The filmmaking team, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known as “The Daniels”), began their collaboration shortly after meeting in an animation class at Boston’s Emerson College, this duo specializes in fast-moving, creatively daring, and often downright weird short pieces full of changes and reversals.
Their strange, melancholy debut, “Swiss Army Man” (that won “Best Directing Award” at the Sundance Film Festival), is very compelling: it’s the first time they’ve had space to relax and explore their ideas about adaptation, change, and emotions at length.
The film, created with the help of a series of Sundance Institute workshops, deals with the same sort of bizarre situations and body discomfort that characterize so much The Daniels work: Hank (Paul Dano) is marooned on an island and is planning to commit suicide, until he finds Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a gassy, rotting corpse who slowly starts to develop his own personality and point of view of the world.
The two of them build a strange friendship, based on their mutual loneliness and confusion, and their obsession with a woman named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). The film relies heavily on corpse farts and broad gags, but it’s also sweetly sincere about longing, embarrassment, and the difficulty of being human.
Daniel Scheinert, one of the two young directors said: “There was also a point after we shot where I was just so exhausted, I was thinking about quitting the film. And then I thought, ‘What if I just quit? I’ll be the Manny! Dan will learn something, and he’ll make more movies, and I’m just out‘.
But I’ll give you an honest answer:a lot of times, I make movies because I’m angry. Like, ‘Why aren’t there movies like this?’ or ‘Screw those guys! We’ll prove them wrong! We’ll make this movie and it’ll be great!'”
The initial idea was just a joke, but: “Once we thought what it would be like to carry around a dead body, you’d just be thinking that you’re gonna die one day. The whole time, that would be in the back of your head. And you would think about what your life has been so far. Those two things would just consume you. It consumed us, too. I think a lot of times when we make movies, it clicks for us when we get excited about a feeling we’ve felt, and the challenge of trying to illustrate that in a film. And so the absurd existential dread—we realized we both felt this similar feeling, not depression so much as meaninglessness. The feeling meaninglessness can give you is scary but interesting, a funny cold-sweat feeling. That was a finish line for us: ‘Oh, that’s an interesting emotion. How on Earth do you get there with a movie?'”.
Daniel Kwan, on other hand declared: “Right before we started writing this, I had my first moment of realization that I no longer believed in God. I was very religious all through my life, up until college, basically. And then a few years out of college, I had to take a step back. I was like began their collaboration ‘What am I living for?’ God was no longer in the picture. For a while, I was just living for our careers. I was just trying to make things so we could succeed, and that was really exhilarating. But after a couple years of going through that, I realized we had found some success, more success than I ever imagined we’d find. And then suddenly I didn’t know what was left to fight for, to keep making for. What kind of stories did I need to tell? And so this came out of that. It’s is a really strange thing to say about a farting-corpse movie, but this film is basically ‘How can we take all the nihilistic thoughts in our head and paint a beautiful picture with them?'”.
Beyond the philosophical existential side of the movie, the other half is made up of gags about how weird and gross human bodies can be. There’s a lot of that physical humor: they wanted to talk honestly about the human experience, the skin, and the blood underneath, “the meat that is on our spirits”: “It’s a constant reminder of how fragile we are. We really are like a chain reaction that accumulates into us when we have our thoughts. But those thoughts are also just chain reactions. We think we have some sort of agency, but it’s not true, we’re just a bunch of chemical reactions. Something might happen one day where your intestines fall out of your stomach, and you don’t know why. We’re just terrified of our bodies, so this is our way of laughing at that”.
Daniel Radcliffe makes a very convincing corpse. Manny isn’t cute, he has to be really disgusting, the director said: “It’s mostly acting. He’s very good at not blinking, and that lazy-eye thing is something he can just do on demand. It’s crazy. He’s so good. We’d been talking with our makeup team about trying to make him asymmetrical, and ‘How dead is too dead?’ And then we sat down with Daniel, and he was like ‘What about… I can do this cock-eyed face’.”We were like, ‘That’s incredible. How cool’. He had a lot of fun just contorting himself in strange ways to make his body feel unnatural. But when we sat down with our makeup artist and he started showing us real dead bodies, it was horrifying“.
After Harry Potter, we can say that Daniel Radcliffe has never choose a predictable movie, a lot of his films have pushed viewers out of their comfort zones, Swiss Army Man most of all: “I pick things based on what I find exciting, which sounds so simplistic as to be almost a lie, but it’s not. You can never predict what’s going to be successful—and also I’m very naive, in that I do a film like this thinking, ‘Everyone’s gonna love this!’ Basically, it’s about what excites me, and I’m in a position at the moment where I don’t have to do something unless I really love it. And I don’t know if I’ll be in that position forever, so it seems just sensible to get as much weird, cool stuff in as you can”.
His first reaction when he read the script of Swiss Army Man was indeed very predictable: “At the beginning I thought: ‘Oh, you must have been freaking out‘. But actually it read really well and easily as a script. My concern over it was, ‘O.K., I get how this is going to be funny; I’m not assured of it being epic in the places that it wants to be’. But it is. That’s what amazed me about it. It’s beautiful and epic, and those are the two things that I was like, ‘They’re there in the script, but how does that translate? How do you do this stuff onscreen?’ And that’s where, frankly, these directors are like no others that I’ve worked with”.
In “Swiss Army Man,” Paul Dano is a heartbroken guy ready to end his life until a dead body (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore. In 90 minutes of beautiful craziness, Dano’s Hank goes on a journey back to civilization while dragging around the dead body he’s named Manny, who becomes not just his best friend but an all-purpose tool, with his farts and erections becoming essential to Hank’s survival.
Paul got involved about a year before they shot: “I don’t think anyone else would have written this. And if you’ve seen their stuff, which I had before reading the script, when you get to that page where there’s the farting jet ski thing, it works in your imagination partially because these guys have done crazy stuff”.
Paul, didn’t realize clearly before shooting that he would have to spend most of production dragging around Daniel: “I regret not having done that because I suffered, just my stamina. I thought every day, ‘The next time I do a film I’m going to get in shape‘, because any film requires some type of endurance and it’s funny how there are some things you overthink. I never really totally understood what it would take”.
One thing is sure: we have never in our life seen a movie like “Swiss Army Man”, it’s refreshing considering that most films resemble other movies in one way or another. To be original nowadays requires a big dose of talent and ambition and maybe a touch of madness, helped by terrific performances such as Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe’s.
Credits Images: A24
Credits: The Verge, Business Insider UK, Collider, Vanity Fair.