How Hollywood’s Weirdest Filmmakers Made a Movie About Everything
The directing duo known as Daniels discuss superpowered warts, the multiverse, and the manipulative quality of cinema.
Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t the kind of film anyone could possibly describe as generic. It’s a mind-bending journey across the multiverse that somehow follows the most prosaic of protagonists: a middle-aged laundromat owner named Evelyn (played by Michelle Yeoh). Her life has become as mundane and messy as a load of soiled clothing spinning in a washing machine—her marriage is crumbling, her daughter is pulling away, and her business is being audited—but she is the only person who can save all of existence. The story is wildly inventive, juggling romance, action, comedy, sci-fi, and horror elements, despite largely taking place inside an IRS office building. The plot also contains a Ratatouille parody, a fake end-credits reel, and a lot of googly eyes. Oh, and did I mention that an everything bagel—actually topped with everything—plays a pivotal role?
Don’t worry: All of the above covers at most only 2 percent of the movie. Yet, while making Everything Everywhere, the co-director Daniel Kwan feared the film didn’t have enough to distinguish itself. He and Daniel Scheinert—filmmakers known collectively as “Daniels”—had met little resistance from studio executives and producers while pitching it, which felt odd for a project so ambitious. A week or two into shooting, Kwan went home “depressed,” he told me. Daniels’ previous film, Swiss Army Man, had been so strange, so preposterous—it’s the movie with Harry Potter as a flatulent corpse—that Kwan wondered if they’d peaked, and anything else they did would feel far too “marketable” by contrast. They were making a movie about multiverses just as multiverses were becoming Hollywood’s latest obsession; they’d even been approached about directing the reality-warping Disney+ series Loki, an opportunity they’d turned down but that only stressed them out more about the originality of their multiverse story. “I was like … Is this too broad?” Kwan recalled. “Is this going to feel too much like a Marvel movie, for lack of a better comparison?”
Besides, he continued, people had become savvy to their storytelling tactics and boundary-pushing antics. For years they’d overloaded music videos, commercials, and short films with topsy-turvy images, dynamic editing, and off-kilter tones, producing a large body of eccentric work that often involved aggressively disorienting concepts. Their longtime viewers knew to expect the unexpected from their projects, and Everything Everywhere posed an additional challenge: With its nods to In the Mood for Love and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film was geared in part toward cinephiles, yet those same cinephiles could be counted on to intellectualize the movie’s components and predict its next moves. To succeed, they needed to top their own ideas. Would they be able to surprise anyone anymore, when the audience most likely to seek out their latest movie knew it would be in for surprises to begin with?
Spoiler alert: They would, with an impressive box-office debut, one of the studio A24’s best, when the film began its limited release at the end of March. (It goes wide tomorrow.) But before the two Daniels told me how they came to create a film about everything, they got sidetracked discussing a new idea they wished they’d included in the movie: a superpower involving warts. Evelyn picks up special abilities from other versions of herself, and though this concept born of a mid-interview light-bulb moment doesn’t make much sense—apparently the warts would contain nutritious vitamin C, a supplement every hero needs—Scheinert was convinced shots of popping pustules would’ve been cool to capture on camera. “Okay, gross,” Kwan responded. He groaned—but he grinned too.
This is the way the duo operate. Kwan and Scheinert are almost always brimming with ideas aimed toward accomplishing, to put it simply, the absolute most. For them, the more peculiar a concept is, the better: As music-video directors, they conceived of the ridiculously crass and memorable visuals for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” which scored them an MTV Video Music Award in 2014. For their surreal short Interesting Ball, they translated “some of the dumbest ideas we had come up with or heard from a friend,” as they wrote in a description for the video, into a grotesque yet oddly moving work. And they once made an interactive film called Possibilia, which, despite being only six minutes long, could be played in 3,618,502,788,666,131,106,986,593,281,521,497,120,414,687,020,801,267,626,233,049,500,247,285,301,248 ways, according to one estimate. (That’s called 3.6 quattuorvigintillion, in case you’re wondering.)
