Interview: ‘Swiss Army Man’ Producers Discuss the Passion of New Filmmakers

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Swiss Army Man” is not a film for everyone. At least not according to one of the film’s producers.'Swiss Army Man' poster

The film caused some agitation when it premiered at Sundance last year and quickly gained notoriety for turning star Daniel Radcliffe, once an innocent boy wizard, into cinema’s most flatulent carcass.

For fans who have embraced the film, however, it stands as one of the most unforgettable – and, yes, enjoyable – film experiences of 2016.

I had a chance to speak to two of the film’s producers, Amanda Marshall and Miranda Bailey, whose Cold Iron Pictures productions have produced knock-out indie hits like “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Super” and “Don’t Think Twice.”

They talked about their love of working with original storytellers, what it was like working with first-time filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as the Daniels), their recent Independent Spirit Award nomination, magical realism and what they thought of that indelible ending.

CL: First of all, congratulations on “Swiss Army Man” being nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. It’s nominated for Best First Feature. You produced another film that was nominated in the same category last year and won. Director Marielle Heller took home the award for “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” What would a win two years in a row in the same category mean to you?

AM: It would be amazing. Really great, I think what’s been really nice is, I feel like we try to choose films that kind of have that indie spirit and we support a lot of first-time filmmakers and so being recognized for that is really great. And I feel like both of those films have been wonderful experiences to be a part of so seeing them recognized is also just amazing.

MB: I don’t want to jinx it, but it sure would be a lot of fun [laughs]. I’m not gonna lie, it felt really good to win, especially when you’re a producer and you don’t have to figure out a speech, because the director will do that and you can just stand back and bask in the happiness of the reward for all of the work. It would be great, it would be amazing, it would mean that I would try for three then.

CL: “Swiss Army Man” was directed by first-time filmmakers, The Daniels, whose previous works include music videos and short films. What was it like working with them and in helping get their vision for this story off the ground?

AM: The Daniels’ are very interesting, they are definitely unique filmmakers. I think that’s evident in their movie, but also just the way they work is, which was really interesting…They’re very DIY, they do a lot of things on their own. Their best known music video, “Turn Down for What,” one of them is in it. They’re used to being this two-man show. It was great to be around that kind of innovativeness…Their ideas were really exciting so it was fun to be able to collaborate that way and help them build the framework of how to execute the vision.

MB: It’s funny because every filmmaker that we work with is different and I think, “oh, I know how to do this because we’ve done it before.” And every movie that you do, you learn something kind of different, so with this film, the script itself was so bizarre and crazy that the idea of what they wanted to do was insane, essentially, and unheard of, and that’s what I really liked about it. But you knew that they would be able to pull it off based on the fact that their short films and their music videos, they were in essence, practicing to make this movie. So we were able to conceptually see that when they said “oh this is what we want to happen here and he’s going to fall through the trees.” We were like, “oh, okay, that makes sense, it’s like the person fell through the ceiling. Okay, I get it.” So it was pretty fun.

 

CL: Looking at your filmography, you’ve worked with several first-time or second-time directors – Marielle Heller, the Daniels, James Gunn on “Super,” Mike Birbiglia on “Don’t Think Twice.” What is it about working with new filmmakers that excites you?

AM: I like the freshness of it, you know, there’s no jadedness. Everyone’s very excited. They bring different perspectives than somebody that’s been doing this for a while. Actually, what’s been very interesting is every project is different. The Daniels’ come from the music video world, they come from doing things very out-of-the-box and they bring that to the table. And Marielle was an actor and she wrote the piece and had performed it herself once, so that was a different kind of experience than working with Mike who has a stand-up background and was the lead in his movie, it was a very different experience. I think what’s been really great is that even though the mechanics of making a movie can be very similar, especially with first-time filmmakers, each experience is different and unique and that kind of makes it fun and that also brings something new that I learn every time about different out-of-the-box ideas, which has been a lot of fun.

