While the summer blockbuster movie season has hit a bit of a rough patch over the last few weeks, a must-see alternative is arriving in theaters this weekend by way of Swiss Army Man. You probably know it as “the farting corpse movie”, and indeed it stars Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse who is slowly taught what it means to be human by a suicidal man stranded on an island, played wonderfully by Paul Dano. But Swiss Army Man is so much more than that simple punchline, as it manages to be at once hilarious, triumphant, wildly emotional, and profound. I say this with zero hyperbole: it is unlike any film you have ever seen before, and the tightrope walk that directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert accomplish is nothing short of magic.
I caught Swiss Army Man all the way back at its world premiere screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but as the film expands to more theaters this weekend, I recently got the opportunity to hop on the phone with Kwan and Scheinert (collectively known as “Daniels”) to discuss the movie in more detail.
We began by addressing those reports of a flood of “walkouts” during the Sundance premiere, which, as someone who was there, I can attest were bogus. But we also talked about how they went about actually making this wholly unique film a reality, maintaining the balance of heart and humor, using music like The Lion King soundtrack for inspiration, and the tremendous work of Dano and Radcliffe onscreen. Moreover, as Daniels recently expressed their desire to do a remake of White Chicks, we also talked more about what that idea entails, their thoughts on blockbuster filmmaking, and and they pitched a time-travel Hitler movie called Clockblockers that I’m now convinced needs to happen.
So check out what they had to say below, and if you’re in the mood for seeing something different than the same-old/same-old, I implore you to go out and see Swiss Army Man when it expands nationwide this weekend.
Collider: First of all, I just wanted to say that I was at the World Premiere at Sundance and there were not that many walk-outs. I was shocked to see that kind of false narrative pickup afterwards. How’d you guys feel after that took off?
DANIEL KWAN: It’s bizarre even now thinking back on it, because despite the fact that a couple people have debunked that crazy rumor, there’s still a lot of people who will read a good review about the movie and then immediately go, “Yeah but half the audience at Sundance walked out!” But I’m excited for that person to watch this movie one day and realize maybe they were wrong.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: It’s cool because the movie is kind of about societal judgment of weirdos. In a lot of ways like the movie engages with what happened to us so it validates the story a little. But also, it sucks and I wish it didn’t happen (laughs).
Well it was interesting because you could hear stories of “oh this got a bad response at Sundance,” so I feel like someone might hear the walk out story, but then they hear it’s a movie where Paul Dano rides Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse and it’s kind of like, well I kind of have to see that, right?
KWAN: Yeah. For people who this movie is made for, yes. They’re so excited about it. But there’s just as many people who hear that and go, “why did anyone pay for that to get made?” I think we’re excited to try and find a way to win those people over, because I think in a lot of ways, this film is for both sides. It’s for those who are excited for something new, and excited to be taken on a journey they’ve never been on before. But also, for those people who have those preconceived ideas of what a farting corpse movie might be.
SCHEINERT: Hopefully they’ll be surprised pleasantly when they realize the movie’s not a bro-y comedy. We try to inject as much heart and make it as relatable to as many people as possible in spite of the premise.
Absolutely. There’s a lot going on, and it’s a lot deeper than people may think, and you feel kind of triumphant in that opening shot of Paul riding this farting a corpse. So how did you guys go about kind of towing the line between – I mean, there are boner jokes and fart jokes, but then also telling a story about what it means to be human, what it means to be alive.
SCHEINERT: Yeah. The only boner joke and fart joke is the fact that those things exist in the movie, but then what we did was try to treat everything like it was all about humanity. It was a fart drama (laughs).
KWAN: And the joke is that those two things are together in one movie. We’re trying to look at the human condition through the lens of farts and boners. We don’t actually think farts and boners are that funny except using in this way, because the idea of playing with people’s expectations is what gets us excited about filmmaking. I think the line that we discovered was that we had a certain set of ingredients that we were gonna make a movie out of, and they were ridiculous ingredients. And then the line was just like take them totally seriously and make the best movie that we can with those ingredients. We spent most of our time trying to write just an honest film. Then we’d take a step back and go “Hahaha this is insane I can’t believe we just made this,” and then go back in and take it seriously.
I know the film began with that simple nugget of the man riding the farting corpse. But what was the script development process after that? How’d you go about fleshing out the script?
SCHEINERT: I kind of liken it to throwing five bullseyes in the air and trying to shoot all of them with one arrow. Our first draft we would shoot an arrow, and miss all of them but one bullseye, and then we’d have to pick up the bullseyes and try again. The next arrow, we’d miss that first bullseye, but then get two other ones that we didn’t expect to hit, and it was a lot of trial and error. We knew what we wanted to get out of the film and we knew what elements we wanted to keep in the story, but we didn’t know exactly what technique would allow us to have our cake and eat it, so to speak. I think we’re really stubborn filmmakers in that once we set out to do something we don’t want to have to compromise, even to ourselves. We want to make sure we get to have all the ingredients we want, and it creates a really interesting creative tension, and I hope that shows up on the screen.
