Though their filmography thus far only includes one feature film (the 2016 farting-corpse buddy comedy Swiss Army Man) and a string of shorts and music videos (including the deathless “Turn Down for What”), it’s safe to say nobody makes movies like Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Collectively known professionally as Daniels, these Emerson grads specialize in mind-bending, high-octane whimsy– picture a hyperkinetic Michel Gondry on a sugar rush, or maybe a less mopey Charlie Kaufman.
Even those who have been following Daniels’ career, however, may be unprepared for their latest film. In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a frustrated laundry owner whose life is turned upside down when she is thrust into the multiverse, able to see into the lives of an infinite number of Evelyns in an infinite number of timelines, and must harness their skills to prevent all of existence from being sucked into a malevolent bagel. It is a dazzling film, at once deliriously funny and surprisingly touching, and may just stand as one of the most original American films in years. I caught up with the Daniels as they prepared for a preview screening of Everything at the Coolidge (where the film opens on Friday, 4/1), and we had a conversation about the importance of genre signifiers, a few timelines which didn’t make the cut, and where to find the best cheap food in Boston.
(A couple of notes before we proceed: as you may gather by now, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a difficult film to explain, and even harder to explain succinctly. So just know that odd phrases such as “the hot dog universe” or an offhand reference to Ratatouille will make more sense once you’ve seen the movie. There is also one portion of the conversation where I briefly dispense with grammatical convention in an attempt to adequately convey a noise which Scheinert produces with his mouth. The conversation has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.)
BOSTON HASSLE: A lot of times I’ll use this as sort of an icebreaker question, but in this case, I’m genuinely curious: how did this idea come about?
DANIEL SCHEINERT: It’s hard to figure out ourselves. We’re like, “Oops, we made that movie!” It’s not that hard to come up with ideas for us, but it’s hard to figure out which one to actually spend years of your life developing, and trying to hire iconic actresses to act out, you know?
DANIEL KWAN: And this one just happened to be a vessel for us to hold all of it. That was one of the most attractive things, that we could put it all into one thing. But I think also, after Swiss Army Man, we were proud of what we had made, but I’d say like 60% of people were able to get pulled into that audience, and were able to understand it. And then the other 40% were like, “This balance is weird. This tone doesn’t make any sense.” And so in some ways, I had this fire in me where I was like, “I want to make something so entertaining, so balls-to-the-wall attractive, and so unapologetically personal and us that it’s undeniable.” Just to prove to the critics of the first movie that this strange mixture of absurdity and profundity– they do belong together, and they can work together.
DS: So the negative reviews inspired this movie. (laughs)
BH: I’ve heard that you wrote the film for Michelle Yeoh. How did you pitch this to her?
DS: We got so lucky, because we wrote a part that almost no one else could possibly play, and we didn’t know what her taste was. But we sent the script to her, and she is a movie lover. She’s weird and vulnerable, and was excited and moved by how complex the character was. So it was surprisingly not a hard pitch.
DK: We went into that meeting like, “Okay, we’ve got to put our best foot forward, we’ve really got to figure out how to pitch this to her to convince her to do this.” And a couple of weeks later, she was in. It was like the opposite of most of these– you know, usually it’s really hard to get actors in these projects. And she dove right in and never looked back.
DS: When we first met her, we asked her, “Is there anything you have seen that you liked lately?” Because we were just trying to figure out what her taste was. She was like, “I liked Deadpool 2!” And we were like, “That’s a good sign! Maybe our script won’t send her running.”
BH: The other revelation for me in this movie was Ke Huy Quan, who of course is known for his child roles in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, but has not appeared in many movies since then. How did you come to cast him?
DK: Man, it was another weird miracle, because this character, Waymond, has to do so many things that are very demanding. To be able to switch back and forth between really quirky and sweet and an action movie star, and to be able to speak Cantonese, Mandarin and English, (and) to be able to do legit martial arts sequences. It was really hard to figure out who was going to fit that bill. Especially the sweetness. I think the tender sweetness was one of the hardest things to crack because it was so important for the script.
DS: And we didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, look at that macho actor pretending to be a sweetie.” That made us nervous. And Ke and his wife are very spiritual people. They’re just the sweetest, but they’re always talking about, you know, what’s going to give the movie good luck? What’s an auspicious time of year to release it? They were talking about, like, “This movie has a strong soul that attracted the right people.” Which sometimes I roll my eyes at– I’m not that kind of person. But they’re right. Something magical happened that led to him auditioning. It was his first audition that he’d done in like 20 years, and it was like we’d written the part for him.
DK: We were so lucky.
BH: One of the things I loved about the film is the way the scenes in the different timelines had their own distinct visual sense– the martial arts scenes clearly were inspired by Shaw Brothers films, and the scenes where she’s a movie star almost felt like a takeoff of Wong Kar-wai. What was the process to make sure each of these separate timelines felt like almost its own movie?
DK: We knew that this movie was going to be really hard for an audience to follow, so we wanted to lean really hard into genre, because it’s a language that every moviegoer understands. Even if they don’t have the words for it, they see it and they know, “Oh, this music means I’m in a romance,” or, “This sound effect means I’m in an action movie.” And so, alongside every crew member, we went into a lot of references. Especially with our cinematographer– the way things are shot, the type of lenses they use, the type of grain they use. This was all shot digitally, but we did try to replicate a lot of different film stocks. All that subconscious work I think really helps. People say this movie should be way more confusing than it is, and somehow it works. And that’s a testament to the genre play.
