Interview: Filmmaking Duo Daniels on the Multiverse, Working with Film Royalty and As Much As They Could Fit Into Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

For those who have been lucky enough to experience the year’s first truly great filmgoing experience, Everything Everywhere All at Once, interest level in the filmmakers “Daniels” is likely piqued. Consisting of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Daniels have been writing and directing together for more than a decade, breaking into prominence with a host of music videos, short films and commercials, then transitioning into their first feature, 2016’s Swiss Army Man starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe (which went on to win the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival). An interview for that film first put me in a room with the filmmakers for a lengthy interview that seemed to focus on the many definitions of creativity. While they were in the early stages of developing Everything Everywhere, Scheinert shot a truly disturbing ode to folksy storytelling, The Death of Dick Long. But it didn’t take long for the duo to come back together and begin making the wild ride that is their latest film.

Everything Everywhere stars Michelle Yeoh as Evelyn, a middle-aged, exhausted Chinese-American woman who owns a failing laundromat with her devoted but uninteresting husband (Ke Huy Quan). Evelyn is dealing with a host of pressures: her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is pulling away from her because Evelyn is having a difficult time accepting Joy as a lesbian; her ailing father (James Hong) is becoming harder to take care of; her marriage is failing; and she can’t seem to finish her taxes, forcing her to meet with a demanding IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis). And then the multiverse opens up to Evelyn for unexpected reasons, propelling her into a science-fiction-action-adventure-comedy that’s also a heartfelt family drama. This one literally has it all. Is it too much for one movie? Probably. Does that make me love it any less? Quite the opposite.

Even thought the film is fairly easy to understand, it would take days of discussion with Daniels to properly dissect the piece and its many influences. I had a little less than 20 minutes to scratch the surface, but I think we cover a lot of ground. Please enjoy our conversation and go see this movie right away…

Good to see you both again.

Daniel Kwan: I remember you from the last time we were here. Thanks for coming out again.

This wasn’t going to be my first question, but I have to ask about the extraordinary poster design. I love this thing. How much input did you have into the look? Who’s the artist?

Daniel Scheinert: We did a bunch of poster designs and looked at one of them that was  like a mockup that was roughly like the finished poster. Then we were talking about artists, and James Jean came up—he did The Shape of Water poster, the Mother poster—and he’s an artist whose work sells for millions. It’s a real honor when he comes to the film world and graces us with his talents, so we didn’t think he was going to do it, and he watched the movie.

DK: He really responded to the film and worked his ass off.

DS: Yeah, apparently it was an arduous process to get it all down. We’re so proud of it.

I’m sure you’ve talked about this a lot recently, but the multiverse is being looked at in a lot of different ways right now in pop culture. When you were writing this, you probably didn’t know that was going to happen or how other people would approach it or access it. But what were some of the thought processes in distinguishing your version and how it would be represented? Did you look at other versions from films or sci-fi literature?

DK: When we started, we were like “People might compare this movie to Rick & Morty.” That was in the culture. We didn’t know there were going to be 20 Marvel and DC things to compare it to by the time the movie got finished. But we were attracted to it as a gimmick, like a fun way to do a fight scene, to do the burst jumping from one version of a person into another into another. But then we started talking about it philosophically and how interesting it is. We like science but aren’t smart enough to do it [laughs], so that became our inspiration, reading about the science and how mind-blowing and terrifying it is if it was actually real. And that fed into the emotional and philosophical direction the movie went in. Very little of that science is in the movie but a lot of it is in the book they let us put out.

DS: Yeah, it’s like an art/poetry/philosophy book.

DK: There are something like six chapters, all based on different theories of the multiverse. We have a Carl Sagan one in there. This was a fun way to take a bunch of the inspirations and the tone and morph it into something tangible.

I was going to ask how much of the theoretical science you actually incorporated into your idea. But even if it’s not expressly mentioned in the film, you get a sense that you did. It’s there in the DNA whether it’s talked about or not.

