The stunning vistas aren’t the only signifiers of the western genre in Damsel, yet we quickly grasp that David and Nathan Zellner have crafted revisionist take on the genre, lovingly poking fun at its foundation while slyly pulling the rug under the audience in humorous, forward-thinking, and genre-redefining fashion.
Following Samuel (Robert Pattinson) as he goes on a rescue mission to save his true love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), we won’t spoil anything beyond that, but rest assured, it’s a humorous, inventive western that could only come from the brothers who last gave us Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Following the Sundance premiere, I spoke with them about balancing the perfect tone, the formation of Pattinson and Wasikowska’s characters, playing with tropes and archetypes of the genre, capturing a vibrant, mystical landscape, themes of feminism and cultural reappropriation, and more.
Was Damsel at all a response to Kumiko? There’s an underlying darkness to that movie and this is more comedic.
David Zellner: Definitely, but I guess everything we do is somewhat informed by what we’ve done previously though. At one point we were going to do Damsel before Kumiko. It changed significantly, but it was kind of just the way things went in terms of what got off the ground. That would have been very different if we made it now.
One of the shots I love in the film is when they guy gets shot in the head and then he’s pissing at the same time. I’ve never seen that in a western before.
David Zellner: [Laughs] Us either! That’s why we wanted to do it.
If I told someone about that shot they might think it’s a dark gratuitous film, but it’s really not. There’s a lightness running through it. Can you talk about balancing that tone?
David Zellner: Yeah, it just something we feel as we go and try to find a tonal sweet spot. Yeah, like that it just seemed like something we hadn’t seen in a western. And it that is something where you’re the most vulnerable.
Nathan Zellner: And when we were setting up Anton’s death and Parson Henry’s involvement in it, we had to make it the just one of the cheapest, worst ways to clock out. It just kind of added to how pathetic and how just sloppy the situation was. That image is what we went for.
One thing I love about the film is how it sets up these western archetypes–the beautiful vistas, one guy coming into town (though with a mini horse, which is different)–and then it challenges them so much by end that if revisited a classic western I would view it in an entirely different light. Can you talk more about these archetypes and what westerns you liked the most growing up?
David Zellner: We’ve seen the most famous ones, the John Ford and John Wayne type of stuff, The Searchers, and things like that. We’re not as schooled too deeply on that. The stuff that came shortly after that, where it started to deviate from the John Wayne kind of hero. Budd Boetticher and the westerns he made in the ‘50s with Randolph Scott, we really love those because on the surface they can seem almost saccharine, but there’s this real underlying darkness and always a real heavy ending that has all the more of an impact because the rest is light.
Nathan Zellner: There’s some comedy in there too. Not overt comedy or slapstick, just funny little sayings here or there, little quips and like David said, there’s always this downer of a twist or an ending that feels different.
Robert Pattinson’s character in Damsel feels like he could be ancestor of his Good Time character Connie.
Just manipulating anyone to get what he wants, even though he’s more sweet-natured in this film. Can you talk about forming that character? His introduction at the bar and the dialogue there is amazing.
David Zellner: Yeah, we just wanted to use the hero archetype as a foundation and then deviate from there with it. So much of the information you are getting is through his perspective and his image of himself or what he wants to believe or what he’s trying to project. It makes him not the most reliable narrator.
Speaking about the structure, I heard that it was one of your first ideas. You don’t have to go into spoilers, but just talk about coming up with that and how you guys are always one step ahead of the audience. Even though we think we’ve figured things out, we really haven’t.
David Zellner: Yeah, that’s part of the fun of it. We wanted to play with structure and things that might be a climax don’t necessarily take place at the climax and we’re left dealing with the aftermath of a certain situation. The middle was kind of the impetus for it everything grew out in each direction from there. We always knew we wanted that to be the kind of centerpiece and build from there.
Nathan Zellner: And technically we talked a lot about–when shooting it and especially in post-production–shifting the point of view and which character was where we wanted the audience to side or see through. That really helped with the unreliable narrator of Samuel [Pattinson’s character] because as soon as you introduce him you’re on his side and we’re watching things unfold with him. Then with the middle part it becomes…
David Zellner: …more complicated. [Laughs]
Yeah, it definitely keeps you on your toes. You guys worked with cinematographer Adam Stone for the first time, who worked on all of Jeff Nichols’ films before. How did you guys meet?
David Zellner: I’ve known him about ten years. Jeff’s a friend of ours and I’ve just known him socially for a long time. We had never worked together, but liked him as a person and liked his work, so everything lined up.
Was there any specific qualities in perhaps his work with Jeff Nichols that attracted you to working with him?
David Zellner: Well, no one works harder than him. This was a very tough shoot and we’re out in the wilderness and have limited resources. He doesn’t settle.
It reminded me a bit of Robbie Ryan’s work in Slow West. Did you guys see that?
David and Nathan Zeller: Oh, yeah.
It’s rare to see those vibrancy of colors in a western. It feels like most of today’s westerns are super brutal and stark.
David Zellner: Yeah, we wanted it to be vibrant. That’s why we didn’t shoot it in the desert, outside of the opening. We wanted it to be vibrant and lush and not like the desert, kind of brown.
You guys probably get asked this question a lot, but what is your dynamic on set as directors, especially when one of you is front of the camera acting?
David Zellner: I guess it kind of depends. We do a lot in prep and we do a lot together talking through shots and character motivations. Especially the stuff we’re doing in front of the camera to make sure when we’re acting, we can switch off really easily between roles and we’re not holding up the crew and the other actors with the stuff that we’re doing. If you’re going to put yourself in front of the camera it’s kind of essential because you don’t want to waste anyone’s time. You want them to trust your instincts and abilities as well. Because we’ve had much more time together than we can with the crew and the cast. So it’s more about making sure we’re all on the same page with everything prior so then we just work together and have a shorthand.
