Toward the end of filming Swiss Army Man, it was time to tackle one of the movie’s most difficult shots. It involved a bear, fire, and numerous stuntpeople, and, co-director and co-writer Daniel Kwan tells mental_floss, “it was day three or four of our overnight shoot, so we were kind of already losing our minds.”
“Losing our minds,” echoes the film’s other director and writer, Daniel Scheinert.
“We could never shoot the bear while the actors were on set,” Kwan continues. “We had to shoot [the scene] in pieces. It was really tough, but … pretty much everything was really difficult to shoot. It was all hard.”
The duo, who go by the name Daniels, met at Boston's Emerson College in 2008 and started making videos together shortly thereafter—first, short films (in one, posted to Vimeo in 2009, they face-swapped half a decade before it was cool), then bizarre-but-delightful music videos (DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What” and Chromeo’s “When the Night Falls,” among others). Swiss Army Man, out nationwide today, is their first feature. In the opening scene, Hank (Paul Dano) rides a flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) like a jet ski off a deserted island. And things only get weirder—and more wonderful—from there.
“The film is one big narrative experiment, I guess,” Kwan says. That experiment, according to Scheinert, was, “how can you make an accessible movie with this as a premise? Can we make someone cry with a fart? And can we make our moms like it, even though it’s about boners? That was our goal.”
Swiss Army Man began not as a feature, but as a short film. Kwan and Scheinert would often pitch each other “stupid ideas,” Scheinert says, and the one that would eventually become Swiss Army Man was Kwan’s: A man, stranded on a deserted island, finds a dead body. He feeds it beans, then rides the fart-powered corpse off the island with tears in his eyes while a gorgeous score swells in the background.
Scheinert was immediately on board, despite Kwan’s protests. “Literally, there’s no point to it,” he told Scheinert. “It is a meaningless little story.” But Scheinert would not be dissuaded. “What are you talking about? It’s beautiful,” he responded. “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever pitched to me. We have to make it.”
But the concept was too expensive for a short, so they shelved the idea—until a couple of years later, when it resurfaced. As they were fleshing the story out, trying to figure out how to make it work, “20 of our old ideas suddenly squished together,” Scheinert says. “What if the corpse is coming back to life, and [the live guy] has to explain to the corpse why they need to get home in order to get the corpse’s help? [And he’s] reenacting memories and trying to, in the middle of the forest, explain life to a super-powered corpse while surviving?” Their Swiss Army Man would be not just a companion, but a jet ski (Kwan’s idea became the movie’s opening scene), a canteen (recalling imagery from Daniels’ 2011 short, My Best Friend’s Sweating), a compass (via an erection—an effect you might recognize from the “Turn Down for What” video), an axe, a shotgun, and other equally weird and awesome things.
Many people who heard the premise, Kwan says, said it sounded perfect for a short film. But the duo knew it could only work as a feature. “The thing that made us realize this was probably going to be our first feature is when we just had too many ideas for it,” Kwan says. “And we were like, ‘OK.’”
“At least,” Scheinert reasoned, “we won’t get bored.”
What does a script look like
when one character can’t emote or move on his own, and must often move in tandem with the other main character? The Daniels knew exactly what they wanted, but it wasn’t easy to explain. “We’d have to put in kind of weird paragraphs in the middle of the script that’d be like, ‘Just so you know, his lips aren’t moving here or they are moving here, or he’s on vines,’” Scheinert says. “‘We say walk, but he never walks.’ ‘We say that we’re in a bus, but it’s not a bus. We never go to the bus.’ We had to be really explicit.”
They also put together what Kwan calls “a huge image … treatment board kind of thing” that they would eventually weave into the script, with pictures every few pages and suggested music to listen to. “On paper, logically, these ideas are so ridiculous and not something you would ever waste your time on,” he says. “To get the tone, the idea, and what we were going for, we had to infuse it with music and imagery so people could feel the contradiction and the beauty of those contradictions. It was a multimedia experience in order to get people in the right headspace, because on paper it’s insane.”
Because of the content of the script, Daniels didn’t just send it out to anyone. “We were very slow to ask anybody to be involved,” Scheinert says. According to Kwan, “We had to be careful, because this script could turn a lot of people off. So we had to pick our people wisely.”
But that worry was largely for nothing: Dano and Radcliffe were the first guys they asked to be in Swiss Army Man, and casting them, Scheinert says, was the easiest thing about making the film: “All we had to do was ask, and they said yes. And we were like, ‘Holy s***.’”
According to Kwan, Dano had seen their stuff just a week before they sent him the script. “He emailed his manager and was like, ‘I want to know what these guys are up to,’” he says. “The next week, we just happened to send him the script because we had already been talking about sending it to him. It just kind of aligned in a way.”
