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It’s odd to call a second feature film the culmination of a career. But the recently released second film from the directing duo Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) feels like, if not the final summit of their achievement, at the very least a powerful summation of everything they’ve done so far; a beautiful blossoming of the wild talents they have developed over more than a decade of music videos and shorts, as well their debut feature, Swiss Army Man (2016).
It’s fitting that the magnificent, hilarious, emotional rollercoaster Everything Everywhere All at Once is about a mother and daughter attempting to mend their broken relationship via hopping through infinite parallel universes, as the film itself seems to be connecting with audiences in a multitude of ways. Its boundless creativity, a sharp rebuke to the increasingly formulaic nature of mainstream Hollywood releases, gives audiences who have been craving something different and daring an epic visual feast to enjoy on the big screen.
But the emotional connections the film has created with audiences are powerful too. Though an independent film, it’s in no way niche, and has become a genuine sleeper box-office hit precisely because it finds universality in specificity. It’s a universality that speaks deeply to communities and families of all nationalities, creeds, sexualities and backgrounds.
And beyond the more overt themes of the generational divide in the story, the film also works as a metaphor for the exhausting, overwhelming nature of contemporary life; how the infinite connections of modern technology are as debilitating as they are helpful. For me, as someone who labours to complete simple errands on a daily basis, watching Michelle Yeoh struggle to finish the single task of paying her taxes, because of distractions from endless alternative dimensions, struck painfully home.
I have been a fan of these mad professors since their extraordinary music video for ‘Turn Down for What’ by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, nine years ago, so it was a pleasure to sit down with them in person to talk about, well, life, the universe and everything.
Edgar Wright: One of the problems with recent superhero films is that no matter how good the set-up is, the climax always comes down to digital doubles shooting fireballs at each other. What I loved about your film is that the finale is an emotional battle. The ultimate resolution is not one person destroying another, it’s a reconciliation. You come back to a really quiet moment after all the Sturm und Drang. At what point in the genesis did you know where this was heading?
Daniel Kwan: It’s funny you say that. I saw a tweet recently that made me laugh, where the person wrote: “[In] the Disney stories of my childhood, the villains were all evil witches. [In] the Disney stories of now, the villains are my disappointing parents.” I think that marks a shift in our cultural myth of what we consider to be evil. Evil witches are this ‘other’ mystical thing that we can never fully understand. Disappointing parents causing us generational trauma – that then trickles into the rest of our lives – is a more honest and nuanced way to look at evil. Very early on we knew there was not going to be a villain in this movie. The villain is existence itself. The cold, indifferent universe…
Daniel Scheinert: Miscommunication almost becomes the villain.
DK: Stanley Kubrick has this amazing quote in a Playboy interview from a 1967 issue. He says the terrifying thing about the universe isn’t that it’s hostile, it’s that it’s indifferent. And if we can find a way to accept this indifference, we have a chance at creating meaning and having a life that is fulfilling.
DS: And he says something about shining a light.
DK: He says, “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” And I was like, “That’s my job as a filmmaker. I’m going to create some light for myself and hopefully other people will be able to see it too.” That was always something we were playing with. But it took us a while to get to that point, where you’re saying that it’s a quiet ending. It’s a quiet reconciliation between two humans and that is the ‘big’ climax.
DS: I do think from very early on we knew it was going to be pretty maximalist and exhausting. So we did have the question of, “When is it going to be quiet? When do you catch your breath?”
EW: It’s embarrassing to say this in the pages of Sight and Sound, but I hadn’t really heard of maximalist cinema until recently. I read a tweet that Kogonada [director of Columbus, 2017] wrote about your movie that said: “Less is not always more. Sometimes more is more.” This led to me looking up a Wikipedia page on maximalist cinema. And there we both were on the list of notable directors and then I looked at the company. We’re on the same Wikipedia page as Abel Gance! That’s pretty good going, isn’t it? But there is that sense – and I’ve been accused of it – where maximalist could be used as a negative term. The weird thing is there’s two things that lead me to maximalism and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it: one, is that I end up making every film like it’s my last, thinking that I could die tomorrow or this industry could collapse!
