Everything Everywhere All At Once: An Interview With Directing Duo Daniels : Short Wave Directing Duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, (collectively: Daniels) are known for their first feature film Swiss Army Man and DJ Snake's and Lil Jon's music video "Turn Down For What." This year, they've taken their directing to a whole different universe. Host Emily Kwong chats with the Daniels about their new film Everything Everywhere All At Once and how their indie film about laundry and taxes melds the arts with sciences.

You can follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyKwong1234. Email Short Wave at ShortWave@NPR.org.

Everything On A Bagel: A Conversation With Daniels

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Can you introduce yourself the way that you would like to?

DANIEL KWAN: (Singing) Eeny meeny (ph), itsy bitsy.

KWONG: (Laughter) Yellow polka-dot Daniel.

DANIEL SCHEINERT: Sorry.

KWAN: Can you sing that in the background?

SCHEINERT: Yeah. That's how I like to be introduced.

KWAN: Hi, guys. My name is Daniel Kwan with Daniel Scheinert here. And we are the directing duo, Daniels

SCHEINERT: Yeah. Hello. This is my voice - other Daniel.

KWONG: Daniels' first feature, "Swiss Army Man" swept Sundance with fart jokes. This year...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

MICHELLE YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) What's happening?

KWONG: They took us to an entirely different universe - many universes, in fact - in "Everything Everywhere All At Once."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

KE HUY QUAN: (As Waymond Wang) ...From another universe. I'm here because we need your help.

KWONG: Starring Michelle Yeoh...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

YEOH: (As Evelyn Wang) Very busy today. No time to help you.

KWONG: ...Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong and Jamie Lee Curtis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

QUAN: (As Waymond Wang) I've seen thousands of Evelyns. You can access all their memories.

KWONG: This movie is a kung fu action film, a sci-fi flick, a romance, a family drama, even a little bit coming-of-age story - a multiverse of genres and possibilities.

SCHEINERT: The thing about the multiverse that fascinated and scared us was the idea of infinity. And we wanted to make a movie that, like, went to too many.

KWAN: We're borrowing heavily from Vonnegut and Douglas Adams in the way that - they take science and they just take the absurdity and dial it up to, like, a hundred and try to apply that to the multiverse, just because it just felt like a really good metaphor for what it feels like to be alive right now, to exist in an infinite number of different stories and narratives, kind of colliding constantly in contradictions and emotional whiplash.

KWONG: Today on the show, how an indie film about laundry and taxes confronts infinity and our place in it. We talked to the directing duo Daniels about how science and real life inspired the world building in "Everything Everywhere All At Once." I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: Listen, both Daniels are nerds, but in different ways. For Daniel Scheinert, a self-proclaimed overachiever and teacher's pet, math was his thing.

SCHEINERT: On math team, they give you 25 questions, one hour, and you get rewarded if you get any of them right.

KWONG: Yeah.

SCHEINERT: And there's no right way to answer the questions. So it's a creative way to solve problems. A lot of times, you'll end up with a score of 20 out of a hundred, and you can be proud of yourself.

KWONG: Whereas Daniel Kwan fell in love with science because of his mom. In second grade, they moved to a new school system and Dan struggled to keep up, something he attributes to undiagnosed ADHD. His mom was worried his creativity was being stifled in a big class, so she pulled him out and homeschooled him for two years.

KWAN: We would do so many science experiments. And so, like, if I was into, like, animals - I remember we got, like, a cow's brain and owl pellets and a sheep's eyeball and we dissected them because my mom had, like, a catalog, like, for homeschool kids to buy science experiments at home. So that was a big part of me realizing that I actually do love learning...

KWONG: Yeah.

KWAN: ...Just not school, which I think is a distinction that, obviously, we're all realizing is very, very specific now.

KWONG: Yeah. Yeah. Your movie is just punctuated with science facts, like the alternate universe where there is an ape with hot dog fingers that won a fist fight, and that's the reason Homo sapiens died out. And I'm wondering, like, when did you decide to include science a little bit - like, just a nugget - and when do you decide to just go for other things?

SCHEINERT: I mean, I think this movie from the - like, more than anything we ever made - right from the get-go, it was inspired by some science stuff we'd read. And it just felt like, oh, it's going to be in there. And then there was, like, a pruning process that - like, we were constantly, like, second-guessing what to include, what not to include. I think it was important to us that, like, the pseudoscience, make-believe stuff be funny and narratively useful. Then it's OK, as long as it's not dangerously misleading, you know? Like, I do think that, like, science facts, like, sometimes can evoke, like, a real intense emotional reaction or philosophical reaction.

KWONG: Absolutely.

