Finally, a farting corpse movie with something to say

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Swiss Army Man
Opens July 15

Imagine you’re marooned on a desert island about to kill yourself and a dead body washes ashore. The cadaver is in fairly good shape and becomes a good companion, outside of a bad case of chronic flatulence.

As the days go by, you discover the body is good for other things: it’s a compass, a cannon and a source of fresh water all in one. Heck, it may just get you out of this forsaken place.

The only thing more unlikely than the plot of Swiss Army Man is the fact the movie got made at all. The film attracted top tier talent — Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe and Mary Elizabeth Winstead —  and, unlike most too-quirky-for-mainstream Sundance hits, it’s receiving wide distribution. Distribution, we are told, that includes Saskatchewan. Don’t yell at us if it doesn’t show up on time.

While the pic has become known for its farting dead body gimmick (some gimmick!), Swiss Army Man has more to do with loneliness, depression and the unlikely people who can bring you back from the brink. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (who work under the moniker of “Daniels”) have stated Swiss Army Man is also about how shame can get in the way of love and personal realization.

I had the chance to talk with Scheinert and Kwan a couple of weeks ago. Earnest and keen, they seem to still be assimilating their movie’s success, and the fact that an innocent comment about liking White Chicks could become Internet fodder (they are not remaking it, FYI). They see their film as a social experiment that requires to be seen in the company of others.

Through the film, you refuse to distinguish what’s reality and what’s just happening in Hank’s head (Paul Dano’s character). Why did you opt for this approach?

Kwan: In earlier drafts we tried to clarify what was going on but it killed the magic and subtracted energy from the relationship between the leads.

Scheinert: We realized the main goal was emotional clarity, not geographic or logistical. Often we would try to make sense of something in the movie, take a step back, and realize the solution was boring and the scene is worse because of it. The end result is a movie that stirs a bunch of feelings and you have to talk about it in the lobby.

Kwan: You decide what you want to believe. It’s like a Rorschach test — your reaction to it tells you about yourself and your view of the world.

Does it bother you when your film is reduced to a farting corpse movie?

Scheinert: A little, but for all the reductive press there have been many enthusiastic journalists who put the three-dimensional argument out there. As long as people end up in the theatres, I’m fine if they think of it as the farting corpse movie. They’re in for a ride. I do believe there are things about the movie that have shed a light on some of the shittier aspects of our industry.

Kwan: In Sundance there was a critic who was prepared to destroy our film without even finishing it. Many came out to our defence, not because they had seen it but because of how irresponsible that was. It was hard for us to sell the film the first couple of days after the premiere because of this bad press.

Scheinert: It was the first headline and it went viral.

Did you set up to make a symbolic film?

Kwan: We did, but it’s not a one-to-one representation. This is not District 9, in which the aliens represent the shack dwellers outside Cape Town.

Scheinert: Rather than create the symbols, we discovered them. The one idea that held it all together was the notion that shame keeps us from love.

The score of Swiss Army Man is a cappella. What convinced you it was the right way to go?

Scheinert: Early on, what got us excited was to make a survivor movie but the kind we would make up in our head. We’re all the star of our own little movie. If our protagonist builds his own sets, it would only make sense that he scores himself.

Kwan: The film is about isolation and what we do when we’re by ourselves. Our movie celebrates that and singing is one of those things you would be ashamed to do if surrounded by people. A cappella felt thematically tied to the subject. That said, while most a cappella tries to sound clean, we wanted ours to be dirty, visceral, like coming from a human.

You use John Williams’ score for Jurassic Park briefly in Swiss Army Man. How did you get permission?

Scheinert: We wrote a letter and heard from his agent. We could use it for so much money, and as long as the movie wasn’t NC-17.

Kwan: A couple of things helped us. One, they probably thought nobody would watch our movie. Two, we recorded our a cappella version and they got to hear it. I think they realized it was different and beautiful and didn’t disrespect the music. We also explained that in our universe, the Jurassic Park theme represented what home was.

How do you divide roles and solve disagreements?

Scheinert: Whoever is passionate about doing something, does it. Ahead of it, we argue things out and get on the same page. If we’re disagreeing, it’s normally because of something bigger than a line of dialogue.

Kwan: There’s no fighting on set. It’s important to keep the atmosphere on set playful and collaborative.

What led you to take on a creative partner?

Kwan: It was an accident. The work made that decision for us: what we did together was better than anything we did on our own. There was no denying we had something special.

Scheinert: Even after deciding we were a directing duo, we have never taken our partnership for granted or as an obligation. We are constantly renegotiating, learning to talk about our feelings and making sure we are growing together.