Interview: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, aka ‘The Daniels’
The directing team behind award-winning music videos felt their first feature should take some risks, so they paired a farting corpse with a man bent on suicide in Swiss Army Man
By Katherine Monk
Artsy has never been so fartsy. In the new movie Swiss Army Man, Daniel Radcliffe plays a corpse, Paul Dano plays a suicidal introvert and flatulence assumes a central, life-affirming role in the denouement.
Welcome to the world according to ‘The Daniels’ — a unique corner of the universe occupied by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, two first-time feature directors who found themselves in the Sundance spotlight last January when festival director John Cooper pronounced their debut feature, Swiss Army Man, one to watch at the opening press conference.
The Ex-Press caught up with the dynamic duo (who are also responsible for award-winning music videos such as DJ Snake and Lil’ Jon’s Turned Down for What?) during a recent press stop in Toronto, shortly after Swiss Army Man went wide in 600 theatres across North America.
Q: So how did your directing relationship begin?
Daniel Scheinert: It kind of just evolved we were both just little filmmakers before we started doing stuff together.
Dan Kwan: I was an animator. I did a lot of stuff by myself in school. And that’s how I liked to make movies because I did not like collaborating that much.
DS: I was kind of like a serial collaborator. And would do comedy videos in college. It was quantity over quality.
DK: And I was quality over ever finishing anything.
DS: So when we started working together we started with visual-effects-heavy short films and music videos and the Internet seemed to like them.
DK: The Internet liked it more than most things we made so all that positive reinforcement caused us to work together until we actually made films as The Daniels.
DS: Yeah. We are a product of the Internet, basically.
Q: As artists, what does that mean to you — to find affirmation on the Internet?
DS: Some kinds of art are buried on the Internet. Or made fun of. But there are other forms that it democratizes, like our kind of work. For us it was lovely because it meant we didn’t have to network, or work our way up through the industry or follow any rules. We just had to let the work speak for itself.
DK: For most things it would be kind of strange, because you’d think it would create pandering stories, or pandering art. But we kind of purposefully made things that we didn’t think people would like. And that’s why it was so surprising that people liked it. And that’s why it actually felt right. To this day, we don’t necessarily pander, but we do try to challenge people in an entertaining way. I think that’s been a good approach to our work because our work is so strange.
Q: Is it strange because you guys are strange? Where does the strangeness come from?
DS: I think everyone is strange.
DK: I think we were both making strange things on our own but not really the way we are doing it now, where we can both look at the strange thing we are holding and both agree and say, oh, you like this too? It’s not just me? And that kind of shows that at least between the two of us we have more in common than we think. So we may think other people will find it interesting or worthwhile even if it’s strange. So hopefully, it will bring to light that not everything is black and white. It’s not an either or thing. We’re all kind of on a spectrum.
Q: You’re right. I think we are all different and strange to different degrees. But there’s this socializing impetus to flatten us out a little, and make us easier to cookie-cut.
DS: For sure. We were just lucky that at some point in our lives we started acting out against that impulse instead of letting ourselves get too normal.
DK: The contradiction is we live pretty normal lives.
Q: And what does a normal life look like to the Daniels?
DS: Like I watch a lot of Netflix with my girlfriend and we have a house and a dog. And my favourite hobbies are like cooking or going out for dinner or a party… Film is like our therapeutic outlet to assert our individuality.
DK: I think growing up in high school I had this fear that I could just disappear and no one would ever notice. I think part of it was because I was a transfer student and also I was a Chinese kid, and I think Asians don’t want to stick their neck out all that often. I didn’t realize it at the time but it kind of terrified me. I became fascinated by punk culture and anything that was kind of alternative. I started to dye my hair and pierce my ears and do all that stuff to make sure that I would never be forgotten in some way. Like when I got to high school, there was another kid with almost the same name as me. His name was Dan Kim. And I was Dan Kwan. And for the entire first year, everyone would call me Dan Kim. Every day. It made me feel I was a person who couldn’t stand on his own. And I think our work comes a little bit from that as well. I need to make sure that I am going to stick my head out a little bit and that I have something to show. I think that’s how that punk attitude comes out as an adult.
Q: It seems part of the impulse to conform is the idea that you need to grow up and make money. Yet, you guys became famous through the Internet. But now that you’re in the game, and you’re in the entertainment industry, do you feel pressure to conform, or have you managed to carve out a niche? Do you feel you have to compromise?
DS: Both. I think we’ve managed to carve out a niche because we both compromise relentlessly. Even though our reputation is for making weird things, we have a lot of guilt about spending other people’s money. So our entire careers we’ve tried to take very calculated risks and the short film we are making to advertise a band actually might sell that many records to justify the production. We never ignore the commerce. Even with the movie, we compromised a lot to try to make sure we were being smart about it and that we’d be able to do it again, and maybe people like us would get to do it more often.
DK: I think the worst thing that could have happened with this film is we made it, and then scared even more financiers away from weird movies and weird stories because we never would have signed up to do this or push to do this if we had any fears in our minds the movie wouldn’t make its money back. We firmly believe there is a market for this kind of storytelling and we do believe people are hungry for it even of they aren’t aware of it yet. Especially nowadays, when most of Hollywood is so risk-averse. I think people are hungry for something that shines a different kind of light on our humanity. A different way to show how we’re connected.
Q: Like a dead guy and a living guy on a beach. How did you come up with that particular concept? It’s almost an absurdist metaphor — a to be or not to be kind of thing — only with flatulence.
