Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels, sat down with The Maroon and Loyola Phoenix to discuss their new film, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity because both Kwan and Scheinert love giving answers which are impossible to transcribe, talking over each other, and interjecting without abandon. Which makes for a fun interview, but a terrible transcription.
Loyola Phoenix (LP): What made you guys want to make an original multiverse story versus something that already had existing IP?
Daniel Scheinert (DS): I think we’re pretty bad at IP. Honestly, it’s intimidating. There [are] already fans that you might piss off.
Daniel Kwan (DK): Our whole process is destroying things or making things the wrong way. And if we did that with IP, [it’d be] like what Rian Johnson did with Star Wars. I think that’s the best Star Wars—there’s your headline. I think [Johnson’s Star Wars] is better than the originals.
DS: And we don’t have thick enough skin to handle the backlash.
DK: But to us, those multiverse movies are fun because they give you the satisfaction of seeing your favorite characters all in one space. [Playing Super Smash Brothers, the video game franchise], was one of the first times when I was growing up where I was like—this is amazing, Pikachu and Mario in the same game, how cool, which is like wish fulfillment. But we aren’t excited about what’s fulfilling.
Steve Jobs always [said], don’t give the customer what they want, give them what they don’t know they need. And to me, the multiverse is such a beautiful, terrifying idea that if you really leaned into [it], you could create something really philosophical and challenging. And so [we decided]: Let’s lean into it. Let’s stare at infinity. Let’s destroy the story and destroy what people think movies should be, and hopefully give them something that they haven’t seen before. Because that’s what people are craving right now.
Chicago Maroon (CM): As a directing duo, how do you decide what projects you want to work on together, versus what you want to work on solo? And once you do decide, how does it all work?
DS: Enthusiasm—we try to win as much as possible, we try to just let passionate enthusiasm dictate what we do. Luckily, we have a ton of overlap and work well together and are constantly trying to improve our collaborative process.
DK: If one of us isn’t into something, that usually means maybe it’s not worth pursuing, even within the projects themselves. Like if there’s a scene we’re fighting over, that usually means that scene has a problem. And once we connect, and we agree, then we’re like, “Okay, there’s something really special here” because we have very similar tastes but very different approaches to the creative process [Kwan’s background is in animation, while Scheinert’s is in improv]. And so, if something can survive that gauntlet of our clerical scrutiny, then that means we found something special.
But how do we collaborate? That changes with every project.
DS: [Kwan] loves video games, and so [we’ve tossed] around ideas for video games, but I don’t know if we could co-create one, because I just don’t know enough about them. One day, [Kwan] might make one without me—that would make sense. I shouldn’t co-create a game because I’ve only played a couple.
LP: Michelle Yeoh is one of the greatest actors of all time. First, how did you guys end up casting her?
DS: We asked her ironically—there’s [another headline] for you.
LP: My headline is I don’t think she’s ever been better than she [is] in this movie.
DS: We started in the same place you’re in, which is, “[Yeoh] is just awesome.” And we were like, [we’re writing] a movie about a Chinese American family, who might be in it? Michelle Yeoh. But we never guessed that she’d be so right for the part. I think we thought we’d have to coach the humor and vulnerability out of this powerful, confident, woman because of the roles she’s played a lot lately [Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi]. But she’s so funny and vulnerable and weird in real life—turns out we just wrote a role where she got to spread her wings, and all we had to do was film it.
DK: Yeah, she finally got to show all these other parts of her that I think she’s, subconsciously or consciously, been dying to show the world. She even told us that when she first read the script, she got chills because she realized this [role was truly insane].
CM: One of the things I really loved in the film was the trilingualism, with the characters switching between Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, sometimes even mid-sentence. What was the writing process for that like?
DK: My dad's family is from Hong Kong; my mom's family is from Taiwan. [So going to my grandparent’s] house on my dad's side was kind of [chaotic] because I don't understand Cantonese at all. It really did feel like we could never fully communicate with each other because my mom was trying to translate between us and like when we did talk, it was mostly like… [laughs], and that was that. That's basically the extent of our conversations. [So] it felt really perfect for a movie about the multiverse, which is about people in different worlds, [to have characters] speaking different languages [and] talking past each other.
We wanted to really lean into how separated the family was at the beginning. At the beginning, they can't talk to each other fully, and it's really frustrating. We knew by the end when [Evelyn] finally gives the speech to her father, that that speech would have to try to pull [the family] all together. And so that monologue starts in Cantonese, moves to English, moves to Mandarin, comes back to Cantonese, and then ends in English to try to pull it all together.
DS: When we gave the translated script to [Yeoh], she was like, “What are you guys doing? Like, it’s hard enough to act, but now you’re making me switch languages five times in one speech.”
DK: Some people watch it, and they're like, why are you guys switching [back and forth]? That's so confusing. While other people who, who've lived that experience [are] like, oh, wow, I've never seen that type of, that kind of relationship on the screen. So, we were very intentional. We worked really hard to know exactly that that line would be English, that line would be Cantonese.
DS: It was a collaboration ultimately between us having written a script entirely in English and italicizing things that would switch and then we cast the movie and our cast had different levels of comfort in those three languages. So, we were like, oh, we can lean into that. Our producer [Jonathan Wang] spoke better Mandarin than [Kwan], and he collaborated with the actors and especially with [the wife of Ke Huy Quan, who plays Waymond in the film], who ended up being the translator on set. So [Kwan] and [Wang] would work a lot on the Chinglish lines, then [Quan’s wife] would help us make sure the Canto and Mandarin was good, and then she checked with the actors.
DK: By the way, before this job, [Quan’s wife] used to work for Wong Kar Wai. So her Cantonese and Mandarin are [both really good]—she was the perfect person for the job.