Dano tells mental_floss that when he read the script, he immediately started telling his friends about it, “Being like, ‘there’s this thing that’s like, dead bodies, and all these farts ...’ I thought it was brilliant. I was pumped.”
Radcliffe was not as familiar with Daniels and their work as Dano was, but he loved the script. “It’s just exciting to read something that’s so original,” he tells mental_floss. “You go, ‘Great, there are still people out there who are into making crazy movies.’ But also, it’s craziness with such intellect and heart, as well. I was just excited.” After he accepted the role, the Daniels took a cast of Radcliffe's face to make a dummy in his likeness. They also made a cast of his butt. (Scheinert recalled in a featurette that when they asked, Radcliffe told them, “If I don't let you do my butt, I have no idea who you're going to use. So I want you to do my butt.”)
With their main actors cast, Daniels retooled the script. “We didn’t write it for them, but we rewrote it for them,” Scheinert says. “They evolved into our dream duo.” Manny, for example, went from a sarcastic corpse to “a wide-eyed sweetheart, because that’s what Daniel Radcliffe is like,” Scheinert says. “And we were like, ‘If we put this sweet boy at the middle of our movie, less people will walk out.’”
Dano notes that “the physical arc [Daniel] created for this character was pretty impressive,” and, according to Radcliffe, he had lots of help from the Daniels, who, on set, often demonstrated how they wanted things to look themselves.
“It was a lot of fun,” Radcliffe says of creating the corpse’s movement, which starts out stiff and gets less so as the film goes on. “I got a huge amount of help there from the Daniels. They knew exactly what they wanted out of Manny at every stage. [For example], if I was ever talking slightly too well they’d come in and say ‘Hey, can you take the edge off? You sound a little too articulate.’ When you know that the directors know exactly what they want it really frees you up to try stuff, because you know that if you’re ever doing too much or too little, they’ll pull you in the correct direction.”
The cast and crew shot Swiss Army Man
over the course of five weeks. They were on a tight budget and schedule with many, many constraints—all things that are rough on a regular indie. But Swiss Army Man includes musical numbers, elaborate props built from things found in the woods, scenes involving small woodland creatures and a Daniel Radcliffe dummy, and highly physical action sequences. “We were just stretching every dollar as far as it could go, and calling in as many favors as possible,” Kwan says. No wonder they were exhausted when it came time to shoot the scene with the bear.
There were times, throughout the process, when being a directing team came in handy. Early in their careers, there was a sharp delineation between their duties—a former improv guy, Scheinert would talk to the actors, while Kwan handled things like story structure and special effects—but over time, they’ve learned a lot from each other and these days perform all duties interchangeably. “We also take turns pushing each other to make sure we aren’t settling,” Kwan says. “Every step of the way there’s something that can make you stop and go, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this.’ And I think having someone to tag team with—who says, ‘No, this part is really important and I will fight you for it’—is really important, because [you can] step back and let that person [take over].”
Despite their constraints, the directors still changed things constantly on set, according to Scheinert, which made things both more fun and more challenging. “I think a lot of our most successful projects were ones that we didn’t get bored of,” he says. Kwan agrees: “We kind of set ourselves up with a long runway with a lot of hurdles, knowing that that will help the process. So this film probably had more hurdles than we should’ve had.”
The duo was problem-solving during pre-production, production, and through the edit, according to Scheinert. “In post-production we’d be like, ‘Oh, we finally cracked it!’” he says. “And then, we’d screen it, test it on a couple of folks, and realize, ‘Oh, we just jumped one hurdle and found a new one.’”
Aside from hoping to make audiences cry with a fart (and gaining their moms’ approval), Daniels had another goal in mind for Swiss Army Man. “We wrote and shot it trying to make it worthy of the theater,” Scheinert says. “We’re not going to compromise on the aesthetics. The effects are going to look good. It made it harder, but I think we kind of pulled it off.”
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Daniel Scheinert, Daniel Swan, Daniel Radcliffe, and Paul Dano at the Sundance Premiere of Swiss Army Man. Photo courtesy Getty Images.
Immediately after Swiss Army Man premiered
at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film took on a particular label. But now, as their movie goes into wide release, Scheinert and Kwan say that it does not weird them out, or even disappoint them, that Swiss Army Man is known as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie.”
“We can tell [when] an idea has a sound-bitable description, and it’s always good,” Scheinert says. “It’s so valuable because it creates a shorthand, and people will talk.”
And they heard some of that talk at Sundance. “Two people [were] walking down the street, and one of them goes, ‘Oh, have you heard about that farting boner Daniel Radcliffe movie? It’s actually good,’” Kwan says. “I love contradictions, because they force people to look at the world in a different way. So it’s exciting if people hear that that’s the label, but [the film is] worth their time and it’s something beautiful. That’s a really great anomaly, I think, that we’ve pushed out into the world.”