Review by Christine Thompson, Interview by Christopher JH Lambert
Directors Daniel Scheitert and Daniel Kwan (known together as “The Daniels”) have debuted their first feature, SWISS ARMY MAN, an outwardly outrageous yet curiously profound movie about Manny, a farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) that becomes friends with Hank (played by Paul Dano) stranded far from civilization (or is he…). What ensues is hilarious misadventure, with Hank earnestly trying to explain social mores and life to his new best buddy who’s apparently forgot what the world is like. Radcliffe turns in a fantastic performance, playing his deadpan expression against Dano’s earnestness as they explore newfound opportunities a gaseous rotting corpse provides to find their way back to the world.
Apparently no one told “The Daniels” they couldn’t make films this way, so they did, and the result is a unique, entertaining experience that leaves you smirking as you leave the theater, and reflecting later on the meaning of life.
Interview by Christopher JH Lambert:
Chris:Are music videos a preparation for filmmaking?
Daniel: The great thing about music videos is they’re such quick, short bursts of creativity, that it was a really fun way to just learn and fail really quickly. So whenever we wanted to try something new, we’d write it into a treatment. And then if someone said yes, we got to go learn it. And then we would just try things every couple of months, just try something new. And so, in those respects, it really got us ready for the grind of shooting. We understood how a set works and how to get the most out of your schedule in a day, and things like that. All that practical stuff, it was kind of invaluable to figure out.
Daniel: And the other super valuable thing is, we found our team. We started with a very small crew, and we would do everything ourselves.
Daniel: Our first music video was just us two, and one other guy, just three of us.
Daniel: Yeah. And my girlfriend would show up and help out.
Daniel: And slowly we learned what an art department does, and found a production designer we love, and what DPs are capable of, and then we found our DP. And so all those people came along for this ride too.
THE DANIELS DIRECTED THE NOW ICONIC ‘TURN DOWN FOR WHAT,’ CURRENTLY AT OVER 508 MILLION VIEWS
Daniel: And for a lot of us it was all of our first feature. It was kind of like a really fun jump into the next big step together.
Daniel: We had that kind of as a buffer for the usual anxiety that would come with a first-time feature director. We had, from pre-pro straight through the edit, familiar faces.
Daniel: And it allowed us to be a lot more ambitious than I think we would have if we had just done the first feature right out of school. It was really fortunate that we were able to develop our family, but also our tone and our voice through the short-form stuff.
Daniel: That being said, making a feature was so exhausting. Every step of the way, I was like, “This is still going?” I’d have to write another draft, or there’s another two weeks of shooting.
Daniel: Yeah, we were not prepared for that at all.
Daniel: The marathon takes its toll on your communication skills, your relationships. Our process: we’ll argue things out a lot, but arguing stuff out every day for a year-and-a-half is pretty crazy.
Daniel: There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and the light didn’t show up for so long. We’re like, “Where’s that light?”
Daniel: But talking to other first-time feature directors and the horror stories, oh my God, we’re so lucky. Our movie was hard for the right reasons. Our movie was hard because we wrote a really ambitious script, and not because actors quit or financiers pulled out or we didn’t have mental breakdowns on set.
Daniel: It was hard because what we were doing was something we’d never seen before, and so we had no reference for it. So that’s why it was really difficult.
Chris: You learn from the music videos and the short films. You feel confident enough to make a feature, but then these new problems arise and you’re pretty much using the scientific method.
Daniel: Very much so. It’s like chemistry.
Daniel: I love thinking of our movies as scientific method. That’s fun.
Daniel: Yeah because this is a concoction of ingredients people aren’t used to seeing, and so we have to really test it on ourselves to see whether or not we put too much oxygen into this serum or whatever. We’re combining incredibly strange, gross-out, scatological humor that most of the time we don’t even really like. It’s the kinda stuff that we’re almost ashamed of being fans of. And then we’re throwing in all the beautiful and profound poetic kind of filmmaking that we look up to and aspire to create, and we try smashing them together and seeing how we can give ourselves and our audience a new experience that also hopefully feels more honest to what real life is like. Life doesn’t separate those two types of things, it’s all kinda stirred up in a big vat. The high and the low is all together in one big mushy thing, and we’re expected to make sense of it on our own. And that’s really hard. And so hopefully this film can help some people make sense of the absurdity of everyday life, even though it is just a farting corpse movie.
