Daniel Kwan is Artsy & Fartsy
We all have a silly, childish perspective but most of us reserve that persona for close friends. Daniel Kwan, on the other hand, embraces his inner kid and harnesses that creative energy to make strange, fantastical videos. His work is unprecedented. He simply creates what tickles his fancy. Daniel shows us that creative success can be grown from nurturing the most far-fetched comedic ideas.
He and his co-director Daniel Scheinert fondly call themselves The Daniels. They made a splash at Sundance with Swiss Army Man, the movie where Daniel Radcliffe's dead corpse farts his way throughout the film. Now, Daniel Kwan is working on a new sci-fi film with the Russo Brothers about a Chinese American family.
By George Ko, Natalie Mark, and Riki Robinson
Photos by George Ko
GR: Where did you grow up?
Daniel Kwan: I grew up in Massachusetts. My parents met in Syracuse and they ended up having me in Pennsylvania. I was a Northeast kid but now I’m in California and I can’t imagine moving back.
GR: What was your first experience with movies?
DK: My dad watched a ton of movies. It didn’t matter if it was a really cheesy romantic comedy or a Kar-Wai Wong film, he would just absorb it all. I had a really weird, eclectic group of films that were always playing in my house. When I was 4 or 5 years old, my favorite movies were Terminator 2 and Groundhog Day, the kind of movies that you probably wouldn’t understand when you were 4 years old. But for some reason they were the main VHS tapes that we had in our household. When I was 5 years old, I went to the barber shop and I wanted my haircut to be exactly like the Terminator. At the time I didn’t realize that was weird because I thought all 5 year olds watch Terminator. But the lady said, “‘You’re too young to be doing all that.” She gave me a bad haircut that really didn’t work out.
GR: Did you make home videos or do photography when you were growing up?
DK: Growing up, I was pretty sure I was terrible at everything. I tried music, hated it and gave up. Then I tried karate and was terrible at that too. I did Boy Scouts and was easily one of the lowest ranking people of my age and I never made it to Eagle Scouts. It was always really hard for me to believe that I would ever be good at anything. But in my free time, my friends and I made radio plays. We didn’t have a camera but we had a cassette player with a recordable tape, so we just made up radio plays with sound effects that we found on our computers. Doing these projects with my friends is how I discovered my love for storytelling. We eventually moved to doing stop motion animation and other projects. But even then, I was always the person who was helping because I was never confident in any of my skills. I was always the helper and I never thought I would ever make a career of it.
Even in high school, I had friends who wanted to be filmmakers and that was just not me. I would help with the World War II movie, but I was never the one taking charge. I think I was too practical at the time. I was pretty positive if I ever tried something like that, I would never be good enough to make money. I thought only 2% of all people who try to make it actually become a filmmaker and make a living doing that. Instead, I kept trying to figure out how I could get by by doing something normal.
GR: When did you transition from being the “helper” to being the director?
DK: I went to school to become an accountant but I was terrible and I hated it. I realized if I was to go down that path, I would probably be miserable for the rest of my life. I dropped out of that school and transferred to a film school. But when I got there, I immediately realized I didn’t like working with other people. There was too much of a gap between what I wanted and what people could provide me. I was really bad at communicating back then, and I guess I still am bad at communicating, but I was never able to get my vision across to people. I retreated away and became an animator. I went online and taught myself how to animate and how to use software using YouTube videos. I felt comfortable making things for myself because I didn’t have to bother anybody. I didn’t like bothering people with my vision and I felt like it was so arrogant of me to ask people to waste their time on my idea. But I was able to make things on my own and for myself. Through that process I was able to craft my own voice.
Luckily, I was able to make things on my own that I thought were interesting. Other people were able to see that and pulled me out of my comfort zone. One of those people was Daniel Scheinert, my directing partner, who is the opposite of me. He calls himself a serial collaborator. All I know how to do is work by myself, and all he knows how to do is work with other people. When he saw what I was doing, he forced me to collaborate with him and that’s one of the biggest reasons why I direct live action now. I’d probably be working by myself if it wasn’t for him seeing something in my work and wanting to tie that in with what he was doing. That was a pretty big deal. But even after he pulled me in, I was very Asian: I am very cautious when it comes to expressing myself, that’s something I had to learn very slowly.
