Elliptical in nature

David Zellner and Nathan Zellner on Damsel

by Anne-Katrin Titze

David Zellner and Nathan Zellner: "When people confuse appreciation with appropriation. That fits into the whole damsel theme and the objectification theme. That was something that just kept circling back as we were writing it."
David Zellner and Nathan Zellner: "When people confuse appreciation with appropriation. That fits into the whole damsel theme and the objectification theme. That was something that just kept circling back as we were writing it." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the last round-up of my conversation with David Zellner and Nathan Zellner on Damsel, which stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, we discuss the connection between Samuel Beckett and a scene with the Preacher (Robert Forster) and Parson Henry (David Zellner), Terry Anderson's costumes, Daisy as Butterscotch (the miniature horse) and Bunzo (the rabbit) in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, wanting a "a more colourful look than a lot of Westerns", and the fun of writing scenes that have an "elliptical nature in some way".

Robert Forster as the Preacher: "We like the idea of this prologue. It is very Beckett, I guess, but not in a conscious way. We just love the kind of tone he sets up."
Robert Forster as the Preacher: "We like the idea of this prologue. It is very Beckett, I guess, but not in a conscious way. We just love the kind of tone he sets up."

In a nameless frontier town, with a bunch of casually disgusting and crude inhabitants and their contrastingly very cute animals, Samuel (Robert Pattinson) hires Parson Henry to accompany him further into the wilderness where he shall bless the hopeful union between him and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). The Zellners structure their story from the middle outwards.

The directors know when they want to be economical: a Chinese family, half of them dead, passes by on a wagon and an entire new story with a large history dimension passes by with them. And they know when to indulge: Butterscotch, transporting a chicken around in a cage on her back and the landscapes, from birch forest to mountain stream to rocky beach, unfold calmly in all their glory.

Anne-Katrin Titze: It will be interesting to see Damsel a second time.

David Zellner: Ultimately, it's so hard to make a movie that takes so long and making stuff that we want to see and trying to, at least attempting, to push the medium and just exploring different ways of doing things. And we always love films that kind of work on different levels.

If people want something that is just entertaining and it works for them on that level and it's taken in a very light sense then that's fantastic. But we like having different layers to it. So that if you go back, there's something more.

Mia Wasikowska as Penelope in a Terry Anderson costume‬: "We loved working with him. He was great."
Mia Wasikowska as Penelope in a Terry Anderson costume‬: "We loved working with him. He was great."

AKT: And you could just watch it for Butterscotch!

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, that's true.

AKT: I would just watch it for Butterscotch. I adore her.

DZ: She's so cinematic!

AKT: Talking of cinematic, Robert Forster is part of that beautiful beginning. People must have pointed it out, I am sure, it is very Beckett.

DZ: Yeah. We like to give a prologue. Because there's so many unconventional things with the film, structurally and then tonally. We like the idea of this prologue. It is very Beckett, I guess, but not in a conscious way. We just love the kind of tone he sets up. From the outset to lay the dynamic for the way things will be going forward.

AKT: And then he wears that terrific pale red onesie underwear. I liked the costumes overall very much. They're nice to look at and at the same time they speak of other things and have more to them than just looking good. I love the blouse that Mia is wearing with the little pattern. Alabaster's shirt with the removable collars and the strange colour combinations that are already telling us - what is this man doing? Can you talk a bit about the costumes?

David Zellner on Daisy as Butterscotch: "She's so cinematic!"
David Zellner on Daisy as Butterscotch: "She's so cinematic!"

DZ: The costumes are by Terry Anderson. We loved working with him. He was great. We're obsessed with every detail that's in the frame, and try to be as distinct with that, what we're going for in the script. And it's always great when people you work with take that. We kind of set certain parameters to work with and then take it to another level.

It's using a mix from specific ideas we wanted to do and then some historical photo for reference and then other films obviously. But we didn't want it to be like one of those brown, sepia Westerns. You know, everyone wearing the same kind of colours. I think because of black and white photography people were predisposed in thinking that everything was drab. Fashion was important to them as it is now. We wanted a film with a more colourful look than a lot of Westerns. That was part of it

AKT: Sometimes it takes one scene and you get the sense of a much larger picture. The Chinese family, some of them dead, coming by. There you have the entire railroad building in one shot. The Native American dialogue, what is it? "Have you spoken to an Apache?" Have you spoken to and the list goes on. It's like a survey. How did that dialogue, for example, come about?

DZ: It's always fun when you're writing stuff and things have an elliptical nature in some way. Sometimes it's fun using a tangent but it's always nice when things have an elliptical quality. We always knew where we wanted to go with the Native American character. We wanted to set this up as another thing in the prologue, so it's just like another level.

Butterscotch walks off with Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson)
Butterscotch walks off with Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson)

So many themes in this film are playing with fetishisation or objectification of other people. Where it's presented as though you're doing them a favour. You're bestowing them with your attention.

AKT: I am interested in you! Look! I'm interested in your culture!

DZ: Like you should be honoured, yeah. That was something - the way people impose. When people confuse appreciation with appropriation. That fits into the whole damsel theme and the objectification theme. That was something that just kept circling back as we were writing it.

AKT: What's coming next?

DZ: We have several different things.

AKT: Genre again?

DZ: A little of each. We'd definitely love to do another Western at some point. It'd be different from this. I have some sci-fi I want to do. We have several different things.

Damsel poster at the IFC Center in New York
Damsel poster at the IFC Center in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: With animals?

DZ: When appropriate. They kind of creep in.

NZ: It's our kind of humour. Those sorts of things can actually just kind of come into the script. And sometimes they take a larger role. Or are just window dressing like the …

AKT: Animals are never window dressing in your films! Never ever.

NZ: I know.

DZ: The relationship - and this has been in a lot of our films. The relationship between humans and animals in a way where there are kind of blurred lines where there is a relationship there or where humans kind of anthropomorphise animals and project a relationship on them that may just be one-sided.

AKT: Were you surprised by the whole Bunzo explosion?

DZ: Yeah, that was very nice. It's funny, you never know how people … It's nice because you make those things kind of in a vacuum. And you lived with the story so long, that when things resonate with other people the way they did with you, it's always great. That's a big part why we make stuff is to have that kind of connection.

AKT: It's as if you allow certain people, certain critics, who would never write about animals. It's almost like a stigma, as if that were too babyish for their masculinity. You're not allowed to like them.

DZ: I know, yeah.

AKT: Your films somehow manage to get in there. And you get them to admit that they love a bunny.

DZ: Yeah, what's wrong with loving a cute bunny? Or a cute miniature horse?

‪David Zellner and Nathan Zellner‬'s Damsel at the IFC Center
‪David Zellner and Nathan Zellner‬'s Damsel at the IFC Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: They're losing their cool for a second.

NZ: How can you not appreciate a bunny eating noodles?

AKT: Exactly. Or this wonderful horse. Thank you.

DZ: Thank you. We love what you had to say about it.

Read what David Zellner and Nathan Zellner had to say on being epic in scope for Damsel.

Read what David Zellner and Nathan Zellner had to say on Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, cowboy ballads, and the complexity of the characters for Damsel.

Damsel is in cinemas in the US.

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