Published Jun 30, 2016It's easy to understand why director duo Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan chose to work together under the DANIELS moniker. After all, on a conference call to promote their debut feature film Swiss Army Man, the pair have the polished rapport of two seasoned improv performers. They finish each other's sentences, riff on each other's jokes and, well, occasionally sound a lot like one another. "Just attribute all the good quotes to me," Scheinert says as they both erupt in laughter.
In fact, deciding to work together as DANIELS has only proven to be a positive for the creative team. "There's almost a pleasant anonymity to that, you know?" Scheinert continues. "We're just glad that we get to make our movies and that people who like them can find our other work. Credits don't really matter so much to me."
Plus, as Kwan adds, "It could have been a lot worse. We had a lot of other names that were just terrible." He's not wrong — they initially toyed around with calling themselves Criminalz or D.Ä.D. before landing on their decidedly less goofy moniker.
The balance of silly and serious has followed DANIELS throughout their working relationship. After making acquaintance in film school, the pair first bonded in an extremely messy way when they were both camp counsellors tasked with teaching children about filmmaking. Scheinert recalls the unique way he taught his class about long lenses.
"I was like, 'With a long lens, you can hide in the bushes and people won't know you're filming. So how about we hide in the bushes and then you guys go throw a salad on Dan Kwan's face while we hide in the bushes?'" he recalls.
As Kwan explains, it wasn't just any salad. "It was like, 'Let's go to the salad bar and put everything in this one salad,'" he says. "So they had soda and beef. And the soda made the whole thing digest itself, so it literally smelled like throw-up. It was just foul."
Scheinert adds, "I almost got my kids kicked out of camp."
From there, the pair bonded over nearly everything. "Dan introduced me to loving buffalo sauce," Sheinert says, momentarily derailing our conversation. "I was like, 'Wow, I thought hot wings were garbage but they're incredible.'" They also found common filmic ground in films like Magnolia, The Life Aquatic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
"That kind of stuff was really exciting to us — those amazing directors of the late '90s and early 2000s who were doing insane things and somehow getting their scripts produced but doing it in a really unique and beautiful way," Kwan explains, adding that they were equally inspired by the music video compilation series from the Director's Label. "Those DVDs, in my eyes, bred a whole generation of directors who just kind of wanted to make a mark for themselves. I think that's definitely something that influenced us — people like Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Chris Cunningham and Jonathan Glazer. Those kinds of guys that just came out of nowhere and did their own thing.
"Back then, I don't know if we knew that we'd get to a point where we could make our own feature and do it the way we wanted to, but that was kind of the dream."
Swiss Army Man is not exactly the easiest sell. The film stars Paul Dano as Hank, a man who has lost all hope while abandoned on a desert island. Just as he's about to take his own life, he discovers Manny — a bloated corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. It turns out that Manny is more than just a cadaver, however, as his body is as handy as the knife from which the film is named. Among his many skills is that he ceaselessly passes gas, allowing Hank to harness his fart power to travel through the water and light fires.
It sounds like a painfully stupid premise, but the film soon unveils deeper themes of humanity, friendship and self-esteem. It's far more profound than profane. Still, DANIELS were well aware that Swiss Army Man would be a tough sell.
"We always thought it was dumb, but sometimes we think of that as a compliment and other days we're worried it's an insult," Scheinert says.
"Every time we would pick up a new crew member or ask someone for a favour, we'd have to be like, 'Uh, yeah. It's a movie about a guy, and he farts a lot, and he's dead, and he has special powers, and we wrote it ourselves, and I'm sorry. Please help us,'" Kwan recalls, adding that the film's premise was so divisive that those who loved it really loved it. "Daniel Radcliffe said he knew if he one day saw a movie where someone else was farting across the ocean with Paul Dano across his back, he'd be really disappointed in himself."
After choosing such an audacious concept for their debut feature, DANIELS were forced to make a better film. "When you start with the premise of a farting corpse you are in unfamiliar territory and have to make it as good as possible from there," Scheinert says. "It forced us to constantly be vigilant to make it good. You couldn't just rest on your laurels. Y'know, 'At least it's a rom-com' or 'At least there's a comic book already.'"
