The hardest screenplay Tarantino has ever read! Swiss Army Man
Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert discuss the concept behind Swiss Army Man, getting notes from Tarantino, and the move from 4-minute videos to a 90-minute film.
Meet Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Collectively known as Daniels, they’re the writing/directing duo behind Swiss Army Man, probably one of the most creative films you’ll ever see.
Truly bizarre, but in the most hilarious way possible (and often tender, thanks in large part to a beautiful score by Atlanta’s Manchester Orchestra), Swiss Army Man tells the story of Hank (played by Paul Dano, Love & Mercy), a man stranded in the wilderness who’s at the end of his rope.
Quite literally. As he’s about to hang himself, he spots another man washed up on shore, and meets Manny (Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe) – who just happens to be an extremely gassy corpse. Soon Hank discovers that Manny has uncanny abilities that extend beyond his flatulence, and together they start to make the trek home, forging a close friendship in the process.
To come up with an idea as outrageous as this is one thing. To recruit two of Hollywood’s most promising young actors to jump on board and convince financiers to back the production of it is quite another.
Daniels spent years as music video directors for the likes of Foster the People, The Shins and many others…their most famous video being DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What”, which nabbed them an MTV Video Music Award and 511 million+ YouTube views. Now they’ve turned their attention to feature film making and the industry is sitting up to take notice.
Creative Screenwriting met with the fascinating minds behind Swiss Army Man to talk about their most unusual movie and its dream cast – and about the move from 4-minute music videos to a 90-minute feature film.
I never ask the question “where did the idea for this film come from”…but I feel like I have to with this one!
Dan Kwan: Early on, we were such small filmmakers and had very little resources. So it was always a matter of “what do I literally have around me, and what can I make of it?” That was our process. We were flying to Alabama and Daniel’s family has a lake house. A lake is something we don’t normally have access to in LA so we tried to think of what we could do with that.
Daniel Scheinert: And they have a boat. And there’s two of us…so we started to think “is there a two-person scene we could shoot at a lake house?”
Kwan: That’s honestly where all those pieces coalesced into this scene where a desperate man finds a dead body and joyously rides his farting corpse like a jet ski. We figured it was funny but so stupid. But the idea just kept coming back until finally we couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Scheinert: It was when we cracked the relationship between Hank and Manny. The idea for the film isn’t a farting jet ski…that was just the best beginning to a film of all time! It was much later that we came up with the amnesiac corpse and the suicidal man reenacting things to help out this corpse who gives him more and more powers. And then it was “Well that’s a movie…that sounds fun”.
Kwan: I think we have a fascination with stories that are so convoluted that part of the joke is how hard it is to pitch it. Everyone at school tells you “Elevator pitch – go!” and you say “OK, it’s Die Hard, but in Sears” or “it’s Romeo and Juliet, but with dogs”…we get a kick out of making incredibly convoluted stories. For us, when all the pieces started falling together and it was impossible to pitch, we thought “this is pretty good”.
What were some of the reactions you received when you did first pitch it?
Scheinert: We definitely got hundreds of reactions, which was an interesting life experience. We were writing the movie for a couple of years, and after we finished the first draft we got into the Screenwriters Lab at Sundance with Quentin Tarantino. So we weren’t getting just anyone’s reactions, we were getting incredible, pedigreed filmmakers’ reactions! And those were diverse.
Kwan: Tarantino, Mike White (School of Rock), Patty Jenkins (Monster)…we got all sorts of really interesting people and it was so fun to talk to all of them. And they all had something different to say. Some people absolutely did not get it and some people were so excited by the idea of it, even if they didn’t get it. They were like “keep doing whatever you’re doing – I want to see what this becomes”.
Scheinert: And then Tarantino said “This was the hardest screenplay to get through that I’ve ever read – I had to set it down, take a break and pick it back up, and I never do that”. His central piece of advice was about the fight scenes – he said a good Kung Fu movie has maybe four fight scenes and we had 10 or 11 and needed to pick and choose. Which was so funny because the reputation his films have is that they’re the most indulgent thing ever. But he knows what he’s doing.
All that aside, he said he wasn’t sure why but he got to the end of the script and became emotional and was tearing up and thought “there’s something magical in here”.
Kwan: He said “even if I don’t understand what you’re doing, you’re doing something good – so I don’t want to touch it”. It was really sweet.
Scheinert: He was so helpful, both for being encouraging and for being blunt.
As music video directors, you’re generally given 3-4 minutes to work with an idea. How did you find this transition to making a full-length feature film, particularly in regards to scriptwriting?
Kwan: So often once we have an idea and let it marinate in our brains, we come up with too many other ideas and it becomes a real bummer. With most of our music videos we cut so many things, just because we can’t fit them all in. We still had too many ideas for this movie – it’s such a smaller version than what it was with all the other ideas we had surrounding it.
So coming up with ideas was really easy. Making sense of it all was a pain in the butt! It was not something we’re used to doing on such a large scale and I think we naively stepped into it. We thought “Let’s put all the ideas out there and then we’ll see what happens”. It just became this monster that we were drowning in.
