The Directors of 'Swiss Army Man' Explain Why It's Healthy to Find Humor In Death

The Directors of 'Swiss Army Man' Explain Why It's Healthy to Find Humor In Death

Jul 01, 2016

Swiss Army Man

You've probably heard of Swiss Army Man as the movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse. You've probably seen the whimsical trailer, which does not hide the fact that Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse. Here's the rub, though: Swiss Army Man is soooooooo much more than just the movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse.

Swiss Army Man is about Hank (Paul Dano), a man who finds himself stranded on a tiny island with no rescue in sight. Just as he's given up on life, he comes across another person (Daniel Radcliffe), only they happen to be dead. The dead aren't useless, though, and Dano proceeds to find not just ways of saving his life, but a reason to live, all thanks to the decaying yet increasingly animated corpse of a stranger.

So, yeah, Swiss Army Man is a weird movie, but it's the perfect kind of weird movie. It's incredibly sweet, incredibly insightful, and incredibly honest about how the best solution to the isolation we're all capable of feeling is to simply accept that we're all a part of a greater world. It's also a rather astonishing directorial debut for music video ("Turn Down for What") and short film (Interesting Ball) directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who go by the directing name of Daniels.

We spoke to the two Daniels this week about their beautifully bizarre movie. It was supposed to be a normal chat, but we ended up talking for over twice our scheduled length, so the topics covered everything from Mythbusters to their Die Hard in a high school movie to their joke White Chicks remake to why it's vital to stare into the abyss that is death. There are no spoilers at all, so enjoy whether you've seen the movie or not. But if you haven't seen Swiss Army Man, we highly, highly encourage you to do so.


On wishing Mythbusters was still on the air so they could do an entire special dedicated to Swiss Army Man

Kwan: I would have been so for that. We should ask them to come back just for this. Different groups of friends have already had that conversation, of what would actually be possible.

Scheinert: The physics of it, if he'd sink or if he could wake board.

Kwan: There's this place called The Body Farm where they do things to dead bodies just to see what will happen. We should go to The Body Farm and ask them if we can use some of their bodies for our fart jet ski testing.

Scheinert: We should ask somebody to donate their body to us and then we can make a doc about it.

Kwan: The whole thing is a joke, but it's also so morbid and sad, and I think that's a really great contrast to have.


On Sundance creating the narrative that this was "the farting corpse movie"

Kwan: When you make a movie about a dead body that has super powers, including super powered farts, you're putting a big kick me sign on your back. We knew there would be a lot of speculation as to what this movie would be like. We want people to go in expecting the worse and realize there is strange beauty in places you would never think of. Hopefully those people who line up to kick the back of our movie turn it around and realize it's actually a human being, and a beautiful one.

Scheinert: One of the most rewarding things is when someone says they really didn't think they'd like it, but then they did. That's cool. We come from music videos and short films and we've succeeded at finding an audience by being just crazy enough to get the internet to talk. People are so desensitized, that to be able to shake them up a bit is something we love.

Kwan: Those two elements are what excite us about the stories we tell. People are constantly having to reassess their preconceived ideas of things. The 'But it's actually good!' Our dream for Sundance was to have people say – and sometimes we did overhear them say this – 'Did you see the farting corpse movie? It's actually really good.' It was really rewarding to hear people not know what to say but know they were still thinking about it.

Scheinert: That's a much more interesting conversation to overhear than 'Hey, did you see that Eddie Redmayne movie where he's sad and cries'?

Kwan: I love Eddie Redmayne. by the way. He's great.


On the crazy Die Hard-esque musical they tried to make before this

Scheinert: This has been the goal since 2013. We've been going hardcore since then to make this movie, but before then we had this screenplay that was tentatively titled Codename Operation Heist School the Musical....4? It was a musical comedy action film set in a high school cut to the music of Grease.

Kwan: It was like Die Hard in a high school set to a bad high school production of Grease.

Scheinert: Starring a little fat kid named Daniel who has to save the day, but it's kind of a non-violence action film about how every time someone uses a gun things go wrong.

