To hear Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — the directorial duo known collectively as “Daniels” — tell their origin story, it was something like withering contempt at first sight. They were both film students at Emerson College in Boston, they shared a 3D animation class together, and neither of them were particularly impressed by the other. “I have ADHD,” Kwan says, the two of them perched on a couch side by side, somehow perpetually and ever-so-slightly oft-kilter in the frame of their Zoom call. “I hated school. Dan wanted to participate in everything. We just sat there silently judging each other the entire time. It was not an…obvious journey.”
Yet slowly, over the course of the class, both Kwan and Scheinert began to realize that they had more in common then they’d realized. “We were both talented in certain ways —” Kwan says.
“And both a little perverted,” Scheinert interjects.
“We both had a strange sense of humor, yeah,” Kwan adds. “But even then…Dan comes from the world of improv-theater comedy. I was a half-introvert who went into animation and design because I didn’t want to interact with other humans. It still wasn’t a good fit.”
Then, while both Daniels were teaching assistants for the New York Film Academy’s summer camp — with each of them jealous of the young students running around with cameras all day — they decided to make a short film together in Kwan’s backyard on a whim. The 2009 clip, Swingers, ended up becoming a Vimeo staff pick. That led to a second short, 2010’s Puppets, which also attracted a lot of attention online. Soon, the two of them realized they’d stumbled on to a whole greater than the sum of their respective parts. “The internet told us to be a duo,” Scheinert deadpans.
“The algorithms just pushed us together” Kwan adds, “and we haven’t been able to be pulled apart yet.”
Now, some half dozen shorts, a handful of mind-blowing music videos — D.J. Snake’s insanely viral “Turn Down for What” music video? That was them — and one farting-corpse feature film later, Daniels have made a name for themselves as go-to absurdists with a love of loony FX, dark comedy and some odd, left-turn swerves into pathos. Thinking about how he’d describe their unique aesthetic across several different formats, Kwan finally comes up with: “I don’t know what this is, this makes me really uncomfortable, it doesn’t make sense…but at the same time, it makes me happy.” Scheinert counters with: “We can do crazy stuff for cheap.”
As they prep to release their sophomore movie — Everything Everywhere All at Once, which opens in New York and L.A. on March 25th, and involves multiverses, martial-art battle royales, the I.R.S., butt plugs, galaxy-destroying bagels and a career-best performance from Michelle Yeoh — the two Dans looked back at their body of work and give us a crash course in Danielsogy 101.
“Don’t Stop (Color on the Walls),” Foster the People (2011)
A driving exam turns into a post-robbery high-speed pursuit, featuring Gabourey Sidibe, a colorful paint splatter and two cops in love.
Daniel Kwan: This was our second music video with Foster the People; we’d done “Houdini” with them right before this. The timeline is messed up though, because —
Daniel Scheinert: “Houdini” had been done for a year, but they released this one first. The pitch started with just us being like, “What’s the concept? Maybe it’s just someone not stopping, while they say don’t stop.” [Pause] We’re career geniuses.
DK: So it was like: Let’s do a car chase.
DS: It’s funny, when we look back, it’s clear how many of our music videos are like, we want to be telling narrative stories! It’s almost like everything is bursting at the seams. We try to complete the assignment of a music video while secretly wanting to just make a feature film about Gabrouey Sidibe getting her driver’s exam done. We learned a lot of tips and tricks on stunts while shooting this — it was our first big stunt thing.
DK: With every project, we try to do something we hadn’t done before — like stunt driving. It turns out we don’t like shooting car stunts. At all. I watch Baby Driver and it’s like, that must have been a nightmare!
DS: Our production designer Jason (Kisvarday), who we’ve worked with for years, loves The Blues Brothers — so we were like, “Okay, Jason, we’ll do a car movie.” And he kept the cop car and drove it around for like six years He ended up going into stunts school and is now a certified stunt driver. So every once in a while, we put a weird car in there to keep Jason happy.
DK: This was our gift to him.
“Simple Song,” The Shins (2012)
A father’s funeral sends his heirs on a scavenger hunt and brings down the family house. Literally.
DK: James [Mercer, singer, guitarist and head Shin] had brought on a new band for that album; a lot of them were solo artists in their own right and comfortable in front of the camera. Some of them were actually very funny.
DS: So we wanted to introduce them in the video: “Oh, let’s lean on the cast.”
