There’s a moment near the end of Everything Everywhere All at Once, as the film reaches its ultimate climax, as the fate of so much hangs in the balance, where James Hong, in the role of Gong Gong, while peeling a googly eye from his own eyelid, perfectly sums up the situation with just two words: “So stupid.”
Such is the great simultaneity of the Daniels’ style: The very serious and the very stupid. Intense violence paired with severe silliness. Post-ironic flourishes coupled with gushing sincerity. An uncanny ability to blend over-the-top visual effects with moments of intimate humanity.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have collaborated for more than a decade, since meeting at Emerson College in the early 2000s. Together, as the Daniels, they have also made the 2016 feature, Swiss Army Man, and directed music videos, television episodes and numerous short films. While the short films of many directors remain unavailable, or restricted only to festival screenings and the occasional DVD extra, many of those by the Daniels are readily accessible via platforms like YouTube and Vimeo.
The digital ubiquity of the Daniels’ early films feels fitting. So much of their work contains traces of that very specific sensibility, in part a byproduct from coming of age on and with the internet. Their experimentation with CGI and other special effects in particular recalls the kind of independent filmmaking that has flourished thanks to tools made more accessible by digital means. Also, they’re fresh and funny as hell.
In the short films of the Daniels, one finds precursors to Everything Everywhere All at Once. A style of two filmmakers emerges across these works.
As the year ends and Everything Everywhere All at Once reenters moviegoers’ minds (assuming it ever left in the first place), here is a look at the short films of the Daniels, all of which you can watch in fewer than 40 minutes:
The duo’s first short is a one-minute film from 2009 in which they both star. Just the title, Swingers, hints at so much that will follow in the Daniels’ work, especially a heavy emphasis on wordplay. There is no sex here, but there is an intimate moment. Scheinert, playing “Vince Vaughn,” sits on a swing. Across the playground, he sees “Jon Favreau” (Kwan), and asks for a push. In a characteristically over-dramatic eyeline match, they face one another as a loud “whoosh” sound plays. In another context, they might be preparing for combat. But instead, Favreau agrees to push Vaughn. As Vaughn reaches the highest point of the swing’s arc, he stops, suspended in midair. Baffled, Favreau walks to his feet and looks up. Vaughn then comes swinging back down to the ground, crashing into Favreau and sending the two flying into the air. The image cuts to black. They awake to find that each now has the other’s face. The film ends with the two screaming.
In just one minute, so much of the Daniels’ style and sense of humor becomes self-evident: Playing with identity. An innocent exchange leading to a violent outcome. Special effects employed in the service of ironic, over-the-top humor. Am I being too serious in my analysis of this silly, first film? Yes! But isn’t that the point?
Tides of the Heart (2009)
Later that year, with an assist from “Cal Howick and Stephanie Guedalia as people behind the camera,” the Daniels released a 52-second short film, Tides of the Heart. Again, the directors star as the film’s only two characters and begin the scenario with an off, albeit tender exchange. Scheinert, wearing a shirt with a bald eagle draped in an American flag near either lapel, sits down next to Kwan at a bench overlooking the ocean. “Sail much, lately?” Scheinert asks. “Not lately,” Kwan replies. He does not have a boat. They begin to bicker. Scheinert says Kwan “is being a baby.” He sits up. “The only boat you need, you’ve got,” he says, pointing towards Kwan’s heart. “It’s in here.” Upon this realization, a giant boat comes bursting out of Kwan’s chest. As he begins to scream and blood starts pouring everywhere, the film ends.
With the violence, the absurdity and the play on words, one again sees a kernel of Everything Everywhere All at Once. It is all about finding something in yourself that you previously did not know was there. It is about fulfilling a dream. But who said it had to have a happy ending?
Happy Holidays (2010)
If you gather the family around the hearth to watch just one holiday movie, make it this one. Happy Holidays finds the horror in a familiar scene. Borrowing the tropes and tune of a Christmas-time commercial, the one-minute film begins with a young boy racing down the stairs to open his presents. As the rest of his family comes to join him, the image cuts to the wrapped gifts, who, in Toy Story-like fashion, come alive. At first, the presents cower in the presence of the child, fearing they will become his next victims, having their innards torn apart in a frenzy of Christmas joy. But just when you think the fake commercial is about to end, with the family posing and smiling at the camera as “Happy Holidays” flashes on screen, the not-yet-unwrapped gifts start to fight back. We see the mother slam her head on the coffee table and the father writhing on the floor as a gift approaches the camera and the image fades to black.