We realized quickly that directing a music video or a short film was similar to running a summer camp and being a camp counselor. I grew up in summer camp. Every summer I would be a counselor at my church’s Vacation Bible School. That was the only way I was able to understand directing in the context of my own life. I think most film schools raise you to think of a director as a confident leader who knows exactly what they want and how to get it. That’s just never been me. I had to abandon the notion that my ideas weren’t good enough, or that I didn’t deserve to have people work for me, and I didn’t deserve to have this opportunity to express myself. Instead, I was able to reframe it as if I was just a camp counselor and we were just having fun making something together. I’ve always been someone who needs to tinker, discover, and find things for myself.
GR: Where did you go to school and where did you transfer to?
DK: I started at the University of Connecticut (UConn). I spent one year there and it was probably the worst year of my life. But it was good; it was a necessary bad year. I learned a lot about myself and that’s what made me become a filmmaker. I transferred to Emerson College in Boston.
GR: When did you realize Emerson was where you wanted to be? Or did you already know that before transferring?
DK: No. When I transferred schools, there was this fear that I was still going to be miserable because I already spent a year being miserable. I was afraid transferring and switching to another career wasn’t going to fix everything, that instead the problem was really me, that I was just doomed forever. It wasn’t until I actually got there that I instantly saw the different energy and met people who wanted to become filmmakers. Almost the first couple of days, I was able to see that Emerson was going to be a better environment for me. I could tell early on because I was trying and caring in my classes. I was actually excited about working on the things I was doing. It was the first time I excelled at something. That was a strange feeling for me, it was really exciting. I had a couple of teachers who were able to see my potential and push me along in a way that I wasn’t used to. Life was getting better and I was being encouraged.
GR: What camera do you use (for those camera geeks out there)?
DK: Earlier, we started with Nikons and DSLRs because that’s what we had. Now we try to shoot on ALEXA because the colors are just so wonderful and so easy to work with when editing. This is so nerdy. The fact that it all shoots ProRes is awesome. Most of the Directors of Photography we work with prefer the ALEXA but every now and then when we need a faster frame rate we use an EPIC.
GR: What was the short film or animation project that made the other Daniel reach out to you?
DK: Daniel Scheinert and I met in a 3D animation class learning Maya, which is what Pixar uses, but it’s a pain in the ass to work on. We were able to see pretty quickly that we were both uniquely talented in the software, but our sensibilities were strange. He was making an animation about a dead boy who’s been piloted by tiny tigers in the dead boy’s head. I was making a short film about an insomniac who couldn’t sleep at night so he’d invite strangers over to his house and after they fell asleep he would take their clothes off and do their laundry for them. We were both doing really strange projects but both technically competent. We just started hanging out and we both actually got a job at a summer camp at Harvard. We were teachers’ assistants for the New York Film Academy there. That was when we both realized deep down we were both hyper kids who wanted to make things with other hyper kids. It was a really fun way for us to realize we had very similar sensibilities even though he technically comes from comedy-improv background and I come from an animation background.
GR: Do you mind talking about the journey from the East Coast to the West Coast?
DK: I actually moved to LA before I finished school because my college had a program in which you spend a semester in LA and get an internship. The move here was pretty seamless. I got a job at DreamWorks and then I graduated. About a month after I graduated, we got hit up by a record company in London called Warp Records. They saw a music video we had done for free and wanted to know if we had a time to do another one and they would pay us. It was around $12,000. It was a whole lot of money. I quit my job at DreamWorks and we flew to New York. We shot the music video and then I spent the rest of the year pretty broke.
But luckily, we just kept making things even though we were getting a lot of rejections. We had a really tough transition after that music video was completed. Most of our ideas are so strange and we were pretty unproven, but we were too confident to change our ideas. We lost a lot of jobs that way but eventually someone from Columbia Records saw our stuff and had a lot of trust in us. Even though the artists were unsure of our content, the record label had our back and we made our first big push in the music videos.
The rest of the year was non-stop. It was a pretty funny, drastic change in lifestyle; we went from being broke and not working to constantly working. Someone would watch something we had just done and then ask us to do something else for a little bit more money. We just kept doing that until finally someone let us do a feature film. It took us about 4 or 5 years of gradually making something a little bigger, a little bigger, and then we ended up making a movie with Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano called Swiss Army Man. It’s pretty cool to start by doing free videos with friends and end up doing pretty insane things on a much bigger scale.
GR: How did you come up with the ideas for the movies?
