David and Nathan Zellner on Making Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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kumiko the treasure hunter

Filmmaking siblings have been around for as long as there’s been filmmaking with some of the more prominent ones being the Duplass Brothers, the Wachowskis, the Dardennes, the Zuckers and more, but the brothers who may have had the most influence on filmmaking duo David and Nathan Zellner’s new movie Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is none other than the Coen Brothers, although it’s only because one of their most famous movies was the basis of an internet myth which stirred them to write a movie influenced by that story.

It stars Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko, a quiet young Japanese woman who finds a mysterious VHS tape, which points the way to a forgotten buried treasure somewhere in North Dakota (if that gives you enough of a clue what’s on the tape), and so begins a journey that will take her to the bitter cold Midwest looking for said treasure.

It’s the latest movie from the indie filmmakers who have been making films most of their lives and got a lot of festival attention with their previous film, the distinctively original Kid-Thing.

ComingSoon.net sat down with David and Nathan a few weeks back to find out more about their intriguing new film.

ComingSoon.net: Can you talk about how you got interested in this story of a woman who went looking for treasure in Minnesota after watching “Fargo”?

David Zellner: In 2001, a little bit of information was put online about this story of this Japanese woman who went from Tokyo to Minnesota in search of a fortune from the movie. Initially, when we first saw it, that was all the information that was out there and this was before social media, before Twitter and Facebook and that sort of thing. Information wasn’t dispersed so instantaneously online so things could grow on their own. That little bit of information really peaked our interest as did other people, partly because when there’s limited information, you want more and you’re drawn into it. And then also, we just love this antiquated notion of someone going on a quest in a modern-day setting. We just started to kind of sate our own curiosity, just filling in the gaps of what would lead someone on this quest. And then, over time, more information came out about it that basically debunked it as an urban legend. At first, we were concerned, because we thought it was true, but then it made us like it all the more because there’s so many layers with this truth and fiction to play with. It was the legend that drew people in to begin with. I think if the legend had been debunked instantly, then I don’t think it would have drawn the outsider attention that it did otherwise. Like any myth or legend, I think people wanted to believe it. That’s certainly what engaged us so for the sake of telling a story, we were never interested in the journalistic aspects of it. We were only interested in the legend and that’s what we wanted to be true to, and then fill in the gaps in other ways.

CS: It’s interesting that you’re brother filmmakers. I assume you’re fans of the Coen Brothers and “Fargo” since you spend so much time in that cold location…

David: We are fans of theirs but that was part of the legend to begin with. If it was “Brewster’s Millions,” it would have been about that. First and foremost was that we wanted it to be respectful to them as filmmakers and their film in particular. We weren’t trying to do some winky homage or riff or constantly referencing it. We only wanted to use it as it was in the legend, just as a conduit for her journey and then very much have Kumiko’s story be her own.

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CS: Did one of you have the old VHS or was that fudged for the movie?

David: No, that was real, but we had a lot of VHS stuff.

Nathan: Yeah, we played around with multiple dubbing and took the lid off and had a can of compressed air and was spraying the tape as it was playing so it would create wobbles. We even got pretty good at moving the fuzzy line up and down.

David: We wanted that to be real though. We grew up big VHS kids and spending hours in video stores and the kind of love/hate relationship with video tapes and analog stuff, trying to make them work when they were old and worn out and that sort of thing. 

CS: And then you have that thing where you hit play and something weird is going on and you realize the whole thing has become unspooled inside your VHS.

David: (laughs) Yeah, exactly, so I don’t know. I think that was another thing aesthetically that was interesting to us that we came up with was the videotape being a key in this information she’s gathering.

Nathan: Like most treasure hunts that you see or hear of, there’s always the map or the idol or something like that that the explorer has to get that leads them to the next thing, so having this clunky VHS tape just made total sense.

David: We also liked the tactile quality of it because everything has become digital. The same with all the maps in it. We really wanted to embrace that analog tactile quality.

