Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter was a hit this year at Sundance. I missed it, although I did attend the after party. That’s typical Sundance. When I saw it was a part of the Dallas International Film Festival this week, I jumped on the opportunity to interview its filmmakers.
The Zellner brothers, Nathan and David, have been an exciting duo coming out of the Austin film scene for years. Goliath and Kid Thing introduced their unique vision. You’ll even find David with a cameo in the indie hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Nathan’s production involvement with the Duplass brothers’ Baghead.
A few days before the legendary Texas Theatre screened Kumiko, I got to chat with Nathan and producer Chris Ohlson. We chatted about drawing from the shocking true story, Alexander Payne coming on board and pitching the script with Spanish conquistadors.
ATW: This is based on an urban legend about an actual woman who traveled to Fargo for treasure. How did that story influence the making of the film?
N: David and I heard online in 2001 this story that didn’t really have much info available at the time. A woman went from Japan to Minnesota for fictional treasure. We were in awe that someone would go on a modern day treasure hunt. As a way to process it ourselves, we started coming up with our own theory and ideas and writing down the script, basically working from the end and filling everything in the beginning.
ATW: This harkens back to folklore, tall tales and mythology. What influenced you?
N: We’ve always been fans of adventure movies in general. We thought of it as the Spanish explorers in the age of exploration. Basing their quest on hearsay and folklore. That’s sort of where we pulled some information for her obsession with it. We liked the idea of the quest for El Dorado with a modern day setting.
ATW: You shoot in Japan and America, have an impressive production design and the rights to Fargo. How did you begin funding this?
C: I can say that I’ve been working on the movie with Nathan and David for 7 or 8 years now. One thing that was very important was that there was an authentic Japanese portion. Of course the Minnesota portion had to be this wintry tundra. We spent a lot of time trying to find the right financing partners. We talked to a lot of people about the movie. We stuck to our guns knowing that the movie had to be shot in Japan and have a very particular actress.
ATW: When did Alexander Payne come on board?
N: It happened a while ago. We had written the script in 2002 and we needled with it here and there. In the meantime, we made a couple other features and those got the attention of Alexander Payne. He helped putting his name to the film and giving it some credibility.
ATW: This concept seems like it might be a rough pill to pitch and have them swallow.
C: We pitched the story as this quest and adventure. We used Spanish conquistadors as a way to talk about the movie, not pitching it as two separate stories. There’s the Japanese story and American story but we really wanted to make it as cohesive as possible.
N: There were a lot of people working on it for a long time.
ATW: Rinko Kikuchi is stunning. I love that you have such an attractive woman playing someone who’s bat shit crazy. How did you form her character?
N: We met Rinko in 2008 on a chance meeting and at the time she hadn’t really learned English yet. By the time we were filming she had learned English! When we met her in person, it was just her sensibilities. She was up for the demanding character. She liked a lot of the same filmmakers as we did. She has great comedic timing and is very physical and can carry herself very well on screen. She’s so expressive and yet subtle.
ATW: She has such specific movement choices. She steals an atlas from the library in one scene and physically reacts like a child would. Was this physicality in the script or something Rinko found in the moment?
N: David and I are pretty specific in what we’re going for even from the script stage, which allows us to be flexible on set. Sometimes she was great at doing it very consistently, other times there were added things. We talked to her about the tone and the character and didn’t’ have to be very nit picky. The stuff that she gave was in line with what everyone wanted to do; Arrested Development moments.
ATW: How immersive was your research process given your character is from a foreign country?
N: It was interesting looking back on it now. There wasn’t much research on the urban myth. That came later after we finished the script. It is a naturalistic film. There has to be a sense of realism. We did research on the office lady culture there. It’s such a unique society with their traditions. We weren’t really stereotyping things but it was very accurate in what we were writing. We were working with an amazing crew in Japan and they were really open to feedback. What is a realistic relationship with a boss or with her mother? They were guiding it.
ATW: Your DP Sean Porter is amazing. I also enjoyed his recent film It Felt Like Love. Did you know him previously?
C: I can say Sean was recommended to us by some mutual filmmaker friends. He’s not someone we had worked with before. We really fell in love with the way Sean talked about movies. He’s incredibly well prepared. Sean was the only one who worked on the Japan portion and American portion. He had to make sure technically there was consistency. We didn’t have a lot of toys or tools and he was very cognoscente of this being a low budget movie. He came up with creative ways to help us accomplish things.
N: We worked closely with him in terms of composition and framing. I remember one specific thing he liked to do in Japan verses Minnesota. A lot of the framing in Japan is more claustrophobic and structured and embracing that. We had the idea of opening up and going wider in Minnesota. We did some technical things like switching lenses. As Sean put it, it was an inverse box.
ATW: You’ve said you liked the idea of a treasure hunt and that there’s no mystery in the world and everything’s been explored. Do you feel this applies to the art of filmmaking as well?
N: I never really thought of it like that, but there’s truth in that. We always want to challenge ourselves and we like films that are things we haven’t seen before. The inspiration and art or music, I think it’s just mainly what surprises you. What have you not heard or not experienced. It’s that pursuit that drives us as filmmakers.
ATW: How did you utilize the Texas filmmaking community?
C: I’d say it’s strange because the movie we shot was in Japan and Minnesota and we weren’t at home making the movie. We did a handful of very small filmmaker centric screenings of the film, inviting our best friends over who happened to be really good filmmakers. That’s really how the community helped us. The Austin community is great in terms of supporting the movie in social media. A lot of things we’ve made have been in our backyards.
N: The community is great and specifically the people we know in Austin. There’s a lot of talent down there. When we were looing for a DP or crewmembers, they were super helpful. That kind of support, you take it for granted because it’s networking. Most people think of it as this person will give you money to make a film. But there’s so much more to making a film.