In a different universe, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are two employees for the IRS, or maybe one of them is a struggling circus clown and the other is an astronaut, or maybe one of them is your boss at a mattress store. But in this universe, they are two writer/directors known as Daniels who have honed their own style of the profane and profound with countless jaw-dropping music videos, and now two feature films. After grabbing the attention of the indie world with their Sundance film “Swiss Army Man,” they have poured their favorite movies, life philosophies, impulses with stylized slow motion, and self-amusing jokes into “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” starring Michelle Yeoh, who in some scenes has hot dog hands.
“Swiss Army Man” can be broken down to “a farting corpse drama,” whereas “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is a little more complicated. But it involves multiverses, different versions of one’s self, determined by the slightest life decisions we make. Yeoh’s character Evelyn is a laundromat owner who learns about this baffling science, and becomes the center of a battle to save them from being destroyed. Her adventure, fast-paced and with a lot of elaborate fight scenes featuring "ordinary people," taking place inside an IRS office, also ropes in her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), her father Gong Gong (James Hong), their IRS agent Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) and more.
RogerEbert.com spoke to Daniels about the making of their new film, what they learned from the Russo brothers, their idea for a non-violent "Mortal Kombat" movie, Kwan's future Oscar acceptance speech, and more.
Have you guys done your taxes yet?
DANIEL KWAN: I filed for an extension, because of this movie is coming out right in the middle of it.
Are you guys good with deadlines like that?
DANIEL SCHEINERT: No, we’re terrible at it! We’re a lot like Evelyn.
DK: Why do you think we’d write this movie? Taxes are the bane of my existence.
DS: We’re like, should the movie come out on April 15th? Or will that actually hurt us. Like, “Oh, I don’t want to be reminded!” But it actually might be in the most theaters that weekend. We’re going into expansion.
DK: We wanted this movie to be … what “It’s a Wonderful Life” was for Christmas, and “Groundhog’s Day” was for “Groundhog’s Day,” this is a tax day movie.
DS: It’s Chinese New Year slash Tax Day.
Is it hard to stick to your authentic self working on a bigger movie? Or is it because it’s bigger that you can be your authentic selves?
DS: I think this one was a very authentic sweet spot. It was bigger but not so big there was the kind of oversight that comes with a full-blown studio picture. It was a big indie, so it gave us the freedom to pay our crew, better than in the past where it’s been like, “Please do our movie, we’ll hire you on a commercial afterwards!” That was a freeing thing.
DK: I will say, there’s always this tension between “I want the audience to love me” and “I don’t care if you love me.” I’m going to challenge you, but please like me. Our work has always been trying to struggle with that, and this one, we kind of said, “I want them to love me.”
DS: At least in some ways, spoiler alert, we knew it would reach an abrasive point two-thirds through. And so then it gave us, “What if we made it as lovable and possible at the beginning and the end? To give us permission to go to this nihilistic place that a blockbuster shouldn’t go?” Once we knew we were going to hit that valley, we were like, “Let’s go for peaks at the front” But we’re constantly talking about it, we’re constantly editing ourselves and trying to figure out what to push and what not to.
DK: Every decision, there’s this math calculation that says, “OK, if we keep the butt plug fight, what percentage of the audience do we lose?”
DS: Slash what percentage do we gain? There’s a lot more butt plug enthusiasts than mainstream media.
DK: As much as people think that we are freewheeling creative artists, we’re very much like calculating everything as a calculated risks. It’s very funny to look back on all those conversations we’ve had about how many people we were willing to push away for the sake of a selfish decision.
Did the reception of “Swiss Army Man” influence that at all, that you guys want to be entertainers but also can have wild premises?
DK: 100%. It wasn’t that we wanted to be entertainers, we wanted to prove that the profound and the profane belong to each other. As above, so below. That’s what “Swiss Army Man” was trying to do, and we got a decent amount of people in, which is such a success in our books. We got some people to say, “This is our favorite movie ever,” what a miracle because it’s a farting corpse drama, you know? But for the haters, who just didn’t get it, who full-on rejected it, I felt like we failed them. I was like, “I’m so sorry we didn’t show you the truth.” The dung beetles, they’re rolling in their shit, but they also look to the stars to guide them.
