The Zellner Brothers Talk About Their New Western 'Damsel' And How To Break Into Indie Filmmaking [Interview]

If you're looking for some professionals to ask for filmmaking advise, you could do worse than the Zellner Brothers. They've been making indie features for a decade now and shorts for even longer. They know a thing or two about getting films made.

Their latest is Damsel, a western that asks a lot of questions about its genre and society as a whole. Samuel (Robert Pattinson) is on a mission to rescue his fiancé Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). All is not what it seems with Samuel and Penelope and the old west in which they live, and Damsel gets further and further away from a traditional cowboy movie. (Read our review here.)

David and Nathan Zellner spoke with /Film about Damsel and how to make indie movies in Los Angeles. Some mild spoilers might make this a better read after you see Damsel but nothing too specific for anyone who hasn't yet. Damsel is now playing in theaters.

There may have been comedies about incompetent cowboys but probably not a serious western. Did you have that realization thinking about the West?David: Well, I think coming up with the idea stems from both the love of the genre and many different variations of it growing up at different points in our lives, but then wanting to do something that was at least new to us or something we hadn't seen before. Whether we like it or not, humor always creeps into what we do. I think we're always interested in straddling the line between the humor and the pathos. It's just kind of an intuitive process which way it leans. Some of our favorite films are dramas that have amazing moments of comedy in them. It opens up so many more creative opportunities in developing a story when we're not painting ourselves down to this is a comedy or this is a drama because that's not how life is either. Even though this is heavily stylized, we like that liberty of intuitively leaning whichever direction feels appropriate and pure within the dynamic of what we're working with.There must've been guys like Samuel back then. They couldn't all be John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.Nathan: That was our thought exactly. So much of the genre is the hero, the hypermasculinity. That was the fun thing in knowing what we were doing with the middle, this relationship put in this time period, in the western genre. It was how to de-masculate it.David: There are so many of those films that we love, but even though it's heavily stylized, on a human level having these characters that are very flawed and complex and have different perspectives of the reality around them. Then throwing them into this genre where there's a certain sense of lawlessness and vastness to the environment they're playing with.Do a lot of audiences catch on to Samuel's delusion early?Nathan: We lived with the edit for so long that it was interesting to see it with different audiences and notice just the energy in the room when they would catch on, or talk to people and learn when they would catch on. Sometimes it would be a little earlier than we thought and often it would be much later. Even to the last moment, they're still on Samuel's side, they're still connected in a different way. Hopefully what we've set up is something that once you get to the end of the film and you start revisiting your memory of certain scenes, you can see them in a different way.The timing is perfect to the climate of toxic masculinity that ruins everything. Had you observed this before it became so open in the last year?David: We've never made anything right after [we thought of it]. This project has been in the works for a long time. That is just something that has been on our mind for a long time. It just kind of took shape in the story. Less like a mandate on our part and more intuitively, it felt like what was interesting to us the angle we wanted to explore from the outset with it.It's not just ruining things for women. Everyone has incompetent people insisting on helping them and then we have to put out their fires.Nathan: I guess where the film ended up is the toxic masculinity part of it just ruins a lot of lives, women and men. Like David was saying, this bifurcated structure, the idea was also seeing what normally would be a climax or the main confrontation at the end of the film, moving it sort of in the middle, you kind of see how the delusion and the masculinity plays into that leading up to it. The rest of the film you're realizing that there's repercussions, the aftermath and seeing how people are dealing with the absence of that character and the result of the toxicness of it all.Is it historically accurate that they refer to bodily functions as number one and number two in the outhouse?David: We had no concern for historical accuracy with this film in any way, but in terms of the geographical aspects of it or the exact time period or the vernacular. It's more fun playing with stylization and just creating some parameters. With other films, we'd do it a different way but for this one we just liked creating parameters to work with for its own logic and tone and not being confined to dialing in a perfect accuracy with it.Who wrote Samuel's song "Honeybun?"Nathan: David wrote Honeybun. It's written like that in the script. He's good at coming up with songs and lyrics and jotting it down. It's really fun to put that in the film.You've been to Sundance seven times including shorts. If you were starting out as filmmakers now, would you go the same route to film festivals?David: I think so. Thankfully, with technology shifting you have more access to tools than ever before. We don't know any other way. Sundance has been so great and supportive to us. That and SXSW and Berlin, we owe so much to the support of the festival circuit. We got this film made because of their support over the years.So the tools are more accessible, but the process is still the same?David: At the end of the day, just trying to find an interesting way to find an interesting story to tell and an interesting way to tell it. The tools are always going to shift and evolve. It's just different ways to apply them. We love when we have access to new technologies but then it's not going to make the story for you. It's just knowing ways to use them to enhance what you're doing without it being a crutch. We shot this film digitally and I love the way it looks. For this film, I don't think we would have done it any other way, but there are a lot of things we like doing old school and practically. There's no visual effects. The explosions are all real. All the action stuff, we wanted to do it real which made it more fun to do and I feel gives a kind of grounded, tactile quality that you might not see otherwise.Is a western something that's easier to do yourself outside in the woods?David: No, it's hard. It's incredibly hard but it's what we signed up for. We like being outdoors and shooting outdoors. You're contending with all kinds of different elements that are out of your control you have to creatively adapt to. So it's not easy but it is fun and we'd have it no other way.