“All These Different Michelles Are the Stars of Their Different Stories” The Daniels on Their Michelle Yeoh-Starring Everything Everywhere All At Once
The multiverse threatens to swallow up Evelyn, a wife, mother, and laundromat owner in Everything Everywhere All At Once. Written and directed by The Daniels (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan), the film is a spectacular showcase for Michelle Yeoh, one of the great icons of Asian cinema.
Like their earlier feature Swiss Army Man, EEAAO is by turns experimental and defiantly audacious. But it also taps into a commercial sensibility that finds a way to combine social media supercuts, Russo brothers spectacle, and old school Hong Kong filmmaking. In addition to Yeoh, the cast includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Stephanie Hsu, the legendary James Hong, and Ke Huy Quan, “Short Round” in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Scheinert and Kwan spoke with Filmmaker via Zoom. Everything Everywhere All at Once opens in theaters tomorrow from A24.
Filmmaker: First of all, how do you two work together as directors? Do you split duties? Are you together on every shot?
Daniel Kwan: One of the easiest ways for us to talk about this is that we come from very different backgrounds. From a filmmaking perspective, I come from animation, while he comes from theater and improv. We realize those are the extreme opposite ends of the filmmaking spectrum. With animation you have total control. Improv is filmmaking where you have no control. You need both of these impulses in different ratios to make a movie. Because we have such strong opinions, but similar tastes, we really meld well together into something that’s a very fluid process.
Daniel Scheinert: A lot of times I think we take turns trying to impress each other, and also take turns editing each other. By the time we are working intimately with cast and crew, hopefully we’re mostly on the same page, you know? Then we just kind of hand the baton back and forth, taking turns getting cripplingly stressed out.
Kwan: Yeah. Stress. It’s kind of like co-parenting, trying to run a family. We have to stay unified.
Scheinert: Don’t bicker in front of the kids.
Kwan: Exactly. A big part of the process is just making sure that we’re as much on the same page as we can be. Obviously things come up that we didn’t expect. That’s when we always take the time to … well, this is more his doing, he always pulls us away for a moment when we need it.
Filmmaker: So during the scriptwriting process you build on each other’s idea, and end up with something you more or less agree on when it’s time to shoot?
Scheinert: Yeah, but it continues through every phase. Like shot listing, we’re working with each other. Then it becomes a collaboration, with our cinematographer or our production designer. Other times we show up and we’re like, “We’ve already argued this out, we know what we want.”
Filmmaker: How much room do you have to improvise? There are so many effects, so many beats you have to meet here.
Kwan: With something like this, you have to be super flexible when the ambition is so big and the resources are relatively small.
Scheinert: There’s a lot of compromising, where we’re changing things to get something that’s the same, but more easily achievable. On this we stuck to the script way more. On Swiss Army Man, we kind of neurotically rewrote a lot during the shoot, and changed a lot in the edit.
Kwan: Whereas this one, if you read the script now, it’s mostly there, even sometimes down to the edit of jumping between universes. We knew we were threading a needle with all the different tonal shifts in universes and storylines. Not to mention that we were playing with incredibly immature, silly things paired with intimate and emotional scenes. We knew we had to get it right on paper before we pulled anyone else on. Otherwise the whole thing could fall apart.
Filmmaker: Your producers include Joe and Anthony Russo and Mike Larocca. What did they add to the project?
Scheinert: Very early on in the screenwriting process they fronted us some money so we could sit and write.
Kwan: Which was a dream for us at the time. We wrote Swiss Army Man for free for so many years, and then when we finally sold it we made like a thousand bucks. After years of work.
The fact that we were able to actually have someone pay us up front to carve out time and write something as ambitious as this movie was really important. They’re filmmakers as well, they understand how much to tell us and how much to let us do our own thing. They know when to have a light touch. They watched some cuts and gave us some notes, but it was very much filmmakers letting filmmakers work, which we appreciate.
Scheinert: And then A24 came on a long time ago. It’s been an A24 movie for years and years now. I think they have a really smart culture of letting us do our thing and then they’ll market the crap out of it.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a bit about assembling your crew? You’ve worked with some of them a long time.
Kwan: Our producer Jonathan Wang, who’s sitting right next to us, he’s been with us for ten years. Our DP Larkin Seiple, our production designer Jason Kisvarday, our editor Paul Rogers — I’d say 75 percent of our crew are people we’ve worked with before. A lot of other directors don’t have the privilege of having that kind of continuity. That shorthand we’ve developed makes it easier to be ambitious. When we wrote the script, we’re like, we know Larkin can pull this off. We know Jason can pull this off.
Filmmaker: There are a lot of action sequences. Can you talk about blocking and staging the martial arts?
Kwan: We both grew up on kung fu movies. There’s a lot of action in movies today, but it doesn’t touch the heights of beauty, dance, and narrative that Yuen Wo Ping taught us. No one else comes close to him in our eyes.
