“There’s not many other folks making movies in L.A. from Alabama. As far as stories that I can tell, that folks haven’t heard before, stories about Alabama keep coming up again and again.”
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. This week is Part 2 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. Catch up with Part 1 here.
Swiss Army Man will be screening Sunday, August 28 at 12:50pm at the Alabama Theatre.
“Swiss Army Man” is your first feature. What made you and Daniel decide to make that jump?
It’s kinda been a goal of ours all along. I think for most people, the movies that affected them the most were great feature films, you know? Even with music videos, we’ve always been kind of tricking bands into paying for our narrative short films. And that was to build toward telling our own stories. So for the last four or five years, we’ve been writing feature screenplays in the hopes of making one of them. In particular, over the last three years, everything we did was us trying to lead toward making “Swiss Army Man.” This was our baby and our dream come true. We’re so lucky it actually happened.
You got some pretty big names for a feature debut. How did you manage to make such a splash in that regard?
I don’t know! It’s a miracle, huh? I guess it’s a couple things. We got to go through the Sundance Labs, and it’s a pretty prestigious screenwriting workshop where indie movies—and especially weird movies—get help getting the script in shape and getting the movie made. And I think having that stamp of approval on our weird movie made it a lot easier for us to at least ask Paul [Dano] and Daniel [Radcliffe] to be in it. Once our foot was in the door, we were really lucky those guys responded to the material. They both seemed really excited to take a risk and seemed to relate to the characters and all their weirdness. And it was very painless. They didn’t take a lot of convincing once we got in touch with them, which is miraculous.
Speaking of Sundance, that was your world premiere. You won Best Directing in the U.S. Drama category, but so much of the response was people reducing it to “the farting corpse movie” and dwelling on the walk-outs (even though they don’t really mean anything). What was your reaction to the buzz at Sundance?
I keep describing it as, that week was—I have never had my ego boosted, and then been kicked in the nuts, and then had my ego boosted again, back to back to back, in one week. It was the biggest rollercoaster I’ve ever experienced. I don’t know, it’s pretty odd to be in that tornado. The people we talked to were really excited, they saw the movie and were excited to talk about the movie, and then the internet backlash was completely divorced from our real lives. So it was just this weird thing going on on the internet that had no real bearing on the human beings we seeing around. Which is kind of surreal. And then like you said, we got the directors prize, and that was a cherry on top of our scary little rollercoaster. Well, that and selling the movie. I think all along, we knew we were making a crazy movie, but our real goal was to prove that weird movies could make their money back. That it’s a viable business, we didn’t just trick some rich people. We want to keep doing this, and we want other people to be able to do it. So selling it to A24—a pretty lovely, prestigious company—that was the best moment probably.
A24 has done nothing but home runs the past few years as far as I’m concerned.
Yeah, it’s a pretty cool vibe at their company. They’re pretty interesting. Nobody on their staff has titles. No one’s like, “Oh, I’m head of blah blah blah.” There’s a common understanding as to who does what, but they’re just a bunch of folks who work in an office together and help distribute movies. They’re very progressive and interesting.
Back to Birmingham. How do you think your Birmingham upbringing influenced your creativity?
That’s an interesting question. I have this half-baked theory that, and I don’t know if I’ll describe it very articulately, but when you meet people who are weird or edgy or in liberal parts of the country, sometimes it feels like that’s just a niche they decided to be a part of. But in Birmingham, the weird people are so weird, you know? Like people who go to punk shows in Birmingham are so fascinating and intense and crazy compared to the folks who wear the cool clothes up in Boston. I kind of feel like loving weird things and being weird in Alabama, I got very used to being odd, you know? And people thinking that my taste is odd and the things I was thinking were odd. I kind of grew a thick skin in that way, and also got a very authentic, fun little childhood within my niche of close friends. I felt special for discovering the weird movies that I found, because I wasn’t exposed to those things as easily as some folks might be. But also, the other thing I’ll say is that people in the South make an extra, conscious effort to be polite, and to be kind to their neighbor. I think that’s not just a stereotype, it’s true. As a filmmaker, I take a lot of pride in whether or not people have a pleasant time making the movie, not just the final product’s gotta be great at all costs. And I think some of that’s from growing up in Alabama. It’s kind of like a summer camp vibe, or a kind, communal quality to the way we try to make our movies that’s a little different from the harsher movie sets that I hear people talking about. It just comes naturally to me. Why be mean if you can be nice? Say “Good morning” and shake everybody’s hand, you know?
Do you ever see yourself setting a future story here in Alabama, or even filming one here?
Yeah, it’s a goal of mine for sure. I think since leaving Alabama—as a kid, I was stir crazy and wanted to leave. Now I love it. When I go back, I have such a lovely time. I’ve been developing various projects specifically to try to go to Alabama, since it’s kind of like the one unique thing I have about myself. There’s not many other folks making movies in L.A. from Alabama. As far as stories that I can tell, that folks haven’t heard before, stories about Alabama keep coming up again and again. I have one movie idea, a script my friend wrote, that I want to make that would be set in Alabama. There’s a TV show I want to make that’d be set in Guntersville—that’s where my parents live now. So we’ll see. We’ve actually shot there a couple times. We made a music video for Manchester Orchestra called “Simple Math,” and it was great. Everybody was so excited that a movie was going on. No one was mad or like, “Oh, you can’t film here.” Everybody opened their doors, and we came in under budget and had a great time. So I always feel like, “We’ve gotta go back to Alabama more!”
What’s up next for you and Daniel?
We just finished shooting a commercial that we have to start editing in the next few weeks, so hopefully we’ll have a big commercial come out in a month or two. And then we have another screenplay we wanna write, but we’re trying to keep an open mind and just kind of see where the wind takes us. But we like making our own stuff, so we hope to keep making personal, weird things. We’re so lucky that people are letting us do that so far.
If a big studio came calling with an existing property, is that something you’d consider?
Maybe don’t tell my mom and dad this, but probably not. [Laughs] At least at this point in our lives, it doesn’t play to our strengths, you know? We’re not very good at telling other peoples’ stories. We’re a little too self-conscious to do it. We’re worried we won’t do it justice. The idea of a comic book movie scares me. Famous last words, who knows.