Kwan: Jackie Chan is in it too, but he never fights. He's locked in a closet the whole movie.

Kwan: We wrote a draft and then realized it was probably too big for our first movie. We needed the music of Grease and we needed Jackie Chan.

Scheinert: But at the same time as writing it we were finding success with this strange little movies and finding audiences were receptive to some of our weirder, most personal stuff. We realized we had a unique opportunity to tell these stories, and to go out of the gate with something that was so personal and weird would be such a great way to start our careers. So we wrote this movie to showcase our crew and our taste and this weird tone.


On getting other people to indulge their own fascinations

Kwan: I think early on we were really self conscious about being directors, because we were like, 'Who are we to have these really weird ideas and ask other people to be a part of them?'

Scheinert: It's so weird to have a band hire you and you show up on set and are like, 'Put on this funny hat and go stand over there!'

Kwan: That's why we act in a lot of our shorts. We didn't want to ask anyone else to be in it. It felt like such an absurd thing to ask for. So that naturally blended into our work. There's also something sad and funny about the image of a puppet, because obviously most people think of humans as meat puppets. We're just the end result of chemical reactions in our brains that go off like a domino effect and we have no free will. The more people look into it the more they realize that our conscious is tricking the rest of our body into thinking we have control. And that's fascinating, and it's fun to play with, especially when it comes to dead bodies.

[Note: Dan Kwan is the main dancer in "Turn Down for What"]


On finding comfort in the abyss

Scheinert: I think some of my favorite content stares at really depressing truths, and then makes a joke about it. If you can really stare into the abyss and then find some humor and humanity and hope in there, then you've got a real platform to go about your day like, 'Ha ha! I looked into the abyss last night and survived, so I don't care if you call me gay or whatever.'

Kwan: This movie is that. The opening scene, as it was written, says Hank stares at this floating dead corpse as if he's staring into a black hole, a meaningless void. It's such an awful image to encounter in the real world, but it's also something that happens every day. We die and we bloat and it all leaves our body and it's such a sad reminder that we're all going to die and we're going to die with no dignity. We spend all our lives with our clothes buttoned up trying to cover up our B.O. With deodorant and trying to cut our finger nails and look popular, and then we just die and it all falls apart. It's the decay of it all. If we can find humor in that image, there's something really beautiful and meaningful about it. This character takes this meaningless image and uses it to rescue himself.

I think that's why people subconsciously have such a good time watching him ride off across the ocean. There's something scary about that opening. Even on the most simple level of worrying 'Oh man, am I about to watch a 90-minute movie about farting corpses?'

Scheinert: And then like two minutes later we're punching you in the face with joy and glory.

Kwan: We hope that's what audiences feel throughout the whole movie. It's this sort of, 'Oh, no, is this what we're going to talk about now?' and then 'Oh, man, I'm so glad we talked about that!' The whole film is going back and forth between those things, playing with your expectations and where your mind is as an audience member.


On the part of the movie they were most afraid of not working

Kwan: The opening.

Scheinert: Definitely the motorboat.

Kwan: Him shooting across the ocean, the whole film lived or died on that moment in the story.

Scheinert: We spent so long in pre-production trying to figure out how to execute that moment. It was very important to us that we do as much practically as possible. If it would look like two CGI boys on a fake ocean? [Makes farting noise] Bad movie.

Kwan: We actually shot it out on the ocean with a boogie board attached to a jet ski. We put our actors on it and shot them across the ocean and filmed it. And it was such a cathartic thing for us as filmmakers because we're watching something real happen. Even Paul said he didn't have to act because he was having so much fun. We blasted some of the music from the movie, which we had written before filming.

Scheinert: We had speakers on the side of the boat, blasting them with music. It looked pretty much exactly like it does in the movie, only there were some ropes we removed. We were so scared going in and so happy sitting there watching this footage and thinking 'This is perfect.' Watching foamy waters splash across A-list actors as they sing their heart out on the open ocean.

