First DJ Snake and Lil Jon, then a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe, and now, the multiverse. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking duo known as Daniels, discovered their creative synergy at Boston’s Emerson College and began applying it to award-winning music videos and wildly imaginative indie films. Their latest project, A24's maximalist action-comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once, which opens wide today, has struck critical and commercial gold. It debuted to raves at South By Southwest, and reached the highest per-theater average gross in months during its limited release.
Starring Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn, a woman overwhelmed by laundry, taxes, and the sudden ability to visit unlimited parallel universes, Everything Everywhere All At Once combines a familiar chosen-one journey with bonkers originality to winning effect. Kwan and Scheinert spoke to The A.V. Club about how their idiosyncratic story is resonating with audiences, the unique inspirations behind their buzzed-about film, and why they’re ready for “some humbling.”
AVC: How are you, Daniels? It seems you’ve been on a press whirlwind since this film’s premiere.
Dan Kwan: We’re tired, yeah, our brains are like mush right now.
Daniel Scheinert: So you can take advantage of this. Just ask us the weirdest questions.
AVC: Absolutely. Let’s start with the expectations versus reactions for Everything Everywhere All At Once. For a movie this wild and ambitious, how did you factor in audience appeal?
DK: I mean, deep down, I’m a people pleaser. I want people to love me and like me because I’m insecure in that way. And to fight that impulse as a filmmaker—[Scheinert] is so encouraging of the contrarian, weird, strange, impossible things that we shouldn’t be making, the exact kind of stories that would push the audience away. And I think that tension is so important to our work and why our work feels so unique: we’re kind of trying to do both things at the same time. So with this movie, we were like, let’s go as weird as possible, but now that we’re a little bit older and we understand our voice a little bit better, let’s see how many people we can bring into the fold. Without compromising anything, how many people can we bring into our strange, philosophical point of view? Which is basically that—
DS: Nothing matters, and that’s a beautiful thing?
DK: Yeah, exactly. And that’s why we combine the incredibly immature and profane with the really profound and inspiring beauty. Because I think this is how the world works. And so the fact that people are loving it this much—honestly, it’s terrifying. We were not ready for it.
DS: Yeah, I’m excited for small-town America to get it in their multiplex this weekend and rip it a new one. We need some humbling, you know? I want to confuse some of my relatives. We’ve gotten a taste of that. Like, some of our worst reviews are just our cast and crew talking to their families.
AVC: Did you have an “If we build it, they will come” mindset on this film?
DS: Yeah, a little. There’s all these taboos, these cultural norms about what a movie can and can’t be. And there’s all these taboos that, in my mind, are just arbitrary and worth poking. Like, I want to make people a little uncomfortable. But the tradeoff is, that’s going to turn some people off and there’s going to be, “Oh, I don’t like a movie that makes me uncomfortable at all.” And so we’re constantly trying to provoke but also make it nice and sweet, you know? And we’re not just shock value filmmakers. We just want to shock you a little, and then make you feel OK, so you’re not so shockable. But yeah, this one seems to be working better than our past work so far... Sometimes it’s like, I see [a movie and think], OK, everyone’s going to like this. But, yeah, Parasite was one where I was like, Wait, our parents like this one, too? Why does everybody like this when this is a really intense class warfare critique? But it’s just like, [Bong Joon-ho] did it so well that it got past everyone’s biases and everyone’s barriers.
AVC: When a film captures the imagination of critics and audiences like this one has, it’s often because the filmmakers are reflecting what’s on everybody’s minds. Did you set out to tap into the zeitgeist, particularly with the multiverse conceit?
DS: That was an accident. I think we started writing this in 2016, when the only other pop culture [property depicting multiple parallel universes] was Rick and Morty, really. And we hadn’t watched much of it at the time. It is now zeitgeist-y and it’s just in the ether. And I think that the internet has made the multiverse more relatable than ever. We’re like, yeah, there’s other worlds out there where people just believe completely different things and speak completely different languages, and it’s impossible to even communicate with them.
DK: If I’m allowed to talk about really lofty intent—it’s so stupid to talk about this—but while we were finishing Swiss Army Man and moving into this movie, I was revisiting some of Joseph Campbell’s work. And he kept talking about how we’re in this crisis. Even back when he was writing this, we were in this new crisis where every myth is meant to be a mirror of its community or its society that it comes from. But what happens when the entire world becomes the community? What happens when the entire world—plus the internet, which is filled with even more worlds within worlds—becomes the community? How are our myths going to be able to keep up with that, how do we create unifying myths in a post-community world? It feels like we’re in this mega-community that is beyond what Joseph Campbell even imagined when he set out to write about the theory of mythology and monoculture or whatever. So I was really struck by that. Everyone and everything is being pulled away from each other. Everything is falling apart. Even within the world of cinema, you see this stupid debate between the Scorsese cinephiles and the blockbuster fanboys. Everything is pulling apart from each other. Nothing is holding together. And if we’re going to talk about intent, this movie was in some ways our attempt to answer that question. Can we create a multiverse film that holds us all together as best as they can, in a way that’s unifying? Because none of our narratives are doing that anymore. Our narratives are aiming too low. They’re aiming for the types of stories we’ve seen before. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But I do think that we need to be thinking bigger and loftier right now because our society needs it. We need more stories that can hold it all together.