DK: Which we rarely do, because it is harder to get good performances out of band members usually. But they were all great. And listening to the Shins reminded us of Wes Anderson, and we were like, “Oh this could be like in The Royal Tenenbaums.” But with our own twist.
DS: There’s such a sentimental, emotional quality to the song. We came up with running through a house as it gets demolished because it’s such a wonderful cinematic finale. And then it was just reverse engineering from there.
DK: We used all these old-school tricks, with air mortars and ropes pulling things.
DS: The wrecking ball is a yoga ball on a string. But it was still the most ambitious thing we’d ever done.
DK: Our goal was to not kill the band.
Which is odd, considering that you’ve said that many of your early music-video pitches involve killing the bands you’re working with, right?
DS: Well…yes. [Laughs] We have so many music videos that we pitched where bands die. I don’t know why we had such a vendetta against most of the bands.
DK: I know why. It’s because when you’re working in that industry, it’s always: We want really cool shit happening and we want the band in it. The bands can’t act. They should just stand there and play. You’re like, “You don’t belong in this video. I want to kill you.”
DS: So we’re like, “Okay, just kill them. They’ll be dead. They’ll be around, but y’know, they’ll be dead.” One time we pitched a video where the band would all be street performers, but the kind of street performers where they’re all frozen and pretending to be statues…
DK: Then they don’t have to act.
DS: They don’t have to do anything! [Laughs] But the crowd still worships them. And massive riots break out, a religion forms, but they still don’t have to do shit. They can just stand there and be gold or whatever.
DK: We should have pushed harder on that one. That was a good one.
It’s not too late. That could be your pitch for a BTS video.
DS: BTS just stands still and everyone go nuts? I like it.
DK: Those fans scare me. They’re an army. They’re powerful.
DS: Well, now I want to do a BTS video! I just need to figure out what I would use all that power for.
“Rize of the Fenix,” Tenacious D (2012)
A meta-crappy music video is saved by the healing power of Tenacious D. Naturally.
DK: We’re were both big Tenacious D fans. It was actually one of the first times we were scared on set or nervous to meet the band.
DS: We did the Shins and the Teanacious D video within a month of each other, and it was like: I made it! These are the highest heights I’ll ever reach in my career.
DK: The first time we actually met Jack [Black] was on set. He shook our hand . . . then he just farted and said, “Hi, guys.” I couldn’t even laugh because my brain broke.
DS: We worked with an incredible cinematographer on this — and it’s the ugliest thing he ever shot.
DK: We were really intrigued by making something that falls apart on purpose. The challenge was doing it in a way where the audience was in on the joke. Because otherwise, it doesn’t work. And not only that, if you push it too far, then it becomes obvious and not fun. If it goes too obscure or whatever, it becomes this weird esoteric thing that no one enjoys. So there was a weird balancing act.
DS: Also, life imitated art on this one, where obviously the concept is it’s a video that goes horribly wrong — and then everything went horribly wrong. We went out in the desert and there were cacti everywhere. People were miserable.
DK: I mean, the wind alone…
DS: There actually were gusts of wind blowing equipment over. And we were like, “That works. Just make sure it doesn’t hurt anybody, but perfect.” And if Jack and Kyle [Gass] are sweating and don’t look that good? “Perfect, we’ll use it.”
DK: For the ending, we had them running around in front of a green screen and we kept yelling, “Trust us, this will look cool!” Then it was like: Oh fuck, we have to go make this look cool now. It turned into a bunch our friends who are VFX artists cramming into my bedroom and all of us just throwing ideas around. Which is exactly how we worked on Everything Everywhere, to be honest. That process kind of really starts with this video.
“Turn Down for What,” DJ Snake feat. Lil Jon (2013)
A man (played by Kwan) infects an apartment complex with dance fever. There will be twerking. And melting faces. And a butt that makes a gun-cocking sound.
DK: Scheinert can tell you this story. It’s all his fault.
DS: No one dances like Dan. No one. We auditioned people, but I was like, “You would be better, Dan.” It’s also like an extremely challenging role and the person who was going to do it was going to get really exhausted and had to go hard. It set the tone.
DK: “Like, if the director is going that hard and giving 110-percent…”
DS: Exactly. Everyone had to match it. Plus it was a gift to our crew, who work their asses off all the time for us. They all got to laugh at Dan for a day instead of listening to him.
