“Solitude, that’s just fancy loneliness,” a stranger tells Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), the intrepid heroine of “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” after taking her into her home. That single sentence may sum up both the grandeur and intimacy of David and Nathan Zellner’s third feature, an extraordinary transcontinental endeavor that sees a young Japanese woman cross the Pacific on the hope that the money she saw buried in the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film “Fargo” remained there, leaving behind her pet rabbit Bunzo to travel to North Dakota in search of her fortune.
For Kumiko, a well-worn VHS cassette and an idea of buried treasure offer an opportunity to break free of a mundane existence in Tokyo while it provides the Zellner brothers, who previously contemplated the notion of freedom in their previous films “Kid-Thing” and “Goliath,” with a premise to initiate an epic adventure the likes are rarely seen on the big screen these days. Using the full breadth of the screen with beautiful 2.35:1 cinematography from Sean Porter (“It Felt Like Love”), the film began from humble origins, birthed from an urban legend that had circulated about an office worker who made her way from Tokyo to Minnesota believing the money Steve Buscemi hid was still sitting just beneath the snow. In the hands of Kikuchi, that quest becomes both an exuberant celebration of a pioneer and a sensitive and touching portrait of a woman in search of an identity.
During their own travels last year while “Kumiko” was on the festival circuit, the Zellners spoke about how their latest expedition came to be, how they connected with Kikuchi and organizing a film shoot across two separate continents.
My favorite line from the film would seem to encapsulate the wry tone you wanted for it when Kumiko lands in America and stays with an older woman who insists she spend the night by saying, “Solitude, that’s just fancy loneliness.”
Nathan Zellner: We’re glad you liked that line. We do, too. It just summed a lot of things up and felt right for the overall tone of the film and for the perspective of the older woman in terms of how people deal with states of loneliness and isolation in different ways. It’s compartmentalizing or denial or embracing it. It just felt like the right thing to say.
When you came across this story, which I understand you found on message boards, what was it intriguing enough about it to make a film?
Nathan Zellner: The lack of information initially was what was so interesting about it. It made it more mysterious, especially in an age where everything is discovered and explained or easily obtainable online. There are no longer parts of the world that are uncharted, and everything is mapped with a satellite imagery. The mystery drew us in and forced us to be creative and fill in the gaps with what would lead to this place. We also liked the quest element of it, too, because that’s something that’s also very antiquated. The idea of someone going on a treasure hunt across the globe, there’s something mythical about that that piques our curiosity — that it could possibly be rooted in truth and it’s something that happens in contemporary times, all those things pulled together and made us feel compelled to create this little world for her.
Was it a challenge to create a world of your own while having “Fargo” as a touchstone for her journey?
David Zellner: First and foremost, it was very important for us to be respectful to that material. We weren’t trying to rip on it or do any cheap, winky homage. It was simply respected as a conduit for this urban legend and we didn’t use it as a crutch or anything beyond that. This was her launchpad for her journey and we just went with it from there.
Was Rinko Kikuchi an obvious choice from the start?
Nathan Zellner: Yeah. We had written it before we saw [“Babel”], but when we met her we quickly knew that she was the perfect person for the role. We had a shorthand with her instantly. The most important thing for our job as filmmakers is to make sure everyone’s on the same page because otherwise that’s how you end up having movies that feel like a mish-mash of ideas. Different people are expecting different things and seeing the movie in different [ways], being unclear what the movie is supposed to be. So we were very clear from the start who [Kumiko] was supposed to be and [Rinko] was dialed into that from the first time we met with her. We have similar tastes in film, in general, so it was clear early on that she was the one.
David Zellner: We explained that it was going to be very difficult shoot, too because of the snow…
Nathan Zellner: It was an adventure!
David Zellner: “An adventure” is how we phrased it, so she was on board.
Nathan Zellner: It wasn’t really a difficult shoot. It was really fun, but it had built-in challenges, which I think adds an energy to the film by shooting on location and really creating an element of adventure along with it in the making of it.
If you had already written the script, did she get to have much input on the character?
David Zellner: When we were making the film, she helped us with some little character traits that she had in mind for Kumiko or some things that we were trying figure out for authenticity, like the relationship with her mother and what that would be in a Japanese society.
Color-wise, the film is quite striking and I was particularly taken with the clothes. Is that actually something you were particularly involved in? I had heard you actually found Kumiko’s red coat in a thrift store.
Nathan Zellner: We just liked being involved. From our background where we were making really tiny things, we have to wear a lot of different hats and you have a basic understanding for what those jobs require, then making a film like this, we’re able to turn that over to people that are very good at that. It allowed us to articulate what we needed for those things. We’re pretty particular about what we want, but we leave some latitude for some nice discoveries. People didn’t wear red very often in Tokyo, so we wanted a nice visual element to make her pop out against the crowds. The red also worked well in America to make her pop out against the snowy landscapes. Visually, it fit her character and then just from an aesthetic standpoint, it filled out the palette for both environments she was in and felt like a neat contrast.
David Zellner: It was a long process finding the comforter [she wears towards the end of the film], as well. The right amount of ugliness and something that would not blend in with the scenery. Something that would just make you feel cozy and icky, all at the same time. [laughs]
Even without the travel involved, was it a different feeling to do something on this scale?
David Zellner: It was different in that it was nice to be able to have so many great collaborators to work with. We like wearing lots of hats, but it was fun to have a great team. We’re very particular about every member of our crew and so many people took our ideas and brought them to a different level. It was a bigger crew, but no different in terms of how we operated and the tone of the set and the way we worked. It’s hard work but we make sure everyone is on the same page with everything and that it’s an enjoyable process.
And being in Japan and the U.S., you had different crews. Did that provide a challenge?
David Zellner: It was a challenge. Outside of Nathan and myself and our producer Chris Ohlson, it was just our cinematographer [Sean Porter] who was the only one that was all the way through [the production]. We wanted actual crew members from Japan. We didn’t want the white person’s version of production design and it was the same in America. It was just something we kept in mind from the start and were mindful of how everything fit together.
Bunzo, Kumiko’s rabbit, threatens to steal the movie and it isn’t your first time working with animals. Does it get any easier?
Nathan Zellner: It’s about the same. If you don’t impose expectations on the animals, you’ll get a great performance, so we just let them go. We like working with animals. It was a long casting process to make sure you have an animal with the right temperament, that wants to be there. Once that’s the case, then you turn them loose and let them do their thing. Everything is a pure moment. It’s not like a little robot acting, it’s something real. We don’t have a plan to put animals in everything we do, but when it feels right, we like to do it.
David Zellner: There’s a lot of upside to casting an animal. They tend to bring so much more, just inherently, with them.
“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is now open in Los Angeles at the NuArt and New York at the IFC Center and BAMCinematek before expanding on March 27th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.