This short film is all about playing with its audience’s expectations. First, we witness a happy Christmas scene. Then, we see presents turned into mutilated corpses. After that, the gifts become vengeful hunters. This is the first of the films on this list to offer true visual richness and a narrative arc. With virtuosic precision and speed, the duo packs so much into this slick work to reveal the uncanniness of Christmas tropes—and an understanding of the absurdity and violence that lingers beneath the surface of cozy, supposedly cheery capitalism.
Few things in the world are as cool as dogs and skateboards. So, what if your dog was a skateboard? Such is the premise of Dogboarding, a hilariously fun two-minute short that features a group of skateboarders taking their dogs for the most unconventional outing you will ever see. With little narrative, the work takes a far more experimental approach. The trick is in the superb editing. In an instant, real dogs are transformed into skateboards, with the help of special effects and, presumably, stuffed animals fastened to the actual boards. As the dogs-as-skateboards become airborne and accomplices in the fun, they smile. Their tongues wag. They are just as happy as their human owners.
Here, one sees a key preoccupation of the Daniels’ work: Turning one thing into another, often into something totally absurd that defies logic. The morphing and blending of objects is not just a fun aside, it drives the action. The ways the Daniels take such absurd moments and weave them into the fabric of the story is something that we will see again and again. It’s what allows us to accept whatever they put in front of us at face value. It is how the absurdity slowly begins to make sense.
If you’ve stuck around with this article until now, and remain skeptical of how one can see the feature film work of the Daniels begin to emerge in these early shorts, then Puppets will (hopefully) assuage your concerns. Much of the Daniels’ oeuvre deals with film clichés: The friends who unite on a playground, a man looking hopelessly out at sea, a family gathering around the fire at Christmas. Here, they take a similar approach, evoking two film genres: The rom-com and the martial arts movie.
Puppets begins with a couple having a banal conversation against a city backdrop. Suddenly, the Daniels emerge from their stomachs. In a reflexive turn, Scheinert demands they cut, while Kwan insists that the scene is going well. Scheinert, poking out from his “people puppet,” says the scene is cliché; Kwan angrily responds that the scene is, in fact, based on his life. The two begin to fight and beat each other up. Sound familiar?
The fight scenes here directly recall those in Everything Everywhere All at Once, in particular the emphasis on the body. Bodies are taken over by others. The fighting leads to getting knocked out of those bodies. With a fitting mix of sound effects and overly dramatic dialogue, the directors then turn random objects that appear on the street into weapons: A jar of coins becomes a katana Scheinert pulls from Kwan’s behind, a cat becomes a whip Kwan summons from Scheinert’s crotch. A mysticism, a kind of magic that recalls the camera tricks of early cinema, not only appears, but informs the fighting.
Here, again, the duo’s precise blocking stands out. The deeply silly weapons and circumstances contrast with the frenzied cuts and unwaveringly violent action. Such blending of genres, reinventing of clichés and stark visual contrasts are what make this short film work. They will also become hallmarks of the Daniels’ budding style.
My Best Friend’s Wedding/My Best Friend’s Sweating (2011)
There is foreshadowing, and then there is the fact that this next short film by the Daniels was originally screened as part of a monthly short film series called…Everything.
In My Best Friend’s Wedding/My Best Friend’s Sweating, Scheinert plays a man about to get married. He sits under a tree, in a tuxedo, on his wedding day. Kwan, also in a tuxedo, comes out to comfort him. Scheinert insists he is not nervous, just sweaty. As a gesture of their intimate friendship, Kwan comforts him with the usual clichés and gently rubs his back. For a moment, Scheinert feels better. But the rub makes Scheinert’s sweating even worse. Sweat begins to shoot out of every pore, until, like the Wicked Witch of the West, he is nothing but a pile of clothes in the arms of a crying Kwan.
One could pair this short film with the Daniels’ debut feature, Swiss Army Man. A fun blend of body horror and comedy, Kwan carrying a sweating Scheinert recalls the relationship between the corpse Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) and the stranded Hank (Paul Dano): One friend caring for another in a nonsensical, life-threatening situation. Water gags play a central role here too. While in Swiss Army Man, water that pours from Manny’s mouth hydrates and saves Hank, the opposite occurs here. A sweet gesture becomes a deadly one.
As is true with much of the Daniels’ films, here, everything is amped to the max. A common scenario is dialed up to achieve maximum visual and dramatic effect. The Daniels offer a blend of the familiar and the new. Much of their work clearly comes from a deep understanding of cliché, and a desire to flip it on its head with the possibilities of special effects. A 21st century, post-cinematic style of filmmaking comes to emerge.