Even though we’re not fight choreographers, when we first started working together, we would imagine the same kind of images that filmmakers like Yuen Wo Ping used. And so we knew we wanted to make sure our film did that. We found Andy and Brian Le on YouTube, where they have a group they call the MartialClub. When we watched one of their videos, we were blown away by how crisp the fighting was, how smart the shot design was. And also they’re funny. Comedy with action is so hard to do, and they were pulling it off.
Scheinert: We knew we wanted our fights to have rhythm and comedy. We couldn’t compete with the scale of like Hollywood action, but ours was going to have the energy of the Hong Kong films we loved. We paired Andy and Brian with Timothy Eulich, our stunt coordinator. Hiring YouTubers is a gamble, but they figured out a good balance. We even wrote parts into the movie for Andy and Brian.
Kwan: They never had formal training, all their kung fu is stuff they learned watching old movies. When they worked with Michelle, their minds were blown because she is such an icon in that world. Every day they’d be like, “I can’t believe I get to fight with Michelle Yeoh.”
Scheinert: And we’d be, “Sorry, you have to do it with your pants off.”
Filmmaker: What led to your decision to mix aspect ratios?
Scheinert: Very early on we got excited by the idea that when the movie would switch genres, the characters would think that they are the stars. All these different Michelles are the stars of their different stories. We wanted to lean heavily into things like aspect ratio, specific lenses, color palettes, music, processes, to help the audience keep track of it all.
Kwan: It reminds me of what it feels like to be on YouTube or Instagram. You’re constantly switching formats, you’re constantly switching aspect ratios. Like a lot of the super cuts on YouTube. It’s tied into how people experience media online. Obviously we find a lot of inspiration from other movies, but we’re also looking for ways to break out the cycle of filmmakers referencing films. Switching aspect ratios feels like a more accurate version of how people watch things now.
Filmmaker: How long was the shoot?
Scheinert: Principal photography was eight weeks, I think 38 days. We rented out an office building and shot as much as we could there. We lived in that building for about six weeks of the shoot. We built Evelyn’s apartment there.
Kwan: We converted the cafeteria into a cheap little studio. We did the apartment there, the RV with all the tech stuff inside. We kind of turned it into a soundstage.
Filmmaker: How much of a budget did you have for visual effects?
Kwan: It’s hard to describe. Swiss Army Man was a mix of special effects, practical effects, and then cleaning up shots. That made up for the fact that we didn’t have much money for visual effects.
We’ve been working like that since our first project, a test short film that’s about a minute long. I was trying to teach him how to use After Effects, and he was teaching me how to shoot live action. Now in the DNA of our collaboration is this friction of practical effects and stuff you do on a computer.
Scheinert: This movie is very much a continuation of what we’ve been doing on short films and music videos for years, where we brought on friends to be our visual effects crew. It’s very low-tech, mostly After Effects, which is consumer software.
Kwan: If you don’t have much money, you can’t hire a big post team or a big post house. So we relied on each other, a lot of the directors we worked with back then. We help each other out doing shots here and there, especially when there was a big crunch time. We taught each other so much.
For this film, even if we did have the budget, we didn’t want to be separated from the process. We love to get our hands dirty. Ninety percent of the effects, five or six hundred shots, are by five or six friends. Plus we did this during the pandemic, from our bedrooms.
Filmmaker: You ask a lot of Michelle Yeoh here. How did she respond?
Scheinert: She was really down. I think we got lucky. The Hong Kong style of filmmaking that she started out in, you would show up to set in the morning and they would just tell her, “This is what you’re doing today.”
Kwan: The scripts were mostly outlines, people would make it up as they went along, to varying degrees of success.
Scheinert: She still has a little bit of that “can do” attitude. It’s hard to phase her.
Kwan: I can’t overstate how important it was that Jamie Lee Curtis came on. The two of them together felt like they could do anything. They had such mutual respect, they were ready to go there with us.
Scheinert: Jamie Lee gave Michelle a huge boost of confidence. The two of them would take turns doing crazy things.
I don’t know if you know that Ke Huy Quan, who plays Michelle’s husband Waymond, worked as an assistant director on 2046. He kept telling us stories about what it was like to shoot with Wong Kar Wai, how they’d spend six hours on one shot. He was like, “Oh my God, you guys shoot so fast.” It was so intimidating that his two main references for people he’s worked with were Wong Kar Wai and Steven Spielberg.
Filmmaker: How was the editing process?
Scheinert: The first edit was three minutes longer. I loved it. It’s not like there’s a directors’ cut out there. Everything we cut, we wanted to, because we wanted this to be accessible. We didn’t want this to be longer than a Marvel movie.
Filmmaker: How do you reconcile your multiverse with the Marvel multiverse? They don’t quite match up.
Scheinert: No, they’re the same. We’re all part of the MCU.
Filmmaker: That means a lot more money on your next project.
Kwan: This is our backdoor into Marvel.