Daniel: I think someone commented after seeing it that they felt like it was a beautiful movie about coping, and I was like, “Oh, I like that. That’s a fun thing.” ‘Cause it is about kind of a personal journey that both these characters have to go on to kinda learn to love themselves in spite of societal judgments and whatnot.
Daniel: We took this project through Sundance Labs. I was looking at all the other directors who were just trying to find their way, feel their way through their own projects, and I realized we were all really lost. And I realized that that’s just part of the process, is to be lost. I think what we do as poets and writers and filmmakers and painters, whatever, what we’re doing is we’re kind of mapping out the human experience, and whenever we find a new one, we capture it, we label it and we show it to the world and say, “Look, did you feel this? ‘Cause I did, and maybe that means we’re less alone.” And I think in order for artists to find those new things that haven’t been mapped out yet, we have to put ourselves in really uncomfortable, strange places. And so this whole film was us just lost out… Somewhere on the outskirts of human emotion, just trying to figure out what we were making and find a label for it. And I think some people who are soul searchers, like ourselves, found something rewarding out of it. Some people don’t wanna ask those questions, and they found this film to be unbearable.
Daniel: Too challenging.
Daniel: Too challenging. [chuckle]
Daniel: But a month or two from now, they’ll be like “Oh man, I learned something from that teacher.” No, we’re not teachers. It’s a weird metaphor.
Chris: It’s something that can haunt people, not in a negative way. I remember the first time I saw There Will Be Blood, I was like, “It’s finally over, thank God,” and walked out of the theater thinking I will never watch that movie ever again. And then it just weighed on my mind for weeks and weeks and weeks. And then I went back and watched it, and I was just like, “What was I feeling that day?” It’s not in my top 10.
Daniel: There was a period for me in high school where I just kept watching all these movies that were supposed to be good, and they were just upsetting me, and I didn’t like them, and then they would stick with me. And then a year or two later, they all became my favorite films. It’s like for a while I was like, “Okay I’m gonna watch Being John Malkovich.”
Daniel: Fight Club.
Daniel: Yeah, all those films from the late ’90s.
Daniel: All of those movies just upset me and I was like, “No! I don’t like this.” And then like… Oh, Wet Hot American Summer, the first time I saw it, I was like, “This is too weird, didn’t like that gay sex scene.” And then a week or two later, my friends and I were just quoting it again, and being like, “Oh my God! Was that the best movie we’ve ever seen?”
Daniel: Yeah, I feel like what has to happen sometimes is, we as an audience have to grow up in order to appreciate that film. And these films kind of allow us to grow up that much faster. It’s really cool when you watch a movie and that happens. I think that’s what we want… Anything we do is hopefully to push people a little bit further than they would like, and then allow them to grow into it.
Daniel: Roger Ebert would call movies “empathy machines” or something, and I always thought that was really beautiful. The idea that it’s not the ideal format to preach a sermon or to explain science, but it’s an ideal format to create empathy, to be like, “Hey someone else out there is feeling this, and now you’re gonna feel it.”
Chris: Yeah. That vicarious experience is huge in cinema, and it’s so much more impactful than… Reading a book, you can fall into it, but a book takes so long to give you the range of emotions, where a movie is just like… [pretends one hand is a face and punches it repeatedly] “Do you like that?” [more punches to own hand]
Daniel: That’s a great metaphor for our film.
Daniel: Do you like that?
Daniel: I can’t wait for the person who’s transcribing this to have to write…
Daniel: “Punch your hand a bunch.”
Daniel: Yeah. “Hand-punching noises.”
Daniel: And then shout “Do you like that?” [chuckle] They quit then and there.
Daniel: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: Is Swiss Army Man the conclusion of a style you were experimenting with? Or do you feel like this is an announcement of what will be your signature style moving forward?
Daniel: Somewhere in between probably. I think an evolution of sorts is hopefully where we’re headed, Because there’s just certain things that we like that are our strong suits, but there is a part of me that feels like we’ve been doing something in short-form work that we’ve just wanted so badly to make a feature film like that. And we finally got to. And we’re pretty excited for our next feature to be pretty different. But it’ll still be us. It’ll still be pretty perverted or weird, pretty funny and sad.
