The first fart makes you laugh, and the last fart makes you cry. That’s how oddball filmmaking duo DANIELS (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) pitched Swiss Army Man, an existential odyssey fuelled by flatulence, masturbation and soul-crushing loneliness. Stay with me here.
Paul Dano is tied up in a noose, somewhere on an abandoned beach, when his suicide is interrupted by the curious sight of Daniel Radcliffe’s washed-up corpse. Even stranger, the rotting carcass is, let’s say, gassy. Dano then sets sails and rides his effluvial companion across the sea like a jet-ski. This is only the first five minutes.
Swiss Army Man’s pungent poetry entails a search for meaning and perhaps a misplaced memory; a single image of Mary Winstead hints that Radcliffe’s carcass once knew how to love, and his flailing erection suggests there’s still life within his bones. It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Adolescent Mind by way of Uncle Boonmee. As for the whole breaking wind aspect, it illustrates the human body as a beautiful, disgusting instrument: the gas symbolises what we choose to hide, and each fart is the shame we dare not share.
Speaking of which, DANIELS (there’s no ‘the’) have celebrated biology elsewhere. Their wild music video for “Turn Down for What” (see below) has clocked over 550 million views and features Daniel Kwan, whose rock-hard penis literally tears down the house. Or there’s Interesting Ball, a Dazed-commission short in which one Daniel enters the other Daniel’s rear end. So, of course, we had to ask DANIELS about dancing erections, turning shame into art, and pitching music videos to Beyoncé.
I find fart jokes aggressively unfunny, and I don’t even like saying the word. Did that make me the target audience?
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah, we keep telling people: if you hate fart jokes, you’re gonna really relate to the protagonist of our fart-drama.
Daniel Kwan: Also, the reason we made this movie is because I share the same feeling. The fact you don’t like saying the word – great, that’s how we feel. The fact we’re making a movie about fart jokes was so embarrassing to us.
Daniel Scheinert: Sometimes our films are immersion therapy for ourselves. We’re like, ‘What makes me uncomfortable? Let’s stare that in the face.’
Daniel Kwan: ‘What would be my nightmare as a filmmaker? Oh, making a movie about fart jokes.’
Breaking wind in front of another person is quite an intimate thing, but it’s usually not expressed in films.
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah. That’s the reason we made the film. It started as a joke where we were like, ‘That’d be the stupidest thing if we ever made it.’ The more we talked about farts, honestly, it became a philosophically rewarding subject. They are something most people are ashamed of and don’t talk about, and yet they’re the most human thing – literally, every human does it.
The film really provokes a physical reaction from viewers. With the farts, people either laughed or sighed to show they’re above it. Is that something you want from your work? For instance, your Dogboarding film made me feel really sick.
Daniel Scheinert: You felt sick when they jumped on the dogs? I’m sorry, but that does make us very happy.
Daniel Kwan: If you can move the body, you’ve created a memorable experience. We’re hoping to create something that sticks with you days or even weeks after you’ve seen the film.
Daniel Scheinert: It’s frustratingly hard to get an adult to have a visceral reaction to a movie, the way we used to react to movies as kids. In some ways, that’s the reason we made such a weird movie. We’re trying to get grownups out of their comfort scene.
I thought Shane Carruth was a recluse. How did you get him to play a coroner?
Daniel Kwan: It’s crazy, right?
Daniel Scheinert: He was talking with our producers about his upcoming film. He just showed up on set, which was terrifying to us because we’re huge fans – and suddenly this director who’s more talented than we are is just hanging around set. So as punishment, we made him be in the movie. Like, ‘We let you come to set. Can you just play this role?’
Was anything vetoed for being too strange?
Daniel Scheinert: Nothing vetoed.
Daniel Kwan: There were conversations.
Daniel Scheinert: The two of us were constantly talking about the line and what’s worth it. We don’t like it if our crew or cast blindly trust us. We talked every little thing to death, to make sure it made emotional sense and it was going to work.
In Swiss Army Man and the ‘Turn Down for What’ video, you’ve got dancing erections. Are you interested in the puppetry of the human body?
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah, we’re obsessed. We’re all trapped inside one.
Daniel Kwan: It’s the idea of causality. Something could go wrong in our body that we know nothing about, and then suddenly our arms no longer belong to us or our legs no longer work. It’s a scary feeling, knowing you have no control over your body.
Daniel Scheinert: We read lots of neuroscience stuff when writing the movie, which I don’t think you would guess from watching it. But when you read about the conscious and unconscious brain, the sheer quantity of things that are not in your control is terrifying.
Daniel Kwan: And also it’s just funny.
Daniel Kwan: There was a draft – probably second-to-last before we started shooting – which scared a lot of people. We realised the whole film was about shame, so we decided to run crazy with it. We made our characters so much more shameful and went too far. We filled it with all the things we would be ashamed of, that anyone could relate with. But it was too much for a lot of people.
