A film about a middle-aged woman undergoing a tax audit should be a relatively simple proposition, unless it’s in the collective hands of the filmmaking duo known as ‘the Daniels’. An epic multi-versal opus, this absurdist comedy kung-fu drama, traversing the quantum cosmos through an apocalyptic black bagel, was fine-tuned by just six artists working from home during a global pandemic. And there’s never been another movie like it. Period.
No Strategy Is The Strategy
Relative to their gliteratti counterparts, Everything Everywhere All At Once was made on a shoestring budget. With time and funding essentially the only restrictions facing the craftsmen, they found a multitude of ways to be even richer in imagination.
The mind-bending creation story is made more fantastical when you learn that almost all the visual effects were created by just a handful of artists led by Zak Stoltz. While some doubted that they could pull it off, Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the Daniels) chose the team because they wanted to work with a close-knit group of friends who could have fun and iterate together.
It was originally envisioned for Jackie Chan, with Michelle Yeoh in a supporting role as his wife. But when Chan was unavailable, the writer-directors shifted the wife into the spotlight. With that flip of the script, the stars literally aligned, reshaping the narrative and what it was like to curate fight scenes involving hot-dog fingers, swinging chihuahuas and sex toys; Stephanie Hsu as the moody daughter with the power to destroy the multiverse, James Hong as the crotchety grandfather who’s presence enforces the expectations of a lost generation, Ke Huy Quan in the comeback of the century as the sweet beta husband that’s alpha in his loving strength, and Jamie Lee Curtis as the tax auditor from hell (slash frankfurter-fingered lesbian love interest).
“You never know with the alchemy of storytelling how things will fall, swapping the characters made it more personal, which gave us a wealth of experience to imbue into the story… When we started writing it for Michelle, the script came alive. We thought, this is an action movie we haven’t seen over and over. A mom on this adventure is way different than watching Neo learn about the Matrix. So it was scary by the time we met her, because we did not make space for anything else. Fortunately it turned out that Yeoh is a lot weirder than we thought. She’s a bit of a sci-fi nerd.” – Scheinert
While Yeoh is a seasoned veteran with 49 movie acting credits to her name, the Daniels were keenly aware of their sophomore status as feature directors, not least because their initial releases had been such a baptism of fire. “We bit off way more than we could chew, with a very naïve understanding of what it takes to make a feature film,” admits Kwan of their debut. “We learned a lot, but it was a really hard shoot… It was a ton of moves on a pretty small budget. We did four night shoots in a row one week, and everyone started to lose their minds and get sick.”
In flying, kaleidoscopic colours, Everything Everywhere is popping with ideas: about our place in the universe, our relationships with our parents, inter-generational culture changes, and dealing with information overload in the age of the internet. This is typical of the Daniels, who are self-proclaimed maximalists. They are filmmakers overloaded with genuine, heart-felt, joyous inventiveness, and Everything Everywhere is a story they were able to craft about, and not around it – fitting their own ADHD, too-many-ideas problem into a semi-coherent narrative.
Fortuitously, the filming took place in the eight weeks immediately before the pandemic hit the US in spring 2020. The first six weeks were mainly shot in an office building in Simi Valley, which was previously a Bank of America, and a Countrywide Financial before that. Poetic, given that this was initially the domain of the problems responsible for sinking the economy in 2008 and ’09. It was here that a healthy dose of crafty chaos breathed fresh life into a civilian crypt. The location already came with cubicles and office drone paraphernalia, but production designer Kisvarday drew from personal experience to add authenticity to what was intended to be an IRS office.
“As we were shooting the movie, I actually got audited,” he says. “I brought in copies of my audit paperwork and we peppered it in with the set dressing. I was partially completely devastated but at the same time thought, wow, this is the real stuff! We need to get this in here.” – Jason Kisvarday
While the production departments were often hampered by time constraints, the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for those in post-production. Ultimately, the team spent about 11 months shaping the film, discarding 40 minutes and entire universes in a massive, delicate balancing act to maintain both emotion and reason throughout the story.
