They dreamt up universes of hot dog fingers, googly-eyed rocks and “Raccaccoonie.” But Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, in this world or another, never imagined the kind of runaway success “Everything Everywhere All at Once” would have on the Oscar trail.
For the past year, since “Everything Everywhere All at Once” debuted at SXSW, the filmmaking duo known as the Daniels has been living in what has sometimes felt to them like a parallel dimension. They never expected that their madcap multiverse tale would take them to the Oscars. They still, sometimes, don’t believe it.
“It feels like we’re in our movie sometimes,” Scheinert says. “At some point we’re going to get pulled out of this joke and be back to our own lives and be like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t that be cool? Too bad.’ ”
Yet “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has emerged as the most improbable of Academy Awards heavyweights. An absurdist indie that pairs existentialism and everything bagels, released way back in March last year, is not just heading for a few possible wins at today’s 95th Academy Awards. It’s poised to steamroll.
It’s the favorite to win best picture, best director, best actress for Michelle Yeoh, best supporting actor for Ke Huy Quan and potentially best supporting actress for Jamie Lee Curtis. A movie with fanny pack-styled kung fu about a middle-aged woman filing her taxes is on course to best blockbusters (“Top Gun: Maverick”) and Steven Spielberg (“The Fabelmans”), alike.
If “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — nominated for a leading 11 Oscars and already a winner with the predictive producers, actors and directors guilds — wins best picture, it will be one of the most anti-Oscar bait winners ever.
The Daniels first met while studying film at Emerson College in Boston. Kwan, a Massachusetts native, and Scheinert, from Alabama, started off making music videos and shorts. Their feature film debut, 2016’s “Swiss Army Man,” starred Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulence-emitting corpse. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is just their second feature. The Daniels are both 35.
The unexpected success — the A24 release has grossed more than $100 million worldwide against a $14.3 million budget — has thrown off the trajectory the Daniels imagined they might be on. In a recent, rare lull between awards ceremonies, they spoke by Zoom from Kwan’s home office.
“I’ve gone through so many cycles of euphoria and depression and manic episodes,” Kwan, a gentle and introspective soul, says. “I’ve realized that I’m never going to get back to my old life. That struck me at one of my low points and I had to actually mourn the loss of our lives. That can be both incredible and sad at the same time.”
When “Everything Everywhere All at Once” landed in theaters, it ignited the specialty film business after two years of pandemic, driving moviegoers back to art houses and becoming A24’s biggest box-office smash. But even then, awards talk was mostly far-fetched. It wasn’t until the fall, when it won best film at the Gotham Awards that the buzz started to get real. Affection for the film just kept building. Early naysaying that the film was too strange for older academy voters has proved wrong.
Scheinert wryly recalls telling cast and crew on set: “We’re not making an Oscar movie here. This movie is about quantity, not quality.” And yet, by a twist of fate, a movie made without any thought of the Academy Awards is set to conquer them.
“The industry at large is going through a lot of soul searching,” says Kwan. “What happened with theatrical during the pandemic, what’s happening now with streaming, the fact that #OscarsSoWhite has caused the makeup of the academy to change. We are in such a moment of flux that I do think somehow this strange movie has stuck a chord.”
“We feel like this film is reflective of what reality feels like, to us, at least,” Kwan adds. “The fact that people are responding to it is really affirming: Oh, you see what I see.”
At a time when Hollywood’s main studio product is in franchises, remakes and sequels, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is also a movie brimming with originality. A vote for the film is a vote for something different.
“There’s something really important about stretching your own imagination in your everyday life,” says Kwan. “I grew up with a lot of self-doubt and self-loathing. The fact that I’m now a director who’s been able to find some success is just such a narrative-shattering, imagination-stretching idea that I would have never been able to imagine a few years ago.”
Reached by phone the morning of Oscar nominations, Yeoh said she never imagined, when they started making “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” that they were destined for the Academy Awards.
“We’re a tiny little movie with a big beating heart, without a doubt,” said Yeoh. “We had ambitions because we felt that our story just needed to be told. In times of chaos and turbulence, this is a movie about healing. It’s about love. It’s about a very ordinary person — which we all are — who’s given the opportunity to be a superhero with superpowers that are love and compassion.”
On stage after stage, the Daniels, Yeoh, Quan and more have brought the house down with moving speeches about Asian representation. At the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Feb. 26, Quan said: “To all those at home who are watching, who are struggling and waiting to be seen, please keep on going because the spotlight will one day find you.” Ninety-four-year-old James Hong, the film’s crotchety patriarch, reflected at the SAGs on Hollywood’s dismal history of depicting Asian and Asian American life. Then he declared triumphantly: “Look at us now!”
“Everything Everywhere All at Once,” an antic metaphor for the immigrant experience of Asian Americans, has made its own case for a different movie universe, one where heroes look like Yeoh’s Evelyn Quan Wang or Quan’s Waymond Wang.
“If I was growing up with a film like this or with this conversation happening, I would be a very different kind of person and a very different kind of Asian American,” says Kwan. “Most of my life, the Asian part of my experience was something to be erased or something to ignore because it felt more like a liability than a strength.”
So there are many alternate realities to the lives behind “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — mostly less joyful ones where this movie doesn’t exist for them, or anyone else.
Rewind exactly a year and a day from today’s Oscars and the Daniels and company were standing on the SXSW stage in Austin, Texas, with little idea of what was to come. Asked by an audience member what got left on the cutting room floor, Scheinert with a twinge of regret suggested another universe, entirely: Spaghetti Baby Noodle Boy, with a talking macaroni who doesn’t understand why he’s not spaghetti, voiced by Jenny Slate.
Another road not taken, yes. But as Scheinert noted, there’s always the DVD.
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