The function--the true function--of art at any time, but particularly in dark times collective and personal, is, I think, to provide evidence of grace. However low, however diminished, however stricken we may find ourselves, here are these artifacts of others who went before us into the breach to retrieve...I don't know: signposts? Breadcrumbs in the wild, overgrown wood; strings in the labyrinth; a way out or a way in. I don't know. Everything Everywhere All At Once returned fragments of myself to me that I had not been aware were missing. It is one of the most meaningful films of my life, appearing at a stage of my experience and movie-obsessed existence where I thought it was no longer possible to feel that way about a movie again. It reminded me of why I, more than love, why I need art to fill the spaces in me.
I was honoured to speak over Zoom with "The Daniels," Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the writing-directing pair behind Everything Everywhere All at Once and the previous Swiss Army Man. I started by asking them to talk about interconnectedness, causality, and finding meaning amidst the yawning meaninglessness of existence.
DANIEL KWAN: I think both of our films are a reaction to the fact that I was raised very religious for the first twenty-something years of my life. I, you know, I--at one point, I thought maybe I would even become a pastor because I just... I loved narrative and I loved story. I loved summer camp. I love summer camp. I love the process of creating communities, probably because of my being raised in the church. Our two films are a reaction to my loss of faith and the kind of mindfuck that comes with the rug-pull of no longer knowing what you believe in anymore and no longer having a moral centre. You know, in Christian ideology there's this really funny debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, which is basically about predestination versus free will and where God fits in all of that. And so, I think my brain has always just been tied to ideas of causality and the small ripple effects that everything can have. Those are the kinds of things that I was talking about in Sunday school growing up.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: One of the things that's so insidious about organized religion is that it purports to have the corner on morality, faith, and grace--that without it, those things are impossible or false. It's absolutely evil. It does harm.
DK: In my own life, I can point to like three or four very specific moments where if things had gone a different way, I wouldn't be where I am right now. I feel so lucky. Growing up. I thought I was going to be an absolute failure at everything. I was not good at anything. Everything I did, I failed or I gave up on, or I just, you know, was frustratingly one of the worst ones. I was like the third trumpet chair. I dropped out of Boy Scouts. I couldn't even do photography. My punk band was awful.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: You know, the other side of the coin is he's very hard on himself.
DK: I think often about what would have happened if I had never met [Scheinert]. It's things like that where I feel like I'm the luckiest human being in the world because I have been stretched to both extremes: the best possible experience, which is the one I'm living right now, and the worst possible experience, which is a reality that I lived with for a very long time. It's all there in our work: just how much I am dependent on the chaos and the people around me.
In making this very personal expression of faith, though, you've spoken, intimately, to a broad diversity of people and experiences.
DS: Oh, man. I could talk about that for a very long time. We tried to include as much of ourselves and our crew members as possible into this film. All the different people saying this was for them in different ways is astounding.
DK: I knew obviously Asian-Americans and, and children of immigrants would see themselves in here, but... You know, this film helped me discover that I have ADHD as an adult? The ADHD community has been talking about the film, even though it's never explicitly said that any of the characters struggle with undiagnosed ADHD, but they see it there because that's I guess how I see the world, and...it's been really cool. One person with ADHD literally said, "I've never understood what it meant when people said, I feel seen by a movie and now I finally feel seen." All these cross-sections of humanity. Even if it's a small slice, they're seeing themselves in a movie, and I'm so thankful.
DS: And then for loved ones who want to understand, here's something your friends and family can point to as...
DS: Yes. I read this incredible review from a middle-aged woman who basically saw this film as a menopause movie. She said, "Oh, this film is the perfect metaphor for what I'm going through right now, as I'm going through menopause." And, and I was like, that is so far from what I imagined this movie would be. But what a gift that they're seeing themselves in this film. You know, white dudes reach out to me because for them this is a story about marriage, relationships, and communication in a long-term relationship. This was really our foolish attempt to basically bring everyone into one story just to see if it was possible, and obviously we didn't even get close to that--you know, who could--but it seems like enough people felt included in this movie that... I'm just so thankful.
Tell me about the power of film as a storytelling device. I'm thinking of the scene in Swiss Army Man where Paul Dano's character says "If you don't know Jurassic Park, you don't know anything."
DK: I think we've watched too many movies and are kind of numb sometimes to the point the filmmakers are trying to make if they're trying to make one. We try to make things that would shake us out of that stupor, so that even if what we're saying is something that maybe people have been saying a lot, because the vehicle for that message is so familiar...it gets lost.
DS: In order to get past people's defenses, we must first get past our own defenses. We need to first make ourselves emotional or to laugh or to learn something or grow.