Considering all the grandiose gags they’ve incorporated into their work, Kwan and Scheinert have developed a reputation as art-house weirdos, fearless jokers who happen to be as deft with toilet humor as they are with special effects. But the pair told me the repulsive elements of their films are a Trojan horse for their long-running experiment to examine the immense power cinema wields over viewers, a power that often feels perilous to them. “One of my pet peeves is when artists or peers act like filmmaking is just inherently good for the world,” Scheinert said. “I think it’s a dangerous thing, making a movie. You can accidentally make the world a worse place.” Their projects, in that sense, have been attempts to test what else the medium could offer. “How far can I take this, the manipulative quality of cinema?” Kwan explained. “Can I create things that are so stupid, so ugly, so profane, and make it feel profound? … We realized that as long as we went really far with the absurdity, we could go as corny as we wanted to be.”
Take Swiss Army Man, for instance, a film that began as a fart joke. Kwan and Scheinert took the tools normally used to tell love stories—soft lighting, a sweeping score—and deployed them alongside disgusting images, including a corpse being used as a jet ski, an erection doubling as a compass, and a bear being fended off by someone setting passed gas on fire. All of it was meant to disarm their viewers, leaving them both awed and revolted, but at the same time captivated by a tale that, at its core, was about learning to love the worst parts of yourself.
Everything Everywhere also began as a joke—the duo were batting around a vision of their moms getting stuck in The Matrix, and they’d long been interested in setting a story in the multiverse—but as they began conceiving the story in 2016, they felt a pervasive sense of dread. The Obama administration was ending, the next presidential election was looming, and social media was exacerbating their anxieties. “I think everyone was beginning to feel that something was about to go really wrong, as far as just how overwhelming our lives were going to get,” Kwan said. “In 2016, we were like, ‘Life is chaos.’” And after that year, those disconcerting feelings only lingered. “Whether we want to believe it or not,” he explained, “we are living in a very nihilistic moment … and no single narrative that we tell ourselves is going to make sense.”
Rather than ignore those worries, they zoomed in on them, working toward untangling their fears. Kwan, for his part, had been reluctant to embrace his Asian identity in his work; he liked how the name “Daniels” helped hide his surname. But after fellow Asian men approached him with appreciative comments about the “Turn Down for What” music video, in which he also starred, Kwan dove into writing specifically about a Chinese American character for Everything Everywhere. Scheinert, meanwhile, had grown up in Alabama “with a lot of shame around our reputation” as a state, he told me. He recalled looking at a map of hate groups across the country, struck by how they weren’t divided between blue and red states; California was home to far more hate groups, for example, than in his native state. Together, he and Kwan wanted to make a film that captured the sensation of questioning the choices you’ve made and realizing how many other paths you could have taken. What if you grew up proud of who you were? What if you never met the people most important to you? What if your perception of life differed completely from everyone else’s?
Into the many versions of Evelyn they poured their own experiences and apprehensions, and slowly, over the course of six years, what started as an ambitious story about the multiverse morphed into a sentimental tale about the remarkable connections people forge amid overwhelming chaos. That idea perhaps sounds saccharine on paper, but it works when filtered through Daniels’ lens. In their hands, the multiverse doesn’t have to be a mere setting for exploring numerous genres and tones; it can be a metaphor for the weightiness of ordinary obstacles. Evelyn’s ability to jump between universes and access the skills of other versions of herself isn’t just a superpower that lets Yeoh flex her many talents as a star; it’s also an examination of the what-ifs embedded into immigrant stories, the code- and language-switching that come with such a shift, and the infinite choices a person can make across a lifetime. Everything Everywhere is about the potential annihilation of time and space, but it’s also a reminder of how extraordinary it is to exist at all, for a time, in a space.
As the film evolved, so, too, did the filmmakers. Scheinert, who told me he “did not feel kind many times in the last six years,” found making the movie to be “therapeutic.” Kwan became a parent—a transition he was better able to put words to, having immersed himself in Evelyn’s perspective for so long, writing dialogue for her that echoed some of the contentious conversations he’d had with his mother. “Even though it was a big undertaking, it doesn’t feel like this is the movie that necessarily changed us,” Kwan said. “I feel in some ways life just changed us, and it took us so long to make this movie that all of that got imbued in the film itself.”
Everything Everywhere All at Once required Kwan and Scheinert to imagine more than they ever have before—and also forced them to finally reconcile themselves with their work. Their projects often traffic in provocative visuals and effects, sending their viewers down unanticipated rabbit holes, testing people’s limits for farts, warts, and all. But this time, they ended up taking the trip instead. This time, they were the ones caught by surprise.
Listen to Shirley Li discuss Everything Everywhere All at Once on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: