A24’s Everything Everywhere All at Once is a mouthful to say. The movie’s title is also the most succinct and accurate way of describing what co-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — the Daniels — wanted to dig into with their latest feature.
The film is an action epic, and a love story, and a timely reflection on Hollywood’s current obsession with multiverses. But it’s also a Michelle Yeoh showcase, and a murder mystery, and a thought exercise about what it might be like to have hot dogs for fingers. While that degree of narrative dissonance is something most filmmakers would be inclined to avoid, when we spoke with the Daniels recently, they explained that a sense of existential chaos is an important part of understanding where Everything Everywhere All at Once Came from and the truly universal message woven into its take on the multiverse.
The multiverse, like Michelle Yeoh, is having kind of a moment right now as a concept, and I wanted to hear from you both about your feelings about it as a narrative device outside of the comic book trappings a lot of people might be more accustomed to seeing it in.
Dan Kwan: As filmmakers, the multiverse should scare all of us. It’s anti-story when you think about it. When you’re learning about screenwriting, it starts with “what are the decisions your characters make” because that’s how you build a character over the course of a movie. The multiverse posits that every decision you make doesn’t matter because every other version happens. It’s a slow watering down of why you should care about a movie. We were so excited to tackle that because we thought that’s a challenge that we haven’t seen anyone do yet. Has anyone used the multiverse to really look at what it feels like to be alive right now? This moment of feeling like 100 narratives are hitting you at the same time, and you’re laughing, and you’re crying, and you’re confused, and you’re scared.
Daniel Scheinert: And you have FOMO about the 100 different places you could have gone and friends you could have visited, and what they’re all doing.
DK: One of the only ways you can react to that is to go numb, and I think a lot of people have gone numb. This film is almost a way for us to say, “We see you in this chaos. Maybe there’s a better way. Maybe we can find a way to exist in all this noise.” So, yeah, I think it’s very different from what other people and other franchises are doing with the multiverse, conceptually, and I think audiences are going to really connect with it because of that.
DS: In our free time, we just love science, like articles and hot takes and things, and that was what brought us to the multiverse more than any media. The absurd speculative physics of it, and just reading about all of these theories and being like, “Oh, that’s terrifying.”
Let’s talk about that weird feeling — that noise and malaise a lot of people have been living with. Compared to when you first started conceiving ideas for this film, how have your feelings about and relationships to that larger feeling shifted?
DK: We started writing this in 2016 when Donald Trump began his campaign—
DS: When his campaign really started to succeed.
DK: Right, not when he started, but when things started to get really confusing. That feeling kinda never ended — it’s just ramped up because after four years of that, we had to go through an election, and then we had to go through a pandemic all at the same time. And now, of course, there’s everything that’s happening in Europe.
I don’t think this feeling is that unique because I think life has always been chaos, but we’ve never been so close to the chaos before. It’s literally in our pocket every day. I hope that this film in some weird way, as chaotic as it is, will connect with audiences because they recognize this life and themselves in it.
The phrase “love letter” gets thrown around a lot and very easily these days because it sounds nice and makes people feel good, but I did get the sense that Everything Everywhere All at Once did very much come from that kind of space or mode of creativity. What, to your minds, does it mean to craft a cinematic love letter, though? As easy as it is for fans to just sort of throw that phrase out, I’m curious to hear what you, as filmmakers, think should go into that kind of a piece of art that ends up receiving that response?
DK: I want to answer this question. I think it’s a very unique one. We haven’t had this one yet, and it’s a good question. The idea of a love letter is really interesting because you’re right — it gets thrown around a lot. But when I think about my love letters, when I truly love someone and write to them, they aren’t precious. They’re wild, and they’re, they’re inside jokes, and they’re filled with just a room for that person to grow.
I think a lot of cinematic love letters are so precious that they try to contain the thing and keep it what it was — this immovable, static thing. I think what we did by accident was we created a love letter to Michelle Yeoh in which we gave her that space to grow, which is what real love is, right? This movie was able to hold all of her past in a small pocket, but also, it just opens up the world and says “you deserve to show off so much more of who you are and what you’re capable of.”
