Everything Everywhere All At Once – A kung-fu sci-fi dramedy that hops around multidimensional universes

When Daniel Kwan and his filmmaking partner, Daniel Scheinert—the auteur duo otherwise known as Daniels, were first outlining what would become Everything Everywhere All At Once six years ago, a headache-inducing diagram on a wall-sized chalkboard contained over a dozen colour-coded storylines, and scribbles of percolating ideas. “This project came out of our own anxieties about living in the modern world.”

Kwan was worried that the movie he was working on was just too much. It’s an entirely predictable issue—one written into the title of the movie—that also happens to be what makes the film feel genuinely singular and even, as its cacophony of elements clarifies into something startlingly simple, rather transcendent.

Watching the finished film today, it retains that sense of maximalist, gonzo energy, and even now, having sorted it all out, the directors still chuckle to each other about how to describe exactly what their movie is.

“There’s the family drama answer and the sci-fi answer and the philosophy answer,” Scheinert says. Or you could say it’s a kung-fu flick that hops around multidimensional universes, with Michelle Yeoh as a reluctant saviour figure at its centre.

There’s the answer to generational divides and the internet and the latent dread endemic to living in the modern age. There’s also the early logline that Daniels wrote themselves: a movie simply about a woman trying to do her taxes.

It’s not exactly wrong—it is, after all, where Everything begins. When the film opens, we meet Evelyn Wang (Yeoh), a harried laundromat owner, living above her business in a cramped apartment and facing a mountain of paperwork amid an audit from the IRS. She is stressed about her ageing father (James Hong) coming to stay and struggles to listen to both her grown daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her tender-hearted husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). But while meeting with an IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis), a strange occurrence involving her own husband pulls her into a multidimensional adventure that puts the fate of every universe in her hands—and also forces her to confront who she is to herself and her family.

Arriving at that last part is the moment when Daniels took a step back and finally saw the tree in a framed work by the artist Ikeda Manabu, “History of Rise and Fall,” sitting on a wall in director Daniel Kwan’s back office in Los Angeles’s Highland Park. It’s an elaborate pen-and-ink drawing featuring a maelstrom of pagodas, gnarled cherry branches, and railroad tracks—a fittingly abundant example of Manabu’s glorious, almost painfully maximalist style.

“He does these things that hurt your brain when you look at them because they’re so intricate, so detailed, so dense,” Kwan explains. “But when you pull back, you’re like, oh, that’s a tree.”

“We could say a million things about the story, but the most simple, honest thing is it’s about a mom learning to pay attention to her family in the chaos,” says Kwan.

The film, as with Daniels’ previous work (Swiss Army Man), rushes headlong into unruly anarchy: Evelyn is plunged into the metaphysical world of “verse-jumping,” veering from the mundane dreariness of an IRS building to the palatial lair of a nihilistic villain named Jobu Tupaki, from the flashing lights of Hong Kong red carpets to a deserted canyon where sentient rocks manage to have a heart-to-heart. But this sense of an unhinged imagination, of endless mayhem, ultimately serves to transform the universal, or the multi-universal, into something intimate—an earnest meditation on truly seeing those near us in a time when it feels as if the centre will not hold.

“The biggest seed that drove us through, that felt like a metaphor for what we’re going through right now in society, is just this information overload, this stretching,” Kwan says. “People keep saying ‘empathy fatigue’ set in with covid, but I feel like even before covid we were already there—there’s too much to care about and everyone’s lost the thread. That was the last key, turning this into a movie about empathy in the chaos.”

The film slyly tweaks the ‘hero’s journey’ story beats that audiences have come to expect, squishing and stretching a three-act structure as if the movie itself were jumping through a fracturing multiverse. That sense of infinity—all of the possible worlds, the depthless rabbit holes, all of the tiny moving pieces underneath it—stayed front of mind for the co-directors as they got a grasp on the nuts-and-bolts of the film’s story; it felt crucial that people watching the movie could feel the same sense of vertigo that Evelyn does, that sense of being overwhelmed by the noise and splintering choices of all of her lives. The bold structural gambits were key to creating that experience.

The film’s thematic heart helped Daniels to alleviate the somewhat itching contradiction that existed in the early inspirations of Everything when the duo went to see a ‘90s double feature a few years back.

“It was The Matrix and Fight Club, and it was at the New Beverly, and I fell in love again with those movies,” Kwan recalls. “I was like, man, if I could just make something half as fun as The Matrix is, but with our own stamp and our spirits, I would just die happy.”

