Nathan Zellner on the Strange History of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

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In Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellner Brothers — David and Nathan — offer a haunting meditation on the relationship between truth and fiction, and between desire and belief. Based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who died looking for the cash hidden at the end of the Coen Brothers film Fargo, Kumiko is a gorgeous, thoughtful film. It tackles big-picture subjects like the way that loneliness and the alienation inherent in modern life can lead us to seek something bigger than ourselves, even if that bigger thing is just an imaginary pile of cash depicted in a famous film, and it does it with humor, grace and just enough pathos to make it all stick together. Before the film opens Friday, April 17, at Chez Artiste, we spoke with co-writer and producer Nathan Zellner about working with his brother, urban legends in the Internet age, and the layers of truth and fiction that surround the film.

Westword: I understand that you and your brother work exclusively together. How do you divide up the workload between the two of you?

Nathan Zellner: We’ve been essentially making home movies since we were little and back when you’re kids, you don’t know the difference between — you knew what an actor was, but you didn’t know what a director or producer or cameraman did, you’re just taking turns in front of your VHS camcorder shooting stuff, and it’s just been an extension of that. Our home movies have gotten more sophisticated and bigger.

David went to film school at the University of Texas and I got an engineering degree. Our strengths are I’m a little bit more technical, and David is the primary director and writer and I’m our producer and editor. But because of how we can work, we have a shorthand and we have the same sensibilities and we like a lot of the same films and watch movies all the time and that sort of thing. When we’re on set or when we’re writing or working things out, it blurs over and we’re all doing whatever the situation calls for to make the film.

There’s a little bit of a hierarchy so people can know who to talk to or how to divide the workload. We usually do a lot of the decisions, the stuff that would normally be figured out in production, we figure that stuff out before we get on set so we’re not wasting people’s time. It helps us be really flexible.

This new film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, grew out of an Internet urban legend, right?

In 2001, we read this blurb on a message board about this woman going and searching for the fortune from [fargo] and there wasn’t any real information outside of that, just a lot of speculation and debating. News was filtering in, from “I have a cousin who has a friend whose girlfriend... “ That sort of thing. And it was on the Internet, back then, so it had to be true. [Laughs.] We took it at face value, as everybody else did. Because there wasn’t a lot of information, we started creatively figuring things out on our own, developing a back story and reverse-engineering it. We had the end and we were kind of working backwards from that. None of the back story from Japan or anything was available.

Years later, circling back, on Wikipedia or wherever, we saw that it had been debunked and declared an urban legend. It was just a big telephone game online, how folklore is kind of created. We were kind of taken aback at first, because everything we had written and everything in our minds we had thought was the truth was not. But we liked it even that much more, because the film and the story itself deal with reality versus entertainment and the blurred lines between different worlds. It made us like our version of the truth that much more, and the script that much more.

If it was something today where we heard the story, we could go on Wikipedia, go online, and it’s immediately debunked. That’s how fast the Internet is, with social media and Twitter and stuff. Stuff just gets solved so quickly.

Of course, now the speed of the Internet has its own unintended consequences, like the reddit witchhunts that happened around the Boston bombings, where they basically framed someone based on some weird circumstantial evidence.

It’s the wonderful and tragic thing about the Internet, how people — relating it to the film — how people want to believe in something, or escape, or they’re looking for belief in a story that’s too good to be true, or stranger than fiction. Oftentimes it is, and oftentimes it isn’t, and I think it’s hard in this day and age to know which it is. I think that’s why it’s kind of grown, is because people are involved in that sort of quest, willing to believe in something — stories that sound amazing, and they want to find out more information. The way we did it was to create a script. We just made a story instead of trying to find more information about it. That’s how we satiated it. It’s definitely interesting how people want questions answered and how they go about answering them.
Researching the film to do this interview was kind of like peeling an onion — it’s a fictional film based on an urban legend about a real incident tied to a fictional film claiming to be about a true story. It adds a whole layer of depth to the experience of the film. You want to keep going deeper with it.

It’s definitely the thing that drew us to it as well, these different layers of what people want to believe is reality and how that intersects with entertainment and your personal beliefs and that sort of thing. We definitely projected onto this story this element of this treasure hunt and of this quest, because that’s what we wanted to believe about it and that turned out to be the most fictional part of it. It’s been interesting having people come up to us at screenings and talking about when they heard the story, or having never heard the story, the things that they saw or noticed based on different points of view.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter opens Friday, April 17 at Chez Artiste. Find out more here.

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.

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