How Everything Everywhere All at Once Is About Change and Not Conflict

How Everything Everywhere All at Once Is About Change and Not Conflict

It’s been a long day for directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They’ve been doing 20-minute press junkets all day. But when they sit down with me to talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once, it’s immediately clear that this isn’t work for them. It’s practically a calling.

Known by their moniker the Daniels, the two have been working steadily in film and television for over a decade. Swiss Army Man (2016) was their first film, a quirky, black comedy/drama starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. Their sophomore film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Stephanie Hsu, went wide over the weekend.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is not a film about conflict. I know, it might seem odd, especially when there’s clearly a lot of kung fu fighting happening on screen, but that’s not conflict, that’s combat. Sometimes the two things are the same, but combat can just be a means to an end, rather than the entire reason the movie exists.

Kiku – Introduction

As Western audiences are exposed more and more to films that are rooted in traditional Eastern storytelling styles, it becomes easier to understand the difference. Take, for, example, Studio Ghibli’s Princess Monoke. There’s a lot of combat in the film, but that’s not the point. “I was obsessed with Princess Mononoke for the longest time,” says Daniel Scheinert. “The finale is way more complicated than good vs. evil… There’s not a bunch of bad guys that need to be murdered. Mononoke is much more morally ambiguous. They’re trying to negotiate peace as a climax to a fantasy film, which is how we steered our film. “

Daniel Kwan agrees, “You could do a whole article just about how Eastern storytelling leaves more room for ambiguity and a lack of conflict. There is a four-act structure in Japanese storytelling that isn’t about conflict at all, it’s only about change.”

This structure is called Kishōtenketsu (起承転結). The formalized style originated in China, migrated to Korea, and then made its way to Japan. It’s a narrative structure marked by self-realisation, understanding, and then change.

“Rather than the conflict pushing the story, the story is full of changes in perspectives,” Kwan said of the concept, “and those changes then change the way the story comes out. The catalysts in the story are surprise and change and not conflict. There’s not supposed to be conflict.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about this. The changes in perspectives that drive more change. The constant remaking of yourself to suit new information and new challenges. Everything Everywhere All at Once, from writing to casting to production to reception, is about shifting perspectives. Sometimes violently, sometimes with combat, but always with new information, new understanding, and new universes at its core.

Shoku – Expansion

There are stories that never leave us. Much like Hayao Miyazaki’s films have stuck with Scheniart since he was a kid, Kwan describes Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a touchstone of his childhood. “It was one of the first books I pulled off my dad’s shelf — we really bonded over this story.”

He explains that Adams’ deep understanding of science was buried under irreverence. “There’s something beautiful about being silly and playful,” Kwan says, getting more and more excited as he talks about Hitchhikers, itself an influence clearly seen in the Everything Everywhere All at Once. “It simplifies these really complex ideas into something understandable. I wanted to make The Matrix by way of Douglas Adams.”

One of the great, enduring moments in Hitchhiker’s Guide is when the crew of the spaceship Heart of Gold is attempting to outrun their enemies, and in a moment of panic, our everyman hero, Arthur Dent, slams the Improbability Drive. When the drive is activated the Heart of Gold “passes through every single point in every single universe, almost simultaneously.”

This is what happens in Everything Everywhere, in a way. Kwan described the first meditation he had on this kind of universal disorder, “I was driving to look at a wedding venue, and I thought about the slight variations in life. Maybe you have coffee instead of tea, or you go barefoot instead of putting on shoes.” And then, the further you push your decisions, the further you get from what you usually do, you branch out in fractal universes. Then, eventually, there’s the probability that you might not exist at all.

“I was thinking of these characters as a probability field. A superposition of millions of themselves,” Kwan continued. “I imagined what would happen if they suddenly did something so improbable that they pushed themselves to the outskirts of your own local cluster of probability.” As he explains he makes a motion with one of his hands, like an camera aperture, and the other circles around it, moving in wider and wider circles. “So we have this idea, that these characters can do something so weird that it would give them the momentum they need to go to other universes.” He laughs, “it was just this overcomplicated idea that never went away.”

“Weirdly,” Scheinert adds, “coming up with the rules was very easy. The hard part was that we knew we wanted to stare at infinity. We wanted to take Everything Everywhere to the point where logic breaks down. So there’s a negotiation happening with us and the audience as we give them enough to understand the rules without overexplaining. We don’t want the audience to work so hard to understand all these rules only for us to tell them, ‘just kidding! it barely matters.’”

If you’ve seen the movie already, you’d be inclined to agree that Scheinert and Kwan succeeded. “A lot of science fiction I read or watch gets so excited about the lore that they lose the characters and the themes.” Scheinert continued, before pausing — a rarity for two men who rarely stop when discussing an idea they’re excited about. “You know, that was the harder balance — not coming up with the rules but prioritising which ones actually help us tell the story we want to.”

Tenku – Change

At first blush there are some recognisable stereotypes of Asian-Americans at play within Everything Everywhere. The Wangs are a Chinese immigrant family that own a laundromat, and Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and Joy (Stephanie Hsu) all live above it in a small apartment. Evelyn is a Tiger Mum/Dragon Lady; Waymond is (in Kwan’s words) a “beta male” who is very submissive to his wife and father-in-law, Gong Gong (the legendary James Hong). Joy is their daughter, a first gen disappointment who can’t seem to do anything right.

The Wang Family (Image: A24)
The Wang Family (Image: A24)

“Early on,” Kwan explains, “Someone asked me, ‘Why are you making an Asian American film about kung fu? Why do you have the main characters live and work above a laundromat? Shouldn’t we be moving beyond that?” He takes a deep breath.

