“Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams,” Federico Fellini once said. “Years can pass in a second, and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream.”
Cinema’s oneiric qualities have long been discussed by filmmakers and film theorists alike. Hollywood is even referred to as “the Dream Factory,” but that sobriquet refers as much to the industrial production and export model of the motion picture business as it does to film’s trance-like attributes. Dreams — at least the ones contained in film — have meanings, and their export is both a cultural and political act. The American way of life depicted in our movies helps create the so-called “American Dream” that calls immigrants to our shores and compels people around the world to buy our goods.
American movies, dreams and export all factor into Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellner brothers’ Sundance hit. The film starts with an almost fantasy-like prologue, as our mouse-y, red-hoodied heroine, treasure map in hand, trudges along a Japanese beach until she finds a cave that’s hiding … a cracked VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ Fargo. Barely visible here, through video fuzz and roll bars, is that film’s opening text, famously — and incorrectly — stating, “This is a true story.”
With those words, Kumiko — who is not some global adventurer but rather a withdrawn Japanese office lady — plans a breakout, away from the sexism and tedium of her administrative job and to the United States where, as the Coens’ film maps out, there remains a bag of money buried somewhere near the border of North Dakota and Minnesota. Needless to say, the snow-covered American Midwest is not what she dreamed it would be.
With spare, beautifully modulated storytelling, the Zellners (David directs and writes, Nathan produces and edits, and both act) have taken this slender storyline and created an offbeat masterpiece of melancholy, an epic tale filled with small moments, a film that accesses the deepest of human emotions with a sly, pop culture kick. Japanese star Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Babel) brings a hyper-natural, heartbreaking intensity to her role; along with the filmmakers, she never doubts the sincerity of Kumiko’s quest. As for the Austin-based Zellners, it’s their breakthrough picture. Over the course of nearly two decades, from their raucously absurd debut Utopia (1997) and surreal political satire Frontier (2001) — the latter performed, no less, in a made-up language — to more recent features Goliath (2008’s dark comedy about divorce) and Kid-Thing (2012, a bleakly metaphysical children’s adventure), the Zellners’ filmmaking has become richer, deeper and, wonderfully, even more uncategorizable. Reach for a comparison for something like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter and you have to search back to Werner Herzog’s 1977 fable Stroszek — even if, as I note below, the Herzog film that more immediately sprung to mind after this film’s premiere at Sundance’s giant Eccles theater was the dreamier and more haunting Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
As a producer in addition to being the editor of this magazine, I have a policy of not featuring films I’m involved with in these pages. That policy, however, does not extend to films I could have — and should have — gotten involved with. As the Zellners and I allude to here, an early draft of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter landed in my Forensic Films production office back in 2003. My partner, Robin O’Hara, was the first there to fall in love with it; soon, I and the rest of the office followed. There were other references to Fargo in that earlier draft, particularly an ending more reliant on the original elements of that film. It’d be a challenge to secure the participation of those required, I thought, but I didn’t see how the movie could work any other way. Unsuccessfully, I tried, as, I’m sure, did others after me. Like their film’s heroine, however, the Zellners did not give up, and my happiest surprise attending the Kumiko premiere was watching its new, entirely perfect ending — simpler, deeper and more resonant than what had been on the pages so many years earlier.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is forthcoming in theaters from Amplify.
How and when did you first hear of the urban legend of Kumiko, and what specifically attracted you to it? DAVID: I heard about it at the end of 2001. It was on message boards — this is before Twitter and Facebook. Initially, it was simply that a Japanese woman went from Tokyo to Minnesota in search of the buried fortune from Fargo. The fact that there was just this antiquated notion of someone going on a treasure hunt or quest was just so odd and mysterious. It was presented as absolute fact, and I just became completely obsessed with it.
