Filmmaker Dan Kwan hit upon the germ of the idea which would become Everything Everywhere All at Once on a road trip in 2016. "I was driving with my fiancée to Big Sur because we were checking out wedding venues," he says. "That long ride, going back and forth up a mountain, lulled me into a state of thinking about high-concept sci-fi ideas."
Kwan's idea? "Verse-jumping," in which characters travel to alternative universes after performing some odd task (say, sticking something up their butt) and return equipped with a talent (say, martial-arts skills) possessed by other versions of themselves. "[It's] sort of Hitchhiker's Guide-type sci-fi," says Kwan, referring to the revered series of cult novels written by the late British author Douglas Adams. "It's absurd and yet still has some logic that holds it together. I was just excited to have something like that to play with, because I grew up on those books."
When Kwan returned to Los Angeles, he pitched the idea to his longtime creative partner Daniel Scheinert, with whom he had written and directed 2016's Swiss Army Man, about a flatulent corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe. (They have a singular sensibility.)
"He came back and said, 'What if we did a sci-fi film, but you have to do something stupid in order to tap into the powers you have in a parallel universe?'" says Scheinert. "We were both like, that would be fun, but it's not a movie, it's just a kind of fight-scene gimmick. Then, maybe a year or so later, the story started to take shape, tapping into other universes [that] would send you on an existential spiral in addition to giving you some powers. That was when we said, whoa, this is exciting; we get to do existential crisis and fight scenes. They're our two favorite things!"
Allyson Riggs/A24 Everything Everywhere All at Once
"We have a hard time settling down with an idea," adds Kwan. "With this movie, it became a bucket to dump all our stray ideas. The fun thing about this idea is that it was able to hold it all and we kept putting more and more ideas [into it] until it was almost ready to burst. That's when we were like, okay, we think this is going to be the thing that we commit to."
Two early backers of the project were Anthony and Joseph Russo, the Avengers: Endgame directors. "Early, early days, they were the people who fronted us some money while we wrote the first draft," says Scheinert.
"They were mostly helpful in the scripting stage, where we would do table reads and things like that," says Kwan. "Then they were a little bit less involved, but we are grateful to have had that time at the beginning to develop it."
Securing the film's budget proved trickier. The filmmakers' script, about a laundromat owner who discovers she is the only person capable of saving the multiverse from a great evil, blended together many genres and was not based on established IP. Kwan and Scheinert were also pitching a movie with a mostly Asian cast at a time before the groundbreaking success of Crazy Rich Asians. Finally, the filmmakers were looking for a much larger budget than they had on Swiss Army Man.
"We got funding to write it and then we had to figure out where to make it, which studio," says Kwan. "It was mixed reactions because people didn't know what to make of it. On the surface level it's like, oh, it's a sci-fi-action-comedy, let's do it! But then, once you read the script, you go, oh, I don't know what this is. And so places like Amazon, they said, 'Maybe we'll do this, but I think we need to do another draft with you guys.' And then Apple was basically, no, it wasn't for them, it wasn't the Apple brand. Our movies are kind of chaotic messes that are orchestrated in a way that somehow makes sense and works, but that is not really how Apple works."
The two filmmakers (collectively known as "Daniels") eventually stuck a deal with beloved indie distributor A24, which, in the years since the release of Swiss Army Man, has enjoyed success with Hereditary, Eighth Grade, Midsommar, and even a Best Picture Oscar win with Moonlight.
Allyson Riggs/A24 Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
"When we first started writing it, A24 probably wouldn't have been able to fund it," says Kwan. "By the time we were ready to make this movie, A24's budgets had increased just a little bit, enough to accommodate an action movie. In some ways, this is one of their first true action movies with full-on fight scenes and things like that. So we kind of went on a weird journey to get back to A24."
"The shoot was so fun," says Hsu, who plays the daughter of Yeoh's character. "The Daniels really cultivated a community and a family. We do warm-ups in the morning and the crew is really close and everyone is just so onboard, and so really you have that spirit. People would read the script and say, 'This sounds like a billion-dollar project, how are we going to do this?' But they are such amazing and knowledgeable filmmakers that they are able to move swiftly because they know exactly what they need to pull off a very difficult shot which still leaves room to play."
A24's faith in the project seems to have been justified. Everything Everywhere All at Once has received overwhelmingly positive reviews and earned a very impressive $50,965 per-screen average when it opened in limited release two weeks ago. The movie is now playing wide around the country, its bucket of ideas as full as Kwan and Scheinert originally planned.
"We wanted to create something that had all the spectacle and fun of a superhero film or a blockbuster action movie but with as much heart and as many surprises as you would expect from a more indie film," says Scheinert. "That was the balance we were trying to strike."
Hsu, for one, believes they succeeded.
"I've now watched the film seven times and every single time I come out of it, I ask the boys, 'Did we change anything since we finished it?'" says Hsu. "'Now that it's playing more theaters, did we send a new edit or something?' Because there is so much to notice every single time."
Watch the trailer for Everything Everywhere All at Once below.