“Everything we do is a stunt in some ways,” Daniel Kwan says, when I ask whether casting Ke Huy Quan, the now-grown up actor who once played Short Round in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, in his movie was an example of stunt casting gone right or some special knowledge he possessed. “But then the stunt becomes earnest.”
This seems about as close as it gets to an interview soundbite summing up an entire career, at least when it comes to the filmography of Daniel Kwan and his directing partner Daniel Scheinert (known collectively as “Daniels”) thus far. Their new movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once, opens this weekend, but more on that in a second.
Having first broken into the mainstream consciousness with their viral music video for “Turn Down For What,” the duo expanded into TV and then movies, winning the directing award at Sundance in 2016 for their first feature, Swiss Army Man, which starred Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. In 2019, Daniel Scheinert directed and starred in a movie on his own, The Death Of Dick Long, about a guy who gets… uh… [spoiler involving a horse] (this was my favorite movie of 2019, btw). It also had comedic yet earnest renditions of Nickelback and Puddle Of Mudd songs, which will become important below.
The release of Everything Everywhere All At Once (part of a first-look deal they signed with A24) marks arguably their most ambitious attempt to date — and not just because it brought Ke Huy Quan, known for iconic roles like Short Round and Data from The Goonies, out of a 20-year acting hiatus as a 50-year-old man. In fact, that might be the least of it.
Everything Everywhere All At Once concerns the multi-verse, starring Michelle Yeoh as the owner of a failing laundromat with an unfulfilling life who finds out that versions of her family from parallel dimensions have figured out a way to travel between planes of reality — in a way that threatens all of existence. As represented by a giant bagel. And only she can help.
In typical Daniels fashion, EEAAO feels as if they’ve managed to assimilate the totality of the last 40 years of pop culture and are spewing it back at us in one kaleidoscopic gush. But for all its parallels to Marvel and The Matrix, EEAAO does have a heart; an attempt to find meaning in subatomic particles, and to use the multiverse concept as a way to describe one Asian-American mom’s troubled relationship with her daughter.
The pair have said they worried about a new Matrix movie coming out before their weird take on The Matrix, but if anything, the recent movie theirs most closely resembles thematically is Turning Red, another zany story utilizing the fantastic to try to explain a first-generation Chinese immigrant girl’s relationship with her mother. Which is to say that they do weird, and they do stunts, but always with an earnest purpose.
The Daniels have likened Everything Everywhere All At Once to Douglas Adams, but I think it’s more like if Edgar Wright tried to direct a live-action Pixar movie while high on ether. My response to the publicist who asked me what I thought was “I feel like I just got skullfucked. But… in a good way?”
Hey guys, Vince Mancini for UPROXX here. How you doing?
SCHEINERT: Weren’t you the guy who wrote about the movie, skull fucking you?
Yeah, I did. Ryan’s sharing my secrets.
KWAN: It’s a great one-sentence review, we just wanted to give you credit for it.
Okay, well now that it has to go in the actual review and not just the email. But yeah, it actually reminded me of a Dalai Lama joke. Have you heard that one?
KWAN: …I don’t think so?
What did the Dalai Lama say at the pizza place? …”I want you to make me one with everything.”
[mostly polite silence]
So did anyone try to talk you out of this project? Just thinking about how much work this must have been kind of makes me tired.
SCHEINERT: We took turns trying to talk each other out of it. And then there were probably a few reactions to the first few drafts, where we had one friend of ours be like, “The first half’s great. Don’t do the second half.” And we were like, hard pass, man. That’s why we’re doing it.
KWAN: Yeah, we would never want to make the first half of the movie on its own, just because it’s a fun sci-fi action movie. To us, it’s always like, “if, if we can imagine someone else making it, why make it?” Someone else can do that. There’s plenty of filmmakers who want to fill up that space, of just fun sci-fi. Our niche is just making things that no one else would want to make. And so the second half was the whole movie to us. But that was the only big pushback. People were trying to turn it into a more traditional action movie.
I mean, there’s so much of it that seems like you’re playing with all these different worlds and different costumes and different shooting styles. Are you guys able to game this sort of stuff out on paper, or did you need to do a fair amount of shooting to see what you wanted to do with a lot of these sequences?
