You now know them for Swiss Army Man, the feature that introduced audiences to the unlikely friendship between a suicidal man and a rotting corpse.
However, Daniels (a.k.a. Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan), the duo behind that colorful adventure, have been experimenting with unorthodox narratives for years, as their collection of singular music videos showcases. Now fans can enjoy “Possibilia,” a short project they made in 2014, which finally gets an online release this summer with Eko. It’s an interactive narrative exploration of a couple on the brink of a difficult break-up.
Users meet Rick (Alex Karpovsky) and Pollie (Zoe Jarman) as they engage in a heated argument. From that point on, depending on which reality viewers choose, their interactions could range from destructive to gentle. The dialogue remains the same, while the tone and context of each line changes, making the different scenes become their own unique emotional universes. Don’t get it? Just try it for yourself:
Presenting a full 16 different ways of ending a relationship, Scheinert and Kwan spoke to MovieMaker about what that mean for them writing, editing, and preparing their actors.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In comparison to a linear film, what was the writing process like for a project like “Possibilia” in which the same story gets told in an array of ways?
Daniel Scheinert (DS): It was weird. We spent a lot more time talking about the structure than anything else and we always had a vague understand of the story arc. It wasn’t until we cast and picked the location that I think we actually put the dialogue down on paper—which was kind of unusual, but in a lot of ways it was similar to how we work with music videos. We just start thinking about the concept, not about the nitty-gritty. Then slowly the nitty-gritty takes shape as we work on it.
Daniel Kwan (DK): In some ways, the nitty-gritty is the most generic version of a script that we could come up with. We had to be able to wrap our heads around 16 versions of the same story. That was an interesting discovery. Dialogue-wise, we had to keep it very simple so that whatever emotional context or whatever action they were doing still made sense, but in a completely different way across the 16 versions.
MM: How did this change the way you worked with your two actors to create these different realities for the characters? The realities mostly differ in the delivery of their lines and the way their tone affects the viewer’s perception of the story.
DS: In some ways it was really rewarding as directors, and I think for the actors as well, because it was almost like a weird acting exercise. You can imagine an acting teacher telling a class, “OK, you are going to have to do this. Everyone does the same script but you each have to interpret it a different way.” That was what the shooting process was like. We would say, “OK, you are going to do that scene again, but this time you are yelling it. Your arm is on fire.” Then a moment later, “Now you are saying it sweetly, whispering into each other’s ears while kissing,” which was a fun experiment with narrative itself. How much can you change the meaning of something based on the delivery?
DK: It’s the deconstruction of a break-up scene. The actors actually recorded a loosely improvised scene based on the script and recorded just the audio, and cut it up into roughly what we thought would make sense for the film. Then while we were actually shooting they had earpieces hidden, like in a musical, playing the track so they could lip-sync—but instead of a song, they would have to act to their own voices. It was really confusing and frustrating, but I think they got a kick out of the challenge.
MM: What was it about a break-up scene that seemed like the ideal event to build an interactive narrative around?
DS: I was trying to figure that out the other day. A lot of times, interactive movies frustrate us as viewers. When it comes up on screen you are like, “I don’t know what to expect. What if I pick the wrong thing? What is this movie?” You have this anxious feeling when you get to that decision point and we thought, “What if we could make a movie that was intentionally that way? What if we could embrace the anxiety that comes along with interactive filmmaking?”
When we were searching for a story that suited that we though, “Oh, break-ups have a similar feeling.” They have that feeling of, “What if I make the wrong decision? Am I going to regret this down the line? She wants to get married but I don’t, but I love her. Oh my God. My whole life could be a disaster.”
DK: That’s kind of the game you play when you break up with someone. Your brain goes to all the possible outcomes and tries to balance them all at once and decide what’s best, which path is the right path to go on. We thought that from that, we would create a choose-your-own-adventure short film that didn’t allow you to just stay in one path, and that amplifies the anxiety that comes with human choices. Our goal was to make sure that whatever narrative you take is supported by the technology.
MM: With such a complex structure, was the editing process simply excruciating? Or was it interesting to have to construct multiple versions of the same scene, based on what each version meant?
DS: It was probably more excruciating than interesting [laughs]. It kind of edited itself in a lot of ways, but every little change would be a ripple of changes because we wanted all the cut points to line up across the different versions. Once we were editing the section of the story that has 16 versions, we were basically editing 16 little short films at once. Tweaking version two meant we had to go and tweak all the other versions.
DK: It was definitely more about the fine-tuning than any sort of broad creative decisions. That was a hard thing to do because usually in editing we have the option to make bigger creative decisions and that’s an exciting and fun challenge, but this was more about little tweaks. It was ultimately rewarding—once it all worked.
DS: The funniest part of the edit was lining up all the footage we shot and switching between them ourselves. That was really rewarding, because for weeks and weeks we worried this thing would not work. Editing it the first time, we got a glimpse into what the final product would be like.
MM: What did interactive filmmaking allow you to do that was more rewarding than a narrative feature or a music video?
DS: Two answers. One, it’s rewarding because the people at Eko, formerly known as Interlude, are really great. We’ve worked with them a couple times now because they are so supportive and they are the sweetest. Secondly, in some ways we’ve been jealous of video games for years. We just wished we could make a video game, but that takes so long. Also, with interactive films, there are not many that are any good. They don’t take quite as long, so the bar is a little lower, but they are sort of like a video game. That’s a bad answer [laughs].
DK: I also think we are drawn to interesting challenges, anything that allows us to look at filmmaking through a different lens. We wanted to take a step back from “weird,” and instead, make something technically different and more abstract. We didn’t have to make a “weird” film like the ones we usually make; instead, we made “Possibilia” pretty straightforward. But its construction is unique.
MM: In the Daniels timeline, where does “Possibilia” fall in relations to Swiss Army Man? Did you work on this prior to your feature debut or did these processes overlap?
DS: We made this back when we were working on the script for Swiss Army Man. We actually made this in 2014. In some ways, the subject of love falling apart in stylized ways was a variation on themes we were playing with on Swiss Army Man. We shot this a few weeks after we shot the “Turn Down for What” music video in 2013. This was our anti-“Turn Down for What.” We thought, “Let’s make something really existential and about fear, because we’ve been humping things too much lately” [laughs]. It’s taken a while to finally come out. We think people care more now about us making a thing, so maybe now more people will watch it.
MM: In terms of distribution, was this project always designed to exist in isolation and to be experienced as an interactive narrative?
DS: It was actually originally commissioned by Xbox Entertainment because they wanted to have original content on Xboxes, but then they decided to not do that after all, so then our project just lived in limbo. We designed to be as user-friendly as possible. We always hoped that it would be viewable anywhere. It was designed to be viewed anywhere but individually. You can watch it on computers, tablets, or phones wherever. It doesn’t require some sort of crazy device.
DK: It’s definitely meant to be an individual experience. We’ve had to screen it in theaters or bigger screens to show the idea behind it is, but it’s definitely not made that kind of experience. It’s more something in which you sit down with your iPad or your laptop and just poke around and explore, and then you let it wash over you, and it snowballs differently for everyone. MM
“Possibilia” is available to experience here, courtesy of Eko.