”So that was a really interesting turning point – when we let Hank and Manny fall in love and accidentally made a gay necrophilia movie.”
Swiss Army Man, the brilliantly bizarre new movie from first-time feature directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert will break your heart and most definitely change your perceptions in the human condition.
If there’s one reason to see this unique film, it’s for the outstanding performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano; there are moments of sheer brilliance and has an emotional truth that will resonate well with anyone who has ever felt misunderstood, or found love in unexpected ways.
This is black humour at its darkest and most profound. It a delightfully daring film that dares to break conventions and takes storytelling to its utmost extreme!
Washed up on a deserted shore, Radcliffe’s corpse, Manny, comes into the life of Hank (Paul Dano) at a crucial moment: the lonely shipwreck survivor is about to kill himself. After Hank realises that he can use Manny’s gas-propelled body as a jet ski to escape the island, he decides to keep him around – and a tentative friendship between the two forms, as Radcliffe’s character slowly becomes more “alive”, regaining the power of speech.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert talk about Swiss Army Man
Daniel Scheinert: It’s funny. A lot of the time our ideas come from very circumstantial kind of situations. So when we first started out, making music videos together, we’d listen to a song, and think “Okay, so which of our friends can we cast in this? What have we always wanted to do? What are our resources?”
Daniel Kwan: There’s not ever any money so you have to be really smart about what you’re going to do.
DS: Years ago, in 2011, we were going to Alabama, where I’m from, and we were thinking about shooting a short film. And my parents live in a lake town in North Alabama, and we knew that my best friend growing up had a boat there, so maybe we could shoot off the boat, and there’s a big lake…And so Dan pitched to me: “What if there’s a guy who’s stranded in the wilderness, who finds a corpse and feeds it beans, and it farts across the ocean while beautiful music plays and he cries?” I immediately regretted pitching. I was thinking “Oh no, this is a horrible idea.”
DK: It kind of became a recurring joke. The joke was that it was the worst idea we’d ever come up with. We’d never make that and put it in theatres across the world… And then it kind of grew. We started coming up with more of a story. And we though, what if we took that really stupid idea and poured our hearts into it?
Once it turned into a buddy film – that when we really fell in love with the idea and started devoting time to it. But that was a few years later.
At one stage, it seemed as if the movie was going to be a traditional(ish) love story – Hank finds Manny, who helps guide him towards the woman he adores. But as it went on, it became apparent that it was something quite different – more about the relationship between the two male characters, and about loneliness. Was that always your intent?
DK: Well, in some ways, we thought we were making a more conventional guy trying to get back to his girl story. But the more drafts we wrote, the more we realised… it sounds stupid when writers say “I listening to my character”, but that’s how it ended up happening. We could tell that Hank and Manny needed each other more than Hank and Sarah ever did. We just kept rewriting and rewriting, until we allowed them to fall in love. And once we allowed ourselves to write that, that story really started to grow and blossom into something worthwhile.
So that was a really interesting turning point – when we let Hank and Manny fall in love and accidentally made a gay necrophilia movie.
DS: Bodily functions – the farting, obviously – feel very central to Swiss Army Man, while the idea that we’re all constantly ashamed, and hiding ourselves, sort of forms the emotional heart of the film. Was this also something you worked out through the writing process?
Because we started with a fart joke, no matter how far we went on it, we’d always come back to “wait, but why does this movie start with a man riding a farting corpse?” That had to be central and integral to the film. And it took us a while to kind of find the movie.
DK: Because we were so ashamed of this idea, so ashamed that we were spending time on it, that kind of naturally bled into the film. That was a very relatable thing, having thoughts or ideas or neuroses that you’re too afraid to share with the world. In some ways, this movie became that: something that we were afraid to share with the world. We realised we could connect those feelings with the feelings of body shame, and put them all together into a stew of what it means to be human, and what it means to be alive.