CS: It’s a funny movie in general, but the moment when she realizes she can just buy a DVD player…

David: (laughs) Yeah and part of it was that we were nostalgic about VHS, but when we first started writing this in 2002 and the story took place in 2001, so that was right around the transition of VHS to DVD, so it wasn’t like a retro thing at the time. That transition was actually happening, so it seemed like a natural progression to have throughout the film. There’s a beauty to distorted images on VHS with just the murkiness and the muddied imagery, so we liked the idea of her trying to extract information from this very distorted source and then as she goes on to DVD then it becomes more clear. It allowed for an interesting progression of that.

CS: You wrote this in 2002 but you’ve done other movies since then, so did it take that long to find someone who wanted to do it with you or did other things come up that seemed easier to do first?

David: The film went through many drafts and it evolved over time, and we would almost get it off the ground and circle back. With independent financing, it’s always sketchy pulling the stuff together and especially something like this where we’re on very limited means shooting in different parts of the world in different languages and that sort of thing. We tried to get off the ground and it wouldn’t happen. We never were waiting, but we were always making something so we went off and made a couple other features in the meantime and a bunch of short films and music videos and wrote some other scripts, too. This was always in the background and we circled back to it.

CS: Having written this so long ago, at one point do you have to contact the Coen Brothers or the studio to get the footage, since I assume that’s a pretty big part of making the movie work and if you can’t get that, you can’t do it at all.

David: Certainly. That was part of the process as well and that was certainly a long ordeal to get worked out and make sure our intentions were clear. We’re being respectful to it and just using it as a conduit for her journey as per the legend. 

CS: You guys wrote this together and you both also act in it, so Nathan, are you involved with directing as well or is there a very clear delineation once you get on set?

David: No, there’s room for overlap. That’s where our strengths lie, me directing and Nathan as the producer, but we’re very involved in each. He’s in there with every aspect of the directing and me with the producing. Everything just kind of bleeds together, but that’s where our strengths lie.

Nathan: We’ve been making home movies since we were little kids so it’s just an extension of how we work or how we know to work. When you first start out and when you’re young, you don’t really know the difference between a producer and a director. It’s just filmmaking. Behind the camera or in front of it, you’re just working towards making a story come to life on VHS or later hi-8 and then graduating up to film and digital and all that good stuff. David went to film school and took that track and being a couple years younger, would help out still, but these are extensions of home movies that have gotten more complex and bigger.

David: We never really had a break. We just kept making stuff and one thing bled into the next.

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CS: You probably couldn’t have made this in 2002 because Rinko Kikuchi was not even known yet even though she was already acting in Japan.

David: Yeah, and we were still honing on our skills and finding our voice as filmmakers, so I think tonally it might have been a little different if we made it then. Things evolved with it and it got refined, and then also we don’t have a linear structure where we start and finish something and then start and finish something (else). Everything overlaps from these shorts to the features, so even though we wrote “Kumiko” before “Kid-Thing,” we made that thing first and even the film before that, “Goliath.”  There are different ideas and themes that we were playing with that lent themselves to one another and even in “Kid-Thing” there are some scenes that at one point were in the script for “Kumiko” and back and forth between them. It was interesting. “This doesn’t work in ‘Kumiko,’ it should be in “Kid-Thing” or didn’t work in “Kid-Thing” and should be in ‘Kumiko’”—that sort of thing. It was not like a big plan. It’s just how that stuff naturally evolves. If some idea is really sticking with us, it finds its place.

CS: How about getting Rinko? By the time you made this, she was pretty well-known. I know her English is getting better, but can you talk about working with her and shooting in Japan and dealing with the language barrier?

David: It worked out well. We had been to Japan prior as tourists and had we not, we might no have been as drawn to this story, I think. Because that was another thing that was appealing to us, having the story set in Japan and shooting in Japan. The last thing we wanted it to be was look like white guys from Texas appropriating Japanese culture or anything so we did everything we could to have a certain sense of authenticity to it (even though) it’s obviously stylized. Outside of ourselves, our producing partner Chris Olsen and our cinematographer is an entirely different crew for each section of the film. We had an all-Japanese crew that were bilingual and they dialed into the tone we were going for. We heard that it can be very difficult shooting there, but I dunno. Once we did our job of making sure everyone was on the same page and we were making the same kind of movie which is where it can go wrong so much of the time. The people we worked with, it was very harmonious and a really great experience working with them. We had a great time shooting in Japan, too. We’d love to do something else there.

