Their full names are Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. But the credits on their films — music videos, TV ads, shorts, features — are simpler. Those on their newest, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” read “Written and directed by Daniels.” There’s no top billing, no alphabetizing; it’s all equal.
That’s not saying that these guys are two peas in a pod. Both Emerson graduates, both 34, they share the joys of being known as outlandish outsiders with wildly imaginative filmmaking ideas. That well-earned reputation is obvious with such work as their video of Foster the People’s “Houdini,” in which the band is killed off at the 10-second mark; their “Unlimited You” Nike ad, filled with young wannabe athletes excelling beyond belief; and their first feature, “Swiss Army Man” (2016), a bromance about flatulence.
But alongside similar cinematic sensibilities, there are plenty of differences. Scheinert is from Birmingham, Ala., has a background in sketch comedy, prefers doing very fast rough cuts in the editing room, and, asked to name a couple of films that he watches over and over, goes with “Wet Hot American Summer” and “Shaolin Soccer” (both 2001). Kwan, a local boy from Westborough, comes out of design and animation, likes to do a lot of recutting during the initial editing process, and opts for “Groundhog Day” (1993) and “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).
In “Everything,” there are no individual strengths or flaws on display. When they agreed on something, they went with it. If there was any dispute, it was worked out. In telling their story of Evelyn, an overworked, stressed-out middle-aged woman (Michelle Yeoh) trying to hold her dysfunctional family together while going through an intense tax audit and, oh, yeah, finding out that she’s been chosen to save the world, the Daniels prove to be an inspired team. Their film is insanely dazzling and intimately heartwarming, and it covers a lot of ground in between.
Now living in Los Angeles, Kwan and Scheinert were recently in Boston to discuss “Everything” and explain how they work together.
Q. You met while taking a 3-D animation course at Emerson. Did that immediately lead to making films together?
Kwan: No, it wasn’t until after graduation that we started collaborating on stuff. During the summer after graduation, we both ended up as teaching assistants at New York Film Academy’s Harvard summer program for middle school and high school kids.
Scheinert: You could say we were summer camp counselors.
Kwan: Our job was to supervise the kids while they make their movies. What we ended up doing was just encouraging them to make increasingly crazy movies. And that was where we started creatively to like each other more.
Scheinert: There’s a special kind of anarchy that comes with camps and with making short films with kids that we both were really drawn to.
Q. So how did that lead to your first short film, “Swingers” (2009)?
Kwan: It was after camp. We were jealous of the kids because they got to make movies all day, and we didn’t. Dan had just got a Canon 5D Mark II camera, and we were teaching each other things. I was teaching him [the animation software] After Effects, and he was teaching me how to shoot live action. There was no goal beyond just learning techniques.
Scheinert: Then I said, “You know After Effects. What if we did something weird and surreal?” And on the fly, we made up the gag of how to get the swing stuck in the air and how to switch our faces. It took us an hour to shoot.
Kwan: A week later we put it on Vimeo, just for fun. And it was staff picked, immediately. I had been obsessed with Vimeo. I would watch everyone else to see what they were doing. The Vimeo staff pick was something I had been dreaming about. And for it to be the first thing we do . . .
Scheinert: And we didn’t even try very hard.
Q. But that little film opened some doors, and you worked your way up to music videos and TV spots and feature films. The rumor is that you got the idea for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” when you were promoting “Swiss Army Man” in 2016.
Kwan: Right, that’s when we first started talking about it.
Q. But the story was initially about Evelyn’s husband, Waymond. What happened there?
Kwan: We had written two drafts before we got to switching.
Scheinert: In the first draft we thought, what if we cast Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh in our movie? But Jackie’s hard to get, costs a fortune, and makes mostly Chinese films these days. So we thought who’s our next favorite actor? And we both said Michelle. Up to that point, the main character wasn’t very well written. It’s bad screenwriting when you just have things happening to a person, and they don’t make any choices or have opinions. We wrote two drafts where a bunch of stuff happens to a guy, and it wasn’t until we started talking about Evelyn and about our moms that suddenly the character had agency and was someone that we hadn’t seen in a movie before. And then we met Michelle.
Q. Did you go back and start from scratch?
Kwan: The script did change quite a bit between drafts, but once we found Michelle we rewrote it again, just to sharpen it to her.
Scheinert: We had a rough beginning, middle, and end that stayed consistent, but we were constantly rearranging variables.
Q. How many different titles did you have along the way?
Kwan: He wanted to call it “Hot Dog Hands” for a while, then it was “Cosmic FOMO,” which is the fear of missing out.
Scheinert: Before we wrote the first draft, the working title was “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” but there was a moment where we hesitated. We thought, “Our parents can’t remember the title, that’s not good!” So we tossed around “Evelyn Everywhere All at Once.”
Kwan: Which is why we named her Evelyn . . . just in case we went to marketing and they wanted something that would sound nice.
Scheinert: But once we started showing the movie to people, the [original] title resonated with them.
Q. I got lots of messages from the film. At first it was “Nothing matters,” then it became “Everything matters,” then “There are no rules,” and then “You should be kind.” Am I missing any?
Kwan: When the movie begins, nothing matters, and that’s terrifying to Evelyn because she’s someone who thinks everything matters. She’s being meticulous and trying to take care of everything, and it’s strangling everyone around her. But by going through the chaos and being able to see eye to eye with someone who has seen everything, she comes out the other end and realizes that nothing matters, and that’s OK. And if nothing matters, and everything is chaos, let’s always be kind.
Q. So are you guys living the dream?
Kwan: I thought I was gonna end up living in my parents’ basement. I was nervous about the fact that I didn’t find my skill set by the time I got to college. I dropped out of Boy Scouts, stopped playing soccer, was terrible in marching band. I was in a punk band but I was terrible at it. I was really miserable, and my mom could tell. She said, “Daniel, you’ve been bad at everything in your life because you don’t care about it. It’s only when you care about something that you’ll excel. You should go to film school.” I said no. I went to the University of Connecticut, and was in business school. But I was so miserable there I thought, even if I risk it all and I fail at trying to make a career at filmmaking, at least I’ll be happier than whatever I’m doing right now. It turns out, my mom was right. And film is the only thing I can do now.
Scheinert: My favorite part is that we get to do this with our friends. What I’ve been soaking in over the past two weeks is just how much this movie meant to people that are most important in my life. And watching our friends, who we worked with on the movie, celebrate it and talk about how important it was to them. That’s lovely. That floors me.
Interview was edited and condensed. Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.