter ever came to be.
Kumiko being such an international, multicultural sort of film: what made you guys decide that Japan was the place that you would base it in?
David Zellner: It’s based on an urban legend, that’s where the story comes from. We’re just true to the urban legend and we stuck with that. And in addition to that, we have a huge affinity for Japan and Tokyo so those were appealing factors as well. First and foremost it was motivated by the original urban legend.
Can you tell me a little bit more about this urban legend. I know you guys mentioned that you just saw a snippet of something that inspired you to make the film. Do you know any more details about it?
DZ: Nowadays there’s a lot of stuff on the internet about it. Back then there were just kind of rumors and people who had just heard something. The story first actually started in 2001, and years and years later after we started working on the script in 2002, we lived with this version of what the story was. Basically it started with how things ended up, with her being in Minnesota that’s where it came from, and all of her backstory and how she got there, that’s what we worked on and tried to figure out what would make somebody go on this adventure, what would make somebody believe in this and what kind of person that would be. And, how can we get from A to B, without knowing what A is really.
For you guys, A in this case was the movie Fargo?
DZ: That’s just because that was what was part of the urban legend. The urban legend was that she got confused about the title card.
Nathan Zellner: The urban legend was that she believed that the fortune from that film was real, and that compelled her to go on this quest. So, we stayed true to that. We wanted to be very respectful to that film too, we weren’t interested in doing a winky homage to [Fargo], or riffing on it or anything like that. We have a huge respect for it. So we simply wanted to use that as a conduit, a launch pad for her quest. Everything in the film is from her perspective… I don’t even know if this woman was a cinephile or anything. Simply it was that this was a conduit for this quest that would lead her to a better place, which it turned out not to be. We wanted to pursue it from that perspective.
What grabbed you from this story, what compelled you to make it? The first time you read about this was it like, “Oh shit, this has to be a movie!” or was it more of a process?
NZ: It was both I think, that definitely crossed our mind but anything that you want to make takes a long time to put together, especially when you have your own passion or curiosity about it. It was so mysterious, just the little bit of information that was originally out there, that we became kind of obsessed with it and to satiate our own curiosity started filling in the gaps on our own.
Was that based on research where you tracked down this character or were you just creating the character yourself?
NZ: Again there’s a lot of contradictory stuff out there, but the real-life elements are very different. We started working on it in 2002 and basically wrote the first draft around then. In subsequent years, more information came out about it, some of which contradicted itself. But, we had lived with our version of the truth so long that we liked this little universe that we created, so it didn’t feel like we had to revise or change course. We liked our version of the story and ran with it from there.
In making the character of Kumiko: she’s throughout the movie kind of a misanthrope. She doesn’t do so well with relationships with other humans. The bunny is a whole other story, but, in creating that kind of territory, how do you find the right balance of her being prickly but still kind of lovable and making us still willing to take this journey with her?
DZ: That was a thing that we had to be conscious of the entire time, we wanted to humanize her, we wanted the audience to have a certain empathy for her. We didn’t want her to be a joke. Regardless of what people think of her motives or her quest, I think people on a human level can relate to her passion and be along with her for the ride. Wanting her to go on the journey, wanting her to succeed in her own way. That was the most important thing, to take it from her perspective and to rally for her, and find the balance accordingly between Nathan and I and Rico, developing the character in a way that was true to herself yet accessible to people and we didn’t need a lot of expository or extraneous dialogue. We wanted to convey as much information as possible but through subtle means of tone and expression. She’s by herself a lot. One of the most interesting things for us is to see people actually think. On camera if you see people talking they’re usually not processing information. We wanted to give her the breathing room, as a human, to do that. Especially since she was alone so much. It wasn’t like she was in an open dialogue, so that was the only way you were seeing her sort this out.
Having no knowledge of the person it’s actually based on, this kind of misanthropic nature of hers, is that something you saw as the essence of how she related to other people?
DZ: She’s just kind of a lost soul and it seemed like that would be a part of it. To go on that quest in the first place, there’s obviously something going on in your life that puts you in a position to do that. It seemed like that would be a natural reasoning for that character. It just seemed right. We don’t tend to get too analytical with motivations, it’s just whatever feels right on an intuitive level. That just felt right for this character.
One of the things that I really enjoy about the film and the character is that it is somewhat ambiguous throughout whether or not she is aware of how ridiculous her quest is. There were definitely points in the movie where I was thinking she must know that this is just totally insane, that there’s no treasure, and she’s committed herself so fully to this. Was that something that you wanted to intentionally keep ambiguous – whether or not she is completely delusional or if she herself is doubting this quest?
DZ: We wanted to make her fleshed out enough to feel like a real person. People’s motivations change all the time in terms of what they project to other people and internally how they feel. That kind of represents the types of films that we like. People are complex, not everything is so spelled out. We liked that sort of ambiguity and depending on who’s watching it they bring their own perspective to the table and people read her in different ways and both are valid.
