The Sundance sensation Swiss Army Man essentially wonders what Cast Away would have been like if Wilson weren’t a volleyball but a corpse named Manny (played by Daniel Radcliffe) whose bodily functions like farting and boners helped our stranded protagonist Hank find his way home (the farts propel Manny over ocean like a jet ski, and his boner works as a compass). What flourishes is what one of the movie’s directors, Daniel Scheinert, deems a “gray love story.” Swiss Army Man is, in a word, insane.
“We wanted to take something so lowbrow and just smash it with something potentially beautiful and transcendent,” Dan Kwan told me earlier this week. Kwan wrote and directed Swiss Army Man with his full-time collaborator Scheinert (collectively they are DANIELS and have directed a dozen music videos, including 2014's similarly boner-heavy “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon). We talked about the deeper philosophy of a movie that at first blush seems to be written by seventh graders, quirkiness, and how Kwan remains poop-shy even after directing a movie that questions the social taboos we effectively impose on ourselves. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Gawker: How do you feel about your movie being referred to as “the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie” almost invariably on first reference in the press?
Scheinert: It was kind of unnerving at first, but pretty fun now. I feel like it would be upsetting if that’s all it was, like, “Oh no, the cat’s out of the bag! Everybody knows that he’s in it and that he farts.” But that spoils the first, like, minute and not the subsequent 93 minutes.
Kwan: To us, the joke wasn’t making a movie with Daniel Radcliffe farting. The joke was people going into the movie knowing that Daniel Radcliffe would fart a lot and he’d be dead, but then possibly be moved by it. To us that’s the biggest prank you could pull, to trick people into this complacency, into believing what they’re about to watch is going to be incredibly stupid and incredibly immature—which it is—but then to also have that be something that resonates with you. That’s pretty exciting.
I feel like the boners are getting the short shrift, though.
Kwan: People aren’t talking about it as much in the press. We were doing an interview with the New York Times and it was in the initial transcript, but I think the editor cut it out. People are a little more sensitive about it.
Scheinert: It’s an interesting thing—the word “boner” is right on that line of censorship. It’s not a dirty word, but it’s a dirty concept. When we made “Turn Down for What,” the record label was like, “Oh, you’re gonna have to do a clean version of this music video that we can put on MTV.” But then we never did because they found out it was just under the cusp: “Actually, I guess this is the clean version...”
Farting has become a lot more socially acceptable in public discourse. You didn’t see much mention of it in the ‘80s or even ‘90s on TV and movies. It feels like your movie is the culmination of our progress.
Kwan: It’s the cheapest trick, the easiest thing, the lowest common denominator. If you respect your work, you avoid them at all costs. But I think that’s kind of why we decided to focus all of our energy towards that. Just to see if we could prove that wrong.
Kwan: This film is a collection of impossible pieces that we tried to stick together. The entire premise is built upon its contrivances. We wanted to take something so lowbrow and just smash it with something potentially beautiful and transcendent. I think for some people, the two extremes being smashed together was a little too much and it could definitely feel contrived in a bad way. But even people who love this film will say that part of what makes it amazing is its contrivances. There’s a meta-narrative to it...
Scheinert: It’s hard to forget that Daniel Radcliffe is a farting corpse in it.
Kwan: The whole time you’re watching it, you’re thinking, “Who made this? Why did they make this? What is the purpose of this?” That’s kind of what you don’t want in most narratives, but there is a self-aware thing that happens when you’re watching that makes you realize these are strange pieces that are thrown together by some unknown force and it’s making me feel things I normally don’t feel and I don’t know why.
Scheinert: That’s at least our hope. I guess what we tried to do with our movie was make it intensely, self-consciously quirky. The main character is intensely aware of farts being gross and this being crazy. We at least wanted to make sure that you didn’t watch the movie and be like, “Some weird filmmaker was just slapping you in the face.” We know what we did. You know?
A lot of reviews have hypothesized that you don’t care about box office. Do you?
Scheinert: So much! One of my dreams with the movie is to demonstrate that you can make a weird movie that’s not financially stupid. We intentionally didn’t spend too much money...