KWAN: In a lot of ways, I think if we hadn’t gotten into the Sundance screenwriter’s lab we would’ve made an interesting but different movie. But we went in there and had some advisors kind of consider the aspect when you talk about what this movie could be, what spoke to them between the lines in this very rough draft. It’s something that sets the bar real high, and we had to be very self-aware, very self-critical, and just rush draft after draft, trying to make something that achieved beauty and comedy and had this kind of personal authenticity to it. Which made the whole process more fun, even if it was a little grueling to write so many drafts.
It’s a film that’s not only ambitious in its story and character perspective, but also visually. I thought you guys really did a tremendous job of working with your cinematographer and making it so visceral. What were your early ideas of how you wanted to visualize this story?
KWAN: The strange thing that we always want to try with our films is we wanted to create a cognitive dissonance in anyone’s brains who gets a chance to come into contact with our work. The idea that this was never made is already enough to make you go, “Wait, what?” But then when you have to make it beautiful and fill it with actors who are actually big names, then it takes it to a whole other level. I think we wanted this film to look and feel like a beautiful drama, a beautiful indie drama that you would go to Sundance and watch. But then have that dissonance come in with this context and you’re kind of forced to take it seriously. I think we used beauty as a Trojan horse to swing past people’s walls, and give them something unique and special that they wouldn’t normally allow into their minds.
SCHEINERT: We also talked a lot with camera design about trying to make sure the audience felt like someone was in control. We didn’t want it to feel manic or they’re just messing around in the woods. We worked with Larkin, our DP, a lot trying to design camera moves and angles that felt really intentional, that really focused your attention on the themes and whatnot. So you couldn’t just dismiss the story. I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in this movie, how the visual language helps sustain 90 minutes, ‘cause our other work we just throw things at the audience and its three minutes long.
KWAN: There’s an interesting concept of the imagery that we’ve shot when we were going for an isolation or loneliness that we were trying to capture with our main character, like small figures in the big woods versus things when they are connecting feel very intimate. The bus scene is probably one of my favorite scenes because of the way we shot it; it kind of was a fun transition to go from awkward wide shots of a trashy, crappy-looking bus into a very intimate memory where both people are experiencing joy and awe for the first time. I think that was definitely something we wanted to play with. We even changed the lenses for those scenes where we were shooting on broken, old German lenses from like a hundred years ago (laughs). No, from the 1950s or something. Everything about it just felt warm and lived in and basically so the audience could go on that imagination journey that our characters were going on.
Well you definitely pull it off, and speaking of that dissonance, that extends to the score. After the fact, when I heard it was Andy Hull and Robert McDowell of Manchester Orchestra it all just made perfect sense that they put together that score. How did that collaboration come about? Was the music done before or after shooting began?
SCHEINERT: All of the above. Around January of last year, we started a conversation with Andy and Rob. They composed five or six songs before we shot the movie, then we would during the shoot sometimes have them tweak things, then during the edit, and then after picture lock. It was a pretty intense job that they enthusiastically jumped on board and went above and beyond working on.
KWAN: We had a playlist that we had been adding to for years while we were working on the scripts that was pretty massive. It was hours and hours of music references that we thought would be interesting for this piece, because we knew we wanted the whole thing to feel organic from the voice and from the body.
SCHEINERT: We had movie scores and alt rock bands and Gregorian chants.
KWAN: We had Tibetan monk-y singing and Bobby McFerrin, The Lion King soundtrack. It was a really fun eclectic mix, and I feel like the final score is a really fun representation of those pieces. We’re very proud of the collaboration that we have with these guys, ‘cause they did a great job, and I think the movie kind of works because of the music. Tonally, we were going for something unique, and if the music didn’t work, the whole film would fall apart.
So what you’re saying is that Swiss Army Man is directly influenced by the Disney classic The Lion King?
SCHEINERT: [laughs] Yes, this whole movie is a live-action Lion King.
The chemistry between Dano and Radcliffe is off the charts. Did you guys do a lot of rehearsals, or did that come about on set?
SCHEINERT: The rehearsals were kind of modest, we would mostly really rehearse the really intimate physical blocking and dancing and whatnot. Because they’re both such busy human beings, we only got them for two days. Basically the two days before we shot, we got to sit down with them finally, and it was such a relief. We could finally sit down with these two actors and realize we were all going to work well together and we were all in the project for the same reasons. Everyday in pre-production leading up to that we had no idea, it was kind of a nerve-racking thing to wait for. But they both understood what the roles mean and they poured their whole bodies and souls into the characters, and then they really did care for each other, ‘cause one role wouldn’t work without the other role, they understood that.
