The Art of Corpsing: The Daniels’ ‘Swiss Army Man’ is a buddy comedy like no other
The premise for Swiss Army Man is not an easy one to explain, especially once it was quickly labeled the “Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie” when it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Opening in select cities on June 24, Swiss Army Man plays with the concept of Tom Hanks’ Castaway, with Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) as Hank, a man stranded on an island, all alone and ready to end it all, when a new arrival gives him renewed hope of getting home. Instead of a volleyball named Wilson, it’s a corpse that washes ashore, looking a lot like “Harry Potter” star Radcliffe.
That corpse proves more useful than Hank first expects, and where things go from there is where Swiss Army Man diverges from the conventional “buddy comedy.” In fact, it’s probably like no other film you’re likely to see this summer, as Hank and his new friend “Manny” try to find their way home.
The film is the brainchild of filmmaking duo Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (collectively known as “Daniels”), who first made waves with their insane music-video for DJ Snake and Lil’ John’s “Turn Down for What,” which became a viral sensation with over 480 million views. Their debut feature offers a similarly unique DIY vision we haven’t seen from a filmmaker since Michel Gondry directed Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
The two Daniels met while going to college in Boston, where they began to collaborate on short films, done mostly for the entertainment of the booming YouTube generation. Things progressed from there as they organically began to pitch ideas as a directing duo, and they’ve been working on the concept for Swiss Army Man for many years as they continued to make music-videos.
“The first image was more or less the opening sequence, a man sailing away on a farting dead body,” Kwan tells Film Journal International. “That was funny to us because it felt like something we should never make—it just felt so stupid that it didn’t deserve to be a real thing. We conceived it as a short film at first, but it wasn’t until a year later when the image still stuck with us that we realized there’s a lot of meat to it if we really dug in deep.”
Possibilia, an interactive short starring Alex Karpovsky and Zoe Jarman, in which the viewer can watch alternate timelines as a couple make decisions about their relationship, was one of the Daniels’ shorts that first got them attention. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and allowed the Daniels to make use of the Sundance Institute’s filmmaking workshop to fine-tune their script.
“That aspect of watching a human being created piece by piece by another man, that’s when we got really excited about it,” Kwan continues the story. “It was about a suicidal man trying to teach a dead body why life is worth living, and that to us became the reason why it could sustain a feature, but still explore what was happening in that absurd image of a man riding a farting corpse we loved so much. It became just a really great metaphor for this story we were trying to tell, and it all started to make too much sense to ignore it.”
After finishing the script, the next step was finding the right actors to play the two main roles. “We had an open mind as we were looking at actors, but there were a couple things that led us towards those guys,” Scheinert says about their choice of Dano and Radcliffe. “The movie is kind of a musical and we wanted actors comfortable singing, but we wanted them to be raw and human as they sing. Also, the movie is about loneliness and shame, and we didn’t want a handsome, beautiful boy actor out in in the woods, which cuts the list down massively. I just wanted a human-looking person, and Paul is such a lovely, interesting, unique-looking guy—we were both huge fans of all his movies.”
Convincing the actors to sign on ended up being easier than they expected. “The way Daniel Radcliffe put it was, ‘We’ll never get to play roles like this again, so why not?’” Kwan explains. “He was excited about the challenges that the character gave. We thought it was going to be a lot harder to get such well-known, talented actors to come be in our strange, small film, but we were pleasantly surprised, and I think a lot has to do with the fact we had these films to show what we’re going for and what our tone usually is and what kind of filmmaking excites us.”
“Both of their roles really evolved after we met them,” Scheinert continues. “In the process of pre-production and rehearsal, Daniel Radcliffe’s character changed so much and became this wide-eyed sweetheart of a character. Same with Paul. They both put so much of themselves into it, but they appreciated the grand scheme of things and then collaborated on the nitty-gritty with us.”
Kwan concurs with how well that casting worked for them. “One of the things we like to do tonally with our films is to create films that have a premise that sounds comedic but just unproduceable, then treat it with an earnestness and a gravitas. Having actors like Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe play these roles that are so strange and absurd but give it their ability to ground anything emotionally was really important to us. Having Paul be so relatably lonely and isolated, and having Daniel really curious and excited about the world and ready to learn—seeing that dynamic was really fun for us. I couldn’t imagine this film with anyone else at this point, just because they did such a great job.”
