Austin filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner’s second feature, a grotesque, vivid, and penetrating dark comedy called Kid-Thing, is premiering in their hometown as part of SXSW (it already screened at Sundance and Berlin earlier this year to critical acclaim). The film follows a raspy, totally feral ten-year-old blondie named Annie (Sydney Aguirre), who spends her days running around her dad’s ranch making mischief and wreaking terror—stealing Capri Suns from the gas station, bashing a disabled girl’s birthday cake and snatching her presents, chucking refrigerated dough at passing cars, shooting dead animals and cow patties with a paint gun—until one day she discovers a mysterious well in the middle of the woods.
Given the Zellners’ signature offbeat brand of comedy, the movie’s loose, episodic structure, and the subversive nature of the material, it’s the sort of thing that could have “cult film” written all over it—but we’d like to think there’s more to it than that. We chatted with the brothers for the inside scoop.
Bullett: How did you guys conceive of Kid-Thing?
David: We wanted to do a story about childhood that wasn’t sentimental or maudlin, from the perspective of the kid, as opposed to films about children that are either directly or indirectly from the perspective of an adult, told in hindsight or with just a rosy perspective on it. And we wanted to kind of combine that with elements of a fable: Growing up, we really liked Greek mythology and Grimm’s fairy tales. I liked the way they had these dark and subversive undertones—dealing with life and death in a really abstract way—that you don’t have in contemporary children’s literature. Then we drew a lot from our own childhoods: A lot of the things Annie does were things we did as children. We filmed a lot of it where we grew up.
What aspects of childhood were you trying to capture?
D: When you’re that age, it’s so much about testing boundaries and about creation and destruction. You’re this new little scientist: You see a dead animal and you poke it and you wonder, “How did it get there, why did it die? What’s it like to be dead?” Not in some morbid way, but out of this scientific curiosity. Or you see a cow patty and you smash it. As a kid, you’re mapping out things for the rest of your life: “I push this and what happens, I say this to this adult and then how do they react? And then what do I do after that?” Once you’re an adult, you have all those things programmed and you don’t think about that anymore.
One thing I love about the film is that it centers on an impish little girl—I’ve never really seen that before. How did you come up with that, and how did you cast Sydney for the role?
D: In an early version, a boy was supposed to be the lead, but it was infinitely more interesting, complex, and alienating to have a girl, especially a tomboy. As for Sydney, she’s the daughter of a childhood friend, and she’d been in a music video we had done a year earlier for Ola Podrida. She has a melancholic character, she’s very athletic and has a great physicality, and she’s so fun to be around. She’s not an actor; she had just seen DVD extras so she knew how films were made. She also lives out on a farm out in the country, so she’s had similar experiences to Annie. Although in real life, she is infinitely more pleasant. She’s a very happy kid.
What makes the film so interesting is that it’s a very simple story centered on a very dark and complicated character—you’re dealing with the human id running rampant here. How did you explain that to someone so young?
D: We’d talk about kids at school that were loners or outsiders, and also took her own personal experiences of feeling that way, and amplified them for dramatic purposes. Some stuff you can’t intellectualize, though: Like with shooting the poop, we set up the shot and just told her what to do. We tried not to over-explain anything—most of it she could identify with. And when she couldn’t, it’s like, “Well, we were weirder kids than you are.”
N: Sydney was never like, “Oh, this is like a bad kid” or “This is a terrible person.” She got that it was just a kid being a kid. A complex kid.
There are some interesting nature vs. nurture arguments to be had here, especially since some viewers have called Annie a “sociopath.” But at the same time, her father really doesn’t offer her any sort of moral compass.
D: I don’t think she’s a sociopath. No matter how much micromanaging a parent might do, at the end of the day, the kid still has to figure things out on their own. But Annie doesn’t really have anyone to guide her, so she is even more alienated. She’s a tomboy and doesn’t get along with other kids.
Sydney’s in nearly every frame of the film. That must have been pretty intense for everyone.
D: You have to have a balance and not kill the energy. There’s timing involved; you work around her schedule. You’d wait until you let her have her Dr. Pepper and Sour Patch kids, because then there’s this instant peak. Also, we didn’t do anything she wasn’t comfortable with. This woman at a Sundance Q&A said, “You must have traumatized that poor kid.” And I was like, “Are you kidding? She had the best time of her life!” I would have died for this experience as a kid: hanging out with adults, with these safe situations of creative destruction going on. What a blast. Every kid wants to break something, you know?
What’s something she wasn’t comfortable doing?
D: She wasn’t crazy about squashing the bug, so we worked around that.
Were you scared to squash a bug on camera and get the animal rights people all worked up?
D: I would have been happy to do it because I think that’s bullshit. I mean I love animals, but it’s so hypocritical. They’re shooting some horror movie remake here, and I heard from people who worked on it that there’s a cutaway of, like, ants on the ground. You know, you can go anywhere around here and get ants. But they had to get an “ant wrangler,” and then they had two ASPCA people and all this paperwork to make sure everything was done ethically. And then all these same people go home and put down bug-traps or whatever. I mean, I don’t go squashing stuff for the hell of it, but it’s like saying that an animal’s existence is more valuable if it’s being preserved on film.
You’re both known for your “slow-burn” style of comedy, where you set up a situation and then let things play out, often in long, unbroken takes. What’s your process for directing?
D: We had a really tight script but then left breathing room for little things on location. I like putting time into the composition and kinda letting the action unfold. We like dramas more than comedies; when I think of things that make me laugh in films, it’s like a little moment of humor in a drama to let you breathe for a second before it gets back to the heavy stuff. I like Michael Haneke and the confidence he puts in setting up a shot and letting the action unfold. Also, Werner Herzog’s seventies stuff.
I’ve read a lot of criticism of your film that discusses its “cult potential,” which I feel can be a demeaning concept.
D: We don’t want to stigmatize; it’s diminishing and kind of dismissive in a way, even if it’s meant positively. We never set out to make something “weird,” and we don’t want to make something on the fringe—something quirky, or any shit like that. We just want to make a movie, period, and try meet the audience halfway, do something that is accessible to them on an emotional level. We hope that our work will have some legs in the long-term; there’s so much stuff that 40 years ago was considered subversive and now it’s as mainstream as anything.
What other types of reactions have you gotten at screenings?
D: I don’t want to generalize, but maybe younger people respond to it better than older people. A lot of older people were offended by it. And that’s interesting, because we could tell that the older people were offended because it’s about a girl. If it were a boy, it would be this whole “boys-will-be-boys” mentality.
N: It was off-putting to them. They would ask questions about the gender part of it.
D: One old person at Sundance was really angry at the movie and called us “existential nihilists” without any sense of irony or anything. Like we were on trial to her. We loved it.