“And it struck me in a funny way. Because, yes [we should], but also this is my life! Am I going to allow a stereotype that has boxed me in my whole life — to force me off my own story? To decenter myself from this story? This is a film rooted in how I grew up, and the stories I grew up on,” he continued. “That almost became a call to action, a clarifying moment. After that, I decided to lean in even harder.”

“It’s true. In early drafts we only leaned slightly into those tropes and then after that conversation we ended up leaning in harder,” Scheinert added. “In the [parallel reality in the movie where Evelyn works as a chef], we decided that Evelyn shouldn’t working in a French restaurant — she should be a hibachi chef. And then the universe where she’s a singer, she should be singing a traditional Chinese Xiqu song in full regalia, rather than having her sing this operatic aria. It became a fun challenge to lean into and complicate these classic ‘tropes’ of cinema.”

Although these stereotypes are the present at the start of the film, Everything Everywhere expertly and lovingly, deconstructs them. Evelyn’s demands as a mother are from a place of love, not anger, and her stubbornness saves her family. Waymond’s kindness becomes his greatest power. Joy wants to live her life, but she can’t blame her family for being the way they are. Her forgiveness saves the world. As Everything Everywhere shatters all the fractal possibilities of these characters throughout the multiverse, we get characterization that shows every single character as both their stereotypes and so much more, changing in every scene to show a new side of themselves.

The casting plays into this as well, adding to the story that Kwan and Scheinert developed. But beyond Michelle Yeoh, who Daniels said they knew from the very beginning they wanted in their film, all the other actors involved just ended up being the right people for the movie.

Yeoh made her name in Chinese action films, most notably the 2000 international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. “We knew we wanted to play with her image,” Kwan says, “and we wanted to explode it. We wanted to show what she’s capable of, or even challenge what people perceived her to be capable of.” In Everything Everywhere, not only does Yeoh go back to her kung fu roots, but she also explodes outwards, into universes where she’s an opera singer, a movie star, a sign spinner, a rock. We’ve seen Yeoh in dozens of movies, but never like this. She’s the star of this film, and her name is the one we recognise. But what we get is something totally different than before.

Quan’s casting likewise gets this kind of meta-treatement. Western audiences know Quan from his iconic child roles in ‘80s films–Short Round in Indiana Jones, Data in The Goonies–but he had largely disappeared from the big screen. He comes back in role that reminds audiences of all the charm he demonstrated as a young actor, but with room to show off what he learned while working with Wong Kar-Wai in China. He performs most of his stunts, which are, for the record, incredible. Quan, like Waymond, is the underdog. He knows what you think of him, and he’s ready to show you how wrong you are.

Ke Huy Quan, looking like a whole meal. (Image: A24)
Ke Huy Quan, looking like a whole meal. (Image: A24)

“We ended up casting the perfect people,” Kwan says, “but very little of that metanarrative was intentional. It’s now that we’re realising Everything Everywhere shows the potential these actors have been holding onto, but the world wasn’t ready for. Like James Hong.” Hong, who plays Gong Gong, Evelyn’s father and the patriarchal source of malcontent in the film, has been in over 500 films. Like Yeoh, we think we know what to expect from him, but in reality, we only know what we’ve been told to expect.

“Hong has been working for a century, and so many of his roles are iconic,” Kwan explained. “But he’s held back by the ‘bamboo ceiling’ which keeps him in a very Western perception of what an Asian-American, or even Chinese-American man can be. It was very exciting for us to give them a chance to show the audience something they’ve never seen before… not because these actors aren’t capable, but because they weren’t allowed to grow to that.”

I mention Stephanie Hsu, the newcomer. She plays Joy in the film; the girl who doesn’t fit in her family, which manifests in fascinating ways throughout the film. “We are so steeped in this meta-narrative,” Kwan says, “that when you meet a new actor who you’ve never seen before it feels like a pure experience.”

Kekku – Outcome

Everything Everywhere All at Once is an incredible feat of science-fiction cinema. It also sits on the shoulders of many films. It’s an homage to Asian American cinema, kung fu films, and the long list of Chinese, Malaysian, and Vietnamese actors who have crossed boundaries at the box office. It builds on both past and contemporary culture to create something rooted and, at the same time, completely new.

“Our movie stands on the shoulders of other films that paved the way, especially modern work like Shang Chi and Crazy Rich Asians that proved that there is an audience for these stories right now,” Kwan said. “Also stuff like The Farewell, Parasite, and Minari,” Scheinert adds. “They did the legwork that got people ready for our film. Anime was a big part of our childhood and it’s obvious we’ve taken inspiration from Satoshi Kon’s work here–Paprika and Millennium Actress come to mind. We thought to ourselves ‘his stuff is amazing, can we do this but in live-action?’”

“There’s also Mind Game by Masaaki Yuasa — that film was so bonkers it makes us look really tame,” Kwan added, “Off kilter in a way that was really inspiring.”

Within the frenetic press tour, the spaced-out releases, and the raving critics, Kwan says that one of the best parts about the release of Everything Everywhere is when he and Scheinert get in touch with other filmmakers. “A lot of Asian-American writers and directors have reached out to us,” Kwan noted. “They say to us, ‘I feel like I can do anything. The possibilities are more open.’” He frowns, and I think of the long list of inspirations, the way that this film examines and then shatters stereotypes, the many universes at play in Everything Everywhere, the fractal expansion of possibility opening up like a camera’s aperture, showing a wider view of the world.

“If our film can have one small part of that movement towards an open possibility for everyone,” he says, smiling, leaning forward. “That’s what I think is the most exciting part about this.”

Everything Everywhere All At Once is in theatres now.