Everything Everywhere All at Once is a lot of things: A sci-fi adventure, a martial arts action movie, an absurdist comedy. But above all else, it’s a film about one family and its matriarch, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), who embarks on a trip through the multiverse that tests her relationships with her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and her father (James Hong). It’s a personal and intimate journey, and seeing how directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (together, they are known as the “Daniels”) use a massive sci-fi adventure to tell it is one of the many great joys the film has to offer.
It’s an achievement that begins with the film’s opening shot, which shows Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy dancing and singing together. It’s a beautiful moment, but it’s also shown through the reflection of a living room mirror, and therein lies the brilliance of the shot itself. In a film about the multiverse, the opening image of Everything Everywhere All at Once shows viewers just the first of many reflections of Evelyn, Waymond, and Joy that they’ll meet over the course of its story.
While recently speaking with Digital Trends, Kwan, who called the shot a “family portrait,” said it was “embarrassing” how long it took him and Scheinert to land on it as the film’s opening, but it’s one of many inspired creative choices they make in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Below, the directors open up to Digital Trends about some of the film’s most striking visual moments, explain how they wanted it to be different from 2016’s Swiss Army Man, and even reveal the five essential Michelle Yeoh films they think everyone should see.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: Swiss Army Man takes a lot longer to reveal its emotional core than Everything Everywhere All at Once does. Was it an intentional choice on your part to communicate the film’s emotions earlier this time?
Daniel Kwan: That’s an interesting question. Do you remember what scene made you feel that way?
The moment that comes to mind is when Joy is driving away from her parents’ laundromat. The devastation on her face in that moment is so palpable.
Daniel Kwan: Oh, wow. Well, with Swiss Army Man, we went in with the intention to be like, “Let’s blow up what a movie should be. So that then for the rest of the film, no one really knows what’s going to happen.” You know, which worked for some people and didn’t work for other people, and that’s fine. With this one, we were like, “Let’s explode the movie. But let’s do it really slowly and gently so that people have time to get their feet planted before we take them on this wild roller coaster ride.”
That shot you’re talking about actually wasn’t originally in the script. That was one of the few pickup shots that we did when we realized people weren’t fully grounded in the family. Specifically in the Stephanie Hsu and Michelle Yeoh relationship. We were like, “Oh, we need to make sure everyone knows that this is what the movie is actually about.” So we went back and we shot her just driving. It’s very validating to hear that it was worth going back just for that shot.
Daniel Scheinert: We couldn’t get Joy’s original car back [for that shot], so we got a bunch of tape that was the same color as the other car. The scene is shot in soft focus, so we literally just put tape over a different-colored car because you just see it in the corner of the frame.
You’re not looking at the car in that shot either. You’re looking at Joy’s face.
Daniel Scheinert: Exactly. It’s like, “Who’s looking at the paint job?”
Daniel Kwan: So I will say that even though it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to make the emotion and the heart very clear at the beginning, we wanted to make sure that it felt way more conventional and safe at the beginning so we could pull you in with the emotional heart and core [of the film].
Daniel Scheinert: I do think that as we wrote it we also realized that this movie is dealing with some pretty huge emotions. And we didn’t want it to be one of those movies that’s just a full-on comedy for an hour and a half and then it gets emotional and people get mad about it. So it was a choice to say, “OK, this intro takes a little while but I think it prepares you for where this movie eventually goes.”
Was it always the plan to open the film with a shot of Evelyn, Joy, and Waymond together in their living room?
Daniel Scheinert: It took a while to come up with that as the opening.
Daniel Kwan: It’s embarrassing how long it took to get back to just a family portrait.
Daniel Scheinert: Kwan in particular will return to the opening scene a lot. We rewrote Swiss Army Man‘s opening a lot. With this one, many drafts of the script started more like The Matrix, with a psychedelic, crazy multiversal tease of sorts. And then as we wrote it, it became increasingly personal of a story, and we were like, “Oh, the sci-fi is just a tool we use to tell a family story. We should start with the family.”
Daniel Kwan: The very first draft had an almost Magnolia-style opening with a narrator talking about probability and scale and infinity, with different stories throughout the multiverse. It was very fun and I’m very proud of it, but the longer we worked on this movie, the more multiverse stuff was coming out and we realized we actually didn’t have to be quite so explicit or explanatory.
Daniel Scheinert: We got to publish a book with A24, and there’s like a 10- or 11-page section with that old intro, which we mildly reworked. We put it in the book, which was fun. So it’s just 10 screenplay pages at the beginning of that book that are just the way it used to start when it was more focused on the science of the movie.
Daniel Kwan: It’s a completely different tone. It feels like it’s from a different movie, but it shows how much we explored.
