It isn’t hyperbole to say that the directors of Everything Everywhere All At Once are out to shatter people’s intellects with their movie. They consider it one of the film’s major goals. Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — often collectively credited as “Daniels” — are aware they’re making movies for a media-savvy audience that will recognize their riffs on The Terminator, The Matrix, and (in the movie’s best cameo) 2001: A Space Odyssey. But while they’re tapping into how familiar some of their images and quotes might seem, they also want to bypass the way familiarity helps an audience predict where a film is going, and maintain distance from it.
Which helps explain why Everything Everywhere is such a fast-paced barrage of big ideas and overwhelming images. Michelle Yeoh stars as Evelyn, a woman caught up in an adventure that pulls her between the vastly different possible universes her life decisions might have led to. The film lays out an entire multiverse and a science fiction technology that lets people access it, but it’s still primarily a personal story about Evelyn, and her connections with her husband, daughter, and father. Polygon recently sat down with the Daniels to talk about the film’s biggest ideas and where they came from, and about that idea that it’s important to break the audience so they have to take in everything, all at once.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
Your work, both in movies and in shorts, videos, and other projects, has such a distinctive voice. At the same time, it’s so referential, with this movie drawing from Kurt Vonnegut, Charlie Kaufman, and Douglas Adams, with nods to everything from Ratatouille to The Matrix. Is it hard for you to pull back from all the things you want to bring into your stories from other media and stories you love?
Daniel Kwan: We were just reflecting recently — movies are the language that so many people speak and think in these days, and that’s why we end up with these references—
Daniel Scheinert: It just feels more honest. When people talk about red-pilling, they’re not even talking about The Matrix anymore. When people say “I feel like I’m in The Truman Show” right now, they’re not even talking about the movie. It’s the vernacular. The cinematic discussion has been absorbed into the regular-people lexicon. So to us, it just feels like the most honest way to write a movie, in some ways, is to be constantly aware of the context we all exist in.
DK: So a lot of times, the things that are most influential to us are not the ones we ended up putting in there. Ratatouille and 2001 just felt like the right jokes for these characters. It wasn’t like us being really inspired by those films.
DS: The things really inspiring the film were movies like Holy Motors, or Groundhog Day, or Satoshi Kon’s anime. Stuff like that was really inspiring the spirit and ethos and structure of the movie.
There’s a major theme running through your work, especially here and in Swiss Army Man, about how the way we connect to each other is what makes life worth living. It’s a very humanistic philosophy, even a sentimental one. Where does that idea stem from for you?
DK: It’s a strong signal coming from my brain. Because I was very religious growing up. I was almost basically evangelical Christian until I was in my 20s. And then slowly, slowly, and then all of a sudden, it was gone. And that’s kind of what this movie was trying to re-create. That moment when Evelyn is screaming, and she’s feeling everything, and she’s completely unmoored and lost, that is the experience of losing God. That’s the experience of not having a moral center, and not having a focus of meaning, of purpose. The second half of the movie is basically her trying to do what I did, which is crawl around in the dark and the chaos, finding something worth living for, finding something worth fighting for. Obviously in the movie, she finds that through her husband, but yeah, it’s all in there because of me. [Looks at Daniel Scheinert] Well, partially because of me. I’m sure you have some—
DS: [Very straight-faced] No. I’m just a well-adjusted, normal person who’s not cynical or nihilistic at all. [Laughs]
That sounds like it needs a sarcasm tag.
DS: Yeah, it’s a big sarcastic tag. I think it’s something we bonded over early on. We’re both romantics with a super-high tolerance for cynicism, and staring at the darkness and talking about it. There’s such a relief in talking about that with someone, and not keeping it a secret, and not trying to turn away from it. And then being like, I’m going to make a beautiful breakfast now, and I’m going to enjoy the shit out of it.
DK: Which is very Vonnegut. I think we bonded over Vonnegut’s point of view because he’s so cynical. He has such a God point of view that looks at his characters as these poor ants in their ant farms, and yet somehow finds a way to see them as humans, and give them something beautiful at the same time. It’s very compelling, because I think the only way we can feel anything is if the person that is trying to tell a story first acknowledges how awful everything is, first acknowledges how dark everything is, how meaningless it all is. Then I can be like, “Okay, now we can have a conversation, convince me why there is still beauty,” or whatever. Because if you just start with the beauty, I can’t fully engage.
One of Vonnegut’s biggest themes was “Be kind to each other,” which comes up in Everything Everywhere. But you’re wrapping humanistic messages within such goofy, over-the-top elements. Do you think it’s easier to get people considering existential philosophy if you pack it in humor?
