2022 was a great comeback year for cinema as evident in the wide spectrum of stories, genres, and styles that catered to audiences of every kind. A film, in particular, stood out the most not only for its unique cinematic style as well as boldly fusing comedy, drama, sci-fi, and martial arts elements together but mostly for the social issues and cultural significance it powerfully tackles.
Everything Everywhere All At Once (EEAAO) pushed the boundaries of cinema and has revolutionized the way experimental films are regarded in mainstream media. After A24 released the film globally, the film’s success has only grown exponentially and dominated the box office with USD $106.9 million in ticket sales worldwide. Not to mention, it bagged 11 nominations at this year’s Academy Awards including the most coveted awards such as Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay – a historic feat of its kind.
I had the pleasure of attending the Writer’s Guild Foundation’s (WGF) Library Script Breakdown session with EEAAO writers and directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, popularly known as “The Daniels,” who gave us an insider look into their writing process as well as an in-depth analysis of their Oscar-nominated screenplay. Let’s take a deep dive into some of the key takeaways from the session.
Inside the Writer’s Mind
A Typical Writing Day for the Daniels
For the Daniels, their writing process continuously evolves. At the beginning of a project, they would separately work on their own by journaling, watching, and reading various materials. After doing their individual research, they’ll hop on their skateboards out in the garage and bounce ideas off of each other to see if it works. They’re particularly active creators who would either play basketball or soccer when brainstorming and workshopping ideas for their projects.
Daniel Kwan expressed that in the early stages of the process, it’s mostly trying to get both of them on the same page. This is achieved by focusing on the general arcs and ambition of the structure that will make it interesting. For EEAAO, they played around with the idea of a “Chosen One Hero’s Journey” through a multiverse narrative. Through this structure, they’re able to explore different facets of the concept of the “Chosen One,” which they beautifully fleshed out and concluded into a powerful idea that there is no such thing as the “Chosen One” in life.
We are all caught up in this concept and the rules of life or storytelling, but all that really matters in the process is watching the characters’ journey, how they make choices, how they rebuild their lives and become the people they’re meant to be. This was the structural goal that they stuck with throughout the process and the rest of it involved a lot of experimenting.
How They Made the Story Personal for Themselves
As with any projects they’ve worked on, both of them would pull from their personal experiences to see if there’s anything unique that they’ve personally gone through that would add to the conversation. Their shared love for Kung Fu films inspired this project and Daniel Kwan expressed that he felt like he was in the right place to explore an Asian-American family story that was also influenced by a music video for DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What” which he directed and starred in. This project went viral and there was a mixture of positive and racist comments about being Chinese and being in a hip-hop video.
After reading a post from a renowned Asian-American blogger at that time who was praising his work and performance, Kwan was moved by it and thought it would be a great idea for a film. Through a multiverse approach, he thought it would be the best way to explore different immigrant stories and the challenges and what-ifs that come along with it. These bits and pieces of ideas happen accidentally and you should just chase things that you’re excited about and you know that you’re on to something good when things just naturally fall into their rightful place.
On Doing Research for Creating the Multiverse
The research was heavily involved in the process and they read different books about astrophysics, quantum physics, philosophy, and Artificial Intelligence among others. They’ve also worked on an interactive short film called Possibilia (2016), which was their first experience working on a story set in the multiverse and later became one of their favorite thought experiments. Some of the books that helped their writing process include Quantum Ontology, The Quantum Moment, In Search of the Multiverse, A Brief History of Time, Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise, and Moving Through Parallel World to Achieve Your Dreams.
In addition to this, they read self-help published books about taxes, which gave them a better understanding of the topic from a humanistic level. The bottom line is they love doing research and you realize that no one really knows exactly what they’re talking about and everyone has their own theories, especially on quantum physics, so that gave them a lot of freedom to write something that makes sense to them while being guided by the knowledge they’ve acquired in their research.
Their main concern is to respect science and to make things as factual as possible so as to not confuse and impede the conversation around it as well as the scientific community. Interestingly, they also mentioned that there is a hotline created by scientists that sci-fi writers can call to verify facts or make sense of the science behind their fictional stories.
Explaining the First Draft of the Script and the Inspiration Behind the Title
They did an extensive outline first, then the first draft of the script was 240 pages. It got further narrowed down to to 215 pages, which was shared with producers. Throughout the process, it’s technically hard to count the number of drafts they had because there were mini drafts and pre-production drafts due to tweaks and revisions, but it’s close to 10 drafts. The pages that were cut off included a Magnolia-style inspired intro sequence where a narrator tells different stories about the universe.
The title was decided very early on because it encapsulates the thought and feeling of what they wanted to do. But along the way, there was that lingering thought that it might not work from a technical standpoint because it was too long and it would be difficult to put on a marquee. There were also agents who thought it was only a working title because it wasn’t exactly industry standard, but they made it their mission to prove to them why it was the perfect title for this project.
The Approach to Writing the First Page of the Script and Thought Process on Introducing the Main Characters
The first page is one of the most important parts of a screenplay. A lot of the openings they wrote were action scenes derived from films such as The Matrix but quickly realized that it wasn’t working the way they wanted it to. They thought it would be best to start with the family and build a relationship with the audience through that and keep the action for later. A close friend of theirs also gave a note on an early draft saying that he never got a chance to get to know the family before everything changed, so they knew that it was the best starting point for the story. The mirror encapsulates the story about a “portrait of a family in chaos” and it also sets the tone for the audience that the film would have otherworldly elements that they will encounter throughout the narrative.
On Finishing the Script
A project of this caliber and complexity requires a lot of focus, determination, and organization. You could easily get lost and overwhelmed developing the world and the characters. For them, despite their expertise and proven track record in storytelling, Kwan articulated that 95 percent of the time there was a lot of confusion and it felt like drowning in their own ideas. But to keep them grounded and on track, they focused on the bigger picture which is all about the family and the other parts revolved around the chaos that is happening to them.
A particular painting known as “Foretoken” painted by Japanese illustrator, Ikeda Manabu, of a wave that emits a similar feeling that they want the movie to convey, which Scheinert expounded on and said that it’s “a movie about being overwhelmed and about trying to focus on things that matter. And there was like a therapeutic meta-narrative of our personal lives as if there’s a reason we picked this project because I think we needed to learn the lessons of the movie.”
Kwan browsed through his notebook and showed an initial sketch of a chart and the layers of the story. It was segregated into 5 major acts and within those acts are mini acts that connect with each other. Every few weeks, they would keep drawing a circular diagram to track where they are in the story and why these things matter. Scheinert had a different approach, which mainly involves writing a one to five-page outline constantly and organizing the elements linearly to see if everything comes together to make a good film. At its core, the movie is about family and learning how to love and live life in the present moment.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is the kind of film we never knew we needed. It’s a first of its kind and has opened a whole new universe for future storytellers to explore and utilize. If you’re a writer or a filmmaker, don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of storytelling and to look within your own experiences and use them to add value to the conversation and improve human existence.