The Mythical West: The Zellner Brothers on Playing with Genre Tropes and Letting Humor Come Intuitively with Damsel

From Tarantino, to the Coen Brothers, to Kelly Reichardt, the western is so entrenched in cinematic history that it’s become a rite of passage for great American moviemakers to try their hand at the genre at some point in their careers.

The Zellner brothers (David and Nathan) join the mix with Damsel, the followup to their 2014 hit Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. With their usual mix of black humor and odd twists and turns, we follow Samuel (Robert Pattinson) as he seeks to rescue the love of his life Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) from captivity. The truth is more complicated than that, and darker motivations for all the major characters quickly come to light. MovieMaker spoke with the Texas-based filmmaking duo at Sundance—a festival that has championed their work back when they were making shorts and now where they premiered their latest gem this past January.

Mia Wasikowska’s fiery portrayal as Penelope have many declaring Damsel as a feminist western. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Did you have a strategy in tackling the Western genre—how you embraced or subverted genre tropes?

David Zellner (DZ): We love westerns and had been wanting to do one for a long time. We didn’t want to repeat something that had been done before and much better, or repeat clichés that have become tiresome. You want take the tropes of that genre as a foundation or even a shorthand for the story. Even if people haven’t seen many westerns, there’s a quick familiarity with those well established tropes. It became about using that as a foundation and building on that, adding more complex layers with characters.

MM: From Robert Pattinson’s performance in The Safdie Brothers’ Good Time to this film, it feels like he’s reached a new level in his physicality and how he’s able to use his body and presence on screen.

Nathan Zellner (NZ): When you watch old westerns you realize especially how much movement is involved. Rob is a physical actor; his whole presence is part of the character he wants to build. That development plays into everything we want to show on camera. That was the element we were sticking the Samuel character in.

DZ: We try to have what we’re going for as figured out as possible within the script. When you actually start making it, casting it, everything takes shape from there. We didn’t have anyone in mind in particular when we wrote it, but when Robert came up, it immediately seemed to click. He responded to our previous film [Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter] and resonated with what we were going for in this script. It’s fun giving people liberty to act with their whole body, and this film requires a lot of physicality. He embraced that.

MM: Is the comedic timing of scenes crafted in the edit or is that more observed as you’re shooting? How do you make sure the dark humor isn’t too pitch black?

DZ: Nothing is too dark if you’re doing it right. The scene with the man in a barrel was funny. I hadn’t seen that schtick in a while … well I’d never seen a man in a barrel get hung in a movie. Making sure it’s humorous is a very intuitive process. Certain beats you want to hit, and some of it you’re figuring out as you go with the writing process. The shooting process forces things to shift, whether it’s with certain extras or props or set design, you’re taken in creative directions that are more interesting than what you had on paper.

It’s intuitive and we feel it out. Nathan and I don’t really talk about it much.  Sometimes whats funny on the page isn’t funny when you do it and vice versa. Naturally things can be a lot more hilarious than you planned.

NZ: One of the things in the western genre is the lawlessness of the wild west. When we started thinking about the characters and their interactions, we put on top of that guns, and the morality issues of that period, it naturally leads to darker comedy.

David Zellner (R) as Parson Henry, a possible reverend whose shaky credentials are foreshadowed in the film’s opening.

MM: What conversations did you have with DP Adam Stone?

DZ: We shot anamorphic; we wanted a wide screen. So much of the film they’re set against epic backdrops and landscapes. We didn’t want to be bound by a certain geography or location. It’s the wild west—we kept it broad in kind of a mythic way. We didn’t want the dusty brown western, we wanted more lush landscape, with the wardrobe, and more color.

NZ: We scouted New Mexico, but so many movies are shot on the same four western sets there. And they’re amazing, but it made us want to go somewhere else. It’s been a while since a Western was shot in a place like Park City. It ended up being the epicenter for all kind of beautiful locations.

DZ: Utah ended up being pretty convenient. We shot the opening at a place called Goblin Valley which was just four or five hours south. Red Rock was another which had the traditional western look. Then we’d come up here, and we get evergreen trees and aspen forests, a lot of variety, which helped us cherry pick the best of what is supposed to be the American West.

MM: When you’re working with a smaller budget that helps.

DZ: Yeah! We were able to do a few days in Oregon for the coast, which was this idea of a mythical Western, not setting it in a particular place or time, more like if you ask someone from Europe what the American west is like, how would they squeeze it down from all the movies they’d seen or what they’d heard.

MM: This film is bookended by visually stunning opening and closing shots/sequences. Is your screenwriting process linear or do you write these beginning and ending sequences and then fill it out?

DZ: The middle of the movie was the first idea, knowing that’s where it needed to be and then building the world around it from there. The beginning and end were always by design. We don’t use notecards or anything. Maybe that would be more efficient, but we just have these fragments of ideas that take shape, and one connects into the next and expands from there. It’s pretty organic and hard to articulate it beyond that. I get so many ideas when I’m running; ideas come in different ways.

NZ: When David was talking about working from the middle out, we ask ourselves, “what can we see this character doing?” That plays into the rest of the film. It definitely wasn’t  linear. We started with our two main characters and flushed it out with events that complicate the story.

Samuel (Robert Pattinson) arrives on the shore with his gift for Penelope, a miniature horse named Butterscotch.

MM: Were there any disasters or major on set difficulties?

DZ: Its what we signed up for, so we can’t complain. Nearly every single day we were shooting outside, in the wilderness. It was part of the fun, being on location effects so much of how it all functions aesthetically.

NZ: You always hear is it’s going to be hard with animals, but we had a good crew and good local wranglers that it was pretty easy.

DZ: If you don’t force an animal to do something and just let it naturally do what it’s going to do, then you get the best performance ever. Casting the animal—like with the miniature horse—is just as much about attention to detail with look and temperament as with casting a human.

NZ: We never tried to set up a shot where the horse would be uncomfortable or where it would walk five feet and stop. It was more, “how can i get this shot of this horse but then use it for cover in this scene” instead of, “how can we get the horse to act this scene?” Then the horse just hangs out, and you cut around head movements that are interesting. Like David said “you don’t let the animal do anything but be itself.”

DZ: So much is adapting to what you get. We can plan it as much as we want, but what were actually dealt is different.

NZ: The visual of Pattinson holding both a guitar and a gun actually came before, and then the comedy comes from it looks cool but how do he get out of it.

MM: Have you guys always operated with such easy dispositions, or have you grown into this as filmmakers?

DZ: We’ve always kind of been like this, but were still figuring things out as we go. I believe you kind of have to start over as a filmmaker each time you make something. We just try to come with as distinct and refined a blueprint as possible for what were wanting to execute, but with the openness and flexibility, rather than sticking with being precious about something that isn’t working. be open to creative things that might not have, that you couldn’t think of or would have happened naturally. The way an animal or prop reacts, sometimes is horrible but being open to surprises gives the film a little more life than if everything was so rigidly formulated from the script.

NZ: We love collaborating and brainstorming out loud with other people. It starts with tone, and we work with ideas and pictures and inspirations. If someone is on the same page tonally, they’ll take what we have and make it much better than before. MM

Damsel opened in theaters on June 22, 2018, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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