Life struck me as several cuts above “meh” but never made me jump out of my seat.
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the directing duo that goes by the name “The Daniels,” nabbed some of the most divisive headlines out of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival after the premiere of their comedy “Swiss Army Man,” which just opened in limited release this past weekend and goes wide on Friday, July 1st. Stories of walk-outs were overblown and somewhat overshadowed the truth about the response from most critics and fest goers, who loved this quirky, strange, bizarre fairy tale of a film. Paul Dano stars as Hank, a man about to kill himself on a deserted island when the body of a man named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. Hank and Manny, well, they become friends, especially after the corpse not only starts talking to Hank but becomes a multi-purpose tool to get him to safety. The two playful, brilliant writer/directors sat down with us in Chicago this week to discuss their film, their leads, how people have been responding to it, and how essential music was to the final product.
There’s been a lot of discussion of unusual screenings and Q&As for “Swiss Army Man.” What’s an unexpected response or question that threw you that you found memorable?
DANIEL SCHEINERT: The most unexpected responses are talking to people afterwards. The one-on-one ones.
DAN KWAN: The one Q&A at Sundance, one of the last screenings—the first question off the bat was “Do you believe in God?” Perfect question.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: It was very long-winded, circling around big theme s…
DAN KWAN: … "I guess what I’m saying is ‘Do you believe in God?’"
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Fun question.
DAN KWAN: The unexpected ones are the ones that are very thoughtful because most of the time it’s “How did you come up with all the body powers?”
DANIEL SCHEINERT: The emotional ones. People will come up afterwards and be smiling, and talking about how much they like it, and, as they’re talking, start tearing up.
DAN KWAN: Specifically, as they’re talking. They’ll start tearing up. It’s bizarre.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: That’s what happened to me with Sia the other night. She saw it in LA.
DAN KWAN: She’s worked with Paul.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: She left right as the credits rolled because I think she didn’t want to get mobbed and we were waiting out in the lobby and she was heading out and saw me and Paul Dano, and she was like, “Hi! Guys! It was good! It was SO GOOD!” And she started fist-pumping and tearing up. And giving us hugs. This is the best way to meet one of your favorite musicians. What a fucking dream come true.
What do you think people are getting emotional about? I don’t want to put words or thoughts in people’s minds but are these lonely, shy people going with the idea of self-expression or bonds of friendship?
DAN KWAN: It’s a whole bunch of things. It depends on the person.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Yeah, there’s a lot of folks who feel like the movie touches on and validates their loneliness.
DAN KWAN: Their strangeness. Whatever that may be. A lot of the people who come up to us afterwards are clearly different for some reason and it’s great to see them feel like this movie, hopefully, feels like a big hug to them.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: I think the movie is about sharing those feelings with someone. It’s in some ways an invitation to …
DAN KWAN: … expose themselves to us.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Yeah. The power to share. It’s real fun. It’s getting a compliment to get a story from a stranger.
DAN KWAN: One of the stories that we’ve been telling a lot lately—this is a little different than someone who felt acceptance from the movie—there was this lady who came up to us after the second screening at Sundance, and she ran up on stage after the Q&A and she was like, “I know I’m not supposed to be up here, but I need to tell you that I have a friend who can fart in front of me and it’s really great, and then I have another best friend who can’t fart in front of me and I just feel like if he could fart in front me he’d be so much happier.” And then she started crying. Paul went to hug her, and we were all like, “What just happened?!?” But she found a strange metaphor in our movie to be able to pin down why her friend was so unhappy. I guess it broke her heart. That’s a whole other reason to be so emotionally affected by this film. In some strange way, our story is touching people. And I think the longer that people have time to process it, more people will realize that there’s a strange power in these two characters.
And you talk about strangeness and acceptance and being different—did you approach the film stylistically with that theme in mind? Being different? If we’re going to make a film about being different, we have to make a film that feels different, tonally and structurally?
