Movie News & Reviews

Zellner brothers turn ‘Fargo’ treasure into hit film

Austin-based David and Nathan Zellner were convinced the story of a Japanese woman who traveled to North Dakota to find a bag of money she saw hidden in the film “Fargo” was factual when they first read about it in 2001.

“The story appeared on message boards on the Internet. And back then, everything on the Internet was fact.” Nathan Zellner says. “We didn’t realize how much different the story was until we started getting more information. We are not journalists but storytellers.”

What they found was the real woman, a travel agent, had gone to Minneapolis where she committed suicide. Events had been twisted and the “Fargo” connection turned her story into an urban myth — a really interesting urban myth.

Just because the story ended being more fiction than fact was no reason to stop the idea for a feature film. It took the film-making brothers almost a decade to get the project done, but the effort proved worthwhile with “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” earning wins at multiple film festivals.

It’s this month’s offering by Fresno Filmworks, which will include an appearance by David Zellner.

The film follows Kumiko, a frustrated secretary who believes the Coen Brothers film “Fargo,” is more documentary than fiction. She decides to travel to the United States and brave a bitter winter to find a bag of money she thinks is buried under the show. She knows this because she’s scrutinized the scene in “Fargo” so much she wore out her VHS copy of the movie.

This is the kind of independent movie the Colorado-born siblings like to make. David tends to handle the bulk of directing while Nathan deals with more of the producing and editing duties. They both wrote the script for “Kumiko” and appear in the film.

Nathan describes their work as being “a hive mind.” That’s because they started making movies together when they were young. In the process, they developed a short hand they still use on each film project.

“We have the same sensibilities and that makes us very interchangeable,” Nathan says.

One sensibility they share is that a film set is not a place to waste money. That means rehearsals before the cameras are ready to roll, making sure they have every camera angle worked out and acting as a sounding board for each other.

The closing scene of “Kumiko” is an example of how important planning is to them. It’s a long scene of one of the major characters walking away from the camera up a snow-covered hill. They knew there would be no way to get the snow replaced properly if they needed a second shot.

The other thing about working together so long is that the brothers don’t always draw distinct lines between jobs. That’s why they feel so comfortable doing a variety jobs. This connection helped them navigate issues, from making the movie in two languages to fighting with the cold and snow.

The one thing they didn’t have to worry about was casting Rinko Kikuchi in the title role. They first met with her in 2006, and since then she has appeared in “Pacific Rim” and “47 Ronin.” Her work in the 2006 release, Babel,” earned her a supporting actress Oscar nomination.

There was no question Kikuchi was the right person for the part.

“When we started working, she got the character right away. All we had to do was just nudge her a little. She’s such a confident actress who acts with her whole body,” Nelson says.

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