LP: At times, Everything Everywhere All at Once feels like a comedy movie; at times, it feels like an action-comedy; at times, it’s a family drama. But it never felt messy—how did you guys seamlessly blend all those genres together?
DK: We don’t believe you. It was a little messy.
DS: [When we were editing certain scenes], we were like, these two scenes aren’t working. [The scenes] need more whiplash. The audience needs to know that [it’s chaotic].
DK: [Within music], whenever you make a mistake, if you repeat [it] enough times it becomes a drumbeat. And so, to us, we were doing a lot of things you weren’t supposed to do.
DS: Good quote.
DK: We’re breaking the rules, just smashing genres within the same shots. We’re doing all the things you [aren’t] supposed to do, so we realized [we] had to make it super obvious. We’re like, look, we know we’re doing this, and we’re doing it on purpose. Come along with us, you’re in good hands. And if you’re willing to come, we’re [going to] have a fun time.
I think especially younger audiences will really latch on, because you guys are so media literate and film literate, you guys understand [things like genre language]. This is [probably] how your brain already works.
DS: [This] makes me think about our editing process. Thanks to our editor on our first movie [Swiss Army Man]—he kind of introduced us to the idea of screening the movie for three or four people every two weeks, so that we could see the state of things once we had a rough cut. And so we spent months just testing it on a few people and just trying to see, “Did we lose them? Did they get confused? Were they off the rails for too long?” And trying to figure out like, how we can use music and editing and pacing to balance [the movie] and make sure that it was only confusing when we wanted it to be. Never in a bad way, but hopefully in a way that makes you feel how Evelyn feels. But it took a long time.
CM: Both of you have stated that this movie is “100% a response to The Matrix.” So I'm going to ask: Evelyn versus Neo. Who's going to win in a fight?
DK: Which Neo are we talking about? Neo from [The Matrix: Resurrections] or Neo from the original trilogy?
CM: Can you answer both?
DK: Okay. I think Neo in Resurrections, [he and Evelyn] wouldn’t fight. They’d just kind of sit down and have coffee [and everybody would have a nice time].
[Or there’d be techno music] and they’d have sex. That’s what they would do in Reloaded because in [The Matrix: Reloaded] they put on techno music, and they have the whole underground sex scene. There’s your headline: they drink tea together, and in Reloaded, they would have sex.
DS: Right, and then in [The Matrix], I don’t know. Evelyn at the end versus Neo at the end is a tough one.
DK: I think [Yeoh as Evelyn] would definitely destroy Neo. She’s got that third eye, and Neo in The Matrix is only powerful in the matrix—in the real world, he’s just a guy. In our movie, [Evelyn] is all powerful in the real world.
DS: That’s a semantics game.
DK: It’s okay, the nerds want the semantics.
LP: Speaking of The Matrix, there’s a lot of [different film homages] in this movie—the Wong Kar Wai-esque one between the movie star Evelyn, and the man she never ended up with. That’s a reference to In the Mood for Love, right?
DS: Yeah. Our editor was like no, In the Mood for Love has a completely different color palette. He thinks [that scene] looks more like [Wong Kar Wai’s] other work. But regardless, it was very, very fun to play on that.
LP: I thought it was great. Are there any other media you guys were consuming while making this that might have ended up in the film, whether purposely or inadvertently?
DK: The really obvious stuff was stuff we grew up on [like The Matrix]. We weren’t watching [that stuff] while we were making [Everything Everywhere All at Once]. It was just the stuff that happened to be in our brains because [they’ve been] injected into our DNA at this point. The stuff we were watching was actually the things that were breaking all the rules, because we needed to find the courage and blueprints for how other people did that. And so Holy Motors was one that I love that, like, really surprised me. Another one is Tribe Nine.
DS: Is this the anime?
DS: Yeah, bonkers.
DK: Even just going back to It's a Wonderful Life. It's a Wonderful Life has a weird structure—it’s night, then for about 50 percent of it is a flashback, and then [the main character] goes into this nihilistic place where he suddenly realizes his existence actually matters. Same with Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day was, for its time, [this] super innovative structure [that] kind of destroyed what you thought you [could] do. But both of those managed to do it in a way that felt more or less accessible.
The references [the reason] why we do this, because that's just how everyone thinks. And now everyone thinks in terms of movies. We're not trying to [be like Family Guy], we're not trying to, to like wink at the audience. It's like, to me, [references are] the most honest way to tell stories. The world around us is constantly reminding us of the movies we live in. And so the references weren’t what we were watching. We were watching the stuff that was trying to push the medium further than what most people did. And hopefully that’s what [this film] feels like.
DS: And then watching YouTube clips of Kung-Fu movies, just being like, “How did they do that?” A lot of [Stephen Chow too].
DK: And actually [The Grandmaster] was a big influence too. The fight scenes in the movie, [specifically] the train sequence. We used that sequence as a reference in [a lot of] different ways. So yeah, all of that.
CM: Last question, really quick. There’s so much humor and comedy in this movie—who has a better sense of humor?
DK: [Scheinert is] the comedy guy. He’s better since [his background is in improv], but I don’t like comedy. So I have a different kind of tolerance.
DS: We have different senses of humor. Like [Kwan] can watch more sitcoms than me—I can't stand them. I like [comedy that’s] kind of being a little meaner, and you can bring it to the masses in a nice way. It's like, oh, there's a broad joke. [Kwan's] got way better Twitter sense of humor than me. Like I don't understand how to write a funny tweet.
DK: How hard it is.
DS: Yeah, [I can't do that]. But I can make better jokes in a Q&A.
DK: For sure. He's like the comedy improv guy.
DS: I like to give answers that are impossible to transcribe.