- Monday, Apr. 4, 2016
For Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known as the directing duo Daniels, this year’s Sundance Film Festival was a roller coaster ride—the ups and downs generated by Swiss Army Man, their feature filmmaking debut. “It was a crazy journey within a tight timeframe,” related Scheinert. “You’re smashed by a critic in the morning, then get high praise from another that afternoon. There’s a great Q&A, then another session not so good. But ultimately the award was kind of validating.”
The U.S. Dramatic Directing Award alluded to by Scheinert capped a whirlwind Sundance experience that Kwan referred to as “the quickest rise, fall, rise, fall and ultimately rise of a film—at least from our perspective.”
Daniels not only directed but also wrote Swiss Army Man which stars Paul Dano as Hank, a hopeless suicidal man stranded in the wild. He discovers a flatulent human corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) that’s washed ashore and finds himself trying to convince this body that life is worth living, coaxing a revival that contains lessons for us all. The corpse also proves to be a jet ski-like vehicle which leads Hank back to civilization.
While offbeat, comedic, surreal and requiring a leap of faith—which some critics refused to take—Swiss Army Man made its mark as a drama with Sundance audiences who at first expected sophomoric humor but instead gained insights that tugged on the heartstrings. It’s a unique film that also received its share of favorable reviews and which A24 recently took on for North American representation with a limited release scheduled for June 17 before going wide over the ensuing weeks. The commitment of A24, the company behind such recent significant titles as Room and Amy, offers additional validation regarding the convention-defying merits of Swiss Army Man.
The biggest creative challenge posed to Daniels by Swiss Army Man was making its offbeat premise, with gas passing and all, “somehow relatable and meaningful to audiences,” said Kwan. “This wasn’t meant to be a film that was just esoteric and weird for the sake of being esoteric and weird. It was a difficult balancing act. We were never at a point in the process where we felt comfortable. During the writing, we’d take a step back and say we’re not there yet. Same for during the shooting, the editing. The movie was kind of terrifyingly ambitious.”
Scheinert chimed in, “It was messy but we are drawn to messy ideas because they set us up with hurdles we have to clear. Making this story palatable was a big part of the challenge. It is an action/adventure movie, musical, comedy and surreal existential film all at once. I think that what helped us is that people would come to a screening expecting a divisive fart movie. Instead the story would make them shed a tear or two. The real trick was to move through the joke and make a drama out of what seemed like nonsense.”
The Daniels have a history at Sundance. Three festivals ago, their draft of the Swiss Army Man script was accepted into the Sundance Lab. “It was a great experience to have your script pored over by industry professionals and to co-exist with other people like us trying to do the same thing with their projects but in completely different ways,” said Kwan.
Scheinert and Kwan returned to Sundance last year with an interactive short film, Possibilia, which was commissioned by Xbox Live and first premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Featured as part of the 2015 New Frontier installations at Sundance, Possibilia starred Alex Karpovsky (Girls) and Zoe Jarman (The Mindy Project) on the verge of a romantic breakup while the audience explores the assorted possibilities stemming from the couple’s decision.
Scheinert and Kwan first met at film school in Boston. Scheinert moved into the comedy troupe community while Kwan became immersed in animation. “In some ways we started collaborating because Daniel [Kwan] was teaching me After Effects, and we found that surreal comedic content with visual effects set a different, strangely heightened tone,” recalled Scheinert.
They began creating and posting music videos on Vimeo and in a matter of weeks got a call in 2010 from the folks at production house PRETTYBIRD who were attracted to a particular clip. Scheinert was a runner at The Mill LA at the time while Kwan was interning at animation studio DreamWorks where he had just gotten a staff position in the consumer products department. Their day jobs turned out to be short-lived when PRETTYBIRD came calling. “For such a swank commercial production company as PRETTYBIRD to reach out to us was pretty shocking,” said Kwan. “But that was at a point where they were looking for people like us, adding different talent to their roster like Tim & Eric. We found what has proven to be a wonderful home.”
At that home, Daniels has made its mark across different disciplines. They earned a Grammy nomination and a Silver Ciclope Award for their Foster the People “Houdini” music video. Daniels has won three MTV VMAS, including for Best Direction for DJ Snake and Lil’ Jon’s “Turn Down For What.” Daniels’ Manchester Orchestra “Simple Math” clip scored the UK MVA for Video of the Year and their “Cry Like a Ghost” for Passion Pit won the UK MVA for Best Alternative Video. Daniels has also successfully diversified into commercials with work for such brands as Levi’s, Toyota, Weetabix and J20, as well as an Instagram micro-series Dress Normal for Gap. And the directing duo’s creative reach also extends into TV with episodes of Children’s Hospital and NTSF:SD:SUV:: for Adult Swim.
Kwan and Scheinert added that even though PRETTYBIRD wasn’t directly involved in Swiss Army Man, the people there have been incredibly supportive of the film. “When we needed favors to make things work, they were always there,” said Kwan, citing in particular VP/executive producer Ali Brown. Scheinert described PRETTYBIRD as our “backseat producers/supporters sneaking in a commercial for us when we would run out of money, always supportive of us despite all the time we were ‘wasting’ on our movie—even thought they didn’t have any financial stake in the film. They’ve been instrumental over the last few years in freeing us to develop and work on Swiss Army Man.”