Part of the fun of Swiss Army Man is how Manny’s corpse helps Hank via his various bodily functions. At one point, Manny starts spouting water out of his mouth to become a much-needed water supply for Hank, and a certain appendage of Manny’s body acts as a compass to help direct Hank home.
“We did as much practically as possible,” Scheinert says about the creation of some of the more amazing visuals. “A lot of the visual FX are just rig removal and wire removal or taking two practical elements and compositing them. [Daniel] spouts water out of his mouth with the ‘Exorcist-type’ rig that we built where they did a mold of his teeth and we hid a tube on the far side of his face, and the only visual effect was removing the tube a little when it came into frame. It’s more fun to shoot something that’s real. Everybody gets to laugh and watch the monitor and have that kind of collaborative ‘aha moment’ where ‘that looked cool!’ but it gives the actors something to react against instead of a tennis ball.”
Kwan continues that thought. “I also think that these images we created wouldn’t be nearly as fun or fantastical or interesting if they were done all with CG. Our images are so simple and so visceral and so from a physical place, I think people watch it and see that’s why it adds so much to the shock value of it, but also watching Daniel Radcliffe spray water from his mouth is really funny when you can tell it’s actually happening.”
“We’d have these elements that were real to go off of, to help the whole thing stay messy and grounded in the real world, instead of being slick and fabricated completely,” Scheinert concludes.
The film’s score is similarly unique, as the Daniels went to Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, members of Atlanta-based alternative-rock group Manchester Orchestra, to create equally stimulating music for the film. “Music is a big part of our process just because we come from music-videos,” Kwan remarks. “That’s one of the quickest ways for us to be able to get on the same page, and it was very important that we had some music before we went and shot, not only because of the creative aspects but also because our characters would have to sing on set as well. A lot of the major piece we wrote before we even shot just to get the feel for it, and that was a really interesting and important part of the process, and it just got people excited.”
Scheinert adds, “We knew from the get-go that we wanted it to all be a capella or using instruments our main character could find out in the woods, like banging sticks together or garbage. Similar to how the characters evolved once we got Paul and Daniel involved, once we started talking to Robert and Andy, without us giving them that many notes, they just started sending music over. The script really struck a chord with them, and they started having this massive creative output, and it was so inspiring. That being said, it was like a year-long process where we were building songs from January 2015 until January 2016; right up until Sundance, we were still making songs for the movie.”
Swiss Army Man may not be the most mainstream comedy of the summer, but it’s a glorious representation of what happens when a studio fully gets behind a filmmaker’s unique vision. The film’s distributor, A24, has not shied away from some of the film’s more absurdist elements.
“Marketing the movie has been a crash-course education for us,” Scheinert admits, paying respect toward A24’s efforts at selling their eccentric movie to the general public. “We’ve always been the ones who marketed someone else’s product. We’ve never had to take something of ours and break it down into pieces and market it. From the get-go, we knew that this movie was going to be crazy but also have that viral appeal that our short-form work has on the Internet.”
“I think the fun thing about this film is that no matter who you are, you can go in and watch the movie and come out with a different way to describe it—how you label it with a genre or how you compare it to another film,” Kwan agrees. “That’s definitely something we’re excited about when we make something, when even we have a hard time pinning down what this thing is compared to what already exists. It’s pretty exciting to realize there’s another whole way of looking at movies, not just based on the carved lines of genre.”
“We thought of it as a calculated risk where we’re going to make this movie that’s unconventional, but we felt really confident we could pull off Daniel Radcliffe farting across the ocean like a fart-powered jet ski,” Scheinert says in closing. “There’s a built-in marketing campaign right there, and so far it’s been really fun to see the Internet react the way we reacted when we first came up with it—with disbelief and horror and excitement—but I think it would be a real bummer if that’s all the movie was. I think we all get a kick out of that reputation, but that’s such a small part of the movie.”