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Human Highway: Daniels on Swiss Army Man

Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man (Photo courtesy of A24)

Some of the images and ideas that have turned up in the commercials, music videos, short films and feature films of Daniels are:

A man gets his foot stuck inside another man’s ass; the more he tries to get it out, the deeper it goes. A grieving widow is relentlessly prank-called by a child. A man has bottomless pockets. A woman’s breasts begin to move and spin inside her shirt. A man dances so hard that he falls through the floor, where he meets a hard-dancing woman who crashes her ass into his face; together, they fall through the floor. A giant robot-pyramid made out of human men walks across a beach to deliver a message to one of the men’s girlfriends. Some people at a party have the heads of cats, others have the heads of dogs. The musicians in a band are robots, controlled by stagehands in body suits, and everyone is there to please a mysterious dictator.

And then: A man, stranded on a beach, finds a dead body and triumphantly rides the amazing farting corpse like a Jet Ski.

If you have heard of Swiss Army Man, the source of that final image, what you have probably heard about mostly are the farts. The first feature by Daniels — the directing team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — incited love it or hate it reactions after its premiere at Sundance this year. Journalists were eager to reduce the film to its outlandish premise — “Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernie’s,” wrote Variety’s Peter Debruge. (When asked, the Daniels counter with a more apt description: “Tree of Life meets Dumb and Dumber.”)

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. Paul Dano stars as Hank, who finds and befriends a dead body named Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Sarah, the beautiful woman whose backstory with Hank is relayed through videos on Hank’s cellphone.

Below, the Daniels discuss wrapping a metaphor in a narrative, how to say something meaningful about something meaningless, and how After Effects changed everything.

Swiss Army Man is released this summer by A24.

One thing I realized that I was looking for when I watched this movie was an explanation of the metaphor. There’s this very surreal thing at the center of the story — a farting dead-alive man who can be ridden like a Jet Ski  — and as a viewer, you sort of expect it to finally be “understood.” Like: it was all a dream, or Manny was Hank, or it represents his childhood, or whatever. But it’s not that simple. I’m curious about how you thought about your metaphor and how you avoided directly naming it. You must have been under a lot of pressure to spell out its meaning. Kwan: I mean, we got pressure from ourselves to name it. When things got really hard, we would be like, “What is it? Can we please label it so at least we feel like we can sleep at night?”

Scheinert: So Dan could sleep the night.

Kwan: Yeah, mostly me. I love labeling things.

Scheinert: And I love the inexplicable crazy parts; those are the parts that I feel most confident about.

Kwan: It was like a weird balancing act between those two needs, because a film where it’s way too crazy, or un-chained down by a theme, is not watchable. And then, a film that’s too one-to-one gives you no reason to continue watching.

You worked on the script for quite a while, and you went to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. What was the development process like in terms of that balance between the literal and the crazy? Scheinert: There were certain drafts where it was, “Oh, we can just make a movie about a guy and a girl in a small town, and it doesn’t have to be re-enacted in the woods by a dead guy.”

Kwan: Sarah and Hank’s relationship was an entire film, and everything else was pointing at it. And the one thing we just couldn’t fit into it was the farts. We [thought], “We want to start a movie with these farts, but this [relationship] movie makes so much sense. But these farts, why is the body farting? I have no idea.”

Scheinert: Right. [The story about Sarah and Hank] made sense, but I wouldn’t want to make that movie.

Kwan: [The screenplay development process] was helpful because it forced us to refocus and ask, “Why do we think [a farting body] is funny? And why are we so afraid of making it about that?” And I think that’s where all the thematic things about shame kind of seeped into the story. I was ashamed that we were making it, almost. A lot of shame built up about the fact that we were working on this movie for so long, and the characters started to take on that shame. I guess the simplest way you represent shame is through a fart or through the things that your body does that you just can’t control.

I didn’t even think about shame in relation to the dead body, because the movie seems so confident about its body humor. Kwan: Yeah, it was a weird discovery for us to see that. The simplest version of shame is through the body, moving all the way up to the mind and the heart. People are very much ashamed of their loneliness. People are very much ashamed of the love that they feel for people that they can’t reach out to.

Scheinert: People are ashamed of their artwork. Part of the meta-narrative of us making this movie and being quietly, secretly, maybe sort of ashamed of it was like — Hank and Manny build things.

Kwan: And they sing songs.

Scheinert: And make the kind of artwork that children would make, but adults never do, where you’re just like, “Oh, this isn’t perfect, but it’s fine.”