Kwan remembers being inspired specifically by The Matrix’s iconic fighting scenes, which harkened back to Daniels’ shared love of kung-fu films. The distinction, Kwan notes, is that “we don’t love violence, but we love action movies.”

“There’s something so entertaining and visceral about it, and we wanted to try to take that kind of energy and satisfying filmmaking and point it towards love and understanding,” Kwan continues. “Which was another fun challenge that we were like, we don’t know how to do that, but we want to see it on the big screen.”

Inspirations, writing, and development

“I was sitting there going: Nah, no one in their right frame of mine is gonna do something like that with hot dog fingers,” Michelle Yeoh says, remembering the first time she read the script for Everything Everywhere All At Once, an early view into where Daniels would take her on their multiverse fever dream including, indeed, a world in which she would have hot dogs for fingers and use them in decidedly unusual, strangely poignant ways with Jamie Lee Curtis.

Yeoh hadn’t seen Swiss Army Man yet, but had heard good things—perhaps if she had watched that movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse who provides companionship, survival tools, and a glimpse of transcendence for Paul Dano, she might have had a better sense of what she was getting into.

It was, in fact, on the press tour for Swiss Army Man that the co-directors were really sold on their then-fledgling idea of a sci-fi multiverse movie, after landing on the intriguing concept of going, as Scheinert puts it, “existential nihilism nightmare town” on it. But in between would be the hot dog fingers, along with the colourful tangle of ideas and locales that would come with a Daniels film that explored the infinitude of possible lives.

“We wrote a draft and everybody was like, this sounds like a $100 million movie, you’re gonna have to rewrite this, guys,” Scheinert says.

Nevertheless, thanks to their experience in music videos, a field where they learned to create immersive worlds on tight budgets and on computers in their bedrooms, the duo, along with the help of a small, trustworthy crew of friends they’ve worked with for years made a work that doesn’t sacrifice the expansiveness or wildness of a nine-figure idea.

“The creative tension in our partnership usually comes from me being way too ambitious and him being very cautious of efficiency and cost-effectiveness,” Kwan says. “And that struggle and that tension focus us so that we spend the money where it really matters, and everywhere else we try to skim, skim, skim and compromise.”

Or, put another way: “Dan has a maximalist aesthetic,” Scheinert says. “Sometimes his ideas will be these kinds of run-on sentence ideas. Like, they say this! And then this happens! And then my job is to just cheerlead.”

And together the duo find a way to make the run-on sentences into feasible creations. For both of them, the balls-to-the-walls ethos that is a hallmark of their work comes from their early days of creating stuff during the initial waves of Internet content.

While Everything offers a treasure hunt of eclectic cinematic references—from 2001: A Space Odyssey to In the Mood For Love to Ratatouille—Kwan insists their voice is far from that of a cinephile but was honed rather through things like YouTube videos, “Tim and Eric” sketches, and the form-breaking anarchy of Japanese anime movies.

“We would put our stuff online, and the algorithm would push it because it was so insane, and then we’d get attention and that positive reinforcement,” Kwan recalls. “We were like, oh, I guess we should be more insane.”

That feedback, though, threatened at one point to pull them down a rabbit hole of making films that were starting to feel emptily unhinged. “That self-consciousness that we felt, this feeling of wasting our lives, forced us to try to cram something personal into our work, just to see what would happen,” Kwan said.

“It was this really weird synergy of us collaborating with the algorithm. The algorithm told us: go big, poke through, make weird stuff. And then our hearts were like, but I want to share something that is meaningful—how do we do that?”

The high-wire achievement of Everything is precisely in embodying this unwieldy tone. The almost schizophrenic imagination that Evelyn falls into causes the film to build towards a conclusion that is surprisingly cathartic; Evelyn’s journey through all of her possible lives helps her understand what matters most in her own.

“One of our favourite things to do is make people feel emotional while looking at something that is absurd,” Scheinert says. “Whenever we can pull that off it’s just like, oh, what a fun feeling! We feel emotion, but we also feel this kind of mischievous joke has been pulled.”

In Everything, the personal, human core was partly borne out of Daniels’ conversations about their own mothers and the difficulty of generational divides, a universal experience that has been dramatically enhanced by the onrush of the digital age.

Kwan explains, “In the end, this character resembles my mom more—the kind of flustered overwhelmed mother who is doing a million things at once, and never really doing any of them with full focus.”

In the film, Evelyn becomes a Neo-like chosen one specifically because she is the single-most failed version of all her potential selves. “That gives her superpowers to be able to defeat the bad guy,” Kwan says. “But,” Scheinert notes, “mostly she gets distracted by all these lives that she wished she had led.”