MB: I don’t know, it’s not that I wouldn’t want to work with Wes Anderson, or someone else…working on ‘Super” with James Gunn that was amazing. I guess my first one was Noah Baumbach on “Squid and the Whale” and in a way that was what kind of rebirthed him or in a way kind of gave him the legs. He was someone to really watch and then he did another movie that people were like “eh, nah” and then it took him a long time to get “The Squid and the Whale” up, but he had it. He had that thing. He had that voice and that vision and “The Squid and the Whale” was kind of a perfect script…with a cast that could let him get to that place and was being made for $1.5 million. And “Super” was kind of similar, James had done a big movie that became a cult-hit but it didn’t do well necessarily in the studio land. So someone like me would be the perfect person to do “Super” because I knew he had a voice and I knew that it was a unique one. And the story was outrageous and unique and I believed that he could do it. And same with the Daniels’, they’re very, very similar in the sense that they’re kind of – you can’t compare “Swiss Army Man” to any other movie or the Daniels’ to any other director. I feel the same for Noah Baumbach and James Gunn they’re very, very similar in terms that they’re uncomparable [sic]. They’re so the same that no one’s the same like them! [laughs]

CL: Going back to “Swiss Army Man,” the film caused a bit of a stir when it premiered at Sundance last year and was quickly dubbed “the farting corpse movie.” Was there any worry over audience polarization during the filmmaking process?

AM: I think that we always knew that was a possibility. From the second the project came to us in like the first moment. It’s such a crazy pitch. Personally, that’s what excited me about the project, but, you know, definitely a concern. I think we all always knew that this wasn’t a film for everyone. We definitely had a number of people shy away from the idea of being involved because of its craziness, but it’s those exact things that also drew us to the project. It’s a lot more exciting – if you’re gonna do something that isn’t a studio film, if you’re going to do an independent film, doing something that’s different and exciting that kind of breaks through the noise is, I think, is kind of the point. That was something that was very exciting, not to say that when that came out, it wasn’t a little bit scary [laughs]. But in the end, I actually feel like it was a good thing for the movie and it was great to embrace it and just run with it and I also think that Daniel Radcliffe was totally game and such a good sport and he totally ran with it too. That was pretty great.

MB: I think there was concern, I wasn’t concerned, myself, because you are lucky if people are talking about your movie [laughs] and so everybody’s saying “oh my god, that’s that movie that people walked out of” or “that’s that movie that people thought was so offensive people thought they were going to Harry Potter.” People want to see that so it kind of did the opposite of what the first reporter who tweeted about it said, who was in a bad mood to begin with, he already actually apologized because he realized “Oh, I probably should have stayed” because in the end, in the other screening, no one was walking out and all anyone was saying was how much they loved it. So we just had to be patient and convince the other financiers that we knew what we were doing and that if we were patient at the end of the day, the right thing would happen for the film, which it did. So, we’re really lucky.

Swiss Army Man

CL: There’s a lot of crudeness and even some political incorrectness in “Swiss Army Man.” Many producers would have walked away from this film, fearful of the risk factor. But looking at some of your previous projects – “Super,” “Squid and the Whale,” “Diary of a Teenage Girl” – it seems there was an element of gamble involved in those films, as well. Is controversy something that you openly embrace when taking on a film?

AM: I don’t know if it’s controversy, per se, but, definitely, we like stuff that cuts through the noise. I always say that we’re perspective-driven and I think that all of these films have very unique perspectives. That’s what we like and sometimes that brings controversy because it’s not the norm but that’s what’s exciting and I actually think it helps the movies get a little bit more noticed when they are that. But I wouldn’t say we seek out controversy, but we seek out putting something out in the world that’s not already there.

CL: Miranda, I know you’re working on a documentary inundated in controversy. You’re directing Pathological Optimist, a documentary about a disgraced doctor linking vaccines to autism and the friction it caused at Tribeca last year. What made you want to take on this hot-button issue?

