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Everything Everywhere All At Once is like The Matrix with butt plugs

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert discuss their new A24 film, Everything Everywhere All At Once – a must-see sci-fi fantasy about race, sexuality and generational trauma

When Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert spoke to Dazed for Swiss Army Man, they joked about wanting to make a “sci-fi action film about a 60-year-old Chinese man who can’t finish his taxes”. Except the directorial duo weren’t joking. Everything Everywhere All At Once, originally written for Jackie Chan, is a head-spinning, leg-kicking, dildo-waving comedy about a laundrette owner, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), whose foes include the almighty goddess Jobu Tupaki, a Kill Bill-esque gaggle of kung-fu masters, and an IRS inspector named Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis).

“The first draft had Jackie and Michelle as a married couple,” says Scheinert. “Then we focused our attention on the wife, because we were like, ‘This is a movie I haven’t seen 100 times.’”

“It’s an action film starring our moms,” says Kwan.

Daniels, as the pair are known, are in Soho Hotel, in early May, shortly before a sold-out preview at BFI IMAX. In the UK, the wait’s been painful. In America, EEAAO is already A24’s fourth-highest grossing movie ever. On Letterboxd, it’s the best-reviewed film of all time, and Deadline reports that A24 are planning a substantial Oscars push. Moreover, EEAAO is a word-of-mouth success, despite an indescribable premise. It’s Being John Malkovich with martial arts. It’s The Matrix with butt plugs. It’s a tender depiction of generational trauma and what it’s like to be Asian in a western country. It’s all those things, all at once.

Then again, Daniels have always seen loglines as challenges, not marketing opportunities. After all, Swiss Army Man starred Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse whose flatulence transforms him into a jet ski. “Our goal with Swiss Army Man was: can we make people cry from a fart?” says Scheinert. “With early drafts on this, it was: what if we can make people cry from taxes?”

Told largely in Cantonese and Mandarin (in the end credits, the title triumphantly appears in Chinese), EEAAO initially grounds itself with Evelyn’s family life: her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) wants a divorce; their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), has a girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), which the grandfather (James Hong) might not appreciate. Then Waymond reveals that an infinite number of universes exist and that this specific Evelyn is the least successful of all them. Full of untapped potential, she’s thus, Matrix-style, the one primed to defeat Jobu Tupaki.

“I wanted the movie to feel like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” says Kwan. “It’s a pop album that implodes and becomes wild, yet still satisfies you.” Another inspiration was the freedom of anime. “Sometimes our stuff doesn’t feel realistic but that’s not the point. It’s about energy and emotion. When they say ‘Kamehameha!’ in Dragon Ball, it’s one of the most expressive visual forms of storytelling.”

In another universe, an even stranger movie exists. The Jackie Chan draft had Chris Tucker playing himself (“We never reached out,” says Kwan), while a filmed-but-deleted subplot showcased Evelyn as a talking string of spaghetti. “In one version, the first half was The Matrix and she dies,” says Kwan. “When she wakes up, it becomes Magnolia.”

“Ultimately, it’s classic storytelling,” says Scheinert. “A hero reaches catharsis and grows. But we wanted the genre movies interrupting the movie you’re watching to be part of the conflict, which is such a meta version of conflict. It’s like: we’ve got a whole new movie coming in, and that movie has its own structure, and another movie comes in.”

“The structure becomes part of the hero’s journey,” says Kwan.

Kwan and Scheinert, both 34, first met at a 3D animation class at film school. In their twenties, they gained viral infamy for their anarchic music videos and short films. “Dazed funded Interesting Ball,” says Kwan. “We spent all the money on an afterparty.” The 12-minute epic ends with Scheinert being sucked into Kwan’s arsehole and the universe collapsing. “It was an experimental sandbox that got us ready to do Everything Everywhere.”

By then, Daniels had already directed Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What”, which has amassed a billion views on YouTube. It stars Kwan as a man whose penis destroys a multistorey building. “The comments were like, ‘It’s so weird, there’s an Asian guy in a hip-hop video,’” says Kwan. “People were laughing about it.” Kwan then read a blog post celebrating the “Asian dude with an invincible, uncontrollable crotch”.

Kwan continues, “I realised I was in a unique situation as an Asian-American filmmaker, and I was wasting it. Before we finished Swiss Army Man, I was like, ‘Whatever we do next, I hope we can explore that part of my life.’”

“The immigrant experience was interesting to explore in a multiverse film, because Evelyn could be caught between America and her Chinese childhood,” says Scheinert. “There’s a generation gap and a full-on language barrier between family members. Everyone’s caught in different worlds before we even introduce sci-fi.”

With Evelyn obsessing over the “what if?” moments of her life, EEAAO leans closer to The Worst Person in the World than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. In a dimension where humans have hotdogs for fingers, Evelyn is married to Deidre, who plays the piano with her feet. Beneath the sight gags, EEAAO thus depicts the sexual fluidity that exists inside all of us.

“It’s all so stupid, but people are connecting with it... the film systematically breaks apart the binaries and labels that are hurting us. There’s been a paradigm shift, and movies have to reflect that” – Kwan Daniels

“The spectrum of gender, sexuality, hands with bones versus hands with hotdogs – it’s all so stupid, but people are connecting with it,” says Kwan. “Because the film systematically breaks apart the binaries and labels that are hurting us. There’s been a paradigm shift, and movies have to reflect that.”

“When you think about infinity,” says Scheinert, “all these binaries and labels fall apart.”

When filmmakers can execute a movie about infinity, where do they go next? Infinity plus one? “We get energy from imagining people saying no to us,” says Kwan. “It’s scary to imagine what happens if people say yes to everything we do.” After “Turn Down for What”, they became perturbed by the automatic enthusiasm for their music video pitches. “I know that whatever we do next is going to be tied to the climate crisis, which is really hard to do. It’s so easy for climate movies to come off as bad, cringey, or preachy. There are so many obstacles.”

“We need obstacles,” says Scheinert. “Hundreds of them.”

In Daniels’ interview for Swiss Army Man, they secretly gave Dazed numerous scoops – like their pitch for Beyoncé’s “Countdown” music video ending up as the plot of EEAAO. So it’s hard to gauge where the gag starts and ends with their ambition to redo the 2003 rom-com How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

“Not a sequel,” says Kwan. “A remake with the original cast. We’ve pitched it to Paramount twice. They said no both times. But their executives have changed. We might pitch it to them next month.”

So the same storyline, with the same actors, just older?

“We’re not going to tell you!” says Scheinert.

“Same storyline, same actors, same exact soundtrack,” says Kwan, I think now in joke mode. “The early 2000 hits in the same order. Almost like how Gus Van Sant shot Psycho.”

“Right,” says Scheinert. “We’re going to remake the best film of all time, which is…”

“‘Best’ is subjective,” says Kwan. “But it’s a formative movie. We’ll do it for a decent-enough budget so it’s not a huge flop. It’s something we’re trying to get done.”

Everything Everywhere All at Once is out in UK cinemas on May 13