Everything Everywhere All At Once has become a cultural phenomenon. Adored by critics and audiences alike, it’s one of the few films of the pandemic era that seems to be genuinely driven by word-of-mouth. Daniels’ 138-minute monster of a film takes Michelle Yeoh on a journey through multiple universes, times, moments, and lives. When watching it there’s an undeniable, overwhelming sensory charge; it’s not excessive to be excessive, though.
The drama, comedy, and sci-fi adventure contains a realized vision, a cohesion between two long-time collaborators who have never been given this amount of budget or resources on a project. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert first directed a music video together over a decade ago, working their way up in the industry with bigger projects, finding financiers that believe in their bad ideas along with their good ones, embracing cult success with their first feature Swiss Army Man before releasing Everything Everywhere All At Once six years later.
Led by Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, and James Hong as the four members of the Wang family, emotional threads of generational love mixed with generational trauma fasten the film together, with performances bringing depth to scenes of absurdity. Rock worlds, hot dog fingers, and raccoon chefs collide in Daniels’ brains, ping-ponging around other ideas: their views on soulmates, memorized lines of works they’ve read, and the unknowable amount of films each Daniel has seen. Everything Everywhere All At Once takes the full breadth of imagination and puts it onto the widest screen with the largest audience, a piece of filmmaking that’s meant to be experienced without reservation or judgment. It wants you to embrace it, and in return, it’ll embrace you.
As the film continues its theatrical run, along with a return to IMAX theaters, I sat down with Daniels to talk about their beginnings, the way they balance their personal and professional relationship, and how they define love.
The Film Stage: How did you guys meet at Emerson? How did you decide to work together?
Daniel Kwan: I always say that it feels like we were matched by the algorithm. It was the Internet just bringing us together.
Daniel Scheinert: The Like button. Exactly.
Kwan: Nothing about our interactions early on was good chemistry. In fact we didn’t really like each other at first; we didn’t understand each other. We had very different learning styles in school. And we ended up working at the same summer camp as counselors and even then we’re like, “Okay, we were funny guys. We enjoy each other’s company.” And we were very playful with the students at the camp. But even then it wasn’t like, “Let’s work together.”
It was really just that we accidentally made something together because I just bought a new camera. And I wanted to teach him After Effects. And he wanted to teach me how to shoot live-action. And so we’re like, “Let’s do a quick camera test.” We do the camera test. He does some After Effects. And then we put it on Vimeo and it gets Staff Pick. It gets put on the front page immediately. This thing took no effort. I’ve been trying to get a Staff Pick for years. And then failing. What is it about this thing?
Scheinert: And then I wanted to make a music video and then you helped with that. And that also did really well online.
Kwan: Actually from the music video, someone who was from London reached out and was like, “Hey, we got $10,000. Do you want to pitch on this music video?” That’s amazing. Okay, so I quit my job at DreamWorks. And we flew to New York, and we shot this thing. And then that did really well. It got put on the end-of-the-year list for Pitchfork. And we got signed. And we’re like, “I guess we got to keep doing this.” And basically, every project, luckily, we ended up getting along.
But it was totally an accident where just the world was reflecting back to us the fact that there was something special, even if we didn’t see it. And every step of the way, we’ve just been getting slightly bigger budgets, a little bit more ambitious. And the world has been reflecting back to us the fact that it’s working. And again, I think that’s the internet, just kind of the algorithm, something about our work just really poked through,
And why do you continue to work together, a decade later?
Kwan: He lives like a couple of blocks away. So that’s pretty convenient.
Scheinert: We still have differences that I think are our strengths. There have been times where I felt like we started to learn each other’s skills to the point where we didn’t need each other as much as we used to. And then life keeps kind of throwing us into a new phase where I still have a very different perspective. And oh now this interests me or I’m passionate about that. I can’t guarantee that it’ll last forever. But it continues to be a kind of surprising, fruitful collaboration that is better than when we do stuff by ourselves.
Kwan: Yeah, it’s one of those things where early on, because there’s just the two of us, the benefits of having two very different skill sets was really important because the crew would be us holding a camera. And so the fact that he comes from improv and theater, and is very much like a math brain who wants to think about efficiency, and is just always trying to shoot things as fast as possible for as cheap as possible. Versus my impulses. I love to be very delicate, and hold on to something and just roll it over in my hands, like, 100 times before it’s perfect. More of a perfectionist, coming from animation and design. But I never finished anything. I have ADHD, I realize now; I’ve learned that in this movie. I have ADHD and so I’m incredibly ambitious but I can’t do any of it. And so that synergy was really special early on that Scheinert alluded to.