DS: Yeah, you gotta put it all in there!
EW: And the other thing is – and I could see this from your work – it’s difficult to turn off the ideas hose, you know. But what’s brilliant about the movie is even at a point where I feel like I’ve seen everything, you throw in a complete wild card. At what point do you know that you’ve got enough?
DK: Literally the first music video we ever did was a fluke. We just did it for fun. We put it online and people liked it [and we were asked]: “Hey, do you want to do another one? We have money.” I thought, “Oh no, they don’t know we’re not music video directors.” We’re going to reveal ourselves to be frauds the moment we step in and do this. With every idea, within this vessel, this box that we’ve created, how much can we put into it? So we would fill every music video with as much as we could, and with every next project, we’d be like, “Oh no, they still haven’t figured out we’re frauds and we don’t know how to direct!” But then the box would get bigger, and we’d be more emboldened to fill it with as much as possible. So, now we can go even bigger. Then we started doing our first feature and I was like, “Oh, this box is really big! How much can I put in?” Because like you said, we might die or someone might find out we’re not actually good at directing and they’ll take away our keys. So this movie, in some ways, was like, “What if there was no box?” – which is really so stupid. It was such a bad idea. It’s bad filmmaking. Filmmaking is so much about limitations and essentialising and figuring out what you are really trying to do.
DS: Very quickly we realised we had too many ideas. We developed rules and started turning the hose off. At first, it was like, “It’s a multiverse. We can do whatever we want!”
DK: The first draft was like 240 pages.
DS: Then we started combining characters and focusing it down. [But] we love projects wherein at every step, there’s opportunities for some new ideas here and there.
EW: I used to have that feeling of impostor syndrome. I never went to film school. I just did a National Diploma in audiovisual design at art college. So then there’s that moment, especially when you’re a young director on set, where you feel like somebody’s going to find you out and the only answer to that – and I’m sure you’re the same – is prep, prep, prep, prep! You’ve just got to have it all figured out, so you can answer every question, even if you don’t know everything about how to make movies. You can answer the questions in terms of what you want. I think in a weird way, impostor syndrome for so many artists is like the prime motivator. It’s that thing where you feel, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” But the way of combating that is, you have to figure out what you’re doing.
DS: We had a different solution. We have very similar tastes, but we came from very different backgrounds. Kwan retreated into animation in college and I retreated into my comedy troupe. I became the video guy and we would put on improv shows and stuff. Doing improv comedy is like you’re just practising how to be an impostor. You have no clue what you’re going to say or do or if it’s going to be good. You have to walk out and be, “Welcome to the show, so glad you came!” Early on, we joked sometimes that I was the entitled white arrogant director, who was like: “Yes, you hired us and we deserve to be here!” and he was the neurotic one with impostor syndrome…
DK: Sitting in the background, planning a lot…
DS: …and there was a bit of a skill to that. Especially in live action, I think there’s a world where you can plan too much and then you show up and you can’t roll with any punches. Suddenly you’re like, “The whole movie is ruined because the thing we need isn’t here.” Exploring animation and exploring improv gave us skills we lean on all the time.
DK: It’s filmmaking where you have all the control, and filmmaking where you have no control. If you can figure out where you sit on that spectrum, you could be a good, talented filmmaker, hopefully.
EW: I’ve definitely been that person where I could have a wildly ambitious shot-list of, say, 40 shots in a day and then I only get 39. The AD [assistant director] and the producer come over, saying, “Hey, good day!” and I’ll be like, “Gotta get shot 40! Gotta get that close-up of that shoe, otherwise the scene doesn’t work!” Then, literally, either at the end of the shoot or even on a reshoot three months later, I’m still saying, “I’ve gotta get that shoe shot!”
DS: Yeah, whereas I’m, to a fault, relentlessly compromising and I think it’s how we pull off things that are too ambitious for the budget. I’ll be like, “Here’s our five alternatives and examples of times in the past where we found a way to connect the dots later because we had these compromised plans.”
