Finding The Balance Between Humor and Pathos: The Zellner Brothers on Damsel

A man in a cowboy hat strides into a Western town, a guitar slung across one shoulder and a rifle across the other. He’s the very picture of an iconic cinematic archetype…except for the adorable miniature horse he’s got trotting behind him on a leash. Later, we see a close-up of a man wearing a cartoon-style bankruptcy barrel, laughing uproariously. He continues to laugh as a noose is lowered around his neck. It is announced that he has been sentenced to death for “Skullduggery, skullthuggery…and skullbuggery.” Another local mournfully yodels and a woman rings a cowbell as a young boy commands his horse to pull the stool out from under the condemned’s feet. The boy continues to ride down the street, dragging the stool behind him, passing the cowboy with the miniature horse, who’s now on his way out of town.

This is the strikingly offbeat world of David and Nathan Zellner, a writer/director sibling pair whose new film Damsel continually undercuts everything you know you’re supposed to expect from a Western. The tragicomic odyssey introduces more peculiar characters to their small but already distinct oeuvre. Their debut feature Kid-Thing found a never-supervised young girl trying to determine whether the woman trapped in a pit in the woods is a witch, and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter followed a Japanese office worker coming to America to seek the buried fortune from Fargo. A Zellner story neither begins nor ends up where you’d expect, and along the way you encounter a developments that are humorous, sad, and beguiling in equal measure.

Ahead of Damsel’s release, we sat down with the Zellners to discuss how they arrive at their plots and draw out the numerous foibles from their characters.

How much planning goes into creating this low-key rhythm Damsel has? Are you keeping images in mind from the script level, storyboarding a lot, or leaving more room for improvisation?

Nathan Zellner: Sometimes scenes come from a planned shot. You have a neat image in your head, and that dictates what goes into the script. Some of it you figure out with cast, and some of it you figure out through rehearsals, and some of it you figure out with your cinematographer. But we do like the idea of composing things or tackling a scene in a way that–what is a way that would make this interesting and figuring out a way to make the camera move or stay put that kind of enhances the moment.

David Zellner: It feels appropriate for this particular film. We’ve done stuff before where it was a little more freewheeling and creative in the edit, and that’s a fun way to work and I’m sure we’ll do something like it again. But for this and Kumiko especially, we were taking a more deliberate approach to tackling a scene. There was one way to do it, and it wasn’t the sort of thing where we covered it a million ways and figured it out later when editing.

One of the challenges here was shooting on location, which was different from the way it was with a lot of Kumiko. We may have an idea for how to shoot a scene, but until we actually had the location pinned down, it was hard to know for sure. We haven’t really storyboarded much, but just in terms of mapping out shots, you can have so many ideas on how to do it, but then when you find a place in some remote area in the woods, you’re gonna have to adapt to the location, and so things evolve from there.

What was a location that demanded that sort of evolution?

David Zellner: So much of the middle of the film takes place at this homestead. That was built on a hillside which looked so much more flat than it is. That required a lot of subtle adjustments to accommodate equipment–there are many different segments in that stretch of the movie. There are parts of it that are handheld, and parts with long dolly moves and zooms. And then effects, with explosions and that sort of thing.

Nathan Zellner: And that was also a section where our work with the actors was vital. We wanted to see how Rob [Pattinson] and Mia [Wasikowska] were feeling when blocking out the scene, adapting to their movements. “I think my character needs to move over here,” so we’d reposition strategically. It’s a fairly longer stretch in one location, so we wanted to make sure that we kept changing it up, but we couldn’t lose their emotional center.

In one scene in the film, a man gets blown up by dynamite, and in another a man falls off a sudden cliff with this “SPLAT.” In one interview you namecheck Looney Tunes. It’s certainly like that in spirit, but tonally, it’s something else–very deadpan. Is there a learning curve to getting that tone right?

David Zellner: We try to do it from the outset with the script, and then make the tone as clear as possible. Our scripts are very visual, to make it transparent on that level. And then we make sure everyone’s on the same page, from the cast to the crew. We know there are a lot of unconventional things about it, and that’s what’s exciting to us, but it’s also our job to try to be as articulate as we can in clarifying the tone, because otherwise it could seem a little more undefined.

We always love trying to find this balance between the humor and the pathos. Or being inspired by some things that are more comedic, and then trying to take a more grounded approach, or vice-versa. Our influences come from a lot of dramatic things and a lot of comedic things, but our use of them isn’t a calculated, cherry-picking sort of thing. It’s more like a cumulative effect–they all just kinda bleed together, and it’s more intuitive which direction we take them, what feels right.

What do you mean by a more “visual” script? What differentiates them?

David Zellner: I think it’s the difference between writing a script for someone else and being a writer-director. Knowing that we are going to be making it ourselves, that it’s not something we’re selling off, that’s how it comes into play. Because of the unconventional aspects to the film, especially the tone, the more we can clarify what we’re trying to do from the outset, the easier it is for people to get onboard.