SCHEINERT: And that - like, for me - and that's so fun. And, like, from very early on, that was kind of part of this, was like, oh, let's talk about how the multiverse makes us feel. Like, we've been reading all this climate apocalypse stuff because apparently global warming's pretty real.

KWONG: Yeah.

SCHEINERT: And we're like, how do you tell - like, the stories that we're telling don't quite capture how this makes me feel. And as a filmmaker, that's, like, a fun - you know, it's part of our job, you know?

KWONG: You just made me realize something, which I've never thought about - simply that when scientists are going out there, pursuing information about how things work, their job is not to then help us process how we feel about what they find. And that's where I think artists, teachers, storytellers, communicators, folks like you - you play that role in helping people deal with what's true about our universe.

SCHEINERT: Or we play the role of making you, like - giving you permission to be willfully ignorant...

KWONG: (Laughter).

SCHEINERT: ...And not worry about it, you know?

KWONG: Sure.

SCHEINERT: We're actually distracting the public from these important conversations sometimes.

KWONG: Right.

SCHEINERT: And other times, we're, like, able to help us process them.

KWAN: Yeah.

KWONG: Oh, I think you nailed it. Your creative process seems kind of scientific to me in that it's very question-based. Like, you know how in school you learn about the scientific method...

SCHEINERT: Totally.

KWAN: Yeah.

KWONG: ...And you, like, develop a question? And it's coming from a place of curiosity. And then that question eventually leads to theories. And just to, like, take this metaphor all the way, your movies are basically spaces for you to test your theories - the making part.

KWAN: Yeah.

KWONG: And I'm wondering, what moviemaking theory were you most proud of putting to test on this film?

SCHEINERT: Totally.

KWAN: Wow. I love that (laughter).

SCHEINERT: Yeah. That description very much resonates 'cause, like, a lot of times, people will be like, what drugs were you on when you wrote this? And you're like, no, it's more my math brain, you know, that inspired the movie. Like, we found out early on that, like, our favorite projects were ones we weren't sure if we could figure out or pull off. And we knew we were going to be engaged in trying to crack this, straight through the very last day of working on it, as opposed to like, oh, we know exactly how to do this. A hypothesis is what inspires us to make a movie, not a moral of the story or clear-cut story that we're totally confident in.

KWAN: Yeah, but you're - I think you're definitely tapping into something that even maybe we weren't aware of until more recently. But I want to talk one little bit about this idea of the scientific method and when we learned it in school and how, in sixth grade, we were supposed to choose a science project...

KWONG: OK.

KWAN: ...To basically do the scientific method, test out your hypothesis and see what the conclusion is. And, you know, being the person who is very afraid of failure and wanting to check the box, get an A-plus, I was like, OK, I'm going to do an experiment on plants and the effect that different colored lights have on it. So I had, you know, the control group of white light and then blue light, red light, green light, whatever - all these different plants, just to see how it affected the growth.

KWONG: Yeah.

KWAN: But then my friend - I remember my friend came up with a experiment that I was, like, terrified for him. I was like, but you're going to get a bad grade. And his experiment was basically - it's a classic, you know, philosophical conundrum, which is, is the color green that I see and perceive the same color green that you see and perceive?

SCHEINERT: But, like, what a fun, bold question.

KWAN: Exactly. But, like, he had a bad grade, even though he was searching for something that was actually meaningful to him. And, like, what lesson are we teaching our kids when things like that are possible? And so now as an adult, I feel like I'm atoning for my sins or atoning for the fact that I wasn't brave enough to actually chase after things I don't know how to do because that process is how, I think, on an individual level, like I grow.

KWONG: Right.

KWAN: Yeah.

KWONG: You mentioned earlier, Daniel Kwan, just how Evelyn, as a character, one of the possibilities for her is she has undiagnosed ADHD. And she was imagined kind of that way. Can you tell us just more about that facet of her and how you put it into the filmmaking and representing that authentically?

KWAN: Yeah. For this movie, we were trying to - yeah - tell a story about someone who basically dissociates all the time, is constantly in another world in their mind, which is - you know, honestly just came from my own experience. Like, my wife is constantly being like, hey, hey, hello, hello. I asked you a question. And then I like, you know - finally, I snap out of it, like, oh...

SCHEINERT: And she'll be like, Dan, what are you thinking about? And then what do you say to her? What do you say?

KWAN: I always say everything, which is the truth. Like, whenever she asks, what are you thinking about?

SCHEINERT: That's a line in the movie.

KWAN: I say everything, mostly because I don't want to go through the process of, you know, talking her through all the things that went through my brain to get to the thought that I was chewing on.

KWONG: Yeah.