Editor Paul Rogers explains: “we were supposed to cut in five months or so, but the theaters were closed and the festivals shut down. A24 said: ‘why don’t y’all just keep working until you feel like it’s done?’ The version of the movie that we would have had to send to Toronto would have been fun, but a mess. The smallest tweaks in a movie this complicated have huge ripple effects. Because we had changed a scene in act one, the last scene of the movie wouldn’t work all of a sudden. A whole universe we cut was setting up this entire arc later in the film. How do we get that now? It took some creative problem-solving in the editing and some rewriting from the Daniels.”
The key to unlocking Everything’s potential was the introduction of an infinite multiverse, allowing for infinite storytelling possibilities. If that sounds like a lot, it was – and the Daniels themselves had to make sense of the senselessness at first. To help, they poured over science books, researching the undercurrents of theories on the multiverse – branching universes, eternal inflationary cosmologies – and then ‘quickly invented a stupid, film-friendly version’ of their own on-screen astronomy.
“There’s that scene in Apollo 13 where they throw the tools they have on the table and are like: ‘that’s what they’ve got up there, we’ve got to bring them home.’ That’s how we approach filmmaking: ‘we have $14 million, we have all this stuff, how are we going to squeeze it in and make a thing?’… I do think that’s what leads to this emergent creativity that works for us.” – Producer, Jonathan Wang
Clearly, Yeoh is now entirely on board with the idea of branching timelines and cracks in the fabric of reality, but when she first read the script, she wasn’t sure what to make of it. “I had never read anything so crazy,” she says. “I couldn’t even wrap my head around the concept. I’m a dinosaur – I don’t really know how to get online and Google things. They had me going: maybe I don’t really understand this, but you know what? They have intrigued me. And I love a challenge.”
Yeoh’s legacy is longstanding, but perhaps not diverse. While the Daniels were blown away by her, and grew up on her more playful roles including the Jackie Chan movies such as Supercop 2, as she matured she was often pulled into parts that required her to be more austere and proper. An illustration of life imitating art, or vice versa, Yeoh was subjected to comments that she may be past her prime. Until that was, she inevitably seized the opportunity to re-ignite a character who had to be believably downtrodden, comedically kickass, genuinely kickass, and maternal – along the spectrum of infinite variations in-between.
Wednesday’s child was in good company. Friday’s freak, the iconic Jamie Lee Curtis “couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on” either. “The script was weird” Curtis explains. “But the entire reason that I said yes to this strange little movie was because I was getting to work with Michelle Yeoh. They say, ‘you had me at hello’ – well, they had me at Michelle Yeoh.” Queen Curtis even performed a rap on set in tribute to her co-star (“she is tiny, she is sweet, she will knock you off your feet”).
Their most memorable on-screen display of affection, is a sequence set in an alternate universe where humans have evolved alongside the competitive advantage of having hot-dog fingers for hands. It really has to be seen to be believed. But in this universe, Michelle and Curtis are lovers, which meant the film legends spent a day on set wearing fake hands while adoringly shoving ketchup into each other’s faces. “I honestly thought it was a big joke” admits Yeoh. “I wanted to convince the Daniels to write it out of the film.” She found solidarity: “I think the two of us looked at each other and were like – yeah, I have no idea what the fuck this is” recalls Curtis. “But clearly these guys do. And they know it so well. So you just surrender.”
Remarkably for such a set-up, there is a genuine emotional pay-off. The actors and directors took it deadly seriously. “We went into the different universes believing: that this universe is real” says Yeoh. “We have to live that moment and live how they would – even though, yes, they have sausage digits.” Curtis goes further: “there’s a part of that sequence that was as moving for me as an actor as anything I’ve ever done” she says, sincerely. “At the same time, I’ve got hot-dog hands and I use my feet as an affection tool.”
“One of our favourite things in our movies is those days where you get a bunch of really talented people together to do something stupid.” – Scheinert
There are a lot of talented people creating stupid genius in this film. “We were trying to find ways of pushing the multiverse to unexpected places, the further the movie went along” says Scheinert, “we were trying to find out: how weird should it get?” The answer: pretty freakin’ weird.
