Fart of Darkness: ‘Swiss Army Man’

Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe and creative team DANIELS on why their film is more than the sum of its flatulating corpse

Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe
Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe (Illustration: Kelsey Dake for Observer)

Let’s get a few things out of the way first: Yes, this is the farting corpse movie. Yes, the one where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse. Yes, Paul Dano rides him like a human Jet Ski across the ocean.

If that were all you knew about Swiss Army Man, the feature film debut of director team DANIELS, I would understand. It’s understandable that a cursory discussion wouldn’t stray deeper than the logline when the logline is so ridiculous.

Swiss Army Man is a Rorschach test of a film whose meaning and joy-to-sorrow ratio probably depends on your age, gender and relationship status. Here, let Paul Dano, who plays the film’s ship-wrecked hero, Hank, try to explain it: “For me, it’s probably about loving yourself, kind of? I think it’s about learning to have fun and be happy again. I think it’s about connection and finding your people in this world, where you can be yourself.”

But also, Dano concedes, Swiss Army Man is “about shame, and how that prevents us from being ourselves in an unhealthy way. In a modern world, the way we connect is different, and I think it actually can be isolating even though it’s called connection.” Dano pointed to our dependence on the internet for communication. “How connected is that really? I’m not saying it isn’t, but I think it’s a question mark.”

‘It’s the kind of humor that makes sense to me,’ said actor Paul Dano. ‘And I know it makes sense to other people and it doesn’t to some people.’

The film takes its delightfully taboo premise and turns it into a surprisingly sweet story that falls, depending on your interpretation, into the category of bromance, romance, or self-discovery. Paul Dano stars as Hank, a sad-sack man stranded on an island alone and about to commit suicide when a bloated corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on shore. Upon realizing the body won’t be living company, Hank attempts to purloin his belt for a stronger noose when the corpse begins farting, hilariously and profusely.

I’m hesitant to go into more details on the plot or the ways in which a farting corpse can surprise you, but I left the theater with an urge to tell everyone in my life that I loved them. Visually, it’s like almost nothing I’ve seen before—I compared it to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—and with a swelling score by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, I’d say it’s damn near impossible to watch the film and not feel something.

“I think we wrote it knowing it had that similar shallow description that would make people perk up and wonder what the hell was going on,” said co-director and writer Daniel Scheinert.

“But I also think all of our work is trying to play with people’s preconceptions of whatever story they’re about to dive into,” his partner, Daniel Kwan added. “Having that somewhat derogatory title—the ‘farting corpse movie’—if that’s what people go into this movie thinking it is, they’re going to have a wonderful experience.

Paul Dano
Paul Dano (Photo: Chad Griffith)

“Proving someone wrong is probably one of the most helpful things you can do in someone’s life,” Kwan continued. “Then, at least for the next couple hours, they’re going to be thinking about everything in a different way, a little less confidently. And that’s a good way to go about your day. Especially nowadays, people are so zealous about things; it’s really dangerous and scary.

“Basically, we put a big ‘kick me’ sign on our back by making a movie about a farting corpse, so that the bullies can then turn that person around and go, ‘Oh, you’re really sweet, I’m in love with you, I don’t want to kick you in the back anymore, I want to hug you.’ We’re out-pranking the bullies. It’s a really fun outlook to have. It doesn’t work every time, obviously, but for the few who get that experience, I hope it’s going to be really memorable for them.”

If you’ve ever been to summer camp as a child, the feeling Swiss Army Man evokes may be familiar. There’s a peculiar freedom in being isolated from greater society, being confined to a limited physical location and being surrounded by people of a similar age in the exact same position as you. The movie evokes late nights sitting on a cabin roof with people who were recently strangers: discussing pseudo-intellectual questions, making lewd jokes and—yes—farting, completely unselfconsciously.

Who are DANIELS?

Kwan and Scheinert are a directing duo with a history of visually-arresting short films and music videos. (Remember DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What”?)

Why did they decide to combine their names? “There’s a lot of commercial and music video directors that create little monikers, and sometimes it’s a collective of three or four people,” said Scheinert.

