Badass Interview: The Zellner Bros. On KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER

The filmmaking siblings explain how they turned a bizarre urban legend into a beautiful character study.

Inspiration often comes from the strangest places. For filmmaking brothers David and Nathan Zellner, back in 2001, it struck them while reading the oddest of stories online. Per online scuttlebutt, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi died while on a bizarre pilgrimage to Minnesota; after watching the Coen Bros. movie Fargo, the story went, she thought it was real and wanted to find the briefcase full of cash that Steve Buscemi’s character buries deep in the snow. The reality was much sadder - Konishi had committed suicide. Before the truth surfaced, though, David and Nathan Zellner couldn’t stop filling in the story’s many blanks themselves.

And now, they’ve made a movie out of that urban legend. Directed by David, who co-wrote it with Nathan, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter takes the initial mystery surrounding Konishi and turns it into a subtly fantastical, gorgeously visual and hauntingly melancholic adventure story. Played by Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim), Kumiko is a 29-year-old, disenchanted office worker who dreams of doing more with her otherwise meandering and lonely existence; in that Fargo briefcase scene, which she watches on a beat-up VHS tape, Kumiko figures out what she believes to be her life’s mission: to travel to America and find that treasure - because, in all of her wonderment/naiveté, she thinks Fargo is real.

A true original, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter fuses various genres and pops with lush and stunning color palette, giving its heroine’s improbable journey a mystical, at times surrealistic vibe, yet, thanks to Kikuchi’s perfectly restrained and deeply relatable performance, it’s always empathetic. Here, David and Nathan Zellner discuss how they made such a strange tale both unique and accessible.

When the two of you first heard about the urban legend surrounding Takako Kinishi, back in 2001, did it immediately feel like a story that could work cinematically? Or did that happen over time?

David: Before we even thought about what we were going to do with it, just out of basic curiosity we wanted more answers. If all the information had been laid out, or if the urban legend had instantly been debunked, we would have passed by it right away, but the fact that there was an element of mystery, and with the folk-tale “quest” quality to it, something that’s been so antiquated in modern society, it made us obsessed with needing personal closure in filling in the gaps. So we started working on the screenplay just to satiate our curiosity, and pretty early on in the process we felt that there was something interesting and cinematic about it.

In other interviews you’ve talked about how Kumiko taps into how we’ve lost our sense of discovery in this age where every piece of information is available instantaneously online. Kumiko is a throwback, someone who seeks something out using legwork and physical investigation. Did making this movie help you to realize that?

David: That’s something we projected onto it. Growing up we were very much into quest films and adventure films; we were very much into Greek mythology and tales that take place in another place and another time—that sort of thing. And in terms of the real world, we’ve always been fascinated by the Age of Exploration, with the conquistadors. We were obsessed with those tales, and how the history was blended with the folklore, where the actual details are somewhat murky. This story felt like a modern-day version of those sorts of things.

I don’t know if it’s age, but when you’re a kid it does seem like there’s more of a sense of mystery to the world than when you’re an adult. With modern technology, like the Internet specifically, all of the information you could ever possibly want is instantly attainable. The old way of going to library and really digging into books and gradually finding answers is gone—everything’s so instantaneous now. You don’t really have that thrill of the hunt anymore. You don’t have to seek anything out anymore. This story gave us a chance to bring back that mystery element that comes from hunting for information, and, also, the tactful quality that comes along with it. We didn’t want Kumiko to use anything that’s digital, so, for instance, the map she uses is from a book, and Fargo is seen on videotape.

It’s a testament to the film that it’s easy to buy into Kumiko’s journey, because, considering what we just talked about, it’s hard to believe that anyone could watch a movie like Fargo today and think it’s reality, not fiction. If you can’t buy into Kumiko’s genuine belief that what she sees in that movie is real, your movie won’t work.

David: We never wanted to look at it in terms of her being gullible. Everything in the movie is from her perspective, and we knew that in order for the audience to go along with the ride, we needed to make them relate to her on a human level. It wasn’t interesting to us to make people think the quest is real as much as believing in her need for it. If you can have characters who feel like real people, whether you agree with what they’re doing or not, you’ll be willing to go with them anywhere.

It’s funny, though—as the movie progressed, I started thinking that I’d actually prefer to see the world as Kumiko sees it, to have that kind of innocence needed to believe in things that others can’t believe in anymore.