Kwan: It’s a really small movie. I read a Cohen Brothers interview [in which they said] that the reason they’ve been able to make movies for so long is they figure you can make any movie as long as you make it for a low enough price. As long as you break even every time, someone out there will give you another chance. We learned from music videos how much we can do with how little. We became very resourceful and so this film was us and our crew just kind of pushing our resources to the limit—finding a way to make it look and feel like any other movie that could be coming out right now.
Whenever conversations with filmmakers enter this realm, I never ask about budgets. It just seems impolite. But your movie is about tearing down taboos and really going there. So what was the budget on this movie?
Scheinert: We’ll tell you in a month.
Kwan: Probably in the middle of the spectrum of Sundance movies. Some of those are $100,000, some are $10 million. Somewhere in the middle...
Scheinert: What we can say about the budget is that everybody was in it for the right reasons. We were lucky. Nobody got paid much. All the money went onscreen. Our crew was the same crew for our music videos. Even Paul and Daniel came on creatively, not financially. They weren’t like, “I’m gonna cash in and do Swiss Army Man!” Everybody from the top down was like, “Put this out into the world.” That was the priority.
The movie’s idea that we have these taboos for no good reason and accept them thoughtlessly—have you found that reflected back in your life? Have you taken that specific principle and...I mean, do you fart openly now?
Scheinert: The moral of the story to us isn’t that there shouldn’t be any taboos, but that they’re dangerous and whatever drives people to be ashamed of themselves is a bummer. You have to be careful with those things and there’s a ton of personal connection in that for each of us. Dan’s poop-shy.
Kwan: I’m incredibly poop-shy. Back in the day, when we were first hanging out, we’d share hotels when we were traveling anywhere. I would always make him turn on the music.
Scheinert: “Turn on the music, I have to go to the bathroom.”
Kwan: All this stuff is a silly, strange, bizarre metaphor for anything that you have to suppress for a reason that doesn’t make sense anymore. I feel like a lot of taboos exist for a reason, and it’s good that we have rules and social constructs to contain human nature in some way. But as time goes on, we learn to deal with them in certain ways, and we’re left with these relics, these rules that no longer should apply. We don’t reexamine them. This film, both narratively and in its construction, is hopefully a way for people to see that reexamining these things that keep us unhappy.
Scheinert: The reason we chose body humor is because the human body is a pretty universal canvas to tell a story with. We chose it because it’s universal, not because we specifically had a story to tell about farts.
Kwan: It’s one of the first things you learn to be ashamed of, your own body. When you first become self-aware, you don’t celebrate yourself. That’s not how we exist for some reason. This felt like a really fun and stupid, but also philosophically engaging way to explore that stuff. But yes, I still have trouble farting in public. It’s an ongoing process.
Keep working on it. I know that to say that there’s a legitimate romance between Dano and Radcliffe’s characters would be overstating it, but there is that element in there and so much theory about the gay psyche is rooted in shame. I thought it was interesting that you got there because I can’t imagine that as straight guys, you have much knowledge of or investment in the existential state of gay people.
Kwan: Growing up all we had was the binary, and we definitely feel like even though we’re straight men, growing up we did not belong on the ends of the spectrum. Even for us, even if we aren’t gay, gender-wise we more lean toward the female. We were not cool jocks. We were the weirdo kids that people thought were gay.
Scheinert: I was the jock who did theater.
Kwan: So you were somewhere between. I was the kid in the emo band with earrings. I was wearing girl jeans before everyone. Everyone just knew in their heads that I was gay.
Scheinert: There was a point where we got really excited, like, what’s the most unconventional love story, and there were times when we were like, “Maybe it does become a gay love story...” But what became most interesting to us was for it to be a gray love story. What if it lands right where you can’t define it? Let’s just let it sit there. That rang true to us because then everybody could have a thought-provoking experience with it.
Kwan: The fact that there’s a little bit of shame in that, that there’s no label...if you were to label it, it’s a gay necrophiliac love story, which is kind of insane.
Scheinert: I’ve had interesting conversations with friends who saw it, and they talked about how much they like the gray area between friend and lover. They’re not lovers. They’re just really close...
Kwan: They’re just humans who need love.
Swiss Army Man is in select theaters Friday.