The Directors of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ On Technology and the Power of Storytelling

At the 2023 Clinton Global Initiative, filmmaking duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert discussed the dangers of technology, complacence and escapism.

Developments in artificial intelligence must pause while rules and regulations are introduced, according to the directors behind Everything Everywhere All at Once, who today (September 19) urged for more protections against the potential dangers of the technology at the 2023 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). Known collectively as “the Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert applauded the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes for including guardrails around A.I. in their negotiation demands.

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Two men sitting in chairs on stage behind blue screen
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert at the 2023 Clinton Global Initiative. Noam Galai/Getty Images for Clinton Global Initiative

“The scale and speed of this thing is unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Kwan at a CGI panel focused on leveraging influence to shape social change. “This is terrifyingly fast stuff. Sometimes we have to move away from the ‘move fast and break things’ mentality—we have to ‘move slow and protect things’ in this moment.”

The duo, who’ve also directed music videos for the likes of Foster the People, exploded into the mainstream in 2022 with the success of their Oscar-winning feature film. But for filmmakers like the Daniels to continue working effectively, wider transparency is needed across the industry, according to Kwan. “The cards are stacked against us because we are in a system in which our stories are being buried and divided and misinterpreted and filtered through an attention economy that uses an algorithm that is trying to grab our attention, hijack our limbic systems and make us lonely, polarized and addicted at all costs so that we can get more ad revenue.”

The threats to filmmaking aren’t only limited to technology, added Scheinert, who called the concept of “all art is great” one of his pet peeves in what can be a “self-congratulatory” industry. Filmmakers should always consider the impact of their stories, especially those depicted on the big screen, he said. “I do think self-expression is always great, but there’s such danger in reinforcing the status quo and reinforcing stereotypes.”

The duo additionally touched on the need for balanced stories in the industry. “We cannot just let Hollywood and money tell us what kind of stories we’re telling because otherwise it will be all escapism and entertainment—and escapism is the opposite of what we need,” said Kwan. When presented in the form of escapism, even well-intentioned stories that engage with pressing climate or social justice issues can be problematic, he added.

In a nod to the many space initiatives funded by billionaires like Elon Musk, the director pointed to the potential colonization of Mars as an example. “You’re going to spend billions and trillions of dollars trying to terraform a planet that our bodies were not built for, and we can’t even figure out the water crisis in Flint, Michigan?” said Kwan. “We should be reframing how we tell the stories about how we’re going to save ourselves.”

The Daniels on balancing medium and message

To push messages to a wide audience, the Daniels say they package their stories in ways that are still attractive to financiers. In their directorial debut, the 2016 Swiss Army Man, they offset the film’s surrealist elements with the casting of Hollywood star Daniel Radcliffe. “The calculation was, if we get Daniel Radcliffe in there, a couple-million-dollar movie might actually make its money back,” said Scheinert. “I think we’re always trying to play the system a little so that we can tell a story we want to tell and not just be pure artists with their heads in the sand.”

They took the same approach with Everything Everywhere All At Once, attempting to insert messages of optimism and warmth in a movie styled after successful action thrillers.  “We’re going to watch those movies, we’re going to study why that works,” said Scheinert. “But we’re going to have something to say in there, which is that kindness is a weapon.”

The Directors of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ On Technology and the Power of Storytelling