KWAN: They very much so shared the screen and collaborated rather than competed. But to the point of not much rehearsal, my take on Paul Dano’s style as an actor, especially how he approached this role, was that he prepared as much as possible, but then he held back until we started a scene, then he would just let it all pour out to see what happened, and it allowed us to capture a lot of really raw, honest, human unexpected moments, and allowed their chemistry to be especially honest ‘cause they were living it right there on camera, which was really thrilling as a director, to kinda sit at the monitor and go “I’ve never seen that before! Oh my God! That’s in the movie now.”
I kind of feel like that’s the motto for the whole film: I’ve never seen that before. Everyone I talked to at the Sundance screening, whether they loved it or weren’t crazy about it, everyone agreed that this is something no one had every seen before. But looking at what you accomplished with this film, it feels like you guys would also be well-suited to a much larger scale, and given that the marketplace is kind of dominated by blockbusters and sequels nowadays, if you were given the opportunity to get behind the reins of something like that, is there something that you would like to see done differently? Kind of in that larger budget realm?
SCHEINERT: Yeah, I mean I think we – my dream career, I love those movies that are right between where people get not a blockbuster budget, but a sizeable budget to take risks and make something crazy and then prove that it’s financially viable too. So if we could have a Michel Grondry or Spike Jonze career, or – David Fincher’s budgets are usually pretty insane (laughs).
KWAN: I feel like one thing that always makes me self-conscious is when I’m doing a project and I can imagine someone else doing it and doing a better job than me it drives me crazy. There are plenty of people out there ready and willing and talented enough to work on those big blockbusters, and they don’t need us. But the people who do need us are the ones who are excited about doing something new, something fresh, something that still gives them a human experience. I think that’s where we belong for now, and that’s where we’re excited to be working. So far the people who have responded well to this film are really grateful for it and we hope we get the career that allows for more of that to happen, that would just be a dream.
SCHEINERT: You have people at Q&A’s say, “Don’t make a Marvel movie!” and I just don’t wanna disappoint them. (laughs)
Sure. I feel like there’s room for both. You see filmmakers that can bring something new and different to a blockbuster genre, but also delve into original properties and bring new and fresh and exciting original stories as well.
KWAN: Yeah, I mean if something inspires us, we’ll go for it. So we’re kinda just approaching our careers in a therapeutic way.
Which leads me to the question, tell me about this R-rated dramatic remake of White Chicks.
SCHEINERT: (Laughs) I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me about it! Yeah I mean it’s in the works, we’re fully financed, we start production next week. (laughs) Let’s not start more rumors. I think we have a fascination with taking something that no one else would want to do and doing it beautifully, and showing them they were wrong for judging it.
KWAN: One thing I love about [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller is nobody wanted 21 Jump Street the movie. Nobody wanted a Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie, but they both turned out wonderful and they take things you wouldn’t expect to be good and make a great movie.
SCHEINERT: White Chicks is a running joke with us, but it’s a movie I genuinely enjoy a lot. After we watched it, we started joking about the thematic undercurrents of it and how we could make our Requiem for a Dream be a White Chicks remake.
KWAN: It would be kind of like Requiem for a Dream meets The Departed or something. It’d be like a psychological identity thriller where you’re watching people fall apart as they live a double life (laughs).
So you would keep the Wayans brothers on board, is that correct?
SCHEINERT: Yeah. And we have to get the same makeup team that made those exquisite white girl faces.
Honestly it doesn’t sound any more ridiculous than a movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a corpse that comes to life and is used as a living speedboat.
SCHEINERT: Yeah, we set the bar pretty high. We have like a collection of movies we wanna make, so if you want to make up a new headline, you could say that we wanna make a time-travel sci-fi film called Clockblockers in which teams of time travelers go back to cockblock dictators’ parents. So it’s a rom-com about Mr. and Mrs. Hitler, but with these two time travelers trying to run their romance. Then one of the time travelers who’s like the wingman realizes that Mr. Hitler’s a really great guy, kind of like Back to the Future. So then he’s really emotionally torn about whether or not to help this cute German man get the girl of his dreams (laughs).
Have you guys written this, or is this just an idea you’ve been throwing around?
KWAN: We’re on Draft 8.
SCHEINERT: it’s like a six-part mini-series (laughs). No, it’s one of our joke ideas, we have a pretty big bag of unused ideas and music video treatments no one wanted to make.
KWAN: Actually Swiss Army Man started out as started out as one of our ideas, like Swiss Army Man was 100 percent just a joke idea we kept pitching until we fell in love with it, and then eventually someone told us, “You should just go make that.” So we did it, and it’s great.
SCHEINERT: And it was rewarding, so we might just do it again. Maybe we’ll make White Chicks.
I mean I’m sitting here and I really wanna see Clockblockers now.
SCHEINERT: There you go!