EW: It’s funny how people say, “What’s the difference between doing low-budget films and big-budget films?” And I’ll reply, “Well, there isn’t any, because the sun is always going to go down or come up.”
DK: You are fighting the universe!
EW: I’ve had situations on productions where you are on a decent schedule, a nice pace and you’ve got the time to do what you want, and then all of a sudden something unpredictable will happen. We had a thing on Last Night in Soho where a location decided to turf us out two hours before originally planned. Suddenly, it’s amazing how you can shoot ten set-ups in half an hour!
DK: The secret to filmmaking is lie to your crew and say they’re gonna kick you out two hours early, and then everyone can start moving really fast. Sometimes a crisis that could ruin the project can actually make it better. Were those ten shots that you did in 30 minutes useful or great?
EW: Well, they are all in the movie. We had no other version. It’s interesting – filmmaking essentially comes down to making decisions. Sometimes you could ponder things for a long time, and sometimes you hear about a director getting fired because they couldn’t make a decision.
DS: I talk to actor friends all the time and crew, who are shocked at how often they go to a set and the director can’t make decisions. And I’m like, “That’s their job!”
EW: Also, a lot of parents are currently being radicalised by social media.
DK: Actually, if we ever were to do a sequel to this movie, it would be about Evelyn getting radicalised. And then Joy would have to go out and save her mom.
EW: In a future book about maximalist cinema, your film will be a key text. You made a maximalist film about being overstimulated.
DS: Why do we put too much in there? What’s wrong with us? What does that mean? How do I find the thread in this firehose of ideas? That’s what the characters themselves are struggling with.
EW: Well, I was reading the production notes and I saw you were diagnosed with ADHD. I’ve always felt that I might have it, but I’m too scared to look into it further.
DK: What are you scared about? I’m curious now.
EW: Everything Everywhere is about somebody for whom life is getting in the way of living. It’s a film about being overwhelmed by choice and being overstimulated. You’ve made a movie about a generational divide, but it’s also about the current state of technology in the world, right?
DS: Yesterday, I realised that we never say anything about the internet. We don’t really point at anyone’s phone. No one is looking at social media. But the movie is totally a reaction to that. Jobu/Joy is like a character that grew up on the internet who is struggling to be understood by her mum, who did not grow up on the internet. I don’t want to tell you about the chat rooms I went into when I was ten, but it was weird. It’s changed just how overstimulated and distracted we are.
EW: I think in a weird way, making my films is something which gives real focus for me. Because otherwise, on a daily basis, like Evelyn, I am overwhelmed not just by everyday shit to do, but the very thought of it.
DK: I will say that it has only helped. It has only been amazing. I haven’t changed. I’m still a distractable, terrible, whatever…
DS: It helps me forgive you.
DK: Well, it also helps me forgive myself, which is something I never learned how to do because I thought there was something wrong with me. One of the weird misconceptions is because you’re talking about how you can do certain things really well, right? Obviously, you’re a very successful director, and people think that ADHD means it’s a deficit. It’s a really bad name for this thing. It’s not a deficit, it’s a mismanagement of attention. When we care about something, we hyperfixate and we hyperfocus. Also, a lot of directors have it. They just don’t know it. So you look at Baby Driver  and you look at how obsessively everything is timed out to the music. It’s the kind of thing that can only happen when someone hyperfocuses and hyperfixates on things. Meanwhile, your life is falling apart. You haven’t done your taxes, your laundry. You’re still wearing the same clothes you were wearing five days ago.
EW: For the record, I am wearing what I was wearing yesterday.
DK: ADHD people have a problem with personal hygiene because it’s low on the list of things we think about. We’re thinking about everything else.
DS: It is not an interesting new challenge.
DK: Exactly. So, all I will say is: I’m diagnosed. I’m still the same human being, I’m still just as creative. Some days I’m really struggling, and I take some Adderall and that’s fine, and I can just normalise myself. But on most days, I can just be myself and I’m lucky enough to have a career where I’m allowed to just fuck up every day and that’s fine. Whereas before, in high school, every day was misery because I was fucking up all the time and the system didn’t leave room for that. We’re very lucky in that we set our own schedules and be our own bosses or whatever for the most part. But I just say to you and any reader that if you’re curious, try to look into it.
