'Bad Ideas No One Else Wants to Make': Meet 'Swiss Army Man' Co-Directors DANIELS
The filmmaking duo discusses their unique brand of VFX, toying with audience expectations, and what it takes to break the mold in today's filmmaking scene.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are unique filmmakers in many different ways, but perhaps what stands out most is their nom de plume. In an industry where ego and self-recognition seem to take prominence over everything else, they've cast aside their individual identities to collaborate as one: simply, DANIELS.
Even the all-caps seem to take on meaning, reflecting a hyper-intense, aggressive, fast-paced style that brought them to global recognition with their music video for Lil' Jon's Turn Down For What in 2013. The video currently sits at 507,616,752 plays on YouTube and, thanks to their efforts, it's almost impossible not to think of a dancing boner when that beat drops in so heavy on the bass.
Boners and farts seem to be a recurring theme for the directing duo. While that may sound immature or amateur to some, it's that very feeling that allows the DANIELS to manipulate their material so masterfully. None of this is better illustrated than in their Sundance Directing Award-Winning debut feature Swiss Army Man, which, after being picked up by indie juggernaut A24, finally hits wide release today.
"We like to think of our movies as orphans. They're bad ideas that no one else wants to make."
The reactions to the screenings at Sundance were controversial, to say the least; farting corpses prompted walkouts and general squeamishness among audience members. But those who were willing to endure the mischief were rewarded with something insightful, surprisingly deep, and wholly entertaining.
Regarding the work of the DANIELS, suffice to say: whatever you're expecting, there's no way you'll be prepared.
No Film School: You guys started as a sketch comedy group at Emerson College?
Daniel S: I was in sketch comedy group and Dan didn't get in. He was too nervous to audition.
Daniel K: I'm not much of a comedy guy. I spent most of my time in the computer labs. I was a computer nerd.
NFS: Does that translate into your heavy VFX effects style?
Daniel K: Yeah, I was an After Effects animation design guy and Scheinert was a comedy improv guy. We came from very different ends of the spectrum of filmmaking, but I think you can see how those things combine in our work. It's a really weird mixture.
NFS: Absolutely. Your visual gags are out of control. There's no one else doing what you guys do, especially in the feature-length narrative form. Could you talk a little bit about your process as writers?
Daniel S: We're kind of like producer-writer-directors. We're always thinking about how we are we going to execute as we write.
Daniel K: Or of the resources available to us.
Daniel S: Although the funny thing is, a lot of times the ideas that really speak to us are ones that we're not quite sure how we're going to pull off yet. We'll come up with something and be like, "that sounds awesome; I bet that would look cool, but I'm not sure how we will do it." Then we have to do research and have a debate about how to send a man rocketing across the ocean on a fart-powered corpse.
Daniel K: It starts with an idea that feels impossible, but still has a lot of philosophical and aesthetic meat to it. From there, it’s attacking the screenplay from both sides. While we're figuring out the execution, we're also unpacking the meaning behind it. Some people like to interpret their dreams, it feels almost like that. What are the symbols in that image that make us so excited about it? Why is this something that felt worthy of our time?
"It starts with an idea that feels impossible, but still has a lot of philosophical and aesthetic meat to it."
In Interesting Ball, we just had the dumb idea of a prank going wrong and one of the guys would be sucked up the other guy's butt. Really stupid, but for some reason we thought that would be worthy of our time. We unpacked and it actually became a really fun image and metaphor for friendship.
That's kind of what we did with Swiss Army Man as well. An old farting corpse has so much meat to it. There are so many layers because it's appalling, but also really hilarious at the same time.
Daniel S: It's hard to think of two words that have more cultural weight and baggage than fart and corpse. Those are big words.
NFS: As you’re unpacking this one idea, how do you ensure the central gag doesn't become old?