SCHEINERT: I think we’ve been doing music videos and short films and even our first feature for about a decade now, if you include the time it took to make this movie. So we’ve been practicing with our tone and we’ve been exploring our voice and trying to figure out what techniques work and, basically, trying to figure out what is the perfect alchemy. And so for this movie, we didn’t have to do any test shoots, really. We’ve been basically doing test shoots our whole careers for something like this. So when we wrote it, we were pretty confident that like we would either find a way to make it work in the edit or it would be okay if we had to cut it or, or diminish it.
KWAN: We’re pretty used to getting into the edit and being like, “Oh, there are a thousand options. Let’s just play until something clicks.”
SCHEINERT: I think that’s one of our secret weapons, is that we’re both editors. So we think about the edit while we’re shooting, and also we know when we have enough footage, just enough footage to make it work. So we’re not doing take after take after take, and we’re not perfectionists because we are comfortable in fixing things in the edit and discovering things in post.
I read that you guys turned down a Loki project to make this. It seems like a lot of other directors jump at the chance to get on board with the Marvel gravy train. What made you guys turn that down?
SCHEINERT: It was pretty easy. We were already so deep into trying to get this movie made. It was actors attached. And so it was just a meeting where we got to meet them because they’re doing a lot of cool stuff, and then we were like, “Oh, no way, we just got Michelle’s thumbs up, we’re prioritizing that.”
KWAN: Yeah. And also because we were both trying to do sort of multiversal sci-fi, but in the style of Douglas Adams. We were like, “let’s stick to our guns. Let’s let’s do our thing.” But on top of that, our style is so specific and sometimes it can be hard for us to fit into other people’s voices and other people’s worlds. So it’s probably for the best for everyone. I feel like if we actually did Loki — the Marvel fans would’ve been so mad at us. We would be the next Rian Johnson. Which is honestly a great compliment.
SCHEINERT: That’s our goal. if we ever do a studio pick, we want to go down an infamy.
So, the “Story Of A Girl” song reference in there, that really had me rolling. And then it became a theme and sort of a background thing in the different universes. Is there a story there and did you throw around other songs that you thought about using in that way?
SCHEINERT: What is the story of the girl, is that what you’re asking?
Yeah exactly. Yes.
KWAN: A couple things happened. First, we were writing this sequence because we got a note where someone was like, “I don’t know what the alphaverse wants. What’s their mission?” So I started writing this really over the top, like this, “We are trying to fight the chaos or whatever.”
SCHEINERT: And so yeah, the speech was like, you can feel something’s wrong… And then like, what’s a poetic way of saying that” And Dan just wrote a monologue. That’s like, “Your hair never falls in quite the same way…”
KWAN: I wrote it out and then I was like, “Wait, what is that? I know I did not write that, but that’s something in my deep subconscious.” And so I Googled it and I was like, “holy shit, that’s from the song ‘Story of a Girl.’ I didn’t tell anyone because I was like, “We’ll fix that later. I’m just writing it for now or whatever.”
SCHEINERT: For like a year or two no one noticed.
KWAN: That was basically the test. I was like, “if someone calls it out, I’ll take it out. But if no one calls it out, maybe I’ll just keep it in.” And then right before we shot that scene, the day before, I was trying rewrite this or at least have some other options, some alts. Because I don’t think we technically have the rights to these lyrics. But we couldn’t think of anything else. We tried to rewrite it, but nothing else was as fun or interesting.
SCHEINERT: You just can’t beat that song. It’s like the perfect lyric.
It’s the perfect, “Why do I know that? Where do I know that from?” At first, I thought it was a Train song, and then I was like, “Wait, but this doesn’t make me want to puke enough for it to be a Train song, it’s something else.” And even now, when I write it, even just in my questions for this interview, the song gets stuck in my head just from that.
KWAN: Exactly. It’s a weird… it almost feels like it’s, yeah, like a beacon from another universe.
SCHEINERT: So then like almost on a whim, we had our music supervisor reach out. Because we were like, “what if we just put the song in the movie?” Because we have a couple scenes that need music and turns out John Hampson is a cinephile — he’s the singer of that band, and now he’s a teacher or something.
KWAN: He’s an English teacher in high school, I think.
SCHEINERT: He was so excited to not only give us permission but to help. So you can barely hear them, but we’ll release them one of these days. He recorded new lyrics to his own song for the different universes in the movie. So we have original re-records of the song for each universe. We use it in three different universes.
That’s amazing. I read in another interview that you guys were kind of worried about the other Matrix movie coming out before this because you guys had been inspired by the Matrix. So on that note, what did you think about Turning Red?