“It’s an easy way to stand out really quickly, and make a name for yourself,” said Kwan.

“You can brand yourself,” agreed Scheinert. “Honestly, we didn’t get into this to get famous, but I kind of love having a modicum of anonymity. You have to dig a little deeper to find my Facebook page.”

“We were going to come up with some catchy stupid silly name,” said Kwan.

“We were thinking about ‘Criminalz,’ with a ‘Z,’ because we thought that was funny—” Scheinert interrupted.

“Because we’re the sweetest idiots,” Kwan continued.

This is something you notice after speaking with DANIELS for any period of time: they always speak in the plural first person, and they finish each other’s sentences like they’ve become a single entity in more than just name.

“And we just stuck with ‘DANIELS’ because it made sense, and it was really annoying to always write ‘Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.’ It just made sense for us to join together and do what everyone else was doing.”

“I think there was a part of me that didn’t want this movie to be directed by DANIELS,” Scheinert added, almost contemplatively. “It’s like, let’s just use our names. But there’s some folks who love our work and we wanted to make sure those folks found this movie. So it stuck for now, which is great, even though some Redditers are like, ‘Soooooo arrogant. First-time directors calling themselves THE Daniels?’ ”

If you’ve seen DANIELS’ other work, you’re probably aware that you’re not in store for a clear-cut moral. Their short film, Interesting Ball (2014) features a refrigerator actually running, a woman cheating on her husband with a red ball and two best friends getting sucked into each other’s buttholes.

“The pages of Reddit comments have been our favorite part of the whole marketing campaign,” said Scheinert. “The [Swiss Army Man] trailer will come out, and someone will comment about who the fuck made this, and then someone will post our old work, and then there will be a thread of people trying to figure what on earth it means and writing these three-paragraph-long treatises.

“Redditers are idiots but they’re also so smart,” said Kwan. “They’re really like philosophers. There’s something really fun about people out in the world being forced to talk about boners and farts or best friends getting sucked up each other’s butts, but doing it earnestly, and learning from it, hopefully.”

It almost goes without saying: Swiss Army Man is not for everyone. If the idea of a reanimated corpse talking about boners makes you shrink instead of giggle, this might be one you should sit out, or at least see with your most open-minded friend. And, as The New Republic highlighted, this is very much a movie about male friendship, and that means banishing women to the realm of object of desire and abstract concept. Swiss Army Man is The Hangover meets Charlie Kaufman, an art-house Judd Apatow film that replaces laughs with existential dread.

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, Becoming Intimate

Paul Dano
Paul Dano (Photo: Chad Griffith)

I spoke with Paul Dano on the phone, just a few days after his return from South Korea where he was filming an upcoming film from Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho. “I’m still a little out of it,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t sleep, but coming from Korea, I guess the jet lag is real. I was there for five weeks, almost, maybe a little more. And it was great, but I’m super-happy to be home, except I feel like poo.”

I assumed the scatological reference was unintentional.

Acting in a film is always a vulnerable endeavor: you’re setting yourself up not only for criticism about your own appearance and performance, but for the film itself, which largely rests in someone else’s hands. But for a strange and subjective film like Swiss Army Man, Dano understood he was showing something of an intimate sensibility in this film that not everyone might get.

“This film was just a little extra, like it’s private. It’s a new part of myself that’s seen, not even in performance, but sort of in spirit. Like, when I read that Jet Ski thing, I was like, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ It’s the kind of humor that makes sense to me, and I know it makes sense to other people and it doesn’t to some people.”

In addition to becoming vulnerable for audiences, Dano’s role in the film required a specific intimacy with Radcliffe, the corpse Manny whom Dano’s Hank befriends like his humanoid Wilson volleyball.

“Luckily, Dan Radcliffe is just super-open, and super-game. We got pretty intimate. Weirdly, I think it happened pretty quickly. We knew what we signed up for. The first time I went to see Dan’s apartment he was ready. I think one of the first things he said to me was, ‘Do you want to put your hand in my mouth?’ I was like, ‘I think we should just hang.’

