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GoCritic! Interview: David Zellner


- We chatted to the American director David Zellner about Damsel, his western screening in Karlovy Vary's Horizons section

GoCritic! Interview: David Zellner
David Zellner before the screening of Damsel at Karlovy Vary (© KVIFF)

David Zellner returns to Karlovy Vary International Film Festival with his latest directorial effort Damsel, a unique take on the Western, in which he also stars alongside Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. Co-directed with his brother Nathan, Zellner’s previous feature, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, screened at KVIFF in 2014. This year, he is also involved in the ‘Made in Texas: Tribute to Austin Film Society’ section, which is dedicated to the Austin Film Society and includes his 2012 feature Kid-Thing.

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Cineuropa: In your Q&A after Damsel, you described the mythic west and white saviours in traditional westerns. How did these classic films influence the making of your film?
David Zellner: 
Everything we do is melancholy and humour mixed together. It usually starts more on the dramatic side and then the humour creeps in and I can’t help it, when it feels natural. But most of the westerns I like are dramatic.

The director Budd Boetticher is one of my all-time favourites — I love all his films. On the surface they can seem saccharine but there’s this underlying darkness or moral complexity that you’re not expecting. It’s always a shock when you’re lulled into thinking it’s one thing and it becomes something much more complex. I’ve always loved his films, acid westerns and some spaghetti westerns too. McCabe and Mrs Miller is one of my favourites, and Bad Company, Robert Benton’s first film, is so good, with a lot of actors who were just starting out, like Jeff Bridges.

You chose Utah as a shooting location. How did you approach such a classic setting for westerns?Monument Valley’s been shot a million times, so we wanted something with a similar feel that hadn’t been used for westerns. We wanted to start with the John Wayne-type desert which everyone’s familiar with and then get into the more lush mountain area. We picked Utah partly for tax incentives but also for those amazing landscapes, so it could be a colourful, lush western with aspen forests and snow-capped peaks.

The explosive effects in Damsel are impressive. How did you achieve them on a low budget?
We didn’t want to compromise the scope of the film, but we did it with a modest budget for what we were trying to do. The exotic locations, which were pretty remote and in the wilderness, and the explosions — we didn’t want to change any of that. We did it all practically, there was no CGI or compositing.

You star alongside Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. Did your acting come naturally with filmmaking or did you develop it earlier in your career?
What got me first interested in film was wanting to act, making home movies. We needed to learn the technical side in order to make stuff for us to act in, and needed to write so we could have things to do. That was my entry point – at that age you don’t censor yourself, you don’t know what those roles are when it’s all grouped together. I took some acting classes at college, but at that point in time you had to pick one or the other, so I picked the film production track.

But I’ve loved acting when appropriate. If this was the first time I was acting in one of our films I would have been more terrified, but since we’ve done it all along, it’s second nature. This [Damsel]is on the biggest scale for us, and it’s a different dynamic for the actors to work with. You’re setting yourself up for a lot if you’re casting yourself, but we just try to do it the right way. In a perfect world, I’d act more in other people’s things.

Your previous feature Kid-Thing is screening as part of the ‘Made in Texas’ section here in Karlovy Vary. How important has the Austin Film Society and collaborating with fellow directors like Andrew Bujalski and Richard Linklater been in your career?
It’s great, I almost take it for granted. When you’re in the thick of it, you don’t know any other way, and it’s not something you can ever force, it has to happen organically. It evolved where no one’s in competition with each other. There’s no money in Austin, so everyone’s writing and directing their own material. Depending on the project, Andrew and I have shared each other’s scripts for notes.

That sense of validation, because you’re making these things and throwing them into the void, means so much. I wasn’t getting anything into festivals at that time and I was still finding my voice. To come with the grant from the Film Society and the validation through that from Rick [Richard Linklater], who’s been so supportive of our work. When you’re still figuring out what you’re doing, to have that kind of support can be the difference between getting stuff done and not.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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