DK: We always like to say that all of our ideas are pretty terrible and it’s just the fact that we decide to pursue those terrible ideas that make us unique. If you go through most of our music videos and short films, they are pretty bad ideas that most people would come up with when they’re drunk with friends. But we’re just dumb enough to go forward and actually make it good, somewhat heartfelt, and worth your time. The fact that I get to express myself for a living is pretty fantastic and I don’t take that lightly. We would come up with these terrible ideas and then we pitch it to a band, and they say yes and then we’d have to go make it. But then the guilt would set in. I want to make something worthwhile, something meaningful, otherwise why am I spending so much time on it? Then, for some reason, the tension between those two things would create really interesting work that surprises us, the directors, and if it surprises us it will probably surprise the viewer.
GR: What was the inspiration for the immense amount of farting in Swiss Army Man?
DK: When collaborating with the other Daniel, one of us will pitch an idea that is a joke just to see the other’s reaction. Then we’ll both laugh and both realize we have to make it. The farting corpse idea just seemed like the worst idea. We were on a plane flying to Alabama to do a writer’s retreat and we were working on another script that was completely separate from Swiss Army Man. A company asked us if we wanted to make a short film so we just started brainstorming ideas and one of the ideas I thought of was dead bodies decomposing and farting. I thought it would be really funny if we took something as sad as someone’s death and make it one giant fart joke, but then add one last twist to make it a poignant and beautiful fart joke. It was just a really short film; it was going to be 2 minutes long. I pitched it to them. I even played some music. I gave him headphones and said, “Imagine this music,” which was really beautiful orchestral music. He laughed a lot and said we have to make it and I said no we should never make it. Then 4 years later we actually ended up making it. It always starts with this feeling that we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing, and then we break down why we think something is so funny and interesting. For a long time, we had no idea why we thought it was so funny and why we wanted to make it. We were just making it to see what would come of it. Usually, it’s not until we’re finished with the film that we can appreciate what we’ve done.
GR: What was it like working with Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe?
DK: Daniel and l always talk about how we’re spoiled now. Paul and Daniel are incredible lifelong actors who started out as children—they are so smart. They are so attuned to how films are made, and they knew more about filmmaking than we did in a lot of ways because they had spent their whole lives doing it. It was a really great collaboration because they would push us when we needed to be pushed, but they were also willing to take a big risk and try things out. I feel really lucky and spoiled and I don’t know if we’ll be able to work with actors that good again.
The cool thing about the two of them is that they had very different processes as actors. Radcliffe was the kind of person who needed to rehearse over and over until he got it just right. He had a lot of control over everything— his voice, his facial expressions, his body— which was perfect for the role since he played a dead body with very specific little details. Paul was the opposite. He never rehearsed. He only wanted to exist in the moment and find moments to ride. That was great for his character because we needed that human and immediate performance for our main character. It was interesting to see the two work together because they complimented each other and trusted each other. It’s pretty similar to how me and the other Daniel work. We’re very different but somehow, when we work together, something good happens at the end of it.
GR: What was your reaction to the film’s immediate reception at Sundance?
DK: It was a whirlwind. When we screened it at Sundance, we knew that we were pranking most of the audience. Most people assume they’re going to see a really beautiful, life-affirming, indie-drama. Especially with those two actors. We didn't have a trailer so nobody knew anything about the movie. Most people thought they were going to watch some survival drama about two guys in the woods. Instead, they got a two-man survival drama in the woods but there are special powers, and farts and boners, and a lot of scatological humor.
Daniel Radcliffe plays a dead body who is farting and Paul Dano is riding him like a jet ski, and it’s a beautiful and cathartic moment. I remember when that first slammed on the screen, I could hear actual screaming, almost like shock. No one knew what to think. My entire family was there, and my sister was behind me and laughing so hard. I could tell by the way she was laughing that she was so uncomfortable. She told me afterwards that she was tearing up from laughing so hard but mostly because she was so scared for me. I think that’s a thrilling reaction to get out of a screening. People were scared for what was going to happen next because there was no precedent. There was nothing to compare it to. It was good when people loved it and reacted strongly to it. But then there was the other half of it, where people were absolutely not ready for it. And even if they were ready for it, they would have hated it. It was very interesting to watch it explode on Twitter or Buzzfeed because people who had never seen the movie just saw titles saying “Daniel Radcliffe: Farting Corpse Movie.” That was trending on Twitter and we no longer had any control over it.
It took a couple of weeks for us to process the fact that we had no control over how people talked about our film. It ended up being really great because some people really hated the film but the people who loved the film started speaking louder. Different journalists were discussing the purpose of a film festival, which was really fun because I think a lot of film festivals are very commercial now. When I go to a film festival I see something that would never come out of a studio system and I get really excited. I think being able to spark that conversation at somewhere like Sundance was exciting for us, even if it was a little painful.
