An unlikely buddy comedy-drama about the friendship between a suicidal castaway played by Paul Dano and a flatulent corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man doesn’t seem like the kind of movie you’d watch with your mother. So what was it like to be the mothers of the film’s directors, Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (who work together under the name “Daniels”)? To find out, we spoke to Becky Scheinert and June Kwan, the two filmmakers’ moms.
What was it like seeing Swiss Army Man for the first time at Sundance?
Scheinert: I was in San Francisco on business and had travel problems, so I couldn’t get there in time — after we’d planned for the whole family to show up. I got all the way to Sundance, and I’m standing outside the theater, under a heat lamp, waiting for folks to come out. I can vouch for the fact that people were not streaming out during the movie. Then, as people came out afterwards, my first impression was just seeing their faces … and there were a lot of puzzled looks. (Laughs) Two guys came out, and one of them said, “What did we just see?”
I’m in marketing, so I love this kind of market research. Real filmgoers’ first reaction to the movie: “What? Wait, what?” Which pleased me, because I know that’s what Daniel wanted. I got to see the second showing at the festival. And the audience’s response after the first one was such a zoo that the folks in the second screening were like, “Eyes open. We’ve got our seatbelts on. What’s next?” I watched the audience as much as I watched the film itself, and their exuberant response at the end brought tears to my eyes. Daniel was just leaping with joy: “Yes, we succeeded! We made mom cry!”
Kwan: The movie is very beautiful, touching, and the music and the images are great. But I have to say, I was not used to it. We are probably more used to the Hollywood style, or more mature movies. It took me a while to digest. They have been thinking about this whole thing for a long time. I know they had the topic and went to Sundance for the screenplay and the music, where there were faculty and experts that helped them put things together. But Daniel kept a lot of things secret; even his fiancée hadn’t seen it. I knew it was about farting, and I knew it’s about somebody trying to survive in the wilderness. And we had read him books about similar things. So I was thinking that it would be a serious survival movie. But it was a very imaginary world.
The two Daniels have worked together for years now. Was there anything in the film that made you say, “That’s my Daniel”?
Kwan: The whole farting idea is from my Daniel, I think. Daniel and his sister always had fart jokes. And also I saw his influence in the colorful part of the movie. Making things based on trash, to make all the beautiful things that Paul Dano had in his memory. I don’t know about the other Daniel, but our family was always crafty and always made use of things in the house — just a pencil or paper and Play-Doh and clay, or putting pieces of other material together to make something beautiful. My children always liked to do that.
Scheinert: The general perversity of it. That feels like Daniel: If 10 kids are marching in one direction, he will be 30 degrees to the left, going somewhere else. All through his life, when he would go and try something, I’d get this sideways look from some other people — like, “You hatched this?” In first grade, Daniel did a writing project. His teacher liked his little story, so he went to this thing where they get to read it.
So everybody else is talking about how the robin laid an egg in a nest outside their window and all that, and then little Daniel gets up looking like this cherubic little cutie, and he starts reading from his book called The Vampire Cat. It involved a hatchet and an axe and then chemicals that were spilled on the cat to turn it into a vampire. And these other moms — it was mostly moms — are sitting there, and their eyes got a little bigger. And one mom said, “Eh? Maybe the next Stephen King?” I thought, “Oh, I better brace myself. This is gonna be a long road.”
Watching the film, there’d be parts where you’d think, “Okay, are they gonna get sappy here?” And then it would be jerked back to a lighter point — that definitely felt like Daniel. Touch on the heavy stuff, but don’t beat it to death. No pun intended.
Kwan: I think it’s a movie about looking for love in a lonely world. Paul Dano tries to talk to his inner self: He’s a very withdrawn person, and he tries to get things out to this corpse — this farting corpse. I know that Daniel, when he was growing up, was always very good at describing his thoughts in pictures and music. Most people, when they describe something, they will find a more polished, maybe more careful way to convey their thinking. But these two Daniels, even in “Turn Down for What,” they just bring everything out to the screen — whatever is in their mind, in their thinking, in their spirit, in their world. It’s very straightforward, very raw.
And maybe people feel it more directly — especially the younger generation. I had my other son sitting next to me [during the movie], and he was so touched he almost cried. But for me, I have to sit back and think, “Why don’t I feel so comfortable about this movie?” I think it’s the generation thing. That’s why Daniel didn’t show this to us. But it’s a beautiful movie.
Was it a challenge having a child who wanted to go into the arts — an area where it’s often notoriously hard to make a living?
Kwan: We’re from a Chinese family, and usually in Chinese families parents want their children to be a doctor or lawyer. I have two sons, and they both went into arts. One is a film major. And my youngest son is an animator. My dream for my children is that they find their passion and do it. I never told them what to do — but if they don’t have passion for a thing then they are probably not serious about it. Daniel was not very sure about going into film. But from watching him growing up, I knew that he had a way of putting things together. When he was a freshman in college, he was majoring in art, but it wasn’t right for him. I talked to him about transferring to Emerson College. He said, “Mommy, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I’m good.” I said, “Daniel, there’s nothing else you can do!”
If Daniel doesn’t want to do something, he can sit around and do nothing for days. He ended up going to Emerson, and graduated, and went to California, taking a Dreamworks job. After only about two weeks, he said, “I have to quit my job, I have something I really want to do.” I said, “Daniel, can you at least wait until you can pay off your student loan?” He said, “I can’t.” So I said, “Daniel, you know better. It’s your life. I can’t give you advice anymore, but whatever you do, I will support you. And if you cannot feed yourself, come back home, mommy will feed you.” (Laughs) So I was kind of nervous, but I didn’t worry because life is full of surprises. If you don’t try to do what you really love, it’s a waste of life.
Scheinert: For years, we weren’t sure if Daniel was going to be able to feed himself. You think about those things. We knew he was highly creative, and we certainly supported that strongly. And we thought, “You certainly have a talent for this, and you should do something that you’re good at, whatever that might be. But you need to feed yourself.” He went through the Sidewalk Film Festival, doing the high-school film competition stuff, which was exciting. But we had to put it in perspective: “That’s great, but you’re still a high-school kid, and this is still Alabama. You’re a big fish in a small pond.” Then he went to Emerson and got in comedy-theater troupes.
That, I think, helped mold his quirkiness, if you will. He had a very strong musical-theater background in high school and won all sorts of things, and his director said, at the end of senior year, “Yes, Daniel was a very good actor, but I’m sorry, he’s going to be a director.” I got to attend a screening of an on-spec short that he did in L.A., which was well attended. Watching the reactions of the audience to the various shorts — his blew them away, knocked their socks off. I thought, “You’re gonna be okay. You’re good.”