EW: It’s also strange, how deficits essentially become strengths, like what you said about hyperfixating. I am shortsighted, but I didn’t know that until I was 21. So, before I realised that I actually really needed glasses, I was a film projectionist as a teenager, I made a movie when I was 20 years old. I drove for four years. When I think back to the time I was at school, there was a realisation that, “Oh yeah, I guess I couldn’t see the blackboard.” Then it would lead me to a) looking out of the window and daydreaming; and b) doodling a lot. I’m disengaged and disassociating from class because I can’t read what’s on the board, and then I have to think back as to whether that started me being creative in the first place. Do you ever think about that?
DS: Yeah. I mean, I do think there’s an element of this that we were thinking about when writing the movie. One of the jokes is that she’s the worst possible version of herself in this universe, but we wanted to play with the idea that weaknesses and strengths are subjective. Sometimes what seems like weakness is actually a superpower. You can be an ineffectual pushover with people walking all over you, like Waymond, but you’re actually holding the family together and keeping people away from mental breakdown with kindness. But no one is celebrating it. Your shortsightedness led you to daydream and then you made a lot of money off those daydreams.
EW: I should throw away my contact lenses.
DS: Thank God he [Kwan] was a bad server at restaurants.
DK: I was bad at everything in my life, until I discovered film. I’m actually really risk-averse and if I was good at anything, it would be like, “This is what I want to do.” I did not find anything I was good at. I went to college for business and accounting. I was so miserable and that was when I hit rock-bottom. I thought, “I’m literally bad at everything I’ve ever tried in my life.” But I do know I like movies, and as a risk-averse person I was like, “No matter how scary it is to consider going into filmmaking, it can’t be any worse than whatever I’m living right now, and I cannot do this any longer.” So, it actually pushed me to become a filmmaker. So yeah, it’s a good thing I was bad.
EW: The thing you always have to say to yourself every day when you’re working really hard on a film is you’re not working in a coal mine and you’re not working in a factory. We all get to do our hobby as a career, which is amazing. Yet my last film, Last Night in Soho, was inspired by thoughts that would plague me of wanting to go back to time periods I never lived in, and me constantly thinking about another life in another time. Yet I have a good life now. Why was I always dreaming about that? Your film touches on this. It’s not a time-travel film but Evelyn gets to see the lives that she herself hasn’t lived. There’s something profound and also very sad about that.
DK: I feel like most of my life I was convinced I was going to be living in my parents’ basement because I wasn’t going to find a job in which I could survive. For a long time, that was the narrative I was telling myself. Look at where I am now and how mind-blowing the chasm is between those two realities. Even Swiss Army Man is almost me partially exploring my isolation, my loneliness and just how depressed I could have been if I hadn’t discovered films. Now I am talking to one of my heroes. I live my life and with this constant reminder that I was so close to touching a very different life. I’ve seen my mother, who potentially also has ADHD but doesn’t know it, just jump around different careers her whole life, which is what Evelyn is. I just see there’s so much untapped potential of what that could’ve been.
DS: As storytellers, we’re constantly encouraging ourselves to pay attention to the patterns in our lives that affect us, and seemingly arbitrary things that changed our lives. All these near misses. I almost died in high school making a movie with my friends because I fell through the ceiling of the attic into the garage. I was a foot away from a horrible injury. We were shooting a horror movie in the attic. I was the ghoul, and I lost my balance and fell through the ceiling, 13 feet down on to a bunch of equipment. But you’ve had unhealthy relationships and you’re like one sperm away from being a deeply depressed father trapped in an abusive relationship in Alabama, or you’re one bad friend away from joining the alt-right.