Daniel Scheinert: A lot of fetishes. A lot of full-on stalker vibes.
I’m guessing you’ve pitched a lot of films and adverts that were rejected for being too weird and ambitious. What could you not get permission for?
Daniel Kwan: The funny thing is, a lot of the things we’ve done later on in our careers were just things that existed early on in our careers. With Dogboarding, we shot it for a specific company.
Daniel Scheinert: It was supposed to be a Coke commercial?
Daniel Kwan: And they did not get it at all. It didn’t make sense to them. So they just shelved it. They didn’t want it to be released. And then a record company saw it and was like, ‘This is brilliant. Let’s put one of our songs to it, and release it as a viral short.’ They saved us, which was great. Then, later on, we did a music video for Foster the People, which was just the band dying and becoming puppets for the record label. It was something we pitched to a few bands, like trying to kill the band off at the beginning of the music video.
Daniel Scheinert: We really wanted to kill the band The National, but that got rejected. We really wanted to kill Maroon 5.
Daniel Kwan: ‘Turn Down for What’ is probably the best example of something that was filled with rejected ideas. We took those ideas and stuck them into one music video. Now, at this point of our career, the scary thing is, if we pitch something, people will actually say yes to it. That’s never been the case, and we have to be responsible with that power. If people are going to let you do weird things, it’s not that fun. It’s only really fun if it feels like you’re pushing people out of their comfort zone. If people are comfortable with our weirdness, then we’d have to find another way to excite ourselves.
Could you do a really straight drama next? Like how Woody Allen followed up Annie Hall with Interiors?
Daniel Kwan: Yeah, a really slow, patient character study.
Daniel Scheinert: I want to start shooting music videos for bands where the bands are in a room and they play their instruments. I want to be the go-to director for bands playing their instruments.
“We really wanted to kill the band The National, but that got rejected. We really wanted to kill Maroon 5” – Daniel Scheinert
Is it true you pitched a music video to Beyoncé?
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah, it was for ‘Countdown’. We came up with a time-travel music video that would take place in one timeline. So there’d be ten Beyoncés running around, and you would keep seeing them in the background, but as you keep watching, you start understanding who that Beyoncé was back there when she ran past this other Beyoncé. It was an action film where she had to rescue her lover from bad guys trying to steal the time machine, and then they ride off in a DeLorean.
Daniel Kwan: We realised it was the worst idea to pitch to Beyoncé. I guess nowadays she spends a lot of time on music videos. But most big pop divas will come in, shoot for four hours, and then leave.
Daniel Scheinert: We naively pitched something that would have taken two weeks to shoot with Beyoncé. Now, we understand how long it takes divas to pick an outfit with their team and stylists. It was unrealistic to shoot ten Beyoncés in every shot with different outfits.
“We came up with a time-travel music video that would take place in one timeline. So there’d be ten Beyoncés running around, and you would keep seeing them in the background... We realised it was the worst idea to pitch to Beyoncé” – DANIELS
Daniel Kwan, you’re the first Asian director I’ve ever interviewed who makes English-language films. As a Chinese journalist in London, I often find it quite alienating to be in a very white media landscape. I was wondering how you felt from a filmmaker’s perspective?
Daniel Kwan: I don’t know if you can relate to this, but I spent most of my childhood wishing I was white – basically suppressing anything that felt Asian about me. I started specifically not hanging out with that many Asians, and wanted to just ignore that part of me. That stayed with me until my adult life. I didn’t open up that conversation again until ‘Turn Down for What’. It was after making this stupid music video where I had a dancing dick that I started to think about racial identity. Because when that music video went online, 25 per cent of the comments were along the lines of, ‘Haha, I get it – he’s Asian,’ or sometimes they’d just say, ‘He’s Asian.’
Daniel Scheinert: Everyone knows that Asians have dancing dicks. That’s the stereotype.
Daniel Kwan: Of course. The funny thing is, I suddenly realised people weren’t used to seeing Asian males in a sexualised role, in an aggressive role, in a very masculine role – especially not in hip hop videos. It made me realise: I have a strange power all of a sudden to put myself out there in a way I’d never considered before. I’d always thought of myself as a white director until then. I think it’s why I enjoy making these films. Somehow we get to make these very explosive, in-your-face stories because of how much I just want to fit in. It helps me fight against that Asian male stereotype of quiet sidekicks or the ones on the sidelines who think about maths. Filmmaking helps me fight that.
Daniel Scheinert: For our next film… we got sick of pretty white boys. We’re filling it with people of colour.
Daniel Kwan: For our next film we’re trying to have an Asian male lead who’s in his 60s.
Are you writing that now?
Daniel Scheinert: It’s still a work-in-progress, but it’s a sci-fi action film about a 60-year-old Chinese man who can’t finish his taxes. Pretty exciting stuff.
Daniel Kwan: It’s not very marketable, but we’ll see what happens.
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