Thursday, May 17, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #36. "Swiss Army Man" (2016)

Scene from Swiss Army Man
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Swiss Army Man
Released: July 1, 2016 
Release Number: 36
Directed By: Daniel Scheinert, Dan Kwan
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Plot: A hopeless man stranded on a deserted island befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home.

There's a generally held belief that A24 makes weird movies. It's pretty true going back to their first film, A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III where they explored a satirized version of Charlie Sheen amid his public breakdown. But really, how many of their films since have been that weird? Oh, there's been a few, but they're mostly conventional films with slight twists on the formula. If one film is the definitive model for A24 weirdness, it would have to be co-directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan (a.k.a. "The Daniels") film Swiss Army Man that gained notoriety as "the farting corpse movie." And that wasn't just any farting corpse, it was Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, making him the second act of that franchise to headline an A24 film in a very against type role. It's easy to see why people loved Swiss Army Man, especially given its complex take on fart humor, loneliness, and acapella covers of John Williams tracks. It's a film literally unlike anything else they or any serious studio had ever done at that point.

The story begins, as most affection for fart jokes do, in middle school. The Daniels claim that there was a story in the Darwin Awards about this farting corpse. The story goes that he asphyxiated on the gas and into death he still produced flatulence. It was an idea that struck them as hilarious, drawing them to delve deeper into its meaning. As they did, they found out that it was a bit sad. It's here that the idea was born. As actor Paul Dano would suggest, it's a movie where the first fart is hilarious and the last one is sad. It's what sold him on the movie, though he was later on in the game. Most of the people that The Daniels showed the script to weren't against it, but felt that they had better projects to work on. It got them thinking that maybe they would make the movie with them as actors, for a significantly lower budget. They just had to make it.

By some miracle, the word got out and Dano came on board pretty easily. Radcliffe wasn't too far behind, though he came with a catch. There would be a dummy to fill in for him, but he still wanted to perform throughout as much of the production as much as possible. He accepted the challenge amid the understanding that he would often have to move very little of his body. Whenever he wasn't on screen, he would be throwing the electronic dummy that they made for the film. It became a bit difficult for The Daniels to give direction because they shot the film out of order. It was difficult to remember just how much physicality Radcliffe could bring to his character on any given day. Still, it was a challenge that became fun. Similarly, it was fun to come up with nicknames for the cast because between The Daniels, Dano, and Radcliffe, they were all some form of the name "Dan."

The shoot only lasted 22 days around Southern California. Among the odd benefits of their shooting was that the music used in the film was completed before it all started. This meant that actors could hear it while on set. While the film is largely consisted of Radcliffe and Dano, there were several smaller roles by significant performers such as Upstream Color director Shane Carruth. The third highest billed performer, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, was only in the film for five minutes - all towards the end of the film. Among the interesting recurring references throughout the film was Timothy Eulich, who was an actor in Jurassic Park. Along with acapella covers of the movie's theme by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, there's several references to the film scattered throughout.

The film would make its premiere at Sundance in January of 2016. The story goes that the film premiered amid a certain backlash. Many were not prepared for a movie where Radcliffe played a farting corpse, and thus proceeded to walk out. Unlike most films that earn that reputation, the film would garner enough of a positive buzz to achieve word of mouth. It was here that A24 not only bought distribution rights for the American release, but would work on co-opting with other studios for international release. By the time that it opened in wide release in America on July 1, it had built a reputation as this odd, joyful film with its positive reviews splattered all over the trailers and posters. The film would gross $5.1 million on a $3 million budget, making it a modest success. The promotion included tours where Dano brought along the dummy to various interviews and events, which included going on roller coasters. There were also videos posted online that showed the complexity of the dummy's mechanical features.

While it wasn't considered a bomb critically, it did receive a 70% rating on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes - which was pretty low for an A24 movie. Richard Roeper of Chicago Sun-Times lead the positive reviews, stating that "If you stick with it, there's a chance it'll grow on you as it grew on me - and you'll be rewarded with maybe the best ending of any movie so far this year." Similarly Megan Burbank of The Stranger wrote that "If you want your dreams to be weird for the rest of your life, see Swiss Army Man." Still, for those who shared sentiments as those at the Sundance premiere, Barry Hertz of Globe and Mail suggested, "Loneliness, arrested development and the slow disintegration of the imagination are all topics of interest to the directors, but they approach each with only a cool level of ironic detachment that becomes unbearable after 90 minutes." The film would go on to receive two Indie Film Spirit Awards, including for Best First Feature. Many also hailed it as one of the best movies of the year, placing it on their lists, such as IndieWire's David Ehrlich who placed it as number 18 on his Top 25.

Swiss Army Man is a film unlike any that A24 has ever released and has yet to release. Then again, how many movies can have a farting corpse and be considered high art? The Daniels have also claimed an odd career path, suggesting that they want to reboot the White Chicks franchise with The Wayans Brothers, but make it more dramatic. Even if that never comes to fruition, it suggests that they have a lot of weird ideas to work with and likely will make a film as baffling, as likely to make critics walk out of Sundance, as this one did. Up next is a film that didn't have nearly as much of an impact, though it saw the studio branch out into sci-fi with a dystopian romance that brought back Dark Places actor Nicholas Hoult, and saw the A24 debut of Kristen Stewart. It was a film without much of a wide appeal, but it still was an interesting one aesthetically.

Up Next: Equals (2016)

No comments:

Post a Comment