Daniel: We don’t know how else to make things, yeah.
Daniel: And also, it’s a weird thing where because there’s two of us, unless we both agree on something, we don’t do it. And it just takes a lot of work for us to find those moments where we’re both kind of super excited about something, and those just happen to be these kind of projects. We have a lot of things in common, but one of the things we both have in common is I think we love things that are sort of subversive in a playful way, and I think that’s always gonna be part of our style. I think we need more of it, especially nowadays where people are so risk-adverse in our business. For now, as long as we’re allowed to be making movies, we’ll be trying to make movies that are different, because I do think there is an audience for that.
Daniel: That is the recurring theme of our career, is just we’re just constantly trying to ask people, “Come on, take a risk.” “This is gonna be risky in this way, come on let’s try it.” Like this band, this brand.
Daniel: We always have to pitch it as a journey, Because we can’t 100% pitch them on “It’s gonna be the most amazing, beautiful thing. You’re making a bunch of money.” Which we’re gonna go for and we’re gonna try to make that happen. But I think the journey is part of what is so exciting. And if we can get people on board for that, then we know we found the right kinda collaborators.
Chris: Well, talking about subversiveness and risk. Did you get to see the Kanye West “Famous” video? Any thoughts on it?
Daniel: I just watched it on the plane, I finished it.
Daniel: I saw like three seconds of it. It’s pretty insane.
Daniel: I’m such a huge Kanye fan. I’m all about him. I feel like he is like a performance artist, in such an incredible way. Like his whole life, he lives this performance art of, “Who can I marry that will be the craziest marriage? This one, Kim Kardashian!” It’s so interesting to me that he continues to take the most ridiculous risks. His tweet of like “Someone sue me already,” I was like, “That’s so crazy!”
Daniel: The concept of the video is so interesting, because it’s such a horrifying thing to do. It’s like such an invasion of privacy, but it’s also… I think it’s amplifying what our culture already does to celebrities. So it’s just kind of like “This is a strange mirror of what you guys already are doing. I’m sorry I did this in such a terrifying, horrible way, but whatever. This is you.”
Daniel: Meanwhile the song is just dope.
Daniel: It’s like this cognitive dissonance. You’re like, “Oh you’re a performance artist,” but also like “Mmm, that song… “
Daniel: That was actually something that, to segue to our movie, was really interesting. I think Paul and Daniel live like… They live celebrity lifestyles, but very different ones. And they’re both just like such grounded, passionate, regular dudes, but they have strangers walk up to them, all the time.
Daniel: On set we actually had a paparazzi, which has never happened to us ever. That was bizarre.
Daniel: It was really unsettling. It just puts this shock-wave of uncomfortable-ness throughout the set when everybody finds out some guy was hiding in the bushes. Or like Paul’s girlfriend has dealt with online stalking. And so there was like a very close-to-home relationship he had with some of the themes of Hank’s character, having this obsession with the character of Sarah. And it was really important to him that we don’t celebrate that behavior. But we felt like it was really exciting that he had a personal connection to it, so we could explore it, and it could come from an honest place.
Daniel: We wanted our character to have something to be ashamed of that was incredibly relatable, and that was just something that kind of just clicked. It made a lot of sense…
Daniel: When we came up with that idea we were like, “Oh no, that’s relatable isn’t it?” Just like being so lonely and yet so ashamed of yourself, that you resort to this kind of behavior. And it unsettles a lot of people in the movie, as it should. And I think people are not expecting that kind of behaviour in a fun comedy or whatever. But I think this film is about exposing the things we’re ashamed of doing. Just like everything from a fart to being so lonely that you stalk someone, to just… Any idea that you have in your head could be something you are ashamed of. All these things, your whole existence is kind of embarrassing.
Daniel: And we hide most of it. Like suppression. I’ve been thinking a lot about suppression lately, just because of… After the Orlando attacks, everyone was talking about how he used to go to that gay bar all the time and he has a Grindr account. And the same thing happened in California right before the LA Pride parade, they found a guy with like 10 guns in his car, and he was also what they assumed is a closeted gay man, who has a lot of self-loathing. Growing up as a Christian, I was very religious and that’s something I can relate with, is just the self-loathing that comes from living in a society that doesn’t want you, or doesn’t want you to be who you are. And I think that’s one of the things that is funny about out our film, because we are kind of exploring all of that—but with farts.