DS: It started with a bunch of images and concepts. But the idea for the feature never took shape until we came up with the idea for a relationship between our two characters Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). And the easiest way to sum it up is the suicidal man has to convince a dead body that life is worth living. Those themes and that kind of contradictory relationship was the start of the feature film. We thought this could be worth 90 minutes. This could be our first feature.
We wanted to go to a really dark, cynical place and then make something hopeful. Our goal was to stare into the abyss and be able to laugh and be able to find some hope in there.
Q: Were you looking for the first feature idea for a while?
DK: From the moment we started making music videos together we knew we wanted to do a feature. That was always the ultimate goal. We read a few scripts that were being sent around and we even wrote a first draft of another script that felt too big for what we were trying to do. I think we are very resourceful directors, so we decided to make something that we could realize. And we looked around at what was available to us and write a script based on that.
DS: We wanted to make something meaningful and efficient, and this one started to check off all the boxes. And we wanted to announce ourselves with this movie. It would have been one thing if people were already aware of our style. But it was so much more impactful because it was unexpected.
Q: Yes. People really noted the farting. It seems passing gas is the ultimate Hollywood taboo – more than the necrophilic aspect. What do you make of the obsession with the flatulence?
DS: Isn’t that funny? That more people are offended by the farts than the necrophilia? It’s an insane statement.
Q: It is!
DK: The whole film is playing with taboos. Things we aren’t supposed to talk about or put in movies, and farts are the most looked-down-upon elements you could possibly put in a film. And we wanted to explore that and see if we could make it beautiful. Or even be open to it.
DS: If they were just farts, people would have forgotten about this movie last January. So I think we are pretty excited to be at the point where the movie that sounds insane on paper is getting out there to audiences and people seem to like it.
DK: We’re a bit surprised that people like it. It just went wide for the first time in the US and just hit 600 theatres and last night was the first time normal people went to see the movie and it’s been good to see what people think, because for the longest time all they knew about was the farting corpse aspect. Hopefully, it forces them to rethink their judgment about other things in the future.
Q: Did it take convincing? Was Daniel Radcliffe up to being manhandled?
DS: We were expecting that we’d need to convince him. But once he read the script he really responded to it and because he really wanted to do the physically challenging crazy stuff, there were times when we had to tell him to slow down. Don’t hurt yourself. Like, we really can do that part in visual effects.
Q: And what about Paul Dano?
DS: We got lucky. We didn’t want to dupe anyone into participating. Paul had already seen our work before we sent him the script and he was already a fan. And it just felt right. Of all the things we had to do the casting was the best, once we got past the politics and got to the people.
Q: So, was the goal always to make this absurdist, life-affirming metaphor?
DS: Yes. Absolutely. We wanted to go to a really dark, cynical place and then make something hopeful. Our goal was to stare into the abyss and be able to laugh and be able to find some hope in there.
DK: I was reading some [Albert] Camus and he was talking about suicide is the most important question, and the only question we should ask. TO be or not to be. When you search for meaning in a meaningless world. You can approach it three ways: You can physically kill yourself, you can philosophically kill yourself (which seems to be his poke at religion), or you can stare at the meaninglessness and try to find your own meaning in it, knowing that every day you will have to define for yourself what the world is. And that seemed like a really fun thing to tackle with a meaningless image: A farting corpse. It’s existentially terrifying. We are all going to die without any sort of dignity. So if our character can look at a farting corpse and see something beautiful, it would be able to redeem our own lives by transforming it into something more hopeful. We’re hoping people take something different away from the film, and maybe spend the next couple of weeks walking around thinking about life in a different way.
Q: These are wonderful notes to end on, but at the risk of losing the beautiful arc of conversation, I want to ask you about the meta elements in the film. The role of filmmaking in the movie is front and centre. Has filmmaking given you guys a sense of meaning and purpose? Is every day an act of performance for the ordinary soul?
DS: I think so. One of the things that really attracted us to this story in the first place wasn’t that we wanted to make a survival film. Man vs. Nature didn’t interest us. We’re boys with a lot of feelings. Neither one of us would be very good in the wild. But we were very interested in the idea that there is a man in the wild who sees himself as the lead character in a movie, because we’re all the lead character in the movie we make up in our heads. We all walk around picking and choosing the score. It’s a very weird meta existence we all live in now. And that’s why this movie was so fun for us: We knew through re-enactments of life back home that it could be funny, but also an honest exploration of how we are all telling stories to ourselves.
We’re boys with a lot of feelings. Neither one of us would be very good in the wild.
Q: True. And the story you guys are telling yourselves now… It seems you’re in a very vulnerable place, given how seductive fame and success can be. And you just went wide in 600 theatres and so what feelings are you wrestling with now that maybe you weren’t even facing at Sundance, say? What demons are beginning to wriggle from the floorboards?
DK: Great questions…
DS: Actually we just cancelled a few Q&As because we both just want to go home and make dinner with our girlfriends. But luckily, the seduction of fame is exactly how we look at it. It’s ominous and seductive, but we have a family of people around us to keep us in check. They all have strict instructions to call us out if we turn into assholes.
DK: But we have developed this really horrible addiction to Twitter. Every time we get off a plane, we have to know, what is the world saying about our movie? Like what reviewer is going to be hating our movie now? We’ll have to wean ourselves off of it. But we’ve been so surprised and blown away by how many people want to see this movie…
DS: But also humbling to see how many people hate it. Every couple of hours we get our egos crushed.
Q: Well I won’t crush your ego.
Swiss Army Man is now open in theatres across North America.
THE EX-PRESS, July 8, 2016