Anyone familiar with the eccentric work of Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner can deduce that the title of Damsel shouldn’t be taken literally.
Sure enough, the sibling duo’s subversive feminist take on the Western genre features a title character who certainly isn’t in distress in the traditional sense.
“We’ve wanted to do a Western for a long time, but usually the female characters are so boring. They always need to be rescued or they’re an object of desire,” David Zellner said during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. “We wanted to embrace those clichés and tropes as a foundation, and then deviate from that.”
Part romantic comedy and part frontier survival story, the film follows a lovelorn 19th century gunslinger (Robert Pattinson) who navigates danger alongside an inebriated parson (David Zellner) and his trusty miniature horse, Butterscotch, to track down a strong-willed woman (Mia Wasikowska) he hopes to marry. Along the way, the film pokes fun at genre stereotypes and Old West gender politics.
Nathan Zellner said the director also wanted to tweak familiar notions of Western tough-guy masculinity and focus on a character who “was the exact opposite” of most male characters in the genre.
“We tried to make them fully fleshed out and relatable on a certain level, instead of just archetypes of heroes and villains,” David said. “We liked the idea of doing a breakup story that’s entertaining and cringeworthy and ridiculous at the same time.”
Like their previous film, the mysterious 2015 fable Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, the Zellners’ latest effort employs a bifurcated narrative that crests about halfway through.
“You’re leaning one way with an unreliable narrator, and then it flips at the midpoint,” David said. “We always wanted that confrontation to be in the middle of the film, almost like the climax is in the middle and then they deal with the aftermath.”
Any themes of objectification didn’t carry over to the casting of the equine role — a miniature horse named Daisy, normally a service animal making her big-screen debut
“Butterscotch had to have a long mane. We wanted her to be the Farrah Fawcett of miniature horses,” Nathan joked. “She wasn’t trained to do tricks or anything. She just liked getting paid in graham crackers.”
The directors said both lead actors were enthusiastic about the sardonic and absurdist tones of the project, with Pattinson (Twilight) especially eager to play against his established heartthrob image.
“We were able to use his previous work to our advantage. Just like with a Western, you come into it with certain expectations,” Nathan said. “He was really excited about it. He has a good taste in film and really got what we were going for.”