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Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert talk a lot about worst-case scenarios.
For Everything Everywhere All at Once, the duo’s latest buzzy feature, they considered all contingencies. “Worst-case scenario,” starts Kwan. “If Michelle Yeoh says no, we’re going to cut the budget to a tenth of what it was and we’re going to hire my mom.” Their calculus of self-regulation was present while planning their debut, Swiss Army Man — a bizarro buddy comedy that would star Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano. Kwan figured, “Worst-case scenario, if no one’s going to be in it, we’ll be in it.” And if they couldn’t find any money, says Scheinert, “Worst-case scenario, we were just going to shoot it in the L.A. River.”
This personal negotiation tactic marks a career built by troubleshooting, battling budgets and managing expectations. Analyzing their approach, Kwan says: “That’s always how our brains work because this industry is so unpredictable. It’s such a miracle anytime anyone lets us — or anyone — do anything that’s of their own voice.”
But what happens when the filmmakers are finally confronted with a best-case scenario?
Everything Everywhere has become a box office anomaly and a critical darling. Since its SXSW premiere in March, it has gradually rolled to a worldwide gross of $100 million on a nearly $15 million budget, all while maintaining a best-picture buzz. The directors have signed a five-year exclusive deal with Universal Pictures that has launched them from independent to full-fledged studio filmmakers.
“We love to chase things that could almost be a catastrophe,” says Kwan. Notes Scheinert, “We thrive on being told no, in moderation,” and adds, “I am nervous about having a budget that makes us not have those tough conversations.”
Kwan and Scheinert met as students at Emerson College, where they readily admit to not liking each other. In class, Scheinert participated a lot, possibly to the point of annoyance, while Kwan was deferential in a way that could be mistaken for aloofness. “Turns out I’m humbler than I seemed, and he’s more arrogant than he seemed, and we actually met somewhere in the middle,” says Scheinert. Kwan chimes in, “It was the classic rom-com thing.” They have now When Harry Met Sally-ed their way into a 13-year partnership. Says Scheinert, “I watch movies about married couples working through their problems, and I’m like, ‘Ugh, I relate.’ ”
The directors — collectively known as Daniels but, in conversation, only one is Daniel (Scheinert) while the other is Dan (Kwan) — cut their teeth on music videos in the early 2010s, working with bands like Foster the People and Manchester Orchestra. They became known in the music industry for being able to create ultra-cinematic shorts for little money that would invariably go viral. Their 2014 video for Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” features residents of an apartment complex whose bodies — genitals, mostly — are overtaken by the beat and wreak havoc on the building. It has over 1 billion views on YouTube.
Daniels’ output in 2011 included more than a half dozen music videos, three commercials and four short films. Remembers Kwan, “After that we were like, I don’t want to do this anymore. This is too much. It’s really taxing. You get like a thousand bucks for a month’s work, and it’s 60-hour weeks. We knew we had to jump to the next level, whatever that was.”
So they started writing. Their first effort was a script titled Code Name: Operation: Heist School the Musical … 4?, a heist movie set during a high school’s annual musical production. Says Scheinert, “There’s a lot of it that I’m still very proud of — but we would’ve needed to get Jackie Chan, and we also wrote the musical Grease into it.”
Writing with producibility in mind, they came up with Swiss Army Man, a two-hander about a man stranded in the forest who befriends a washed-up corpse that reanimates and helps him find civilization. Becoming one of the most anticipated features at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the movie premiered at the Eccles Theater with an opening sequence showing Dano riding Radcliffe, playing the corpse as a human jet-ski powered by his own flatulence. Kwan’s family was in the audience, and he remembers his sister screaming. “It wasn’t laughter,” he says. “Afterward, she said, ‘Daniel, I was scared for you. But, also, it was really cool, but I was scared for you.’ ”
Before the movie had let out, headlines and tweets began to roll in. Scheinert recites one from memory: “Mass Walkouts at Daniel Radcliffe’s Farting Corpse Movie.”
The walkouts — rare at a non-European festival — became the biggest story of that Sundance despite most reports disclosing that only 30 to 40 people left a theater that seats 1,500. The night of the premiere, the directors remained largely unaware of the media cycle. “We were wondering if there was going to be a bidding war that night, and that very much did not happen,” Scheinert recalls with a laugh. As reality began to set in, Kwan admits, “I was not sleeping well, kind of in a funk, being like: ‘What do we do? How do we get out of this situation?’ “
The directors became determined to wrest back the narrative, with Kwan staying up late writing essay-length answers to impending questions about the movie. He says of the press that followed, “I came out swinging so hard for the rest of the week.”
By that time, A24 had already become synonymous with ambitious, director-driven titles, commercial viability be damned. The New York outfit acquired Swiss Army Man, laying the groundwork for a partnership that would continue to Daniels’ next project — one that would become the studio’s highest grosser to date.
The filmmakers’ experience has been markedly different on Everything Everywhere, a genre-spanning sci-fi film that stars Yeoh as a laundromat owner who travels across the multiverse with newfound powers in hopes of defeating the ultimate evil. During its opening-night screening at SXSW, the audience cheered action sequences fought with fanny packs, emotional dialogue delivered by boulders with googly eyes, and an anthropomorphized raccoon voiced by Randy Newman. After the screening, there was a standing ovation. Yeoh cried onstage.
Everything Everywhere has spent an impressive seven months in theaters, gradually rolling its way to over $100 million in receipts, never grossing more than $7 million on any one weekend. Now, with some distance, Kwan analyzes the success, offering, “We have this viral video mentality, which is really important in the current version of the attention economy we’re in. Everyone’s talking about how indie films just do not break through. They are not viable anymore. And that’s why we made Everything Everywhere, in some ways.”
In her first viewing of Everything Everywhere, Universal’s chairwoman, Donna Langley, knew she was “watching something from filmmakers who tell their story through a contemporary lens and very specifically understand what young people today are dealing with.” The studio offered Daniels a five-year exclusive feature partnership, a rarity. In recent history, the only filmmaker to be given such a deal is Jordan Peele, after having worked with the studio on Get Out. Before inking, Kwan and Scheinert talked with Peele and his partner Win Rosenfeld.
“We’re always looking for the calculated risks,” says Kwan. “This felt like a very good way to make sure we could take a big swing, but with very little scrutiny and stress.” While their first Universal film isn’t set yet, they’ll stick with original ideas — and are looking forward to not worrying about lining up funding and distribution. Still, says Scheinert, “Now that some of the old pressure’s gone, we’re going to find something more anxiety-inducing.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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