As anyone who might’ve seen their previous films such as “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” and “Kid-Thing” might suspect, when David and Nathan Zellner set out to make a film that took place in the Old West, they were bound to go in their own direction. In the case of “Damsel,” this meant following Samuel (Robert Pattinson), a lovelorn cowboy with a miniature horse named Butterscotch in tow on a quest to find his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), intending to propose after a two-year separation, on a path that leads him from the sea through the desert up to the mountains. Those familiar with Western topography might suspect this route is impossible, but then again, no more so a myth than any other entry into the genre that has romanticized the promise of the untamed frontier and the trust that one will do the right thing while living by their own moral code when larger society isn’t around to hold anyone in check.
Galloping into the West with an approach more in line with Alexis de Tocqueville than John Wayne both geographically and tempermentally, the Zellners ride roughshod over the same territory covered throughout the history of the genre in order to get to someplace new and exciting, upending the notion of who are heroes and villains on land that is bound to make self-interested grouches out of even the most well-meaning who step foot on it. The brothers don’t just tweak the details of the stories that have come before to reveal the rampant sexism and racism that have shaped the historical narrative in ridiculous ways, but reworking the contours of how such a story is told to deliver one surprise after another, all of which are too good to be spoiled here. Yet it’s telling that even boasting a delightful Pattinson and Wasikowska in full-fledged movie star turns, “Damsel” rewards attention being paid to the plight of the observer in the piece – Parson Henry (played with agreeable dimwittery by David Zellner), who tags along with Samuel after being asked to officiate the wedding upon his reunion with Penelope and bears witness to one assumption after another that proves to be wrong, including many of his own.
While David’s turn is a standout, it’s slightly ironic given the Zellners’ creative process in which no one single element is given greater weight and as the brothers recently told me, as “Damsel” makes its way into theaters after premiering at Sundance earlier this year, their distinctive films have benefited greatly from not seeing themselves as auteurs, but rather setting a tone and seeing what their collaborations with their cast and crew will bring, creating epiphanies both for themselves and for audiences.
This may be a silly question, but I realized while all your projects have been called “A Zellner Brothers Film,” this is the first you’re co-credited as co-directors on. Did anything change?
Nathan Zellner: Not really. We’ve just been making movies together forever. David’s strength is the directing and the writing and my strength is producing and editing…
David Zellner: And sound design and…[laughs]
Nathan Zellner: But it’s so intuitive the way we work.
David Zellner: There’s no boundaries, really. I think it’s good that we have different strengths. Everything overlaps in the end.
Nathan Zellner: And we get on the same page pretty early. Part of that is when we’re working with talent and crew, they’re not confused over who will have the final answer on something. We pretty much try to have those answers ahead of time as much as possible, so if they’re asking David, he’s answering for both of us and vice versa.
Did the experience of “Kumiko” help you figure out how to handle the scale of “Damsel”? It was interesting to read that “Damsel” at one point was supposed to happen before “Kumiko.”
David Zellner: Yeah, and in some ways we can’t really quantify, I’m pretty sure. We’ve never had total control over the order of things that we make, but “Kumiko” was written way before “Damsel,” and “Kumiko” had several false starts in getting off the ground, so there was one point where we thought, “Ok, well, we’ll try to make ‘Damsel’ first.” But then that didn’t happen and “Kumiko” did, so it’s always funny and I’m sure on some level, one informed the next. Certainly, the fact that we made “Kumiko” helped get “Damsel” made, just because it gave some idea [to people] of what we were trying to do with this next one. The film we made before “Kumiko” called “Kid-Thing” helped get “Kumiko” made, so everything we’ve done has led to the next project in one way or another, both in terms of exploring exploring things subconsciously that were interesting to us, but also on a technical level as well.
Nathan Zellner: You’re always learning something and I’m sure if we reversed the order of how we did it, they’d be two totally different films because of the way you approach things and you’re evolving as a person and as a filmmaker. Your interests are always evolving as well, and this movie is how it’s supposed to be at this particular time.
What sold you guys on Robert Pattinson?
David Zellner: For both of the leads, we wanted to cast people that you’re familiar with and that were great actors, but had not necessarily played these types of roles before. With Rob, seeing the previous choices he’s made in recent years – not just the roles he’s played, but the incredibly amazing taste in directors he’s picked to work with that just felt very smart and curated – we [thought we’d] have a shorthand. He’s just making really interesting decisions and it represents him having a strong point of view, but also a certain fearlessness, which is always exciting to see in an actor of his stature. It’d be very easy for him to coast, and the fact that he’s hungry and fearless in the choices he’s making, that’s what we want to do on our end with filmmaking is to dive into the void and try to do something interesting to us that we’ve not seen before. It just seemed like a natural fit in that way. Thankfully, he responded to our previous film and to the script and quickly dialed into the tone.