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Not really. The beginning of the process was kind of like an epic cliff jump. We got excited about the premise of the movie being crazy. “That sounds like a challenge. Let’s make that movie.” Let’s jump off the cliff, and on the way down we spent all of our time trying to make it conventional. Not conventional, but relatable. Our worst fear was that this crazy premise would just be a niche film that’s crazy. If anything, we spent most of our time trying to make this unpalatable content palatable.
DAN KWAN: That being said, you’re talking about tone and execution—that stuff just kind of naturally came out of the story itself. Whenever we started to put our film into a genre box, it would break down that wall itself. It would feel wrong. “Why isn’t this working? Oh, because this movie doesn’t want to be stuck in this genre. It needs to be two or three things at once. It needs to be gray.” The example that was strongest for us, because it was a really big turning point, was the relationship between Hank and Manny. For a very long time, we wouldn’t allow them to fall in love, even though as we were writing it, in the back of our heads, “It was like I think they’re gonna … no, that’s not right. Our movie is weird enough as it is. They’re just best friends. This is a buddy comedy. This is about two strangers really connecting.” Second-to-last draft, close to the end, we decided these two need each other. We can’t label it as anything. It’s not that they’re gay or “straight guys who decided to be gay.” It’s just two people who needed each other. That’s really cool. There’s no label for it, and there’s no clean way to draw lines. That kind of bled into everything we did. Everything needed to be a little gray so people could find new ways to redefine it for themselves.
It’s a movie that doesn’t need rational explanation. It doesn’t work if you try to explain too much of it. How early in the process was music such an essential part of it? When I ask about structure being different, that’s one of the things I think about it—characters sing along and the music comments on the action. How early in the process was that part of the project?
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Very early. I think before we even wrote the first draft. The first draft had even more meta-filmmaking stuff. He narrated.
DAN KWAN: He would narrate himself.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: He was like overtly puppeteering Manny. From the get-go, we knew that what excited us was that Hank would kind of see his life as a movie. I don’t think we’re unique because we’re filmmakers. We all watch TV and movies and imagine ourselves in our own movies.
DAN KWAN: Oh, for sure. The whole generation has kind of created that.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: So, when being stranded in the woods got exciting to us—we’re not survival film fanatics—sticking a human being from today in the woods and having them get songs stuck in their head and score their life and use music to get peace of mind to hike for four hours. That will be interesting. Now I’m excited to shoot a survival film.
And then how do you find the music? How does Manchester Orchestra get involved?
DAN KWAN: They were much later. Music is really important to our process because we come from music videos. And so we had been collecting a massive playlist of references for like three or four years. As we were writing, we kept adding to it, so it was like ten hours long. Music that we knew would be interesting to combine and create what we were going for. So, even as we were writing, we listen to music for references. We didn’t know who to go out to. If we went to a traditional composer, I don’t know if they would understand what we were going for. A lot of this stuff is very beautiful but also messy, and also kind of stupid sometimes. The lyrics are so overtly dumb, in a very simple, beautiful way.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Eventually, we decided we’d do it in two parts—hire someone to write songs and hire someone to compose the music. The composer will use their songs as inspiration. So, we reached out to Andy Hull because we loved, specifically, his solo stuff, or the more muted Manchester Orchestra stuff. Those melodies would get stuck in my head and he’s got such a beautiful voice and he understands melodies. So, all we asked him to do was like send us some melodies. We couldn’t even offer him money. “We don’t have financing, but would you be interested in spitballing with us?” And we sent him the script and he loved it. He sent us a recorded, mixed song the next day, which is the credits song.
DAN KWAN: That’s the exact recording too. That’s exactly what he wrote. That melody ended up becoming Hank’s main theme.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: He was like, “I just had a baby and I don’t want to go on tour right now. I love movies. Please let me do this.” And he brought in Rob, who produces the Manchester records, and they kind of aggressively were prolific and passionate.
DAN KWAN: “Don’t let anyone else compose. We’ll be the ones.”
DANIEL SCHEINERT: They became the whole deal. It’s their fault more than ours.
DAN KWAN: The funny thing about this movie is that it really does live or die on music. I think for most films that’s not a good thing, but I think tonally what we’re doing is so specific that we knew to overcome the preconceived ideas of what this movie would be conceptually, we had to slam in with a lot of emotion and force the tone. Allow that cognitive dissonance to play in people’s minds. If you watch any of these scenes without music, it’s horrific.