Kwan: It was always really hard to pitch [Swiss Army Man] because the way we pitch and get excited about things is, like, “Let’s pitch a really terrible idea and then say, ‘But it’s going to be great, and you’re going to feel something!’” And for many years, that second part — the part that says, “It’s going to be great” — was a very elusive thing to pin down.

How do you develop your ideas? Physically, how do you work together? One big Google doc? Kwan: At one point we had a Google Wave, back in the day. It was before Google Docs.

Scheinert: Google wanted to reinvent email, and so they created this thing called Google Wave, where you could see each other typing as you go, and you could put in images, and it was like a chatroom/email chain.

Kwan: And then they got rid of the Wave and replaced it with Docs. Anyway, that’s boring Google history.

I know some people who just text each other ideas all day. Kwan: We put a lot of stock in pitching [ideas] in person, because when an idea sparks, then you can just bounce it back and forth really quickly and that’s when you know it’s good.

Scheinert: Lately, we haven’t been doing that as much. Dan will come back from vacation and be like, “I’ve come up with a feature that we’re going to write.” And it takes me longer to get onboard than it would if I’d been there right when he came up with it.

Kwan: The energy is faster.

Scheinert: It’s always nice to have that initial moment of understanding to come back to later, when you’re like, “Wait. I’ve lost it. Why are we doing this?” We can think back to, “There was that day, and we were both laughing because I was walking like this.” And then we’ll remember: “Oh, it was the physicality. That’s what we liked.” I was in a comedy troupe in college, and our writing process was just once everybody laughs, that goes in the scene. But at a certain point, you split up and write.

So you both write individual scenes and then bring them back together? Kwan: But in very different ways. I never finish a scene. I’ll just write it for three months.

Scheinert: You’ll write until I force you to show it to me, and I’ll be like, “We’re late. Show it to me.” And then you will, and it’ll be good. I write very fast right away, and it’s not very good. But then, I’ll write another one, and then I’ll write another one, and then eventually, Dan will rewrite it, or an actor will take it. I usually edit his down and make them shorter, and then he changes mine, like more fundamentally, to improve them.

Kwan: It’s a very amorphous messy thing.

You’re both saying that you improve each other’s work, which is so nice. In the language of couples therapy, you are affirming each other. Scheinert: We need couples therapy sometimes.

So where did the idea for this movie come from? Scheinert: Riding a farting corpse like a Jet Ski off of a desert island — originally, that was it. But that was never appealing to us as a feature. We were like, “Ha, ha, anyway, we’ll just put that in the idea bin as a thing we’ll never make.” And then, later, we were trying to come up with a short film to pitch to someone who was funding shorts for $5,000. The idea was a lonely man in the woods teaching a dead body about the life he left behind. [Once we had] the reenactments and the innocence of the Manny character, we thought, oh, great, we get to do this exploration of what it means to be human by teaching a man-child corpse. That was when we started writing it as a screenplay. For a while we were like, “But he has to find the man who killed him!” But that road really led nowhere. It took a long time to figure out the next part.

Kwan: Often, with these things we have immediate, experiential reactions to, we then cognitively shut down. When we first said, “Let’s make a movie about a Jet Ski farting dead body and make it beautiful and triumphant,” we both laughed. And then, we were like, “We can’t make that. That’s a    terrible idea.” And that forces us to look at it [more deeply].

I love that you’re trying to push these formal boundaries because so many movies these days are just nothing but naturalism and plot. Kwan: We like those kinds of movies, too, but 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.

I have noticed that sometimes, especially in the midst of early writing experiences, writers can spend a huge amount of time trying to avoid cliché, but in the process just end up avoiding structure and clarity. You go a thousand miles away from clarity just to avoid being obvious, and then eventually you find your way back again. Scheinert: I think one of the things we didn’t realize was that when you do have structure and clarity, you can push the form so much further and not lose your audience. There were times where we were like, “Oh, man, I wish this was clearer so I could have more fun right now as a filmmaker, but I have to just focus on the clarity aspect.” I think a lot of directors probably don’t realize that until it’s too late. Like, “Oh, if I had written a more straightforward story, I could have [done] what No Country for Old Men did. I could’ve made crazy aesthetic choices.”

The emotional heart of the movie is so simple — what it feels like to see a pretty girl on a bus; what it is to be alive, to be afraid, to be a friend. Kwan: I think when you can skirt the line, it does make something exciting.

