For anyone who thinks there’s nothing new to be done with the western, filmmaking brothers David and Nathan Zellner have a few things to show you. Their new movie, “Damsel,” is set in a storybook version of the Old West while also deconstructing many of the foundational myths of the form. The film’s heroes may not be so heroic and the damsels may not be in much distress. Also, there’s a miniature horse named Butterscotch.
Robert Pattinson plays Samuel Alabaster, a hapless and seemingly harmless young man searching for his lost love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Along the way he begins to travel with Parson Henry (David Zellner), a man attempting to make a new start as a frontier preacher. Nathan Zellner appears as a mountain man; Robert Forster plays a disillusioned pastor; and musician Russell Mael from the band Sparks provides a bit of yodeling.
For the Zellners, what may seem eccentric flourishes are often part of the point.
“It’s so hard to make a movie, it takes so long, the last thing we want to do is repeat something we’ve already seen and that we probably couldn’t even do as good a job at,” David said. “Why not try to do something new? For yourself as an artist, but also in terms of trying to make something that’s not like everything else out there.”
“We like genre, and there are formulas for it, but it seems overwhelming for us to just repeat that,” added Nathan. “When we talk about movies that we like, it’s always [about] what was interesting or different. What we like is what feels different, what feels new. And that’s the challenge. It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s about always pushing yourself to do something different because that’s where the energy comes from.”
The Zellners’ previous feature, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” was based on an apocryphal story about a Japanese woman who came to America convinced she could find the money lost at the end of the movie “Fargo.” Before that they made “Kid-Thing,” about a disaffected young girl, and “Goliath,” about a man and his cat. Their outwardly disconnected films share an appreciation of absurdity and a certain solace in bittersweet melancholy.
The brothers — David is 44 and single, Nathan is 42 and married with two kids — both live in Austin, Texas, but the pair found themselves sitting for a recent interview in a Hollywood bar decorated to look like an old-timey saloon as cornball classic rock blared. The juxtaposition of location and vibe — slightly off, perhaps a tad disconcerting but somehow it works — was in its way pure Zellner.
“Kumiko” starred Oscar-nominated Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) and brought the Zellners a new level of attention and acclaim, including Spirit Award nominations for actress and director. It was a reasonable step forward to have a pair of bona-fide movie stars in their subsequent project, leading them to Pattinson and Wasikowska.
The performers, who previously appeared together in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” sat recently for an interview on the patio of a West Hollywood hotel. They’re each forging idiosyncratic paths — “I’ve given up on the career thing,” Wasikowska said — making them even more urgently watchable in everything they choose.
Wasikowska’s recent credits include Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” and Sophie Barthes’ “Madame Bovary,” while Pattinson earned strong reviews last year for both “Good Time,” directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, and James Gray’s “The Lost City of Z.” She is set for films by Mia Hansen-Løve and actress Mirrah Foulkes, while he will soon be seen in films directed by Claire Denis and Robert Eggers.
So it is perhaps not quite so surprising that they both clicked into the Zellners’ offbeat vision of the West and the unusual tone and unpredictable structure the brothers bring to “Damsel.”
“I love those kind of comedies where you’re playing everything very real and serious and the comedy is in the setup,” Wasikowska said. “The scenario and the dialogue is funny enough that you don’t have to play the humor as much.”
“You could theoretically have set it, with a few little tweaks, as a contemporary indie relationship comedy,” Pattinson said. “It’s just sort of bizarre that you have it as a western.”
The film was shot in Oregon and Utah. The Zellners worked with cinematographer Adam Stone (“Take Shelter”) to capture big, beautiful landscapes as the story moves from a beach to a mountaintop and back down again.
“We wanted it to be the mythic West. We weren’t concerned with geographic accuracy or historical accuracy at all,” David said. “That’s why we have rocky shores mixed with aspen forests in the mountains mixed with deserts. We looked at it as if someone from another part of the world who had never been to America was asked to describe what the Wild West looked like. You just cherry pick all the pretty places, and then it creates its own logic.”
Samuel and Penelope are set on a collision course, but the film has a sneaky handoff structure and shifting point of view that make it tricky to determine exactly whose story is being told — “That was a great question that we had to answer when trying to fund it,” Nathan noted. While Penelope may be the damsel in the story, she is far from helpless.
“I just love what it says about that idea of saving somebody, that it’s very much for the person doing the saving as opposed to the person that they think needs saving,” Wasikowska said. “Not just Samuel, but all the men in the movie are, like, ‘I’m here for you,’ and it’s the last thing she needs and wants. I think that’s a great commentary on the self-serving aspect of saving somebody.”
The many twists in the storytelling, brought to life with real zest by Pattinson and Wasikowska, goes hand-in-hand with the Zellners’ thematic idea that people and situations are often not as they first appear to be.
“So much of what we wanted to play with — and this is how it’s relatable on a contemporary level — is the difference between how people project their expectation onto how something should be versus how it is in real life,” David said “Whether you’re idealizing a grass is greener situation — ‘If I go west it will make everything better’ or ‘If I’m in this relationship it will make everything better’ — or projecting your desires onto this person that doesn’t reflect the way they actually feel.
“When you’re trying to force the universe to convey certain information,” he added, “rarely does it go the way you want.”
The Zellners themselves aren’t forcing anything in their career. The indie stalwarts are in no particular rush as they continue their steady climb from film to film, with slightly bigger budgets, broader canvases and better-known stars.
“We’re trying to forge ahead the best way we know how, and it goes at whatever pace it goes at,” Nathan said. “I think we realized a long time ago we’re in it for the long haul, and if you try to force things onto another timeline it brings frustration. All you can do is make the best thing you can.”
“I feel like we’re still at the beginning of our careers, at least with what we want to do,” David added. “So we try to tune our radar properly, ‘Are you trying to get everything out of this right now? Or are you hoping to walk away from this with a body of work that’s varied and grows over time?’ I think that’s been the healthiest way to go.”