It is also possible to see Evelyn’s many lives as an allegory for the immigrant mother: appealing paths suddenly walled off, like alternate selves, when you leave your home—the new roads you’ve been promised in a land ostensibly rife with opportunity reveal themselves to be largely inaccessible.

That experience makes the feelings of the next generation, who grow up and live a life of relative stability in a country they feel is innately their home, practically illegible to a mother like her. “Both my parents immigrated here,” Kwan says.

“When you’re just integrating here, you don’t have the time or the luxury to think about anything other than survival.”

He references a line from Mike Mills’ Beginners: “Our good fortune allowed us to feel a sadness that our parents didn’t have time for and a happiness that I never saw with them.”

When you add on the internet and its seismic cultural shifts, a daughter whose life as a queer person is incomprehensible to her parents, and an ageing father, the generational divides in the family further splinter and spread.

In this sense, it is perfectly apt that Evelyn’s daughter, Joy, is also the multiverse’s villain, Jobu Tupaki—an agent of chaos that is both the thing to defeat and perhaps to save. “Jobu is a manifestation of that kind of weird generation gap, and the multiverse can play as a really funny metaphor for just the Internet,” Kwan says. “The emergence of the Internet was something we grew up on, and it totally affected us and fucked us all up and now we are the way we are, and our parents are trying to play catch up.”

In 2022, in an era of information overload, extreme polarization, and mass existential dread, the struggle to connect between parents and children might feel less like a banal, everyday experience, and more like an increasingly confounding battle between a loved companion and a mortal enemy. “In a lot of ways, the movie is just a family drama,” Scheinert says, “and then we came up with some of the most insane, enormous, overcomplicated hyperbolic metaphors for generational gaps, along with communication errors and ideological differences within a family.

Kindness in the chaos

These days, Kwan says, much of art is broadly struggling to confront two things: “One is this feeling of everything happening all at once—how can you put that in a story in a way that is meaningful? And the other is climate change.”

Everything Everywhere All At Once is most obviously Daniels’ attempt at trying to encapsulate the first part, but you can sense the latter lurking in the background as well. Of course, in Daniels’ language, if climate dread is an inspiration, it takes on a decidedly different look: in Jobu’s evil plan, an everything bagel-void threatens to swallow the multiverse and destroy us all.

“This project came out of our own anxieties about living in the modern world, and I think everyone I know is trying to capture that,” Kwan says.

The feeling was already there when they were writing it in 2016, before the Trump Era and the pandemic. “We already felt overwhelmed. And, and as we were writing it, we were like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening? It’s getting worse—how could it possibly get worse than this?’” Kwan says. “Everyone is trying to process that feeling, the backdrop of doom, the backdrop of chaos.”

Daniels don’t have a grand answer to a radical new path, but Everything at the very least offers a simple hope in response to the chaos.

“One of the most powerful things you can do for someone is to pay attention to them,” Kwan says.

For Evelyn, she has to confront a multiverse on the brink of collapse—an extreme manifestation of the sensory overload that the modern world is increasingly defined by—to see the family that has always been there. “You have to go to the end of the world to find out what really matters to you: your daughter, your husband—would you make another choice?” Yeoh ponders.

It’s a question and a reminder of sorts for the audience, too: to see what’s in front of you, to reach out, to be kind. That’s what the film became in part for the Daniels themselves. “I would love if audience members take away the idea that kindness can be a powerful way to fight. I think telling this story definitely made us reflect on the idea that,” Scheinert says, slipping into a Bill and Ted voice, “like, ‘Oh yeah, kindness— sick!”

The Daniels

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as DANIELS, have been writing and directing together for over a decade, initially with a slew of viral music videos, commercials, and short films, then with feature films and TV directing.

They’ve developed a reputation for combining absurdity with heartfelt personal stories. Oftentimes they incorporate a unique brand of visual effects and visceral practical effects into their genre-blending projects.

They have directed music videos for Manchester Orchestra, Foster the People, and won a VMA for their video for “Turn Down For What,” in which Scheinert bullied Kwan into being the lead actor. Kwan is a really good dancer.

They wrote and directed the feature film Swiss Army Man, which went on to win the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, received multiple nominations, and gained a large cult following.

While they were writing & developing their new movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, a kung fu sci-fi dramedy starring Michelle Yeoh, Scheinert went and directed a small redneck dramedy called The Death of Dick Long, also released by A24.

They both live in Los Angeles. One of them has a son. The other has a goofy dog. But to be honest, Daniel does most of the work.