Back in 2001, the story goes, a Japanese travel agent named Takako Konishi came to Minnesota, convinced that if she found the right spot, she could dig up the bag of money Steve Buscemi buries at the end of the Coen brothers’ 1996 black comedy Fargo. (The film opens with a “based on a true story” tag, though that’s black comedy too—the characters and incidents in Fargo were fiction.) Konishi didn’t speak English, and no one in the area spoke Japanese, so they were unable to help her—and shortly thereafter, she froze to death on her search. The story briefly made the newspapers, and more enduringly cycled around early Internet message-boards. And in 2002, the myth inspired brothers David and Nathan Zellner to write a fictionalized screenplay about Konishi, trying to fill in the blanks, and explain why she’d cross the world and die over a piece of fiction.
But later years filled in some of those blanks: When documentarian Paul Berczeller pursued the story for his 2003 documentary This Is A True Story, he learned that Konishi had sent her family a suicide note after traveling to America to visit towns she’d previously seen with her ex, a married American businessman. The “searching for Fargo money” part of the story was a misconception which became a legend, based on Konishi’s repeatedly saying “Fargo” to people asking what she wanted.
But after moving from acting careers and short films to making the features Goliath and Kid-Thing, the Zellners continued to pursue their version of the story, the one that fascinated them early on. Their third feature film, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, stars Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim, The Brothers Bloom) as Kumiko, a depressed, anxious Japanese Office Lady who’s relationships have curdled around her. Her solace comes from imagining herself as a modern-day conquistador, ready to storm the Americas for gold. In the Zellners’ hands—Nathan scripts, David co-scripts and directs—the story becomes an obsessive search for meaning and escape, at the expense of connection. It’s also a richly shot, painfully melancholy film about loneliness and isolation.
The Dissolve: How did this story first start developing for you 10 years ago? What interested you about the real-life story?
Nathan Zellner: We first came across it as a blip on the Internet in 2001, before social media had reached a peak where everything is dissected, and explodes as soon as it comes out. It was just on a message board. Initially, the story was just about this woman who came from Japan to Minnesota looking for the treasure from the film, and there was no other information available. So we were just like, “This is insane,” and, “Why?” and, “How?” We were trying to find as much information as possible. People were speculating online, and it was like watching this Telephone game evolve online, and folklore being born.
We were interested in this notion of someone going on a modern-day treasure hunt, going globe-trotting on this quest for lost gold. It was just so strange to us. To satiate our curiosity, we creatively started making up this backstory, and putting together the pieces on our own, and following it from a creative standpoint, and writing a script for the questions we couldn’t get answered. And a year later, we circled back just to see if there were any more updates or research, and then we found out the story had been debunked, and was just an urban legend. That really made us like it all the more. There were so many different levels of truth, fiction, and myth. We were watching the birth of it all from the beginning, so that’s why we kept with the story that we developed. We liked it because it was our chapter to add to this mythology.
The Dissolve: There’s been some backlash recently toward films that take lighter tacks on true stories that involve real deaths. Were you ever concerned how people would react if you fictionalized Takako’s story?
David Zellner: No, not at all, because we weren’t trying to do some ripped-from-the-headlines true-life or true-crime kind of story. We were focusing on and loyal to the urban legend, which was so different from the reality to begin with. That’s what drew us to it in the first place, and that’s what drew others to it online. People needed this folk tale or urban legend, or the idea of a treasure hunt. Those were the elements we were fascinated with. I do think the “based on a true story” [tack] is so overused, and I think this is coming as a partial reaction to that as well. Most people using that label are trying to portray a movie as a real story and the real truth, but it often ends up being fraudulent. Nothing is ever completely true anyway. For us, it was more interesting to do a stylized truth that had more resonance through this legend than to do it some other way. “Based on a true story” is so overused these days that it doesn’t mean anything anymore, when every movie says it’s based on a true story, and everyone knows it’s a heavily distorted nod. For us, it loses a lot of resonance.
The Dissolve: For both of you, what’s your relationship with Fargo, and with the Coen brothers’ movies in general?
David: We’re huge fans of theirs, and have always had a respect for them, but Fargo was just inherently part of the legend from the beginning, so we were just running with it because it’s part of that tale. If it had been around some other movie, that’s the way the story would have gone. At the same time, we waned to be very respectful to their work, and simply use it as a conduit for her quest. We didn’t want to riff or pay homage or have a spoof element. We wanted to make it very much be its own thing.
The Dissolve: It’s noted that your last three features have been about lonely obsessives chasing something. What about that idea speaks to the two of you so strongly?
David: I think it’s something that can affect anyone, regardless of age, background, culture, or anything on a human level. It’s an interesting theme. There’s something universal about it. Stories and films like that appeal to us. It’s also about combining that with the idea of the quest film, the solitary-journey story. It just fit together. The early draft of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter existed before our two other features, and we kept going back and forth. A lot of things informed one another with them. With Goliath and Kid-Thing, there are certainly some themes and ideas we were workshopping that ended up in Kumiko. In Kid-Thing, there were actually a couple of scenes originally in one film that we moved to the other in the writing stage.
The Dissolve: Having separate crews in Tokyo and Minnesota seems like it would present some challenges. What was the shoot like?