KWAN: Oh no. Well, I actually haven’t seen Turning Red yet. Basically, it came out on streaming and then our press tour took over, so we haven’t had a chance to sit down, but I’m so excited to watch Turning Red just because I loved her short film, Bao. That was pretty incredible. So I don’t know, people are saying it’s a good double feature, Turning Red and then Everything Everywhere All At Once.
SCHEINERT: They’re both super kid-friendly.
KWAN: I don’t know. But we can talk about The Matrix if you want. It’s contentious. I loved it, the new Matrix, knowing that it was never going to live up to the first one, I was like, “this is wild.” And I actually got emotional at times, whereas-
SCHEINERT: We both responded to Trinity. I just wish the whole movie had been about a suburban housewife who compulsively rides her motorcycle and doesn’t think her kid are her kids. I would’ve watched two hours of that. But we’re obviously super fans of the first Matrix, the first and only Matrix, and there’s something so scary about how long it takes to make a movie and watching the filmmakers, you admire release new things and wondering if you are-
KWAN: Chewing on the same things.
SCHEINERT: If you’re chewing on the same things and if the world will still need your story when your story finally comes out.
So tell me about Ke Huy Quan, if I’m saying that right. Was that a stunt casting idea that happened to work out? Or did you have some insider knowledge that convinced you that he would come out of his like 20-year acting hiatus and be great in this?
SCHEINERT: It was an accident.
KWAN: Everything we do is a stunt in some ways, but then also the stunt becomes earnest through the process. And so with, with Ke [pronounced “Key”], we were struggling to find someone to who could fulfill that role, because it’s a really complicated role. And one day I was scrolling through Twitter and I saw a gif of Short Round. And I was like, “What is that kid doing? Where has he been this all this time?” We started doing a lot of research and we found out that he had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and was on the stunt him for the first X-Men movie. And so we’re like, “Oh interesting. He actually, he’s very sweet and goofy, but he can do Kung Fu. And he also–”
SCHEINERT: Speaks Chinese.
KWAN: “Maybe we should just reach out and see, what’s the worst that could happen?” What we didn’t know is at the same time, literally the same month that we were having this conversation, he was having his own conversation with his agents. Basically, he reached out to an agent for the first time in forever and was like, “I think I’m ready to go back to acting.” And so it kind of timed out perfectly, where two weeks after he reached out to his representation, we reached out to them with this project. Now I can’t imagine anyone else playing this role, he’s so perfect for it.
SCHEINERT: But in a way so much of the casting is like, we just wanted to cast the best people for these parts. ….Aaaand slash also get financing. And so it became this journey into like all these incredible Asian-American actors who’ve been in so many of our favorite films, but haven’t gotten three-dimensional opportunities to shine. It just organically happened that that became the stunt of the movie — you’ve seen James Hong hundreds of times, here he is playing a beefier part. You’ve seen Michelle Yeoh as the supporting actress in 10 of your favorite movies. We didn’t know this, but she hasn’t toplined a Hollywood film ever. And we were like, “Why not?” And then yeah, Ke was a part of everyone’s childhood and now we get to bring him back and he’s better than ever.
This felt a little more expensive than A24 usually goes for. Did you feel any pressure in terms of needing this to be a big hit?
SCHEINERT: A little, but also just excitement. They were very excited from the very beginning about the potential of it to be that movie that lands in between indies that are edgy and blockbusters. And we have a toolkit. We like playing with scrappy tools. And so it did not cost nearly as much as an action movie normally does. So I think it was the perfect place for the movie to land because they believed in the weird parts and were excited about the spectacle.
KWAN: Something I read once in a Coen brothers interview, someone was asking them. “So how have you sustained a career of just doing whatever you want?” And their answer was like, “If you keep the budget low enough, people will let you do whatever you want.” Even if it doesn’t do well–
SCHEINERT: They’ll let you do another one.
KWAN: And so, even though this movie looks like it’s a really big budget, it was low enough that it never felt like there was a lot of pressure. Because people are like, “do whatever you want. This, this is not a big budget.” And so I think people will be really shocked to see that it feels big, and we screened it at a Dolby Digital cinema a couple nights ago and some of the audience members came up to me and he was like, “This felt massive. The seats were shaking. It felt like a proper blockbuster.” And I was so happy. Because they didn’t understand how we could have made it, which is kind of what we want to do. We kind of want to constantly to be showing people that the way things are isn’t always how they should be.