DS: The one thing that gave us confidence about pursuing this version of the multiverse where we stare at infinity is because we knew no one else was going to do it because it’s a bad idea [laughs]. Yeah, no one else was dumb enough to say “Let’s go to infinity universes and break narrative and break the character’s brain and make the audience not care any more. Let’s go all the way there and then pull them back, and if we can do that, what a beautiful testament to creativity that would be, and hopefully we would also learn something from that process. As far as the multiverse stuff, what I found really interesting in our research was that every field of study has its own version of the multiverse or its own version or staring at infinity. Mathematics has a version, linguistics, mobile realism. One of the first instances of the multiverse being used in the English language was by a theologian, who basically was frustrated by the fact that he knew there was one moral universe center—that was God—yet when he looks around, there’s a moral multiverse. So there’s another version of it from a moral standpoint, and we were really interested in that and we tried to fit it into this movie, but this movie was already overstuffed, so we tried to pull back.

DK: Yeah, we got the title wrong. It should be Some Stuff, Only Two Hours.

DS: As Much As We Could Fit would have been a better title [laughs]. Even within physics, there’s the cosmological version of it, which is about expansion in infinite space versus the quantum mechanics version, which is about super-positions collapsing. It’s very much something that everyone was touching but everyone had different stories for it. It feels like Greek myth—everyone was seeing the same thing but saying “This is the story I think it’s telling.” That gave us license to throw it all away. It was like, “We did all the research, no one knows what’s going on, let’s just move forward and write something truthful.”

Image courtesy of A24

One of the things I loved right off the bat was the way that people access the multiverse. You have to do these seemingly random things, gestures, whatever, to break a path open to another version of yourself. How did you even think of something so simple and yet so perfect?

DK: That was the seed of the idea.

DS: We’d just been reading about probability fields and thinking about how this is our universe and every other universe is just slightly different. There would be a universe where we’re drinking coffee and another one where we’re drinking tea, but if you’re way over here, there’s a universe where I snort the tea up my nose and it comes out of my eyes. That would be slightly further away but still accessible. That’s so interesting that you could leap to that universe by slingshotting yourself. It’s playfully inspired by Douglas Adams’ Infinite Improbability Drive, which I found so fascinating as a kid. At the other end of that, I’m just realizing, is Kurt Vonnegut’s…

DK: …Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum?

DS: Yes. I don’t know if you remember The Sirens of Titan, but there’s a character who’s basically spread out through time, and his existence is non-linear in time and space, so instead of doing it through time and space, this movie is doing it through possibility. You’re completely scattered through possibility. A lot of it comes from these amazing sci-fi geniuses that we’re just borrowing from.

I’m sure you’ve had an army of people telling you they’ve always loved Michelle Yeoh. I’m pretty sure you didn’t write this for her, but who else could have done it? Was there ever a Plan B?

DK: From square one, we were excited about it being a Chinese-American family, and excited about all of the actors that came to mind that we could put in a movie, and the first draft we wrote, we were like “What if it was Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh?”—our two favorites growing up.

DS: The only difference would be that Jackie Chan would have been the star of that one, and Michelle Yeoh would have been a version of [her husband in the movie] Waymond.

DK: Not that we thought about stars that hard, but we imagined her that way from the beginning, and her character became our favorite. Making her the focus of the story opened up so much, because our moms are interesting and fascinating people, Michelle is too. Plus, we’ve probably seen enough movies about dudes fighting, and there was something so interesting about why this mom would be fighting. Why would this mom be fighting, and what would her journey be?

DS: It just complicated things in a beautiful way. We’re so lucky that Michelle Yeoh was so perfect for the part and a really down-to-earth person, completely game.

I don’t know if I would have assumed that about her.

DK: Yeah, we met her, and she was so much funnier than the mom in Crazy Rich Asians or the woman in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We were prepared for that.