DS: It was never a conscious thing, that our movie be a love letter to Michelle Yeoh. It just happened because we love her. [Laughing] But also, this movie is a love letter to like 40 different things that we care a lot about. In some ways, like me personally, I would forget sometimes until we were on set, the body of work that we were contributing to. Or the fact that like that we’ve now dragged Jamie Lee Curtis into the orbit of this insanity and dragged Ke Quan back into filmmaking, and we just kind of were focused on telling our story, and then, it was all of a sudden, we turned around and were like, “Woah, what a crazy collection of things we love that have come together here.”
DK: Everything Everywhere All at Once is a love letter that we put in the blender, chopped up into a million pieces, burned it, turned that ash into little teabags, and then gave back to Michelle. Honestly, I think “love letter” isn’t the right word anymore; it’s so much more than that. It’s just pure, true, earnest love. The day after the premiere, she was very emotional and really thankful to us, and it was a very moving experience, having someone like Michelle Yeoh open up to us in that way.
How do you both feel you grew, not just as filmmakers but as people during this production process?
DS: I’m like a different person than I was when I finished it last summer, and now releasing it, it’s like bearing this personal part of yourself to the world and talking about it. It’s changing us, and that’s part of the magic of making art.
DK: There’s two stories that I can tell, and I’ll try to keep them quick. But I changed so much because of this movie, not just during the making of this movie, but because of this movie. First, I started out unmarried. I was just a bachelor not too long after college.
DS: You were dating.
DK: I was dating, yeah, but now, I’m a married person. I have a kid. I have a house. We planted fruit trees in our backyard.
DS: The trees have fruit on them now!
DK: I know! It’s amazing. But I have one foot in the character of Joy, the younger generation, and now I see myself in the character of Evelyn as a parent, and now I can fully see my movie as a reflection of this experience of generational trauma, but also generational love, like what it means to stretch in both directions like this.
What was the other story?
DK: Well, this film was the reason why I realized I had an undiagnosed adult ADHD. While writing the movie, we wanted to do research on ADHD, and I found out — five or six hours later, crying on my phone — that I had a reason for why the first half of my life was so hard. I went to therapy and got diagnosed, and I am in such a better place now because of this movie. Even within the past week of showing this movie to people, I’ve had many people come up to me and say, like, “Is this movie about ADHD?” Last night, we did a Q&A. The moderator was like, “I got diagnosed with adult history these past couple of years because of the pandemic, and I saw that in this movie,” and I was kind of blown away that it was so obvious. I’m hoping that this film could be part of that kind of awareness, the movement of awareness around that particular mental illness or handicap.
You mentioned the concept of generational love, which isn’t something that we hear about all that much as we’ve begun to talk more about generational trauma. Talk to me about your conceptualization of generational love and using it to ground such a big multiversal story.
DS: It became our guiding light very early on, and we knew that the movie was going to be about a family and that we could throw crazy ideas at the wall. But the litmus test would be like, does that complement the journey of this family? A surprisingly weird array of things still compliment the story of this family because they’re all distractible, and so anything that distracts them in a new and interesting way becomes a potential path.
I think one of the things about generational love that we kind of came to while making this was empathy. We tried to make an empathetic story about how hard it is for our parents’ generation to understand our generation. We tried not to oversimplify that idea by doing an ode to how beautiful it is when someone who grew up in a completely different way goes on the brave journey of trying to understand and support someone so different from themselves.
DK: One of the things we realized was, like, we are going to be the old people soon. If progress is to happen, the older generation has to be willing to listen, and hopefully, they will listen in the way that they wish they were listened to. And the young generation will have to be kind and patient in the way that they hope that the next generation will be kind and patient with them. It’s obvious to say, of course, but it’s... I think it’s one of the hardest things any human has to do, and I’m hoping that this movie creates space for that kind of conversation because we’re in the middle of it right now. We need that kind of conversation.