MB: Oh man, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I’m not gonna lie [laughs], when I first started following (Andrew Wakefield) or tried doing it was in 2011 when he had basically been discredited and I thought it was very interesting that there were these people that adored him and worshipped him and followed him around…and then there’s this whole other group of people, like the mainstream public, who  was saying “he’s awful, he’s a baby killer, he’s this.” I was just very curious. And I was mostly curious, like, “who could deal with this?” Like what kind of person could be out there saying he’s right about something he’s been proven wrong on? And what would it be like to be his kids? What would it be like to be married to him? So that is what attracted me to it and at the time it was a very underground kind of character, he was kind of famous I guess [laughs] or infamous. He was in some parents circle kind of thing or some doctor circles, it wasn’t as big as it is now. At the beginning, I wanted to make a movie on him and he was like “no, you can’t. I don’t trust you, I don’t know who you’re working for” [laughs]. And then a year went by and he realized I was a real filmmaker and I actually wanted to do something that wasn’t like “you’re a liar or you’re telling the truth” but really just kind of delve into his psyche or his family life and what is his everyday like. He allowed me to do that so I followed him while he was attempting to sue the British Medical Journal and the journalist who had published these stories that CNN had reported on in 2011 that had made him the bad guy on Anderson Cooper and stuff like that. And I just kind of followed him through that process… And in the end, the last thing that I expected was that he was moving into filmmaking himself. The film culminates in him sending his film to Tribeca Film Festival and then having it pulled. My movie essentially ends with the Tribeca Film Festival situation. It’s gonna be interesting how it’s received in the East because it’s not an anti-vaccine documentary it’s a character study on a controversial figure.

CL: I’m interested in seeing it because I remember the news breaking when it was supposed to premiere at Tribeca. Hearing that you’re doing a documentary about that whole incident makes me excited.

MB: I’m so excited for you to see it, too! We’re doing the credits right now and making our plans and we’re gonna release it at a festival in the spring sometime and then send it out into the world and I’ll be ready for the bullets.

CL: I want to talk about the film’s tone for a minute. Magical Realism is something the Daniels do well, as one can see in their popular music video “Turn Down for What.” In the film, there’s this nebulous blend of heavy, reality-laden moments, mixed with idealistic, possibly imaginary moments. Were there ever any discussions with the directors about what was actually real in the film, or was the film, along with its ending, always open to interpretation?

AM: It was always open to interpretation. The film went through a lot of evolution. The magical realism is something that they always bring into all of their work. What was always important to all of us was that, at the core, it taps into real emotions and real themes, but what that theme was and getting to it was an evolution and it took some time to get to that and get down to the core. But in terms of leaving it open to audience interpretation that was always something that was important. It was important that there was something real there, but not explain everything, just let the audience see the movie, go on the journey and feel whatever it is that they were gonna feel.

MB: I think they always wanted to leave it open to interpretation but, yeah, we did discuss it, what they intended and what I felt and what not. And the scripts change. As we worked on it, before we were shooting, particularly the ending to make sure Hank didn’t come off as some super, super creepy unlikable dude at the end. That was kind of a delicate line to walk. And it is a magical realism movie but I also consider it an absurdist comedy, a little bit, [laughs] with, like, the penises and the farting.

 

CL: The film has been affectionately labeled as a “bromance,” something I find very interesting given the masculine nature of the milieu. The film presents these outdoorsmen, while at the same time taking down the alpha-male archetype by allowing the two characters to explore their feelings and sexuality in an understated homo-erotic way. It feels like it’s keeping with the times, this idea of right now being the prime era of beta-male survival and celebration. I was wondering what you thought about this?

AM: That’s a complicated question. Yeah, there’s this bromance in there. Coming off of “Diary,” was very interesting because “Diary” was very female-centric film and then we went into this movie that was, yeah, this bromance and explored something completely different and the relationship between men, and friendship, and sexuality and all of that. And that was a very interesting thing and the filmmakers were obviously very different. And I think there’s also a bit of that with the filmmakers themselves. It’s a partnership between two guys that have a lot of similarities and are also different people. And I think it was great and I think what was awesome to explore was this relationship between them that might make some people uncomfortable, which is sort of the point of the movie, but also that there’s an acceptance and it’s not a judgment. And I think that’s what the film was trying to say, you know, be okay with yourself. And I think it was great to be able to explore that in ways that might make people uncomfortable. And also do it in a non-traditional way that’s exciting to explore and also such a polar opposite with what we were doing with “Diary” that made it also just exciting as a producer.

