A Conversation With David and Nathan Zellner about ‘Kid-Thing’
Kid-Thing, the latest feature from local indie film lynchpins David and Nathan Zellner, screened last night, coming home after a successful run at Sundance and Berlin. Today the pair along with their young star Sydney Aguirre sat down with me to discuss the film.
We take a moment to get to know each other before jumping into the interview. The Zellner Brothers had small but memorable roles on the first feature films I ever worked on as a lowly PA, 2009’s Beeswax, from writer/director Andrew Bujalski.
One of the first things I was struck by while watching your film is how the setting becomes a character in the film. Having spent a lot of time growing up in rural Texas that’s something I was drawn to. Is that something you experienced a lot of growing up?
David Zellner: Yeah, and I think some of that was done on a subconscious level just because that’s what we identified with. We never say were it’s(the film) set or anything but that’s kind of the environment that we grew up in landscape-wise and so that was what was appealing to us for the story, and then in a practical manner those are same woods we explored as children so we kind of knew where to go and what we wanted.
I think someone at the screening even mentioned that the film seemed like it took place in another time, implying that you don’t really see kids doing that sort of thing anymore. But it’s really just something that rural kids would be more likely to do. Hitting stuff with sticks, things like that.
DZ: Yeah well you spend a lot of time exploring and looking at everything interesting. From just some plant to a dead animal you find. You kind of have this freedom going through the woods when you’re not under constant parental supervision.
Nathan Zellner: You just explore the land.
You talked a little about that at the screening and about getting your first bike, how that was your first real chance to get out of your neighborhood. That kind of goes on along with that idea.
DZ: Absolutely, as soon as we got our first BMX bikes. I just remember feeling like such an adult. I was younger than Annie(the main character) but I remember riding my bike to 7-11 and just blowing all my allowance on candy and video games. It felt very adult to have that freedom.
And you guys were into petty theft as well?
DZ: No no no. Everyone knows a kid that’s has done that. That did it once and realized that it was not a good idea or I guess they continued. I guess every childhood has some of that.
Tonally the film is a bit of a balancing act. How did you decide to split duty between quiet character piece and the more absurdest elements. Is that something that came out in the edit or is that something you always had in mind?
DZ: That was something that we were very deliberate about from the start. Just in general with our work we try to find a balance between humor and pathos to different extremes but that was something we definitely worked with. We have a blueprint tonally for how it’s supposed to go but if we’re rehearsing or actually shooting it if it seems like our gut instinct is to go a little more in a comedic direction or a little more dramatic then we just kind of go with what feels right.
So a question for Sydney here. You guys have worked together a little bit before?
SA: Mmm hmm.
ME: How has your relationship changed over the course of this film?
Sydney Aguirre: Well I’ve always know them, since I was really little. So I feel like we got to know each other just that bit more cause we were together for weekends and stuff.
For better or worse?
(She giggles and shoots a glance back and forth between the two filmmakers.)
And so you guys have gotten to see her grow then? You’ve known Sydney for how long?
DZ: Well, since she was born. We did a short film when she was two, there wasn’t much acting involved.
NZ: You were a prop.
(Nathan ribs the young girl playfully, they all share a laugh.)
DZ: But then we did a music video with her a few years ago and she was so fun to work with and it was a very similar melancholic tone for video so it ended up being a nice testing ground. Not intentionally, just sort of as we were doing it we thought she’d be perfect for it.
So at some point you realized that Sydney would be good for the role. You had already started developing the character?
DZ: Yeah, the script was already written and then we tailored it to her.
NZ: And she was the right age and we had the right window so everything just came together.
One of the things I like about the movie Is how open to interpretation it is. Is that something you were trying to achieve?
DZ: We didn’t want to get too didactic with it. We have no agenda so there’s not something we’re trying to shove down anyone’s throat. Since it’s from her perspective it was important to us that we cater the film to that. To present the film from her viewpoint.
There’s this time in childhood where notions of good and evil are challenged or re-affirmed one way or the other. To me that’s sort of the discussion the character is having with this “person” in the well. Is this person good or evil? Am I good or evil? That’s something a person visits across the span of their life I guess.
DZ: Exactly, it’s like some sort of kid existentialism or something.
Was that something that interested you or that you wanted to explore?
DZ: Oh totally. You know when you’re that age to a certain extent you’re just trying to get your bearings, trying to figure out how the world works and why. Why other times it doesn’t work. Then when we add the elements of alienation that she’s faced with, that was really interesting to us. Her being so removed from the world around her, how she approaches these sort of moral issues to the best of her abilities. It’s all very new for her.
The movie at times takes on a almost ominous tone. Especially with the woman Esther(voiced by cult icon Susan Tyrell) who is trapped in the well and exist mostly as a disembodied voice.
DZ: Yeah. We wanted to ride that line. Is her tone out of frustration or is there something more to it.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the music and sound design. You had The Octopus Project do your score? It lends a really atmospheric quality to the film but it could have just as easily been used to score a horror or suspense film.
DZ: Totally, we’re kind of a mix between dreamy melancholy and it goes into a dark, borderline horror direction. They’re good friends of ours and we have similar sensibilities and taste in both music and film so it was fun working with them.
Going hand in hand with that, Nathan, what were some of the things you were drawing on for sound. Where there other movies or what ideas did you have for that?
NZ: As David was said most of the movie is done from her perspective so exploring this world, creating the environment as a character as much as anyone she encounters was important. Since it’s a lot of her being alone we wanted to enhance the environment with little sounds that you would pick up on if you were paying attention to every single thing that was going on around you. Creating that we spent a lot of time on sound design. Then there was the hole, we did a lot to play up the fable or the mystery of what exactly was in the hole so we did some tricks with how deep it was. We never take the camera down there or show what was down in the hole so from her mind everything is real but the audience is left to interpret what’s real and what isn’t.
So what’s next for the movie?
DZ: Well we have a three more screenings and then it’s more festivals domestically and internationally. Then just working on distribution.
SP: Well good luck at the festival and thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
If you missed Kid-Thing the first time around you can see again at:
Sunday, March 11 @ 7:00PM
Venue: SXSatellite: Alamo Village
Friday, March 16 @ 1:30PM
Venue: Paramount Theatre
Saturday, March 17 @ 5:00PM
Venue: SXSatellite: Alamo Slaughter
And Goliath, the Zellner’s previous feature, is available on DVD from IFC films and is also currently streaming on Netflicks now.