Every so often, a film is so innovative that it sends audiences running. Such was the case when “Swiss Army Man” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where the tale of a despondent island castaway (Paul Dano) and the talking, farting corpse he discovers and befriends (Daniel Radcliffe) inspired a seriously divisive responsive. No one is walking out now: “Swiss Army Man” led the specialty box office last weekend, (beating out the highly anticipated “Neon Demon”), and opens nationally July 1. It’s quickly becoming the breakout story of the summer. But while its directors are technically first-timers in the feature-length realm, they’re hardly newcomers.
The film’s success is largely due to its odd premise, dark humor, and — above all — a unique aesthetic that’s both tonally offbeat and profound. That aesthetic was honed by directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who go simply by “Daniels,” during their rise to the top of the online film industry with their stylized music videos and absurd short films.
Daniels Kwan and Scheinert met in undergrad, at a school that Scheinert jokingly refused to name. “They get plenty of articles and it costs too much,” he said. (It was Emerson College in Boston.) After graduating in 2010, the Daniels lived hand to mouth for a year, their pitches rejected left and right, before booking a string of great projects in 2011.
That year, they made an impressive 10 music videos and three short films. The first big name to tap the duo was the indie band Foster the People, for whom they’ve directed two videos. After that, they worked with indie greats Passion Pit, The Shins, and Joywave. But their most viewed music video came out in 2014, to the tune of the incessantly catchy “Turn Down For What,” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon.
The Joywave video, with its forest setting, bears visual clues to the genesis of “Swiss Army Man,” but it’s the duo’s short films that really foreshadow what is shaping up to be their signature style. In “Dogboarding” (2011), clever editing turns small dogs into skateboards, much in the way Paul Dano’s character Hank uses Daniel Radcliffe’s Manny (the corpse) as a compass, a weapon, or a lighter. In the minute-long “My Best Friend’s Sweating” (2011), sweat pours out of Scheinert in buckets, eventually spewing from his throat like projectile vomit, an effect used often in “Swiss Army Man.”
Both “Puppets” (2011) and “Pockets” (2012) deal with themes of using another body as a tool or inhabiting someone else’s body, raising questions of where the self and the other begin and end. Hank’s projections onto Manny explore the same territory in more depth.
Scheinert expressed concern that fans might experience déjà vu, while allowing that the shorts were a kind of testing ground for the feature. “A lot of that stuff came out of ‘Swiss Army Man,’ not the other way around,” he said. “There’s this weird venn diagram between our short forms and our feature.” The result, in viewing their short form work in the context of “Swiss Army Man,” is a very consistent aesthetic and point of view, a signature style which—while not as gory or dialogue-driven—is among the most singular to emerge in American cinema since Quentin Tarantino.
How did Daniels go from making music videos to the top of the specialty box office charts in just five years? Kwan credits a few key people with recognizing their talent early on and advocating for them. Their advocates over the years include the team at Vimeo, which selected their short film “Interesting Ball” as a staff pick in 2014. Their ongoing collaborators now include cinematographer Larkin Seiple and the Swedish filmmaker William Olsson, who helped produce “Swiss Army Man.” “Our career has mostly been one person—some gatekeeper who believed in us—and from then on we only work with that one person, because no one else understands us,” Kwan said.
The Daniels are humble about their successes so far and a bit bemused when they look at talented friends who haven’t broken through. “We managed to turn things in on budget and on time even though they sounded really ambitious,” Scheinert said. They also developed their own special effects and typically worked with the same crew each time out.
The transition to directing a feature was much more difficult than the duo expected. “I think we naively jumped into long form, thinking let’s just do what we’ve been doing because it works,” said Kwan, who added that their openness to changing tactics served them well. “When our ideas surprise us, they surprise our audiences,” he said.
Their goal is not to alienate their audience, but they do like to provoke. “We had to make sure we were kind to our audience,” Scheinert added, “even though we were trying to shake them out of their comfort zone, [we wanted] to do it with intent, when it’s going to be rewarding… For every stupid scatological thing we had to double down on heart.”
One of the major challenges was realizing when an audience needed some grounding in reality. In a music video, abstraction is welcome. According to Scheinert, viewers should be somewhat confused by a music video, because it means they might watch it again. But one can’t rely on audiences re-watching a feature right away, if at all. He sees their love of obfuscation as a bad habit they picked up doing music videos — but showed no interest in backing away from it.
One of the good habits? A keen sense of how and when to use music. “Swiss Army Man” boasts an all-original soundtrack by one of Kwan’s favorite bands, Manchester Orchestra, as well as a few onscreen sing-alongs by Dano and Radcliffe. (Daniels had a fanboy moment when they had to write John Williams to ask if they could use the “Jurassic Park” theme song in the film.)
“Filmmaking is so manipulative, and one of the most manipulative things is music,” said Kwan, adding, “It’s like you’re cheating, because it feels so good… Your emotions are telling you the movie is amazing.” As a dramatic underscore to Dano’s joyously gulping fluid as it sprays like a geyser from Radcliffe’s throat, the music in “Swiss Army Man” flips the script on traditional scoring to comedic effect. “Tonally, we’re trying to achieve something that is colliding two things so hard that it creates dissonance in the brain,” said Kwan.
To viewers who wonder how Daniels come up with their trippy ideas, it’s not what you think. Scheinert noted the world is absurd enough on its own without any artificial enhancements. “We make movies instead of doing drugs,” he said.
For now, the amiable directors can relax and enjoy their newfound popularity, surreal though it may feel. “You make a movie that probably should end your career, and then you get offered this commercial that’s bigger than the budget of your movie,” Kwan said. While that may seem a bit frustrating, Kwan is grateful to have their work recognized. “It’s a very rare thing,” he said, “and we’re really excited to use that momentum.”
“Swiss Army Man” is playing in New York and Los Angeles, and opens nationally July 1.