Winter of 2011, my writing and directing partner, Daniel Kwan (the other half of Daniels, the name we go by professionally), pitched to me this idea: a man riding a dead body’s farts across an ocean, set to beautiful music.
Five years later, we have somehow succeeded in making it happen. It’s a key scene in that Daniel Radcliffe-Paul Dano-farting corpse movie you might have heard about—Swiss Army Man.
I am shocked now to remember that there were times, four or five drafts into the writing, when we seriously considered a movie without that iconic motor butt scene. Multiple people told us that the farting corpse scene at the beginning was overshadowing the rest of the story. We had to take it out. Paul Dano suggested it. My most trusted screenwriter friend, Billy Chew, told me in no uncertain terms that he thought the movie shouldn’t start that way. So we had to consider throwing it out, no matter how we loved it, for the good of the movie.
Then in June of 2014 we made a very rough version of the scene at the Sundance Directors Lab. Our rough approximation featured two guys riding a furniture dolly down a grassy hillside. It was so dumb—but it made our advisor Gyula Gazdag cry. He told us, in his thick Hungarian accent, that, “This scene with the farting corpse is so beautiful, it makes me cry every time.” I was so flattered. And if nothing else, I wanted to make this scene come to life for Gyula. So it stayed.
One of the key elements of the scene is that we are introducing the all-singing score of the film. Our lead character is singing the theme music. So before we shot it, we had to score it. Paul Dano was on board and he told us he enjoyed singing falsetto. (Did you guys see Love and Mercy? He’s singing in that one, too.)
So some musician friends, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell from the band Manchester Orchestra, came on board and wrote an amazing, falsetto-heavy song that was more beautiful than we could have imagined, but also structured differently than we wanted it to be. There was a gentle bridge in the middle of the music that we didn’t ask for.
(This is one of my big directing lessons: “Pretend like you know what you’re doing and what you want. Then be prepared to be dead wrong all the time.”)
In fact, the bridge in the music inspired us to rewrite the scene and add a section where Paul’s Hank, the protagonist, stops singing, takes it all in, second-guesses the insanity, before rocketing off to the horizon. Kind of like we did during the writing process. He gets to contemplate for a moment—“What the fuck am I doing?” It’s a great moment, thanks to Rob and Andy.
You gotta come up with an image you really want to see on screen, not one you necessarily know how to get up there. We told our financiers we knew exactly how to pull off an effect like this… but we didn’t, really. So we did our research (among other things, we rewatched that David Hasselhoff scene from The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.) And then we started spit-balling with our team.
We spent a long time trying to have our dummy fabricator, Jason Hamer, build an actual motorized corpse. He reached out to self-powered surfboard companies. It could have been the perfect cross promotion, right? A real, rideable Radcliffe! But those things cost like $50,000 and they didn’t want to give us one, unless maybe we stuck their logo on Radcliffe’s forehead.
So we started discussing how to tow the body through the water. But we wanted as little visual effects work as possible. It’s a big bummer when you do something practically, then clean it up in post so drastically that it looks like bad CG. We’ve made those mistakes before.
We debated having a cable hidden underwater—bad physics. Or putting the actors in front of a boat like the mast on a ship—but that increased our chance of running some precious actors over with a boat. Our stunt coordinator suggested towing them from behind a jet ski. We agreed to test it in pre-production. Then, a few weeks later, we agreed it was too expensive to test and we had no time, so we moved ahead with the jet ski and a follow boat to film from. We shot-listed. Scheduled.
Then three weeks into production, over lunch, we met with our marine coordination team and suddenly the plan changed.
These two guys acted like they knew everything! They insisted that we’d need more boats than we had planned on. They insisted that we should build scaffolding on our camera boat and tow the actors from the arm. The jet ski could work for wide shots only.
I left the meeting early, frustrated that the plan was changing. We didn’t need more boats, more rigs and more equipment. These guys were fleecing us, and we were changing the plan too late in the game. At that point into production, I had gotten dangerously used to being bullheaded, pretending like I knew what I wanted. My humility reserves were running dangerously low. But our producer Jonathan Wang convinced me that as long as we approved it with the stunt team, then I should defer to his judgment, my AD’s judgment, my co-director’s judgment and the judgment of those two guys who had worked on Pirates of the Caribbean.
Finally, in early August 2015, we shot the scene in San Pedro, California with a flatbed boat, a Technocrane, a couple other boats full of crew, and a couple jet skis. It sure made me feel like a badass director to have an armada of boats at my disposal, out on the ocean with Eli Sunday and Harry Potter, blasting our score from onboard concert speakers.
Thank god we went with their plan. The extra boats were invaluable, the scaffolding arm made shooting the actors so much easier, and it was the most fun day of the shoot.
(Which doesn’t mean that Paul’s goddamned beard didn’t fall off after every take.)
For the shoot, we broke the sequence down into different setups based on safety and ease of shooting:
- Wides of a stuntman riding a dummy while being dragged by a 100-foot ski rope (long rope to minimize the amount of boat wake that got into our shot). Shot in open ocean with big waves. Our stunt man was thrown off by the bucking waves multiple times.
- Close-up shots of the corpse’s butt. A stuntman riding our photoreal ass dummy (molded from Daniel Radcliffe’s real butt). Shot on calmer water at a low speed with a tube of compressed air run through the butt hole of the dummy.
- Close-up shots of Paul riding a boogie board. Acting out the whole song in a single two-minute take. Shot on calmer waters but at a pretty high speed so water and wind would whip through his hair.
- Medium shots of Paul actually riding Daniel. Modest boat speed. Calm waters. Very few takes to minimize the chance of hurting either of our leads. Our money shot!
Right before we started filming the medium shot, we realized that Paul’s blocking involved pulling back on Daniel’s tie like the reigns of a horse. And there was a slim but real chance he could choke him. So all five boats, all 50 crew members, came to a halt, looking for a last-minute tie solution that wouldn’t choke him. Fifteen minutes later, we got Daniel’s real tie tucked down the back of his collar, and a different tie (run down his shirt and tied to his belt) coming out of the collar so Paul could “pull the reigns” and at the very worst give Daniel a bit of a wedgie.
Then we were off to the races shooting the scene and it was glorious. No beard problems. Beautiful sprays of water splashing up into the frame. Maybe we did two takes. Maybe just one.
A few months later, we had what I thought was a pretty good edit of this scene—a soaring 60-second aria. And yet Daniel Kwan didn’t think it was good enough. Damn it—there were much bigger editorial fish to fry, huge problems with other scenes in the movie, but off Kwan went to edit and reimagine the scene. And I was a little butt-hurt that he didn’t like it yet.
He came back with an edit that was half as long and had opening credits splashed over the images. After all that work, he wanted to cut the scene in half, throw away some of our song, and put text on top of it all?! But surprise, surprise: It was better. Hilarious, and over before you wanted it to be. A better way to start a movie.
A few more months of editing, sound design and visual effects work, and farting corpses had lost all meaning to me. By the time we premiered at Sundance I had forgotten the movie was funny or weird at all. But there was a moment at the premiere, before the overblown headlines about walk-outs. We were in a theater with 50 of our collaborators and 1,200 other random people. Paul pulled on Daniel’s tie with all his strength, he started singing at the top of his lungs, the titles came up, I had tears in my eyes already, then everyone started spontaneously applauding. Laughing and cheering. I started laughing and cheering too. MM
Swiss Army Man opens in theaters June 24, 2016, courtesy of A24. Images courtesy of Joyce Kim. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2016 issue, on newsstands in July.