The directorial duo Daniels (Everything Everywhere All at Once) finds depth in the absurd

Neither Steven Spielberg, James Cameron nor Damien Chazelle took the stage at the Critics Choice Awards on Jan. 15 to accept the best director award. Instead, two relatively inexperienced former music video directors appeared: ‘Daniels’ (without), the American director duo Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. The American and Canadian critics voted them Everything everywhere at once also the best film of the year.

Six years ago, ‘Daniels’ already had more than a billion views on YouTube and the duo won the director’s award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Enough cultural cachet for an entire career. Still, Scheinert and Kwan only really broke through this year with their ridiculously complicated meta-multiverse movie. In the post-pandemic wasteland of the global cinema industry, the film still grossed more than $103 million.

Individually, Kwan and Scheinert are unremarkable creatives. Kwan is stout, has an eyebrow moustache, glasses and often wears a cap. Scheinert is bald, has a beard, glasses and often wears a woolen hat. They are not unhip, maybe geek-chic.

They are also inconspicuous in their speech. In interviews and conversations with other directors, they are endearingly modest (“we still feel empowered to do this”) and funny (“I thought we’d only get questions about buttplugs”). They don’t have Spielberg’s natural authority, Martin Scorsese’s New York cool image, Paul Thomas Anderson’s intense quirky content or Tarantino’s film savvy.

The strength of their work lies in their collaboration. Daniels is a kind of improv comedy team: building ideas on ideas, nothing too weird or too unrealistic, the answer is always ‘yes, and what else?’ Everything they do is crowded and pushes against the edges of the medium, whether it’s their music videos or their films.

The best example is Daniels’ debut film: swiss army man (2016), a black comedy about a lost soul (award-winning actor Paul Dano) who befriends an explosively gasping, rotting corpse with powerful erections (Harry Potterstar Daniel Radcliffe). It originated as a fart joke. The Daniel family vacationed near a lake. They were looking for short films they could make with the lake as a setting. Kwan had a clue. A man finds a washed-up corpse that turns out to be releasing giant explosive winds. The man doesn’t think it’s dirty. He’s just fascinated. In the next shot, he would be gliding across the ocean, propelled by an outboard of farts. “With beautiful music in the background,” Kwan said in an interview with Rolling stones.

“I spent the next five years trying to convince him to make that movie,” said Scheinert, the couple’s uncompromising. They spent years building on the idea. It became an allegory for fear of man, trust issues, body shaming and suicide, that too.

When she filmed at Sundance Labs – a incubator for film talent – ​​they had to refine “50 ideas” into something that would fit into a 90+ minute film. And something that still had some internal logic to it.

It was pure coincidence that five years after the last Harry Potter film, a global star like Daniel Radcliffe was still so eager to shed the wizard image that he was open to playing a snarling corpse with an erection. Paul Dano only needed one sentence to convince, he has often said: “We want to make a movie with farts that will make you cry.”

With your debut, you need to let people know you’re there, make a statement. It was swiss army man. Daniels won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival. But at the premiere of the film, part of the audience left the room. Too absurd. The film also did not attract full houses after that. And the critics were also divided. Time out found the film pubescent, New York Times fantastic original”.

The chemistry between Daniels is more unique than it seems. Yes, directing duos are standard work, but most are siblings. The Coen brothers are the best and most successful example. See also the Safdie brothers (Uncut gems), Russo (Captain America), and the Wachowski sisters (The Matrix). The best films have a straightforward vision. A movie set works better as a dictatorship than a democracy, goes the saying. A family bond creates a unity more than friendship can. Still, Daniels works well together precisely because they are so different.

Scheinert and Kwan met in a 3D animation course at Emerson College, a private college specializing in art and communication. Stars such as Jay Leno, Henry Winkler and director Lilly Wachowski studied there. The professor asked everyone to introduce themselves and tell them what type of film they wanted to make. Scheinert did his best and gave a long speech. Kwan was embarrassed and simply said, “I don’t know.” Kwan found Scheinert an arrogant “asshole”, conversely, Scheinert thought Kwan was a lazy ass who wasted his money on film school.

In 2009, they ended up as supervisors at the New York Film Academy’s summer camp. Turns out they both loved weird, over-the-top movies they made with the teenagers at camp. Then their collaboration began.

It led to Swingers, a short film about a swing suspended in mid-air with a supernatural plot twist. It was a hit. There was another short film: about men in doll bodies engaging in an extravagant fight. In it you can already see the depth they find in the absurd: yes, at a certain point Daniel Kwan pops the head out of the buttocks of his female doll, but at the same time it is clear that Daniels is trying to reflect on the role of the artist in his art. Also DOLLS became a success. “The algorithm pushed us together,” Kwan said.