I feel like in modern society, there isn’t this sense of mystery and adventure that there once was. In part because of the Internet, there are answers at your fingertips for everything. Everything is mapped out; there are no uncharted lands. And so, the idea of having that sense of mystery and wonder in a contemporary setting seemed really appealing. Partly just out of curiosity, we started working on the story, just to fill in the gaps. Why would someone go on a journey like this? We would do a draft, and then we’d circle back online, and then, suddenly, there was more information. At first, we were concerned because there were different versions of the truth, and they were all different from the world we created in the script. [The original story] was basically debunked. A woman did go to Minnesota from Tokyo, but she didn’t get lost in the wilderness. [The real story] had something to do with an ex-boyfriend and nothing to do with a treasure hunt or Fargo or anything like that.
Did that knowledge deter you in any way? At first, we were alarmed that she wasn’t going on a treasure hunt for the money from Fargo, that it was just this urban legend that created and perpetuated itself in real time, online. We were caught off guard, but then we loved it all the more. It added all the more to the story because it was the mythic quality, the legend aspect, that got us so engaged to begin with. And so, that’s what was most important for us to be true to. Once we realized that there was this other story different from the legend, we didn’t feel beholden to then incorporate and cherry pick random facts to put into [our story].
The first thing that struck me when I saw the film, on that huge screen at the Eccles at its Sundance premiere, was how much bigger in scope and feel it was than I expected. Having read the script, I thought I knew what the film would feel like, but I was wrong. I think I tweeted, “I was expecting Stroszek, and I got Aguirre.” DAVID: Yeah, we wanted to give [Kumiko] a big, epic kind of feel. The other things we’ve done were on a much smaller, more intimate scale, but we grew up on adventure films, quest films, and this is kind of like our version of that. Even though it is a character-driven piece and insular in a lot of ways, we wanted the landscapes to be essentially characters. We wanted to make something that you want to see big.
What were some of those adventure films that inspired you? DAVID: A lot of the blockbusters of the time: the Spielberg and Lucas stuff, John Boorman’s Excalibur, [John Milius’s] Conan the Barbarian. And later, when we were teenagers, Herzog in general and Aguirre, [which] took on the adventure film and gave it this fever-dream vibe. Also, when we were growing up we were very much into Greek mythology, fables and that sort of thing. So we liked giving [Kumiko] this kind of heightened, fable-like quality.
NATHAN: I think one of the main things that we took from blockbuster adventure films was shooting in a way so that you could get the scope of [Kumiko’s] quest, this person going against the vast landscape and wilderness. That’s in a lot of these adventure films — the protagonist is set out against this wide path in front of them.
In addition to the film’s fable-like qualities, there’s a complicated psychological complexity to the character of Kumiko. One critic friend of mine said she thought it was the best depiction of schizophrenia she had seen onscreen. And for the first half of the film, Kumiko seems to be struggling with depression. Could you talk about your conception of the character and how you worked with Rinko to develop it? DAVID: [Kumiko] is a person who is haunted and kind of trapped. Personal, professional, psychological [pressures] have been building up over time, but what we didn’t want to do is diagnose or label her. That would have come off like a TV movie-of-the-week kind of thing — such an arbitrary [way to define character]. And it would become easy then to delve into condescension. It was more just approaching her from a very human standpoint as someone in a difficult position and letting [the viewer] interpret that how they will. It’s been interesting showing this film in different countries, because people have different impressions of what is wrong with her, partly based on their different cultures. Some people talk about different kinds of mental illness and others just feel that she was in a really bad spot and don’t label her beyond that. I like that people come away with different interpretations. They’re all legitimate. Also, everything in the film is from Kumiko’s perspective; pretty much, from her point of view, she’s this warrior on this quest. And so, it would kind of pull away from the story, then, to step back. It would make the movie a lot safer to conveniently put a label on her. It’d almost dehumanize her in a certain way.
NATHAN: We took that approach, too, with the characters she meets. None of the characters [are positioned from] the audience’s point of view. They’re not trying to psychoanalyze her or figure out why she’s going on this quest. Their interactions are always trying to be helpful in good, bad or misdirected ways. They’re trying to connect with her, and a lot of times [those are] missed connections. There’s more human interaction than expository dialogue about who Kumiko is.
