In Daniels’ music videos and short films, things change rapidly and explosively. The filmmaking team — Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who became collaborators shortly after meeting in an animation class at Boston’s Emerson College — specializes in fast-moving, creatively daring, and often downright weird short pieces full of changes and reversals. In their video for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What,” a crazy beat gets into a man’s pants, and his wild sexual thrusting smashes floors, strips women, and infects entire families. (That’s Kwan as the man with the hyperactive penis.) In the short “Pockets,” a desperate homeless man tries to mug a stranger (Scheinert), setting off a wild, quickly evolving fight centered on a magical coat. In “Interesting Ball,” a prank goes terribly wrong, and Scheinert gets sucked into Kwan’s ass, to their mutual horror. And in the video for Passion Pit’s “Cry Like A Ghost,” a troubled woman flails through constantly changing scenery, representing the men she goes home with, the bar where she drinks, and the forest where she cries alone. Daniels’ work tends to be dizzying, because nothing is ever fixed in place for long.
That’s one reason their strange, melancholy feature debut, Swiss Army Man, is so compelling: It’s the first time they’ve had space to relax and explore their ideas about adaptation, change, and emotions at length. The film, made with help from a series of Sundance Institute workshops, deals with the same sort of bizarre situations and body discomfort that characterizes so much Daniels work: Hank (Paul Dano) is marooned on an island and planning suicide, until he finds Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a gassy, rotting corpse who slowly starts developing a personality and a point of view on the world. The two of them develop a strange friendship, based around their mutual loneliness and confusion, and their obsession with a woman named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The film relies heavily on corpse farts and broad gags, but it’s also sweetly sincere about longing, embarrassment, and the difficulty of being human. It’s a little Michel Gondry, a little Spike Jonze, and a lot of distinctly and specifically Daniels. I recently sat down with Kwan and Scheinert in Chicago to talk about how they handled their love story, why Daniel Radcliffe makes such a great cadaver, and why they’re so taken with human bodies.
I've read that during production on this film, you were a little obsessed with the possibility of one of you dying — that it would completely change how people interpreted the film.
Daniel Scheinert: [Laughs] Not obsessed. It's something I kept bringing up. Dan, not so much, but I kept thinking, "Oh man, that'd be crazy, if one of us—"
Daniel Kwan: You can't help but think about that every now and again, because we're so co-dependent at this point. It's just like, "What would happen—" And this is our biggest project yet.
DS: And our longest-running. So there was a point during the writing where we thought, "Man, this is going to take two years. Who will we be when this is over? It's such a strange feeling, to write something down and have to commit to, ‘I'm going to work on this for two more years.' This will keep interesting me for 24 more months."
DK: There would also be something sort of poetic if one of us died. So it was an interesting thought that kept coming back while we were shooting, I think because it was such an impossible burden on both of our shoulders that we're carrying together, imagining one of us going was horrifying.
DS: There was also a point after we shot where I was just so exhausted, I was thinking about quitting film. And then I thought, "What if I just quit? I'll be the Manny! Dan will learn something, and he'll make more movies, and I'm just out."
DK: We had very different reactions to the end of the shoot. The moment I wrapped, "I can do better. I'm excited to do another one! He's like, ‘Hell no. No more.'"
DS: "I've peaked! I want peace! I'm going to go teach math."
Where are you with film now? Are you back in?
DS: I am, but I'm at a point where I want to keep an open mind and look for inspiration. I just don't want to repeat myself. I want to make sure I'm inspired enough to work on something for three more years. I think it's important to not just be thrilled about our careers being somewhere they've been before, for the sake of opportunities.
DK: We want to be really excited about what we're doing next.
DS: Yeah, to enjoy this release process and how people react, and think about what inspires me. But I'll give you an honest answer—a lot of times, I make movies because I'm angry. Like, "Why aren't there movies like this?" or "Screw those guys!"
DK: "We'll prove them wrong! We'll make this movie and it'll be great!"
DS: I get mad at authority and institutions. But everyone's being so nice to us right now. I need to get mad at someone. [Laughs]
DK: It's not as fun to make strange movies when people let you do it. This was a lot of fun to make because there was a lot of inertia in the process.
DS: Like we were being sneaky. "Ha ha! Robert Redford has no idea who's in his Sundance Institute Program!"
Did concerns about death feature earlier in the movie's planning or conception?
DK: That's when the whole film clicked as a feature for us: "Oh, there's so much to explore here." The initial idea was obviously just a joke, but once we thought what it would be like to carry around a dead body—you'd just be thinking that you're gonna die one day. The whole time, that would be in the back of your head. And you would think about what your life has been so far. Those two things would just consume you. It consumed us, too.
DS: I think a lot of times when we make movies, it clicks for us when we get excited about a feeling we've felt, and the challenge of trying to illustrate that in a film. And so the absurd existential dread—we realized we both felt this similar feeling, not depression so much as meaninglessness. The feeling meaninglessness can give you is scary but interesting, a funny cold-sweat feeling. That was a finish line for us: "Oh, that's an interesting emotion. How on Earth do you get there with a movie?"
