David and Nathan Zellner are quirky. Just read the reviews. The Austin-based writer-director-producer-actor-everything brothers have been making movies for two decades, and critics have used the q-word liberally to describe their work. There’s the Zellners’ “quirky character studies,” their “quirky aesthetic worldview,” and, in the words of this magazine, in 2008, their “sometimes cute, sometimes irksomely quirky curios.”
To be fair, the brothers’ five features and twenty shorts do offer plenty of ammunition for such characterizations. Take their 2007 film, Aftermath on Meadowlark Lane, in which the Zellners—inexplicably dressed in mariachi suits—sit on the side of a country road after a car accident and argue with their mother about why one of the brothers is circumcised and the other is not. Or skim a plot summary of their breakthrough feature, 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter: a lonely Tokyo office worker travels to the upper Midwest in search of the ransom money buried near the end of the 1996 movie Fargo, believing the Joel and Ethan Coen crime drama to be a true story. Or, most damning of all, look at the almost irritatingly adorable animals the brothers use in their films, among them the eponymous gibbon of their 2009 stoner-ish web series Fiddlestixx and a pet rabbit named Bunzo in Kumiko, a creature so popular it spurred its own #TeamBunzo hashtag.
The Zellners are well aware of the critical assessment. And though they don’t entirely disagree, they think it may miss the point.
“I hate the word ‘quirky,’ ” David said when I met him and Nathan at Cherrywood Coffeehouse in Austin. “I mean, I know our stuff is—”
“ ‘Quirky’ is a generic word for when something doesn’t fit in a standard mold,” Nathan broke in. “Naturally, everybody tries to compare things to stuff so—”
“Which I get,” David finished. “It makes sense. But it’s always kind of a cringey word to me. Things that are intentionally quirky feel like an affectation. It’s like you’re being weird in quotes or something.”
No one would call the Zellners’ latest film, the comic western Damsel (out in Texas on June 29), conventional or conformist. But Damsel puts the Zellners’ unique sensibility into a more accessible package than their earlier work. The film’s premise sounds ripped from a dozen swashbuckling adventure yarns: Samuel Alabaster, a dandy, guitar-strumming nineteenth-century pioneer, embarks on an epic quest to rescue the love of his life from a kidnapper. The budget is the largest of the brothers’ careers, allowing them to set their action among sweeping vistas of desert buttes, alpine forests, and misty coasts. And, for the first time, they’re working with bona fide movie stars (Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson plays Alabaster, and Alice in Wonderland actor Mia Wasikowska plays his kidnapped lover, Penelope). Damsel isn’t going to compete at the multiplex with Avengers or dinosaurs run amok, but for the Zellners, it could be a genuinely big deal, a chance to reach the wider audience they’ve always sought.
“We want everything we do to be seen by as many people as possible,” David said. “We want to make stuff that is as mainstream as it gets.”
At least, mainstream in a Zellner sort of way.
David and Nathan Zellner—now 44 and 42, respectively—have been collaborating since not long after they could walk. As preschoolers in Greeley, Colorado, they helped their father, Ronald, a professor of education and psychology, make stop-motion animation on Super 8 film. As boys living in College Station, where the Zellners moved after Ronald got a job at Texas A&M, they used a Quasar video camera to produce their own versions of genre films, with homemade costumes, outrageous accents, and the most basic of special effects.
“It would be the two of us, and one of us would hit record, and then we’d run in front of the camera,” Nathan remembered.
“Sometimes we were in drag,” David added. “Usually we’d have a lot of fake blood.”
As the Zellners got older, the productions became more elaborate. In high school, they occasionally managed to convince their English teachers to let them make short films in lieu of book reports. David went on to enroll in the University of Texas at Austin’s Radio-Television-Film program, while Nathan remained in College Station to study computer science at Texas A&M, but on weekends and during the summers they’d meet up to shoot. Longtime friends and fellow filmmaking brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (Jay was a classmate of David’s at UT-Austin) remember some of the Zellners’ early efforts. “We didn’t understand them,” the Duplasses jointly wrote me in an email, “but we knew there was something special going on.”