Scheinert: In some ways, we realized that the movie was so high concept that the narrative it deserved was really low concept. We were going to shake people out of their comfort zone, and then it would give us permission to explore themes that you’ve seen a thousand times. We found that the movie didn’t hold some of the most high-minded ideas or narratives. One anecdote I was thinking of was from the Sundance Labs. Joan Darling was the acting coach there, and she said, “You need to be able to tell people the soap opera version of your movie: ‘He wants that.’ Or, ‘She’s mad because he fucked him.’”

Kwan: She was teaching this to Sundance people, who are all about subtlety. It was pretty interesting.

Scheinert: But she was kind of saying, at least with an actor, you need to know the core of the scene — the most animalistic, simple version of it — so that the actor isn’t thinking academically. You don’t want an actor sitting there thinking about the nuance of the human experience. You want her [to be mad because he fucked him]. And it was so helpful for us, because we were like, “Oh, no, we don’t know the soap opera version!” Like, every one of our scenes has 10 narratives. We can’t give our actor direction because we’re asking him to dance a line between four simultaneous stories. That’s not okay.

The majority of the movie is just the two lead actors onscreen — that must have been so intimate. Scheinert: Yeah. We took that for granted at first, and then there was a point in prep when we realized that everything, starting with how tall they were, mattered. They need to not smell bad. They need to get along. They need to be able to carry each other. And they need to be nice people.

Kwan: If there was any sort of weird tension between the two of them, it would’ve thrown everything off.

Scheinert: Paul doesn’t love to rehearse, at least not full emotion, so his rehearsals are all about just making sure he understands the environment. He really wants to talk about where the character is coming from as much as possible so that he has a wealth of emotion to bring to the scene. But he doesn’t act it out until take one. Daniel loves rehearsal. He loves to be a finely tuned actor. You tell him, “Say that one word slightly differently and then change the moment where you move your neck from this line to this line,” and he’s like, “Okay,” and he nails it.

Kwan: Yeah, he’s a very precise guy. And he gives it 100 percent every single time. So the rehearsals were really bizarre because it’d be Paul, monotone, just saying a line and trying to figure out what the thing is about, and then Daniel would be like, teary-eyed. But the roles were so different that it oddly worked. There was something oddly perfect about it. I think we all got to learn something from each other.

I was trying to research other comparable films and shows before this interview. While there is a ton of magical realism in comedy, there isn’t a ton of drama these days, at least American, that uses magical realism. That’s even though it feels like our current human conundrum is about, “How do you find magic in the awful, difficult or utterly mundane aspects of your life?” Scheinert: We love the show Adventure Time. They seem to be achieving this. It’s like a Charlie Kaufman show mixed with a freewheeling child id show.

Kwan: They’re constantly just playing with familiar tropes, mythic tropes. It has a lot more to say than just what a normal kid’s show should say.

Scheinert: In some ways, we’re very much a product of the Vimeo community. That was where we found an audience earliest. I feel like in the short-form Vimeo world, and in music video land, you find this kind of content that we like to make. It isn’t in features much. The Charlie Kaufman movies, and the kind of stylized fun, madcap stuff of the late ’90s and early 2000s that inspired us the most is harder to find now.

I guess that time was near the beginning of After Effects. Kwan: Yeah, that was what happened — anyone could do it without a budget. Our working relationship started because I was teaching him After Effects. We put up this stupid effects test I used when I was teaching him, and it wound up on the front page, as a staff pick on Vimeo, and we realized it struck a chord.

Why do you think it struck a chord? Kwan: It goes back to being in an experience that you have never experienced before, which confuses you, confounds you, makes you work. I think people underestimate the power of new and the power of something different. Everyone has these preconceived ideas of what magic is, or what a fairytale is. It’s like experiencing a tiger in a cage. You understand it. You’re like, “Oh, I’ve seen a tiger a million times. It’s fine.” But experiencing a tiger in the wild, it becomes a completely different beast; one you don’t know how to control and you don’t know how to tame. And I think people are just seeking experiences like that.

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. I think of [the] surreal as: “I’m going to draw what I dreamt last night. And I’m not going to judge it. It’s just what it is, for the sake of it.” Instead, we find it very interesting to find stupid images and then judge them and then stick narrative underneath them and then explore them.

Kwan: To wait and see if they can carry that narrative, and if they can’t, give them the right legs to do it.

Scheinert: A farting body is an actual image that exists in our universe. Dead bodies decompose and gas comes out, and when you really think about it, that’s really funny and sad at the same time. But there is no meaning behind it. That is just a thing that happens. And by applying meaning to it [in the context of a story], we’re trying to… make sense of it.

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