Now that we have established our crews, we could potentially find rather than just one person to fill in that void, we could find a team. We could go do it or do our own stuff. But I still think that we would both be very competent directors on our own, and we are competent directors on our own, but we wouldn’t be able to be as ambitious and as just stupid in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of willful ignorance and naivety that comes with our collaboration, because we embolden each other to just be like, “Let’s do the thing that we’re not supposed to do. Let’s do that. Let’s chase after the thing that everyone else is saying is a bad idea. Because I think there’s something special there.” So yeah: there’s probably a lot of reasons why we’ll keep working together. And we’ll see when that magic kind of runs out. But for now, it’s still very intriguing to us. And we’re still chasing after new things.
Scheinert: And lucrative, bringing in the big bucks.
How do you guys attempt to maintain this balance between a professional and personal relationship?
Scheinert: Yeah I used to joke that… I watch movies about marriage, like married couples trying to navigate disagreements, and it reminds me of me and Dan more than my partner of 15 years. And I think it is work but when we work on how to communicate better, it makes us better directors, with everyone else. We’re learning these skills with each other that apply to every head of department and every producer and every even financier and I forget exactly what your question was.
Kwan: I think early on we were kids and we didn’t understand. We didn’t understand how movies work in general, let alone how a duo-directed movie worked. And so it was a lot of just discovering the edges of our relationship and where things went too far, or the types of fights that aren’t worth fighting over. And a lot of finding moments of humility, just because I think there’s definitely some distinct moments in our careers where we almost were like, “Is this even worth it?” When the tension was a little too much, the tension between our tastes and our skill sets and our priorities could sometimes feel like it was unhealthy. But every time we would have the time to reflect on it and realize how much this relationship is worth all that work, the extra work to resolve those things, or to reprioritize or to listen to each other. And I think we’re still learning how to do that. But I think early on Scheinert said, “I think when we stop listening to each other, that’s when we know it’s not going to work anymore.” Which is so simple, but I think it’s really hard. It’s very hard for directors to listen.
Scheinert: If it makes sense: to be able to take turns being an egomaniac and then being humble and collaborative.
Kwan: And so I think that’s why a lot of directors don’t end up being in a duo because it actually is kind of antithetical to what a director often thinks they are. They control division. They know what they need, or blah, blah, blah. And yeah: I can totally understand why most people don’t do this.
Scheinert: And it’s also why these directors get divorced and piss off all their collaborators and they work with one actor for years, and then they stop talking to them forever because bad habits get encouraged.
I read in an interview that you guys were talking about creating the barriers between characters and audience. How do you even attempt to find that balance between what the character is experiencing and what the audience is experiencing? And character knowledge vs. audience knowledge?
Scheinert: I think this movie, more than anything, became such a project for that specific question. And I don’t know—one screenwriting thing I realized after a few drafts of Swiss Army Man is that not telling the audience something and then eventually telling them is not particularly interesting storytelling.
Kwan: That’s the Vonnegut thing. Because some people think that’s all of storytelling—withholding—versus I think Vonnegut’s whole thing is making fun of that. It’s like why withhold anything. If you read his stuff he just spoils his endings constantly. It’s very fun.
Scheinert: Right. That’s the extreme version, but then the middle ground is if the audience and the character know interesting things or they’re chewing on an interesting question, you’re gonna lean forward and be so engaged. It’s very scary sometimes to be like, “I have this fun twist that I came up with, it’s going to happen an hour into the movie,” and then to be like, “But the first hour is gonna be way more interesting if the audience actually knew that.” And we just threw the twist out the window. And I think there was constant negotiation with this movie, trying to figure out how to make sure that it wasn’t just a clever exercise in multiverse logic.
We took this character of Evelyn who we discovered along the way, but that she was a person who’s going through relatable and interesting experiences. And this isn’t your question, but there’s so much exposition that you have to do in a sci-fi film. And it was so hard to figure out how. And why that’s boring to me. Some people, like my brother, love science fiction, he has a way higher tolerance than me. But we kind of discovered, that the best version of it is when the audience wants to know, you have to make them want to know, and then start telling them stuff. As opposed to just a long-ass prologue, or like, “Hey, there’s this cool thing coming up, and you’re not gonna enjoy it unless I explain this shit.” That’s tough. So we were constantly trying to be like, “Let’s confuse Evelyn. Let’s confuse the audience, let’s make them lean forward and want to know more, before we start telling them more.”
Kwan: What this question makes me think of is the fact that this movie made me realize I have ADHD. And it’s one of the reasons why I never thought of myself as a storyteller until maybe 10 years ago when I decided to go to film school for some reason. And it’s because with ADHD what you’re getting at is the imperfect form of communication that humans have. We can never fully understand each other. And we have to feed each other these very organized thoughts in the right order in order for the message to be fully communicated. And as someone with ADHD it’s one of the most frustrating parts of our existence.
