The Zellner Brothers Take on Louis Malle

Inside Criterion / On the Channel — Nov 8, 2016
David and Nathan Zellner’s Black Something


I’ve always been a fan of short films playing before features, and as one of the programmers for the Criterion Channel, I was excited to make this format a regular offering on the streaming service. I’ve watched and selected short films for ten years at festivals in Glasgow, Chicago, and Palm Springs, and while I love a well-curated shorts line-up, I find there’s something uniquely pleasurable about a carefully chosen opener that gets you in the right frame of mind for the feature presentation. The short becomes a part of the mood, the tone, and the fabric of the audience’s experience of the feature, and in the best cases, the combinations themselves become classics: D. A. Pennebaker’s Daybreak Express played before Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth for nearly a year at New York’s Paris Theater; Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus opened midnight screenings of Eraserhead for two years.

Every Tuesday on the Channel, in our Short + Feature program, we’re going to be matching up classic and contemporary shorts and features, letting the films speak to each other in new ways. We’ll often be taking the opportunity to champion emerging directors by highlighting their short-form work, which tends to fade from view after festival runs. We’ll also be bringing back combinations of shorts and features that have been popular with audiences in the past. This week, we’re kicking the program off with Louis Malle’s Black Moon and a short inspired by it, David and Nathan Zellner’s Black Something. In films such as their recent Sundance hit Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Austin-based Zellner brothers have demonstrated an off-kilter sensibility that makes them a perfect match for this riff on Malle’s mind-bending masterpiece. In anticipation of their Channel debut, I spoke with them about their experience making this three-minute gem.

Bright Ideas magazine and Seed&Spark invited you to make a short inspired by any film in the Criterion Collection. Why did you choose Black Moon?

We really liked the naturalism of its approach, combined with its heightened reality. The color palette is very muted, and there aren’t any garish visual effects or elaborate sets—in fact, Malle shot most of it at his home in the French countryside. It’s also abstract and leaves a lot of room for play. We’re so impressed by the diversity of Malle’s body of work. From one project to the next, his films are so incredibly different on every level—technically, aesthetically, conceptually, and tonally.

What do you hope viewers will get out of watching your short and Malle’s feature back to back?

A little fever dream followed by a big fever dream.

What was your entry point to Malle’s work?

Elevator to the Gallows, which we watched on VHS in the nineties. We loved Jeanne Moreau and the Miles Davis score. In addition to Black Moon, Malle’s Viva Maria! is a favorite of ours.

Like much of your work, Black Moon has a female protagonist. Was that part of the appeal?

Definitely. It’s not really something we plan, just something we personally gravitate toward. Female protagonists tend to be underrepresented outside the world of romantic comedy, and from a storytelling standpoint, there are so many interesting ideas, perspectives, and characters that are unexplored as a result.

Louis Malle’s Black Moon
You’ve made a few feature films. Will you continue to also work in short form? What are you working on now?

It depends on what the initial concept dictates. We love the creative freedom in short work; you can explore ideas and aesthetics that can be restricting in a feature. We could never be as formally diverse as Malle, but we’d love to explore new genres and structures: sci-fi, musicals, period pieces. Horror might be a tough genre for us to tackle because we grew up on it and are genuine horror snobs—it would be hard to find something that hasn’t already been done a thousand times before. We’re currently in post-production on our next feature—and it’s a period western, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska.

If you were to make another project like Black Something, who would you choose as your inspiration? Who are your other filmmaking heros?

That’s a daunting question, but a few of our favorite artists in the Criterion Collection are Les Blank, Stanley Kubrick, Agnès Varda, Guy Maddin, Russ Meyer, Martin Rosen, David Lynch, and Buster Keaton.

Seed&Spark is a platform for independent film and TV that connects crowdfunding and streaming to elevate emerging artists. Bright Ideas is Seed&Spark’s semi-annual print publication covering American film.