DK: When I was going back through my journal from back when we were first writing the first two drafts, one thing that really stuck in the forefront of my mind was the fact that if I really thought about it, I would only make cynical movies. If I wanted to be a logical person who went through the steps of thinking through causality, and how the world works, and where love comes from—love is an evolutionary thing that developed because without it, we'd all kill ourselves. Our brains are too smart for our own good, and if we didn't have happy, life-affirming feelings, we would kill ourselves. Thinking about those things were really oppressive. I wanted to tell a story that would take all of that into account, but still give you something beautiful. That was the challenge we set for ourselves. "We're incredibly self-aware, cynical human beings, and yet we still want to make something beautiful. How do we do that? How do we resolve that tension?"
Right before we started writing this, I had my first moment of realization that I no longer believed in God. I was very religious all through my life, up until college, basically. And then a few years out of college, I had to take a step back. I was like "What am I living for?" [Laughs] God was no longer in the picture. For a while, I was just living for our careers. I was just trying to make things so we could succeed, and that was really exhilarating. But after a couple years of going through that, I realized we had found some success, more success than I ever imagined we'd find. And then suddenly I didn't know what was left to fight for, to keep making for. What kind of stories did I need to tell? And so this came out of that. It's is a really strange thing to say about a farting-corpse movie, but this film is basically "How can we take all the nihilistic thoughts in our head and paint a beautiful picture with them?"
That's the heady philosophical existential side of the movie, but the other half is gags about how weird and gross human bodies can be. There's a lot of that physical humor in your work. Where does your fascination with body parts and body functions come from?
DS: You're absolutely right. I think it was an accident in a lot of our earlier work. It just so happened we'd both get really excited when we came up with like a funny image, like a man getting sucked up a butt [in "Interesting Ball"]. It was really funny to us, and we didn't overthink it. But the more we made that stuff, the more we asked "Why do we come back to that?" This one, we very intentionally were like, "This is about the human experience. Let's talk about the skin, and the blood underneath—"
DK: The meat that is on our spirits.
DS: In some ways, this movie is us looking back at our other movies like, "What the fuck? Why did we make that?" And I think one of the lowbrow answers is that we both like to dance, and we both like falling-down videos. Fail videos are hilarious. There's just something so pure about dancing and failing-and-falling videos. It's really cinematically rewarding to do pure things. "That will make someone laugh. Falling down is funny! He's gonna fall down right there! Ha ha, that's gonna be fun!"
DK: I also happen to like a lot of... I have a fear of how things work. The more I understand how my body works, the more unsettled I become, because I understand how easy it is for the chain of events to break down, and then suddenly I die. [Laughs] And so I feel really uncomfortable with my body, basically. I think that's one thing I learned with this process. I don't like thinking about my insides, what is happening in there. DS: Both of us, I think, have that. I'm very scared of blood. DK: He faints when he sees blood. DS: Like surgery videos... people watch those and have a great time, and I'm just like "No! Absolutely not." DK: It's a constant reminder of how fragile we are. We really are like a chain reaction that accumulates into us when we have our thoughts. But those thoughts are also just chain reactions. We think we have some sort of agency, but it's not true, we're just a bunch of chemical reactions. Something might happen one day where your intestines fall out of your stomach, and you don't know why. We're just terrified of our bodies, so this is our way of laughing at that.
"This is us looking back at our other movies: 'What the fuck? Why did we make that?'"
DK: I also happen to like a lot of... I have a fear of how things work. The more I understand how my body works, the more unsettled I become, because I understand how easy it is for the chain of events to break down, and then suddenly I die. [Laughs] And so I feel really uncomfortable with my body, basically. I think that's one thing I learned with this process. I don't like thinking about my insides, what is happening in there.
DS: Both of us, I think, have that. I'm very scared of blood.
DK: He faints when he sees blood.
DS: Like surgery videos... people watch those and have a great time, and I'm just like "No! Absolutely not."
DK: It's a constant reminder of how fragile we are. We really are like a chain reaction that accumulates into us when we have our thoughts. But those thoughts are also just chain reactions. We think we have some sort of agency, but it's not true, we're just a bunch of chemical reactions. Something might happen one day where your intestines fall out of your stomach, and you don't know why. We're just terrified of our bodies, so this is our way of laughing at that.
Daniel Radcliffe makes a very convincing corpse. People have compared Swiss Army Man to Weekend At Bernie's, but Manny isn't cute, he's really disgusting. Where's the divide there between makeup, acting, and CGI?
DS: It's mostly acting. He's very good at not blinking, and that lazy-eye thing is something he can just do.
DK: On demand. It's crazy. He's so good.
DS: We'd been talking with our makeup team about trying to make him asymmetrical, and "How dead is too dead?" And then we sat down with Daniel, and he was like "What about... I can do this cock-eyed face." We were like, "That's incredible. How cool."
DK: He had a lot of fun just contorting himself in strange ways to make his body feel unnatural. But when we sat down with our makeup artist and he started showing us real dead bodies, it was horrifying.
