Screwball Sincerity: Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man


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Birmingham native Daniel Scheinert’s new film Swiss Army Man is inventive. It’s weird. It has a lot of flatulence.

Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by A24

Paul Dano is enthusiastically riding Daniel Radcliffe across teal blue waves like he’s a horse on water—a surreal jet ski ride propelled by Radcliffe’s farts. Oh, and Radcliffe is a corpse. And that’s just the opening scene.

There’s a reason why the writer-directors behind Swiss Army Man call it weird, but also serious—a “fart drama,” if you will. For Daniel Scheinert, a Birmingham native who got his start at Sidewalk Film Festival, it’s a “buddy film in the woods between a lonely man and his corpse best friend.” A suicidal, stranded Hank (Dano) discovers a dead Manny (Radcliffe) washed up on a shore and finds he is a sort of human Swiss army knife. In Radcliffe’s words, he has “magical bodily functions.”

The film has survival. It has romance. It has comedy. It has music. It has action. “The first time I saw the work by these guys called the Daniels, I literally thought, ‘Whatever juice they are drinking, I want some,’” Dano said in an interview on YouTube. “It’s not just the crazy ideas that are in their film. It’s the actual spirit.”

Crazy is nothing new to the Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, who together make up the Daniels. Their early films were “weird parodies of dramas,” combining stupid with sincere and a lot of body humor. In one, a man sweats to death, and in another someone reaches into magical pockets only to reach into someone else’s pockets. In fact, they initially started working together as teaching assistants at a summer film camp for kids in Boston as students at Emerson College. They’d try to one-up each other based on how crazy their kids’ movies turned out, and then at the end of the day they’d be jealous of the kids and go home and make movies together.

From there they moved to Los Angeles and accidently stumbled into “silly comedy with visual effects.” They charged $50 for their first music video, which led to shooting a Manchester Orchestra’s “Simple Math” in Scheinert’s parents’ backyard in Guntersville, Alabama. People were drawn to the videos’ “unusual freewheeling insanity.”

“Simple Math” and “Houdini” by Foster the People were both nominated for what Scheinert says were “crazy unexpected awards like VMAs and Grammys.” Their most viewed video is “Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, in what Scheinert calls a “miraculous synthesis of ideas” where a lot of stuff blows up. It also plays off both Daniels’ love of dancing like idiots. “Some people think it’s trashy sexuality, but in some ways we were trying to make fun of the sexuality you see in music videos,” Scheinert says. “Ultimately, it helped us reach both audiences, celebrating it and parodying it, which was kind of fun.”

With that tone in mind, it’s not surprising that their first feature film started as a fart joke, and they kicked around the idea of a super-powered corpse for a year or two. They shot Swiss Army Man last summer on the coasts and in forests near Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Eureka in Northern California. After only a few months of editing, it debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January. “We are used to working fast, and it helped us not overthink things,” Scheinert says.

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They did, however, take the first six months of last year to rewrite a portion of the script, a lot of it based on feedback from Dano and what “an enthusiastic sweetheart” Radcliffe is in real life.

Since then, the Daniels have seen negative reactions, positive reactions, and confused reactions. “It’s been fun watching everyone debate the movie,” Scheinert says. “We made it as a social experiment of sorts.” Variety calls it “dazzling,” The Huffington Post “wild and inventive.”

It’s when Dano read about that ecstatic human jet ski scene that he knew he wanted to do the film: “I thought it was not only funny but it was so absurd that it was kind of beautiful too. It took on a glorious majesty.” Music by Manchester Orchestra members Andy Hull and Robert McDowell adds an epic feel to the movie. The song “Montage” literally narrates a montage of the film’s signature action: “Now we killed a raccoon, We are using your body, like it’s a machine gun, Now we are shooting some fish, Our friendship is blossoming, Let’s eat the stuff we killed…All we ever needed was a montage.”

Both Dano and Radcliffe readily admit that the tone, comedy, and heart of the film was all in the script. Before filming, the Daniels sent Dano a YouTube video of a kid who thought he could smash a piece of wood with his head but failed—and that was the kind of funny and sad they wanted him to capture on screen.

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Swiss Army Man is now playing in theaters and film festivals across the country, but its screening at Sidewalk Film Festival has extra significance, and not just because Scheinert will also speak at the festival. He was into theater and show choir in the IB program at Shades Valley High School, and while he first started making films because his older brother was, it was Sidewalk that first got him to take film seriously.

“I went one year (and) had a great time, and the next year started entering every competition that they would let me,” he recalls, noting he interned for the festival as well. “At the beginning I was making movies for that community experience, instead of an intense competition experience.” Since then, he says, he hasn’t found many festivals like it.

Swiss Army Man screens Sunday, Aug. 28 at 12:50 p.m. at the Alabama Theatre.

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