Park City • It took an enigmatic blonde to upstage Robert Pattinson at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Not Mia Wasikowska, his co-star in the off-kilter filmed-in-Utah Western “Damsel,” which premiered Tuesday at Park City’s Eccles Center Theatre.
The blonde who stole the show from Pattinson and Wasikowska was Daisy, a miniature horse who made her movie debut in the film.
David Zellner, who wrote and directed with his brother Nathan, guided Daisy onto the stage after the screening. He then explained the lessons learned working with animals.
“Instead of trying to force them to do something, it’s sort of working around their strengths and limitations and just adapting to them,” David Zellner said. “You do that, and you get the best animal performances ever.”
Daisy plays Butterscotch, the wedding present that city slicker Samuel Alabaster (played by Pattinson) aims to give to his betrothed, Penelope (played by Wasikowska). Samuel hires a drunken preacher, Parson Henry (played by David Zellner), to travel into the wilderness where, Samuel says, Penelope has been kidnapped.
Once Samuel and Henry find Penelope, the story changes abruptly, as Henry learns things aren’t exactly how Samuel described.
Tuesday’s premiere was exciting for the filmmakers, in part because they filmed at locations within a short drive of Park City.
“It’s such a rare treat to come back to the place where you spent three months of your lives sweating on the side of a mountain, and now we’re freezing in the cold ready to see the finished product,” Nathan Zellner said before the film.
The Zellners, who last came to Sundance with the “Fargo”-inspired comedy-drama “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” had long wanted to make a Western, but in their own offbeat style.
“We wanted to do something we hadn’t seen before and come up with a storyline that played against certain tropes that had become tiresome,” David Zellner said in the Q&A.
“It’s an unusual tone,” Pattinson said after the film. “The script was very solid,” the “Twilight” star added, with “a very specific voice.”
Pattinson also recalled the pitch the Zellners made to get him interested in the film: “[They said,] ‘We have this idea, and we have no idea if it works or not.’”
The movie was filmed mostly within a short drive of the Utah Film Studios outside Park City, which was the production’s base of operations.
“We wanted to find new places that you didn’t see in every Western, or didn’t see in every period piece,” said producer Chris Ohlson on the red carpet before the film. “When we came here to Utah, [we] realized that within an hour’s drive of here, the terrain is incredibly diverse and wildly different.”
“We didn’t want to do the more typical desert, dry Western environment,” said Nathan Zellner. “We wanted the pioneery mountain landscape.”
Ohlson listed the Utah production crews and the state’s tax incentives for movie and TV production as benefits. He added that Park City also relieved one of the pressures associated with working with big movie stars.
“This is a town that, because of Sundance, is used to celebrities,” Ohlson said. “I think Rob and Mia appreciated not shooting in a restaurant in downtown L.A. where they’re both going to be mobbed. [In Park City,] every night of the week, we’d go out to have dinner or have drinks, and 95 percent of the time they were left alone.”
Wasikowska, known to audiences for her roles in “Crimson Peak” and “Alice in Wonderland,” had high praise for Utah. “It was so beautiful in the summer, and people feel really healthy and grounded and quite happy,” she said.