That means DANIELS put a lot of effort into perfecting every element of the film, including the many hyper-realistic fart sounds.
"I think really the secret is to consider the history before your film and make sure it comes from an honest place and you're not playing into stereotypes," Scheinert says on picking the most believable flatulence sounds. "Most of the canned farts aren't grounded in reality anymore. It's kind of like the sound effects they use for an eagle in all movies, is actually the sound of a hawk. It's actually a hawk, not an eagle. Eagles don't make that sound. People aren't authentically presenting fart sounds in movies, and we're here to champion that.
Though it's their first feature, DANIELS aren't exactly green as filmmakers. They've collaborated on seven short films, helmed episodes of Adult Swim shows like Childrens Hospital, NTSF:SD:SUV and the insane one-off short The Pound Hole, and have directed music videos for artists as diverse as Battles, Chromeo, Passion Pit and the Shins. Their clip for DJ Snake and Lil Jon's viral single "Turn Down for What" has over half a billion views on YouTube.
While they've got a trusted crew that they consider family at this point, working on the scale of a feature-length film presented its own batch of problems. "Staying interested in the script, and staying committed to making it better every day for two and a half years — that's tough," Scheinert admits.
"All the while having this weird tension in the back of your neck from the fear that what you're doing is too insane and no one's going to understand it," Kwan adds. "Trying to convince yourself every day that what you're doing is going to be special and make sense for someone out there."
As predicted, the film was incredibly divisive when it opened at Sundance earlier this year, so much so that it developed online buzz as the fest's most critically reviled.
Kwan explains that the duo would much rather challenge expectations than play by the rules.
"We did kind of make this movie to kind of subvert what a filmgoer or a film critic or anyone who goes to Sundance would expect out of the movie, in a fun way. Kind of almost as a big social experiment to see [what would happen] if we put ourselves into this movie and poured our hearts into it and found a way to create something that we were proud of — despite the fact that the premise of this movie is something that most film buffs would scoff at…. Who gets to decide what is a movie worth making and what is a movie that shouldn't exist? It was kind of fun to see a lot of people who were offended by its existence."
Besides, the critics were fairly kind to the film — especially if they stayed until the end.
"In some ways it was validating that some folks were upset about the movie, because the whole movie is about societal norms… and how does it make people feel when they don't fit into a box?" Scheinert explains.
After all, for all of its ridiculous fart scenes, boners and genuinely bizarre moments, Swiss Army Man is really a body-positive film about self-acceptance.
"Body dysmorphia is something I definitely grew up with without realizing what it was," Kwan says. "I just felt like if I just did one little thing, if I just had one little thing about my body my life would be different. And that was really good to grow up and realize that it won't make a difference and I can be proud of myself."
Though he thought he had reached a sense of self-acceptance in adulthood, Kwan admits that he was taken aback by the comments he received after starring as a wicked dancer with a destructive dick in the "Turn Down for What" video. In the predictably ignorant tone of YouTube commenters, Kwan recalls that a number of people wrote things like, "I get it — he's Asian."
"It was a bizarre thing because most of my life I've tried to ignore the fact that I'm Asian," he recalls. "All I wanted to do was be a white person that fit in and I felt like if I could just forget about the fact that I was a different other thing I'd have a better life and more friends and lots of girlfriends or whatever.
"But 'Turn Down for What' made me reexamine that," he continues, adding that the music video actually made him feel liberated. "I have a gift being an Asian person who has somewhat of a platform, even if it is doing videos like 'Turn Down for What.' Now I meet other Asian guys who've seen that video and love our work, and they're so excited about its existence. It's really kind of sweet, because Asian guys don't get to be hard, and we don't get to be sexualized, and put in front of the camera all that often. And I forgot about that until that video."
Ultimately, then, DANIELS have similar goals for their latest project. As Kwan says, "I'm hoping that in some other way that also bleeds into the Swiss Army Man reactions as well, people who are bummed out about their bodies can just be like, 'Yo, all bodies are weird and it's okay.'"
Swiss Army Man opens tomorrow (July 1). You can read Exclaim!'s review of the film here.