The grade difference has persisted, but it also turned out to be an advantage. Scheinert is uncompromising and ambitious, Kwan less purposeful, but therefore also free and creative. Kwan invents a rumbling corpse, Scheinert forces it to be a movie.

There is a gap in the road from an admittedly prestigious university to a multi-million dollar budget in Hollywood. This can be through directing TV series or through a director’s assistant role. Submissive, little creative freedom.

Short films are a way to show your creativity, but they are too expensive for most filmmakers. They generate almost no money and can therefore rarely count on financing. One of the only ways to make short films without shelling out tens of thousands of dollars of your own money is to make music videos. It is also a tried and tested path towards the feature film, think David Fincher, as before Away girl and The social network video clip directed by Madonna. Or Spike Jones (Her), who made videos for Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys.

In 2010, the duo’s first year making music videos, Daniels says he pitched more than 50 ideas, none of which were accepted. Even when they were ‘in’, production companies loved the ideas.

But the advantage of a unique style is that you will be remembered. So, after some success, in 2011 Daniels was in demand as a music video director duo. They made a name for themselves with absurdism, crazy special effects, humor and emotional undertones that suddenly pop out – which now also define their films.

For example, there was the video clip for ‘Houdini’, by Foster the People, where the band dies at the beginning of the video clip, after which the band members are used as puppets in rock shows by a creepy man in a black suit. The mix again: depth and absurdity. More often than not, Scheinert and Kwan wished the band members dead in the music videos they made. Because “bands can’t act.”

Their biggest music video hit is ‘Turn down for what’ by DJ Snake and Lil John. Kwan himself stars as a man almost obsessed with the music, his aggressive hip movements breaking through tables and ceilings, smashing phones and shooting women’s clothes. There’s also a woman with big breasts who jumps to the music, and a penis (from Kwan) that jumps off on its own to the beat. Kwan: ​​”The joke of the pitch was almost: I dare you label, Columbia Records, to say yes to this.” The video has been viewed more than 1.1 billion times on YouTube. It’s Daniels at heart: over the top, absurd, funny and full of ideas.

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ was the perfection of their style, a balance between originality and conventional story structure

swiss army man showed how ruthlessly creative Kwan and Scheinert are, how little they care about convention. But it wasn’t a perfect movie. The set-up was too absurd for the emotional high points – like a kiss between Paul Dano and Radcliffe’s rotting corpse, which is also slowly learning to speak – to not come through.

Everything everywhere at once was the perfection of style. Precisely because it finds a balance between the duo’s originality and a recognizable, conventional story structure. Evelyn is an overworked Chinese-American mother (kung fu movie saint Michelle Yeoh) who must get her laundry’s taxes in order before the grumpy inspector (Jamie Lee Curtis) closes her business. Meanwhile, she is annoyed by her good friend of a man and her lesbian daughter. But then! She discovers that there are parallel universes where she has made different life choices. In fact, she is the chosen one to save all universes from destruction by someone who looks a lot like her own daughter.

The genius of the film lies in its dual structure. The movie starts by default Matrix-as chosen one story, but the second half, where Yeoh visits the multiverse, is a total deconstruction of that structure. The film descends into absurdities: like a colleague of the protagonist who has a raccoon under his chef’s hat. Or a parallel universe where every entity with consciousness is simply a talking stone.

This senseless flow of illogical events reflects the experience of the main character who does not understand the culture she lives in, the speed of society and especially her daughter.

There is also plenty to criticize about their latest film. Some jokes have been done before and better in one of the last few years’ many other multiverse movies and series. Some plot points are inexplicable. But Kwan and Scheinert are perfect for this day and age where videos of world city bombings are juxtaposed with pictures of cappuccinos and chihuahuas on social media. The world is postmodern, it is up to man to find meaning precisely in the deregulated, arbitrary mixture of humor, sadness and longing.

Kwan and Scheinert’s life is like a Hollywood dream. After winning at the Critics Choice Awards, the duo’s Oscar chances are growing significantly. The nominations will be announced next Tuesday. In addition, the duo has just signed a mega deal with Universal, one of the biggest studios in the world.

The question is: what are they going to do now? Of Everything everywhere at once they have already made the perfect film of ideas – a film as a repository for all the artist’s creative ideas, which surprisingly still form a whole. An equally full film would be a trick. A slightly less full movie, e.g swiss army man, would be inferior to the functional chaos of ‘the best movie of 2022’. And it seems impossible to cram even more into one film without losing some Everything everywhere at once what made it so good in the first place: the emotional meaning you can find in that jumble of ideas. Daniels will have to reinvent himself. They must have lots of ideas.

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