Directing Team Daniels Discuss Their Flatulent-Corpse Epic Swiss Army Man
You will not see another movie like Swiss Army Man this year, or possibly in your lifetime. The basic plot is bizarre enough: A man (Paul Dano) stranded on an island tries to make his way back to civilization using the unexplainable capabilities of a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) he finds on the beach, which slowly reanimates. But that’s just the start. Swiss Army Man is a movie about farting, farting corpses, farting as a tool for emotional acceptance, farting as a method of water travel, shame, fear, the deep hurt of unrequited love, the way our parents twist us up forever, how we don’t talk openly about the most important parts of our psyche, the overwhelming enormity of the natural world, dancing, whooping, chanting, make-believing, lying, celebration, fear of male intimacy, and also the possibility of using a hard-on as a magical navigation device.
Swiss Army Man was written and directed by the Daniels, the collaborative team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The project was developed in 2014 at the Sundance Institute’s labs and made its debut at the festival earlier this year. It’s the Daniels’ first film, but the pair has made a name for themselves with amazingly insane music videos whose concepts sound like a two 8-year-olds pitching ideas from the backseat of a car. What if all these people in an apartment building started partying together because their private parts were super powerful and could smash through the ceiling? That would be DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s VMA-winning “Turn Down for What.” What if there were all these hunters hunting naked people, but when they shot them, their clothes came back on? That would be Joywave’s NSFW “Tongues.” What if there were a video where the band gets killed in the first few seconds and the crew has to move their dead bodies around for the rest of the video? You’ve got Foster the People’s “Houdini.”
The Daniels say they fell into making music videos, but it’s where they developed their aesthetic and sense of humour. As Scheinert explains, “The more people told us they wanted a performance video that made them look stylish or sexy, the more we pushed back with our weirdest ideas.” Plenty of directors use videos to learn their trade before moving on to feature films, but not since Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has anyone been able to transfer such a unique sensibility between the two mediums.
Leading up to Swiss Army Man’s July 1 release, we spoke with the Daniels about sincerity, their ideas jail, and what their moms thought of their movie about a farting corpse.
It’s hard to believe a movie with a premise as weird as Swiss Army Man’s got made. How were you able get it into the world?
Daniel Kwan: The reason why we made it is we knew that other people who had similar minds would be excited to see that there was a new way to tell a story that still had heart to it. We never set out to make something weird just for the sake of being weird. We wanted to take a calculated risk and make something that was absolutely insane and absolutely should not exist. In most people’s conception of how the world works, this movie does not exist.
We wanted to play with that cognitive dissonance and give them a new experience that was able to cut through the ironic, postmodern, super-nihilistic, and pessimistic viewpoint and create something beautiful. Part of the reason why we think the movie is so funny is because we are pessimistic, postmodern assholes who are like, “It would be so funny if we made a movie about a farting corpse and it played at Sundance. Wouldn’t that be insane?” But then, at the same time, the sincere parts of ourselves need something to hold on to and make that time worthwhile. That combination is really beautiful and exciting to us.
Daniel Scheinert: Part of the movie is a prank, and the other part is wholehearted, sincere, and therapeutic. That dissonance sounded fun and worthwhile.
So when you were actually making the film, which was more exciting to you—the feelings or the fact that you were pulling off this prank?
Scheinert: When we were actually making it, we were just in over our heads in the sincere side. Farts lost all meaning, they weren’t funny—we were just so excited to watch Paul and Daniel bring these characters to life. The shooting of the film was just this lovely, emotional experience. Later, we’d edit it and remember how funny the circumstances are.
Kwan: To us, the joke is how sincerely the whole thing is produced. The execution of it is so beautiful and the acting is so wonderfully sincere and grounded. And I think that is part of the prank, too.
Scheinert: We genuinely wanted to make people cry with a fart, and then later they could laugh about it.
What changes did you have to make to bring your sensibility and your humour to the medium of a feature film?