DS: I might even say that that’s what’s cool about the multiverse in general, not just our take on it. It’s grappling with bigness, and characters getting overwhelmed by too much.
DK: Yeah, there’s this futurist named Daniel Schmachtenberger, which sounds like a fake name, but it’s real.
DS: It sounds like you’re making fun of my name. [mockingly] “Daniel Schmachtenberger!”
DK: Exactly. He talks about the problem of meaning and a problem of sense-making. Like, no one can make sense of our universe anymore. And no one person can understand all of it, and no one group can have an answer for what any of it means. And unless we figure out this sense-making problem, we’re all doomed to miscommunicate until we die, until the whole thing falls apart. And so until we can learn to find a new paradigm for communicating with each other—and this is a challenge for every department, every part of society, and we just happened to be in this art world, the film and story world—and if we can just stay in our lane and try to tackle the sense-making problem, maybe we will have a chance of surviving the next 50 years.
AVC: This film’s approach to comedy seems to involve taking a joke into such absurd territory that it becomes something universal, even serious or heartwarming. Is that connected to this notion of overcoming miscommunication?
DS: This movie is sort of exploring close-mindedness in a way. And so many of my favorite movies are exercises in empathy: Can you make an audience empathize with that? Can you put them in the shoes of someone different than them? So the jokes were, at first, like, OK, you have permission to laugh at this. This is silly. And then we wanted to go on a journey and make you care. People ask, where did you come up with the [parallel universe where everyone has hot dog fingers]? That’s a question we get a lot. And it’s like, I don’t know, it wasn’t hard. It’s pretty easy to come up with some silly stuff. But the reason we did it was because it became this empathy challenge that was extra exciting. We wanted to get to a point where you’d be emotionally invested in this. And also we wanted to get Evelyn to a point where she could see the beauty in a universe she thought was extremely not beautiful. So it was like an open-mindedness that I think we aspire to. I struggle with it myself a lot, to just put someone in a box and go, All right, I know who you are. You don’t deserve more of my time. That’s such a shitty thing to do to people.
DK: Yeah, this question, it reminds me [of another] out-there thinker, Jamie Wheal. His whole idea is that we are in this place where we’re trapped by intellectualism. Intellectualism has been really useful to a point, but now we’re gridlocked, we have built walls in with all of the organization, all the labeling, and all the boxes that we’re putting everything in. And it’s actually going to be to our benefit to break free from that. Right now, because everything is gridlocked, because everyone is so firmly stuck in their ways and their close-mindedness or whatever, we can’t actually just see each other and experience each other. And [he writes] that our way out is actually to return back to tribal experiences, to art, music, sex. This film is kind of trying to pull us away from intellect. The fact that every moviegoer watches a movie and knows, Oh, I’m in the middle of the second act, that means I have this amount of time before we hit the bottom of the second act, before our character comes to some realization—you know, we’re just tracking so much intellectually that we don’t actually get a chance to feel or experience anymore.
And Jamie talks about the experience of the cavemen. They would go deep into caves and they would paint these drawings on the wall. But the archeologists were like, Why are they going into these caves to do cave paintings? They’re not living there. They’re living over here by the opening. And they found that it was like, Oh, it’s because there’s less oxygen there and they’re actually getting kind of high. They even talk about the act of holding a flickering torch next to the cave paintings, the way that they’re drawn, it actually creates an animation where they almost are moving. And so these people are having non-intellectual, spiritual art experiences and that’s connecting them. And I think right now, our world needs more of these kinds of experiences that pushes away from the intellect so that we can almost have this reset, this cultural reset. The fact that certain people leave the theater [after Everything Everywhere All At Once] almost feeling bonded to the people around them, because they all went on this journey together, is so profound. And that is to me the greatest argument for why theaters should stay relevant and are so important. It’s not because it’s a big screen or because the sound is the best. It’s because it harkens back to our ancestry, this experience of getting high in the caves with our friends! Which is so cool. I’ve been wanting to talk about this shit for so long, so I’m glad you’re poking at it.
AVC: Wonderful, thank you both. I can’t wait to see this movie again.
DK: Oh, good. Yeah, I hear it’s better on second viewing. Good luck!