DS: Yeah, I feel like very early on we knew we wanted to use filmmaking to help the audience intuitively understand where they were. But as far as which things we referenced, I feel like sometimes the writing just kind of made it happen. It just made sense that Michelle’s dreamy movie premiere started to feel more and more like an In the Mood for Love kind of thing. But also different crew members would fight for what they thought it should look or sound like. The composers would surprise us– “What if it sounds like this?” “Oh, that’s such an interesting take on that. Let’s do it!”
DK: The hot dog universe was something we were writing, and we weren’t thinking too much about the genre. And then one day I was like, “What if it was like Carol?” (laughs) And everyone just ran with it. I think so often with genre, for instance, or genre play, people go too broad. They would probably go for, like, a Lifetime movie, or just a regular rom-com, but instead (we were) going Wong Kar-wai and Carol and Ratatouille.
DS: It’s fun to draw on things we genuinely love, as opposed to being like, “Oh, we’re spoofing something!”
DK: We’re not gonna punch down at all. We love these things.
BH: I can only imagine that this was a fun film to brainstorm. Were there any ideas that you guys wanted to use, but couldn’t quite work in?
DK: Too many.
DS: The other day Dan reminded me that at one point we had an idea for a universe where, instead of communicating with sounds, we communicate with silences. So, in this universe, we would all three be going, “HAAAAAAA.” Then I would go, “_______AAAAA__________AAA____AAAAAAAAAAAA,” in order to talk.
DK: So it’s the silence that actually communicates.
DS: And we were like, “Oh, so we’ll go to a funeral, and it’ll just be like 100 people going, ‘HAAAAAAA,’ as one person cries in silence on stage.” We never quite figured out WHY we would go there, but… (laughs)
DK: There’s a universe where I wanted them to just be falling forever, bottomless pit-style, but then I was like… it reminded me too much of Hitchhiker’s Guide, with the flower pot and the whale falling.
BH: I obviously went in expecting to be dazzled and entertained, but I wasn’t expecting how emotional and heartfelt it gets, especially in the homestretch. What do you hope people take away from the film, on an emotional level?
DS: Yeah, I think it’s fun to talk about how playful the movie is, (but) even we’ve been surprised in Q&A’s, and getting to talk to audiences about just how intense of a movie it can be emotionally. I’m always trying to check in with folks and be like, “I hope it was a cathartic, rewarding, and respectful emotional experience, not manipulative.” We wanted the movie to be so mean that all meaning breaks down for the character and the audience, but then to pull them back and give them a hug. Hopefully it makes people who are hopeless or overwhelmed these days feel less alone, and give them permission– “It’s okay to feel that way! A lot of us do.” And then also hopefully give them some hope and a hug at the end.
DK: Be kind. That’s all it is. It’s chaos; be kind.
BH: On a completely different note, I saw this movie with my fiancée who’s an avid knitter, and she was very interested in Evelyn’s “Punk” sweater. Is there a story behind that at all?
DK: Shirley Kurata, our amazing costume designer, did everything– all the costumes, which is wild– but some of her best work was just the down to earth, normal, regular human outfits. She went to Chinatown to start picking up stuff. It was really funny because she was like, “If you guys like this, you better tell me now, because I don’t know where to find it anywhere else. I need to get copies of it.” Because you always need a lot of versions of things whenever you’re shooting movies,
DS: Michelle’s shoes, I think, were just from Chinatown and she was like, “I have three pairs and that’s it!”
DK: The punk sweater was one of those things where she put it on and was like, “This is kind of cool, but is it weird?” I’m like, “No, it’s perfect!” This is exactly something my mom would wear, because it’s fun, it’s playful, but she wouldn’t understand the full context of the word “punk,” or why that would be funny. I wish we could find more so we could sell them.
DS: There’s just one. Shirley has it.
BH: To wrap things up, I know that you guys graduated from Emerson and studied film here, so this is sort of a homecoming for you. Is there anything that you’re going to try to work in while you’re in Boston?
DK: Anna’s Taqueria. Or maybe go to NYP, New York Pizza, which is right down the street from where we went to school.
DS: I haven’t gotten a chance, but we’re close to the Charles. I just want to walk over to it, ’cause we used to live right here.
DK: I lived in Central for a while, and then Davis for a little bit. I just miss walking around the city. I kind of want to walk down Newbury Street, which is really funny, because I didn’t care about it when I was a kid. But there’s still something really nostalgic, because that was the path from school to some of the parties we’d go to. So we would always be just drunkenly walking through Newbury. We would never shop, but there’s something really nostalgic about it.
DS: I think my favorite banh mi is not in Chinatown anymore. Saigon Subs.
DK: Oh yeah, Saigon Subs! So cheap!
DS: It was so affordable and delicious. I ate it like four times a week. So I gotta find something else.
DK: Mostly food. Turns out mostly just the cheap food that we loved when we were in college. Great last question. Now it’s making me want to leave!
DS: We gotta get out of here! There’s no time!
Everything Everywhere All At Once
Opens Friday, 4/1 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre
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