Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter was one of the most unique and peculiar films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which isn’t surprising since oddball brothers David and Nathan Zeller wrote it. They have been making the Sundance cut for the last decade. But this was the first time the Zellner's work made it into the revered main competition at the festival, where Sundance's Director of Programming Trevor Groth said, "This is them peaking. This is the most interesting film they've ever made, and it was a lock for competition the moment we saw it." The amazing thing is that the film is based on one of the most insane and absurd stories of modern time—but told in a weave of multiple fictionalized accounts of the events.
The first piece of the puzzle starts with a botched kidnapping, a series of grisly murders (one involving a woodchipper), and a briefcase loaded with cash buried on the side of the road. It might sound familiar, since it was the basis of the Coen Brother's 1996 film Fargo. At the beginning of Fargo, title cards read, "This is a true story," but, Joel Coen would later admit, "If an audience believes that something's based on a real event, it gives you permission to do things they might otherwise not accept." Fargo wasn't true, but it was a combination of crimes and places imagined as one. The Zellner's movie is based on what happens a few years later, when a dreary, lonely Japanese woman believed the Coen's story and set off on an international adventure to uncover Steve Buscemi's buried briefcase. While on the search for the money, the woman freezes to death. The Zellner's take, like the Coen's, combines urban legends. Their central character, Kumiko—the adventurous Japanese woman who is played by the fantastic Rinko Kikuchi—is such a unique and relatable protagonist that her portrayal comes across as fact, but in reality, the team is just creating a new truth to the story—similar to Fargo.
I met up with David and Nathan, as well as the film's star, Rinko, in Park City to chat about their filmmaking process, the challenges of making their most ambitious film, and bringing an old offbeat charm to an already offbeat plot.
VICE: You guys have been making movies for years together. You’re a brother pair like the Coens and you give yourselves similar titles. David, it says you directed this and Nathan, you produced. But do your jobs overlap similar to theirs?
David Zellner: Everything overlaps. We have different strengths, but everything we do is very collaborative.
You guys are two years apart. Did you grow up fighting?
Nathan Zellner: We didn’t hate each other, but we fought like any brothers.
David: We would do pranks to each other. I put lunchmeat in Nathan’s wallet.
Nathan: That was in college though.
David: [Laughs] Oh, God!
Nathan: Every time I pulled out a bill, I’d be like “P.U.” Because it was in there for a month, but I never noticed since I never had much money in there.
David: Cured meats are fun.
Do you fight on set?
David: If we have a disagreement we talk about it privately. We’ve lived with the movie for so long and we want to make the same movie so there’s not much to disagree about.
Nathan: A lot of it is worked out during pre-production and writing. There were a lot of changes with weather or if someone has a better idea we can be like, “Oh, at least we have something to fall back on so let’s try this other thing.”
You said you’ve been living with this movie for a while. How long after you discovered the true story did you start planning a feature?
David: We started working on it right away, partly in an abstract way because it was so curious. It seemed so mysterious that something like this could happen in modern day. It’s almost like a folk-tale or an antiquated treasure hunt. To have a character that would have that approach was liberating and fascinating to us. We started filling in the gaps based on the basic urban legend of this woman going to America in search of that fortune. Then we made our own story from there. Years later, some other elements of the story came out that conflicted, other accounts, but it made us like it all the more. There’s different version of truth out there about it. For this version, we liked our truth.
Kumiko made up her own mystery adventure and you guys made yours with the movie.
David: Whatever the truthful elements that actually happened quickly took a life of their own through the telephone game. I feel like that’s how all stories take shape. Seeing it happen in real time was really interesting.
How long did it take you to find someone that could properly play this kind of character? How did you find Rinko Kikuchi?
David: The whole movie hinges on the Kumiko role. There’s a lot of internalized things being processed since she’s alone for so long so we needed someone with a wide range of skills as an actor. When we watched Babel we saw how amazing Rinko was in that and then this film called Funky Forrest and, even though it’s a smaller role, we were like, “Oh, she’s cool.”
Rinko, you’ve worked with many new auteurs like Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Rian Johnson and Katsuhito Ishii. How is it different working with the Zellner Brothers?
Rinko Kikuchi: Each director is really different. Basically, other directors have their own very specific ideas of what I should do so I just act that. I felt the Zellner’s were much closer to me, which was very helpful.
They also act in the film with you too. Have you acted with your director before?
Rinko: Actually, before they acted with me I was a little worried. [Laughs] They’re really good actors, I know. But I thought they were directors and then they changed the roles. I had never had that experience, so I was worried but…
David: But it all worked out. We met her like six years ago. From the first meeting with Rinko we’ve had good conversations, although it was through a translator at the time, but we have similar tastes in movies and she just knew the tone we were going for right away.
A lot of treasure hunting or adventure movies don’t star a meek, super quiet protagonist. Usually it’s a go-getter, but things force Kumiko’s hand here and the more she’s pushed into fantasy, she withdraws from reality. Why that protagonist?
David: It was more interesting to us. We hadn’t seen anything like that. We didn’t want a macho guy adventure. We wanted a person, a human, in a troubled place where not everything is clear and worked out. In real life, it’s much more complex and messy than that. Also, people don’t deal with things so directly as they do in films. Directly in terms of their own actions or how they deal with other people. Sometimes people internalize things, are passive-aggressive, bottle things up and so we like the idea of this person being really driven and passionate about this quest but her way of going about things was indirect and based on regular human folly. One thing leads to the next.
In all of your movies, and especially this, you showcase great Americana observations: the small-town old woman’s obliviousness, teens screaming out of cars, dopey salesman, etc. Did you try and add Japanese versions of those moments in Tokyo?
David: We just tried to create human moments that we would like to see that would be interesting. Whether it be Kumiko’s interaction with the old woman or her interaction with her mom. We tried to create different dynamics that would be interesting and complex and help motivate her to want to break free. I mean, we did as much research as white guys from Texas can do. You know, we’ve been to Japan a couple times, but we were still outsiders obviously. When we went there we just tried to be open with the crew and Rinko. It’s heavily stylized, but we wanted a note of truth to it. We were always doing gut checks with that stuff.