The Sound Design of Swiss Army Man
At Sundance, directing duo Daniels discuss how their lush soundscapes keep things weird but authentic
One week ago, just an hour after we disembarked a plane, we sat in Park City, Utah's Eccles Theater for the world premiere of "Swiss Army Man" at this year's Sundance Film Festival. No viewer knew exactly what to expect, and even now it's not easy to explain. Ultimately, however, it's a highbrow dark comedy, albeit occasionally steered by potty humor—all of which ultimately supports the very grounded topics of isolation, desire and shame. Plenty of discussion afterward hovered around the farting corpse of Daniel Radcliffe's character or the obsession-driven performance of Paul Dano, but the film's sound design captured our attention wholly. Directing duo Daniels (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan) and Sound Designer Brent Kiser took some time to explain to us how they built their soundscapes: from gaseous eruptions to surprise musical numbers.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, the characters both living and deceased, do break into song. The film isn't a musical but there are musical numbers—with sounds originating from characters and weaving into the score. As Kwan explains to CH, "We knew from the beginning this would be a very subjective film, because it was mostly from the perspective of one man, and that started us out with the idea of music coming from his voice and his mind and all the different layers of voices. We wanted viewers feeling like you are in his head. You feel the joy that he feels and the pain and the mystery." Scheinert adds, "Once we had the narrative beat that he was going to reenact memories and build sets, we were kind of like, 'Oh, he should make the sound effects. He should score it! Let's make the sound effects come from his voice.'"
Everybody sings and most people are embarrassed about it. Everybody farts and most people are embarrassed about it
"The singing voices," Kwan continues, "are a counterpart to the farting. It's like a yin and yang of things that are very authentic and true and come from the body. Everybody sings and most people are embarrassed about it. Everybody farts and most people are embarrassed about it." Kwan admits, "We don't even like a cappella music. That was part of the fun." Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, two members of the band Manchester Orchestra, spent 11 months scoring the film. Kiser explains, "A lot of this sound is going from diegetic to score, and the directors needed it for playback on set, so the actors would be in sync. And a lot of times we would use production audio in the music as it unfolds and comes out." These woven layers engulf the audience.
Both note that the music affected production as much as the audience. On set, the actors would ask to hear the songs. Scheinert says, "The goal was to get the sound to emotionally ground this dangerously perverted content. It gave us an opportunity to say, 'No, no, no this is beautiful.' This is a movie about beauty and beauty fighting shame." One of the most memorable numbers involves popcorn: "Some of our lyrics are literally singing what people see on the screen and that's the most honest and simple way to sing," Kwan explains. "The lyric 'pop popcorn, pop popcorn' is so stupid, but in the context of the film, the characters are so excited to have popcorn. To do it without any shame is beautiful." Kwan explains that naturally occurring lyrics are a portal into people's brains, but musicals are too earnest. Scheinert, on the other hand, loved that the movie was "an opportunity to break out into song and that weirdness would be narratively valuable. The character could break out into song because he has been alone for so long."
First things first, we did a six-hour fart recording session so the guys could go into edit with an abundance of flatulence to be able to really play with the idea of emotionally using these farts—instead of it being just comedy
Flatulence does factor heavily into character introductions as well as character potential. Kiser notes, "First things first, we did a six-hour fart recording session so the guys could go into edit with an abundance of flatulence to be able to really play with the idea of emotionally using these farts—instead of it being just comedy. We didn't want it to be cartoon." Scheinert says, "We also stole a bunch of farts from YouTube, where people had recorded their real farts." Kiser then recreated these in studio. (He adds, "We didn't want to get a call from YouTube dudes, being like, by the way, I Shazamed this fart, it's mine and I would like a million dollars.") Both directors recognize that many people do not like fart jokes; they themselves do not like fart jokes. With that in mind, "We kind of intentionally went overboard quick and then stopped them. The farts stop for the majority of the film. They get corked," Scheinert says.
"Because we wanted to get past the joke, authenticity is key, including body position. We wanted a noise that felt honest to the image so you were't thinking of the joke, you were thinking about the position, or if he is sad, or where the water is," Kwan shares. "We wanted the audience to construct their own thoughts on farts. We are helping people sand down their prejudices to not just farts but all things people are ashamed of. All things people feel they can't show other people." Again, this takes simple humor and turns it on the viewer while allowing deeper access to the character.
Another recurring musical trope is the "Jurassic Park" theme song. The Daniels explain its value to the narrative, while acknowledging they themselves frequently sing it—especially when pitching projects. "We thought it was dishonest to make a movie full of singing and never acknowledge the songs that actually get stuck in your head. If it was 100% original music, it felt like—you know, like how we all know the Crossfire song—you'd miss that connection," Scheinert shares. Kwan adds, "Specifically when you are trying to tell a narrative, it doesn't matter what that narrative is but [bursts into 'Jurassic Park' song] for some reason, [the other] Daniel's mind would always go to 'Jurassic Park.' We just thought that was so funny." In addition to its sticking potential, the John Williams snippet does anchor two isolated characters to a world most are familiar with.
The Daniels have a very successful background in music video production. It infused their production and ultimately the tone and rhythm of the film. Scheinert explains, "We are two directors trying to think like one director. A lot of people ask, 'How do you consolidate ideas to make something cohesive?' Music is a really good bridge for that because it essentially becomes a translator. Because we are two minds, music is key to combining our ideas." For the entire film, sound infiltrates viewers' brains in unusual, yet relatable ways. To an extent, it's a metonymy for the film's message and experience.
Stills courtesy of Swiss Army Man, cast photo by Jeff Vespa – © 2016 Jeff Vespa – image courtesy gettyimages.com