DK: When you first pitched it…the joke of the pitch was almost like, “I dare you label, Columbia Records. I dare you to say yes to this.” Because we had reached a point where people were saying yes to everything, and it was actually getting uninspiring. I think we’re always chasing the friction. Someone has to say, this is too much or you can’t go that far. It was us near the peak of our music video careers being like, what else do we have to say? What else can we do in this world? And so they said, “Yes,” and we were like, “Oh no, we have to make it now.” And the rest is history.
It has over a billion views on YouTube. Did the crazy, viral success of this music video surprise you?
DS: It did, completely. I mean, the song was already really successful, but still. And then we had so much fun shooting it. That was our first inclination that like, wait, this is special. The cast and crew was cracking up while watching it on the monitor. We were like, “Huh, that’s never happened.”
DK: One of my favorite memories was the actress who plays the mother, she brought her husband along and I was like, “Oh, that’s weird. I don’t know why he’s here, um…” I felt kind of, self-conscious like, “Oh, I hope the husband doesn’t mind that…”
DS: “…We’re about to start puppeteering his wife’s boobs.”
DK: “Oh, is this going to be really awkward?” And I go back to the monitor and he’s just crying because he’s laughing so hard. And when the take is done, he goes and hugs his wife. They’re just laughing and talking really fast with each other. I was like, “This is wonderful.”
You knew Sunita Mani [the woman dancing with Kwan] before this, correct?
DS: We were in a comedy troupe in college together, so I’ve known her for years.
DK: I forget, who came up with the butt being cocked like a gun?
DS: It was in the pitch. It was like, “And before she sits, something monumental happens.” The butt-cocking is one of our go-to sounds. Within the choreography, we were like, “And this is where you cock your butt gun.” It was sort of a joke. It wasn’t until we actually put the sound in during the edit that we were like, “Oh, this is most definitely staying in.”
This genuinely feels like the music video you’d been leading up to making after all of those years.
DS: I remember that the first year we started working on music videos, we pitched 50 ideas, which involved writing a whole script, putting together a treatment, getting on phone calls — and we didn’t book anything. Then, once we did get our foot in the door, all our ideas were too “insane.”
DK: I forget sometimes how uncompromising we were that first year of making music videos. I think that’s Scheinert’s fault. Scheinert is the uncompromising one.
DS: But I’m so grateful for that experience. Like we always say, one of the only ways you can get a budget to shoot a short film is music videos, and it was such a great playground to experiment and learn. We didn’t make much money, but we also didn’t lose $20,000 trying to self-finance our own short films.
DK: We once pitched a video because we were broke and so desperate that we were just like, fine, we’ll do whatever you want. And it was a terrible experience. The video came out bad. After that, it was: We’re only doing videos if the idea is 100-percent ours. Honestly, I think because of that…after getting rejected a bunch, people started coming back to us and being like, “I remember you pitched that really insane idea. I finally have an artist who wants something exactly like that.”
DS: “Oh, you’re the guys who want to kill the band! I got just the right artist for you.”
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Stranded on an island, a lonely Paul Dano finds a soulmate via Daniel Radcliffe’s flatulent cadaver. The duo’s feature debut ended winning Daniels the Directing award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
DK: It originally started out as a short film. We were at Daniel’s house in Alabama, and one of his friends happens to have a house on the lake. So we’re like, “Oh, what’s a short film we could shoot on a lake?” Just looking around and thinking about our resources. Then an idea came to me: A deserted island. There’s a dead body. Some guy’s trying to resuscitate him. He’s crying. And then it starts farting. Instead of being disgusted, the guy nods his head, like, ‘OK.’ And then he shoots off the island from the dead guy’s farts while beautiful music plays over the soundtrack. Like I said, it was going to be a short. [Pause] It evolved. A little.
DS: I then basically spent the next five years trying to bully him into making that movie. Eventually we came up with the rest of the movie as a excuse to finally shoot someone riding a farting corpse across the ocean as beautiful music plays. But it eventually became this opportunity to talk about society and these philosophical, body-shame-y, weird things that resonate with us. When we took the script to the Sundance Labs to workshop it, there were something like 50 other ideas crammed in there. They really helped us narrow things down. The experience also encouraged us to make something personal and emotional. It was very much, “Well, we could do a fart comedy. But it’s also okay to make a fart drama.“
Two guys find their soulmates in the middle of nowhere — just how autobiographical was this movie?