Kwan: And it was the whole crew, too. You could feel everyone was buzzing in that moment. So that was one of the most satisfying things, production wise. Tonally, the hardest thing was figuring out how to balance everything we were trying to do. The scariest thing was wondering if we would be able to make people emotionally invest in a farting corpse or will we be the laughing stock of the entire film industry. Will this be the first and only movie we ever make? That was something that kept me up most nights, and it's a very strange feeling.

Scheinert: Is it still keeping you up or are you feeling like we're okay?

Kwan: I don't know. For now my brain is keeping me awake all night, but for whole different reasons. The funny thing is it was completely our fault. It was self-imposed, but I think it's going to be worth it, I think the right people are going to appreciate it.

Scheinert: They already have started to. People come out laughing and giggling with tears in their eyes, and that's the ultimate compliment.

On Swiss Army Man being a good first date movie

Kwan: 100% first date. Our first A.D. Is a very attractive, single bachelor. Every now and then he brings a new girl to our friend group, and he gets so bold with it. He brought one girl to a screening of our short Interesting Ball, which I don't know if you've seen it or not.

Scheinert: It's an insane movie where I get sucked up his butt, among other things, while crying.

Kwan: And Jesse is in it as a guy who hugs a bunch of dudes and they all smoosh together in a broformer. And he was like, 'This is what we're doing' and if a girl is down with it, they're going to appreciate what we're doing. And if not, they're probably not worth your time.

Scheinert: He did the same thing at the premiere. I was like, 'Who is that girl Jesse is with? He's not talking to her much.' and he told us she left the movie and was like, 'Yeah, it was alright' so he told her, 'Yeah, I'm not interested.'

I don't know, maybe we're going to break up couples. I do think there's something in there for guys and girls. We very self consciously tried to make it not just a bro down.

Kwan: It's a very interesting slice of masculinity that you don't see on the screen very often. It also happens to fit in with our view of the world and the people we hang out with often tend to not be super macho bros who drive fast cars and play sports. I think a lot of our female friends appreciated that.


On how romcoms saved Swiss Army Man

Scheinert: We got frustrated at times in the writing process, and then we'd watch some romcoms and realize this wasn't a buddy comedy, this was a romcom about people having a very deep connection and then having outside forces tear them apart until they can declare their love for one another. Love needed to conquer all.

Manny used to be a really sassy nayser who was constantly like 'Put me down!' and we never really cracked it until the love story took flight, and then it was like, 'Yes, now this is singing to us!'


On how Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe helped change the script

Scheinert: To an embarrassing degree, it changed a lot.

Kwan: But it was the actors who changed it. We then knew who were grounding the film around.

Scheinert: We drew inspiration from them as people, because they're such curious, fascinating, smart people, the more we just kind of stuck these boys in these parts, particularly so we could see them do things we haven't seen them do in other movies. We wanted to use this tool we'd been gifted. We're like, 'Oh my god, I get Daniel Radcliffe? Let's put the fact that he is this bold, enthusiastic kid into Manny. That'll make people like the movie even more!'

Paul Dano is such a stone cold, stoic pervert. He's so funny. He won't crack a smile, but he'll prank someone and then not admit it was him. So let's make Hank that kind of a guy.


On how to direct someone to play a dead body

Kwan: A lot of it was him. He has such control over his body that we were able to take every scene like an acting exercise. We took the restrictions and were like, 'Okay, you're at this stage in the movie and you can only use one facial expression and one body pose. Go!'

Scheinert: It was like the Five Obstructions of acting.

Kwan: Exactly, and every scene we'd add on something new. 'So now you can say a couple words, but nothing but those words and that pose.' And we just kept adding to that arsenal until we could see him become a fully fleshed, self-aware terrified human. I think that makes it that much more rewarding to get to that point. He understood that and he committed to that. He never asked to be doing more if it didn't make sense.

Scheinert: And he really sparked to the challenge. If his job in a scene was to not breathe or blink, he would work his ass off to not breathe or blink. And that's not easy when you're laying in freezing cold water and it's splashing in your ear.

Kwan: We only had to do small things in post, like take out blinks or breathing.

On frequently apologizing to Dano and Radcliffe for what they were making them do

Kwan: We would try, but they wouldn't care.

