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Interview: Director David Zellner Talks ‘Kumiko The Treasure Hunter,’ Urban Legends & Lure Of The Quest Movie

Interview: Director David Zellner Talks 'Kumiko The Treasure Hunter,' Urban Legends & Lure Of The Quest Movie

A small, offbeat gem of a film that has finally made it to U.S. theaters, David and Nathan Zellner’s “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” (which incidentally features the all-time Lettuce D’Or winner for Best Performance by a Rabbit), was one of the quieter success stories of the 2014 festival circuit. The strange, sad, bittersweet story of a lonely Japanese woman, played with perfect self-contained command by Rinko Kikuchi, who finds a VHS tape of the Coen Brothers’ “Fargo,” and, conflating reality and fiction, journeys all the way to Minnesota, alone in the dead of winter, to try to find the money that Steve Buscemi’s character buries in the snow, ‘Kumiko,’ despite being inspired by both an internet urban legend and one of the greatest American films ever made, is entirely its own, unusual thing. We loved it (our review is here), and so at the last Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, we were happy for the opportunity to talk with its director, David Zellner, who works in partnership with his brother Nathan (and who also appears in the film), about the film’s fascinating gestation and unique approach.

So how has the festival circuit been treating you and ‘Kumiko’?
I’ve been on the road non-stop, my brother and I have been tag-teaming festivals, but he just had a baby, so now it’s 100% me. But it took such a long time to make this film and so it’s been really nice to be able to finally share the finished thing and to be in different countries and have it still resonate with people.

It is of course hugely about culture clash, and about foreignness. Was that always the thrust of the story? Was it always going to be Japan that featured?
Well, it’s actually loosely based on an urban legend that circulated about ten years ago — before Twitter and Facebook — I first discovered it on message boards. Initially it was very minimal information, about a Japanese woman who went from Tokyo to Minnesota in search of the mythical fortune from the movie [“Fargo”], and it was so strange and mysterious, my brother and I wanted more answers. So to satiate our curiosity we started coming up with a backstory about what would lead someone to this point.

And over time more information emerged as to the real case — some of it contradictory, which we thought at first was a problem but then we started to like that too, that there were all these different versions of the truth, so many layers and blurred lines between truth and fiction.

Of course “Fargo” famously has that lying opening title stating that it is “based on a true story” too.
It does. And we’d started writing the film in 2002 and so by the time we circled back there was way more information online. And we were like “what do we do now?” and decided that we liked our version better. When we’d first heard about it was presented as 100% truth and that was debunked as urban myth, but there was a grain of truth, and what interested us the most was the quest element: the antiquated notion of a treasure hunt that no one goes on any more. The going-to-uncharted-lands sort of thing. So it was the fantastical element of the urban legend that drew us to the story in the first place, as opposed to the travelogue.

It just feels like there’s not as much mystery in the world as there used to be, every thing has been discovered, information is easily obtainable, whether you’re looking for treasure or for an obscure record… I miss that. Looking for an album or some obscure movie, just the satisfaction of looking for it and finding it, and so I liked the idea of that existing within her.

It brought huge challenges though, the film almost exists in two different aesthetics, as well as two very different environments?

I like playing with form, and we always wanted it to be two halves. But to have it work as a whole, there were a lot of challenges with that because of different languages, and having it tonally connect up and having the performances feel like they’re all part of the same cohesive film. We wanted to really inhabit each world and making that world complete, and of course with Japan we wanted her to be stuck in a cycle, so there’s more of a pay-off when she goes to America. It’s a bit like, I love the structure of “Full Metal Jacket” the way it’s just two chapters.

I think that’s part of what makes it feel so unusual, a kind of rejection of Hollywood narrative tidiness.
I like it when I see movies like that, that leave it up to you a bit. I remember when I was young and very used to three act structure tied up in a bow. The first films I saw that were different from that just affected me.

Can you remember what those films were?
Ahh, let’s see, the first time I saw something like that — it was when I first started seeing, you know, adult movies…

Ah. Porn.
Hahahah! Exactly! That always has closure at the end! You can always count on a… a very “tidy” finish! But really, it would probably be ‘Empire Strikes Back,’ I think. Because you see “Star Wars” and that’s as tidy as it gets and then you’ve one that’s darker and more open ended, and I really loved that film. So that’s the one that still resonates with me the most.

The perspective in ‘Kumiko’ is very interesting though, that Minnesota is exotic to her and Japan is ordinary which is the reverse of what it would be for a U.S. audience, or indeed U.S. filmmaker.
Oh yes, I really liked the idea of making something that was banal to one person and would be completely foreign and exotic to another person. And since everything is from her perspective, that’s why America is strange and foreign to her in ways that would be more normal to locals,

But at the same time I loved how you, as the filmmakers, were invested in the nobility of this quixotic quest, despite its futility. You admire her.
Absolutely. She’s delicate in so many ways, and I’m always drawn to outsider characters. But she’s such an easy target it would be really easy to make fun of her and do everything at her expense, pick her apart. But it was crucial to have a sense of empathy for her always; we really wanted to give a reverence to [her quest] being important and purposeful and she must persevere.