The movie has a lot of beautiful, mind-bending images, but the close-ups you employ throughout hold a lot of power, too. I’m thinking specifically of Jobu’s close-up as she tells Evelyn about creating her destructive bagel.
Daniel Kwan: When we were filming that scene in the hallway, I was like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever filmed.” It’s just her face and a little bit of wind blowing her hair.
Daniel Scheinert: And then she sings “sucked into a bagel” right when a tear rolls down her cheek. In the moment, we were like, “That’s haunting. Oh my God.” I was creeped out and moved at the same time [laughs].
Daniel Kwan: Yeah, I was like, “I’ve never seen this feeling in a movie before.” As a filmmaker, you’re always looking for those magic moments where you capture lightning in a bottle and her face in that moment … what it felt like even on set made us both say, “This is incredible.”
I’d also be remiss not to mention the film’s Wong Kar Wai-inspired universe, which contains some of the most visually beautiful images I’ve seen in a sci-fi film in a long time.
Daniel Scheinert: You know, Ke used to work for Wong Kar Wai, so he talked to us about his process, which is famously very slow-moving. He was like, “We’d frame up and it looked good, and then Wong Kar Wai would be like, ‘Let’s work on it for another few hours.’ And then a few hours later, after all these little adjustments, you’d say, ‘Ooh, that’s a better shot.’” I remember one time Ke told us that Wong Kar Wai is very frustrated by other filmmakers who don’t care about the imagery and that he watches movies and he’ll say, “Oh, I like this actor and I like the screenwriting, but man, they don’t care about the imagery.”
Obviously, that would be Wong Kar Wai’s opinion, but it always kind of stuck with me. That is such a treat with certain filmmakers, when you’re like, “Hmmm. They care about this shot.”
Daniel Kwan: It’s harder and harder to come by these days, I think.
Moving away from the film’s visual style, I wanted to ask: If you could program a double feature for Everything Everywhere All at Once, what film would you pick to accompany it?
Daniel Kwan: Just a black screen for an hour [laughs]. I feel like this movie already feels like a triple feature, and I feel bad for anyone who has to watch it with another movie. It just seems unfair. But what would you say?
Daniel Scheinert: I’m trying to think of a fun documentary because something like that would be a nice palate cleanser.
Daniel Kwan: Oh, this is a kind of shilling for another A24 movie coming out this summer, but Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Have you seen it?
I have not.
Daniel Scheinert: It’s kind of a minimalist masterpiece, which makes it pleasantly the opposite of our movie.
Daniel Kwan: They’re both about community but from completely different angles. It’s just so beautiful. I think that’s the only movie that is gentle enough that our movie wouldn’t be so obnoxious next to.
Daniel Scheinert: My documentary would be Jasper Mall, which is a movie that some friends of mine made about a mall in Alabama and the people who like hanging out there, and that’s it. It’s just a gentle film.
Obviously, for Michelle Yeoh fans, this film is a gift. What do you think are the five essential Michelle Yeoh movies everyone needs to see? You can include Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Daniel Kwan: I mean, Supercop was the big one for me because like I was in love with Jackie Chan and then my dad showed me Supercop, and I was like, “What? This is like a female version of Jackie Chan. This is incredible.” So that was huge for me.
Daniel Kwan: Yeah, Wing Chun‘s tofu scene is in the DNA for our movie as far as how silly and absurd fight scenes can be, but also how well-executed they can be. It’s wild and very fun. And then…
Daniel Scheinert: …Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Daniel Kwan: Crouching Tiger was pretty huge for everyone in my family. We went and watched it a couple of times, and when it won those Oscars, everyone was like, “Wow, who would have thought?” It was this really reality-bending moment for I think a lot of Chinese Americans. Her fight scene with Zhang Ziyi where they’re going back and forth with different weapons is such a master class in style and different fighting styles, and there’s a sense of humor to it too. I love that. Did we say five? I think we said five.
Daniel Scheinert: I think we threw four out.
Daniel Kwan: OK, then our movie is No. 5 [laughs].
Last question: What are the cookies that Waymond makes for Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis)? They look delicious.
Daniel Kwan: Oh, yeah! They’re these traditional almond cookies that are often given out during Chinese New Year and Lunar New Year celebrations. But usually, they have just a single almond or a single red dot of dye because red is a very lucky, prestigious color in Chinese culture.
Daniel Scheinert: We kind of riffed on that and gave them happy faces, but yeah, they’re Chinese New Year almond cookies.
Daniel Kwan: They’re really dry and crumbly, but they taste really good. I usually eat them with boba tea or something because they are dry. But they’re really good.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in theaters nationwide.