EW: Another thing that’s amazing about the film is your cast. And since the film deals with parallel lives, the casting, with at least two of the actors, also becomes very meta. It is very poignant for you to cast Ke Huy Quan – a very famous child actor in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom  and The Goonies . For a whole generation, he’s a star in those movies. Then, sadly, he doesn’t get the same plum roles as an adult and he essentially retires from Hollywood, at least in front of the camera. And then you give him this absolute gift of a part as a 50-year-old. You can see he’s having the time of his life making your movie. He’s brilliant in it, but it makes you mourn a little for the alternate career he didn’t have. Then of course, within the movie, you see that with both Michelle and Ke, of what their lives could have been. Michelle Yeoh is obviously incredibly successful and has had an amazing international career, but has never been given a part this rich in an English language film. There was something I read, where she said to you, “I wonder what my career would have been like if I’d done this movie when I was younger?” Which is both beautiful and also kind of sad…
DS: Yeah, I think there’s a meta-narrative under the film that we didn’t intend, which is that Hollywood underappreciated these Asian-American actors. They had more to offer all along.
EW: This is true for James Hong as well.
DS: Yeah, and you just watch it and it’s like these acting reels for these people who just murder it, you know. They could have done that all along.
EW: But it’s a testament to you guys that you never questioned whether they could.
DS: I think we questioned it, but one of my favourite things to do is to throw a challenge at an actor I love and not be sure, knowing that we will problem-solve and figure it out together.
EW: That’s your improv background.
DS: We thought we would have to coach Michelle through some of the wacky stuff, because we thought she might be a very serious lady. Then we met her and were like, “Oh, you’ve got this in spades!” On set, all we had to do is explain what was happening, she would do such a beautiful job. I was like, “Never mind, you don’t need direction.”
DK: Scheinert was an actor at one point and he was in theatre. He has a lot of opinions about the casting process and the relationship between the director and the actor. One of the things I find fascinating is the way in which Scheinert is always prioritising things that most directors and casting agents don’t normally prioritise. Normally, they prioritise if they are good at their lines, do they look good on camera?
EW: They’re being cast for what they’ve already done before.
DS: In the audition, it’s like, who was directable? Who did I have an interesting conversation with? Who seemed kind between the takes?
DK: Right, but even sometimes you cast people who aren’t that directable, or sometimes you chase after people who look difficult but because there’s something weird about them. Something that’s so strange that you’re like, “I’ve never seen this person on camera.” It’s going to be extra work for me. And it’s going to be extra work for them to get their performance there, but it’s going to be worth it because of this extra X factor that I’ve never seen before. I know in commercials, we’d always be trying to push for very unconventional casting choices, people who could not act.
DS: Yeah, and the ad agency would be like, “No, go with this guy!”
DK: Yeah, and so even with casting Ke – he wasn’t the safe choice. He was really good in the audition. But there were other actors who were safer, where you’re like, “Oh, that’s a star. I can totally see them carrying a movie.” Whereas, Ke sometimes would flub the line one way, and you’d be like, “Oh, OK, this is gonna be a little bit harder.” He was nervous, and he hadn’t been doing it for decades.
DS: I thought, “We’ve never seen this guy in a movie,” and he cared so much. I wanted to see him in it.
DK: When we cast him, he instantly said, “OK, I’m going to get to work.” He hired an acting coach, a voice coach, a body movement coach. He worked his ass off to become the actor who could pull off this role.
DS: So, he showed up on set and again we didn’t have to do much at all.
DK: Sometimes you can make it hard on yourself or take the burden of working with an actor on to your own shoulders for the sake of something special. It’s a little extra work, yes, but it’s worth it for the right person.
EW: When I was working with Billie Whitelaw on Hot Fuzz , which turned out to be her last film, she was experiencing early onset Alzheimer’s. But because my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, I knew how to get through it. It becomes about patience in terms of being able to say, “I know you can do this and you know you can do this.” If a director gets impatient, it just sets off an actor’s insecurities. It’s like the worst thing you can do.
DK: I wish more directors could talk about the interaction between the director and the actor less as a craft and more as a human connection, because I think that’s where you get the best performances.