David: We wanted to do a smaller-budget film, because we wanted to do the non-tourist version. We broke it down, production-wise, into almost making two separate films back to back. Apart from David, myself, our producing partner Chris [Ohlson] and our DP, Sean [Porter], all of the crew were more or less local, especially in Japan. There were some language things, but mostly the crew there was bilingual, and we had a great AD who helped us. Everybody got the tone we were going for, and our job was just conveying what we wanted the end result to be, and get everyone on board. Our AD was great at triangulating that feeling, and what our goals were to the cast and crew.
Nathan: It was very different shooting in Japan. They have a different crew structure. We were very sensitive and adaptable to that, and we knew exactly what we were going for visually and tonally. We made that clear, and they did a great job. Everyone was on the same page with what kind of movie this was, and they were all really excited about it. Thankfully, we were able to avoid a lot of hurdles you normally face with two different crews and shooting in a foreign land.
The Dissolve: There are some really remarkable shots in this film, like the plane de-icing. Was that a difficult shot to get? Did you have to artificially light it or stage it yourself to get the effect?
David: It was a combination of things. We’re very visual in general. The shots are pretty laid out, as they are in the film. We’re shooting things different ways, and making it in post. From the script stage, we knew we wanted to have the de-icing as a transition. We found it very hypnotic and beautiful. It’s such a haunting, relaxing thing to watch. We thought it was an interesting transition, as opposed to the typical plane-taking-off, plane-landing kind of shots. It had a dreamy quality that was much more interesting to us. We know what we want, but we’re also adaptable in defining certain things. There’s a lot of red tape involved in going to shoot on a tarmac. We knew exactly what we were looking for, a small window, and there was a crew of about four of us, including Nathan and I, and we just had to go around the tarmac and find the right stuff. That was the shot that worked out the best.
The Dissolve: Another particularly memorable shot comes when Kumiko is walking, just before the pickup truck stops, and there’s this thin membrane of particulate snow continually drifting in rivulets across the road. Again, is that happenstance, or something you helped create?
David: We couldn’t have created that effect if we’d tried, especially the way the background tails off into infinity. It was just something we observed and shot as much of as we could, and what you see onscreen is the best footage of it we could get. We did the opposite of what other movies do: We would be inside when the weather was good, and outside when the weather was bad. The weather forecast that day was particularly rough. There’s obviously some luck involved, but we’d seen that weird kind of dusty, billowing snow on other windy days. And it was incredibly windy that day, so we just hoped it would continue, and made sure we were mobile enough to catch it while we could. It was a combination of planning and luck.
Nathan: And then the editing process. We set up these parameters so we could get lucky, that the chance of that stuff happening is high based on how we keep the schedule and crew flexible. I remember with the editing process... we only took a few takes because it was so cold, but we’re watching her performance and the camerawork and how the car comes in, but we’re paying so much close attention to how much dust there is on the road, which we then take the one with the best amount of dust. There were several shots like that, where we had a couple of takes because of the way we shoot and sometimes it’s a locked in shot, we’re really watching for these very minor things to choose from.
David: And those kind of shots are so much more gratifying to us, because they’re a bigger challenge to pull off. And to have it all in one shot like that, rather than some montage of her walking, and cutaways to snow—we liked the economy of it. It gave it more of a sense of reality, of immersion. And it was all going on at once, so it couldn’t just be written off as simply as being staged.
The Dissolve: David, your character is key to the plot. What went into the decision to play that role yourself, and what’s your tactic for directing yourself onscreen?
David: We’ve always acted in our films. We know our limitations, but we like acting in our films when appropriate. If we were just starting that now, it would be daunting. We just have a system down where we’re able to wear different hats and have everything run smoothly. I think it also works because we have the two of us, and we have our own little internal checks and balances with that. I’m involved with the producing with Nathan, and same with directing. I know I can count on him when I’m in front of the camera, and vice versa. And also, having done this long enough, it’s almost like two hands and the brain are just working in sync. As an actor, you know when something didn’t work, and you just say, “Okay, let’s reset and get that.”
The Dissolve: Rinko Kikuchi was attached to the film for years while you looked into getting it made. What were you looking for in a lead actor that you found in her?
David: We knew we’d need the audience to have empathy with Kumiko. She was by herself a lot of the time, and we weren’t doing internal monologue, or voiceover, or anything like that. We wanted everything she was going through to be readable on her face. We wanted her to act with her whole body, and just show everything she’s going through simply, from a subtle expression on her face and the way she’s carrying herself. Like the way she’s walking—so much of this movie is just walking. There’s always lots of walking in our movies, a lot of movement like that. It’s appealing to us, for whatever reason. She got the tone we were going for, and she nailed it. That was what we cared most about in terms of her physical presence.
The Dissolve: Kumiko can be hard to empathize with, in part because so many people try to help her, and she rejects that outreach so thoroughly. Was there concern about whether she would be relatable?
David: No, as long as we humanized her. I think that was the most important thing. People do reach out to her, but the definition of help changes from person to person, and it’s often conditional. So the type of help the old woman was offering was what suited her, and not necessarily what Kumiko needed. Same with the deputy. They had the best intentions, but it doesn’t mean it’s the kind of help she needs. As long as you have a character who you can connect with on some kind of human level that even if they’re doing things differently than what you’d do or handle things differently, you can at least respect on this human level, and be willing to follow them wherever they’re going. It’s interesting because we show the film around the world to all these different audiences, and people interpreted certain things differently. But we never wanted to diagnose or pin some label on Kumiko because I think that would have made it easy for people to separate themselves from what she’s going through and not relate to her on a human level. It would certainly make it safer for watching, but it dehumanizes it in a certain way.