“They found us more than we found them. We were just making anything and everything we could.”
In honor of the 18th annual Sidewalk Film Festival on August 26-28, we’re publishing a series of interviews with Birmingham filmmakers that are featured in this year’s festival. First up is Part 1 of an interview with Daniel Scheinert, co-writer/co-director of Swiss Army Man, that was originally conducted for a feature in Birmingham Magazine’s August issue. Jump to Part 2 here.
Swiss Army Man will be screening Sunday, August 28 at 12:50pm at the Alabama Theatre.
You were born and raised in Birmingham. What part of the city?
I was born and raised in Birmingham, but Daniel [Kwan] is from rural Massachusetts, near Worcester, and we met in college. But I grew up in the Heatherwood area, went to Oak Mountain for a while and then did high school in Shades Valley at JCIB.
How did you and your friends pass the time growing up?
I guess it changed every three or four years, but a bunch of my friends and I were huge fans of the show Jackass. And we created our own version of it, where we’d film videos and run around in Speedos and do really lame versions of Jackass pranks. And then I did tons of theatre. I got really involved in filmmaking because of Sidewalk Film Festival in particular. They would have competitions for high schoolers, they would have those 48-hour scrambles, and so in high school those became my favorite thing, and that’s kinda what led me to filmmaking, doing all the Sidewalk stuff I could.
How early on in your studies did you become drawn to the arts, and filmmaking in particular?
I really got into it in high school, but even in middle school—that’s when we did our version of Jackass. It was my two best friends and I. I think the reason I got into it was because my brother and his friends were making movies, and I just became jealous, so I just wanted to do it because they were and then I really took a liking to it.
You left Alabama for college. What made you decide to move that far away from home?
Yeah, I moved to Boston and went to Emerson College. I’m really luck that my parents were encouraging, that they told my brother and me we could go to college anywhere we wanted, so there wasn’t a ton of pressure to stay close to home. It wasn’t like I actively wanted to get away, but you know, theatre and film were my passions, and those career paths kinda draw you into extra-urban areas. It was all an accident that I went to Boston. I was trying to find a school that seemed good that would let me study theatre and film—I didn’t like the idea of a conservatory where I would just do one. So that’s really what led me to Emerson. They were flexible with the rules, so I got to go and get a double-major.
Do you do a bit of acting still?
Not that much, but I miss it every once in a while. I think when I went to school for it, the more I learned about the business of it, I realized it’s a crapshoot, you know? Auditions are pretty rough, it’s a grueling process. So I decided to do comedy and acting on the side and just do filmmaking because it was going better for me. And so I haven’t looked back. I haven’t done a whole lot of acting in the last six years.
Do you think that acting influenced your sensibilities as a writer and director?
Yeah, absolutely. I always say that in some ways I feel like I learned more in my acting classes about directing than I did in any sort of filmmaking class. And not just classes—just by being an actor and by doing theatre, I have an intense amount of empathy for what actors have to go through, and how awkward and weird it can be. To be asked to play pretend and trust the director. Especially when we’re running auditions, I go out of my way to try to make it fun, because I saw first-hand how you can’t put your best foot forward if the audition is miserable and awkward, you know?
You met Daniel Kwan when you were in college. What made you guys decide to be an actual team rather than just frequent collaborators?
It was kind of an organic process. I feel like, for whatever reason, I kind of follow the path of least resistance. So I’ve always been a serial collaborator, where I just make things with my friends who are around. And so Dan and I became friends right as I was graduating school, and then the stuff that we made together, people seemed to like it more. And we didn’t really label it, we didn’t say, “Oh, I’m director, he’s director.” We didn’t really think that hard about it. And I guess the more stuff we made, the more apparent it became that we were sharing all the duties and that it was kind of an equal partnership. So we decided to call it a directing duo. We kind of organically grew into it, and who knows what we’ll organically grow into next.
You two have a pretty balanced process, then. Do you play similar roles each time, or do the projects necessitate different things?
I’m beginning to realize it’s the second one. It evolves, and each project kinda changes it. We definitely have certain sensibilities and certain things that we’re both good at, but I think I have the most fun when we change up the pattern instead of doing the same old thing. The nice thing about a directing duo is when I get bored with something I can just be like, “Hey, you have to do it this time. I don’t wanna.”
That organic balance, is that what led you to go with the name “Daniels” rather than full first and last names?
Yeah, there’s been a lot of folks who did commercials and music videos who use made-up directing duo names and stuff, or filmmaking collectives. I think we were just self-conscious about having two people’s names, as four words—Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert. We took a long time trying to come up with a name before we settled on the obvious “Daniels.” And we were lucky enough to have a modest fanbase who liked our work, so we tried to keep the moniker around enough that those people can find whatever we’re up to. But I have a feeling the more narrative stuff we do, the less we’ll—we might just start going by our real last names someday soon.
It looks like music videos are what really helped you take off. What made you gravitate toward that particular form?
It was kinda just like they found us more than we found them. We were just making anything and everything we could. The music video industry doesn’t have a lot of money, but it does have a lot of freedom, so as we were starting out, it was a place that we flourished. From the get-go, we were making short films and commercials, but music videos were the only place where we could get paid. And I think it’s where our tastes fit. We enjoy surprising people and shocking them, so it was kind of a happy accident. Dan Kwan always said he never wanted to be a music video director, but I think I sort of did want to be one. A lot of my heroes got their start there and made great music videos, so maybe I bullied him into doing it.
I’m sure he’s glad you did at this point.
Yeah. [Laughs.] He’s doing okay.
Is there any particular video that you think was kind of your big breakout?
Not really. Depending on the interview, sometimes we’ll say one or a different one. But if I’m honest, I guess for us, it’s always just been—we just try to make sure we’re interested in whatever we do next. Almost every other project has been a step forward where something good happened, or we made a new connection, or made a new friend that made it easier for us to keep going. If anything, the very first one was our biggest breakthrough. We made one called “Underwear” for FM Belfast, and we made it for no money, and it went relatively viral, and that’s how we got our start, you know? Which is kinda the biggest step of all. Just to be like, “Hey, we’re a thing now.”