Robert Kojder chats with Everything Everywhere All at Once directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. Daniels…
Directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as Daniels) first rose to prominence crafting music videos (Lil Jon’s Turn Down For What is arguably the most popular of those works) before eventually bringing what has to be the wildest and weirdest movie to ever play Sundance, Swiss Army Man. It starred Paul Dano as a man trying to survive on an island using a farting corpse (ironically, some of Daniel Radcliffe’s best work as an actor) as a toolkit in several outlandish ways, eventually taking a hard right turn into something darker and deeper. It proved to be divisive among moviegoers, but for whatever my money’s worth, I found it to be an unforgettably imaginative experience.
The same could be said about Daniels’ latest film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, a sweeping multiverse epic about the meaning of life and different life possibilities, but told with that same brand of relentless insanity. Not only is it another masterpiece, but it proves their movies as absolute must-sees. Their endlessly creative works deserve to be anticipated just as much as the next project from Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Greta Gerwig, Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele, or even Steven Spielberg. It was one of the greatest pleasures of my freelance writing career to sit down and interview them for this movie, so please enjoy below:
Swiss Army Man was my favorite movie of 2016 and Everything Everywhere All at Once is my favorite movie so far this year
Daniels: That’s amazing!
You both have the ability to take irreverent humor and lend a beautiful dramatic weight. So how do you go about ensuring there is meaning behind the insanity and balancing chaos with heart?
Daniel Kwan: Your outlet is called Flickering Myth, so I can’t help but think about Joseph Campbell. One of the things I’m pretty sure he talked about was the many masks of God and how you find them throughout your life. And he even claims any object you take; it could be a watch. It could be this cup. It could be these hotdog fingers. It could be farts. Whatever! You take an object and you put a circle around it and you start to investigate it and you ask why, how, where. The more questions you you ask, the more questions emerge. Eventually, you realize everything and anything will lead you down the path towards God, or basically a path towards infinity. We just take that approach to anything. So we challenge ourselves to say, can we make a farting corpse beautiful? Can hot dog fingers make you cry? Can we make two rocks feel like a beautiful intimate relationship? It’s just a really beautiful, fun storytelling exercise that also kind of ties back to this idea that nothing is sacred. Everything can be sacred.
How does your background in music videos influence the way you craft movies and how does that evolve with each new project?
Daniel Scheinert: In music videos, we would start with an image, and a lot of times we’d listen to the song and we’d come up with a moment that made us laugh. It would excite us and we would wonder if that could happen. In a lot of ways we discovered our voice as writers through that process, which is not the normal way to write. That still happens; we don’t start with character or dialogue, we start with cinematic moments that could only be in a movie, which I think is a fun way to write. Sometimes I’ll read a screenplay and I’ll think it was a great read, but I don’t know if it’s gonna look that interesting or if it even needs to be filmed. Maybe just publish this as a novel.
DK: It also taught us how to be scrappy on a low budget and be ambitious.
DS: Very much. For this movie, we leaned on all the same tricks. It looks like it cost a lot more than it did, and our actresses were very confused sometimes on set with how janky our techniques were. We’d say “no, no, no, it’s gonna look great.” We’re gonna shake the camera and we’ll just throw a little styrofoam. It’s gonna be fine.
Thank you for bringing up actors because I was wondering if had to do any convincing to get any of the stars on board or if they were on board right away?
DS: We got so lucky that Michelle Yeoh really responded to the script. For our first meeting with her, we just had to see if we got along, but we didn’t have to sell the movie that hard. Then every other actor was so excited to work with Michelle, so I think they were way more open than they would’ve been.
DK: Jamie Lee Curtis said she always wanted to work with Michelle. She was very excited to jump into this project because of that. Ke Huy Quan was just excited because he read the script and felt like he was perfect for this role. We had worked with Stephanie Hsu earlier and she really loved our process, so she was so excited. She screamed when she got the character.
Ke Huy Quan really is perfect in this role. So I’m curious, after 20 years away (for those unfamiliar, he played Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), did he step back onto a set like he never left?
DS: From our perspective, it seemed like that. But he told us later that he was so nervous. The very first scene we shot was the auditing scene, so it was him, James Hong, Michelle Yeoh, and Jamie Lee Curtis and he prepared so much beforehand. On his own dime, he found an acting coach for vocals and movement. He knew his lines so well that if we ever rewrote a line, on the day, he’d accidentally say the old line.
DK: He was so prepared and worked so hard knowing this was a really exciting opportunity for him. And he did such a good job.
DS: It paid off.
Were there any multiverse ideas or universes that you felt were really funny, but you had to do away with them because they didn’t fit?
DS: So many!
DK: Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy is probably my favorite.
DS: We actually shot it. Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy is a little macaroni who lives in a pot full of talking spaghetti and he doesn’t understand why he looks different from everyone else.
