The filmmaking duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, otherwise known as Daniels, had been tinkering away at an ambitious screenplay for their new movie when the Marvel opportunity arrived.
“There were meetings with Marvel about ‘Loki’ that we didn’t even take,” Scheinert said in an interview alongside Kwan at the SXSW Film Festival. “We were trying to make our own multiverse movie,” Kwan interjected. “No, the meeting was set, and we went, but by the time we went we said we probably weren’t going to do it,” he said. “We were trying to shoot our own movie at the same time.”
That was “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the dazzling and unclassifiable saga that opened the festival on Friday. The directors’ first feature together since the similar blend of poignance and surreal humor that distinguished their 2016 debut “Swiss Army Man,” the sophomore feature stars Michelle Yeoh as a woman who learns that she can experience endless dimensions simultaneously, and uses the power to attempt a reconciliation with her estranged teen daughter (Stephanie Hsu). The movie, which opens in theaters on March 25, promises to satisfy an expanding fan base that has followed them for years while bringing their vision to an even wider audience. “We’re pretty sure this is going to be a life-changing month for us,” Scheinert said.
Produced by A24, which signed a first-look TV deal with Daniels after taking on the project, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” marks the latest example of the singular filmmakers and their ability to mash genres into a silly-sweet one of their own. Needless to say, they do not regret passing on the Marvel show, even when they weren’t quite sure how “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would pan out. Instead, the opportunity to direct a bigger budget project with a similar conceit put them on notice to finish tinkering with their epic script.
Allyson Riggs, Courtesy of A24
“They were trying to do sci-fi Douglas Adams style,” Kwan said of the “Loki” concept for Disney+. “It was kind of scary getting those offers and being like, ‘Dammit, this is what we’re working on!’”
The Daniels dreamed up “Everything Everywhere All at Once” while on the press tour for “Swiss Army Man,” though during that time, Scheinert also directed his solo feature “The Death of Dick Long,” and the pair directed some standalone TV episodes. During that lengthy gestation period, every movie that came along with some resemblance to their plot made them nervous. That included another Marvel entry, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which, like their own plot, weaves in extensive martial arts combat indebted to the classics of the genre. Above all, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” builds on “The Matrix” with its unlikely protagonist’s gradual realization that reality is more complicated and bendable than it seems, but even a new “Matrix” movie came out before their own homage.
“This movie is 100 percent a response to ‘The Matrix,’ obviously,” Kwan said. “We wanted to make our version of it. It was wild to be like oh, ‘We took so long that the Wachowskis to beat us to it.’”
But Daniels watched “The Matrix Revolutions” last year with their own movie in the bag, and they grinned through a mini-debate about the results. “I loved it,” Kwan said. “I know it’s a mess, but there was enough in there for me to be really happy.” Scheinert shrugged. “I think there’s one ‘Matrix’ movie,” he said. “It’s one of the best films ever made.”
His resistance to the recent sequel was also informed by their own navigation of the industry. “I’m not a fan of many series or trilogies,” Scheinert said. “I love a sit-down experience that starts and finishes well. I don’t need more ‘Die Hard.’ I have ‘Die Hard.’”
If the pair do end up tackling some preexisting IP, it would be as strange and beguiling a choice as the original movies they make. Kwan said they had dreamed up a list of sequels they might consider, and the only one that really got them excited was a pitch to Paramount on a follow-up to “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”
“I loved that movie growing up,” Kwan said. “We pitched it to Paramount. They said no. I loved that movie growing up.” The idea grew out of a wider impulse. “I want to do a rom-com,” Kwan said. “We tried to replace the idea with other rom-coms but this is the one for us.”
He added that the executives who received the pitch at Paramount have since left, and they’re eager to give it another shot. “It’s all outlined,” he said. “If someone wants to make this movie, I want to use the original cast and the original motion picture soundtrack.” But he tacked on a caveat. “It has to be theatrical-only and a director’s cut,” he said with a grin. Scheinert chimed in. “And $200 million!” he said.