Speaking about Mia Wasikowska, it would be more interesting if she never had any rehearsals with Robert Pattinson, just because of the relationship of their characters. But I’m curious, was there anything like that?
David Zellner: Well, they are old friends and have been in a movie together before. So they already had a comfort with each other. We did some rehearsal, not days and days, but we did some, just to work out some kinks in the script for flow. We also didn’t want to beat it death and overdo it. We wanted to leave some room for it to be fresh.
Nathan Zellner: Yeah, it was good to do a rehearsal and it was good they had some familiarity with each other. Because consciously or subconsciously, they are people who have a history on screen, so there has to be some sort of connection. The situation they are in is heightened and we have to feel like the things they are saying have that history behind it and has brought them to the point they are today.
I want to talk about the breakthrough actor of the film, Butterscotch, the miniature horse.
I love her introduction on the boat. You think you’ll be in the desert because it’s a western, but it you are on a beach and feels almost mystical and otherworldly. Can you talk about the fairy tale aspect of the film?
David Zellner: Yeah, we wanted it to be the mythic west. Different drafts of the scripts talked about geographical settings, but as we revised it, we liked the ideas of the mythic west and not bound to a particular region or anything. So that’s why we were happy to cherry pick completely different types of landscapes, whether it’s a desert or mountains or rocky coastlines and create its own world from that.
Then with Butterscotch, we called her that in the script and she has a certain look, so it was pretty extensive to find the right miniature horse. Not just in terms of the period, but the appearance, with the flowing blonde locks. The Farrah Fawcett of mini horses is what we were going for. And also the right temperament. We wanted a horse that was happy to hang out a lot.
I hope it’s there’s another Team Bunzo campaign. [Laughs] There’s also the song Robert Pattinson sings, “Honeybun.” Did you see Hail, Caesar!? Samuel reminded me of Alden Ehrenreich’s cowboy character a bit.
David Zellner: Yeah, we liked the idea of a cowboy ballad in the movie. I like Ricky Nelson a lot and I love his song in Rio Bravo, “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me.” That movie is crazy because they play like two songs in a row. They play the whole song and you are surprised they play the complete song, and then they are like, hey, let’s play another one and they play a second song! And it’s so entertaining. I just love that kind of vibe so it seemed like a fun thing to put campfire song in there. And it fit into all the things he was doing for Penelope.
Nathan Zellner: It’s another cliche of two guys on the trails talking around a campfire. I love David’s expression as he’s watching them because this connection between the two character and everything sets up what’s to come later.
I love the themes you guys touch on. There’s this female empowerment running through the back half of the movie. There’s also the scene with the Native American character and your character [David] with this idea of cultural reappropriation or vampirism. Do guys start with those ideas then whittle them down to fit the script or is it the other way around?
David Zellner: Well, it’s hard to say. It all just happens organically. I remember the middle of it came first. With that scene, even some movies that people love that have the best intentions, they still end up playing up the white savior thing, which is so tiresome. They just kind of deal in extremes where if there’s a Native American character it’s a savage or a noble sage instead of being a regular human somewhere in between. They are both equally offensive, so making fun of that whole white savior thing and cultural vampirism or the way that people mix up appreciation with appropriation and think they are doing them a favor. That’s the thing that’s so condescending too. It’s like, “You are so lucky to have me.” Also, one of the funniest short stories I ever read is this Mark Twain one called A Day at Niagara. It’s so ahead of its time. It was written in 1888 or something like that. It has a similar thing where it has a guy that goes to Niagara Falls and what he perceives as Native Americans selling trinkets, he has a similar kind of expectation of them appreciating him. It’s very funny.
Talking about audience reaction, I was laughing a lot during the movie, but it also seems like some people are more amused than laughing a lot. As directors, are you hoping for a certain reaction people or it’s whatever comes?
Nathan Zellner: Well, certain shots for sure.
David Zellner: Yeah, there are certain parts where you are hoping for a big laugh.
Nathan Zellner: Some of it is just some details and stuff that it’s great if people react to it really broadly, or if it’s something subconsciously that leads to a bigger laugh later, or what would be a win reaction for us, when people start thinking back at the end of the movie and they start thinking about how things added up and little things…
David Zellner: The cumulative effect.
Nathan Zellner: Yeah, something that might have been small or not highlighted, [you think] “Oh, that’s why they said that earlier” and that’s ridiculous or funny.
Yeah, I was laughing the next day about the shot of Robert Pattinson going behind the outhouse and just staying back there the whole time.
David Zellner: Yeah, elements of physical comedy and sometimes it’s just funny when there’s stuff happening off screen and you don’t know exactly.
Nathan Zellner: Yeah, where there’s this huge action moment with Parson Henry and then you realize, yeah, Samuel is just checked out for a little bit. He’s just frozen in fear, but the’s definitely doing what he’s supposed to be doing.
Is there any other genre that you think is deserving of a revisionist take on it?
David Zellner: Oh, it’d be fun to do more westerns. Each thing we’ve made it’s as if it’s going to be the last thing we do. There’s some sci-fi projects we’d like to do. It’s fun to not always play with genre, but it’s great to use that as a foundation and deviate from it. Some of it is intentional and some of it isn’t. We love westerns and as you’re writing things just end up naturally going a certain direction. Some of it is calculated and intentional and some of it just gravitates based on our sensibilities.
Damsel premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.