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The Filmmakers Behind ‘Swiss Army Man’ on Making Tarantino Cry and Finding Magic in the Macabre

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Carlos Aguilar

Pale, flaccid, and remarkably lifelike, a dummy resembling a
famed actor lounged on a colorful chair on a Hollywood hotel’s rooftop during a
hot summer afternoon. This replica of a dead Daniel Radcliffe, or more
specifically Manny, the character he plays, has been on the road with directors
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert as they promote their debut feature Swiss Army Man, which is almost
unequivocally the most original film to be released on U.S. screens this year.

More than being just charming deadweight, the suited dummy, whose teeth are
also molded from the stars own set, reminds all those who encounter it of the
visionary, uncompromising, and fabulously insane creativity of the audacious
filmmaking pair. There is no denying that as concept Swiss Army Man, which centers on the improbable bonding between a
suicidal young man and a sweetly innocent decaying corpse, could sound
ludicrous to hidebound minds, but as Kwan points out their stories don’t work
on paper, they function with a cinematic logic beyond what words can conceived,
and that’s how their magnetic quality originates.

Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program recognized their
potential early on and nurtured their development through several labs at
different stages of the process. Eventually the final product premiered at the
this year’s Sundance Film Festival where DANIELS, as they prefer to be
addressed collectively, won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award. At a sunny
Friday get-together to celebrate the theatrical opening of the film, Kwan,
Scheinert, Paul Dano (co-star of the film), and the now internet-famous Manny
dummy, relax knowing that audiences can finally rejoice in their delightful
madness. Farts and post-mortem erections aside,
Swiss Army Man is a
life-affirming, aesthetically mesmerizing, and unexpectedly poetic film about
friendship.

Unsurprisingly, chatting with the Daniels was easier than
trying to spark a friendship with a deceased individual, but not one bit less
entertaining.


Some of the media
conversations around Swiss Army Man focus
on the outrageous use of scatological elements, such as farts, in a way that
seems to not analyze their significance within the context of the film. This is not a “farting corpse movie,” but a
story that takes something seen as infantile and discovers something rather
profound underneath it. Can you talk about your intention behind this notion?

Dan Kwan: A lot of
our work is about the process of taking something dumb, bad, or stupid and the
trashy ideas that we have and trying to elevate it to something worthwhile and
meaningful. It creates a very special kind of empathy where you are forced to
find something meaningful in something that you would otherwise cast side.
That’s something that a lot of people would benefit from taking to heart. The
idea of looking at something that you would think you would judge and instead
turning around to try to find something beautiful in it. In some ways farts are
the dumbest thing you can put in a movie. No self-respecting filmmaker would
ever put a fart in their film, but we wanted to use that as a way to challenge
what we think is beautiful and what is worthy of putting on the big screen.

Daniel Scheinert: I
love Jackass and I love Bad Grandpa, and I think there is
something kind of profound about things that affect us so viscerally as that
kind of stuff. We didn’t come at this thinking, “Let’s use farts as a
metaphor.” We came at this laughing about farts, then thinking we should never
put that in a movie, and then realizing that by talking about them we were
discussing things about our lives and about our society that were especially
fun to analyze. Everybody spends all day making jokes with their friends and
it’s really fun to take a step back from those jokes and figure out, “What do
those mean? Why does joking around with your friends make life worthwhile? Why
do we spend so much time doing that?” We got to have our cake and eat it too.
We got to make a movie that was funny and also therapeutic.

Does it bother you when
people focus only on those seemingly crass aspects of the film rather than its
more complex connotations?

Scheinert: So far I
think the movie speaks for itself a little, and so it’s kind of fun that people
go in thinking, “Oh maybe this is just going to be funny and farts.” I think
that a year from now it will bother me if people thought it was just about
farts, but I really hope that now that the movie is coming out and we are
having these conversations that people realize that’s the surface of the movie.

Kwan: That’s kind of
the point. If your first impression about this film is that it’s a movie you’ll
hate and then you sit down and watch it and you realize that there is something
really sweet and relatable in the middle of all that, it forces people to
challenge their inherent need to judge. People are just so ready to pounce on
something and block something out and judge it for what they think it is. If
someone goes in thinking this is a movie about farts and comes out realizing
there is so much more, then hopefully they’ll be forced to reassess other ways
that they judge things in their lives.

Everyone talks about the
DJ Snake and Lil Jon “Turn Down for What” video, but my favorite one is the one
you did for Foster the People, “Houdini,” which also had lifeless bodies being
repurposed in a hilarious manner. Did some of that fascination with corpses
track from that video into Swiss Army Man?

Scheinert: For
whatever reason dead bodies have always amused me. It’s the gallows humor.
Combining funny with morbid pokes at a very specific part of us as human.

Kwan: It’s because
dead is really scary and the only defense mechanism we have is humor. You have
to laugh at it, otherwise it’s terrifying.

