The American Society of Cinematographers

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Swiss Army Man - Directing
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Embracing the Weirdness

Swiss Army Man directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert on shooting their absurdist discourse on loneliness.

Unit photography by Joyce Kim, courtesy of A24. Additional photos courtesy of Larkin Seiple.

You can’t get much more crude than Swiss Army Man’s first 10 minutes — man (Paul Dano) meets corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) and is saved by the powers of its bounteous gas — yet as the duo’s adventure progresses, it becomes clear that any discomfort the audience may feel with the subject matter is precisely the point of the movie. Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as “Daniels,” have in essence crafted a gross-out comedy whose very purpose is to ask why people are grossed out by these things to begin with, and if acceptance of our own “grossness” might be the key to eradicating loneliness. And all the while the surreal tale is told by way of cinematographer Larkin Seiple’s poised framing in lush forests with vivid hues, and a soaring a capella soundtrack by Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull and Robert McDowell.

Prior to Swiss Army Man — their first full-length feature — Emerson College alumni Kwan and Scheinert collaborated on a series of short films, as well as a slew of music videos including arguably their most well known: the Grammy-nominated and rollickingly primal clip for DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” also shot by Seiple. As part of our coverage on the making of Swiss Army Man, AC spoke with Kwan and Scheinert.

American Cinematographer: What were some of the visual ideas for Swiss Army Man that you had from the very beginning?

Daniel Scheinert: The initial thesis was, “What if we made a movie that had the stupidest premise ever and made that the most beautiful thing we possibly could?” We approached Larkin and said, “We want this to be a celebration of beauty and life — and meanwhile the content is going to constantly be subversive and weird and unpredictable.” So we gave him that open-ended assignment, and that led to us making a concerted effort to location-scout more intensely than we ever had before, and get the nicest lenses we’d ever shot on. The whole thing was done with [Cooke Anamorphic/i] lenses, with only a few exceptions. [Swiss Army Man was shot primarily on an Arri Alexa XT set to 4:3 sensor mode, with additional footage captured on Alexa Mini, Red Epic Dragon, Phantom Flex4K and Sony PMW‑EX3 cameras.]

Daniel Kwan: We generally like to treat our [projects] as traditionally as possible, so that when people watch it, everything about it looks and feels like a normal movie. [Swiss Army Man] has Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, and it feels and looks like anything I would see at a theater, but then the contrast of ideas up against these more traditional feelings — I think it creates a really cool dissonance for the viewer. We like to make things that turn peoples brains on in that way.

Tell us about working with your cinematographer, and fellow Emerson College alum, Larkin Seiple.

Kwan: It’s obvious that he’s an amazing technical person. His stuff just looks so beautiful, and he has such a good knowledge of what kind of equipment and crew he needs, and what we want out of the story. What we are often prioritizing is how much we can pull off within our budget and means — to push all of our resources into something that causes the production itself to burst at the seams, and the story to explode into something hopefully bigger than its pieces. And I think Larkin is the kind of collaborator who understands and prioritizes [that] fully, even over some of the technical things. He knows when to push back, but he also knows when we need to push ourselves to our limits, so that the story can be completed. And that’s a big thing for us, because he’s such a movie nerd; he understands every aspect of filmmaking, which is kind of a blessing. You should have everyone in your crew be able to do that, and he’s always thinking how things are going to cut and how things are going to flow. It’s really nice to have another person who’s conscious of those things, while we get distracted by the other things. It’s kind of amazing.

Scheinert: We always love to create as much of a summer-camp vibe to working on movies as possible, and we work with the same people over and over, and make the process fun for those involved — and I find Larkin’s relationship with his crew pretty inspiring. They’re like a little family; they’re so tight-knit. So just as much as we love Larkin, we love his AC [Matt Sanderson] and his DIT [Matt Conrad] and his gaffer [Matt Ardine]. So there’s a whole team of lovely people that come along with them. I feel like that vibe permeates the movie and the whole process.

What were some of the more memorable challenges on the production?

Kwan: One of the biggest problems we had was figuring out how to get the Jet Ski moment to work — the moment where Daniel Radcliffe is shooting across the ocean with Paul Dano on his back. We knew we wanted to do that mostly practical — to allow the actors to actually ride, so that we could capture those moments and have that pure, exhilarating joy captured on camera. We didn't know how and who to talk to and where to begin, and we went through so many different versions of how we could do it. [Production designer Jason] Kisvarday was somebody who is down for those kinds of challenges. Most of what we were trying to do was, “How can we pull off some of these ideas with the resources that we have?”

Scheinert: [We used] a very intense spherical [Angenieux Optimo 24-290 (T2.8) 12x] zoom lens. That was one of the days we couldn’t shoot anamorphic, because we wanted to be able to circle around the actors, and get close-ups and wides off that one crane without cutting. We could [often] only afford to do about one take every hour, because Paul’s beard would fall off or resetting the boats took a while. We had an armada of boats — there was the make-up and costumes boat that would shuttle over and work on Paul and Daniel [Radcliffe], and then shuttle away, and we were on the camera boat. [Ed. note: For a detailed description of the shooting of the Jet-Ski sequence, see AC’s main Swiss Army Man story.]

Do you think the final product is better because of the challenges involved?

Scheinert: Totally! We’re not geniuses who sit in a room, invent a movie, know exactly how to pull it off, and then get a bunch of yes-men to come and do it for us. Because we go into preproduction with challenges, it allows these people who are smarter than us to collaborate with us. Half the time, we’re just creating challenges we think will be rewarding to fix, and then hire a bunch of people to fix them with us.

Kwan: Something we learned early on in our career is that we tend to over-stuff our content with a lot of challenges, so that even though some of them fail, a lot of them succeed and you let those things shine in the edit. And you find a way to craft something that’s still exciting and thrilling despite those little failures here and there. It’s a strange process to have, but it’s one that excites our brains.


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