Martial arts fighting in the Daniels’ work reaches a new level in Pockets. A man, played by Billy Chew, walks alone at night, promising to rob a stranger so that he and his partner can buy food. With a knife, he confronts a man, who, little does he know, possesses a jacket with special powers. While wearing the jacket, the stranger, played by Scheinert, can reach into the pockets of others. In self-defense, he begins punching Chew via the man’s own pockets. Things take a dark turn when Scheinert continues to torture Chew, even after he clearly relents. The film climaxes with Scheinert eating a “heat pocket,” which Chew then uses to punch and defeat him from within.
As will be true for the two films that follow, one sees a key thematic parallel with Everything Everywhere All at Once emerge. Similar to Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn, Chew’s character finds himself dropped into a violent situation, the rules of which do not seem to follow the logic of our universe. Rather, they offer a new understanding of the universe. The Daniels convey this warping of time and space through their filmmaking. They bring us, and their protagonist, to a point of new understanding. Chew’s character, like Evelyn, must then master this new knowledge and style of fighting in the moment, so as to vanquish the enemy, thus saving himself and his family. Featuring a mix of wordplay, consumer products and a character in financial ruin, this work bears every trace of having been made by the Daniels.
With showings at the Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance and the Museum of the Moving Image, Possibilia captured the film world, albeit on a perhaps more insular level, years before the release of Everything Everywhere All at Once. Billed as the “first interactive narrative film,” Possibilia stars Alex Karpovsky and Zoe Jarman as a couple on the verge of breaking up. The film takes place in the multiverse, “whatever that means,” as on-screen text informs us at the film’s outset. As the film plays, viewers have the option to click through different scenarios. The dialogue carries over, but the image shifts and the outcome differs.
On a technical level, the film is extraordinary. It is like the Kuleshov Effect on steroids. To truly understand the film, one must watch/play it. After all, like the multiverse, there is no one version of this film. It shifts depending on the actions of the viewer. Possibilia captures the spirit of the multiverse—how seemingly banal decisions, like the click of a computer mouse, can alter the course of events forever. With its thematic scope, superb performances, impeccable editing and play with technology, this film is in every way the forerunner to the multiverse epic the Daniels would release in 2022. It may even be their greatest achievement as a directing duo.
Interesting Ball (2014)
Before there was the Everything Bagel, there was the Interesting Ball. This 2014 short film, the longest of the works included here, begins with a red ball, the kind you might play a game like four square with, bouncing its way through the lives of various people. It is the kind of cliché that could start a car commercial. But, in a clear rebuke of convention, the opening scene ends with a man taking a shotgun and shooting the ball as it bounces towards him. This man, we will later learn, is upset because the ball had sex with his wife. It is a moment that prepares us for what is to come: Clichés that are, once again, turned on their heads and blasted away.
Interesting Ball is a film about the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated events. Characters find themselves in violent, romantic and other absurd situations after run-ins with the ball. A woman gets a call asking if her refrigerator is running. Soon, the refrigerator comes to life and begins to wreak havoc. The Daniels play a pair of friends. Kwan kneels over a sleeping Scheinert to fart in his face. Scheinert wakes up and kicks Kwan in the butt, only to have his leg sucked up into Kwan. A group of men hanging out on the beach slowly form into one Voltron-like figure. They wind up accidentally killing one of their ex-girlfriends. The throughline between these events? The interesting ball.
The film climaxes with a superb montage, showing each of these events going horribly wrong and how the characters end up growing once it’s all over. In addition to its blend of absurd and touching moments, the closing montage recalls that of Everything Everywhere All at Once in the ways it ties together seemingly unrelated, bizarre events. It all somehow makes sense. As it plays, an older man, who is about to be dumped by his younger girlfriend, discusses the nature of the universe. “These weird things that happen aren’t just possible,” he says, “they are inevitable.”
Interesting Ball ends with Scheinert fully consumed by Kwan’s behind. When it’s over, Kwan comes to terms with what has happened. Relieved, he says to himself, “Okay.” Randomness is not only part of life, it is life. It is inevitable, and it will all be okay.
It was also inevitable, plain as day after watching these short films years, that the Daniels would go on to make a film like Everything Everywhere All at Once. The next time you watch it, pair it with a few of these short films. Your viewing experience will be enriched and all the more absurd.
Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. Since 2019, he has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website. He also watches Shark Tank way more than he would care to admit.