Scheinert: There’s
been a recurring theme of dead bodies as jokes in our work. The project I
really wanted to make after college was about a dead boy whose corpse is
piloted by tiny tigers, and I think some of that made its way into this movie.
Another answer to your question is that all of our music videos were kind of
like these weird experimental films that we just made, and as we made them we
learned things about ourselves and developed as filmmakers. [We’d say], “This
is an interesting tone, I’d love to make something out of that,” and in some
ways all of our music videos are prequels to Swiss Army Man – spiritual prequels.

Why is a dead body the
ideal friend for someone like Hank? Why is Manny the best companion for this
journey?

Scheinert: I guess
there are a couple angles on it. In rom-coms a lot of times the plot is about
an unlikely romance… “Who would have thought that a girl who works for a
magazine would ever fall in love with a guy who is a farmer?” Those
relationships aren’t that unlikely, and I think in some ways we were drawn to
the film because we thought, “Now that’s an unlikely romance: a suicidal,
lonely man and a dead body – that’s funny.” I think they are perfect because I
truly believe that you can find love in the most unlikely places if you put
yourself out there. We wanted them to be an illustration of that. Plus, Hank is
suicidal and Manny has already experienced that, he is a dead guy. They have
some common ground [laughs].

Is it perhaps because
someone that has already experienced dead has a different perspective on life?
Daniel Radcliffe’s character, Manny, looks at everything in the world with
wonder and endearing innocence.

Scheinert: We say
that Manny is a corpse but in a lot of ways he is a newborn. He is like E.T. in
that way, just a blank slate, “What is humanity?” It’s a fun set of eyes to see
the world through because he has no preconceived judgments and he is also
learning about society while stranded so he gets to see it from extraordinary
distance. We get to twice-remove ourselves from society and be like, “OK this
guy is in the woods, he has never seen the world, and we are trying to explain
it to him.” That’s going to sound ridiculous to him. How do you explain Cheetos
to him? Cheetos are 100% fake. There is nothing real about them. What is a
Cheeto? Even the word is fake.

Right at this moment Dan
Kwan overheard another member of the team talk about box-office numbers coming
in from early showings, and he confirmed that the film was doing great on its
opening day. To be validated not only by important critical voices like New
York Times but also by audiences pouring into theatres, has to be an equally
nerve-racking and empowering sentiment for a pair of debutant filmmakers.

Dan, in an earlier
conversation you described the Sundance Labs as a sort of “Film Church.” What
is it about that space and program that makes it such a transcendental
experience for filmmakers?

Kwan: It’s a sacred
place because when you step into that building you see all the posters of films
by everyone who has come before you. It’s almost like a mythic level of
filmmakers. All the people you look up to are there: Paul Thomas Anderson,
Quentin Tarantino, Iñarritu, Darren Aronofsky, etc. All these people that
started in the same exact place you are starting, and somehow you are lucky
enough to get to go there, you are lucky enough to be a part of that. Then you
go there and you get your script torn apart. It’s pretty rough [laughs].

Scheinert: But also,
in between getting your script torn apart, you literally sit in a circle and
talk about how you are feeling. It’s like he hardest film school while also
being deeply personal and therapeutic. They support you but they also go
“there.” They are like, “Hey we are going to bring in some incredible filmmakers
and they are going to be encouraged to say whatever they think to you. There is
no lesson plan. You are just going to sit down with some guy and he is going to
tell you he hates your movie and you are going to have to answer to that, you
are going to learn from it, and then afterwards you can talk about your
feelings.”

Kwan: “Then someone
else will tell you how much they love what you do.” Everyone is constantly
contradicting each other and you just have to process it later. It’s a really
interesting way to create.

Scheinert: I was
thinking about that today. This has nothing to do with our movie maybe, but I
feel like we are so lucky that we get to live a life in which we are exposed to
extremely contradictory ideas and lifestyles. You read the news or look at
Facebook and you start realizing that so many folks live in isolation. It’s
very easy to slip into a bubble and making this movie has popped our bubble.
Once every three months our bubble has been brutally, painfully popped, and
it’s like, “Goddammit I thought I was safe! That hurt my feelings.” It’s really
interesting.

The year that Swiss Army Man was selected for the
Screenwriters Lab, Quentin Tarantino was one of the advisors, and he read your
screenplay. Was that a dream come true or a terrifying moment? One certainly
wouldn’t want to disappoint one of the most revered American filmmakers working
today.

Kwan: It was so
scary. It was surreal more than anything. The sweet thing is that he was really
gracious with us because even if it was a crazy idea and a crazy story he could
tell we were being ambitious and I think he appreciates that. He is a guy who
just loves movies and wants a new experience. He was really sweet to us. He
said, “I don’t think I fully understand what you guys are going for, but yet
somehow by the end I started tearing up and I didn’t know why, but I knew that
you guys were on to something.” To me that was beautiful. I thought, “Yes! If
Tarantino is getting an emotional response out of it that’s good news.”

Hank and Manny’s friendship
might the most peculiar friendship ever depicted on screen. How does your
friendship influence that fictional relationship? In order to create a film
like this the two of you have to be on the same very specific wavelength.