Scheinert: We didn’t have to change our sensibility at all, but the story definitely dictated us doing something we had never done before. We had to spend a lot of time prioritizing: Is there any tension to this scene? Does this character have a related motivation going on? Is the story moving at an entertaining pace? The biggest challenges of writing this was understanding how much of a ripple there is in a feature film—where if you change one thing it’s going to affect the 10 scenes before and after it—and working as hard as possible to make this thing entertaining to not lose people. We really, really want this to not be a niche movie that a couple people who like super weird movies will like. We wanted to take the least accessible content and make the most accessible movie we could out of it. We wanted our moms to like it and we wanted it to surprise people when they liked it.
What did your moms think of it?
Scheinert: My mom loved it, and she cried.
Kwan: My mom said, “The first half could be better—I have some thoughts.” I said, “Mom, I don’t need to hear those thoughts right now.” My mom is very Chinese, kind of that tiger mom.
Scheinert: Tough love.
If film was always your goal, did you have ideas for features kicking around for years and this one just caught on? Or were you developing other ideas while you were doing videos and commercials that just didn’t happen?
Scheinert: Ever since we’ve been working together we’ve been tossing around feature film ideas. We have hundreds of bad movie ideas. This was the bad movie idea we decided to spend a few years trying to make good. We wrote another screenplay that we actually finished before we wrote Swiss Army Man. We have a handful of real movie ideas that we might try to flesh out next, and joke movie ideas that are fun for meetings and parties.
Why was this the one you decided to fully commit to?
Kwan: The premise was absolutely insane in a really attractive way because we wanted to make sure we didn’t accidentally make something that someone else could make. It’s such a rare opportunity that first-time directors get to go out and make something that’s different without someone saying, “Don’t do that” or “We gotta make sure the box office is going to be OK.” All the normal things that first-time directors have to deal with we had to deal with a little bit, but because we had already been working on music videos for so long, there’s a certain level of trust. We wanted to make sure we didn’t waste that trust.
Scheinert: I was always worried I would get bored of whatever movie I was making because I would have to work on it for so many years. This one became the perfect project to throw everything into. Ultimately, it’s about learning to love yourself.
How do you guys work as a team? What’s the breakdown in responsibilities?
Scheinert: To try to maintain a healthy relationship, we try to make sure we’re both working about an equal amount. One of the healthier things we’ve learned to do is to make sure we don’t always do the same thing, and take turns on who takes the lead on whatever they are most interested in doing on a given project. So it started to evolve, and it definitely evolved on this movie quite a bit, where there were months where Dan spent more time writing than I did, and I would kind of be his sounding board. And then there were times on set where I would be working with the actors on a scene almost exclusively, but a day later we’d trade spaces because I’d be exhausted or because Dan was passionate about that scene. He’d be like, “Wait! No! I have a thought on this.” And I’d be like, “All right, tag, you’re it. Go have fun.”
Are you surprised there aren’t more directing teams? Does it just make sense to work this way for who you guys are, or do you feel like it’s something more people should be doing?
Scheinert: It’s a mix of both. It makes a lot of sense that the buck stops somewhere on a movie, and we agree a lot. We do think the auteur theory is kind of not true of most people. Most directors have a producer they always work with who sort of is their directing partner, or a writer who is there on set every day.
Kwan: There are always those theories that when those directors stop working with those people, their stuff gets not as good.
Scheinert: I think the world thinks directors do more than they do. We take for granted how collaborative film is.
When you guys are coming up with ideas, do you ever deem one too crazy to let out into the world?
Kwan: Swiss Army Man was one of them for a while. So yeah, we have tons.
Scheinert: We have a whole jail full of ideas that aren’t allowed into the real world yet.
Kwan: Even “Turn Down for What,” we were like, “We can’t do this.”
Why wouldn’t you send an idea out to people?
Scheinert: If it’s too one-dimensional. Even if it makes us laugh, if it’s just a laugh and there’s no heart to it, we’ll be like, “That one’s not ready.”
Kwan: Or if we have a mean idea. We don’t like being mean people.
Scheinert: But we can be mean sometimes. I’ll come up with a mean, angry idea and I’ll have to wait until it’s got some heart before I bring it up again, because it’s just spiteful. We pair up ideas. We wait for a triumvirate of ideas that will balance each other. We’ll be like, “Let’s make that. It’s going to be aesthetically beautiful, it’s going to be funny, and there’s heart.” But if it’s just got one, we’ll be like, “Not yet. Not yet, White Chicks remake.”