Epic in scope

David Zellner and Nathan Zellner on Damsel

by Anne-Katrin Titze

David Zellner and Nathan Zellner with Anne-Katrin Titze: "We love Westerns and we always wanted to do one but we didn't want to just copy what's been done before."
David Zellner and Nathan Zellner with Anne-Katrin Titze: "We love Westerns and we always wanted to do one but we didn't want to just copy what's been done before." Photo: Ally Navolio

The Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter creators are back this time with a Western. David Zellner and Nathan Zellner's latest, shot by Adam Stone (Jeff Nichols' Loving, Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter), stars Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, and a horse named Butterscotch with Robert Forster, Joseph Billingiere, and a Barrel Of Laughs cameo by Nichols' longtime composer David Wingo.

David Zellner (Parson Henry) and Nathan Zellner (Rufus Cornell) sat down with me for a Damsel conversation that took us through Sophie Fiennes' The Pervert's Guide To Ideology (in which Slavoj Žižek says that Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is a remake of John Ford's The Searchers), Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a scene from Jane Campion's The Piano, the Zen-like Butterscotch played by Daisy, Rapunzel, the Brothers Grimm, and damsels in and out of distress.

Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) with Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson): "People dancing together and smiling, you can read a lot into that."
Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) with Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson): "People dancing together and smiling, you can read a lot into that."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher, in Sophie Fiennes' documentary The Pervert's Guide To Ideology - are you familiar with it?

David Zellner: Oh, yeah.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah.

AKT: He said that Taxi Driver is a remake of The Searchers. And I thought your film fits perfectly into that line.

DZ: I guess so! In terms of like doing the kind of tropes of the damsel in distress and the hero going to rescue. Yeah, absolutely.

AKT: And then what happens when the time actually comes. I thought it would be a perfect third in line for a triple feature.

NZ: That would be very interesting.

AKT: When you have Damsel, you don't even need the word distress. You hear damsel and distress is included.

DZ: You're right. That's a good point. There's never a damsel that's just doing well. The happy and content damsel. It's always kind of reductive in this objectified kind of way. Just like a thing rather than a person. Something to be rescued or obtained. Storytelling in general - so much of Greek mythology is about the hero rescuing the maiden.

Samuel (Robert Pattinson) with Butterscotch: "Her name is Daisy and she's a service animal."
Samuel (Robert Pattinson) with Butterscotch: "Her name is Daisy and she's a service animal."

AKT: Like it or not. Although sometimes it isn't really the case and just in our heads. I am thinking of another team of brothers working together, the Grimms. In lots of the tales they collected it isn't at all the rescue of the damsel in distress.

In Rapunzel, she is in the tower, the prince comes, she is pregnant, then thrown out of her home, she is all alone, brings up her twins, after years she finds him and her tears make him see again.

DZ: Oh, interesting.

AKT: People often call this a rescue story. I am just throwing a few things at you that came to my mind, before we go deeper into your film.

DZ: This is all very interesting. We don't intellectualize it much as we're making it. It's just an intuitive process. Like anyone we're a product of all the films and stories that we've been exposed to growing up. We come to it with a point of view but it's always nice to hear what other people have to say because it's just as valid as anything that we're trying to do.

AKT: The starting point for this was something from childhood? Were you playing Western growing up?

David Zellner on Mia Wasikowska's Penelope: "There's never a damsel that's just doing well. The happy and content damsel. It's always kind of reductive in this objectified kind of way."
David Zellner on Mia Wasikowska's Penelope: "There's never a damsel that's just doing well. The happy and content damsel. It's always kind of reductive in this objectified kind of way."

DZ: We love Westerns and we always wanted to do one but we didn't want to just copy what's been done before. When people try to do that, you know, make like a John Ford Western or like a spaghetti Western or something, if they're trying to be too faithful then it ends up always feeling like a false note. And those were made 50 years ago and it's just a different time.

We love genre but what's interesting for us is using it as a foundation, kind of as a launch pad for a story where you can then play with the tropes of the genre but then do something new. Even though the audience may at the outset be hard-wired to expect certain things, we instead of being bound to those tropes or clichés, we kind of use it as a foundation to subvert.

AKT: The beautiful dance sequence over the titles, I think, does that brilliantly.

DZ: Yeah, it's pretty manipulative.

AKT: We know nothing! But how much do we think we know! We think we know everything because the two of them dance together. We may think Heaven's Gate …

NZ: Oh, yeah.

AKT: I thought of Heaven's Gate and of some musicals with Damsel in the title. From the one with Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine all the way to Whit Stillman's take. In Damsel we right away think: this is the couple, this will be their story.