David: I feel the same way. People need that sense of mystery. Whether it’s self-fabricated or not, it’s something they need. We wanted to make Kumiko relatable on that level, to generate that sense of empathy for her. That’s also why we didn’t want to just have her wake up and immediately start her journey away from Japan to America; it was important for us to have the film be split into two chapters, to have you immersed into her world and see the kind of cyclical motion she’s trapped in before breaking out of that. We needed that foundation to justify and give resonance to everything she did after.

You’ve described Kumiko as a “quest film,” and “an adventure film,” but unlike other quest/adventure films, this one isn’t a joyous or wide-eyed—it’s quiet, and melancholic, and quite haunting. It almost feels like an anti-quest quest film.

David: For this film, you’re in Kumiko’s head. There are moments of humor, but we wanted to make sure the humor was never at her expense. Since it’s all from her point-of-view, the tone couldn’t be fun and playful—this isn’t a fun romp for her. It’s this kind of perilous journey. There’s a melancholy quality to her character and to the film that felt like it was needed. There’s one great quest film that is melancholic, and was a big influence on us—as kids, we loved John Boorman’s Excalibur. Kumiko, in a way, isn’t that much different than Excalibur; she’s looking for her personal Holy Grail sort of thing—there’s this relentless faith instilled within herself to keep forging ahead.

There’s also a very subtle sense of the supernatural at play in Kumiko’s world, specifically in how the VHS copy of Fargo inexplicably fast-forwards right to the scene with the briefcase full of money, as if some higher power is orchestrating Kumiko’s journey. But it’s all grounded by an overarching sense of realism.

David: Growing up, Nathan and I were really into horror movies, but that genre isn’t anything that we’re particularly interested in making right now. The kinds of tones associated with horror movies permeate our work sometimes. That’s not something Nathan and I talk about directly while making a movie, but it comes from us naturally.

Nathan: We grew up as VHS kids going to video stores, so we had those experiences of blowing on the VHS cassettes and playing with the tracking, and trying to get these things to work properly in order to see a film. When this legend first came about, it happened during the time when VHS started switching over to DVD, and there’s something about the digital age where you lose the tactfulness of things. When you’re watching muddy VHS footage, you have to strain your eyes to make sense of it, which adds to the fantasy element of it. It makes you want to find something more in it that may actually be there.

The VHS Fargo tape’s graininess and distortion in Kumiko actually make it difficult to recognize that Steve Buscemi, so even if Kumiko knew who Buscemi is but hadn’t ever seen Fargo, she might not even recognize that it’s him.

David: Especially with old tapes that have distorted qualities, it’s this thing where they’re obstructing bits of information and forcing you to fill in the gaps on your own. When something is obstructed or murky like that, it makes it feel more subversive, mysterious, and scary than a big Hollywood film. There’s a real organic beauty to that video distortion, just the way that the glitches take a life of their own. There’s something really beautiful to that.

It’s interesting to hear you say you grew up loving horror movies—Kumiko’s bright red sweater kept making me think of Don’t Look Now.

David: And we love that movie, but we’re not overtly trying to name-check our influences. But, yeah, Don’t Look Now is a really effective horror film in terms of being psychological. When we were in Tokyo, nobody was wearing read—they were wearing mostly black or darker colors. That helped her stand out, and in America it stood out against all of the snow she’s traveling in throughout Minnesota.

There’s a great line said by someone Kumiko meets on her journey: “Solitude…just fancy loneliness.” Kumiko is definitely lonely, but that doesn’t seem to bother her as much as it would other people. It makes you realize that one person’s loneliness could be another person’s contentedness.

David: Exactly. For some people, the same kind of scenario could be isolating and suffocating, and for another person it can be transcending and liberating. It’s all a matter of perspective. We knew when we wrote that line that it summed things up nicely. When we developed the character from the beginning, it was pretty clear who she was to us; she didn’t have those kinds of checks and balances that would prevent her from taking this journey or push her in a different direction. She didn’t have that foundation that’d prevent her from barreling forward with this.

Everything we’ve talked about highlights the coolest thing about Kumiko: it’s a movie centered around the Coen Bros.’ Fargo, but it’s not preoccupied with honoring Fargo. It’s its own thing entirely. How important was it for you to make that separate identity paramount to Kumiko?

David: It was one of the most important things. Before seeing Kumiko, people could take it as us just paying homage to Fargo for two hours. We weren’t interested in that at all. That would have been disrespectful to the original film. It was part of the urban legend—we didn’t add that element, and we wanted to be faithful to the urban legend. Fargo was the conduit for the quest. We didn’t want to do any wink-wink homages because anything like that would’ve taken away from Kumiko’s story, and that’s the story we wanted to tell from the beginning.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is in theatres now.