Scheinert: I feel like a lot of times, with our short stuff, we would just collect the moments we liked and put them together, trying not to overthink it, and then start troubleshooting what was falling flat. We started off that way with this, you know? “Let’s not overthink it, let’s just find moments we like and see where it takes us”.
Then we realized that a movie is so much more volatile than a short form thing. It took us a while to go back, find an operating thesis and really confidently – and decisively – structure it.
With a feature, one little change in one scene has a ripple effect onto twelve other scenes. As simple as “how crazy is the audience going to think Hank is based on _______.” Then we’d think “but that’s funny”…and would have to say “No – it may be funny, but it now ruins these ten scenes”.
It took us a while to learn how to see that. But we started to and realized that getting this movie right was like walking on eggshells.
Kwan: I don’t think we were 100% successful with everything – but this film itself was such an ambitious thing that we had to go into it knowing that. It was going to be a big, messy thing. If we were able to have it make emotional sense, it would be a success. And that’s what we were going for by the end. If we can emotionally convey what these characters are going through and why they need each other, despite the insanity, then we’ve won.
It also makes for a really interesting viewing experience, because it doesn’t latch onto the things you’re used to holding onto.
Scheinert: Inception is a movie where, if it doesn’t logically add up, every step of the way, it’s done. The whole thing is a puzzle – it’s more puzzle than emotion. I think there were drafts of this where we were headed down that path and we realized we couldn’t operate on an airtight sci-fi premise type world, you know? Because a man rides a dead body’s farting corpse in the opening scene! It’s a different kind of movie.
Tell me about casting and how you prepared Daniel and Paul for these roles. Was there anything they were hesitant about doing on-camera?
Scheinert: As we wrote and the characters were evolving, we were getting to know what we wanted out of the leads. We love working with folks who could be directors in their own right. We want collaborators, not people who just take instructions really well. We wanted guys who could sing and we wanted them to really get along.
So with those variables, we were working on lists. We talked to Paul first and he really responded to the material. It was surprisingly easy – he liked the role and was excited about the movie. He suggested Daniel Radcliffe and we said “Well, ok…sure, we’ll ask him, but that’s kind of crazy”.
And then he was really psyched about the material as well. We Skyped with him and his first question was “Can I do my own stunts?” And we said “Great question, you’re hired, you’re in it for the right reasons, welcome aboard!”
And from then on it was collaborative. It wasn’t just us explaining their roles to them – it was us learning what it was they connected to in the draft that they’d read, and trying to take what we loved about them as people and what we’d learned about them as artists, and trying to shape the characters more and more. So they really became three dimensional after we cast them, not before.
With the finished product, you think “Oh, it’s so perfectly cast” but it’s actually sort of perfectly rewritten for the cast. We’re not little genius writers who came up with dialogue that was three dimensional and unique.
That must have been great to witness when you were taking this kind of a leap of faith with the material.
Scheinert: Yes. Paul’s the kind of actor whose idea of rehearsal is to discuss and discuss and reread the script and talk about backstory and try to understand the mechanics of the movie through and through. It wasn’t until the first day of shooting that Paul ever went 100%. And it was so fun to witness! To say “action” and watch a scene and see it pour out of him…it was great and a huge weight off my shoulders.
Kwan: And in terms of whether there was anything they drew the line on or didn’t want to do? The great thing about these two was that they understood that all the pieces somehow fit into the big picture and they knew why. As long as they understand why they’re doing it, they’re so committed.
And even though we did insane things with these actors, we’re not unreasonable and I think that they knew that. We always found a way to approach every uncomfortable and strange thing as tactfully as possible. So they always felt comfortable and just excited to do these things.
I think acting in general is a game of how vulnerable you can make yourself. All these things helped them get even more vulnerable with each other. It heightened their connection onscreen, because every day they were both giving a little bit more of themselves up.
“Turn Down For What”, in a sense, laid the groundwork for this film to happen. What has Swiss Army Man now done for you in terms of future projects?
Scheinert: I guess we’re finding out as we go…but it is funny. I think people are so much more trusting of our weird ideas. In the little bit we’ve dabbled since the movie coming out, there’s a battle we’re used to fighting that we’re now fighting a little less. We’ll say “aren’t you going to second-guess that?” and they’ll say “No, you made Swiss Army Man!”
Kwan: With “Turn Down For What”, we were already kind of done with music videos and knew we were moving into features. We thought “this might be the last music video we ever do, and that’s ok…so let’s just make something stupid and if no one ever wants to hire us again, that’s fine. We’ll have a lot of fun and we’ll know it’s just something that really fits the song”.
So we pitched the dumbest ideas we could possibly think of…and it backfired! We got asked to do so many other videos – the opposite of what we expected to happen happened.
And the same thing was true with this movie. We thought “either people are going to love this film or we’re never going to get to make another feature – we might as well put everything we can into it and just make sure it’s, if nothing else, 100% us”.
Scheinert: And now we’re getting requests to meet with heads of studios and we’re like “What? I don’t think so…that sounds weird!” So we’ll see.
If this movie can succeed enough that more like-minded weirdos get to make their movies, as a movie fan I’ll be so psyched.