KWAN: And so I was like, OK, this is a great start for the character. And in some ways, also, it's inspired by my mother, who was like that growing up, as well. And so we were like, I guess we should do some research and make sure we kind of explore this, you know, in a very empathetic and accurate way. And then, you know, I started reading about it online. I started taking some ADHD tests. I started realizing that, like, you know, through tears - you know, as tears were falling down my face, I was like, oh, no, maybe this is who I am. Maybe this is why I had such a hard time in school and still have such a hard time in my day-to-day life.

And then it just became, like, obvious that, you know, even without trying to put in ADHD, this movie was going to be infused with it from the very beginning. The DNA of it was all going to be there. And there's even the line at the end when she says, like, you know, I prayed that my daughter would not end up like me, but unfortunately she ended up like a mess, just like - you know, just like me, which is something, like, my mom used to say to me as a kid. You know, I remember just sitting in her office and just papers, stacks of receipts everywhere. And she would say, like, Daniel, don't be like me. Don't become like me because it's really hard to exist as an adult like this.

KWONG: My partner has ADHD and we were watching it together. And you can just imagine the two of us - like, I'm Asian American, was very depressed as a teenage girl. Jobu is, like, my girl. I'm, like, just destroyed. And then Duncan's over here destroyed over a totally connected but ultimately separate set of experiences. And...

KWAN: Wow.

KWONG: But you don't name any of it. Like you said, you didn't name it. And I'm wondering why. Why is that of value?

SCHEINERT: I was just thinking about this the other day that, like - maybe Dan has a good answer for why. But, like, I'm so glad we didn't because so many people connect with it for their - on their own terms and in their own way.

KWONG: It felt like a private thing between me and Joy.

SCHEINERT: Right.

KWONG: Like, I'm like, this person's struggling with depression, and I know that.

KWAN: Yeah.

SCHEINERT: And I feel like if we named too much of it, then we might have skewed the movie a little more towards you or your partner. One journalist wrote an essay about, like, feeling seen as a menopausal woman.

KWONG: Wow.

SCHEINERT: And we were like, hell yeah. I'm glad...

KWONG: (Laughter).

SCHEINERT: ...I'm glad we didn't, like, name everything 'cause then she might have watched it and been like, oh, never mind. It's not about me...

KWONG: Yeah.

SCHEINERT: ...You know?

KWONG: Yeah. The last thing I want to ask you is, in this moment in the film when Evelyn and Joy are in the rock-verse (ph), where they're both rocks, there's no speaking, just words on the screen and, like, wind sounds, which I thought was really funny for some reason. And one rock says, every new discovery is just a reminder that we're all small and stupid. So, Daniels, I have a question for you. In the process of making this film, what have you discovered that's made you feel small and stupid?

SCHEINERT: You know, my movie is a hit, so I feel huge and smart, so I don't relate to my movie anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

KWAN: That's a classic Scheinert answer.

SCHEINERT: No.

KWONG: That deserves some recognition, though - huge hit.

SCHEINERT: No, that's not - I mean, it's a danger.

KWONG: Yeah.

SCHEINERT: It's very weird.

KWONG: Sure.

SCHEINERT: Every time we tried to put the science into the movie, it was very humbling because it's hard - hard to get right and complicated and...

KWONG: Yeah.

SCHEINERT: ...But inspiring.

KWAN: Yeah. This is a hard answer for me because I don't need science to feel small and stupid, you know? In fact, like, you know, me and my therapist spend most of our time working on, like, how do I feel, you know, OK with myself? And I think that's a very personal journey for me. Like, how can I reflect back to humanity that we are OK, that we are awesome, that we are - because my predisposition is to say we suck, we're miserable, we're selfish, we're - you know, we're self-terminating. And, you know, so it's - I don't know, it's not a fun answer to your question, but it's like everything - everything is always pushing us away from the center. And I feel like we're - like, storytellers like us are just trying to, like, reclaim ourselves in that story somehow.

KWONG: Thank you for making this movie and running that experiment. It - I think it's changing a lot of lives in very, very, very subtle ways and maybe some very obvious ways. But I'm so glad that we could talk to you.

KWAN: Oh, my gosh.

SCHEINERT: Thank you.

KWAN: We're honored to be here.

SCHEINERT: Yeah. We're big into interdisciplinary studies. I love mixing the arts with the sciences, so this has been real fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: You can watch "Everything Everywhere All At Once" at home and in theaters right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: This episode was produced and edited by Thomas Lu - additional editing from Gisele Grayson, who is our senior supervising editor. And it was fact-checked by Rachel Carlson. The audio engineer for this episode was Hannah Gluvna. Special thanks to Ryan Collins (ph) and Rachel Goldfinger (ph) for helping us coordinate this interview. I'm Emily Kwong. Keep it weird, fam, and tune in tomorrow for more SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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