DK: I mean, if you’d asked us back then, we’d have said, “Not at all.” Looking back on it now, it’s pretty obvious the answer is, “More than we originally thought.” It would have seemed like even more like it was some sort of autobiographical thing if we’d starred in it, which was a possibility if we couldn’t get anyone to sign on for this. We didn’t want to waste time writing something that wasn’t going to get made. So we thought, if no one else wants it, we’ll be in it and just make something strange that the internet will love. Luckily, we got Dan Radcliffe and Paul Dano, who are infinitely better actors than us, and we got to make it properly.
Who, it’s worth noting, are also both technically “Dans.”
DS: We keep meeting actors named Daniel and we’re just collecting them until we can make our super movie called The Book of Daniel, which is going to be cool and epic. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Danny Trejo and Danny DeVito.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
In the middle of a tax audit, an ordinary dry-cleaner (Michelle Yeoh) discovers she is the savior of all of the multiverses. Chaos ensues. At the film’s premiere at SXSW, Scheinert said the movie was comprised of “every idea that Rihanna said no to over the years.”
DK: It was originally going to be about her husband, the character played by Ke Huay Quan, and have it by about this father experiencing this crisis. Then we realized it would be more interesting if the story revolved around the woman. We basically wrote it for Michelle. We had the idea she’d be in it from the start; it was only a little later that her character became more of the main focus. And then it was like, “Oh, now we really need to get Michelle Yeoh to do this movie.” No one else could have pulled this off.
DS: We met her in the restaurant of a fancy hotel, thinking we were going to meet the woman from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the Crazy Rich Asians mom. And then she was immediately teasing us like we were her goofy nephews. Luckily, she liked the script, but she insisted that we change the character’s name from Michelle to Evelyn.
DK: That was her one note.
DS: We asked her what movies she had liked lately. And she said, “Deadpool 2.” We were like, who are you? It was the opposite of a fancy-hotel-lobby-person idea I had in my brain when we went to meet her. And she just kind of seemed to get the movie. She was just excited to do something weird, which was a dream come true because we thought we were going to have to…
DK: …Convince her more. We didn’t have to at all. And as for Ke…when I was a kid and we’d play Goonies, I was always Data. I think he didn’t know where he fit in the industry any more. He told us that this was the first Hollywood audition he’d had in decades. And honestly, if I have one hope for this movie, it’s that it will just reinvigorate his career and show people that he is so capable. We weren’t sure what he was capable of until we actually started to work with him. When you watch it, you’re like, “Holy shit, who is this guy?” Because he was constantly blowing us away on set.
You said something in an interview when you were doing press for Swiss Army Man: “I think we actually do the crazy things we do because want to make sincere movies, but the only way that artistic brains can do sincerity is if we couch it in something else.” How much did that idea inform what you guys are doing with this new movie?
DS: That’s a serious question. We thought we were just going to have to answer questions about butt plugs. [Editor’s note: One of the big fights in the movie involves butt plugs. Kind of.]
DK: I almost feel like now if, rather than it being like a Trojan horse thing where we’re trying to sneak it in or whatever, I feel like it speaks more truthfully to what it feels like to be alive now. We are constantly experiencing comedy and tragedy and confusion and anger all at once. It’s very much like you scroll through your social media feed and people are talking about someone passing away right next to someone showing a weird video of a cat dancing. That’s the mix of tones you get here.
DS: Yeah, we always talk about trying to sneak vegetables in, but it comes in different directions and this time we kind of…in a lot of ways, it’s a sincere adventure that Michelle and her family go on. it was kind of fun to write from that perspective where it’s like, start with something that people can just invest in, as opposed to just a farting corpse from square one. From that accessible place, try to go and explore some of these philosophical, crazy, weird, absurd things that are a reflection of our worldview, and says something generational divides and just how hard it is for people to understand each other.
DS: I remember there was one point where Michelle asked, “Why does this version of my character have hot dogs for fingers?” [Editor’s note: One of the alternate Michelles in the movie has hot dogs for fingers. Sort of.] And the answer was, “We need to take you to a place your character would hate — and then get her to a place where she accepts that thing.” It was all about the journey. And her learning to accept the hot dog fingers is kind of like our mom’s learning to accept our movies.
DK: We’ve always snuck in sincerity under absurdity out of insecurity. Now we’re confident enough to do it on purpose