A depressed Japanese office worker travels to the freezing wilderness of North Dakota in search of the imaginary treasure buried in the closing scenes of the Coen brothers’ classic Fargo.
Brilliantly acted by Rinko Kikuchi, hauntingly scored by The Octopus Project, and shot by cinematographer Sean Porter (whose breakthrough work we praised after Sundance 2014), Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a strangely affecting cinematic pilgrimage, bound to resonate with anyone who has been pulled by the undertow of a work of art.
The film’s epic pitch is matched by the saga of its making. Its creators, director David and producer Nathan Zellner, landed on the independent scene almost two decades ago, steadily building a distinct body of work: a large cluster of shorts, and the Sundance-premiering features Goliath (2008) and Kid-Thing (2012). In 2001, having heard the (apocryphal) legend of the real-life Japanese woman upon whom Kumiko is based, the brothers set out to make the story into a movie; the ambitiousness of the project, though, presented complexities that took them 12 years to surmount.
In the ensuing years, the Zellners settled into a central role within the circle of Austin filmmakers that, arguably, collectively represent the vanguard of American independent cinema today. The zeitgeist-leading community comprises a web of multi-hyphenates who have all had their fingers in each others’ pies, from Andrew Bujalski to David Lowery to Kat Candler (Bujalski acted in Goliath and the Zellners acted in Bujalski’s Beeswax; the brothers appeared in Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; they offered Candler advice on her debut feature Hellion… amongst other, too-tangled-to-name interconnections). All this collaboration offered the Zellners many advantages in making Kumiko: a wealth of feedback, opportunities to recalibrate perspective on their own work, and a chance to hone their moviemaking chops before Kumiko‘s complicated production put them to the test.
The film is really the fruit of the brothers’ careers; a landmark for them both personally and professionally. We spoke to them about the gradual trajectory toward its completion, their place in the industry, and the necessity of supplementing creative work with—ugh—office jobs.
Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You worked on and off on Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter for over a decade. Explain that timeline, and how difficult it was to finance a project like this one.
Nathan Zellner (NZ): The brief story is, we first came across the original story, or the urban legend, in 2001. We had a rough draft in 2002, when we were still starting out as filmmakers and trying to find the right people to work with and the right connections. We knew it was a challenging project because half of it was in Japanese, and we needed to set it up so that it could be as authentic and grounded in reality as possible, and that would require shooting in Japan and, of course, the cold snow of Minnesota. It just took a long time to find the right pieces to put together, including scheduling—it was weather-dependent, so you miss a window of opportunity and you have to slide the project a year. That’s how fickle filmmaking is.
In the meantime, we kept working on filmmaking. We kept active with ideas and did a handful of short films and microbudget features, and started working the festival circuit. We got a lot of support from Sundance. Perseverance is what it was in the end—giving ourselves the opportunity to be flexible with our budget, scheduling, and our approach. That’s how we could logistically shoot the film without giving up any of the creative elements that we wanted to achieve at the end, or compromising on the tone and our sensibilities. Everything kind of lined up and we gave it one shot—that paid off.
MM: Can you give us an idea of the budget?
DZ: It was lower than a big Hollywood blockbuster and higher than our tiny microbudget films. It’s a low-million film.
MM: Was this the biggest budget you had ever worked with?
DZ: Yes, but it was very tiny for what we were trying to accomplish. It’s funny how, even though we scaled up, we were putting every dollar on the screen, which is something we were good at. We really wanted to have an epic quality to it, even though it was character piece in a lot of ways. We wanted to embrace the landscapes and make it something more than a talking-heads kind of thing. We had to make it on as big a scale as we could with the limitations and resources we had. Even on a bigger scale project than our previous stuff, we were still, in the end, having to edit on our home computers. We had it bigger on the screen, but behind the scenes, not so much.
MM: Could you call upon your friends for favors, or did you have to figure out everything yourself?
DZ: We have a lot of good friends in the filmmaking community and we all call in favors on each other, so it’s a cyclical thing. You help others and then they help you. We wouldn’t have been able to get anything done if we didn’t have those friends that we could rely on.