In the film, Yeoh’s character Evelyn soon learns to verse-jump – to temporarily link her consciousness with another version of herself from across the multiverse, accessing all their memories and skills – and a key variant sees Evelyn become a very Michelle Yeoh-like figure. This directly plays on her cinematic legacy; the film even includes real stock footage of Yeoh on the red carpet for Crazy Rich Asians. “It is very much tied into the DNA of Michelle as a human and as an actress” Kwan commented.
It’s precisely this element of fact being stranger than fiction that keeps the cosmic cataclysm grounded. And that extended into the high-flying action: rather than use a seasoned Hollywood stunt team, the Daniels found their fight choreographers on YouTube, hiring a group who call themselves Martial Club, led by brothers Andy and Brian Le. “They’re just fanboys!” says Scheinert. “The amazing thing about these guys is they never went to a single martial-arts class” marvels Kwan. “Everything they know is from watching Hong Kong movies.”
When Yeoh arrived on set, she found that her choreographers were in fact, heavily influenced by her. “They told me: I watched all your movies, I studied all your moves, and I know how to do all of them” she recalls. “So when we choreographed the fight sequences, they knew everything I could do! It was doing the kind of things that I did when I started my career – a bit like Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, all the greats. It was like walking down memory lane. It was fun!”
A full circle moment – one of the Omniprescent on-screen symbols.
The Daniels Direction
Ever since they met and joined creative forces as film students, Dan Kwan (34, from Westborough, Massachusetts) and Daniel Scheinert (35, from Birmingham, Alabama) have been chasing after the new.
Dildo duels are pretty standard fare for the pair – who fulfil their dreams with so much insanity that the benchmark for ‘sane’ becomes as subjective and relative as life itself. “Every time I set out to do a movie” Kwan explains, “I have this fear that I’m gonna die or something. Even when we were really young, we were like: this might be the last thing anyone ever lets us make! We better put everything into it!” He cackles.
That threshold for ‘everything’ has insidiously expanded to the centre-less point where they birthed this marvel-inspired marvel.
“Dan and Daniel are fantastic editors themselves because they can do anything with limited resources… They shot full scenes knowing that we’ll sort it out in the edit. It was kind of like improv jazz: what to call back from earlier, what needs to be seen to hit home, what feels right in the moment. That’s what I love about their work. They can take these ingredients that on their own seem silly – butt plugs or whatever – but somehow through this weird alchemy, two rocks falling off a cliff makes you cry.” – Editor, Paul Rogers
The early clues around who could create such a disorderly, singular film can be found in the Daniels’ early music videos, where the pair first made their name. Their promo for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s ‘Turn Down For What’, for example – which has over a billion views on YouTube – centres on a man with a magical penis who parties so hard that said dick literally blows the roof off. His killer crotch-thrust dance-moves manage to smash through plant pots, baseball bats and three successive ceilings.
The video was a sensation, a huge viral smash and a hit with everyone who saw it. Everyone, that is, except Daniels’ parents. “I called my mother when she first saw ‘Turn Down For What’. She was like: I think you should read more books” laughs Kwan. “She didn’t understand it. And then ‘Turn Down For What’ got nominated for a Grammy. She got to come with me to the Grammys. And it totally changed the way she thought of the video.”
As the brains behind Daniel Radcliffe’s living corpse in Swiss Army Man, this is a recurring theme for the pair. “Our parents are constantly having to deal with the fact that we are their kids” Kwan continues. “Like: I am the parent of the guy who made the Farting Corpse Movie.” This idea, of a parent not understanding their offspring, bled into what eventually became Everything Everywhere All At Once – an intergenerational divide-turned-multiversal metaphor. “This movie in some weird way is a reflection of that” says Kwan. “The daughter is this strange creature, and the mother has to go on a journey to basically become a monster herself in order to connect with her. Hopefully it’s a very gracious portrayal of our relationship with our parents”…
In the wake of Everything Everywhere’s success, the Daniels have gone from recreating their version of a studio to signing up with an actual one, agreeing to a five-year partnership with Universal. A surprising move, perhaps, given their distinctness of voice. “Universal’s pitch was simple” explains Scheinert. “Which was, they want to make whatever we want to write. That’s such a rare filmmaker jackpot moment.”