Daniel S: I think we have constantly—selfishly—tried to keep ourselves interested and engaged in a project that we're working on. Then, every once in a while, we remind ourselves to double check with the rest of the world. We usually find if we're getting bored, then other people are, too. Once we're interested in something, other people are as well. It was slow-going for sure. What attracted us to this project to begin with has very little to do with what the movie ended up being about.
Daniel K: We like the challenge of it all. Narratively, I think this is probably one of the most ambitious things we've ever tried to do because we've had to overcome a lot of stigma surrounding the topics of what our characters actually are. In order to do that, we had to give it as much love and as much hope as we could, which was a really hard thing to squeeze into 90 minutes. Even though 90 minutes is a lot longer than anything we've ever done.
Daniel S: One of the gifts that we realized when we came up with Swiss Army Man was that by making a movie about a farting corpse, we now had an uphill battle to get people to like it. It gives us permission to just go for broke. We got to put in the most immersive, fun, in-your-face music we could possibly muster. We got to put action scenes in and do crazy visuals and feel we're not throwing unnecessary things into our movie. They're necessary. We need to go this hard because we're fighting the farting corpse battle. We're trying to fight back the haters that will inevitably appear.
"CG lets you make decisions later. I find when you do it practically it forces you to make decisions that are healthy and important decisions to make on set."
Daniel K: We like to think of our movies as orphans. They're bad ideas that no one else wants to make. We're just trying to teach them what they need to know to survive out in the world. We're trying to make them as beautiful as possible and as lovable as possible so that when we send them out into the world, hopefully the bullies won't be too mean, and they'll be surprised by how loved they actually are.
NFS: Can you talk about toying with your audience’s expectations?
Daniel S: I think that's one of the things we're most proud of about the movie. The premise is crazy and silly-sounding, but no matter how much it gets spoiled for people, they seem to still be surprised when they walk in and see it.
Daniel K: I mean, the whole film is us playing with prejudice. The idea of people's preconceived ideas of things and how they shut things out because of their knee-jerk reactions. The way that shame can keep us apart from each other.
The reactions have been a really fun reflection of what the film is about. If certain people would just sit down and watch it they would see that. To go in and realize you can be wrong about something. I think that proving someone can be wrong is a really great gift because it kind of shakes them from their confidence and forces them to be a little bit more aware and open to their surroundings. If we can give people that gift for even just a couple of days after watching the movie, that's a really lovely thing.
NFS: Your shorts are very computer effects-driven, but there were a lot of practical effects in this movie. Do you have a preference, or do you employ those for different means?
Daniel S: Yeah, actually our short form stuff is very practical as well. They're executed similarly; maybe this one is just executed better. We love practical effects whenever it's going to help us as filmmakers make the story more authentic and it's going to help the actors react more authentically to the world around them. We love visual effects that are done on the computer whenever they can save us time and money and help us focus elsewhere.
Daniel K: All the techniques we're using are the same things they used to do in the '80s. The only difference is now we can clean things up better. We can do it cheaper, faster, and we only need one take. Like in Turn Down For What, there's that face melt. The cop picks up the phone and his face melts because the beat’s so intense.
That was one of the things we definitely didn't have the money to do but, we tried to do anyway. We only had one go at it and it wasn't the best, but using After Effects we were able to clean it up and turn it into something really fun and visceral in an instant.
"The weird thing about some of our effects is that we invent them in post, which is a big no-no in the visual effects world. "
That's kind of the case with everything we did for Swiss Army Man. Everything was sort of done quickly and roughly on set so that we had the energy and texture right, but then we brought it into the computer to clean it up. It's become a much more efficient strategy, and I think more people could be doing it if they were taught to do it. CG makes it a lot easier for people to... not necessarily be lazy, but just resort to it too quickly when they could be thinking of other middle grounds between the two.
Daniel S: CG lets you make decisions later. I find when you do it practically it forces you to make decisions that are healthy and important decisions to make on set. Like, “Oh my god, this isn't working because trees don't fall that way, so let's change the blocking." Whereas if we’d done it with CG, we'd get into post and only then realize that it's fake-looking.