Daniel: Ben Franklin wrote this one essay a long time ago called Fart Proudly, and he basically talks about all the different reasons why it’s good. And one of the reason it’s good, is it’s good for your digestion. You’re clearing out your system, and if you hold it in, it’s actually bad for you.
Daniel: He’s like, “High society is killing itself by clenching their butt.”
Daniel: Here’s one of founding father’s saying this, and it’s true today, and you can extrapolate that to all aspects of your life like, “Suppression is going to kill us.” Actually, we were just talking about this TV show called “Snapped” on television, on the WE Network. It’s about wives who one day snapped and killed their husbands. Every single episode follows another wife who snapped and killed her husband. That’s the entire premise.
Daniel: It’s like another thing where you’re watching people who have to keep in their feelings and keep in their impulses, to the point where they explode. I think in some ways this film could be a really good way to talk about that stuff.
Daniel: Ultimately the message of Swiss Army Man is just “Hey, let’s talk about our feelings.” And then we just try to like package that in the most fun, crazy, action-packed theatrical experience, so people will be like, “Hey, talking about feelings looks fun. I want to talk about my feelings!”
Chris: What about the response of the film, critical or public, has been the most fascinating to you?
Daniel: I think the fascinating part has been the backlash, and it’s been modest and it’s been… The most fun part is the beautiful positive response, and we’ve gotten a really wonderful response. But I do think that because the movie is about social taboos, and what we can and can’t talk about, there are certain that it pushes that button and they get so weirdly angry about what is a very well-meaning kind of sweet musical comedy.
Daniel: They are very frustrated at the fact that anyone wasted their time and money on it, and it’s really interesting.
Daniel: And then the nice thing is those people don’t live in a bubble, and we’ve been watching as folks that get angry at first, continue the conversation and then are forced to grapple with the themes. There’s been a handful of critics that have kind of like changed their minds. And that’s a higher compliment than a five-star review, to get a two star followed by a four star, that’s cool!
Daniel: What an awesome review, to get two reviews.
Daniel: It was worth it then, not only writing about it the first time, but thinking about it more, and then needing to say more about it.
Daniel: That’s the experience we had, when we first came up with the idea. We were like, “That’s a two-star idea. We will not make that into a feature film.”
Daniel: It took us a while to realize, “There’s something exciting in here.” And that’s fun to find a meaty story inside like something you didn’t expect it to be hid inside, as opposed to from day one being like, “Yeah. Okay, that’s a feature.”
Chris: If you could make a movie about any animal, what animal, what genre?
Daniel: I’ve always wanted to make a movie about koalas, because everybody thinks they’re so cute and so adorable, but they all have syphilis, they sleep 23 hours a day. Eucalyptus leaves are an aphrodisiac. So they’re these sex crazed STD mongers, who just run around fucking. And then a lot of times they fall out of trees and die while sleeping. So I feel like that animated film would be just like the Requiem for a Dream of Pixar films. I mean they’re cute as shit, they must be fun to animate. But their lives are a dark, dark thing. Evolutionary some god just pranked the koala.
Daniel: There’s a microscopic animal called… What are they called? Space bear or something like that. Do you guys know about that one? It’s a microscopic animal that can live in space. It’s like one of the only creatures that can completely…. It’s called a water bear! It’s also known as a Tardigrade. They’re like little worms or whatever. But they’re the only things that they found that can survive in space. And so I just feel like I wanna do sort of an existential film of him floating through space like for years, just waiting for someone to find him.
Daniel: It’s kind of like Interstellar but with a little microscopic creature.
Daniel: Somehow we’ll combine both these movies, koala bear and water bear.
Chris: First half is flying through space, and then it lands, evolves into the koala. It just has the tragic end of going all that distance—
Daniel: Just to fall apart, yeah.
Daniel: It’ll be like The Fountain, it’s told like millennium.
Chris: It’s beautiful, good work. It’s beautiful.
Daniel: What do you call it? What should it be called?
Chris: Citizen Bear?
Daniel: Citizen Bear.