GR: What was your main message in Swiss Army Man? What did you want the audience to take away from it?
DK: With all of our work, we want people to leave with the feeling that the things you see in the world aren’t always how you think they are. We like to take preconceived ideas and smash them so they can open doors and the audience can see everything as a child would -- completely new -- in order to make their own definitions and to redefine things again. Hopefully. That’s the lofty goals we have. With this movie in particular, we realized the movie was about shame and the things that keep us from opening up to one another. We took this very universal idea and wrapped it up in flatulence, and I think that was a fun way to do it because people weren’t expecting that message.
GR: What was your favorite fart scene?
DK: Looking back on the movie, it’s probably the finale where all of a sudden the world opens up and all these strangers are watching Manny shoot off into the distance. That is the fart heard around the world in the context in the film. It’s an opportunity for all these different characters to see the same thing and take something different out of it. I think that’s what—this sounds so stupid— all art should be. It should be something three different people look at and all take away something different from it. I’m really proud of how that played out in the film in the end. It’s also really funny when you watch it without music because the music gives it emotional weight. When you watch it without music it’s horrible. It’s so nihilistic. It’s a bunch of people looking at a dead body that’s farting, and it’s so awkward and sad. But then if you throw music underneath that scene with the context of the entire movie, it redefines that weird image into something really beautiful and strange.
GR: Can you talk more about the music?
DK: Music was always going to be a big part of the film. We wrote specific scenes where a character would be singing. We knew from the very beginning we would be writing the music as we were writing the scripts. We reached out to our buddies from the band Manchester Orchestra. We had done a music video for them 4 or 5 years ago, and they were super excited. They started writing music while we were writing our script, and it was this interesting dialogue. Since we’re music video directors, it seemed like a good stepping stone for us to move into feature films by leaning on our strong suit, which is to listen to music and create imagery around that.
We knew we wanted to create a score that was all from the main character’s head because he was a lonely man, isolated in the middle of nowhere. It felt honest because I think that’s what we would do too if we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. We wanted to take those terrible songs and those rough, humming textures and re-contextualize it, layer it, and turn it into something grand, beautiful, and massive. The whole movie tries to take these small, terrible things and re-contextualize them into something big, beautiful, and transcendent. To do that with music was really fun. We had the Jurassic Park theme song, “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” a lot of random things that would pop into your head. We wanted to turn that kind of music into the score for our movie. I’m most proud of that even being a part of that music somehow.
GR: Is there a comment that left a lasting impression on you?
DK: Something my wife said after seeing the movie. She had never seen the movie before the premiere so the first time she saw it was the first time anyone saw it. She said a lot of really sweet things about it and something I really liked. She said it somehow worked even though it shouldn’t have worked. Even though everyone says, “A movie could be anything,” you never internalize that until you see it, and she saw it and said, “Oh my god, I feel like I could make anything now.” I remember feeling excited about that because that’s not what we were thinking of while making the movie but that left an impression. If I can make people step outside of their comfort zone and make something they would not expect the world to want, that’s pretty exciting.
GR: What’s next for you?
DK: We’re going to make a movie with the Russo Brothers. We’re in the middle of writing it right now, which is really stressful. I love writing and I hate it. I feel like I’m drowning in the script, so if I look and feel tense it’s just because I’m drowning in my script. It’s going to be centered around a Chinese American family but it’s also a sci-fi action film. It’s going to be a massive movie but I’m really excited to explore that aspect of my life and it feels like the right time to do that and the fact that I can get money to do that is really exciting. I want to make children’s books. I want to get into making video games. I downloaded the Unreal Engine, and I’m trying to learn that to see if maybe I can make a video game. There’s so many things I want to do but there’s never enough time.
GR: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
DK: I just started making things and putting them on the Internet and thought that whoever my audience was would like it and then I’d make some more and my audience would grow. I think that’s how we have to make things now. If you don’t have the money or the equipment you just have to start and then maybe 2 people like it, and then you make more and then 6 people like it. Hopefully you start making things that will find the people it’s made for. Make stuff you want to see on the Internet or see in the world, and hopefully other people will agree with you and it will start to grow. I always say the best stuff rises to the top. Keep making stuff. Make a lot of stuff. Make a lot of terrible stuff. I learned more when I made terrible things than when I made good things. I learned from my mistakes.