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SXSW 2008: The Zellner brothers on “Goliath”

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03072008_goliath3.jpgBy Alison Willmore

If you know short films — and, given how hard it can be to see them, you’d be in a select crowd — then boy, do you know the Zellner brothers. David and Nathan Zellner are an Austin-based filmmaking team whose distinctively deadpan, frequently funny and unfailingly if oddly affecting shorts have earned them high praise on the festival circuit. This year marked their fourth in a row with a film at Sundance, and their first with a full-length feature, “Goliath,” which is both true to and expands upon the off-kilter sensibility that made their shorter work so successful. In simplest terms, “Goliath” is a film about a missing cat and the recently divorced man desperately searching for it. But, as director/writer David Zellner puts it, “I guess more stuff happens.” I checked in with the Zellners on the unseasonably cold day before “Goliath” was due to make its hometown premiere at SXSW.

What’s it like being bringing “Goliath” back to SXSW and Austin after Sundance? Any major differences?

David Zellner: They’re both cold.

Nathan Zellner: Yeah, just as cold here as it was there.

It was your first feature at the festival — that must have been an interesting experience.

DZ: Yeah, it was different from the shorts because you get more attention. And if you get attention, you know it’s for your film and not for another one in the block of shorts.

NZ: And in the Q&A, you know that every question’s directed to you. When you’re at a Q&A with a short [film] program there’s always one [film] that gets left out, until someone’s like “This question is for everyone.” “What was the question? What was the budget for your film? I can get that one.”

What’s the difference in your process between creating the shorts and developing a feature?

DZ: For “Goliath,” actually, very little, because we’d done a bunch of shorts and got all the mileage we could out of those, festival-wise and also in honing our skills and vision. We were ready to tackle a feature, and a couple of larger projects that were getting close to taking off didn’t, and we didn’t want to sit around for another year and we didn’t want to do another short. We had this script on the back burner and it happened very easily. We used the same crew we use with the shorts and it was easy to segue into it, to look at it like a bunch of shorts glommed together.

I’d read in one interview that part of impetus for the film came from your fixation on — is it… a pole saw?

DZ: The pole saw. Oh, yeah.

…and wanting to put that in a movie.

DZ: I’d seen them at Home Depot and I’d seen greenskeepers using them. You know what [a pole saw] is?

NZ: Like a chain saw with a —

DZ: —a spear with a chainsaw on it. It’s incredibly fun, and I hadn’t seen it in a movie before. I’d fantasized about using it in a movie when appropriate… and also, just for personal reasons, wanted to play with it. You know?

03072008_goliath1.jpgHow do you two divide up work on your films?

DZ: Ultimately everything overlaps. We each have a say, but I come from more of a creative background, Nathan from more of a technical background, so I’ll typically tackle more of the writing/directing and Nathan more of the editing and producing. That said, it all overlaps, and we definitely have to have a consensus before we go forward — which we usually do.

NZ: It’s a good structure, the checks and balances.

DZ: I have a film degree and he has a computer science degree—

NZ: Together we make…

The ultimate team?

NZ: Well, we need a third sibling with a business degree. And then another one with a PR degree. And one with a doctor degree in case someone gets sick.

DZ: A doctor degree?

Has working together this long ever caused problems? It doesn’t dredge up any old sibling grudges?

DZ: Not really. I think just because we’ve been doing it so long — it’s all an extension of what we’ve been doing from little home movies when we were kids. One thing leads to the next, and hopefully the quality improves over time.

NZ: No more in-camera editing.

DZ: Or movie spoofs. When you’re eight that’s about all you can do, right? Movie spoofs.

Can you tell me about your decision to both act in the movie?

DZ: That’s one thing that, if we had just started to do now, I’d be freaked out about, but since, for better or worse, it’s just an extension of what we’ve always done, it’s kind of second nature. Part of it is that we like to act and it’s built around our abilities — we’re going to try to be smart with our casting because we know that if people feel our performances suck then we deserve all the flack in the world for being vain bastards and putting ourselves in. We’re really hard on each other when we’re filming — we don’t mince words. We really like to do it, and when it’s appropriate it’s a lot of fun to do.

So who’s the cat owner?

DZ: That’s—

NZ: —our parents.

DZ: Our parents have had tons of animals, so we grew up around them. They still have way too many animals now.

NZ: We always find them adopting strays. Or strays adopt them.

DZ: It’s all our dad. Our mom is tolerant of our dad’s obsession with feral cats.

NZ: They appear in the yard and then he gives them a name and you’re like, “Oh, don’t give it a name because then it’s gonna start coming around.” “I call that one Two-Boots” or something. “Oh, I won’t adopt it. I’m just giving it a name.”

DZ: And then you have three male, kind of feral cats in the house that—

NZ: —don’t get along—

DZ: —and mark everything. Yeah, it’s bad news.

[Photos: David Zellner; David and Nathan Zellner in “Goliath,” Zellner Brothers, 2008]

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