By the time David graduated in 1996, the American independent film scene was booming. The previous several years had seen the rise of writer-directors Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith, who had all made hit debuts in their twenties. The Austin film scene was flowering too, with Rodriguez and Richard Linklater—an elder statesman in his mid-thirties—choosing to make their careers in Central Texas instead of Southern California. A tight-knit community of young filmmakers, including the Zellners and the Duplasses, was trying to follow in their wake.
The Zellners’ first feature, 1997’s Plastic Utopia, was by all reasonable measures a success. The oddball story of a mime and a poet who team up to carry out a heist earned a spot at South by Southwest, had a small VHS release, and impressed the Zellners’ friends mightily. (“We basically were just jealous that they pulled off a 16mm feature that played at SXSW,” the Duplasses remember.) But Plastic Utopia wasn’t Reservoir Dogs or El Mariachi, and in the Zellners’ current estimation, it wasn’t even very good. (“I’m glad it only exists on a deteriorating VHS tape,” David said. “I think that’s a good place for it.”)
Freed from the expectations of instant fame, the brothers embarked on a decade of experiments, largely in the form of shorts, which required much less time and money than features did. “We were finding our voice with all that stuff,” David said, “and if one failed, it wasn’t a big deal. We were also kind of playing the percentages, because we were entering festivals.”
In 2005 the Zellners broke through at Sundance, the most prestigious showcase for American independent films, with their whimsical shipwreck-turned-shark-attack short Flotsam/Jetsam. But the brothers found more acclaim when they returned to feature filmmaking, particularly with Kumiko, which premiered at the festival in 2014. Filmed in Japan and Minnesota and starring Rinko Kikuchi, whose role in the 2006 drama Babel earned her an Oscar nomination, the film was still small (it made just over $600,000 in U.S. box-office revenue), but it was warmly received in film circles. At the 2015 Independent Spirit Awards, David was nominated for best director alongside A-list filmmakers Linklater, Damien Chazelle, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and Ava DuVernay.
The success of Kumiko opened the door to bigger budgets and higher-profile actors. “Everything we’ve done has helped get the next thing going,” David said. “We wouldn’t have been able to get Damsel going if it wasn’t for Kumiko.”
When the Zellners were making their obscure, little-seen, don’t-call-them-quirky shorts in the early and mid-aughts, many in the Austin film community had already begun to recognize their rare ability to balance tones. “ ‘Zellner-esque’ or words like that would get thrown around sometimes,” said Chris Ohlson, who produced Kumiko and Damsel and has known the brothers for more than fifteen years. “They’re able to mix dramatic with ridiculous with comedic—and that’s a very special blend.”
Damsel may be the Zellners’ most mainstream film to date, but it’s still Zellner-esque. The brothers riff on the western genre in ways both loving and subversive, with cowboy sayings mixed with twenty-first-century business speak (“it would be a win-win situation for both of us”) and saloons filled with the kind of dirt-flecked, slightly grotesque townspeople who populate weirdo westerns like the HBO series Deadwood and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970 cult classic El Topo. Both brothers play key roles in Damsel—David as a fraudulent drunken preacher, Nathan as a menacing trapper—and there’s both fake blood and one of those irritatingly adorable animals: in this case, a blond miniature horse named Butterscotch.
In other words, the soul of Damsel is still dress-up. It’s still two brothers pressing record on a camera and jumping in front of it with crazy costumes and silly accents. The Zellners’ work may indeed be quirky, but not in the affected, ironic, weird-in-quotes connotation of the word. Their films aren’t cool. They’re playful and earnest and full of roughhousing and mischief. They show their heart.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked the brothers why they still acted in their films. For years, of course, it had just been them and a camera. But now they could hire seasoned Hollywood pros to play opposite Kikuchi and Pattinson and Wasikowska. I wondered if they kept doing it simply because it was fun.
“That’s where it started,” Nathan said. “The whole process should be fun. I think a lot of people who get into filmmaking and fade away are the ones who are maybe looking at it for a different reason.”
“It’s not worth it if you’re not finding a way to enjoy it,” David replied.