Kwan does not see any incongruity between the Daniels’ artistic ambitions and the studio’s commercial concerns. “I think our interests are actually aligned, in that we’re trying to make films that will reach a broader audience” he says. “Because if we aren’t, then we’re not achieving our goal of making an impact on people’s lives.”
Meanwhile, the pair are said to be preparing for another venture into television, having been tapped by Steven Yeun to produce and direct A24 and Showtime’s Mason, a surrealist, semi-autobiographical comedy series devised by and starring Nathan Min. “He’s inspiringly weird” says Scheinert of the rising New York comedian. “A whole new genre of weird from us. Other than that, I don’t know what to say – we haven’t made it yet.”
“As it turns out, what it takes to bring a multiverse to life is empowerment with resourcefulness. It has to be this for 25% of it, but the other 75% – go ape. That leads to a certain flourishing on set, because you feel supported and loved for your craft.” – Producer, Jonathan Wang
Since Everything Everywhere is a masterclass on how to stretch every dollar to wow an audience without bloating a budget, only time will tell if the Daniels signature “think smarter, not harder” techniques will continue to transform a script without sacrificing a spectacle. The directors wisely did their best to combine locations and even production offices to curb unnecessary travel. It’s an indie spirit you don’t often see receive this level of commercial recognition.
The Daniels sum up the film by downplaying the idea of legacy. “If you set out to make a film thinking about the legacy, you’re going to make a crap film right? Something that is meant to be timeless ends up nowhere.” Kwan describes how “this film was made to be a very quick burst of energy for this very moment, a real quick reflection of what’s happening right now. A snapshot. And so I honestly hope the world has changed in 15, 20, 100 years in a way where it no longer feels relevant.”
This was an important distinction for the Daniels. Because it’s not just surrealism for surrealism’s sake. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to push the envelope without doing a shock-value movie” says Scheinert. “Even in the edit, there was a lot of discussion about how much of the dildos to screen.” Behind all the puerile insanity, they insist, is a genuine existential yearning: what does it all mean?
“When we first started writing this, we were like: the bad guy is the nihilist. And then the most interesting thing was, we actually related to that. We ended up feeling like, oh, this movie is about how even a good dose of nihilism can still make you a better person… we’re actually, like, very sweet, hopeful, romantic people – at heart.” – Scheinert
If, as it turns out, very little actually matters in the grand scheme of things, the Daniels seem keen to meet that by centring themselves within the eye of the absurdity. If we are, in fact, specks of dust in the corner of an unexplainable universe, we might as well be kind to each other – and throw in a hearty helping of dildos, for a laugh.
The delineation between highbrow and lowbrow, the profound and the profane, the beautiful and the disgusting, and the sentiment that even if you want to be kind, you’re not always afforded the opportunity to be nice – the Daniels continually strive to explore polarities and illustrate complexity in a way that’s idiosyncratically memorable and thought-provoking.
It’s the underlying absurdity that makes this masterpiece so meaningful, entertaining, real, poignant and forgiving – far from the gravitas of incessant streams of preaching that often leave a hypocritical or self-aggrandising taste on the palette, the Daniels’ guerilla gang artfully serve up everything everywhere all at once, on an intangible string of theory that finds its feet in a feeling, which tastes as good as it looks. Like a lemon spritz enema.
“There was an absence of direct conversation which was needed to construct the detailed layers of the film. You can construct a movie like this with this level of complexity, but the truth is, we just made a movie in 38 days, there wasn’t this big, esoteric brain meld. It was individual work on each character. And then ultimately at the end, they assembled something that is just extraordinary… If this movie isn’t about the human condition I don’t know what is… The legacy is love.” – Jamie Lee Curtis