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‘Damsel,’ the Zellner Brothers and Their New Old West

"We liked the idea of taking some of the tropes that are all too common—the hero and the villain, the damsel in distress—and giving them more levels, making it more complex."

“The mad science behind the filmmaking trickery of Austin sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner is that they make wise movies that seem like superficial larks,” explains Eric Kohn. “With the wildly adventurous Damsel, they conjure a kooky Old West setting with antics straight out of Blazing Saddles, unearthing a poetic vision of desperate men and the woman who wants nothing to do with them.” To read the full article, click here.

“On the surface, Damsel appears to be the Zellners’ attempt to capture all that is vast and pure and sacred about old-school Hollywood Westerns,” says Steven Prokopy. “There are majestic vistas (beautifully photographed by Adam Stone), stately horses (including a miniature one named Buttercup), saloons, a noble Native American, and what we presume are clear-cut examples of heroes, villains, and the titular damsel in distress. 

“If anything should have made me suspicious of the film’s intentions, it’s that there are almost too many Western tropes in every corner of the frame. Damsel certainly isn’t mocking the Western as a genre, but it does recognize that perhaps things aren’t always so clear cut in any story of true love, revenge, heroes and villains.” To read the full article, click here.

“We didn’t want to do an ersatz version of the classic western,” explains David Zellner. “We knew we wanted to come up with an approach that would be interesting to us and do something different.”

“We liked the idea of taking some of the tropes that are all too common—the hero and the villain, the damsel in distress—and giving them more levels, making it more complex,” David continues. Damsels, he notes, are so often weak and simplistic in these films, or they’re just there to supplement the heroic male character, “so we wanted to come up with a dynamic that would honor the tropes of the genre, but have it be more relatable on a human level, instead of these one-dimensional archetypes.”

Production designer Scott Kuzio and the brothers drew inspiration both from historical research and favorite western films. “The Zellners live and breathe westerns,” the production designer says. “So our primary focus was looking to westerns—they gave me a whole new appreciation for the genre.” 

The group focused on films that had a blend of comedy, surrealism and darkness, something Kuzio notes is often prevalent in the Zellners’ previous work. “We would notice details from these westerns that were both absurd and grotesque and incorporate them into our world.” Elements such as the bath house from Sam Fuller’s 1957 film Forty Guns, with men bathing in an outdoor bath house in giant barrels filled with suds, found their way into Damsel. “They’re singing and whistling while farm animals watch on —we built our own bath house to embody that bizarre moment.”

Damsel, explains Justin Chang, “drolly embraces every surface convention of the American western, while seeking to upgrade and complicate its sometimes comfortingly easy moral logic. It has the brazen, one-damned-thing-after-another quality (and the occasionally hair-raising violence) of a dark comedy by another sibling duo, Joel and Ethan Coen, whose talent for seamlessly deconstructing and rehabilitating vintage movie genres is an obvious inspiration here.” To read the full article, click here.

“The visual elements of the story are a big part of what interests us to do a film like this in the first place,” David says. “It’s a dark comedy, but it’s a really beautiful film. There are a lot of absurd elements to the movie, but we still want the visual language of the movie to set the bar high for it.”

“We wanted to go back to that classic feel,” Nathan says. “We’re shooting in the mountains in the summer, and there’s blue skies and green grass and white aspen trees. We tried to embrace the color, as opposed to making it feel dark and moody.”

Shot by cinematographer Adam Stone, writes Joshua Brunsing, “Damsel is a gorgeous, almost painterly piece of filmmaking that takes expertly composed frames that are as static as they are full of tactile detail… and sets them against vibrant landscapes. The nature of the road movie makes this a varied experience, sending us to verdant forests as often and as desolate deserts, allowing for the picture to have some real scale and a grand overall scope.” To read the full article, click here