DK: It's so humbling and kind of scary to watch it affect people's lives. You realize it's a powerful weapon--film, storytelling. It can be used for good and for bad. You can accidentally hurt people, but you can also end up helping folks process things by creating an emotional beginning, middle, end experience so they can begin to work through stuff.
Your film helped me to forgive my mother for some things--at least in my heart.
DK: Thank you for sharing that. I love that. This film was instrumental for me on that journey, forgiving my parents. I'm blown away.
It does it through helping me to understand my parents' story as a love story. I never knew that.
DK: I felt in some ways I failed at one of our goals. I grew up and I didn't understand my parents' relationship. I don't understand why they stayed together. I don't understand. I didn't understand how they met each other or loved each other, or if there was ever love, you know? I set out at first to try to figure this out: I'm going to write this movie to figure that out. A lot of things kind of sidetracked that main goal and it moved in all sorts of other directions. I remember talking to another Asian-American director, I had lunch with him once, and I remember saying that to him early on, just kind of just putting it out into the world, that this is what I wanted to do and hoping that it would manifest. And he said, that sounds amazing. Like, go do that. Then, you know, after I finished the movie, that kind of gets lost a little bit. It's still there, but there's so much other stuff happening. But the fact that you were able to see that and then put that onto your own parents is... It's incredible.
It's not lost. It's the emotional centre of the film. It's a love story. It does exactly what you wanted it to do. Film has always, when I needed it to, saved my life--it was there when I didn't speak English, when I had a bad stutter and couldn't communicate: there were movies. And this one gave part of my life back to me.
DK: I had one really bad year in college where I decided I didn't want to go to film school because I was too afraid of, you know, the risk. I knew how impossible it was to be a filmmaker on top of the fact that... At one point when I was growing up, my mom even said if you want to go into the film industry or be an actor or anything, you have to learn Chinese and then move to Taiwan, because they're not going to hire you here. I internalized that. And so I decided not to go to film school. I went to business school. I was miserable and I was so, so isolated and, um, I turned to movies. I watched a lot of movies that year and it just became this very profound tug to be a part of creating that. I was like, I want--I need to be on that list of names scrolling in those credits. In a lot of ways, watching movies did save my life, because it pushed me out of a trajectory in which I could have just been miserable. Who knows where I would've ended up if I hadn't decided to take that leap of faith and say, you know what, I'm going to, um, I'd rather risk everything than have to live whatever this life is.
DS: We talk about our favourite movies, our favourite art in general, are often movies that we don't like the first time we watched them. Stuff that makes you uncomfortable, and you leave it and can't quite... You're not comforted by a super wrapped-up ending or that you just don't get it. My favourite things show how you grow as a person, how when you meet the movie again a while later, you're like, wait, now I love it? And more than love it, I'm happy with how I grew as a person in order to meet this movie again at this point. How it maybe actually stretched me in a direction I'm really happy about. So many formative movies... But then movies can just be bad. They can be powerful in the opposite direction, you know, and reinforce the worst, the laziest things, the status quo, and do the opposite of stretching. You watch them, and I see you shrink as a person. We're constantly trying to ask ourselves, which kind are we making? The kind that makes you comfortable or the kind that makes you grow?
"Let people kiss who they like to kiss. But yeah, I can understand why you'd be upset about meaninglessness."
It reminds me of a weird thing I read about dolphins once, about how the reason dolphins haven't evolved thumbs and computers and stuff is because the environment that they grew up in wasn't uncomfortable enough. Comfort doesn't make you evolve. Talk to me about discomfort, and how your films speak to the difficulty of communication.
DK: This is something I've been frustrated with since I was in middle school: the imperfect form in which these bodies exist and the imperfect way that we try to communicate with each other. It started when I was in sixth grade, a friend decided to do a science project for the science fair and he was like, do you think the colour green I see is the same colour green that you see? And as a sixth-grader, "What the fuck? Why would you ask that question?" First of all, it's a terrible idea for a science project, because there's no way you can test that, but he did it anyway. I don't know why the teachers didn't stop him, but he just, he tried to do it, and there was no way to create an experiment for it. And so he got a bad grade.
DK: (laughs) All the wrong lessons were learned there. The word for it is "qualia," right? This idea that we all have a very subjective experience with reality and we may never actually get to fully intersect with others. I think about this a lot. You said you had a stutter growing up. I've never been great at talking. I mumble, I speak really fast. I have ADHD. I remember a classmate once told me, it sounds like when you talk, you have another person coming in to interrupt yourself, mid-sentence, and you keep doing that. I've always been really haunted by the fact that I don't know how to communicate. I think a lot of that is probably in the film, in the work that we do. And it's funny that you identify communication as a theme in our work, because one of the projects we're working on now is going to specifically be about the imperfection of the communication that we have and how we can never experience true, perfect communication. It's what every human wants, right? To be fully seen and to fully see each other. It's a deep, innate desire. And yet we're stuck with our hands and our faces and our mouths, which are so easy to misinterpret.