Scheinert: They were like, 'Shut up! This is so much fun' And we're like, 'Are you okay if we put this in your mouth?' 'Yes, shut up! We read the script!' They were so gung ho.

Kwan: It was not a long shoot, but it felt very long because it was just them.

Scheinert: The hardest days were when we had a lot of pages to shoot and they'd just go strong for hours straight. There are no other actors. It's not like 'Yeah, go take a break, we'll shoot the other actors' scenes for a while.'


On their ridiculously short production window

Kwan: We had no time and no money.

Scheinert: But we had a team of people who were smart and passionate. We're also kind of like producers when we're directing. When they tell us we don't have the money, or that we can have a bear, but only for four hours, it becomes a question of how can we make this scene great given those restrictions. It was a 23 or 24 day shoot. And sometimes we'd do things like spend a whole day getting that opening shot, which is only like 45 seconds of the movie. To make up for that, the next day we'd shoot 9 pages.

Kwan: The crazy thing was our post schedule. We had to have it done for Sundance, and I think that gave us like three months.

Scheinert: We started in August, submitted in October, and then locked the edit by end of November, then did all of the visual effects and sound design in December.

Kwan: It was like 250 visual effects shots, 40 minutes of score, it was insane. We kind of went crazy. It was like four of us in my backyard in a small little office chugging along, trying to get as much done as possible. It was really fun. Editing is kind of my favorite part, but also the worst part, because you're coming together to see if it worked.

Scheinert: When it doesn't work, Dan's depressed. And when it does work, Dan's still unwilling to admit that he's good. It's like when you finish the script, okay, cool, but that's just a blueprint for a building we haven't built yet. You can't feel that good about it.

Kwan: But when you're editing and cutting things together and scenes start to make the bus scene. When we cut that together we knew it was the center of our film and everything would bleed out from it.

Scheinert: We built out from it because our assistant editor mocked it up as we were filming.

Kwan: It was a crazy scene out of context, but if it made emotional sense then we'd already won.

Scheinert: So yeah, the schedule was pretty brutal, but it was also necessary. We are indie film. We can only devote so much time to it, so it was like, three months, here we go.

On whether or not they'll make the jump to studio movies

Scheinert: We've signed up to co-direct Infinity War with the Russo brothers.

Kwan: I think this would be a fun time to say we're not going to do that, we're going to try and go out on our own for a while. I think the generation of filmmakers we fell in love with, and became filmmakers because of, are people who did their own thing for as long as possible and developed their own voices outside of any machine. There's nothing wrong with blockbusters. I love watching them. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry...all those people developed really unique voices, and I think there's so much more we have to learn and there's so much more we want to do before we go and try someone else's idea. We have too many ideas on our own and we have the opportunity now to make it because some people out there want that, and that's not something we want to squander.

Scheinert: I also think the studio system, just watching from a distance, doesn't play to our strengths. Filmmaking is a process for us and they expect you to know what you're doing. We have to be willing to change things on the fly.

Kwan: It's not until the edit that we realize what we've made.

Scheinert: The fact that Iron Man 3 had an animatic for the finale action scene before day one of shooting is so not our process, even though we like visual effects.

Kwan: We try to surprise ourselves. That's what we're always looking to do.

Scheinert: When we go into studio filmmaking, we're going to make an epic kids film filled with puppets and practical effects. We'll make that some time. Just maybe not in the next year.


On the sci-fi movie they do hope to make next

Scheinert: We have a script that we're trying to write later this year that will be a challenge.

Kwan: It's a sci-fi action film taking place in the multiverse, but it's mostly about a guy trying to finish his taxes.

Scheinert: In some ways it's so much easier than Swiss Army Man because we want to follow normal movie rules, but in other ways is so much harder because it's not just two characters, it's a whole world.

Kwan: It's like The Matrix, but starring Jackie Chan.

Scheinert: Stop saying that! Don't print that! I'm so nervous whenever we say anything about the movie. People are actually listening. People are paid to write up what we tell them!

Kwan: It's like White Chicks. That's out in the world now.

Scheinert: But we're not going to remake White Chicks!



Swiss Army Man is in theaters now. See it!


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