The Zellner Brothers’ latest film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, is a bittersweet fable about passion over creative works and the desire to escape within them. The film played in Sydney Film Festival’s official competition and our review of the film is here. We caught up with writer/director/actor David Zellner to talk the film.
When did you first hear about this urban legend of the Japanese woman chasing after the treasure from Fargo?
Well I’d heard about it in 2001, this is before Twitter and Facebook, and it was initially on message boards. This little bit of information about a Japanese woman going to America in search of mythical fortunes. And actually there was nothing more than that. I instantly became obsessed with it, partly because of the lack of information, and just to satiate that curiosity I started working backwards, kind of reverse engineering, you know what type of character, what type of person would be compelled to go on that journey and what their backstory would be. Then I started building the script from that, but not totally knowing where it was going to go. I just felt the need for some kind of understanding for this thing because I was so curious. And then over the years (it took a long time to get made) different versions of what the truth was got posted online, a lot of it contradicting itself, and then finally some factual details came out about an actual person – that actually someone went from Japan to Minnesota and got lost in the wilderness. At first it was alarming to us to learn it was different, because we’d been living with our version of the truth for a while, and it’s alarming to see these other things come out. But then we liked it because it added a whole other level, playing with the idea of truth and the line between fact and fiction and how subjective that all is. And our truth was valid to us in its own way. I wouldn’t have been interested in it if it was just some news story, it was the fantastical element to it, that it was intially perceived as truthful and ended up becoming more of an urban legend, the idea of this relentless quest for mythical fortune. That’s what made me interested in it to begin with.
Well you did set it in 2001 I believe, because I was trying to work out when it was set. There’s a shot where she walks into a chemist, there’s a financial magazine that says 2001.
Yeah yeah, it’s technically around then. We don’t necessarily spell it out in the film, but that’s around when the story came out, so we just set it then. I also like that time period because there’s a lot of transitional things going on at that point, like the transition from VHS to DVD. In the internet age information is readily available and compared to before where there’s more of a hunt for info, and that was something that was interesting about this story. The idea of this kind of hunt, and this element of mystery, in a world where that isn’t so much the case any more. There’s no uncharted lands, you know, there’s satellite imagery available for everything. I miss the idea of that and so we really wanted to embrace that for this story.
It seems also that in this film there’s a lot about obsession, that might be too strong a word, but a very narrow creative focus on the part of, I guess when you and your brother were looking at the story, to focus on your version of the story rather than the truth, and in the film Kumiko focuses on that one Fargo scene and that treasure. And there’s a scene in the film, and the more I think about it the better it gets, which is near the start, where she walks and finds the VHS tape in a cave by the sea. She pulls out the tape, dusts it off, then gets home, sits down and she opens up her notebook, and you can tell that she’s done this before considering the pages. That was nuts to me, that characterisation – like we don’t need to see anything, we just can show obsession with creative texts, personal investment in something artistic that’s intense, and I don’t think that’s been done that much.
That’s good. Yeah I like the idea of giving as much exposition with as little information as possible. Just being economical in a creative way, conveying ideas and context. That was part of it.
When did you get Rinko Kikuchi on board?
We met her in 2008. We weren’t aware of her when we were first writing the story but we met with her and quickly had a good rapport, and she bowed into the tone that we were going for and got the sensibility of the character. We wanted to find a balance with the humour and the pathos and intuitively know which way to lean with that and she got that. And you know, have a certain sense of empathy for the character without getting sentimental. She just got the sensibility from the start. We knew she was perfect for the role.
Yeah, that’s a brilliant performance. But she’s also producing the film?
Oh, an EP? Yeah yeah, that’s just a name thing.
But it also probably would have helped shooting in Japan. One of the things that stuck me is that your previous features are set in America, with these smaller narrative circumstances, but this film it’s in Japan for half the movie.
Yeah, I liked the idea of shooting in other places and I love Japan. I’d just been there as a tourist prior but I love so many things about it and that was part of this story and was certainly another thing that drew us to the material.