DS: I think it’s what works on us. Vonnegut hits me harder than Camus. There’s something about a well-honed joke that’ll take me places without me being able to put up my defenses. I think life is a bit absurd, and humans are a bit absurd, so humorless art is tough for me.
DK: I feel like that extends beyond humor, what we’re trying to do. Humor is one element of it, but I think it’s the barrage of it all. We’re trying to get past our audience’s intellect. I think right now, everyone is so well-read, everyone has all the right labels. Film structure is in their bones, so they know exactly where they are in a movie at all times. They have a subconscious timer telling them, “Okay, I have half an hour left, and the hero has to rise out of their lowest point…” There are all these things we’ve built up around ourselves as a shield, and it’s making it impossible for art to penetrate in a true way. Everyone’s going [Lofty connoisseur voice and gesture] “Ah, yes.” It’s like drinking wine, where everyone just has to say things about it, because that’s how we interact with the world now, with this very objective, distanced experience, just so we can feel like we’re in control.
This movie is meant to destroy all those things, so you can’t have that control. You’re not allowed to have intellect. You can only feel, and let the experience fully move through you. It’s only as you’re living through your life for the next week, little thoughts will come up, and that’s when you start to think of it through the lens of intellect. So humor is a part of it, but I think the whole thing is just meant to destroy that wall of academia and intellect that we are trapped in.
DS: But depending on your audience, you can also just say “You know, it’s a really wild action-comedy.” [Both laugh]
The point where I felt that sense of being broken down most strongly was in the laundromat montage toward the end, where you see what seems like a thousand different versions of Michelle Yeoh’s face. How did you go about assembling that sequence?
DK: I like to think of that as our version of the 2001: A Space Odyssey’s psychedelia. Just the fact that the shot is just a medium shot of a woman’s face—
DS: We came up with the idea of using that as a motif — we knew Michelle would look at the camera and pop through a couple universes pretty early on, so we tried to shoot a bunch of them, but with as little time and resources dedicated to it as possible. Quantity, not quality.
DK: Anytime we were in a different location, anytime we had some downtime, we were like, “Just put the camera over here. Okay, that’s good. Now stand here and put on this jacket. Okay, great.” We’d try to sneak in as much practical, real Evelyn in as many locations as possible.
DS: Then we shot Michelle on a green screen. We collected the materials we’d shot on location, the green-screen stuff, and had a little folder for our visual effects team. And we said, “You can do whatever you want. Put her wherever you want, and we might put it in the movie.” So it was sort of an open assignment during the post-production process.
DK: We had it segmented off so we they could choose whatever lighting they wanted, and then we sped that up so fast that it didn’t matter.
DS: So they could go in and pick a still image and be like, “Oooh, a blue Michelle that’s lit from behind. I’m going to put her in Antarctica.” So I took like 50 or 60 of those things, and everything we shot on location, and cut it up. It’s sort of a metaphor for how we pulled off the movie in general. We would give a lot of our department heads creative license—
DK: Especially for the things that didn’t matter. There are a few things that we controlled, like “These have to be just right, and the rest of it, do what you want.”
DS: “Do whatever you can do, whatever you’re good at.” So everybody stepped up and brought it. And it was fun for us, because we’d get surprised.
DK: And then I asked Son Lux to give me a drum solo, to just go crazy. “Start small and ramp up!” And I took that and cut that up, and then we did the first editing pass to the rhythm of it.
DS: So Ian Chang from Son Lux created these kind of jazz rhythms and these things trying to surprise us, and then we used that as a guide.
DK: It’s kind of like a cosmic gumbo. [Both laugh]
DS: We’re trying to sneak that into as many interviews as we can.
For me, maybe the heaviest idea in a movie full of heavy ideas is the idea that failure is opportunity, that all Evelyn’s dead ends are access points to power. As if you’re saying “Your weaknesses are your strengths.” How did you decide to make that a central conceit?
DK: That was what unlocks the whole premise, because it became a joke, and became something people resonated with. When we said, “Oh, this is the worst version of Evelyn,” that’s why she connected with so many universes. It didn’t come from like a philosophical place. It just made sense logically — if you had a lot of failures, you’d have a lot of successes, just based on the premise [of the multiple universe connections]. And then obviously it grew from there.
DS: And similarly, logically, then the project became, “Can we make her love the universe she’s in, and the version of herself that she is, by the end of this movie?” That became a fun challenge — pick the worst Evelyn, but by the end, she has to love who she is. I think that’s something a lot of us think at times, when we have regrets, or are thinking about what-if. So in a lot of ways, that’s the entire movie there. There it is. It’s a multiverse movie designed to make you appreciate the one universe you’re in.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is in theaters now.