DS: The moral of the story that we came up with – because every great story needs a moral – was that shame keeps us from love. It gave us permission to go down these deep, philosophical routes. And talk about farts. They’re the most ridiculous thing in the world to be ashamed of. Literally every human and every animal farts.
Another thing I really liked about the movie was just how well the casting worked. Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano… is it “Danno” or “Dayno?”
DK: It’s “Dayno”. But he didn’t tell us that till after we were done with the movie. Literally, we worked with him a year and a half before he corrected us.
Radcliffe and Dano were great – it feels impossible, now, to imagine anyone else in the roles. But how did you go about casting them? Did you look at Radcliffe and think “yep, that’s our corpse”?
DK: It’s a miracle. We’re just so lucky it worked out the way it did. We’re huge fans of both of theirs, and we thought they might be right for the role, and so we asked them to try out for the movie, but you can’t really know until you put them in the room and they start doing the lines.
But the wonderful thing about both of them is that they loved the script, but also had wonderful feedback about what they loved, and what they didn’t understand. And so we actually rewrote the script really drastically after we met each of them. They inspired the movie, in a lot of ways. It’s lovely to hear that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role because we can’t either.
DS: Manny was a different person before we met Daniel. Daniel’s such a sweet, wide-eyed lovely guy, that we were like: “we need to make Manny a sweet, lovely, wide-eyed guy. If we can capture an ounce of Daniel Radcliffe in this character, people will love him.”
Appearance-wise, too, Manny is a very friendly-looking corpse. How did you decide how he should look?
DK: It was a balance where we wanted him to look dead, but likable, and it was important that he not just start to turn into a zombie or look to crazy. Luckily for us, Daniel has pretty corpse-like features to begin with, so we just augmented them a bit. He’s got quite a sharp jaw…and we just took the veins in his neck and made them stand out…
The movie has gone down really well with a lot of critics. But when it premiered at Sundance, there were reports of people walking out in disgust. Did that really happen?
DK: Apparently it’s quite common that five per cent of an audience will leave during the first 15 minutes of a Sundance film, because buyers and agents have to see a little bit of each movie. It’s like a business. It’s a very industry-led weekend. We didn’t see anybody walking out but apparently it was just the average number of people. But it did make for a great headline – “people walk out of farting Daniel Radcliffe corpse movie”. Saying “walk outs at the indie drama about cancer”….that’s not going to be trending on Twitter.
DS: It was just irresponsible journalism. People reading things on Twitter, and letting the sensationalism drag the story down.
Paul Dano, who plays Hank – the guy who’s alive – at one point is dressing as a woman who’s inspired by a photo in a cellphone. And the idea is that this woman is inspiring Daniel Radcliffe to stay alive and to, like, use his superpowers to help them get back home. And so they have all these scenes where Paul Dano’s dressed as this woman and they’re sort of acting out a courtship. I mean, I don’t want to give too much away, but it seems like something they’re learning is that they should be free to express themselves, you know, toward whomever they love, right? How did that part of the story come up?
DK: I mean, I think the entire time we were working on the script of this film, we found ourselves trying to dictate to the story, you know, trying to tell the story what it should be. One of those things was this relationship between the body and the living man. At first we were telling it, like, no, you guys can’t – you can’t fall in love. You guys are just friends, and that’s it. And finally when we let that relationship to become what it needed to become, it felt so much more pure and exciting and cohesive.
DS: Yeah. From very early on, love was a theme, you know, so we have – we have all these ideas about love and all these ideas about farts. And then the common ground that we found was that you shouldn’t be ashamed of love. That love is possible when you can kind of be your true self and kind of – and overcome your shame and that, like, that’s – that’s some of the most, like, honest experiences we’ve had where – like, when someone can help you break down a wall and help you be more yourself, like, that’s just the most powerful, wonderful part of a relationship.