DAVID: In discussing the character with Rinko, it was the same thing. We never talked about any kind of clinical label to put on her. We just talked from a very human and personal standpoint about where she was at and on a level that was relatable to the three of us. [Rinko] is by herself a lot of the film, and we didn’t want to telegraph what she was thinking to the audience, or beat them over their heads with it. We wanted to, in a very sincere and earnest way, let just her facial expressions convey the kind of torment and conflict she is going through. We talked about silent screen performers [and how] subtly conveying [emotions] through facial expression was a necessity for them.
You spent years thinking about this film, but your d.p., Sean Porter, joined the project at the last minute after another d.p. became unavailable. Were you worried about making that kind of a change so late? How did you know he was the right person for the job? What did you do to get Sean on your page as quickly as you could? DAVID: [We wanted] this constant melancholic tone running throughout the film — kind of an understated tone that would ground the film with a certain humanity — and Sean just got that tone we were going for. He wasn’t trying to make it into something else. We knew [from the beginning] that we were all making the same movie, which, you know, doesn’t always happen.
NATHAN: When we were initially coming up with the script and the concept, it was [all about] making sure that we nailed [the tone]. And then, carrying forward throughout the whole process, from script notes to talking with our d.p. and the cast and finally going through the editorial process, we made sure we didn’t deviate from that baseline, that standard we set. That made a lot of the decisions very easy. We had a lot of gut checks along the way. Is it getting too emotional or too sappy? Or, is it getting too humorous? Then we’d pull it back. Having the confidence in what the tone is supposed to be made all those discussions and collaborations really simple. The key was making sure that whomever we hired or worked with had that same mindset going in.
Before doing this interview I tried to go back and read the script you sent me in 2003, but I couldn’t find it. NATHAN: That file format doesn’t exist anymore. [Laughs]
As I said earlier, though, the film felt very different. You’ve spoken about tone. Do you feel that the tone you landed on is the same one you established at the beginning of this long process? DAVID: Over the course of 10 years, we always had a certain tone, but then, the script evolved in different ways. And at a certain point, our own sensibilities changed a little, too.
I, of course, remember the script’s original and different ending, but how else did the script evolve over however many drafts you did? DAVID: The ending definitely changed, but it wasn’t like we had a big talk about it. It’s just what felt right, you know? As our tastes changed as we got older, it just kind of presented itself like this is the way it needs to end. [The original ending] just felt a little too clever. And I think the opening sequence was not in the early versions you saw. Now it’s almost kind of like a James Bond opening, a little adventure in a different geographic location that’s different from the rest of the movie but still kind of connected. Also, we’re big fans of Asian cinema, samurai films and things like that, so that distinct, rocky coastline was so striking to us. It just seemed like a really neat way to kick it off.
So going back to 2003 again, what were the struggles to get this made? Why did it take so many years? DAVID: There were so many different things. We didn’t have as much experience then as we do now, so maybe that might’ve been a factor. And then, you know, it is such an unconventional film, half of it being in Japanese and half in English and [set] in two different parts of the world, shooting in the dead of winter. So some of it was just that it is hard to get an unconventional film going in general. And then, when we did get momentum at different times, it would be so easy for it to slide a year at a time. Outside of Sean, ourselves and Chris [Ohlson, producer], we had entirely different crews in Japan and America. We would get one crew set up in Japan and one in America, and everything had to sync up perfectly from going from one [country] to the next. If something slid a little, then we would get out of winter in Minnesota and it would push back a whole year. And then, there was coordinating with Rinko’s schedule, because there wasn’t even a close second [choice] with us. She was so perfect for the role, but then she was doing some big blockbusters and stuff that would cause things to slide a little as well. So there were a lot of different variables that had to kinda line up perfectly. We almost got it off the ground a couple of times, and then financing fell apart. In the meantime, we made a lot of short films, two features and music videos. The smaller projects were easier to get off the ground and were shot in Texas. So we would do some of those and then circle back to this, try to move it along, and then eventually, you know, we pushed it through.
