Directing a commercial almost never comes with the same amount of creative freedom as directing a movie, but “Swiss Army Man” co-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — aka “Daniels” — recently got to have the best of both worlds. The pair’s Nike ad “Unlimited You” that aired during the opening ceremony of the Olympics on Friday had all of their trademark weirdness, including a gymnast literally smashing Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan at one point during the ad. (Watch it below.)
How did Daniels retain creative control over a massive campaign that Nike first began working on more than a year ago? During an interview with IndieWire on Monday, the pair explained that the ad agency for the spot, Wieden & Kennedy, fought to give them as much creative liberty as possible.
“They basically gave us the freedom to just be weird, go nuts and have fun,” Kwan said, adding that the project came with a script dictating the commercial would take on a life of its own. “The concept of a narrator losing control of their commercial was kind of a really fun box to be stuck in.”
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Narrated by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” actor Oscar Isaac, the two minute ad starts by showing several young athletes that will “all do big things one day.” Somewhere around the halfway point, the kids take over, challenging opponents twice their age and executing a number of ambitious stunts, like diving off of a cliff into the ocean. Isaac’s voiceover begs them to stop, exclaiming that “everybody is going way to far,” but there’s no stopping these young future stars, many of whom are seen competing with celebrity athletes like Venus Williams and Kevin Durant.
Some of the action in the commercial was in the original script handed to Daniels, but the pair added many of their own ideas, including a basketball player narrowly avoiding a car crash before a slam dunk. “We tried to be really upfront with all those changes and make sure everyone was excited about how far we could push things and how playful it could be for a Nike spot,” Kwan said.
While both he and Scheinert did have to jump through some bureaucratic hoops to get approval on everything in the ad, dealing with logistical issues was the most significant challenge of making the commercial, which involved more than 20 locations, 70 characters and roughly 500 extras.
Many times, when a celebrity athlete would drop out at the last second due to scheduling conflicts, Daniels would rewrite the scene for another athlete, and then the first athlete would become available again. “We like working with non-actors, but athletes are a very special genre of non-actor,” Scheinert said. “Instead of someone from SAG being worried about their hours, trainers are worried about their calorie intake. It was a special kind of stress.”
Though “Unlimited You” didn’t include the same kind of creative struggles Daniels are used to from their previous commercial work, they both see a benefit in being creatively constrained on certain projects. “Having those kinds of things butt up against your creative process reminds you why you like the things that you like,” Kwan said. “It’s important to remind yourself of what you actually want to do and say.” One of the pair’s most difficult projects from a creative standpoint was a car commercial that didn’t allow them the artistic freedom they wanted.
“It really frustrated us to the point where we were like, let’s make the craziest thing that no one would ever let us make, and just see what happens,” Kwan said. “That’s where our short film ‘Interesting Ball’ came from, and that also helped develop our tone a lot further.”
Unlike their car commercial, “Unlimited You” has the distinctive mark of a Daniels production from start to finish, according to Kwan. “We’ve had a lot of people tell us they saw the commercial on TV, and wondered if Daniels directed it,” he said.
Additional reporting by Chris O’Falt.