A bearded wildman hoots with delight as he rides a dead body over the waves like a jetski. This wild scene is just the opening of Swiss Army Man, the year’s weirdest, most eccentric movie currently showing at the Sundance Film Festival Hong Kong.
In the film, Paul Dano plays Hank, a man stuck on a desert island who finds a corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe, washed up on the beach. The pair forms a unique bond as Hank realises his new friend Manny has some pretty nifty special powers.
“The Daniels” – the directing team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – worked together on the script, re-writing it until they were happy they’d struck a balance between outlandish plotlines and making sure the movie was still relatable.
“The movie is bonkers, but we tried to make it an accessible and likeable,” Scheinert tells Young Post. “We only gave Manny powers that had a connection to the film – something about feeling ashamed or fear of the body.”
It was a fine line to walk, but the movie strikes the balance thanks to the strength of Dano and Radcliffe. The filmmakers were so keen to have Radcliffe that they were willing to wait almost a year for the star’s schedule to clear. “We thought it would be funny if dead Harry Potter washed up on a beach at the beginning of our movie,” Scheinert laughs. When the duo met the actor, his first question was asking whether he could do his own stunts.
“We were so thrilled he wasn’t worried about playing dead – all he was worried about was getting to do it himself and not having to use green screen. He loves doing stunts. We didn’t light him on fire – we had to use a stuntman for that – but we did drag him behind a boat in the beginning. The visual effects only removed the cable and the board they were lying on – he was there and Paul was actually riding on his back.”
Packed with fart jokes and outrageous action, the movie has predictably drawn some pretty extreme reactions – from audiences walking out of the first Sundance screening in the US, and Buzzfeed branding it “annoying, puerile and boring”, to a young boy at the HK screening leading the audience in a standing ovation, and a lady in the US crying because it made her think of a friend too shy to fart in front of her.
“We spent so long trying to make sure it wasn’t a gross-out movie – we didn’t put anything in there that was just crude for the sake of it. But for certain people, the movie crosses a line,” explains Scheinert. “We spent a long time trying to put symbolism in the farts – as a way to explore society by asking why they’re funny and why we hold them in. I find it fascinating to see it make people angry. It proves the point of the film: we live in a society where we’re taught to be ashamed of certain things.”
One of the film’s many unique and quirky details was the use of a cappella music – written by indie band Manchester Orchestra.
Even though the movie is set outdoors, it doesn’t dwell on the beauty of nature: animals get blown to bits, there’s a firefight with a bear, there’s trash everywhere. It wasn’t a comment the movie consciously set out to make, says Scheinert, but they noticed how much rubbish there was when they were scouting locations. “We were researching props made out of sticks and it all looked a little bit too cute. But when we started putting snack wrappers and bottles in there, it started to look fun and interesting.”
“Once we added trash in there, we discovered the whole movie was about trash – it’s about the things we discard and don’t look at. Hank is society’s trash – an outcast who wandered off and no one noticed. And the things we’re not supposed to talk about are the trash of our brains. The whole movie became us taking trash and trying to make something beautiful from it.”