Among the most-talked about movies at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, "Swiss Army Man" is a work of wild imagination and furious creativity, with a whimsical sense of invention and a lingering air of melancholy isolation. It also features a corpse who talks and passes gas, among other bodily surprises.
Daring to be both stupid and sincere, the film is the creation of the writing and directing duo of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who work together under the moniker Daniels. (A title card on the movie and its artwork reads "a film by Daniels.") The pair won the directing prize at Sundance.
Describing the story doesn't much capture the film's mixture of wonder and sadness, but here goes: Hank (Paul Dano) is about to commit suicide on a deserted island. He notices a body washed ashore and soon realizes that though dead, his new friend Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) can be of many uses. With Manny serving as a jet ski powered by flatulence, a compass, a water jug, wood chopper and many other tools, they cross to a secluded forest and make their way back to civilization so Hank can profess his love for Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Even within the far-fetched world of the film, there are dark truths.
"One of the goals of the movie was to take a farting corpse and redefine what it means to an audience. Take it to where farts aren't funny and corpses aren't gross," explained Scheinert. "The goal was to make you really care about the corpse and really care about what it means to fart. Make an existential fart drama. Then once you're there you have to acknowledge, 'Yeah, but in the real world farts and corpses are farts and corpses.' If it ended with flights of fancy we were only having half a conversation."
Collaborative and confrontational, sincere while also making everything available for a mischievous joke, the Daniels duo may be a model for post-millennial auteurism, in control with a deceptively slapdash sense of precision.
Scheinert, 29, is originally from Alabama; Kwan, 28, is from Massachusetts. The pair met at college in New England in 2008, began making things together in 2009 and, as Scheinert put it, "in 2010 someone actually paid us to make stuff."
"I think we had very similar tastes. But we had such different approaches to filmmaking," said Kwan, noting his own background in design and animation and Scheinert's background in comedy and theater. "It really didn't make any sense at first."
"When we first met we didn't like each other much," added Scheinert.
That changed quickly, and after an early collaboration become popular online the duo continued working together. A series of music videos honed their sensibilities, as in Battles' "My Machine" in which a man tumbles endlessly down an escalator, Chromeo's "When the Night Falls" in which music gets women pregnant and DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" in which Kwan crashes from floor to floor in an apartment building. They also now live near each other in L.A.'s Highland Park neighborhood.
Citing Harmony Korine's "Mister Lonely" and the collected video works of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham as influences, the mix of ironic humor and visual invention in their short-form work paved the way for the larger-scale surprises of their feature debut.
"To make anything of merit anymore you have to surprise people," said producer Jonathan Wang, who began with Daniels on music videos and transitioned with them to the feature. "I think everyone has seen everything, and we're so used to two-minute YouTube videos where if you don't like it you're on to the next thing."
Dano was immediately drawn to the screenplay's mix of heart and humor. He acknowledged that the film's outré shorthand could obscure what it's really about.
"Right now it's the farting corpse movie, but for people who've seen it, I hope it will be more than that," Dano said. "Ultimately there is pretty big heart, dealing with loneliness and melancholy and also joy. I think it is about learning to connect in a world and how hard it is and how isolating that can be."
Going into the festival with only a vague synopsis for unsuspecting audiences, it was widely reported that the premiere at Sundance elicited many walk-outs — Variety called it "a continuous stream of audience members … bolting for the door." Just as quickly there was a backlash to the backlash, with counter-reports that not that many people left and the theater was still quite full for the post-screening Q&A. As another of the film's producers, Miranda Bailey, recently told Filmmaker magazine, "I was there. It didn't happen."
"The myth of a mass exodus?" said Wang of the matter. "That's totally not true, but that's OK, we'll perpetuate the lie because it helps the movie. So it doesn't really matter."
Kwan and Scheinert said they both felt a wave of warmth when they walked onstage after the premiere.
"Our experience in real life was so different from what we were reading on the Internet," said Kwan of their time at Sundance. "And in a way we deserved it because we did prank that audience by not telling them what it was actually about. And we did that on purpose. To us it was a gift to the people who had similar taste to ours. If we sat down and saw that movie completely cold we would have been dancing. But we also gave the folks who weren't ready the opposite experience."
It is perhaps only appropriate that a movie as willfully odd and purposefully abstruse as "Swiss Army Man" — by turns hopeful and despairing, with a trembling stomach and a heart of gold — should in turn generate conflicting reactions and counter-reactions.
"One of the earliest things I remember the Daniels telling me was 'is it possible to make a film where the first fart makes you laugh and the last fart makes you cry?'" Dano said. "And that felt like an impossible task, but it felt like a worthy thing to aspire too."
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