The Zellner Brothers & Rinko Kikuchi on Digging Up 'Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter'

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After years of making impressive shorts and features that are both moving and funny, the Zellner brothers – David and Nathan – are channeling their idiosyncratic style into a film that is their most mainstream yet.

Having said that, Zellner fans out there shouldn't be too worried that "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter" is the moment in their careers when they abandon the wacky characters, strange occurrences and mythical storylines for the hopes of finding a larger audience (the film is executive produced by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor). All the things we love about them are most certainly here, just on a larger scale.

The film is a fantastical retelling of an incident that made huge waves on the Internet in the early 2000s about a woman who was found dead in the woods of North Dakota while in search for the money Steve Buscemi’s character buried at the end of the Coen brothers' film "Fargo". Rinko Kikuchi ("Pacific Rim") plays the woman (who in the film is named Kumiko, but according to reports her real name was Takako Konishi) and we follow her journey from her stale single life in Japan working for an awful boss, living with a bunny and obsessively watching Buscemi burry the briefcase in the snow, and finally to her failed journey to Fargo.

With incredible production value and a comedic yet achingly heartfelt performance by Kikuchi, "Kumiko" is a beautiful introduction of the Zellners to a bigger audience.

We talked to the brothers and Kikuchi at Sundance hours following the film’s premiere about creating a story around an Internet meme (before there was such a thing) and using the "Fargo" footage as a tool but not a gimmick. Additionally, we couldn’t resist bringing up Kikuchi’s starring role in the seldom discussed Japanese remake of "Sideways", which cements the Zellner film's Alexander Payne connection.

FILM.COM: When did you hear about Takako Konishi’s journey and how did that get you thinking about doing something with it?

DAVID ZELLNER: We first heard about it in 2001 and it was before Facebook or Twitter so it was just posted on bulletin boards and it was so mysterious. It was fragmented and piqued your curiosity and between each other we started filling in the gaps of the idea of going on this treasure hunt and the idea that there’s no mystery in the world and everything has been explored. The story became an urban legend and took a life of its own, and we liked that there was conflicting information about it. And the more contradictory things we read the more mysterious it was to us and we liked that. Years later, some more factual things came out but we were living with our reality for so long that we were like "that’s bullshit!"

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. 

DZ: Yeah. Exactly. So this reality was more truthful to us so we continued with that path.

NATHAN ZELLNER: We still get people coming to us saying, “You know, this is what happened.” So sometimes the blanks fill in naturally and sometimes they’re totally far off.

DZ: We wondered, how does someone get there? So it was working our way backward and how she would get to this point. And we loved Japan and had been there for fun and with our family when we were younger, but we did as much research as two white guys from Texas could do to be true to that world.

NZ: The Japanese part, there was no information about that originally, even how she got to the States wasn't known.

That had to make it fun, because you could really take some liberties.

NZ: I remember David sending me an article, and this was before Wikipedia, and it was a description of office ladies [in Japan] and we thought "wouldn't it be cool if she worked in that environment and how that could relate back to her character?" So there was that kind of research.

DZ: And we also grew up with a lot of adventure films and quest films and Greek mythology and folklore and we did the same with our previous feature, "Kid-Thing", we like how these stories deal with real issues of the human condition but in an indirect way. So it wasn't beating you over the head with something.

Ms. Kikuchi, were you familiar at all with this story?

RINKO KIKUCHI: No. I didn't know it, actually.

How did you get involved with the project?

RK: It was five years ago I met them and it was right after the Oscar nomination [for "Babe"l] when everyone thought I was this serious actress, but this role was so original and fresh and I had never read that kind of script before so I was in love with it.

DZ: And we loved her acting, but we saw that she was up for challenges and risk and going all the way. A lot of times it's easy for people to set up walls and boundaries, but we had a tremendous respect for her because she was open for anything and that's how we like to work. And meeting her in person, I think we bonded over our love for the Dardenne brothers.

RK: Yeah.

There are a lot of movements with Ms. Kikuchi’s eyes and body to tell us about her character’s way of life, but the dialogue is sparse. Did that idea evolve or did you guys have an idea of how to play her?

NZ: I think a lot of that is what she brings. I mean you have very powerful eyes.

RK: [Laughs]

DZ: She's very photogenic.

NZ: There's a lot going on. So when you have a character that's more introverted or on their own, there's not an ongoing dialogue.

DZ: There wasn't going to be voiceover.

NZ: Yeah. We don't get into her head through that method.

DZ: That was something that we missed and wanted to see more of, actors getting more physical with their performance and not just acting from the neck up. We wanted her performance to be nuanced and controlled and put on a very human level and she dove into that. There's nothing more interesting than seeing someone think on camera.

RK: And I think once we got on set I got to totally relax because they made a good atmosphere, so I think that's what got me into the role. That was important for me to act in.

This is the first film of yours, David and Nathan, that will have some mainstream interest, because of the subject matter and Rinko being in it. Is this the logical progression for you?

DZ: We have all kinds of things we want to do. Some of them are big stories some of them are smaller. We like all kind of films and we want to make bigger things, but we have a certain style and a certain voice and we want to try to find a way to get that to the biggest audience possible. But if we're just pandering there's no reason to make anything. We want to at least attempt to make something new and distinct and different and let people take away from it what they want.

NZ: When we were looking at the logistics of this film, shooting in Japan, dealing with the weather, it was never a nervous thing, it was a fun challenge. The creative things were so challenging that that is what drove us in this direction with this story.

DZ: And that's why it took so long to get this going, we knew there was one way to make this and it had to be on location and we had to have Rinko and it had to be the weather a certain way. So we made these smaller films until all of these came together.

Was it always the intention to have footage from "Fargo" in the film?

DZ: That was necessary but we never wanted it to be anything more than a conduit. We wanted it to be very much its own piece and respect that and use it as this simple conduit for the start of her journey.

Are you guys claiming fair use with the footage you used?

DZ: Oh, no it's been worked out. It's a long and involved process with a huge team of people, but yeah, it all worked out.

NZ: There were a lot of conscious decisions because we didn't want this to be an homage.

So I have to get way off subject to end this: Ms. Kikuchi, my editor at Film.com is fascinated by the Japanese remake of "Sideways" in which you starred.

RK: Oh! [Laughs]

Who do you play?

NZ: Paul Giamatti.

[Laughs]

I would watch that!

RK: No, I played the tough one, the one who wasn’t the love interest of Paul Giamatti.

Did you guys know she starred in this?

NZ: We met her when she was going to Napa to film.

DZ: Oh, that's right!

RK: Oh, right!

Wow, you filmed it in Napa?

RK: Yeah, at the same location.

Is it similar to the American version?

Kikuchi: It's not similar because it's a Japanese movie, and a huge TV company made the movie so they did a little different take on it.