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David and Nathan Zellner are no strangers to Sundance. Along with a number of short film premieres at the festival, the brothers debuted their second feature, Goliath, in 2008’s now-defunct Spectrum category, and their follow-up, Kid-Thing, as part of 2012’s NEXT.
With Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellners take a leap to the competition category. Though it didn’t pick up top honors, the movie went home with a nod to its score by longtime Zellner collaborators The Octopus Project, a pair of executive producers (Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor), and the respect of fest-going audiences (The Hollywood Reporter called it “a work of rigorously disciplined eccentricity”).
The stunning road movie follows Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) as the title character, a Japanese secretary who stumbles upon a VHS tape of Fargo and sets out to find the film’s MacGuffin: a bag of money buried in the snow. Navigating through the dense metropolis of Tokyo to the snow-covered plains of Minnesota, Kumiko’s Quixotic journey is filled with practical hurdles and quirky characters, dressed up in stunning cinematography.
The Hollywood Reporter recently talked with the Zellners about opening up the scope of their filmmaking and how they communicated their unique vision to their Japanese star:
The Hollywood Reporter: You’re working on a grander scale than most of your previous projects. Were you building to Kumiko or was this just the story that called for a bigger production?
David Zellner: Some of our projects come together quicker. Kumiko was much bigger and ambitious so it took a lot longer to pull together. We had done lots of rewrites over the course of ten years. Your tastes change and the story evolves. The main obstacles were having everything line up perfectly with financing, shooting in two different parts of the world and lining everything up perfectly with the weather as well. Everything had to be teed up perfectly for it to fall into place.
THR: Does the movie reflect a love of film? Fargo plays an important role in the narrative, but even the look of the movie feels classically cinematic.
David Zellner: Because this is a quest story, we wanted to give it an epic feel — cinematically, visually. Something that deserves to be seen on the big screen. We’re also embracing the landscapes, which we wanted to portray on an epic scale as she goes on her journey. Both contrasting Japan, the congested urban landscape, with the snowy wasteland of the Minnesota wilderness.
THR: Do you guys have a particular affection for Japanese culture? Or Japanese film? In the film, you reference James Clavell’s Shogun.
David Zellner: [Laughs] A lot of older white people, that was their foray into Japanese culture in the ’70s. Everyone who had that book was an expert in the culture. That was always novel to us. For ourselves, we previously visited Japan as tourists. We’re fans of Japanese cinema. And it’s based on an urban legend where the story begins in Japan, so that was a main motivation for setting the story there, obviously. But it’s a place we like very much.
THR: How did you go about conveying your vision for Kumiko to Rinko?
David Zellner: We met her in 2008 and having seen her previous work, we appreciated her choices. They’re very much her own and very diverse. We needed an actress who was able to convey a lot through basic facial expression, since she was going to be alone so much. We needed her to embrace the physicality because it was unique. The main thing we did, right away, was make sure she was on the same page tonally with what we were trying to do. She quickly tapped into that and had a similar taste in film.
THR: What were a few of the movies that you and Rinko both loved?
David Zellner: Everything from Buster Keaton to the Dardenne brothers. There’s a distinct stylization to this film but we wanted to ground it in naturalism so that people could relate to Kumiko on a human level.
THR: Can you put a finger on the tone you were aiming for?
David Zellner: We wanted a haunting, melancholic tone that was stylized compositionally and [captured] naturalism with the lighting. It’s about finding a balance between humor and pathos. We like riding that line with a certain stylization. The more we go from there, we nudge it one way or another based on what feels right.
THR: Your composers, Octopus Project, picked up an award for their work on Kumiko. How did you settle on a sound for the film?
David Zellner: We’ve been very close friends for over a decade and worked together on everything from shorts to features. We hang out all the time socially. They partnered well with the sound design. Nathan does the sound design. We do films where the sound design and score blur together, instead of feeling like they were cut off and were made by two different people. So it was fun having them create elements and having Nathan craft them into the film.
Nathan Zellner: We had a dozen to 15 music cues when we handed off the edit to them. We talked through what we were looking for in terms of the music. They would give us music beds and broken music stems, 40 or 60 minutes of hums and amp cracks, elements we could start playing around with. That helped us a ton. We do a lot of the sound work during the cut because it helps us with rhythm and timing. Sound is such an important part of the picture, we do them at the same time so we can see the edit as it should be. When we get close to a first cut, it’s pretty refined.
THR: After the first screening of Kumiko, Bunzo the bunny was the talk of the town. Are rabbits easy to work with?
David Zellner: Bunzo is great. It took a very long time to find the right Bunzo, a rabbit that was mellow and comfortable being in the situations of the film. We love working with animals. When we have no expectations, we can get an amazing performance. If you try and force them to do something, it becomes more complicated. We found the right animal and let them do the right thing.
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