Spinning Platters SFIFF Interview: David Zellner, writer/director — Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

by Chad Liffmann on May 5, 2014



Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter has been spreading buzz around the festival circuit.  The Zellner brothers’ new modern fable is a sight to see, a surreal experience to witness, and a cinematic treasure to behold.  David Zellner, who co-wrote, directed, and plays a crucial supporting character in the film, sat down with me outside the theatre in which it was screening to discuss the film:

Can you give us a brief history of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter?

Yeah, my brother and I heard about it [the urban legend] in 2001.  The urban legend began circulating online and this was before Twitter and Facebook, so it was through message boards.  It was very cryptic, basically saying ‘Japanese woman went from Tokyo to Minnesota for this mythical fortune’.  It was so mysterious to us because of the limited information and because the idea of someone going on a treasure hunt in the modern day world was such an antiquated notion.  It’s something from the age of exploration.  Especially in a time now where there’s less mystery in the world.  Information is more readily available.  Everything is mapped out, no uncharted land.  So we liked the idea of someone on this antiquated quest, but set in the year 2001.

Is that why ‘conquistadors’ are such a prevalent theme in your film?

That was something that was projected onto the story because it just felt analogous.  Basically the way she [Kumiko] sums it up in the film where conquistadors would go to the Americas based on folktales from the native Americans about a ‘City of Gold’ or what not.  They’d go on a quest.  So here, instead of a folktale from the Indians it was a modern day version of storytelling from a film.  I also grew up always liking the conquistador stories and the romantic notions of ‘the quest’.  These were the things that excited us about the story.

What would you say is the reason for our continued fascination with the movie Fargo, considering its tie-in with your film and, coincidentally, the brand new TV show on FX?

You know, I’m not sure.  I haven’t seen the film since it came out and it was something that was originally part of the urban legend.  It wasn’t something we added to it.  We created her whole backstory and fleshed out the character for our version of what would lead this person to go on this journey, the whole Japanese half of the film.  The treasure in the journey was already part of the legend and we wanted to remain respectful to that.  It’s a conduit though, we didn’t choose it as an homage or anything.  We used it as a conduit, inherently part of the tale that surfaced.

It’s also neat because Fargo created its own fake tale because people would go around saying ‘this is a true story!’

Yeah, definitely and we liked the blurred lines between fact and fiction.  We liked how layers deep it went, both that film and this one.  We enjoyed creating our own version of the truth for purposes we created for our own little universe.

Rinko Kikuchi is KUMIKO

Rinko Kikuchi is KUMIKO

What was it like working with one of the big stars of your film, Bunzo the bunny?

We always like to use animals in our films.  It’s not a mandate [laughs] but it’s only in hindsight that we realized we use them a lot.  I like people’s relationships with animals and the way they can sometimes anthropomorphize them in developing a relationship with them.  It seemed appropriate for Kumiko’s character, to have Bunzo as her companion.  And casting Bunzo was as involved as any other casting process in the film.   We had to find a rabbit that would enjoy and know what it was doing.  It had to do many different things.

How many rabbits did you use?

Just one, ultimately.  But we went through several in the tryouts to see how they filmed.

Tonally, the music and the landscape play a major factor.  They actually become characters themselves.  Can you speak to that?

We we worked with the people who did the music, this band called The Octopus Project, and they’re close friends and we’ve worked with them for over a decade on our shorts and features.  We already had a shorthand with them.  We wanted a music that complimented her emotional states and got this haunting, melancholic tone.  And, in things that might be banal to other characters in the film, to her are terrifying and new and strange.  We wanted, from her performance to the visuals and through the music, it all to lend itself in different ways to creating that state of mind.  In addition to that, with the sound design, we like films where the sound design blends with the score and you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.  It was just a really good collaborative effort.  Instead of finishing off one stage and handing it off to the next person, we like to be working with the editing and the sound design and the scoring concurrently because they all dictated one another.  It’s just a fun way to work.

And it worked out.  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat!

My pleasure, thank you.


You can find more information and follow along with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter at:


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