It doesn’t feel like you shot Japan as a tourist either, it’s more focused on the everyday.
Yeah that was very important to me from the start, and that was really for the people we worked for over there, because they always shoot Japan in the same kind of sexy, neon-drenched landscapes which I love, but we wanted it just to be the regular world she inhabits. It was fun for us to use places that you wouldn’t normally see and that felt more truthful to the world that she inhabited.
Then you’ve sorted inverted that in a really cool way by having Minnesota feel like this alien wasteland at times – these long shots of the snow where we actually got the feeling that we too were in his unknown place, even though, you know, it’s just Minnesota.
(Laughs) We wanted it to be a very immersive experience, and very much from her point-of-view, in terms of both information conveyed and in terms of how the world’s perceived. A lot of things that she encounters or experiences would be banal to other people but since its from her point of view we wanted it to have this kind of foreign, alienating, mysterious perspective to it.
You also have Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor as executive producers – which is funny because the film seems a little like Nebraska in that both films are journeys for a treasure that may or may not be there and which we’re increasingly becoming convinced that isn’t there.
That’s funny, people mention that, although I didn’t see that or know about it and Kumiko was long since done. It’s just funny.
In the film you seem to make some comment on the way people engage in other cultures through text, through works of literature, so you’ve got Kumiko who gets her perception of America through that one scene from Fargo – it’s not even the whole film it’s just that one scene. And then the old woman, the widow, who gets her notions of Japan through Shōgun. What were you trying to say about the way we may use our investments in creative texts as placeholders?
Yeah, you know you work with what you are exposed to I think and then you build on that, and with Kumiko that’s what she was drawn to. That was her personal treasure map and that’s what launched her on the quest and she created her perspective of this strange and foreign land based on that. With the character of the old woman that tries to help out Kumiko, and in an attempt to connect with her – she’s never been to Japan, she doesn’t know much about the culture- the only kind of connective element or relatability she has with Kumiko is this James Clavell novel Shōgun, which you know, growing up I felt like there was… I remember a lot of old people having that book, and it suddenly made them an authority on Japan, and even at that age I knew that was completely absurd. It was written by a white guy! So I felt like that was a staple in so many old people’s homes that I would go into, so it seemed like a natural thing that she would have in that circumstance
It seems like you’re also using that notion with your credits song which is by the Yamazuki singers, who are a French band –
Yeah I love that, I was so glad that worked out for the song, because I love that music so much and it’s a concept album that was made in the early 70s and it’s by these French producers – one of them is the father of one of the members of Daft Punk and their music is so incredible.. and what I also liked about it and why it felt suitable for the film is its in Japanese but it doesn’t completely make sense, there’s a dreamy quality to it. I’ve played it for Japanese friends and they kind of understand it but its kind of gibberish and that made me like it all the more. If the lyrics were very literal it wouldn’t have worked with the film, but I liked this kind of really odd stylisation to it, I just seemed like the perfect triumphant song for the film.
I got the soundtrack after I watched Kumiko I’ve been listening to it a lot since.
Oh its so good. Every song on it I love.
Yeah it’s a really cool album. With the ending, you do stick to the urban legend in a way that I thought was quite bold, you don’t sugarcoat it, really, even with the absurdity.
You know that was the only ending in my mind, the script evolved over time, but it had to have that kind of ending. It’s from her point of view and there had to be a sense of triumph.
Yeah, definitely. How did you come up with the idea of Bunzo the rabbit? Because every time it’s on screen it’s amazing.
(laughs) It’s been so nice seeing that reaction, because you never completely know what things will resonate with people
Her putting it on the train is heart-breaking, and you never really would’ve picked that from the film’s beginning.