In addition to filmmaking, what did you do in these intervening years? How did you survive? DAVID: We’ve had a million different kinds of day jobs leading up to getting Kumiko off the ground. In a lot of ways, those kind of cubicle jobs aren’t exactly what you want to be doing, but then those sorts of experiences inform the things you make. A lot of the office culture in Japan we could pull ideas from based on different cubicle environments we’ve been in, different office dynamics.
At the time I read the original script, I don’t think I grasped the tone completely because it was so different from the short-form work I had seen of yours. You hadn’t done a feature yet. Then, over the course of Goliath and Kid-Thing, I watched as you moved toward the style you have now landed on with Kumiko. DAVID: The first draft of Kumiko was written before either Kid-Thing or Goliath. And so, there were certain things, certain ideas, on a subconscious level, more than anything, we were testing out with those films and that we refined when we made Kumiko. But it wasn’t until actually doing it that we realized that that was the case. In Goliath, there’s this kind of office culture that is the same kind of vibe as in Kumiko. And then, the tone we knew we wanted to execute with Kumiko was something we just found ourselves kind of testing out with Kid-Thing.
How many days did you shoot in each country? NATHAN: It was 32 days total, I think. I think we shot 12 days [in Japan] — six-day weeks with a day off. We broke [the whole shoot] down into two separate productions. We had a whole crew over in Japan of locals, and then Chris, David, myself and Sean went over to Minnesota and prepped as if it was a whole other production. It was like shooting two movies back-to-back, and that’s what made it doable: we weren’t transporting people across the globe. It was ours and Sean’s jobs to make sure that the tone and the style and everything carried over, and that we were making the same movie, despite having two different [crews].
DAVID: That’s really a testament to the crews we had on both ends. In Japan, it could’ve been really scary for a lot of reasons, but we had this amazing team, the exact same crew that did Enter the Void. They liked the uniqueness of this film; it was something they hadn’t done before. They just dialed into the tone we were going for, and from that point it was so much fun.
Was it difficult to do all the street and subway shooting as a smaller independent film? DAVID: It’s impossible to get permits over there just because it’s such a busy city and it won’t shut down for anyone. Even on commercials they do a lot of guerilla-style run-and-gun type of things. Even a big movie like Babel can’t get permits to shoot in the subway there. [That scene with Kumiko and her rabbit entering the train] took a lot of planning. We had a Mission: Impossible-like crack team of people on headsets at different stations giving each other information as to where the authorities were. And then, with this crack team and Kumiko and Bunzo, we planned everything and thankfully, it fell into place. The second we finished, the cops saw us and we were A Hard Day’s Night — grabbing our cameras and running.
I’m surprised because that scene with Kumiko and her rabbit on the subway is shot in such a controlled way. The subway is very crowded, the camera is perfectly stationary, and Rinko enters and exits the train at precisely the right position with the camera locked off. Were you on a tripod? Were all those people extras, or people that were just there? DAVID: It was almost all extras. I think we’d throw in a couple crew members if we needed to fill in something. But we just tried to stay out of the way. And, yes, [the camera] was stationary. There’s almost no handheld in the film. You just throw a jacket over the camera [and tripod], don’t make eye contact with people and go as quickly as you can.
Did people recognize Rinko? DAVID: No, she was in character and looked kind of dour. And people were all in a hurry.
NATHAN: In terms of shooting these formal shots with a tripod [on the subway], one of the nice things is that the subway stops exactly where you think they’re going to stop. You can just be like, “All right, this train runs on clockwork. It’s going to stop exactly right here, so let’s put the camera up.” You know exactly where the doors will [line up].
How do you guys work together? How does it break down? DAVID: We have different strengths, but everything overlaps. We don’t have barriers or anything. Maybe my strength is more in writing and directing and Nathan’s is more in producing and editing. But, he’s involved in the writing, and I’m involved in the editing. And then, Nathan does the sound design, which is something we’ve gotten more and more interested in over the years. Compared to other stages in the process, it’s relatively cheap, and I feel like usually it’s an afterthought or something people rush through at the end. We do it while we’re editing the picture, concurrently, just because sometimes the sound design dictates how we’re editing things and vice versa. It gives us a better idea of what we’re working with.