When I was watching it, there was all this ambiguity throughout the film and yet it seemed like the ending was very clear. Have you met other people who have a different interpretation of the ending than you did?
DZ: To most people it’s pretty clear, and for the couple people where it is unclear, that’s valid. Those are the kind of films we like, if there is an ambiguous end, if there is openness, if people want to look at things in different ways. Rather than sending them one way or another, we let the film speak for itself. We’re comfortable that there’s no definitive right answer.
You certainly have many little visual flares in the movie where you’re telling the story from a visual standpoint rather than a dialogue-driven one and the ending is certainly evidence of that.
DZ: It’s more gratifying to think that you can give information that way. It’s also more respectful to the audience when you aren’t spoonfeeding them. People, out of fear, I think do that. They’re worried or paranoid about not giving enough information to the audience; not giving the audience more credit to be able to process the information in a more graceful way. For us, the ending couldn’t have been any other way, that was how this story that we created needed to end. It’s been interesting hearing about people’s different interpretations, and seeing where they notice that part of it being different: where that twist for them comes in, in the beginning or whatever. We did a good job of making it as subtle as possible.
There’s a lot of parallels between this film and Nebraska, a film that came out last year to much acclaim and, ironically you guys and Bob Nelson (whom I also interviewed) both were developing these stories around the same time. In terms of a treasure hunt where the treasure doesn’t exist: do you see the success of that movie helping or hindering the success of your movie at all?
DZ: I don’t think so because I think that they’re so different. No, not more than any other film. We’ve only seen that film very recently, but that hadn’t really crossed our minds.
This film has had really warm receptions everywhere that it has played. What are the plans for it going forward?
NZ: Hopefully we’re working on some sort of distribution and hopefully we’ll sort it out very soon. We like making films that we’re proud of and that we’ve done with integrity in a way that we want to do it, and at the same time we want it to reach as wide an audience as possible. The fun is hearing people’s interpretations , and experiencing it with an audience and feeling the energy that they’re giving off and seeing how they’re reacting to the film. When you’re making things that have a lot of subtleties to them, that’s part of the neat aspect of the process, having this shared experience. We’d like to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Obviously Fargo plays a big part in this, were you guys a fan of the Coen Brothers? Had you seen Fargo a lot before and now have you seen it like a hundred times?
DZ: I haven’t seen it since it came out. I haven’t seen it in a long time. We have huge respect for them and that film. At the same time we weren’t interested in doing this winky post-modern film. We wanted to be respectful to the material and it just served the story. We were being true to the original urban legend that it built around. Whatever film it was is what we would have gone with.
Do you guys have anything that you’re working up?
DZ: We have other things that we want to do in the mix, it just depends on what happens. It depends on which one gets the most momentum first.
What is that process like for you guys, say if you have four or five ideas that you’re kicking around, are you showing all of those to the studios?
DZ: It’s a combination of what we’re most passionate about, what is most ready and what people are willing to get behind at this point in time. Everything that you do is based on the pursuit of it. Kumiko was based on our previous film Kid Thing, and Kid Thing was based on our project before that, and everything is built upon what comes before it. It’s hard to lay out what the trajectory is, what’s next. We have some different things that we want to do and some different options, but we just finished this so we’ll be figuring that out.
Is there a genre in particular that you would like to play with?
DZ: We have a lot of different kinds of films that we want to do. We grew up liking a lot of action films and we’d like to do an action film, or a film with action elements in it. We have all kinds of stuff that we want to do. We’re fortunate to have a wealth of ideas.
NZ: For us, the challenge would be figuring out how to play with a genre. It’s about right time, right place, right budget that dictate which is the next project.
What are some other filmmakers who have inspired you for this film and in general?
DZ: Werner Herzog is the biggest. We’re not interested in name-checking or referencing, it’s more just on a subconscious level. The film Stroseck that Erzog did, on a subconscious was definitely an influence for Kumiko. And Wrath of God too. We like the way he balances a certain naturalism with a heightened stylization which has this tonal balance that when I first saw it, I’d never seen before that was really invigorating. The list of people varies from day-to-day but he was the most direct influence for this film.
NZ: You grow up watching a lot of different filmmakers and you end up subconsciously drawn to a certain film style or director that is the same thing that would draw you to creating a film in a certain way.
To this point you guys have collaborated together on all of your projects. In the future, do you see yourselves doing some solo stuff or is this a lifelong partnership?
DZ: Not as of now, it’s the way that we’ve always operated. We have different strengths that complement each other well, and it’s the way we’ve always done it. Occasionally we act in other people’s work which is fun, but for our own stuff it’s the system that we have now.
NZ: It’s like we’ve been making home movies since we were kids, it’s an extension of that, it’s just gotten bigger and more refined and more mature.
For more Silver Screen Riot interviews, check out more of our “Talking With…” series here.