I think my whole life, like the moment I want to share something with you, there’s 10 more thoughts that sprang out of it, and then the hypertext of all that starts to get jumbled in a way. I get so frustrated by the fact that I can’t literally just go like “Here, take it fully, understand me, fully understand this complex idea that I want you to know and every piece of structured scaffolding that I have built for you to even stand on to begin with.” One of the first times when I look back now in my life, and I have that moment where it’s like, “I have ADHD. This makes sense.” I remember one time a classmate turned to me and was like, “When you talk to me, it sounds like there’s 10 of you. And they’re all interrupting each other.” At the time, I didn’t have a word for it.
Scheinert: So you’ve gotten better.
Kwan: I’ve gotten better. Because I’m a filmmaker. The tension between the chaos of this movie and the way that we have to order it—and just the perfect way to communicate fully what we want the audience to experience—I never thought about in these terms, but that was 100% the battle of this movie. We did so many drafts, we did so many test screenings, just to make sure that everything was right, that the audience was receiving the information in the right order. Which is funny, because this movie is chaos. It shouldn’t work. This movie should be what my conversations feel like usually, which is just like blah, blah, blah! But we had years to put it in the right order.
What do you guys think about the idea of soulmates? About people that might come in and out of your life but make a lasting impact? And your ideas on how we love a soulmate, or just another person?
Scheinert: I’m gonna come out strong against soulmates. Although just the other day Ke Huy Quan’s wife was talking about how Dan and I are definitely soulmates. But I think that the idea that the world is just an impenetrably chaotic pinball machine scares a lot of people—understandably. And it’s comforting to be like, “God has a plan” But I do not resonate with that. And I think that there’s something actually beautiful about admitting the randomness, and it makes for happy accidents. Beautiful. And it has nothing to do with anything other than the happy accident and it’s up to you to appreciate it. And to be grateful for it, as opposed to looking at whether the stars were aligned in a certain way to decide if this is love. I think random love is beautiful. And calling it random doesn’t make me love less. It actually allows me to kind of genuinely love people and my life when I can call it a total fluke. There’s a choice.
Kwan: Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife, wrote this really lovely letter to Carl after he passed where she basically personifies chance. And see, she says “I’m so grateful to chance for giving us this opportunity to bump into each other.” And that makes it into the film—there’s a line that one of the characters says—and I think that it’s on the one hand progressive and regressive at the same time. It’s trying to bridge this gap that Scheinert just talked about, the gap between the random, cold truth of a deterministic universe versus faith and spirituality. To then project this idea of chance giving us an opportunity to bump into each other.
I think it’s really beautiful and strange and kind of taps into what this movie is doing, which is the movie’s trying to do both. It’s trying to be incredibly postmodern and cynical and deconstructive while also creating space to grow spirituality and faith and the acceptance that we will never know. We will never know everything out of the ashes of postmodernism. Soulmates is such a word that’s rooted in spirituality and believing in what you cannot see. But I like it when people try to ground these things back into the real world.
And Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, once wrote about soulmates at a time when I really needed to read it. And she says, [paraphrasing] “A soulmate is someone that you bump into that comes across your life and reveals something to you about yourself. They tear you apart, it’s a mirror that you can’t stare at, but you have to, like staring into the sun. They upend you and change you. And basically they’re the exact person you need to see in that moment. But to live with a soulmate, to be with a soulmate forever, that’s so stupid. Don’t try that. That’s not what you want, like soulmates are just the people who you’re meant to bump into,” which is kind of a little bit closer to what you’re saying. It’s not like someone that you are going to fall in love with in every single universe, but it is someone who you are going to bump into and they’re going to change you. And again, it’s just grounding this idea that has become a little too abstract. In the same way that I think love is so abstract and every generation has to come up with a new way to ground the idea of love back into something that we can all understand. That’s very practical.
And to answer your other question about what is love now? I think in Lady Bird they talk about this really beautiful thing about when she reads Lady Bird’s essay and they’re like, “It seems like you really love this town.” And she’s like, “I don’t love this town.” In fact she hates this town. She says, “ I just pay attention.” And the teacher’s like, “Well, what’s the difference?” And that really struck me, especially in an era where the attention economy has really taken over. And everything, every force, every incentive is pulling our attention away from ourselves and the people that we love. It does feel like the act of paying attention to someone is a truly monumental act of love. And I think, to me, it’s taking this very abstract idea of love that has meant very different things throughout history and just trying to reinterpret it and ground it back into what we need to be hearing right now. And I think that’s one version of what I needed to hear. To love someone you have to pay attention to them.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is now in theaters and returns to IMAX screens today, April 29.