DS: When we work with kids, I hate rehearsing. I’ll just feed them the lines on the day. What I want is for them to like me and trust me. As long as we have that, we’ll get it on camera. But the parents always want to run the lines with them hundreds of times.
EW: Something I miss from doing amateur movies and early shorts when I was a kid is working with non-actors. You think about somebody like [Swedish director] Roy Andersson, who mostly likes to cast only non-actors. He just goes out of his way to hire them: if anybody has been in something before, they do not get the part.
DS: That’s so funny. I didn’t know that.
EW: Yeah, he just gets people off the street that look interesting.
DW: So, when I went to Sweden, I was like, “Where are all the fat, pasty white people?”
EW: They’re literally walking past Roy Andersson’s production office. He’s sitting outside the cafe nearby and he points, “That person!”
DS: Stockholm doesn’t look as much like [Andersson’s 2000 film] Songs from the Second Floor as I thought it would.
EW: It’s because it’s all in his studio. That broke my brain when I went there. “All of the shots from these movies are in this room?”
Speaking of Roy Andersson, it’s not that there aren’t great groundbreaking films out there at the moment, but it’s sometimes difficult to get general audiences to watch them. What’s great about your film is that it’s sort of mainstream-adjacent. I think there are young people who’ve seen your film, for whom it will be the first time they’ve ever seen something like this. And it’s literally like opening a door in their brain to something new. It reminded me of the films I obsessed over in my formative years. Watching something like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil  or watching early Coen brothers or Sam Raimi and just going, “Oh my God, this is a movie? You can do this?” I can only imagine that your film is going to inspire so many people who didn’t even know they wanted to be directors yet.
DK: It’s also ironic because that’s what Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead  were for us.
EW: I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to thank the people that inspired me, [like] Sam Raimi or George Romero. It’s funny, I’ve gotten to know the great Walter Hill well in recent years, and he always sends me emails along the lines of, “How are you doing in London? Are you having fun ripping off some more of my movies?”
DS: Oh my God, I hope that’s how you address us in every email. “Hi Daniels, I hope you’re having fun ripping me off!” [Edgar laughs]
DS: One time, we got invited to give a talk at South By [South By Southwest Film Festival]. We decided to call it ‘Where We Stole It From’ and we just spent an hour talking about creative theft, but also trying to figure out for ourselves what’s the morality of it. That’s art, but the best version is when you can celebrate who you took it from, and also not hurt them financially. The bad version is when ad agencies just rip off a band.
EW: I’m sure you get asked by young filmmakers: “How do you develop a style?” First, you try to ape the things that you like. Then it goes wrong, but perhaps something else forms. I always think about that Douglas Adams quote – “There is an art to flying. Throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
If you’ll permit me, I’m going to do a few last name-drops. When you said creative theft, I always think of film history and ponder, “What is the first version of this?” I then ask the walking encyclopaedias of cinema, Joe Dante and John Landis, because they’re so nice and knowledgeable. I’ll ask them something like: “What’s the first shock in the bathroom cabinet mirror?” And usually, any first iteration of an idea goes all the way back to the silents. There’s almost no device in film that wasn’t done in silent cinema.
DK: Yes, that’s true.
EW: One funny thing… I worked on [The Adventures of] Tintin  with Joe Cornish. We were rewriting it for Spielberg. It was Joe’s 40th birthday and so I asked Spielberg to sign a Raiders of the Lost Ark poster for Joe. He’d done one for me too and he wrote on it, “Edgar, we are all Raiders of good ideas. Steven Spielberg.” I was like, “Whoa, that’s amazing!” From somebody you’ve ripped off forever? That is the best thing he could ever say.
DK: I’m trying to think about the movies from the silent era that we clearly have a lineage to.
EW: Sometimes, you haven’t seen them. That’s the amazing thing. In our lifetime, we will never be able to watch all the films. I’ve realised that.
DS: Dan dropped the Lumière brothers in an interview…
DK: Yeah, because people are talking about our visual effects team. There’s five people on our visual effects team, but how did you do it? I was like, “We’re just doing exactly what the Lumière brothers did…”