Nathan, could you talk more about that and give me an example? NATHAN: If it’s a take you like visually but you’re not really liking the way [the actor] says the line, [you take] the audio from this other take. Those tricks that some people save until later [in postproduction] can dictate [for us] very specific shots or angles [in the picture cut]. It’s like, what did you hear over in this other take that you like, even if it’s just background noise? How can these other audio elements dictate the rhythm of the scene, the cutting from one person to the next?
How do you work with your composers, The Octopus Project? At what stage do they enter the process? NATHAN: We’ve known The Octopus Project for a really long time. They also did the score for Kid-Thing, and we have worked with them on music videos and that sort of thing. The way they’ll come into the process is we show them parts of the movie and they’ll get a feel for the tone. We’ll talk a lot about different soundtracks we like, and then they’ll start sending over a dozen or so cues and also music and sound effects beds — you know, 40 minutes of amp cracks and different things that we can play off of. As David said, the edit sometimes dictates the score and vice versa. Sometimes, they hand over the score and we’ll go, “Let’s extend [this scene] a little bit longer so we can finish out this piece of music.” For us it’s essential to edit the sound as you’re going because it really affects the rhythm of the whole thing.
DAVID: Also, since the film was so spare in terms of dialogue, and since so much of it was Kumiko by herself, it necessitated filling that space with sound design and scoring. We didn’t need to do those sorts of things on other [films] we’ve done because the dialogue was so much at the forefront.
NATHAN: For example, there’s a shot of [Kumiko] walking down the highway, the snow is in the background and it’s just one take. An old woman pulls up, and we rack focus to her. How long you want to sit on [Kumiko] walking really is dependent on so many factors, like where you’re cutting from and what her expression is. There’s no music over that [shot], so we had to play around with the sound design of the wind just to know what the scene was actually going to [feel] like. And when we added the right type of wind for that setting, it made you want to suffer with her a little bit longer than if you were just watching her [without it].
You mentioned discussing soundtrack influences with your composer. There were two that popped up for me. The first was Popol Vuh’s score for Aguirre, of course. DAVID: Oh, yeah. I’m a huge Popol Vuh fan. I love all of that — it just puts you in such an amazing state. What else?
And then there’s a whole Suspiria thing going on at one point, it felt like. DAVID: It’s funny you say that. I’m a huge Goblin fan, and particularly Suspiria, but we never wanted to name check anything. But I think on a subconscious level, we’re heavily influenced [by them]. [Suspiria] is a perfect example of a film where the sound design and the score blend together into one, and that’s something we really wanted to do with this, where you didn’t know where the sound design ends and the score begins. Another example I love is Flash Gordon, which Mike Hodges directed. Queen did the soundtrack. The sound effects, the sound design and then the Queen soundtrack are all just kind of one. It’s so dynamic and euphoric, I think.
NATHAN: Queen ended up doing the laser sound effects! And you don’t really realize that, you know? As kids, we probably listened to that soundtrack on tape as much as we saw the movie. It was one of those soundtracks where they mixed in dialogue from scenes with the actual songs, and Queen was basically doing everything! I think that, on a subconscious level, has influenced how we worked with the Octopus Project. They handed us so many different elements, and sometimes it would be like, “Man, it would be really cool if we had this kind of hum or some sort of element to put in this scene.” We’d email Josh and Toto, and the next day they would send us a .WAV file with an hour’s worth of what we were asking for.
DAVID: So it’s like Stroszek, Aguirre and Flash Gordon. [Laughs]
And let me just end by saying, are you now making films full time? DAVID: Yeah, we are. We are. We want to keep making bigger and bigger films.
And how are you surviving in this current tough independent film landscape? DAVID: Well, it’s certainly not easy, and we are anxious to get the next project off the ground. But, we’ve always been minimalists, in a lot of ways, and resourceful. And we have always worked on multiple projects at once, so that there’s not a lot of wait. If we have opportunities, people aren’t waiting on us, ever.