David and Nathan Zellner first began penning the script for “Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter” in 2001, inspired by the urban legend of a Japanese woman named Takako Kunishi. In a pre-internet crazed age, the first details to emerge regarding her case took on a near chimerical quality, as the local media reported that the Tokyo-based office worker had died in Minneapolis in search of the suitcase of cash Steve Buscemi’s character buries beneath the snow at the end of “Fargo.”
Transfixed by Kunishi’s improbable quest, the Zellners spent the next 11 years working to bring her tale to production, eventually attaching the Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi to the project as her eponymous proxy. With the excellent “Kumiko” finally reaching screens some 14 years later, Indiewire spoke with the Zellners and producer Chris Ohlson about how they were able to bring their long-gestating project to fruition, and the incidental benefits of a decade-spanning development period.
An Advantageous Timeline
In speaking about what initially attracted him and his brother to Kunishi’s story, David chalked it up to the precise lack of information — a dearth that, in today’s day and age, no longer exists. “This was before social media, so information didn’t get dispersed so quickly,” he said. “It gave the story time to grow on its own before it was written off and debunked. It was allowed to have a life of its own, and that’s what drew people to it in the first place. The limited information led us to create some sense of closure on our end.”
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Asked if they would still be moved to write a script about the occurrence if it happened today, however, and David hesitated. “The story would have been more widely spread, more chewed up and spat out,” he said. “It would have been just another tragic news story. We weren’t trying to do some journalistic piece. We were storytellers drawn to this legend.”
Though the film recalls a more timeless realm than your average period piece, the Zellners put the physical media of the early aughts to indelible aesthetic use. The first “clue” Kumiko finds on her quest is a VHS of “Fargo,” which plays not as an anachronistic wink, but as a mythical device.
“When we first started writing the film, it was during the transition of VHS to DVD, so it wasn’t out of nostalgia,” said David. “It seemed interesting for the film because, while it takes place in the early 2000s, it was also a nice thematic tool in terms of the physical media, and how tactile it is.”
There were artistic benefits as well. “From a storytelling standpoint, it was much more interesting than everything being digital, and having her look things up online,” David added. “We loved the natural decay and distortion of the analog video as well. In terms of her research for whatever truth she was tracking, it made it more mysterious. As she went on to the DVDs, there was more clarity.”
The Zellners were hardly twiddling their thumbs while working to get “Kumiko” into production, racking up a slew of experience in the form of several shorts, as well as the features “Goliath” and “Kid-Thing” (both of which premiered at Sundance). “We’ve always been very self-reliant, we were never waiting on anyone or relying on anyone,” said David, who also produced the earlier films with his brother. “We would try to get ‘Kumiko’ off the ground, and it wouldn’t happen, so we would work on something else. We would make shorts to launch ourselves, or pull together resources to make features.”
Accruing such a resume is what eventually helped them to raise the bigger budget for “Kumiko,” and David was quick to mention that one shouldn’t be discouraged simply because projects don’t happen in the exact order in which you conceive them.
“I don’t know how other people work, but we don’t work in a linear fashion – things are always overlapping,” he said. “We wrote ‘Kumiko’ before ‘Goliath’ and ‘Kid-Thing,’ but those two films got made first.”
The non-linear approach continues to suit them. David noted that at least two of the projects they’re considering as their next endeavors were written before “Kumiko.” “There’s an ebb and flow,” he said. “We just like making stuff, so we don’t want to sit around and wait for permission.”
While “Goliath” was touring the festival circuit in 2008, the Zellners kept at “Kumiko” prep, attaching Rinko Kikuchi to the title role, a year after her Oscar nomination for “Babel.” “We had a great lunch with her and instantly knew she was our Kumiko,” said David. “She got the tone right away. We had seen her in ‘Babel’ and knew she could convey a lot with just her physical presence, which was also essential with out film.”
The budding project also attracted the attention of the writing duo Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, who came aboard as executive producers the same year. “Their involvement was more peripheral,” conceded Nathan, “though it was a nice stamp of approval on the film.”
Staying True to the Original Vision
Throughout the decade-plus of development, the Zellners stayed true to their concept of the legend, never revising the script “based on the details coming out.” Instead, it evolved organically, “based on our tastes, and regular script polishing,” said David.
Experience was also a factor. “We edit our own films,” said Nathan, “which makes us really efficient. We really look at what we’re putting on the page when we’re writing because we’re thinking about what it’s going to look like when we shoot it and when we’re in the editing room. It’s never completely done — every step of the process you modify things.”
“I probably updated and revised our working schedule and working budget more than 50 times each,” said one of the film’s producers, Chris Ohlson, who began working on “Kumiko” on a day-to-day basis back in late 2007. Reflecting on those years of pre-production work, Ohlson said that most of it was spent working on revisions. “We’d constantly be talking about locations, specific crew members, our back-up plans for any and all curveballs that might come our way,” he said. “After false starting a couple of times, due to some financing issues, David, Nathan and I wanted to have thought through every possible permutation of what may happen while on location, as we knew we’d only get one real shot to make the film.”
With back-to-back shoots running from November of 2012 to February 2013, the scope of the production was never lost on them. “With ‘Kumiko’ being such a sprawling project, with two continents, two separate casts and crews, and an incredibly weather dependent shoot, we were always updating and refining our approach,” Ohlson said. They ended up shooting a total of 32 days — 12 in Japan and 20 in Minnesota — with 6 months to complete the edit before their Sundance premiere in January 2014.
In each breakdown of the script and budget he did over eight years, Ohlson was thinking of “a potential different approach or way of making the film – I was constantly trying to stay on top of different and new ways we could tackle all-things-Kumiko…thinking through every scene, every line item, every scheduled day, every potential location, every line of dialogue, and potential workflow issue.”
This process was key to keeping the ideas fresh. “For me, it was important to keep turning the film’s elements over and over in my head,” Ohlson said, “and not let any approach get ‘stale.'”
Both Ohlson and the Zellners emphasized the marathon-like nature of the process, with David chalking up the film’s ultimate completion to sheer perseverance. “Filmmaking isn’t a sprint,” he said, “and if you can handle the setbacks and blows, keep learning, adapting, it will only help you create things that are true to you and the audience will eventually find you. You keep getting told ‘no’ enough and you forge ahead and it gets made.”
As painstaking of an uphill battle as it may have been, David ultimately determined that the lengthy development period was constructive for “Kumiko.” “On the bright side, it allowed us to refine the story, get space from it and circle back,” he said. “By the time we finally started filming, it felt like we had edited the film in our heads and knew exactly what we wanted. It would’ve been a very different film had we shot it right after writing it, so the gestation period, while difficult, was helpful.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean he wants to go through it all over again. “We’d prefer to not have anything take that long again,” he said.