Scheinert: Our
friendship influenced the movie a lot because any good buddy comedy has to have
ups and downs and so we had to draw from personal experience to find those
authentic ups and authentic downs. Also I think we are very lucky that we ended
up with a bunch of best friends who worked on this movie and who all got to put
a little of that in. Our DP, our AD, and our producer are all best friends. Our
production designer and his set dresser are like a couple or like best friends
who go everywhere together. The composers are best friends who live down the
street from each other.

Regarding Daniel
Radcliffe and Paul Dano, who were not part of your usual collaborators, what
was the directorial process to get them on the same page and for them to
understand the tone of what you were trying to do?

Kwan: The cool thing
about reaching out to these guys was that they had seen a lot of our work
beforehand, so they understood what we appreciate in tone. What we always tell
our actors, no matter what kind of actor they are, whether it’s just a friend
who’s never acted before or is Daniel Radcliffe, is, “Our ideas are insane, but
you as an actor and you as a character are meant to be the most grounded
version of you. We want you to be yourself and we want you to exist in this
world as sincerely as possible.” That is our favorite kind of strange
juxtaposition. In a lot of ways it was really easy because when we cast Paul
and Daniel we just wanted them to exist in their characters and then the
context and the scenes would do most of the work. That’s what they did. They
were just their beautiful selves. They understood the big picture so they
weren’t self-conscious about it. It was great.

One of the most enticing
elements about the production is the inventive and handcrafted production
design. The way this micro-universe is created with objects that seem to have
no value is both ingenious and meaningful to the story as a whole.

Scheinert: Our
production designer Jason Kisvarday has being doing our work for years and
years. We wrote the movie with him in mind. He and his team are all good
friends, but he also brought in some new folks we’d never met who killed it. We
had a similar attitude towards the production design as we had to the acting,
which is, “Put yourself in the headspace of this movie and then make some stuff.
Try to have a loose hand on a lot of it and just make everything out of garbage
and sticks and make it come from an honest place, and we’ll try to photograph
it beautifully.”

Kwan: The whole film
is about metaphorically taking the trash of society, things that no one else
wants, and then reconstitute it into something beautiful and allowing it to
transcend its initial form. It just made a lot of sense for us to take sticks
and trash and turn them into recreations of what life is, why we do the things we
do, and why we live life. That was a fun challenge and [Jason] and his crew did
a great job bringing that to life

Similarly, the music by
Manchester Orchestra is unforgettable. “Montage,” the most prominent song is
truly a highlight among the musical gems.

Scheinert: In terms
of the music, we never met them. They are just some guys. They did OK. [laughs]

Kwan: I kind of wish
we had done it ourselves. No! [Laughs]. One of my favorite parts of this entire
movie is their work. I love the music of this movie. It gets stuck in your head
and that’s the point of it! We wanted the music to feel like a man who is
isolated in the middle of nowhere – what is the music in his head? What is he
going to sing to himself? I said this during Sundance and it’s a really weird
thing to say, but I feel like farts and singing are at opposite ends of the
spectrum but at the same time they are both things that our body does. Is
either really socially acceptable? If you start singing to yourself and someone
catches you it can be weird, that’s why you sing in the shower or you sing to
yourself before you go to bed.

Scheinert: Sometimes
when I see a guy walking down the street with his headphones on and singing
un-self-consciously or some lady in her car, I’m jealous. What a happy
oblivious person.

Kwan: Exactly. That
person is OK with themselves. We wanted to celebrate in the music, but also
take into account that we wanted to go from the lonely single voice singing on
its own, all the way up to an entire choir singing triumphantly. We wanted to
have a soundtrack that could span that spectrum because we wanted everything to
feel like it came from the body and from the human voice. [Manchester
Orchestra] did a great job.

The two of you, Paul
Dano, and Daniel Radcliffe’s dummy have been traveling around the country for
this press tour. What has been the strangest question you’ve been asked or the
biggest misconception people have about Swiss
Army Man
?

Daniel Scheinert: It’s
a fun movie. Press almost flatters me because I think our goal with this movie
was for people to talk afterwards, so I’m just excited that it sticks with
folks. The question we get asked the most is, “Where did this idea come from?”
You might see articles in which we answer the question, but every time we’ve answered
it we been like, ”Oh that felt false. Where do ideas come from?” You can spend
a semester at college answering that. I always wish I could sit and research
that instead of giving someone an answer.


As Daniel Scheiner
finished his answer, a group of people who had just arrived on the roof
appeared to be incredibly amused at the dummy. They had no idea that it was a
prop for a movie and thought it was the real Daniel Radcliffe looking rather
unhealthy. Suddenly, Scheinert joyfully screamed, “They thought Daniel
Radcliffe was dead!” and laughed hysterically. He grabbed the recording device
and used it as a microphone to say, “Daniel Radcliffe just died at this hotel.
Spread the news!” with an infectious grin on his face. That felt like the most
fitting way to end such a conversation about multipurpose fake dead bodies,
boundless imagination, and finding magic in the macabre.

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Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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A singular force within the documentary film world with a global reach, Diane Weyermann passed away at age 66 after battling cancer. Over the course of her 30-year career as a funder and an executive, her work elevated the documentary form and expanded its cultural impact.

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