Yeah, from the start that was in there, you know she has a hard time connecting with people. Sometimes people that have a hard time connecting with those around them, with people, are able to connect with animals in a different way, and that lent itself well to Kumiko, and I’ve always been fascinated with the different kinds of relationships people have with animals and the way they often anthropomorphise them out of necessity for contact. So animals pop up a lot in our work, not intentionally, it just ends up happening. She needed some kind of a companion, even if it wasn’t the same as a human companion, it was something that brought her some love and fulfilment.
I’m nearing the end of reading Don Quixote at the moment, when I saw Kumiko I was still in book one so I saw Bunzo as Rozinante, the donkey, to Kumiko’s Quixote.
Oh interesting, I never thought about that, that’s cool.
Just because it’s there when she’s watching the VHS tapes, there during her travels, and it’s like a companion but not – a sounding board, I guess.
And rabbits are really cute on camera, too
That’s a good reason, as well.
Also one of my favourite films and filmmakers, is the guy who made Watership Down, and I think on some level it probably crept in from that.
How did you go about working out the commentary on Japanese culture, because there’s not necessarily an overt negative commentary but there is a social structure that Kumiko doesn’t fit into and we empathise with that.
Well, yeah, you know the last hing we wanted was to look like white guys who were making this film about Japan, we wanted to have a certain sense of authenticity. I mean, that said, this film is heavily stylised but we wanted some kind of foundation of reality with the culture and the world that she’s inhabiting
I think the amount of time we spend in rooms and just with her alone helps that. You know, this story isn’t necessarily about the culture per se, its about an individual, so we’re connected to the individual rather than the culture.
We wanted to be true to our version, you know, this version of that world, with the ‘office lady’ culture that she inhabits. But we weren’t trying to make a Japan-centric film in that regard, we wanted it to be relatable on a human level, you know, those were the particular connections to the environment she’s in, we wanted it to be relatable on a human level in terms of people in a difficult spot in their lives and in this is an extreme, in terms of her feelings of isolation and kind of disconnect from society.
The film seems inextricably bound to Fargo, with the tape and hints of the Carter Burwell music score but I don’t think it necessarily feels like the film is dependent on Fargo.
You know that was important, you know, it was part of the urban legend and it was a huge part of it, but the last thing we wanted to do was some kind of homage or something. It it had been some other move we would’ve used that. That movie is distilled down to simply be a conduit for a quest and nothing more and we really wanted it to be, you know, its own beast – and even with the score, you know, it’s funny, I think sometimes, I’m not sure which part –
I think it’s a scene in her hotel room in the second half of the movie, she comes inside and the score creeps in.
Oh yeah, I mean it’s only on a subconscious level, and I think some of it could be just because you associate with it that project, and to be honest we haven’t seen the film [Fargo] since it came out. In terms of the music we referenced it in a discussion about the composition, but most of the inspiration was German prog-music from the early 70s.
Yeah, the musical score is excellent.
Octopus Project, we’ve worked for them for the past decade. Some people when they do a score, I mean, everyone has different ways of working and sometimes people complete a film and then just hand it over and the score is put on. I like to be a little more collaborative and a little more nebulous in that order and structure, and they’re working on the score while we’re working on the edit, and you know sometimes the influence, it goes both ways, sometimes their music will influence on the edit and our edit will influence the music and it breathes back and forth and continues to evolve together. I like it feeling like it’s all one solid thing instead of something tacked on.
One final sort of line of questioning, your films have been big successes at SXSW, but now also at the Berlinale, so I’m wondering what you think about relationships with types of festivals, because I believe this is the first film of yours that’s come to Sydney.
Yeah and I’m so glad to be here, because a big part of making films is because you want to share these stories, you want to have a kind of dialogue with people so it’s been really nice to have people in different places respond to it, and I’d wanted to come to Australia for a long time. Historically there’s been a lot of Australian cinema that’s been very inspiring to me, and so it’s fun to be over here finally having some of my work in these parts.
Cool, thanks for talking to me today.
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter played in the Sydney Film Festival official competition and will be distributed domestically by Palace Films.