It’s important to know one thing about the “Daniels” — that is, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who made “Swiss Army Man,” aka the Sundance movie in which Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse who also has a giant boner that can be used as a compass.
“We don’t like fart jokes, and we don’t think boners are that funny,” Kwan says. “That we made a movie about farts and boners when we ourselves don’t like farts and boners feels like some strange therapy.” (They also don’t like a cappella music — so of course the score is mostly a cappella.)
And their feature debut has a lot of farting. Granted, most of it is regulated to the first 20 minutes. Paul Dano plays a sad sack trapped on a deserted island. He’s about to hang himself when he finds a corpse washed on shore. Suddenly the dead body, essayed by no less than Daniel Radcliffe, starts farting — and farting, and farting, and farting. Soon it starts slowly coming back to life, prompting the two to bond in a way that’s both touching and still relentlessly scatological and lowbrow.
“I love taking things that we hate and other people hate and we know we should be repulsed by, and then enthusing them with something beautiful and transcendent and inspiring,” Kwan explains. “I think there’s something really important about that kind of thinking — the ability to take something you hate and should not love and relating with it, forcing yourself to find out what it is about this thing that is wonderful.”
Of course, it’s still a movie about a farting corpse played by Harry Potter. Kwan and Scheinert — who prefer to be called “Daniels,” no definitive article, and whose acclaimed music videos and shorts can be watched here — still see it as an elaborate joke that spiraled out of control. The more it came together as a real film with real stars, the better the joke became.
“It wasn’t just about the final product. The process was funny to us: the fact that we would have to go to meetings with billionaires and pitch this movie to them,” Kwan says. “We never intended it to be performance art, but now, looking back at it, it sort of was.”
“We sort of tricked Robert Redford into inviting us to the Sundance Labs and helping us make this script better,” Scheinert says, laughing at the absurdity of it all.
And yet they mean it, too. “Swiss Army Man” indeed becomes moving, but never maudlin or saccharine. It even becomes about existential dread and the strangeness of living. In fact, looking at a different side of farting was how it grew from a creatively dumb idea (a farting corpse movie) into something more.
“We were talking about how you s— yourself when you die, and farts are just you decomposing,” Scheinert recalls.
But back to that idea of embracing what you hate, Kwan says he agrees with certain commentators that say “Swiss Army Man” represents a new form of sincerity: one that’s self-aware but not cynical.
“The pessimism that comes from post-modernism is exhausting,” Kwan says. “We want to be fully exposed and sincere and find something beautiful in things. But we’re also self-aware, and we’re not allowed to do that. So finding something that allows us to do both is our goal with our stories.
“It’s a joke, but we also 100 percent mean it at the same time,” he adds. “The more we mean it, the funnier the joke becomes.”
Kwan even thinks embracing the things you hate makes you a better person. He admits to enjoying the dreadful 2002 Dana Carvey comedy “Master of Disguise”; Scheinert likes the Wayans brothers’ “White Girls.”
“Your kneejerk reaction is, ‘Ugh, that asshole did that thing because he believes in that kind of ideology and I’m going to judge him,’” Kwan says. “Working on a movie like this makes me much more sympathetic to things that automatically get shat upon.” That kind of empathy, he says, is important at a time when everyone’s at each other’s throats over the socio-political divide. “My mom’s a Trump supporter. That’s something I have to find common ground with.”
Failing that, he can at least simply put a song he hates into his movie in a way that changes it. “How can we take ‘Cotton Eye Joe’ — this horrible song — and make it beautiful?” he says.
The best joke, they think, is if “Swiss Army Man” becomes a mainstream hit.
“We want a lot of people to see this movie — but especially people you wouldn’t think would like it,” Scheinert says. “If people drag their families to this, I’d be so happy. That happened at Sundance: You’d meet old folks who were like, ‘You know what? I really loved it! It made me feel young again!’”