That much may have been tongue in cheek. But Daniels are keen on discussing that even a work-for-hire has to be funneled through their own unique filter. “We have a ‘Terminator’ sequel, too,” Kwan said. “Some people were like, ‘What would you do with a ‘Terminator’ movie? And I was like, ‘I would never — oh, wait a minute…” He stroked his chin and smiled. “Our only real rule is that we don’t want to get bored with whatever we’re doing, because we’re sure the work will suffer a lot,” he said.
The pair tend to speak about the blockbusters that inspired them growing up through a critical lens that comes across in their filmmaking as well. “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” for example, was a response to other multiverse sci-fi movies that bugged them. “My pet peeve is time travel when you introduce it and just do a tiny bit like it’s no big deal,” Scheinert said. “It would be such a big deal! Like if logic broke down and time didn’t move forward and a million people could go back in time a million number of times there’d be absolute chaos.”
The 2009 “Star Trek” reboot irked him because of its own multiverse twist. “When the ‘Star Trek’ universes overlapped and there were two Spocks, I was like, ‘OK, if I were there, I would be so philosophically freaked out about more than that.’ I’d be like, ‘What is time?’ It just always feels like a missed opportunity.”
The bottom line was that Daniels were better off developing concepts from the ground up. “Then we can just throw out anything that’s not working,” Scheinert said. “I respect people who are able to play in someone else’s sandbox but that’s kind of intimidating because if there’s a preexisting fanbase for a character, and a lore, a mythology and I’m not allowed to throw out something that’s not working, that seems hard.” They were thrilled to have a new home at A24 to develop TV ideas — even if (like many first-look deals today) their options for producing movies were less certain.
“That’s the harder thing,” Kwan said. “We’re developing TV stuff with some friends and we’re really excited that something will come out of that one day. With movie stuff, we’re still lost at sea. Our brains were waiting for this movie to come out to really figure out what we’re doing next.” At least now, with A24, they didn’t have to consider what to do if another Marvel TV offer popped up. “We don’t really love meetings,” Scheinert said. “Just having a home is kind of a comfort.”
While it remains to be seen how “Everything Everywhere All at Once” performs when it opens theatrically later this month, their decision to stay the course on the project seemed to be validated by the ecstatic response at the SXSW premiere, where the post-screening Q&A stretched on for over 30 minutes and audiences ignored Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, and the other cast members onstage to ask adoring questions of Daniels instead. The conversation reflected the Daniels’ movies themselves, with an element of absurdity that gave way to sweetness and a surprising amount of depth. Kwan in particular juggled questions of intergenerational trauma and violence against the AAPI community with aplomb.
“I am flattered and honored, but I love that the film speaks for itself and I’m very hopeful that I can shut up and let that happen,” Kwan said in their interview the next day. “I don’t know if we want to be the ones involved in it, but this movie is going to create a lot of conversations whether or not we’re a part of it. That stuff is so important to talk about but sometimes I feel ill-equipped.”
There was one aspect of the movie’s impact that Daniels did want to guide along, and it involved the plot point surrounding the sexuality of the teen character, who is gay. While “Everything Everywhere All at Once” had yet to secure a distributor in China, the pair were adamant that it could only do so with censors allowed her sexuality to remain a part of the story. “It’s not up to us if the movie is released in China, but all we said was that you can’t cut the gay storyline,” Scheinert said. “That’s all we’ve said to foreign distribution people.”
Their commitment echoes comments made last year by Chloe Zhao, who was similarly insistent that the sexuality of the character Phastos in “The Eternals” remained intact. The movie never opened in China. “If they had to censor other stuff, and we got a gay story out there, we’d be so thrilled,” Scheinert said. Kwan chimed in: “The movie doesn’t work without it.”
For now, they were still basking the glow of a finished movie that actually played for audiences. Kwan was moved to screen the movie with an audience that included his father, who showed up martial arts movies as a kid. “My dad was so happy last night,” Kwan said. “Just seeing something I made with Michelle Yeoh in it — my dad is a very stoic man, but he was smiling all night, and it was wild.”
A24 releases “Everything Everywhere All at Once” on March 11, 2022.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.