David and Nathan Zellner had been making oddball shorts and features out of Austin, Texas for more than 15 years when their 2014 Sundance-winning “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” became an unexpected cult hit, grossing over half a million dollars in limited release and generating a new international fan base for the brothers over the course of a year. It wasn’t your obvious breakout: the story of a Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) who believes the story of “Fargo” was real and journeys around the world with her pet bunny to find the hidden briefcase of cash from that 1994 film.
But the outrageous premise meshed with a surprisingly poignant tone that caught audiences by surprise. Suddenly a pair of filmmakers known mostly on the festival circuit and around the Austin film scene was getting offers for more work — just not the kind they wanted.
“We were very quick to turn stuff down,” said David, the chattier of the two, in a joint interview. “The stuff that was coming our way wasn’t anything that was interesting to us.” He added that the bulk of the offers were horror movies and cyber thrillers. Instead, they pressed ahead with “Damsel,” a loopy feminist western less like “Kumiko” than the surreal blend of cartoonish pastiche and surrealism found in the Zellners’ other work. Released in theaters this weekend with Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasichowska leading its cast, it marks the biggest platform for pure, unbridled Zellnerian storytelling to date.
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There’s a lot of it. They made their first feature, “Plastic Utopia,” in 1997; it played at a few festivals but never got released, and the brothers later distanced themselves from it. Instead of trying to make more commercial work, they went deeper into an emerging aesthetic of weirdness. Their second effort, 2001’s “Frontier,” was shot in a made-up language. Then came the shorts. The Zellners cranked them out, directing five between 2004 and 2007, when they made “Goliath.” Their third feature, the anarchic tale of a recently divorced man losing his mind in the suburbs, took them to Sundance. They continued to make shorts.
Much of the Zellners’ work felt like the product of deranged home movies made by hyperactive children from another planet. “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2” is exactly what it sounds like. The three-part “Fiddlestixx” translates the qualities of a cheesy ‘50s sci-fi movie into psychedelic variety show. “Flotsam/Jetsam” spends an interminable amount of time watching a shipwrecked man drift around before abruptly destroying him with a shark. They kept the Zellners on the frontline of the festival scene, mingling with filmmakers and programmers on a regular basis. “You don’t ever want to take those relationships for granted, but you kind of forget that’s what you’re doing,” Nathan said. “It’s still work, but you’re going to show your stuff. And there’s always a pay off, and a community that you’re building that’s not in the town where you work.”
None of these shorts would make a reasonable case for the directors’ potential to handle a complex, bigger-budget project. Collectively, however, they allowed the Zellners to gain confidence in their creativity while stabilizing their lives with day jobs. In the meantime, they were writing a lot of scripts. “Damsel,” which starts out as a traditional western with a masculine hero trying to rescue his kidnapped gal before flipping that premise around, seemed like a natural step for the brothers: another refashioning of movie tropes that toyed with audience expectations.
But they kept struggling to put it together. “There were so many occasions where we almost made it, and then the financing fell through,” David said. Two years before production on “Kumiko,” the two were on location in Minnesota, ready to shoot “Damsel” with a different cast. Then the financing fell apart. “It was so many fits and starts,” David said. “It was just heartbreaking. We had to pull stakes and regroup.”
They went back to doing what they knew how to do: working fast and loose. Producing the shoestring “Kid-Thing” —an eerie, enigmatic story of a young girl who discovers a mysterious voice emanating from the well near her house — back on their home turf proved cathartic. “We’ve never had the luxury of controlling the order we do things,” David said. “Kid-Thing” went to Sundance, showcasing a gentler side to the brothers’ work than “Goliath,” and rejuvenated interest in supporting their work. That led to “Kumiko,” and finally they quit their day jobs. “It wasn’t just a leap of faith,” David said. “It was many, many years of gearing up to that and being ready for it.”
“Kumiko” brought them the resources — and the interest from name actors — to make “Damsel.” In the movie, Pattinson’s character isn’t the only one pining for Wasichowska’s affections. The movie is a playful treatise on the male gaze. “Every new guy objectifies her in a different way, projecting his desire,” David said. “I think the western is the most American genre, in terms of manliness.” The Zellners are among the few contemporary directors who excel at poking holes in American mythology. “In the 1800s, the country was growing so fast,” Zellner said. “There was this idea that everything was going to be life-changing and positive, but in reality, nobody had a good time. It was stumbling on top of itself.”
They’re now dead-set on increasing their scale each time out, though they haven’t finalized any plans. “We want to keep going bigger and bigger,” David said. “We’ll always write our own stuff, the stuff we want to do.” The pair is repped by ICM, and the agency regularly sends them scripts, including some studio projects. “It’s amazing how much IP is floating around, and how little of it makes it to the screen,” Nathan said. “Hopefully, we can control our own destinies, because you can always do the stuff you want to do if you created it, because you know it’s a match.”
“Damsel” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.