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Alumni “Daniels” on Emerson, "Swiss Army Man," and What’s Ahead

Emerson alumni Daniel Kwan '10, left, and Daniel Scheinert '09 on the set of Swiss Army Man. Photo/courtesy of A24

Directing duo Daniel Scheinert ’09 and Daniel Kwan ’10 had a clear goal in mind when they set out to make Swiss Army Man, their dark comedy that opens nationally in theaters July 1.

“We wanted to start the movie with a fart that would make you laugh, but end the movie with a fart that made you cry,” Scheinert, who with Kwan works professionally as Daniels, told Emerson College Today.

Swiss Army Man, unofficially dubbed the “farting corpse movie,” has been getting press, both positive and perplexed, since January, when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and took home a directing prize.

It stars Paul Dano as a man stranded on a desert island and at the end of his rope (literally) and Daniel Radcliffe as the bloated corpse that washes up on shore. What follows is a film that is by turns gross, clever, triumphant, and heartbreaking. Throughout, as one might expect from a movie in which a man develops a meaningful relationship with a dead body, it is surreal.

Daniels built their name directing music videos, especially their work on DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What,” which has more than 500 million views on YouTube and foreshadows the use of ordinary body parts for extraordinary feats, including Radcliffe’s…um…“compass,” in Swiss Army Man.

But the road to Swiss Army Man also was paved with Daniels’ film shorts, which Scheinert said played with a “kind of strange tonal mishmash.” The pair found that when they combined “really stupid” and “really sincere” in their film shorts, they found an audience that connected with that. They began trying to expand on that feeling with a feature film.

“We just got excited about combining beautiful visuals with absurd ideas and kind of heartfelt themes,” Scheinert said.

Daniels. Photo/courtesy of A24

When they were writing Swiss Army Man, Kwan said, they knew it shouldn’t work but kept believing it would.

“We had to explore why it felt like such a bad idea, and why we still found beauty in it,” Kwan said.

Scheinert said he found writing the screenplay for Swiss Army Man harder than directing it.

“The shoot was grueling and exhausting, but we were kind of used to that to a certain degree,” he said. “But writing was a very solitary marathon that we were not as used to. It took a lot of bravery and heartache to be willing to start over again and say, ‘This isn’t working.’”

Dano and Radcliffe were sent the script and both “really liked it,” Scheinert said. He said he and Kwan got credibility boosts from being accepted into the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the acclaim for “Turn Down for What.”

But before there were music videos, there was Emerson College.

Scheinert and Kwan met in John Craig Freeman’s Computer Animation 101 class and took an immediate dislike to one other.

“Dan thought I was one of those arrogant film kids who talks too much and I thought he was one of those lazy…kids who wastes their parents’ money,” Scheinert said.

It wasn’t until they graduated and worked together as teaching assistants at the New York Film Academy at Harvard University that they became friends.

“We both had way too much fun encouraging kids to make weird and perverted movies,” Scheinert said.

Kwan said he really appreciated how Emerson encouraged students like the two of them to pursue whatever it was that they were passionate about. But as a transfer student from a state university where he “could not connect with anyone,” he said coming to Emerson finally gave him a place where he felt he belonged.

“There [were] just so many…people like myself, and it was just a really exciting few months when I realized I wasn’t a freak,” Kwan said.

Scheinert, a member of Emerson’s improv comedy troupe Swolen Monkey Showcase (SwoMo), said he loved the rush he got from performing with his classmates.

“That immediate gratification of just pure, silly fun is something I still search for in my work,” he said.

Now that Daniels have a feature film on their resume, what’s next?

“I just want to be an artist-in-residence at Emerson College,” Scheinert joked.

But really, anything’s next. Scheinert said they have a commercial coming out this year, they want to write another screenplay, make more music videos…write a Broadway play.

“You never know,” Kwan said.

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