I mean, the worst thing that can happen when you’re making something is if the actors or producers or whatever have different impressions of what the film is supposed to be, and then you end up with a mishmash and someone’s unhappy. It’s our job to know what we want to do with the film, and then it’s also our job to be able to articulate that to the people we’re working with so that everyone is on the same page.

Were touchstones like Looney Tunes consciously filtering in when putting this story together, or do you think it unconsciously manifests?

David Zellner: We find more that references like that become real obvious in hindsight. Of course, when we’re writing a story and dynamite enters as a narrative device, we can’t help but think of Looney Tunes, so we did mention it at that point for sure.

I ask because Damsel plays with a lot of familiar conventions of the Western. Do you look at a roster of such conventions and think “We’ll do something different with this!” or naturally play with them when you encounter them?

Nathan Zellner: We love Westerns and we wanted to make one, but also do so in a way that felt different and new to us. You’re definitely aware of the tropes of the genre, and from that you can choose how much you play on them or subvert them or whatever else.

David Zellner: You have a general idea in writing it, but not everything’s perfectly mapped out, and this is part of the fun, the discovery of it. I think it’s a combination of particular things. As you’re doing it, the tropes just kind of surface on their own, and then you navigate how to approach them.

Nathan Zellner: Some of it we go way off, especially in the beginning when we’re setting up. In a Western, the guy rides into town on a horse and goes into a saloon and orders a drink. So we think, “How would we make that different?” Well, he rides in with a miniature horse and he goes into the saloon and he’s a teetotaler. Being very familiar with the genre and having a lot of respect for it, we can keep it recognizable while also making it our own.

David Zellner: When we do interviews, we can analyze how it came together, but more often than not a lot of it is just subconscious, intuitive, less calculated. It’s just about what feels right and what’s interesting. Like, part of Robert Pattinson’s character being a teetotaler stems from just thinking about how in the Old West, how dehydrated you’d be all the time. The last thing I’d want to drink would be whiskey, especially after being out all day. So sometimes it’s thinking through those sorts of practical things, and then pushing them in absurd directions.

I think any reasonably aware writer thinks about storytelling norms in the process of creation, that they recognize what they may instinctively pull out simply because that’s what’s “supposed” to happen. You’ve said that Damsel started from a desire to switch up the protagonist of a story in the middle.

David Zellner: Yes, we knew we wanted to play with the narrative of the movie. That was the first thing we started with, deviating from the three-act structure and instead splitting the story into two halves. And it’s about how your perspective of the characters shifts as it goes on, based on the information you’re given by different narrators. Those structural moves were very purposeful.

Nathan Zellner: You start out with [Pattinson’s character’s] point of view, then you learn more of the truth until it creates this conflict in the middle, when you see the steps taken to get to that conflict. And then we liked the idea of seeing what happens after that, when the characters are left with this crater, how they deal with these new trust issues and the fallout.

David Zellner: Yeah, that another idea that interested us. Certain events in the middle of the movie might be the climax of a lot of similar films. We wanted to deal with what happens when you have to clean up the mess after that.

Did you always plan to situate this within a Western? Did something about the genre make it especially attractive for this framework?

David Zellner: It’s taken so many forms over the years. When we were first thinking about the idea, I remember it being just in terms of playing with the damsel in distress. That archetype runs through every kind of storytelling there is. I believe we initially were thinking about it in a medieval setting. We still would like to someday do a medieval film, with knights and whatnot.

But the Western was perfect for this. Whether they like Westerns or not, most people already know an intrinsic shorthand of specific clichés within the genre, and that gave us a great foundation. Out of the gate, you have that shorthand established with the audience, setting up certain expectations. Once you ground it with that familiarity, it gives you an easier launchpad to deviate from.

To mix comedy and pathos, do you find that balance tricky? Having fun with your characters, but not at their expense?

Nathan Zellner: It’s a huge thing.

David Zellner: We’re on [every character’s] side, but then they may do horrible things. It’s a constant balancing act, from the writing stage to when you’re rehearsing. You may find things that lack a certain truth which you thought they had when you were writing it. And so things are constantly adapting and recalibrating, all the way through to the edit. That’s always on our mind, trying to find that sweet spot.

Nathan Zellner: If you start disrespecting a character, it’s very easy for the audience to distance themselves, and that takes them out of the moment. But if you treat them with respect, in our experience, it’s easier for people to accept them and then accept a poor choice or a weird thing, or wherever else they go from there.

Would you say that’s a storytelling philosophy? Being on everyone’s side?

David Zellner: I think you get tired if you’re just beating someone down for no reason. That can lose interest after a certain point.

Nathan Zellner: There’s something for me personally not enjoyable about watching a movie where you don’t like the main character, or the main character is just super evil or something like that. It wears on you. I mean, people are really complicated–even if they make mistakes, there’s always some redeeming quality there. You try to inject something familiar into them.

David Zellner: I’m fine with characters that are completely unlikable, because that’s part of life. But I think it’s just being able to relate on a human level. Even if it’s someone you don’t like, maybe even they’re despicable, you can’t deny that they’re still a human. So if you can write on that level, even if you disagree with all their choices or their mindset, then you have an entry point to go to interesting places.