Dallas IFF 2014: David and Nathan Zellner, 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter'

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Nathan and David Zellner at Sundance

Writing and directing team Nathan and David Zellner (pictured above) have been to film festivals all over the world recently with their latest narrative, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (my review) -- from Sundance in Park City to Berlin, Buenos Aires and Austin for SXSW. This week the film screens at the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) on Friday, April 11, and Saturday, April 12.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter stars Rinko Kikuchi as a lonely young woman disconnected from her coworkers and the traditional culture of Tokyo. Her obsession with the mythical treasure from the movie Fargo leads her on a journey well outside her comfort zone and knowledge, through the United States.

I spoke with Nathan and David Zellner last month when Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter screened at SXSW Film Festival in Austin. Here's what they had to say about the film.

Slackerwood: The tonality and the nature of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is sort of a different feel and on a bigger scale than your previous work -- can you address that?

David Zellner: it's not calculated, it's our gut instinct of just what feels right. Most everything we do, we like to find the balance between the humor and the melancholy. Depending on the film, it leans one way or the other a little more. It's more instinctive with what feels right with the film as a whole, or for that moment within the film.

This film was on a bigger scale shooting in different parts of the world, so there were things like that which elevated it. In terms of the approach and tonally compared to other things we do, it wasn't anything calculated, it was just going with what felt appropriate.On the balcony Kumiko, Treasure Hunter still photo

You mentioned having shot Kumiko in other areas of the world, what was it like to familiarize yourself with Tokyo?

David: It was great, we had a wonderful time. We put a lot of work into making sure we had the right team. That the people we worked with, they understood the project that we were trying to make. It was our job to know what we wanted to do and then to be able to articulate that to everyone. Once we did, everyone was on the same page and so we were all making the same movie, which sometimes is where I think some problems can arise, you know, when there's different expectations and whatnot.

The crew was bilingual and they've worked on a lot of international productions, so surprisingly there weren't any cultural barriers. Crew structure is a little different from place to place, but it was a breeze. We did our homework and it made it easier for everyone else to do theirs. It was very very fun -- it was not a slog at all.

Nathan Zellner: We wanted to make sure that we weren't making a tourist version of Japan, so trying to ask as many questions while we were there and as David said, doing our homework prior. When we met the right people, they felt comfortable in giving us feedback in terms of set decoration and other things. Like Rinko was very helpful in determining how her mom would be and what kind of relationships would be with that type of mother, such as, "That kind of person wouldn't say that, they would say it this way." We would have those discussions to help keep the natural aspect of the film intact for us.

Can you elaborate on the visual design?

David: Pretty much from the script stage, we were thinking about how we wanted to approach things visually. For the most part, we knew from the script stage how we wanted to approach a scene and that's built into the script pretty much. We come as prepared as possible, knowing exactly how we want to do it and based on location or something spontaneous that comes up.

We are open to throwing that out the window if there is something pure or more interesting in the moment when we are making it, but we always have that foundation to fall back on. Our cinematographer, Sean Porter, took what we had aesthetically and elevated it to another place. It was a lot of fun working with him -- it was a really great collaboration.

The Octopus Project by Todd V. Wolfson

The score is a dominant element of its own, especially with the contributions from Austin's The Octopus Project.

David: We like film scores and like what you can do with them. There are things that people can do with them that they aren't doing. We like the way that sound design blends into a score, and it's not just like people are operating separately and plugging things in. We like it where it's collaboration and it all weaves together. Nathan does the sound design and worked closely with The Octopus Project where you can't tell where one ends or one begins.

Nathan: There's a handful of specific music cues that we knew we wanted or were looking for. The Octopus Project came in early in the project so we were able to point those out. They had suggestions of maybe where to put something else, or reuse something here.

I used to joke that I have a 60-minute long track of amp crack, and buzzes and hums -- stuff that they just played around with in the studio. They handed us a complete work, and then they also handed us a lot of tools that we could use at our disposal. It really helps when we are editing the film, to edit the sound at the same time because a lot of the rhythms or the pacing when you cut in and out needs to all tie in. It was really helpful to have those elements as we were working with the picture.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter still photo

Can you talk a bit about the characterization about Kumiko as not appearing too complex, in a culture where people aren't encouraged to be unique?

David: It's like they internally and externally don't want to deal with a whole lot of emotional baggage. I think a lot of people are like that. It is definitely heightened there. That was something that just seemed to suit that character and the boxed-in world that she was in and created for herself as well. It was a character that we hadn't seen before and it seemed like it was something that would fit into this dynamic in an interesting way.

David, you have an integral role in the film as well. Can you talk about that character and the support and and struggle between wanting to help but also be realistic?

David: Nathan and I -- from when we started -- we act in our work when appropriate and both have roles in this film. We wanted the main obstacle for Kumiko to be herself, but then also the people who wanted to help her but it was kind of conditional. It was like "I want to help you, but my way of helping you" in terms of, I don't know what was best for her or what wasn't -- but definitely it was a lot of conditional help, which I think a lot of what help is when people offer assistance.

The less you understand someone the harder it is for you to be able to help them, so that was another interesting dynamic with that. It gave us some interesting things to play with the people she encounters and their relationships.

This is an interesting story based on a fantasy, how do you balance between the reality and fantasy? It is reminiscent of the ending to Brazil or Pan's Labyrinth.

David: I love that ending to Brazil. It's how what people bring to the film that determines what they are going to take away from it in the end. It's been fun showing it to people and getting their response based on that. We wanted to have a certain element of naturalism, everything is heavily stylized in film no matter what, even if it is very subtle.

We wanted that naturalism to the extent that people could connect with these characters as actual human beings on a human level and be able to connect with them. Once you have that foundation and people are able to connect, you can go with what feels right, tonally or aesthetically in terms of anything fantastical. That's something that is appealing to us. Once we feel comfortable with how we've set it up, it was more of a gut feeling where we push and pull with those sort of things.

Nathan: The fantasy part of it that's what intrigued us about the urban legend in the beginning -- was that it was so unique, this kind of treasure hunt in the modern day -- when that was first presented it was presented as fact what happened. As more information came out over the years, the original interpretation was more mythical, more urban legend and the facts were in our opinion more depressing, not interesting at all, the whole conduit being with the Coens' film Fargo.

When that first came out, that was "fact" and obviously it wasn't. All these things kind of playing together in terms of what we were looking for in this character and what her perception of what she wanted to choose to believe. You can have the same experience with the film at the end.

David: There are so many levels in which there are the blurred lines of fact and fiction and truth. It just kept getting more and more meta. It was really interesting to us in terms of different peoples' realities and things like that.

[Photo credit: "Nathan and David Zellner" by Leslie Langee courtesy of Nuclear Salad, "The Octopus Project" by Todd V. Wolfson, with permission, all rights reserved.]