In many circles, she’s film royalty.

DK: Exactly, but that’s not her energy.

DS: We were actually afraid how her mega-fans would react to this movie because we’re pulling her out of the image that she has constructed or has been trapped in, depending on the way you look at it. We got a small taste of that on the first day of shooting, because her longtime personal assistant saw her in her clothes and makeup and a wig with a lot of gray hair, and she was like “What are you doing to Michelle? You can’t put her in the movie like that; she’s so ugly!”

DK: “Michelle, don’t go out there!” It’s that same kind of Chinese bluntness that you see in the movie. She was so protective of this icon image, but Michelle trusted us and we’re so lucky.

DS: And clearly, she had so much fun. And it wasn’t like it was totally smooth. There were scenes where she was pretty scared or scenes where she was laughing so much, she broke and we had to take a break from shooting. But all things considered, it was so fun and she did such a great job.

This is a film that feels built on pure anxiety, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It very successfully captures that underlying anxiety that a lot of us have been living with recently. As a result, the film feels very personal. How personal is it, and what was the anxiety that fueled you while you were layering ideas into this work?

DS: My partner watched this and said, “I wasn’t prepared for there to be so much of us in the movie.” I was like “What are you talking about? It’s a Chinese-American family.” But then I watched it through that lens and realized that some of our biggest fights have been about laundry and taxes. Oops, of course that’s in there. But I think we went into it knowing we were exploring some anxieties, like how the age of the internet makes us feel, and we started conceptualizing it in 2016, when the internet started to really metastasize the world as we know it.

DW: The emotional whiplash, the contradictions, it’s all in there, and we used genre to play with it.

DS: Then it accidentally became about so many other things. And the movie is still teaching us things, but we didn’t go into it thinking we were going to explore family or love or what it’s like to connect to your parents, as well as what it’s like to be a parent. Now that Dan is a dad and all our friends are having kids, we’re realizing this movie is about all three angles—the grandparents perspective, the parents and the kids. We’ve lived six years of our lives and had so many tragedies and joys in each of those categories. It’s sort of therapeutic to work on something so personal.

A lot of your best work—the music videos, both of your films—feels like someone dared you to do it, and then you just said “Okay.” Is that in any way accurate?

DS: Yeah, sometimes it’s me daring Dan.

DK: I think it comes from really early on in our careers—when we were doing music videos—we got rejected so often—we basically spend a whole year getting rejected—but we stuck to our guns and eventually people started realizing what our ideas were. Now it’s come to a point where when people say Yes too easily, we start to wonder if we’re going in the right direction. So we’re constantly searching for someone to say No. The video for “Turned Down for What” [by Lil Jon & DJ Snake], it was kind of like…

DS: It was like a dare. We were like “Oh, you want a music video for your song? Here’s one!”

DK: We basically dared Columbia Records to say Yes to it, because we were tired and thought the song was kind of silly. “Here you go. If you say yes, I guess we have to make it.” And they did. We’re getting to the point where people are saying Yes more often, and it’s actually a little scary. We’re going to have to keep seeing where the…

DS: The dare is a lot of times rooted in something we’re curious about and not just something that would be insane if it got made, but there are some taboos in there that I want to unpack. “Why does that make me uncomfortable? Why aren’t we allowed to do that? What is it about farts that makes people so uncomfortable? Why does the three-act structure in the hero’s journey always have to be that way? Am I allowed to destroy that?” I’ve been calling this movie a turducken of structure—you take 10 different movies and stuff them into each other, which is wrong and you shouldn’t do that in a movie. But we’re like “Why not? Can we try?” Good observation.

I was going to ask you about the world-healing power of googly eyes, but that will have to wait until the next time.

[Everybody laughs]

DK: I want to hear your perspective on that. It’s mostly about not taking things too seriously.

Thank you so much. Best of luck with this.

DK: Good to see you again. Thanks.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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