MB: Sure, I don’t think that’s what I personally saw in it as its greatest type of meaning. For me, the movie is about self love. And in the end, let’s say that Hank is actually the same thing as Manny, he’s projecting his life on Manny, so all of the things that Manny is is the same thing that Hank is and in the end he’s setting himself free and he’s not confining himself to what people are calling him. And in the end, it’s all about, I think, saving yourself.

CL: Looking at your upcoming films, I see you’re working with Lake Bell on her next film “What’s the Point?” How important is it to you, as a female producer, to work with female directors and promote female-centric narratives?

AM: It’s very important. We shot the movie and we’re in post right now. It’s been great to be able to support female filmmakers and it’s exciting to do that, it’s very interesting like I said [laughs] “Swiss Army Man” is very bro-centric on-screen and off-screen. Behind the scenes, there were not a lot of women on this movie, which was a different experience, actually. It’s very important and exciting and I think for us, we’re just interested in working with really interesting storytellers, so I don’t know if we seek out one or the other, but it’s been great to be able to support some very interesting storytellers.

MB: I think it’s very important but it’s not gonna stop me from making “Super” or “Swiss Army Man.” I think that there’s room for all of us. I think that there are companies and people who want to specifically say, “okay, we’re only going to work with women telling women’s stories.” I think women can tell stories about men, I’m about to direct a father-son story. And I hope no one says, “Oh, she shouldn’t be able to direct a father-son story because she’s a woman.” I mean, men do it all the time [laughs]. Men directed “Bad Moms,” it was like written and directed by men. I think it’s good that it’s out there and that people are aware of choices that they’re making and I think we should be able to recognize that there are female filmmakers that are good and can have an audience…I pick the filmmaker for the story and for the merit and if I vibe with them. And I vibe with Lake, Lake is awesome. As a female producer, I want to be able to work with men, not just women.

CL: The storytelling medium is in a very interesting era right now. With so many platforms (Netflix, Amazon, HBO, etc.) to consume TV and movies, do you see this as a positive game-changer for independent filmmakers right now?

AM: I think it’s always great to be able to have more platforms and places to be able to tell stories, and to be able to tell them in different ways is always good. Every time there’s a change in the marketplace and every time there’s a change in the distribution model, I think it takes a minute for everyone to recalibrate as to how that works, so I think it’s really exciting and I think it opens up a lot of opportunities, but it is also an adjustment, for sure. What I’ve been very excited about is that even with all of these new models, at least with our movies, I feel like they have been able to reach a more traditional theatrical audience and that is great because, you know, having the unique going-to-the-theater experience is one that even small indie’s should be able to have so I feel that that’s great, but having all of the new platforms to reach a new audience is wonderful, as well.

MB: I think it’s harder on the industry. I think it’s harder on distribution, kind of the traditional distribution plan, I think, in buying and selling films at film festivals. I think it’s making things a little bit trickier. But it’s also allowing – I mean, people need content, people need certain companies like Netflix and Amazon who are willing to pay a lot for that content, which is great. The problem is that what the other models are doing, like the Magnolias or IFCs or whatever, the amount you can sell your money for versus the amount you can make your money for still is not parallel or balanced in a way that is helpful for film financiers or filmmakers. Because of the unions and a lot of the restrictions that we have, you still have to make your movie for a certain amount of money, if you want to follow all the rules. It’s hard to sell your movie for that amount of money unless you’re going to go to the three or four big ones. Then it’s a very small hole that you’re trying to throw something through.

The 32nd Independent Spirit Awards will air Saturday, Feb. 25 at 4 p.m. PST on IFC. “Swiss Army Man” is currently available on DVD.

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Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of AwardsCircuit.com. Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He also founded the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, the first Latino-based critics’ organization in the United States. He’s also an active member of the African-American Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, FOX 5, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.