DS: It was very early on the idea of the multiverse resonated with us because it felt similar to the fragmentation of modern life. We started writing this in 2016. When we started, we're all talking about everyone's information bubbles and suddenly realizing how much Facebook had broken the brains of some people and Reddit had broken the brains of some other people and Fox News had broken the brains of still other people. We're literally talking different languages when we go home for the holidays. When we stumbled upon the idea that it had to be a Chinese-American family, it became interesting in even more ways: how this family would literally speak different languages felt so interesting specifically.
DK: While maintaining a focus on a family dynamic that's, like, pretty relatable. Even the language your grandpa speaks is Fox News. It's not Cantonese, you know? My father's family came from Hong Kong. My mother's family came from Taiwan. So we had Cantonese on one side, Mandarin on the other, and I was terrible at both. That communication thing again. I could speak Mandarin enough that I could understand some of my grandparents on my mother's side, but, like, I knew almost no Cantonese, so my mom would have to translate for me, but even my mom's Cantonese isn't that great. So the whole experience of understanding your family and knowing your family was so frustrating.
The attempt to privilege art by ranking it according to its ability to communicate the Sublime has its roots, I think, in this frustration. Your film gets at something inarticulable. Your stuff reminds me a lot of Charlie Kaufman and Satoshi Kon.
DS: Man, you putting our movie alongside those two people is insanely high praise. I was thinking, you know, how on the one hand art that has multiple interpretations is beautiful, and that's what can be so exciting about music, poetry, and film. But on the other hand, it's this dangerous tool, and if you're not careful, you can actually make the world a worse place. There's this balance of making sure you have something to say, but you don't scream it so confidently that it's no longer art, it's just propaganda. I think we're constantly trying to find that balance of making sure there's room for interpretation--but it's also, we're trying to fight the misinterpretations that, you know, would make, would keep us up at night.
DK: I think what those filmmakers do, the reason why people have latched onto their work, is because both of them are responses to postmodernism, which, you know, postmodernism is like the opposite of the Sublime. A lot of it's like, let's deconstruct, let's label, pull it apart. Let's remove ourselves from it emotionally and destroy this thing because we want to understand it. But what Satoshi Kon and Charlie Kaufman both do in their different ways is they try to rebuild something sublime out of that mess left over after postmodernism has destroyed the house. These artists are working in an almost meta-modernist space trying to recreate the experience of Romanticism, the hunt for the Sublime through art and meaning in a world that has killed God. I think that's what we're trying to do with this film is to destroy, to just kind of smash through all the cynical, deconstructive thought processes that we've kind of built up around ourselves like a wall shielding ourselves from feeling. But we're shielding ourselves from experiencing art, because we're just trying to pick it apart, understand it, label it before we even have a chance to let it move through you. This movie was very engineered to scramble all those wires, all the intellectual pieces of language you might have to describe a movie are thrown out the window, so early on you have no other choice but to feel and to experience.
DK: Exactly. I love, I love this... I think everyone's read about the tyranny of language and how language is so powerful that it's actually disempowering because it's taking away something so important. It's a barrier barring us from experience, because instead of experiencing we're using language to control.
DS: It reminds me of the infuriating paradox of screenwriting, where you're trying to sum up your movie, but a screenplay that's fun to read a lot of times I think makes for a bad movie. Because it's like, well, now you wrote a book. It doesn't need music and imagery and actors, it just works on the page. And, and then, but you're trying to sell the thing and you're trying to get notes and you're trying to hammer away at this thing and capture it. But at the end of the day, it's a visual medium and an auditory medium, not just English words one after another. You're really hoping that the right reader will be able to fully understand what you're trying to do, allow it to grow and be fully realized in their own heads.
Another comparison to Kon and Kaufman for me in your work is this real humility. Where does that come from? Is it self-loathing?