With both the actors and everyone else behind the camera, from the cinematographer to the production designer and costume designer, as long as people that are all on the same page tonally and we’re able to articulate what that tone is, then it makes our job easy because everyone is working towards the same goal. It is terrifying when it’s not the case because this is an unconventional structure and the way that we balance the humor and the pathos, it’s a very specific unique tone, so it was all the more important to get everyone dialed into the parameters we were playing with.
And you’ve said you like to give a lot of leeway to your cast and crew once you set those parameters. Was there anything that came as a happy surprise?
Nathan Zellner: All the time. You set that foundation and come really well-prepared with that foundation and everybody then gets really energized because they know then what they have to work towards instead of just randomly picking, so there’s always so many good ideas and little enhancements that are made throughout the process. The final product is pretty close to the script, but it’s just taken to another level when you work with the talent and crew that we were working with.
Your collaborations with the Octopus Project are always wonderful. Can you start working with them at a script stage, given your familiarity? There’s a particular scene where Samuel is putting on his coat that culminates in this great crescendo that says so much about the character, it seems like it could’ve been developed from the ground up.
Nathan Zellner: Yeah, this is our third feature with them, and we have them involved early on, reading the script and coming up with ideas while we’re shooting. It’s like having an assistant editor because they start giving you temp tracks that you can start crafting the edit to the music and vice versa – they start changing their themes. But they’re mostly an electronic band and they like the idea of taking some of the tools and techniques they use in their normal music and doing that with a lot of acoustic instruments.
David Zellner: Well, there’s an electronic element too…
Nathan Zellner: Yeah, but they’ll use a saw instead of a theremin, which they normally use, so they’re adapting and looping some of those things, taking traditional instruments and applying the more modern electronical stuff with it. But they understood the tone early on and it was fun working to craft the film and the edit as they were doing the score at the same time. It creates a more cohesive [film] for us.
You’ve also mentioned how production designer Scott Kuzio had built in angles into certain elements of the set that could guide the camera – what does that actually mean in practice?
David Zellner: He just has a good eye. He made our job easier in that we told him the angles roughly that we were going for, and he built the sets that complemented that.
Nathan Zellner: Like if we said, “we want to shoot down the road [in a specific direction],” then he would start adding details and additions that would layer it in a certain way so you would see more and it would be much more rich.
David Zellner: And particular things we wanted to highlight. So there was never some set that we had to figure out how to use. It was customized specifically to what we wanted to showcase.
Nathan Zellner: And we used almost every inch of the set. [David laughs] Things were built in a way that we could use every inch of it.
How’d you populate your shantytown with such distinctive characters? The piano player, in particular, seems like a real find.
David Zellner: We like to mix it up between professional actors and nonprofessional actors and sometimes friends. The piano player’s a great guy named Landon Weeks, who’s an incredibly talented piano player and just an incredibly sweet guy. Nathan found him online and he’d been on “America’s Got Talent,” so he’s already had a good amount of exposure and he tours, and he just seemed like the right fit for this world. The guy in the barrel is a friend of ours – we just like the way he laughs, so finding other interesting people that were non-actors, it was a combination of just filling it out in different ways.
You also mix locations that could never geographically exist together in real life, but create this wonderful journey here, mixing the Oregon coast and mountains of Utah. Did the idea of using the land in the way that you did – where you arrive from the sea and scale a mountain come as a way of giving the film a certain structure when you shake things up narratively?
David Zellner: Yeah, the premise [of “Kumiko”] is what sets [that film] up and then you go from there with it. With [“Damsel”], the images of things that happen in the middle of the film were the seed of it for us, but we knew that would take place in the middle and that would be at the furthest location on the mountain, so we liked the idea of it starting on a rocky shore and going up and having an elliptical structure in that way. From there, the other ideas took shape.
It’s also partly aesthetically locations that we wanted to play with for the film. We wanted to play with the idea of the mythic west. We didn’t care about geographical accuracy. We just wanted this epic quality with things that fit within the logic of this world we created rather than what makes logical sense, so that’s why you have these striking rocky shores and then Aspen forests and desert all juxtaposed with one another.
I understand the Oregon shoot was at the end and it seems like Robert Pattinson is pretty enthusiastic dunking David’s head in the water during that early scene in the film. Should I read anything into that?
David Zellner: That was the very last shot of the whole movie we did. [laughs]
Nathan Zellner: It was a good release.
David Zellner: It was a good release. [laughs] That was probably the most brutal day of the shoot for me because it was freezing cold and then the tide was pretty tough. But it was funny because it was the last shot, so we’re joking like we’d go all out.
Nathan Zellner: But just thinking back on it, I was behind the camera, that one take is like a metaphor for filmmaking. There was apprehension [for Robert and David as actors], then they both are walking into the water and they’re checking frame and they do the acting and it gets cold. They’re really exhausted, but then you yell, “cut” and everyone’s high on endorphins and hugging each other because it’s the last thing, and it’s how a film shoot works in one single shot.
“Damsel” opens on June 22nd in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater and in New York at the Landmark at 57 West and the IFC Center. A full list of theaters and dates is here.