Waiting for a stagecoach in a magnificent sweeping canyon location, an eager young man heading west encounters a world-weary preacher on his way back. This is the opening scene of David and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel and, to quote the old timer, “Things are going to get shitty in new and fascinating ways…”
“We love Westerns and wanted to make one but not in the usual way,” says David Zellner, whose previous co-production with his brother was Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. “We wanted to take the clichés and stereotypes and turn everything on its head.”
The damsel in question is played by Mia Wasikowska, her vivid portrayal and energy more than equal to the men in the movie who expect her to fulfil their needs and expectations in one way or another.
“She’s a very independent woman for her time,” Wasikowska tells us of her character Penelope. Asked what would Australian audiences like about the movie, she says, “It’s quite a quirky sense of humour, they’ve got a really distinct style. It’s an unusual western and a really original film.”
“I was attracted to it because it was a very funny script and very unique,” adds co-star Robert Pattinson, who previously worked with Wasikowska on Maps to the Stars.
He plays his character of the young, eager Samuel with great conviction and comic pacing.
Samuel enlists the help of an increasingly reluctant and compromised preacher (David Zellner) to win favour with Penelope.
The actors are on the red carpet ahead of the premiere screening at Sundance, along with the Zellner Brothers and a scene stealing miniature horse.
David Zellner says: “As brothers, working together comes very organically. Acting, writing and directing, we were wearing different hats. We were both wiped out doing double duty, riding horses out in the wilderness, trying to watch rushes, look after everything, but we never regretted taking it on. It’s what we wanted to do, and we’re excited to see it on the big screen.
“We’ve always acted in our stuff from when we were little kids making our own movies,” he continues. “We’ve done it enough together that we have a good shorthand that works and Robert and Mia were great sports. We were jumping from mountains to ocean to desert in moments, the film was its own universe. We didn’t care about being set in a certain year, we just said ‘somewhere in the Wild West’ and for the dialogue it was just a mix of what felt right, mixing contemporary with period.”
At around two hours long the movie is uneven and slow at times, but there are enough great moments, and an unexpectedly moving ending, to make it worth the watch. Also, it’s visually stunning. The wilderness is Utah in summer, not far from where we are at the festival, and the landscapes are a fabulous backdrop to the visual jokes, grotesque vignettes and unexpected twists in the genre.
Scenes between Wasikowska and Pattinson anchor the film, especially in a confrontation when Samuel finally catches up with his bride to be, or a joyfully manic square dance to some wonderful music by The Octopus Project who also supply the score, an electrified combination of banjo, musical fiddle, guitar and flute.
If you love Westerns, as the Zellner Brothers clearly do, but want to see a story that plays against the usual tropes, Damsel, described by Hollywood Reporter as a kind of Blazing Saddles with a feminist twist, then look out for this.
Pics courtesy of the Sundance Institute.