Or like a James Newton Howard score. It would be a totally different film.
DAN KWAN: For sure!
DANIEL SCHEINERT: I kind of want to put a feature on the Blu-ray where you can turn off the music. It’s a crazy person’s movie.
DAN KWAN: It’s nihilistic and mean.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Yep. It’s a guy looking at farts.
The playfulness you speak about lyrically and musically—calling lyrics dumb—tells us that that film is playful. This is messy. Like I said, put a John Williams score on this and it would be a disaster. So, there’s serendipity in him accepting your invitation. There’s also a little bit of that in the casting. How do you find the two guys?
DANIEL SCHEINERT: We loved their work, and we had heard they weren’t assholes. I don’t think we’re the kind of directors who could have a good, combative relationship with an actor the way some directors can. I feel like we did just kind of luck into it, but also we went in with a soft touch. We allowed the characters to evolve based on these guys.
DAN KWAN: The moment they got cast, we started rewriting for them. They’re such specific human beings. What we had written was so strange and bizarre, but we knew we wanted to be grounded. We just started to allow the characters to become more like the actual actors. Dan Radcliffe is the sweetest, most curious man we’ve ever met. When we saw that in real life, we were like, “Oh my God, if Manny had a little bit more of that it would be magic.”
DANIEL SCHEINERT: It would give the movie a heart. You’d care more about this corpse if we play to that strong suit of Daniel’s. We actually kind of like tricked Gap into letting us cast Paul Dano in this commercial campaign we’re doing. “You know who would be great for this thing?” So, we got to work with him before we shot the movie, but we had already cast him, and it was great. We got to know him, and see what his sense of humor was like, and kind of his dry simplicity. He’s a very funny guy. He’s at his funniest when he’s deadpan. So, we were like, “Hank should be more grounded, honest, and then the jokes should sneak up on you with Hank.” So we pulled back some of the broad …
So, really collaborative.
DAN KWAN: Oh, for sure.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Him especially. He read every draft. He insisted on Skyping for hours after each draft. His preparation as an actor was to understand our story inside and out. Talk it out.
How do you two work together? Does one have different duties, different strengths than the other?
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Yeah. There are certain patterns that evolve but there’s never been like …
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Yeah.
DAN KWAN: The longer we work together, the more we kind of learn from each other. When we first started, we were very different. We have very different processes, even now. He comes from improv and comedy; I come from animation and design. We’re completely opposite ends of the spectrum, but we happen to have similar senses of humor. Somehow it works. Every step of the way—we’re different writers, different in pre-production, we take turns getting stressed out about different things.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Dan is willing to doubt our movie. When it needs improving, he’ll hole up and be like “It’s not good enough.” That scares me, but I love solving problems. When politics are getting messy or people are miscommunicating or a location falls through, I love diving in and being like, “There’s a tactful way to approach this and we’re gonna solve it quickly.” That happens ten times a day during a movie.
DAN KWAN: I get stressed out a lot during writing. He gets stressed out a lot during pre-production. And then we’re both stressed out during shooting.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: But in different ways.
DAN KWAN: And then editing, we take turns. Every day depends on your mood. One day, “This scene’s working!” The next day, “What the hell is this??!?!? Let’s cut the whole scene.”
DANIEL SCHEINERT: The other answer to your question is that whatever one of us doesn’t want to do on a certain day, we’ll let the other one do it. Or whoever is most passionate about whatever, and that will change from day to day.
Not unlike a marriage.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: Right. It really is.
DAN KWAN: Tag team when you need each other.
DAN KWAN: We’re writing another feature soon. It’s going to hopefully be with some of the same producers and financiers. If they were crazy enough to do this movie with us … let’s do another one. It’s going to be similar tone, but not nearly as crazy. It’s really fun to make crazy movies when people are telling you no. Not as much when people tell you can.
You need a little of that resistance to be creative.
DAN KWAN: Exactly. It’s gonna be a sci-fi/action movie, but also incredibly stupid.
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