MM: I assume you’re talking about the Texas filmmaking community. Can you talk about being integrated in that?
NZ: It’s always been great there, but it’s an interesting time right now, because there’s so many filmmakers. It’s really nice to have so many friends that are at different stages, all breaking through with really interesting work, and all different from one another, with really distinct voices. On top of that they’re genuinely nice people, and those two aren’t always mutually possible. So we’re really lucky to be part of that community. That, and the Austin Film Society, which has been so supportive of our work. The only reason we’ve been able to get done what we’ve been able to get done is because of that support.
MM: In terms of building a career in independent film, which you have managed to do for years now, what kind of philosophies or strategies did you set out with?
DZ: We never had some sort of perfect game plan. Like anyone, we’re trying to figure this out as we go. The main thing is that it’s something you want to do, and if it’s something you believe in, just persevere. We’re still trying to get our work more recognizable. Everything we’ve done has had a cumulative effect, and people have really responded to Kumiko, which is wonderful. But it’s a result of all the work we’ve done prior. And so Kumiko wouldn’t be what it is if we hadn’t made these smaller features and shorts before. We established relationships with everyone, from the talent we worked with to the festival relationships we had. It’s all had a cumulative effect.
MM: I know that you both had office jobs while working on Kumiko.
DZ: We’ve done all kinds of jobs. We’ve had our share of cubicle jobs. All our projects overlap: We started writing Kumiko before we made Goliath, and both of those films have elements of office culture in them. I’m sure that on a subconscious level it came from our cubicle jobs.
MM: What kind of cubicle jobs?
DZ: Mine was low-end graphic design stuff. And then Nathan’s was working in the telecommunications industry… programming and…
NZ: What was it?
DZ: Nathan’s job—let me put it this way—was weird. Nathan’s job was a lot more scary than mine.
NZ: Yeah. Just working for a phone company. Not nearly as creative as what we hoped to do. That’s where the outlet came in, with short films and writing.
MM: After all your collaborations with other filmmakers, are you thinking about moving toward producing?
NZ: We’d love to. It just depends on what the opportunities are. Everything we’ve done has had people in the credits who were other filmmakers. They were involved in putting the film together beforehand, or helped with the making of it itself, or gave editing notes when we were finishing it. They’ve been essential in our films, and we’ve done the same for our friends as well.
MM: Give a general overview of how Kumiko evolved over the years.
DZ: We haven’t looked at earlier versions in so long. The tone stayed the same, and we also knew the sound we were going for, so that always stayed the same—but became more refined. The big changes came in conveying exposition and information in the most efficient, economical way.
MM: And the look?
DZ: We write pretty visually. So we might have had different ideas on how to cover a scene or combine some scenes together. That’s where the evolution of the script went. Over the years there were different drafts—we would go away for a while, do something else, then come back and refine it a little.
MM: Was there a major change you remember?
NZ: Not really. We got some ridiculous notes from some people that would have meant significant tonal shifts. For example, we didn’t want to sexualize her just because she’s a female lead, and often we’d get notes that said, “She needs to be chasing a boyfriend,” or “running from the law.” Motivational ideas on a very superficial level. We wanted it to be more emotional and internal. We always knew where it was supposed to go.
MM: What would you say now to the versions of yourselves at the beginning of this?
DZ: When we started we were worried that it’d take two years to get it made—but it took 12. I think it’s good that we didn’t know how long it was going to take, because we wouldn’t have continued it.
MM: Was it hard to keep coming back to it? Did you ever think about giving up?
NZ: We always thought of that, yes, but in the same way that everyone has that from time to time. You lick your wounds and then find a new way to think about it and move forward. We believed in it, that it was going to be good if we pulled it off right. It was a matter of…
DZ: …Forging ahead, and knowing when we were right. Knowing when we needed to adapt and knowing when we needed to be true to what the film was supposed to be. MM
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opened in select theaters on March 18, 2015, courtesy of Amplify.