NFS: You have a signature aggressive and unrelenting editing pace. Do you work with the same people in post-production?
Daniel K: It's mostly just been us every time, and then we hire a couple of people here and there to come help us out. Some of those are repeat collaborators, and that's been really nice. For Swiss Army Man, it was a new thing for us to be able to work with a bigger company. We worked with Method. They did half of the visual effects and we did the other half.
Daniel S: They did the hard ones and we did the easy ones or the ones that required us to do them because they were too high-concept.
"We would never make the same movies if we were working solo."
NFS: How do you even explain some of the crazy, high-concept ideas for VFX?
Daniel S: It's pretty hard.
Daniel K: The weird thing about some of our effects is that we invent them in post, which is a big no-no in the visual effects world. Everything has to be itemized and everything has to be numbered. You have to know exactly how many shots you're gonna do going into it, and that's just not really how we work. We love discovery.
We shoot a bunch of stuff that we plan to achieve, but then we open ourselves up to surprises. There are a couple shots in the movie where we just kind of took elements that made sense and stuck them together and created new stuff we would never have thought of if we actually planned for it. That kind of stuff was more on us because you can't really explain that to other people.
NFS: What do you think the advantages are of having two directors? How do you play off each other?
Daniel S: Our work is a result of our collaboration. We always said we would never make the same movies if we were working solo. By the time we're shooting, it's so necessary that we're both there because we've bitten off like something so ambitious and so crazy.
Also, our movies are about tonal juxtaposition. We get to be the devil and the angel for each scene. It's like, "okay he's going to worry about the drama, I'm going to worry about the comedy." Or "I'm going to work with the actors while he plans all the visual effects." It's a relentlessly evolving collaboration where we on a day by day basis just choose who is going to do what. There's not much of a pattern.
"You aspire to change the consensus as opposed to learning to fit into the consensus."
Daniel K: I think it's kind of like a relay race where we take turns being the passionate one about something because there are so many decisions during the day. After a while, you kind of lose sight of what you're doing, and it's nice to have someone to lead for specific moments or even for specific departments. We both have very different interests and very different approaches to filmmaking—
Daniel S: But very similar tastes.
Daniel K: Yeah similar tastes. It's worked out so far.
NFS: If you could give any piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers, what would it be?
Daniel S: Something’s that been on my mind lately is the fact that I'm so lucky that we've had fun while our careers moved these past six years. We found a community of like-minded music video directors and production designers and editors around Los Angeles and around the US. We all encourage each other to make weird things. Those friends of ours are finally watching the movie this week, and that means so much more to me than any of the reviews.
I think that it's something that maybe isn't taught that much in film school: if you just have a community that cares about your work, you'll be pretty happy, you know? It's a pretty modest and wonderful goal that a lot of people could achieve.
Daniel K: Vimeo is where a lot of that came from. We ended up meeting a lot of other young directors who were at the same point in their careers and we all just started becoming each other's cheerleaders. We also became accountable to each other. We weren't going to let each other just sell out and lose our voices because I think that's a really easy thing to do nowadays. It's been really fun to watch all of us develop with our own unique voices.
Daniel S: No new friends!
Daniel K: No new friends! When a lot of people first start out making things, their goal is to make something that they know the general audience will like. Really, you should be trying to find a thing that you truly like and try to prove to them that it's cool. Turn your thing into the thing that the general audience likes.
Now that we're watching the world's reaction to our movie, it's been really fun to see certain people come around to our film who weren't ready for it. Some of them really hated it the first time they saw it, but on second viewing they were able to appreciate it and understand where it fits into society. That's been really fun for us.
Daniel S: You aspire to change the consensus as opposed to learning to fit into the consensus.
NFS: We can’t wait to see what you do next.
Daniel S: Us neither!