Nathan Zellner on Damsel fitting in with Slavoj Žižek's statement that Taxi Driver is a remake of The Searchers: "That would be very interesting."
Nathan Zellner on Damsel fitting in with Slavoj Žižek's statement that Taxi Driver is a remake of The Searchers: "That would be very interesting." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

DZ: It seemed like a good way to set up the story.

NZ: Yeah, it's like without having to explain the relationship. People dancing together and smiling, you can read a lot into that. That moment. And so it's fun having a moment that people instantly realize what the connection is between the two characters and putting that into the title sequence to kind of set up our narrative.

AKT: With what happens next, we will think back at that moment and you really set our heads spinning. I have to get to one of your stars. Butterscotch is absolutely fantastic. It is the reincarnation of Bunzo? Or is it you always wanted a miniature horse in your film?

DZ (laughing): Yeah! It's not like a mandate to put an animal in everything we do. But we just like animals.

AKT: That's so obvious.

DZ: What we love about working with animals is when you don't … They can give you some of the greatest performances on film when you cast them correctly. Like if you place no expectations on them or force them to do something and just let them be themselves, it's like every moment is as pure as it gets.

Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) with Parson Henry (David Zellner): "Storytelling in general - so much of Greek mythology is about the hero rescuing the maiden."
Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) with Parson Henry (David Zellner): "Storytelling in general - so much of Greek mythology is about the hero rescuing the maiden."

So I think the crucial thing especially with Butterscotch - because she is in almost … she is in most of the movie, we cast based on her strength. And she liked just hanging out. She's very mellow.

AKT: She's so Zen.

DZ: She's so Zen, yeah. She's so Zen, she's unflappable! When we auditioned her we almost worried she's too unflappable. But she just likes to hang out. And then her look. In the beginning we had in mind a particular temperament and a particular look. And we wanted like the Farrah Fawcett of miniature horses. It was all about those blond flowing locks.

AKT: You got it! And she liked to go on a leash?

DZ: It's her big screen debut.

AKT: Her name is Daisy?

DZ: Her name is Daisy and she's a service animal. So she is very comfortable in all kinds of [situations]. She spends a lot of time in hospitals and things like that. She's very easy-going.

David Zellner with Nathan Zellner on the set of Damsel: "Like anyone we're a product of all the films and stories that we've been exposed to growing up."
David Zellner with Nathan Zellner on the set of Damsel: "Like anyone we're a product of all the films and stories that we've been exposed to growing up."

AKT: Fantastic.

NZ: It's neat that she's so Zen and calm because there's so much chaos going on around her. It brings more attention to how absurd these situations are.

AKT: And how absurd we humans are.

NZ: None of it matters to her and this is nonsense.

AKT: And the chicken?

DZ: You know, ideas pop into your head and sometimes it's really nice you're not bound to a certain context with your ideas. With so much what we do - I might just get an idea in my head, without judgment. And sometimes it'll linger for years. That was one of those ideas - of a miniature horse with a chicken on its back, you know, traveling through the West. And then we wait for it to fit in the right place.

NZ: And we made it purposeful.

AKT: And there's a nice cut - because you love animals. And we just think what we see but we don't see it. But you have even more animals in there. You have the cat that growls and hisses. You have a wheelbarrow with piglets!

Damsel poster - opens in the US on June 22
Damsel poster - opens in the US on June 22

DZ: For this one we went all out!

AKT: It's the Wild West.

DZ: Any animal we could put in there! I'm glad you noticed the piglets. That was a little detail. We liked that a lot. It's nice when people notice it.

AKT: It's almost like Miyazaki films. Where they always have these little sidekick animals around.

DZ: Oh that's true, that's funny, yeah.

AKT: They're just there. And you do that with Butterscotch. It's like Totoro. Big Totoro and little Totoro.

DZ: That's funny, oh I love that.

AKT: There is always something to look at that's beautiful, too. I like that in a film very much, no matter what the plot says. And your film is beautiful. The arrival from the sea, that box. There I was thinking of The Piano.

DZ: Even though it's like this melancholic comedy, we wanted it visually to be kind of epic in scope. I think we always have humour. Whether we like it or not, it's infused with what we are doing. It kind of comes naturally. But we grew up with adventure films and kind of epic films. We wanted to make more and especially with this something that is really visual for the big screen before people watch it on small screens.

Damsel is in cinemas in the US. The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival screenings are Saturday, June 30 at 12:30pm; Monday, July 2 at 7:00pm; Saturday, July 7 at 10:00pm

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