Are you getting tired of the seemingly never-ending stream of sequels, remakes and superhero movies that continue to dominate the box office?
Do yourself a favour and check out the new Daniel Radcliffe/Paul Dano flick Swiss Army Man. Truly bizarre, but in the most hilarious way possible (and often tender, thanks in large part to a beautiful score by Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra), the movie tells the story of Hank (Dano), a man stranded in the wilderness who’s at the end of his rope.
Quite literally. As he’s about to hang himself, he spots another man washed up on shore, and inadvertently befriends Manny (Radcliffe) – who just happens to be an extremely gassy corpse. Soon Hank discovers that Manny has uncanny talents that extend beyond his flatulence, and together they start to make the trek home.
To come up with an idea as outrageous as this is one thing. To recruit two of Hollywood’s most promising young actors to jump on board and convince financiers to back the production of it is quite another. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – collectively, Daniels – have laid new ground in terms of creative filmmaking. They spent years as music video directors for the likes of Foster the People, Tenacious D and many others…their most famous video being DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What”, which nabbed them an MTV Video Music Award and 511 million+ YouTube views. Now they’ve turned their attention to feature filmmaking and the industry seems all the better for it.
I met with the fascinating minds behind Swiss Army Man when they were in Toronto recently to talk about their most unusual movie and its dream cast.
So I never ask the question “where did the idea for this film come from”…but I feel like I have to with this one!
DK: Early on, we were such small filmmakers and had very little resources. So it was always a matter of “what do I literally have around me, and what can I make of it?” That was our process. We were flying to Alabama and Daniel’s family has a lake house. A lake is something we don’t normally have access to in LA so we tried to think of what we could do with that.
DS: And they have a boat. And there’s two of us…so we started to think “is there a two-person scene we could shoot at a lake house?”
DK: That’s honestly where all those pieces coalesced into this scene where a desperate man finds a dead body and joyously rides his farting corpse like a jet ski. We figured it was funny but so stupid, so we ignored it for years. But the idea just kept coming back until finally we couldn’t ignore it any longer.
I think we have a fascination with stories that are so convoluted that part of the joke is how hard it is to pitch it. For us, when all the pieces started falling together and it was impossible to pitch, we were like “this is pretty good”.
What were some of the reactions you got when you first pitched it?
DS: We definitely got hundreds of reactions, which was an interesting life experience. We were writing the movie for a couple of years, and after we finished the first draft we got into the Screenwriters Lab at Sundance with Quentin Tarantino. So we weren’t getting just anyone’s reactions, we were getting incredible, pedigreed filmmakers’ reactions! And those were diverse.
DK: Tarantino, Mike White (School of Rock), Patty Jenkins (Monster)…we got all sorts of really interesting people and it was so fun to talk to all of them. And they all had something different to say. Some people absolutely did not get it and some people were so excited by the idea of it, even if they didn’t get it. They were like “keep doing whatever you’re doing – I want to see what this becomes”.
DS: Tarantino said “This was the hardest screenplay that I’ve ever read – I had to set it down, take a break and pick it back up, and I never do that”. He said he wasn’t sure why but he got to the end of the script and became emotional and was tearing up and thought “there’s something magical in here”.
DK: He said “even if I don’t understand what you’re doing, you’re doing something good – so I don’t want to touch it”. It was really sweet.
Tell me about casting and how you prepared Daniel and Paul for these roles. Was there anything they were hesitant about?
DS: As we wrote and the characters were evolving, we were getting to know what we wanted out of the leads. We love working with folks who could be directors in their own right. We want collaborators, not people who just take instructions really well. We wanted guys who could sing and we wanted them to really get along.
We talked to Paul first, weirdly enough. And he really responded to the material. It was surprisingly easy – he liked the role and was excited about the movie. We asked him for suggestions and he said “how about Daniel Radcliffe?” We were like “Well, ok…sure, we’ll ask him, but that’s kind of crazy”. And then Daniel Radcliffe was really psyched about the material as well. We skyped with him and his first question was “Can I do my own stunts?” And we were like “Great question, you’re hired, you’re in it for the right reasons, welcome aboard”.
DK: And in terms of whether there was anything they drew the line on or didn’t want to do? The great thing about these two was that they understand that all the pieces somehow fit into the big picture and they know why. As long as they understand why they’re doing it, they’re so committed.
I think that even though we did insane things with these actors, we’re not unreasonable and I think that they knew that. We always found a way to approach every uncomfortable and strange thing as tactfully as possible. So they always felt comfortable and just excited to do these things. I think acting in general is like a game of how vulnerable you can make yourself. All these things helped them get even more vulnerable with each other. It heightened their connection onscreen, because every day they were both giving a little bit more of themselves up.
Let’s talk about the score and working with Manchester Orchestra. Given your background in the music industry, it must have been so important. It also seems to add that human element to the film.
DS: Yeah. We knew that our movie could be dismissed as super stupid, you know? We knew we were making a farting corpse movie. And then we got excited by the idea that the music could just wrap the whole thing up in pretty wrapping paper. You can stick the music from The Lion King onto the worst movie in the world and it’s awesome!
DK: We wanted to use the music to, with all of our weight, push against what the taboo subjects were and fill it with a candy center. Make it something digestible and lovely. We both love music so much, so being able to build something with our composers that’s beautiful in its own right was really important.
DS: It was a huge morale boost every time they’d send us a new song.
DK: We’d share it with the crew, with the financiers…and everyone would say “Oh, I understand a little bit more what this movie’s going to be”. The words alone make us sound crazy. But once you put the music next to the words, then there’s something happening. And you think “I don’t know what this is, but it’s getting me excited”. So it was really helpful for the financiers to hear the music and understand what we were trying to do.
“Turn Down For What”, in a sense, laid the groundwork for this film to happen. What has Swiss Army Man now done for you in terms of future projects?
DS: I guess we’re finding out as we go…but it is funny. I think people are so much more trusting of our weird ideas. In the little bit we’ve dabbled since the movie coming out, there’s a battle we’re used to fighting that we’re now fighting a little less. We’ll say “aren’t you going to second-guess that?” and they’ll say “No, you made Swiss Army Man!”
DK: With “Turn Down For What”, we were already kind of done with music videos and knew we were moving into features. We thought “this might be the last music video we ever do, and that’s ok…so let’s just make something stupid and if no one ever wants to hire us again, that’s fine. We’ll have a lot of fun and we’ll know it’s just something that really fits the song”. So we pitched the dumbest ideas we could possibly think of…and it backfired! We got asked to do so many other videos – the opposite of what we expected to happen happened.
And the same thing was true with this movie. We thought “either people are going to love this film or we’re never going to get to make another feature – so we might as well put everything we can into it and just make sure it’s, if nothing else, 100% us”.
DS: And now we’re getting requests to meet with heads of studios and we’re like “What? I don’t think so…that sounds weird!” So we’ll see. I think if this movie can succeed enough that more like-minded weirdos get to make their movies, as a movie fan I’ll be so psyched.
Swiss Army Man is now playing in Toronto at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity and VIP.