DS: WHAT! What a headline! Or a bumper sticker.
DK: But for me it was like, “I am going to go so hard on the candy so I can show you how beautiful it can be to be absurd and stupid and live in a world where nothing matters.” How freeing that can be. It was very much a response to the people who outright would not accept “Swiss Army Man.”
It’s fascinating that you guys talk about wanting to be loved. Because you’re also always pushing comfort.
DK: That’s the duality of everything.
DS: Or like, if someone loves you, and you’re not being your authentic self, is that real love?
And with this movie, about there being so many different versions of yourself, how do you not get caught up in the other versions of what could be, especially if you want to be loved?
DS: We’re still trying to be our authentic selves.
DK: I have been thinking a lot about the Oscars, and how everyone in that room has made a career, and basically become the best in their fields, because they just want to be loved. I don’t think any of those people would be there unless there was this deep hole they were trying to fill inside them. Because I look at all of them, and my collaborators and friends around me, who are just pushing themselves so hard to create excellence. If I ever win an Oscar, I’ll just say, “This doesn’t fill the void!”
DS: Thank god! There’s still a hole inside of me!
What’s something you won’t forget from working with your producers the Russo brothers, especially given that they are fellow comedy people, honing their dramatic craft with comedy filmmaking?
DS: My main takeaway that we got to interview them a bit about the differences between The Avengers and Arrested Development.
DK: And “Community,” which is almost kind of a sweet spot.
DS: But those are the extremes. “Arrested Development” was a scrappy, manic shoot where they were doing an unreasonable amount of set-ups per day, and the format of the show doesn’t fit into normal TV structure.
DK: The way that they put it was, they did so many cutaway jokes, almost like a “Family Guy” way in “Arrested Development,” and in TV back then that was not allowed because of the budget and timing, there was no room for it. They said they would line up three or four different vignettes in the same room and just shoot down the line. And we were like, “Great! That’s how we’re gonna do our movie.”
DK: Yeah, certain days we did 50 different universes. And we knew it. We’d start the day being like, “Today, quantity over quality. Let’s go!”
DS: And then we got to hear what it’s like working on a $200-300 million project, and we didn’t do much of that. We were like, “Oh, that’s not right for our movie!” You know? That’s ok.
DK: But it’s good to know that.
Especially since you guys are still more in-camera, and practical.
DS: And just the scale of the moving parts that it takes to do those movies, and it kind of encouraged us to compromise. We were like, “Let’s just keep it small enough so we can we still keep our fingerprints on everything, because that sounds scary.”
DK: We didn’t want to do second unit with another director doing the action. We wanted to do everything. So hearing about how Marvel does it helped us identify what we didn’t want to do.
You’ve certainly worked with action and style in your music videos, but was this film like a boot camp of action directing for you guys?
DS: We’ve always loved action movies, I know I still have this uncomfortableness with it, where like the subtext of most action movies is violence is the answer. So I can’t see myself making tons of them.
DK: I will say that, if “Mortal Kombat” wants us to make a movie where instead of a bunch of fatalities, it’s a bunch of friendships …
DS: Are they friend-alities?
DK: They’re just called friendship. The plot of this is basically, the winner of the last “Mortal Kombat” basically is filled with guilt and regret and decides to go back into the competition and kill no one and still make it to the top. So basically, the training montage is him going to therapists and learning about conflict resolution and disarmament. And he takes down the entire system.
DS: He somehow deescalates Goro. And figures out what the hole is inside of Goro.
DK: Yeah, an abolitionist story set within the world of the most violent video game in history.
It’s a green light for me.
