Fargo and internet message boards spark movie idea

17:00, Jul 23 2014
kumiko the treasure hunter
TREASURE HUNTER: Kumiko played by Rinko Kikuchi.

Crossing the globe in search of fortune. It's an idea that greatly appeals to US writer-director David Zellner.

He admits he and his co-writing brother Nathan have always had a sense of adventure, ever since they first began making their own movies as kids at their familial home in Greeley, Colorado.

"We've always loved the idea of going somewhere beyond our backyard," Zellner says down the phone line from Sydney where he's been promoting the brothers' latest work Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter.

kumiko the treasure hunter
URBAN LEGEND: Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is about a Japanese woman who travels to Minnesota in search of the mythical fortune from Fargo.

It's their most ambitious project so far, one that took them far from their filmmaking base in Austin to the suburbs of Tokyo and the wilds of Minnesota. And it all started from an online message board and near 20 year old movie made by another pair of siblings.

"I came across a story referencing a woman who went from Tokyo to Minnesota in search of the mythical fortune from Fargo (the Coen Brothers' 1996 black comedy recently itself reborn as a TV series). Initially that was all the information that was out there."

Like nature, Zellner admits he abhors a vacuum so he set about creating a backstory for her. "It sounded so fantastical and also so antiquated. It reminded me of a story from the age of exploration - like a conquistador looking for a city of gold."


While he honed his story, different versions of the truth began to emerge online.

"It became more like something you would see on the local news. There wasn't an actual quest. But, since the urban legend was far more interesting to me - that's what I ran with."

The result is Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter the tale of a jaded Japanese woman (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi) who discovers a hidden copy of Fargo on VHS, believing it to be a treasure map pointing to the location of a large cache of money. Zellner says while they wanted to be very respectful of the Coen's original film he and Nathan "weren't interested in doing a winky homage".

"We simply wanted it to be a conduit for our journey."

Keen to make both Japan and Minnesota essentially characters in their film, the brothers went on their own journey in making it.

"We had two completely different crews for the two locations. It was like we were making two different films back to back. We'd been to Japan before and found it very appealing, but we didn't want this to be shot from a tourist's perspective. We told the crew that we wanted to shoot in a neighbourhood where Kumiko might live."

As in their previous films, like Goliath and Kid-Thing, the Zellners also have roles to play in front of the camera. Here David plays a Minnesotan cop. He says it's usually at the script stage that the decide on their parts, however "we keep it kind of open".

"Our acting really harks back to when we made our own movies on VHS when we were kids. I was always interested in the performative aspect and it was from there that I got interested in being behind the camera. To me acting is just as fulfilling as the directing. It does require more homework going into it - an extra level of preparation - but we're up for that."

But even they weren't prepared for what would be involved in casting and directing a rabbit  - one who could play Kumiko's pet - Bunzo.

"I love working with animals and they creep up in a lot of our films (Goliath was about a missing tabby cat). I know the key is in the casting, if you do that then directing is easy. However, casting is probably what I get the most nerves about. It sounds silly, but we auditioned a lot of rabbits. We weren't interested in forcing it to do anything it didn't want so we went in with the idea of choosing one based on what it liked to do. However, we went through a lot that did not like to be held or were very bitey until we found one that was appropriate."

Describing himself as a huge cinephile, Zellner says he places a particular emphasis on a film's soundtrack. "If I could play an instrument or sing I would do it, but I also love it because it is mysterious to me."

However, he admits he's not a fan of many contemporary cinematic scores. "They all feel very similar. No one's trying anything knew - originality and subtlety is being lost. The soundtracks that are most inspiring to me are from the 1960s and 70s when people were trying all kinds of different things. I particularly love the European soundtracks from that era - with their epic dread.

"Look, I think a soundtrack loses its effectiveness if everything is full blast and the same kind of thing all the time, it's no different to have nothing in a lot of ways. I like to use things sparingly so that when it hits you - it counts."

For Kumiko, he and Nathan called on their friends The Octopus Project. "They are very much cinephiles as well and we've worked with them for the past decade. I like working with people who I have a relationship with, that's probably why I work with my brother - we have a shorthand, a certain reliability and similar tastes and sensibilities. I'm more creative, he's a little more technical, but there's plenty of room for overlap."

When asked if he and his brother have many more adventures in the pipeline, Zellner concurs. "We've got lots of other stories we want to tell. In fact, there are so many things I want to make I don't know if I'll live long enough to make them."

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is screening at Auckland's Civic Theatre today (Thursday) at 4.15pm and tomorrow at Wellington's Embassy Theatre as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. For more information, and subsequent times and locations, see nziff.co.nz