Nathan: And we met Rinko in 2008. We lived with the script for a while and we were thinking of doing a lot of Japanese film research to see who could possibly play the role and who would be available, then she came on the scene with “Babel” and we’d seen her with this Japanese cult film called “Funky Forrest” and just were really interested in her and her physicality. She has a very interesting look and we met with her at a lunch and there was an interpreter there. We still were able to communicate fairly well and we talked about directors that we liked and movies that we both liked. She got the tone of the script right away and after that, we knew that she was going to be great to work with and fit perfectly for this and never really…

David: Considered anybody else. She was the one.

CS: There isn’t a lot of dialogue in it, but she’s very funny and can play up the humor of these situations just with her facial expressions.

David: Yeah, right. She’s internalizing a lot and we didn’t want to telegraph that with voice-over or something more obvious. It’s so gratifying to see people’s wheels turn in a movie, like genuinely actually thinking something through, and there’s so much opportunity with this. By design, it fits for the story, because she’s alone so much of the time but we wanted so much of the film for her to be internalizing this and see her processing this information in her own way. So much of that is just through her facial expressions or her physicality, so for this part, it was interesting to convey information in those ways rather than through dialogue a lot of the time.

CS: The timing of the movie is interesting, because in between the time it was at festivals and the time it came out, there was an FX show based on “Fargo,” and I thought that was a missed opportunity.

David: (laughs) Yeah, that is interesting.

Nathan: It’s this weird coincidence.

David: Serendipitous, yeah.

CS: How hard was it finding crews in Minnesota?

David: Oh, there’s a crew based there and a huge commercial industry, because there are so many corporations based out of there. Major old school, like Pillsbury and General Mills and Target and Best Buy and things like that, so there’s a huge commercial production scene.

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Nathan: And a good theater scene, too. Surprisingly really good theater people.

David: In the same way that we had a Japanese crew, most of the crew for the Minnesota shoot was local, because we were shooting outside most of the time in really harsh conditions, and it was people that knew how to do that. We had to shoot in genuine harsh conditions and we weren’t able to fake it. It was too small for something like that, and then also it never looks as good when it’s fake. This was a very landscape-driven film and in both Japan and America, we really wanted the landscapes to be characters in the film and really embrace them and not have to cheat stuff. We did a really good job structuring the schedule so that we could adjust things accordingly and kind of the opposite of what you normally do with a cover set but if the weather was bad, we made sure we were outside and when it was nice, we were inside shooting something. We were able to be mobile and get the stuff we needed. 

CS: When you’re writing, do you plan ahead on what things will entail? I know a lot of writers just write and then figure out how to get the money to make it later. In this case, you knew that you’d be shooting in Japan and in the harsh conditions. Did you actually shoot in any of the same locations as “Fargo”?

David: No, no, we just found what worked for this film. But no, just in the way we come up with it and because we’re involved in so many aspects of it on the creative side, but then also in the producing, we’re mindful of how things come together and can actually function in a production. And then we also edit the film, so our editing has really informed our writing and vice versa, so we don’t tend to have a lot of waste with what we’re shooting or covering, so it’s by design that way, throughout.

CS: It’s been a year since you finished this and it started playing at festivals, so is there another screenplay you want to tackle next?

David: We have a couple that we want to do, and again, there’s stuff that we wrote before we shot “Kumiko.” We never have written something and then instantly made it, which is probably good, because we get a little distance from it, but we have lots of things we want to do next. But we’ve been touring for the last year with “Kumiko” and we’re excited to get this out into the world, but also ready to make something new.

CS: When you’re ready to write, do you just stop everything else to carve out time to do that?

David: We’re getting better about that, because we’ve been doing so much promotion for “Kumiko” and just gearing up for the release, and before that, we were on the festival circuit with it, which is great because so many people are interested in the film. We’re really grateful for that, but yeah, you want to find a balance between the new projects and doing right by the current one.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. You can also read Max Evry’s interview with the film’s star Rinko Kikuchi here and you can watch more of the Zellner’s work on their official site