It’s funny that it comes from an internet story, that kind of reverse engineering, because while watching I was weirdly reminded of a tiny paragraph I once read in a newspaper about a body pulled from the river in Dublin wearing two pairs of jeans. The guy was well-dressed, expensive boots, a nice watch, and it wasn’t even winter, but two pairs of jeans, and I never forgot that.
Yes, that’s exactly right! And that is so interesting! Just hearing that I’m like, why, why? Why would that happen? So many things are over explained nowadays so I liked the fact that information here is so limited. When I heard about [this story] initially I just wanted to satisfy my own curiosity, like, I needed some kind of closure. And then that forces you to be creative in different ways and work back and understand what kind of person this is, what was her life back in Japan.

But Nathan and I also wanted to give [the viewer] the same kind of breathing room to think for themselves and not get didactic. Because as soon as you give a lot of information you lose the reason that people are interested. Like the guy with the jeans, the fact there was such limited information there forces you to fill in the gaps, and then you’re engaged.

You always work with your brother [and “Fargo” is also made by a pair of filmmaking brothers], do you see that changing ever?
I don’t think so, we’ve always worked together. And it’s something we just have a shorthand with. We never really talk about it, in fact the only time I do is in interviews! We never sit down and assess it, but since I was ten and making movies on VHS we’ve always worked together and worn different hats and this is just an evolution of that.

And have you anything in the pipeline together?
Well, we have written so many things in the meantime — that was the upside to ‘Kumiko’ taking so long — we have a few projects ready. Fortunately we have no shortage of ideas, and it’s just about how many we can make in our lifetimes and finding the ones that will take off. We definitely want to continue getting bigger. I mean, I like all kinds of films, there are some smaller films I’d like to do too. But the attraction of this character in many ways, was growing up loving adventure films and quest films and this was a particular take on that. But I would also love to do a big-budget adventure film, that would be very appealing to us.

You mention the long gestation of the film, what caused that?
Finding financing and the scheduling really, because we were shooting in two different parts of the world. Outside of our cinematographer it was two totally different crews, so having the crew base line up perfectly and then each unit… Because Japan had to be in the fall and Minnesota in the dead of winter, so it wasn’t the kind of film when you could slide it a month — we couldn’t fake the snow. And so everything had to line up perfectly because if it didn’t then it’s another year.

So we just kept making short films and we made two features, but kept circling back. All those things, though, everything fed into it. Subconsciously we were always sorting through things that led to ‘Kumiko.’

You can see that a bit from your previous film, “Kid Thing,” which also favors the perspective of a marginalized female character…
I want to do characters that we don’t normally see, and it’s so rare that there’s female leads that aren’t just serving as the girlfriend or something. Especially if it’s a quest — that’s always a guy. So we loved that it was a woman on a quest, kind of out there taking charge. Which is also why we didn’t want a boyfriend or anything.

Yes, her quest has nothing to do with a man, which is refreshing.
It’s like if you have a woman there’s has to be something about her boyfriend or husband. And she’s so insular in her world that that it is not on the top of her priority list. Not every story has to have someone in a relationship.

So how about the real story here? Did you find out more about that?
Well, actually… you can find all this online, but in reality, she wasn’t looking for treasure and there was something about chasing a boyfriend. That was of no interest to us and as soon as we realized there were differences like that we just dropped the real story and stayed in our bubble.

And finally, so much of that bubble is reliant on Rinko Kikuchi’s terrific performance. How did you come to cast her?
For us there wasn’t like a close second or anything. We didn’t write it with anyone particular in mind, but then we saw “Babel,” and like a lot of people in the West that was our introduction to her. And then we saw some Japanese films that she’d smaller parts in and we just liked her choices, as an actor but also in terms of the films she had chosen to do. But this is how long it took — we met her in 2008 and spoke with her through a translator and by the time we filmed with her in 2012, she was fluent in English.

But she just got the tone we were going for: this melancholic tone on the line between humor and pathos, and was able to handle both skilfully, yet with empathy and compassion for her character. And acting with her whole body, which was something she was excited about I think, because you don’t always have that opportunity and we wanted it to be a very physical role.

In fact it felt at times like a silent movie. She reminded me of Buster Keaton.
Oh that’s so good you say, because Buster Keaton is one of my favorite filmmakers and that was definitely something we talked about. That was definitely something we wanted.

‘Kumiko The Treasure Hunter’ is in theaters now.

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