DK: The macaroni is the only one with a hole in it. Michelle plays the mother spaghetti, who’s trying to figure out what to do with this child.
DS: We wrote it to demonstrate that in an infinite number of universes, some of them have nothing to do with our characters but yeah, it didn’t belong,
DK: In this spaghetti world, there’s a ritual called Throwing Day. On Throwing Day, every now and then a spoon will come down and have one of the noodles and a hand will come out and throw the pasta against the wall. If you stick, then you become a man or you become a woman. It’s a coming-of-age ritual. So the whole time, the little Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy is ecstatic for Throwing Day asking “You think I’m gonna stick?” Michelle’s pasta character is yelling “what the hell’s going on!?”. It ends with her finally accepting the boy and she threads her spaghetti through his hole and then they get to fly. They go through the air but you never find out if they stick. It’s very cathartic and beautiful.
Ideas like that or why you are incredible filmmakers. Anyway, there are many references and Easter eggs and fitting homages to other movies here, but some of them come (especially referencing a rat) come completely out of left field. So I’m curious how you decide what movies you want to play around with utilizing your on-brand antics?
DK: It’s never a decision. It just happens.
DS: Like so many people these days, we are constantly comparing our lives to movies. It’s a language that we all speak. So it kind of just kept happening organically. We would come upon a scene we were working on and”this reminds us of that movie!”. In the multiverse genre, it’s easier to say “you know what, we’re gonna play the song from 2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was a process of figuring out which ones actually belonged in the world developing the characters and which ones didn’t.
So did you have a favorite universe to play around in?
DS: I do think that the raccoon universe was too much fun to shoot because we had an animatronic raccoon and Harry Shum Jr. is a wonderful, playful actor and one of the best dancers on planet Earth. We just wanted to do more takes because anything we asked Harry to do, he would be down to try
DK: After that day, all the crew members were asking “when are we doing a spinoff? I wanna shoot some more Raccacoonie”!
It’s awesome that you hedged your bets on older women, such as Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis to bring excitement and emotion. So I’m curious if that was always the plan to cast older actors or did it just happen that way?
DK: We realized that if we were going to do a movie about the multiverse, possibilities, and regrets, it would be way more powerful if it was from someone who has lived a long life. If someone is younger like us, yes, we have regrets and things that we reflect on, but once you get older, you start to look back and there’s just a deeper wealth of material there. We knew it was always gonna be an older person. The only thing that kind of changed in the middle of the screenwriting process is we shifted from the husband to the wife as the main protagonist. From that point, it was written for Michelle Yeoh.
I feel like a lesser film would like full-on make Jamie Lee Curtis’s character a villain. So can you talk more about writing her character and humanizing her?
DS: Totally! Someone asked us once “what do you have against the IRS”? We said nothing other than taxes is stressful. I think we were excited about the fact that so many people have a prejudice against auditors. Right from the get-go, the audience would be scared of this woman and hate this woman. We knew that the goal was to make a film about empathy and kindness. So we wanted to introduce her as a potential villain, knowing that we would somehow try to get Evelyn and the audience to a place where they love this woman. It was such a treat that Jamie agreed to do it and she infused so much more life into the character than we could have imagined.
I also love the decision to alternate between various languages during a conversation for authenticity. Did you make that decision early on in the writing process?
DK: Yeah, I grew up in a household that spoke Chinglish. So I was used to the conversations kind of flowing between a lot of the different languages. My dad’s family spoke Cantonese and my mom’s family spoke Mandarin. I mostly only knew English. It wasn’t until after a few drafts, we realized it was a really beautiful tool for creating the impression of our characters in separate worlds. Even before we jump into the multiverse, they’re already in different worlds, they’re already talking past each other. So we decided that would be a really great way to illustrate that.
If you could work with any actor, who would you choose to put through all of your madness?
DS: That is a two-parter there because I do think that like we have a lot of actors we’d love to work with and we’re always trying to figure out if we would we actually work well together or not. Would, would they be down for the madness?
What would be the key ingredient to letting you know you would work well together?
DS: It’s hard to predict, but we have a project we’d love to make that would star Rowan Atkinson. We don’t know if he would be the right person to put through our antics, especially because like people like him have a process. He’s such an icon who knows how to do his thing. If he was open to it it would be nice because our brains are always thinking about the icons regret with and if we could…
DK: Could we ever show a different side of them? I think as a director, one of the most exciting things to do is give people the opportunity to just do something that they have never been allowed
As a critic, it’s very fun to watch actors take roles against type. So that works both ways
DS: Exactly. Such a weird part of our industry is that you have to prove you can do something in order to get hired to do that thing. Then you get hired to do the thing over and over. And audiences are like “I already saw this.” We should be hiring actors to show new sides of themselves each time. That should be the project.
I agree. 100%. Also thank you so much for your time. I love this movie.
Daniels: Thank you!
Many thanks to Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert for taking the time for this interview.
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com