The Filmmaker Guide to the Oscar-Winning Daniels
Winners of the Best Screenplay and Best Picture awards at last night’s Oscars for their Everything Everywhere All at Once, the Daniels — Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — have appeared in our pages many times over the years, with the various articles and interviews offering a historical timeline of the iconoclastic creators’ move from music video stars to celebrated feature directors.
The two showed up first in 2015, in our 25 New Faces list, while they were in production on their first feature, Swiss Army Man. But we had already been knocked out by their music videos for the likes of DJ Snake and Lil Jon. Most impressive for us was their short film Interesting Ball, which I described as “a woozy, varispeed-ed cross between The Red Balloon and Magnolia” with “the confounding narrative [using] a mysterious bouncing ball to trigger personal and social apocalypse across a disparate group of Angelenos.”
Swiss Army Man went on to have its premiere at Sundance in 2016, and it’s fair to say, looking back, that it didn’t go entirely well. (Variety headlined, “Daniel Radcliffe’s Farting Corpse Movie Prompts Walk Outs.”) And Variety’s Peter Debruge reduced the film to the logline, “Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernie’s.”
We at Filmmaker were more positive. Jane Schoenbrun, who went on to direct We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, wrote from the festival:
Given how homogenized the American filmmaking landscape has become, a farting corpse in the Sundance Competition lineup isn’t something we should be deriding offhand. It’s something we should be celebrating. Independent film isn’t supposed to be safe or easily defined. It’s supposed to provoke, to challenge. It’s supposed to be a tool of the counterculture, serving up the stories, ideas, and visions that mainstream movies couldn’t hope to produce. Sundance, our country’s premiere launchpad for independent cinema, should be a place where a film that zags as aggressively as this one does is embraced.
Alicia Van Couvering interviewed the Daniels about Swiss Army Man for our Spring, 2016 issue. In her intro, she tackled the flatulence head on, writing: “But the farts are just an introduction to an extraordinarily inventive and heartfelt film with a big wild story about survival in the woods, friendship, loneliness, how we name our feelings, how we know ourselves, shyness, bear attacks, the sublime joy of junk food, the meaning of masturbation, and much, much more.”
Said Kwan in the interview:
…the reason why we make the movies we make is because we’re so self-conscious about actually exposing ourselves to the world. Initially, we wrap all these feelings up in high-concept strangeness, but what we end up doing is making something that’s even more personal than we would’ve if we made a movie about our actual lives.”
And said Scheinert:
People use the word “surreal,” but something I enjoy thinking about is absurdism — both in absurdist comedy, [which is] just a completely confounding thing without meaning, and philosophical absurdism, [which is] trying to find meaning in a life that might not have meaning. A lot of our films tackle both those things. They’re using images that probably have no meaning and probably shouldn’t have any meaning, and applying meaning to those images to create something interesting, that causes your brain to churn.
Matt Mulcahey interviewed DP Larkin Seiple about his work on the film, going deep into, again, the farts, frame rates, raccoons and RED Epics rigged to homemade Doggy Cams.
Between their first feature and Everything Everywhere All at Once, the Daniels directed other videos and short spots, including one later in 2016, Possibilia, they described as, hmmm, “an interactive short film set in the multiverse.” It starred Alex Karpovsky and Zoe Jarman as a couple on the verge of breakup, and the viewer decides which of the 16 possible conclusions they’ll see. That short is still online, and Paula Bernstein interviewed the directors. Said Kwan:
Most “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories are really frustrating and unsatisfying. We wanted to see what would happen if we tried to use that and create something that was supposed to be frustrating and unsatisfying like a cyclical relationship where two people probably shouldn’t be together but at the same time need each other. That’s kind of where the core idea came from – combining the medium and the way that makes us feel and trying to find a parallel in our actual lives.
Finally, there’s a time jump to last year and Everything Everywhere All at Once, for which we have four pieces on our site. Daniel Eagan interviewed the two directors, and for his Plus One column, where Aaron Hunt interviews below-the-line artists after they’ve seen the films they worked on, costume designer Shirley Kurata discussed studying the fashion of Kwan’s mother as well as Chinatown blogs and Commes de Garcons. Larkin Seiple again spoke with Matt Mulcahey and spoke about how filmic references became memory references:
The funny part about building all the universes was that we referenced a lot of different movies, but then realized that the way we wanted them to look wasn’t actually how the films looked in reality. It was more our memories of the films. The “Wong Kar-wai Verse” is much more saturated than, say, In the Mood for Love. There are moments that are colorful in that film and that’s what our brains kind of connected to,, even though that movie is more naturally exposed with kind of clean light. Same thing with the “Bagel Verse,” which was a mishmash of references. I had my personal references for things, like for the “Bagel Verse” it was Beyond the Black Rainbow and The NeverEnding Story II, which has this weird crystalline palace in it.
And finally, Aaron Hunt spoke with Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere editor Paul Rogers for an interview that revealed the subtlety of the film’s effects work as well as his setup: “I cut the movie on a 2017 iMac with a little hard drive and some headphones in my living room,” he said — a far cry from the fancier setups of most studio productions. Wrote Hunt about the workflow:
To stay connected, Rogers and the directors used Resilio Sync, which uses BitTorrent rather than the cloud to sync their hard drives, and cut on Adobe Premiere Productions, where both parties could see what the other was working on. They also used Frame.io, a centralized hub for media sharing and feedback tracking. “I would upload stuff to Frame.io, and they would leave notes in there,” the editor recalled. “Sometimes I’d see them work out something in the comments back and forth. It was a really fun way to work without being siloed off and just sending cuts every couple of weeks.”
And about cutting action and drama:
Rogers cut the fight scenes between universes similarly to how he cut dramatic ones between Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) and her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu): He let the choreography and performances play out in wides, only cutting into closeups at decisive moments. Holding on an actor’s reaction for a second longer at the beginning of the film could make or break the audience’s connection with an emotional beat that occurred near the end. To make sure punches and kicks connected, Rogers and crew used intensive time remapping, the slowing and quickening of shots via keyframes: “I had never done [time remapping] to this degree before. If I was just cutting straight, I would have to cut maybe four to five shots in the sequence. Instead, I can time remap a wide shot and split the screen so that one person’s sped up and the other person’s not, [all the while maintaining] the illusion of real-time.” Anticipating extensive time remapping, the Daniels and DP Larkin Seiple shot much of the film overcranked (at a high frame rate). This required that Rogers’s assistant editor, Zekun Mao, do ample work to sync audio. Mao and fellow assistant editor Aashish D’Mello prepared the edit in a way that spared Rogers the minutiae of their dense workflow organization.
To conclude, from Eagan’s interview, here are the Daniels discussing their work with two of their Oscar winners, Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis:
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.