DS: There's a talk Charlie Kaufman got invited to do somewhere--the BFI? It's Charlie Kaufman at his bleakest and also most hopeful where he says this thing and it's a quote that rings out in my head all the time. It's goes something like, "Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, people are trying to sell you something." He says it was like real weariness and so much disdain. I'm, like, oh, that's the worst. That's the last thing I want to be as a filmmaker is constantly just trying to sell you something. He says that you are all you have to offer the world. And all I have to offer is me and, and to share what truly, truly, truly makes me unlovable. He says that, and as he talks I want to say, "Oh God, but you are lovable." But also I feel like I understand what he's getting at, which is you're trapped. We're each trapped in our own heads, and all we really have to offer is this extremely unimportant, shitty little perspective we're stuck in. And yet something about sharing even just that is profound and worth doing.
DK: I'm in a much better place now than I have been in a long time. I've been going to therapy for a few years and I'm in a very good, stable, and safe relationship with my partner. I'm just, like, in such a better place, but at my core, for most of my life there, there was this deep pit of, of self-hatred and self-loathing I couldn't escape. And I see you relate to that and... And I'm sorry, man. In a weird way, the act of trying to make a farting corpse become this beautiful, lovable human being was me trying to convince myself that if I could make a farting corpse have meaning, then maybe I can make my own life have meaning. This is a very real, very weird semiotic game that we're playing where we're trying to find things that don't deserve meaning, at least in the eyes of society, and saying, but why not? Don't these things deserve meaning, too? And, and saying not only why not, but I'm going to show you. I'm going to prove it to you. Maybe we can find ways for it to be beautiful, find ways for hot-dog hands to be romantic, for rocks to be transcendent. I think because in the end that's what we are, you know, in the grand scheme of things, we're just specks of dust.
But if we, if these specks of dust can prove to at least ourselves that there is something wonderful about existing, how beautiful, how beautiful would that be? If we could prove that to ourselves and then, in turn, prove that to the world.
DK: Everything. I think on the individual level, a lot of self-loathing has fuelled this work, like Charlie Kaufman's, but also on a cosmic level the fact that every new scientific discovery that decentres humanity from its own narrative is pretty unsettling. I think it's up to the philosophers and the poets and the storytellers to keep finding ways to turn that fear and trembling into a story that isn't a crushing, you know... That won't just make us all throw our hands up and give up.
My favourite Jack Kerouac quote is "Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you're already in Heaven now." I think your work speaks to this.
DS: I was thinking about this earlier when we were talking about how (gestures towards Kwan) you being untethered, losing your faith and stuff, how we wanted to provoke the audience and, like, putting things in there that our parents, you know, object to and say, "Why do [you] have to make it so upsetting?" Well, we had this funny experience where we knew it was a kind of provocative movie and that might be an issue because there'd also be like an international audience for, you know--Michelle's a star around the globe... So we've been having this conversation about censorship with distributing the movie, and we knew that the gay story was going to be tough, but also gonna be really hard to cut out by design. That kind of excites me and it's like, it's just there, deal with it. But then the sex toys is like, all right, even if you blur them out, the movie's intact. But we had one territory cut out the rocks. And I was like, what? And we were both like, "But, but..."
DK: We were horrified. This movie is garbage without the rocks.
DS: Why on earth would you cut the rocks? They're the sweetest. And the answer, it turns out, is that it's a pretty religious country. And that the way those rocks explicitly talk about meaninglessness is like, essentially, they're talking about there being no God, you know, and their censorship board was like, "We can't put this out, not with the rocks." It's not even the taboo stuff that scared them. It kind of makes sense to me, because in a way that censorship board noticed what we were actually making a movie about, which is staring into infinity and feeling like there's no religious texts that I can turn to, to explain the Nothing that is there, that's going to answer these questions. That's just been on my mind lately to be like, oh fuck, I'm mad at them, but they're not wrong, either. I was not expecting there to be an explanation for it that involved nihilism. I was expecting that someone's just stupid, but of course there being no God is a lot scarier than these girls being gay.
DK: Let people kiss who they like to kiss. But yeah, I can understand why you'd be upset about meaninglessness.
Except your films are not talking about meaninglessness. They're the opposite of that.
DK: Oh, gosh. We were just, I know we don't have much time, but yeah, we were talking about how this new phase of humanity, whatever you want to call this, this post-globalization, post-physical, um--we need a new language to express it, a new set of rules or a new set of morality to centre us again. 'Cause I don't think whatever we've been using is working right now. So it's very interesting to hear you say that. Or, like, I think we grab onto pieces of culture as our religious texts, you know? That, that they're like, oh, this speaks to this moment.
Eliot's "The Wasteland" has the poet refer to all the old poems he's mined for his work as "fragments" he "shores against his ruins."
DS: Yes, that's it. It's so helpful sometimes to be like, ah, thank God that person wrote that for me, because I was not, you know... I needed some insight just now. I needed a way through this dark place, some advice well-meant from a trusted source. If this can be that for some people, what more could you hope?