DK: So yeah, I think, like, as far as the spectrum of things you can be ashamed of go – on one end there’s farts. It’s a very simple thing to be ashamed of. But then on the other end, it’s love. Our character’s kind of ashamed of the fact that he wants love, that he’s alone and he feels loneliness. I think that’s one of the saddest things you can be ashamed of. When you are most lonely, you can’t tell anyone that because it will push people away. You know, you’re not allowed to say, I’m a lonely person. And so I – to us that’s kind of how it all kind of fits together. This whole film is just exploring all these walls we build up that keep us away from a connection.
It must have felt good, after making something so strange and personal, to see how well it’s been received by so many people?
DS: The year has been a rollercoaster. But [we’re happy about] the fact that this movie has found an audience – that it hasn’t just reached out to the kind of people who seek out weird cult films.. We wanted our mums to like it. We wanted people to see it who might not see every crazy weird movie and be pleasantly surprised by it. And start giving more weird movies a chance. We could not be happier about the fact that it’s getting out there, and that the people who like it, love it. It makes us feel less alone in the universe [laughs].
So, did you show Swiss Army Man to your mums? Did they enjoy it?
DS: My mum loved it the first time she saw it, and she cried at the end, which was our goal – to make someone cry with a fart. And then Dan Kwan’s mum – she loved the music, and liked parts of it, and then started listing off what she didn’t like.
DK: My mum’s very Chinese. She’s a harsh critic of our work, always. She watched it the first time, and was like “I’ve got some notes on the first half…” But the second time she watched it, she loved it, and I think understood what we were going for. She found it very moving, which was kind of great.
I think this movie, for some people, needs a second viewing. Even some journalists say that the first time they watched the film, they were confused by it, or they hated it. But then the second time they watched, they were able to understand what was happening and really came around to it. In the end, this film is meant to change your mind about how you pre-judge things.
DS: It’s like an empathy game. We try to make you think you should hate it, then make you like it, so you reevaluate your prejudices. But that’s a lot to ask in 90 minutes!
Sound is so crucial to the film – the music, of course, but also the farting noises. Were the latter all added in post production, or did you improvise any on set?
DS: They’re all 100 per cent real. Daniel ate things for breakfast…
But no, they were added in post. It was hilarious how hard we worked to find sounds that we could all agree on. It was so important to us that they feel…not like Looney Toons farts? And that it not feel like someone on YouTube just added fart sounds to a Terence Malick film.
DK: No, that’s our kind of gig.
DS: I guess there were certain scenes where we did want it to feel like someone on YouTube just added fart sounds to a Terence Malick film. But yeah, it was a big part of the process, and when we were mixing the film on a sound stage, there were certain scenes where there were 16 separate tracks of farts, all simultaneous.
I think we made the most immersive fart of all time. I don’t think there’s ever been a film with a fart that immersive, spread out across 40 speakers.
DK: We also knew that this would be known as the farting corpse movie. So it’s very intentional that 11 minutes into the film, he corks his butt. People don’t realise that the movie is as tasteful as it is!
But then, when Manny farts, it has new meaning, and you’re actually excited when it happens. Which is so funny to us – to narratively create a reason for an audience to get pleasure, emotional pleasure, out of hearing a dead corpse farting again.
OK, farting as metaphor for freedom. Go.
DS: So the body is kind of like a metaphor for just, like, the human experience in general. We all have to fart every day and decide when and where to do it. But that became kind of, like, interesting to us on, like, an academic level as well because, like, we have these thoughts and, like, what do we do with our thoughts and we have these, like, we have to make decisions every day. And that all felt, like, meaty enough, you know, to, like, warrant a story…
DK: And then it became an interesting challenge to try to – basically, this film challenged us to find something beautiful and transcendent in the lowest-common denominator, you know, in the worst part of storytelling in some ways, like – and ideally viewers will get the same experience out of it. They’ll be able to find something unexpectedly beautiful and hopefully personal in the least expected place.