“I carried Daniel Radcliffe around on my body for five weeks. It’s a funny thing to look back on. We all had a great amount of trust, and a great amount of fun together. It was a total pleasure to be that intimate.”

The role of Manny, the talking corpse, was a peculiar casting assignment for DANIELS. “We were fans of Radcliffe, and Paul was a fan and excited to work with him, and we wanted to make sure we didn’t cast people who hated each other,” Scheinert said.

“But we weren’t really sure until we talked to him,” said Kwan. “The last thing we needed was someone who got tricked, or didn’t get what the script was about or had an ego about it, because this was a film that requires you to destroy any sense of pride to play. When we first talked to Radcliffe, the first question he asked was, ‘Can I do all of my own stunts? I really want to get in there and do all this weird shit.’ And we were like, ‘That is the perfect question, you’re hired.’ ”

Two Daniels Radcliffe
Two Daniels Radcliffe A24

Radcliffe is nothing if not game, and completely on board with the weird, wonderful world of Swiss Army Man. As part of the press tour for the film, he rode around on a two-decker bus with journalists, accompanied by the chillingly realistic body double dummy used in the film. Given away that day were beach towels featuring a life-size dead Daniel Radcliffe, and an inflatable bong (wrapped in a bracelet with the fart-bong double entendre: Let It Rip.) “I’ve genuinely been so weirdly excited about doing press for this,” Radcliffe said. “On set, when we were making this film, we were joking about the merchandise you could make for this, and it’s actually happening!”

It’s perhaps a vote of confidence of how much the former Boy Who Lived cares about this film on a personal level that he’d participate in such a silly (and public!) marketing stunt as a New York bus tour, but Radcliffe is nothing if not committed to the cause of being Manny. He even allowed journalists to be photographed with both him and his eerily lifelike (or deadlike) doppelganger.

“We kind of wrote the part around him,” said Scheinert about Radcliffe. “Not because he couldn’t do it, but just because we kind of fell in love with him, and we’re like, you’re such a wonderful, curious, sweet person. Let’s make Manny more like that. We also knew we wanted Hank and Manny to sing, so that shortened the list a little bit. Radcliffe was on Broadway [in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying]; Paul had been in Love and Mercy and had been in a high school band.”

The singing in the film, along with the farting and the boner jokes, is a reminder that humans in nature revert to a state without artificially imposed stigmas or shame.

“Singing in the film was something that really reminded me of being a younger and freer person in the world,” said Dano. “Because kids sing all the time, without thinking about it. In the woods, we sort of got a reprieve. It was truly make-believe, different from other films.”

It might be the jet lag, but Dano, the young actor who established himself as a standout talent in films like Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, is cautious in his speech, peppering any declarative statements he might make with numerous you knows, I don’t knows and implicit question marks. When I asked about his girlfriend of eight and a half years, fellow actor and writer Zoe Kazan, Dano filled 40 seconds straight with filler words and small laughs.

What emerges is someone wholly genuine and committed to his work with an introspection and self-awareness that inevitably comes through in his varied performances.

“One of the things the directors said to me was just incredible: ‘We want to make a film where the first fart makes you laugh and the last fart makes you cry.’ I thought, ‘If we can do that, and I don’t know if we can, but if we could, well—it’s the ultimate challenge.’ ”

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert created a movie that by all logical accounts should never have been made. In a time when Pixar’s upcoming roster is all sequels and there are half a dozen superhero films a year with a structure so formulaic you almost don’t need to see them anymore, Swiss Army Man is a brilliant representation of creativity itself, and a reminder that there are some people out there still willing to take risks. “Films like this feel like they should be impossible, but once they exist, they’re something that become the new normal,” said Kwan. “This becomes the world we exist in, we live in a post-Swiss Army Man world now.”

Love it or hate it, this is a film that deserves to be celebrated for what it is. Fart of Darkness: ‘Swiss Army Man’