7 Things We Learned from Werner Herzog and the Zellner Brothers

The director-turned-moderator steals the show at Sundance Next Fest.

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7 Things We Learned from Werner Herzog and the Zellner Brothers

The Zellner brothers screened their drama Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter at Sundance’s Next Fest in Los Angeles on Saturday afternoon, but it was noted filmmaker Werner Herzog who stole the spotlight during a highly entertaining post-screening Q&A. The traveling festival is an extension of Sundance’s popular NEXT section, pairing films with complementary musical acts or with artists who inspired them.

When David (director and co-writer) and Nathan (producer and co-writer) were asked by Sundance organizers about their first choice in a Q&A, they immediately mentioned Herzog, who said yes. “This was a complete blind date,” Herzog told the packed audience of 1,600 at the historic Theatre at Ace Hotel. “But it has been very rewarding. It’s very moving, a deep and touching film.”

The film follows Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), a disenchanted Japanese office worker, who discovers an old VHS tape of the Coen brothers’ movie, Fargo. Dissatisfied with nearly everyone and everything in her life (except her pet bunny, Bunzo), she travels to Fargo in search of the lost briefcase full of cash. The slow-burning quest film stretches across continents, from Kumiko’s bleak office life to the gray Minnesota landscape.

On the theater’s stage, the Zellner brothers seemed just as enthusiastic about interviewing Herzog about his work as the German filmmaker was in discussing Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. This mutual admiration led to an informative and interesting session—much of it dedicated to Herzog’s own work—so here are seven of the most interesting tidbits we heard at the Kumiko Q&A.

1. An urban legend?

In 2001, the Zellners found a story on an online message board—remember those?—about the death of a woman who traveled from Japan to Minnesota (where much of the movie is set) to search from mythical treasure from Fargo. Despite all the contradictory information found on the Internet and news sites about the woman, the Zellner brothers then crafted a backstory for the woman from their “own version of the truth.”

2. Werner Herzog’s take on the Internets

While Herzog admitted that he wasn’t on the Internet much, he did have a few opinions to share about truth and the Web, including a description of Facebook as a place for the “invention of a persona.” He said he was also aware of the “completely fictional Herzogs out there” who pretend to be him. Herzog said he kind of likes having the “bozos” around: “They’re paid stooges … they are like bodyguards I don’t have to pay for.”

3. Interpreting Kumiko’s real story [spoiler alert]:

“The real film is about solitude,” Herzog said. “The quest for the treasure is not lethal. The solitude is lethal.”

4. On making fiction films vs. documentaries…

When the Zellners were asked if they ever considered the documentary route for the film, Herzog said that making Kumiko as a documentary would have been a “mistake,” calling their approach the “absolutely right decision … It wouldn’t make a good story as a documentary.” The talked then turned to Herzog’s own doc, Grizzly Man, which he described as “a feature film in disguise” in which Timothy Treadwell “[placed] himself at the center of the story.”

5. Humor in Herzog’s films?

“There’s always humor in my films,” Herzog said, chiding those who describe him as an “obsessed Teutonic.” Then with perfect comic timing he added, “First, I’m not Teutonic. I’m Bavarian.” Werzog also noted that there’s even humor in the five films he did with the volatile actor Klaus Kinski, even alluding to the “dark humor” in the historical drama Aguirre, the Wrath of God. “People laughed more than in Eddie Murphy movies … recent Eddie Murphy movies.”

6. On working with animals…

In Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Bunzo the rabbit plays a big role in Kumiko’s life, and the Zellners discussed how they searched for a “lethargic” rabbit who liked noodles. The conversation then drifted to the dancing chicken sequence at the end of Herzog’s Stroszek, which follows an alcoholic ex-con’s travels from Berlin to the United States. “In a way, [the chicken sequence] is some of the finest I’ve ever shot. … The crew hated it. I sent them to lunch and shot it myself.”

The Zellners then asked Herzog if he—like they—allows animals to “do their own thing” in front of the cameras. Herzog disagreed: “They are always directed very precisely. As a filmmaker, you need to know how to hypnotize a chicken.” Herzog then began to break down for them (and the audience) the tricks to chicken hypnosis, involving chalk circles and chicken beaks to the ground.

7. Rinko Kikuchi’s hairstyle

The Zellner brothers talked about how Kikuchi’s performance in Babel won them over with her choices, adding a melancholic elegance to the character. David Zellner confessed to Herzog that they modeled Kumiko’s hairstyle after Bruno S.’s hairstyle in the aforementioned Stroszek. Herzog had nothing but praise for the untrained actor with the “catastrophic childhood.” The director said that while he had worked with some of the finest actors around, mentioning Nic Cage, Nicole Kidman, Kinski and Christian Bale, among them, Bruno S.’s performances were “the deepest and somehow most moving of them all.”

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on “Twitter”: