Meet the Daniels. Their new movie is about a farting corpse.
Filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively credited as “Daniels,” took the directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for their debut feature, “Swiss Army Man.” Opening on a desert island, the wildly original new tale follows a suicidal castaway named Hank (Paul Dano), whose life is saved when he finds a corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) that is so flatulent that Hank is able to ride the body back to civilization, like a Jet Ski.
The surprising mix of the juvenile and the poetic is an aesthetic that has characterized the collaborations of Kwan, 28, and Scheinert, 29, since they graduated from Emerson College, where the two first met and, as it has been widely reported, initially disliked each other. Their best-known collaboration, the Grammy-winning music video for the song “Turn Down for What,” features Kwan in a state of manic — and highly visible — arousal. Over the course of their 13-minute-long short “Interesting Ball,” Scheinert gets slowly sucked inside Kwan.
The Los Angeles-based duo phoned from San Francisco, where they were promoting the new film, to discuss the methods behind their shared madness.
Q: What was it about each of you that initially rubbed the other the wrong way?
Scheinert: Dan just looks funny.
Kwan: Scheinert is hot and attractive and judges ugly people that way. In every class, there is a kid who sits in the back and does not participate, and there is a kid in the front who talks way too much. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum. I hate organized school. I’m more self-taught and mostly spent time doodling on notebooks during class, whereas Scheinert loves to participate and has lots of opinions and likes to fight the teacher. We judged each other silently from afar.
Scheinert: Yet our work was similarly ambitious and weird.
Q: Working as a team, how do you handle the division of labor?
Scheinert: The unspoken rule has become that enthusiasm wins. Whoever’s the most excited to do something, does that.
Kwan: The fun thing is that it almost feels like we’re running a relay race and that we take turns carrying each other. Films are marathons. We kind of take turns being the one that’s stressed out or the one that’s inspired or the one who takes care of the nitty-gritty.
Q: Were you thinking of that image while you made “Swiss Army Man,” in which Manny first carries Hank, and then Hank carries Manny?
Kwan: That accidentally happened while we were making this movie. The more we tried to put ourselves into it, the more their relationship mirrored our working relationship and our personal relationship. It’s pretty obvious, looking back on it, but that was definitely not the intention.
Q: In the film, Hank is obsessed with a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he doesn’t really know. Why is the realest relationship one with another man, albeit a barely articulate corpse?
Kwan: Gender is a really interesting thing that we did not think about going into [the movie]. It’s purely what came out of us. For sure, guys are not taught to share things, ever.
Scheinert: I read a book called “I Don’t Want to Talk About it: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression,” about how men don’t talk about their feelings. But I read it after I wrote the movie.
Kwan: I believe that the inability to share is part of the human condition. It’s probably heightened nowadays because of how easy it is to hide behind a postmodern ironic view of the world. In a really weird way, our films are trying to consolidate the need to be open and earnest and true with the fact that most of our adult existence has become filled with this nihilistic pessimism. We’re trying to juggle both with our work. That’s why we have this strange collision of sincere and . . .
Scheinert: . . . absurd.
Kwan: It’s kind of mean to make fun of movies by making a film about a farting corpse. It’s us making fun of storytelling almost.
Scheinert: But doing so in a very earnest way.
Q: What do you have against movie storytelling?
Scheinert: I think one thing — I don’t know if it’s a bone to pick with Hollywood or with myself — is that when we’re kids and we watch movies, they blow our minds. Then we get older and suddenly we’ve already seen a movie where this happens. Suddenly I’m not feeling anything when I go to the movies. I just miss it. We make movies that are really unpredictable as a way to shake ourselves and the audience out of the comfort zone. There were a couple of old folks at Sundance who said, “I loved your movie. It made me feel like a kid again.” We took that as the highest compliment.
Q: Talk about your fascination with bodily functions.
Kwan: How can we all have these things that we hide? How did it come about that we all experience these things, and yet we’re not open about it? The body fits into the theme of our film because we all have something that we cannot believe anyone will love about us.
Scheinert: Pretty late in the screenwriting process, we came up with the idea of including the book “Everyone Poops” in the movie. We were making a crazy “Everyone Poops” for adults. It’s an oddly profound little book.
Kwan: So this is “Everybody Dies.”
Scheinert: That was the alternate title.
Q: You’ve said that the idea for the film began with a single image of a lonely man on an island finding a dead body and using the power of his flatulence to ride him off the island. What’s the appeal?
Scheinert: A lot of times in our work, we don’t know where our ideas come from, but the really weird question is, “Why do they stick around?” The ones that make us laugh and also confuse us the most. It’s not the initial idea that is great. It’s the conversations after that.
It’s more like a therapy project than a moment of divine inspiration.
Swiss Army Man (R, 95 minutes). At area theaters.