DS: And we had to go in a different direction, because it would've been too unrelatable. When people die, their skin starts to slough off, so it's not connected to the muscles anymore. People just start looking like dolls. Dead bodies are bloated and soft and black.
DK: And your eyeballs bulge, and you look like a cartoon. No movies depict dead bodies right.
DS: You've never seen a real dead body in a film. Like when people in a movie open up a closet, and they're like "Oh no, she died!" and there's a corpse that's kind of shrunken and skeletal, no. Dead bodies look like that doll you squeeze to make the ears and eyes pop out. That's what they look like. They look silly.
DK: Our makeup artist was like, "No one's ever let me do a real dead body."
DS: And we were like, "Sorry, we're not gonna let you either." [Laughs] "Next time!" We spent a lot of time debating how dead to make Manny. The big thing for me was, I really liked the movie Warm Bodies for the first half [when the protagonist is a zombie]. Once he looked like a boy again, I was so mad. "I wanna fall in love with a zombie. I want him to still look like a zombie and have us love him, because that's more interesting to me." So it was important to me that Daniel not look better the more he comes to life. If anything, he looks worse, because that contradiction was more fun.
DK: The empathy had to be that much stronger to overcome what you're looking at.
So many of your sets and props in this film are delicate, ultra-detailed constructions made of trash. How did you assemble these things? How did you conceive them?
DS: Our production designer, Jason Kisvarday, long before pre-pro even technically started, started collecting every color of plastic garbage he could, and organizing them at his house. He had buckets and bags of clear plastic, white plastic, green plastic, rope, paper. He cleaned it all off so it wouldn't rot, and he and his art team—we gave them vague prompts, and they had a little arts-and-crafts table throughout almost the whole shoot. And for a couple folks there, that became their job. They had to pretend to be Hank and make something he would make.
The rules were, "Don't make it unrealistically good. It needs to look like he could've made it in a couple hours." So they would make things very quickly. It was all very fragile, and actually made of garbage and sticks. They set up tables on set in the woods, so if we needed something, they would go for a walk, grab some sticks, come back, attach them to the garbage. It was fun. They were Method-acting production design. Which paid off. There was stuff they made before the shoot that we didn't use, because the stuff they made during the shoot was so much better.
The movie is so up-front about Hank’s interest in Sarah being a one-sided fantasy. What was your thinking around the film’s romantic angle, and around unrequited love?
DK: We wrote a version where it was a real relationship between Hank and a woman, and it was complicated, but pretty traditional: "Let's put a pretty traditional story in the middle of all this." And it wasn't working. It just didn't make any sense. The more we worked on it, the more we realized the film was about shame, and the things that keep us from other people. It made so much more sense to have a man so ashamed of himself that he would never be able to interact with someone he actually cared about. He was ashamed of that, even, and we wanted to give him sort of a storyline that was worthy of shame, so the fact that he stalks her is a horrible thing he carries with him. He doesn't know how to forgive himself for that, and the film doesn't forgive him for it.
DS: It was a big "Aha!" moment where we realized all these shame things were wrapped up in the Sarah story, which makes Hank, unfortunately, pretty relatable. Especially in the internet age, it's something a lot of boys can relate to, whether they can admit it or not. You go through puberty and you find yourself thinking about a certain girl too much. And no one ever tells you to talk about that. You bottle it up.
DK: In the end, things don't always work out the way you want them to. That's the point, you find love in unexpected places, you find that connection somewhere you never thought you would, hopefully in a way that allows you to move past your mistakes. So the film doesn't forgive Hank for it, but ideally, Hank forgives himself for it.
DS: And sometimes people do think we forgive Hank, and we're bummed. It's really interesting—we spent a long time testing the movie, and people would say, "Oh, Sarah loves him in the end!" and we'd say "No!" We had to go through and find every take in which Mary [Elizabeth Winstead] was the meanest. We had to go so out of our way to convince people she wasn't into it. People are conditioned to watch movies and watch the girl and be like, "She's into it!" We literally had to add lines and have her say "What the fuck?" multiple times, and grimace, and roll her eyes. She's not into it. That's not the point. It was important to us that that be the takeaway.
I'm kind of obsessed with women in film. There was a lot of time writing this when I was bummed that women didn't fit into this story more, and I was like, "Ugh, it's still about two white guys." There were drafts where we overcompensated. But ultimately, we landed somewhere where instead of oversimplifying Sarah we almost comically underdeveloped her. The point is that she's a pawn in their little emotional story, so we cast someone overqualified, because we wanted to make sure that for these very few lines, you get a sense that there's a whole human life right there. She could've had her own movie, but it's not this movie. It was an interesting, stressful challenge, having Mary there. We'd be like "I wanna make a movie with Mary."
DK: People see a big actress and expect her to fall in love. That creates an interesting disappointment, and it's the same disappointment that Hank feels. But that funnels us back to the relationship of Hank and Manny, which is the real reason the story exists—for them to realize they found each other in the most unlikely situation.