DK: Thank you. I will say that it’s in our DNA, it wasn’t too hard for us to do this action stuff. We grew up watching Hong Kong action fight sequences, specifically Yuen Woo-ping’s choreography and his shot design. Like if you go back to some short films we shot, basically by ourselves, 12 years ago, there’s one called “Puppets” and there’s one called “Pockets.” Those were our experiments in action. We didn’t reference anything to make those, we just kind of came up with it in our heads. And now when I go back and rewatch it, I’m like, “Oh, this is so influenced by that stuff,” and it was a really easy transition. We just found the right people, the Martial Club, these guys from YouTube who took our script ideas and just elevated them to be so playful and so exciting. I’m so excited for people to see that part of the movie.
Was Michelle Yeoh’s involvement always this meta? How did she respond to how you wanted to incorporate her actual star power?
DS: It was more meta. And the first draft we sent her, her character’s name was Michelle.
DK: The idea is that she jumps to our universe.
DS: I think she understood what we were going for, but wanted us to tone it down. And I’m so glad, because it gave her more permission to create a character, and not make it have anything to do with herself. Evelyn Wang became a three-dimensional woman because her name was not Michelle. It became like a hint at the idea that every laundromat owner in the universe could be a martial arts superstar, wink-wink hint-hint, their name might be Michelle Yeoh in that universe. But I’m glad it’s just a little bit post-modern, and we didn’t go full John Malkovich.
DK: Yeah, at one point we were like, “And maybe Jamie Lee Curtis’ name is Jamie.” It’s literally everyone is another version of themselves that didn’t succeed. That would have been too much, I think.
DS: I think ideas come very naturally to us, but character names don’t. We’re very lazy. Waymond is named after this guy that we know, Waymond. And Becky the character is named after our friend Becky and my mom Becky.
DK: We’re gonna try to get better at it. That’s our next room for growth. Naming characters.
With names then, does it strike you as weird that you both have a Daniel; like a multiverse, even though you’re different people? It’s kind of odd.
DS: Right. Would we have become frenemies if we had different names? Is that part of what made it work?
DK: There’s this whole theory about naming, it’s like “nominal predestination” or something like that. It’s this idea that your name predetermines certain things in your life path. I want to do a podcast where you get people with the same exact name as you, from all around the world, and just see what happens. Get a bunch of Jonah Hills, Harry Potters, put ‘em in one room.
I don’t actually want to do a podcast. We don’t need more podcasts.
I’m trying to think of certain third-eye memories. So, do you remember the first time you saw “The Matrix”?
DK: Yes. I was in my living room, I was in middle school, my sister had gotten a bootlegged VHS from a friend, because we couldn’t get one ourselves. I was so uncomfortable because of how scary it was, philosophically but also the violence was too much for me.
DS: When Morpheus gets caught, that’s upsetting.
DK: When he gets beaten up, I was so upset. The whole thing made me so uncomfortable because I was being pushed out of my comfort zone. And then when I was done, I was like, “I need to see this again.” And so for a while, that was all I watched every day with my family. I learned every line, I learned every piece of it. The structure of that movie is in my bones now. Obviously. [laughs]
It’s definitely here.
DK: Whether it was intentional or not, it’s all there.
DS: I am positive I watched it in my basement, which is where I watched all my favorite movies growing up. But my brain goes to watching “Princess Mononoke” for the first time, which I’ve been thinking about lately as a movie that explores nonviolence and nuance in a really cool way. And definitely influenced the second half of this movie.
DK: But the opening starts with a guy getting his arm shot off by a bow and arrow. It’s pretty intense.
DS: But I remember that movie ended, and then me and my best friend Stuart went to his house, which is like five houses down. And we just ran up and down our neighbors' yards like Ashitaka, like “AHHH, I want to live in that movie! I wish it was real!”
DK: But that was the movie that made me really uncomfortable, because of the moral ambiguity. There was no good guy, or there was no bad guy.
You guys have been thinking about violence in your work for a while now.
DK: That’s everything, right? Talking about Oscars, right?
"Everything Everywhere All at Once" is expanding to theaters nationwide on Friday, April 8, and will probably be playing in the most theaters on Tax Day.