‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Producer Jonathan Wang Interview
The Oscar nominee explains how he became the “third leg” of the Daniels and why the success of “Everything Everywhere” should be seen as a counterpoint to “Top Gun: Maverick.”
In the slew of awards season events that have enshrouded “Everything Everywhere All at Once” directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert in recent months, a grinning, bespectacled face often lingers on the sidelines. That’s producer Jonathan Wang, the Daniels’ close confident for the past 11 years, and the third nominee for Best Picture alongside the filmmakers.
While the success of the multiverse movie has positioned the Daniels as Hollywood disruptors, the key role that Wang (pronounced “Wong”) has played in guiding the quixotic storytellers to such an unexpected outcome has been less scrutinized. “I do think that oftentimes I’m just like the third leg of the Daniels wheel,” Wang said in an interview with IndieWire over Zoom this past week. “It’s definitely been a long road.”
Yet Wang’s path to working with the Daniels adds a critical dimension to their trajectory from inventive music video directors to their emerging profile of auteurs capable of combining zany high concepts with emotional conceits. Over the years, he has absorbed many of the hard practicalities of casting and budgetary restrictions while the directors focus on the art. “That’s like this big shield I keep on my back,” Wang said. “They’re over here playing and I just don’t let the shit hit them.”
That mentality was an outgrowth of his initial career as a stage and tour manager for metal and punk bands. In 2003, during a break from one tour, he went to see Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” at an arthouse. “The movie really messed me up,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I loved it. I decided that the power of film was so much stronger than whatever we can do with music to affect change and move people.”
Wang grew up in an Evangelical Christian household in San Diego and, while he no longer keeps the faith, it enhanced his desire to instigate change. “I always really wanted to get into the arts for social impact, to be able to move people to those better versions of themselves,” he said. “I wanted to strive towards the idea of appealing to our better angels rather than stagnating — art and work for social change. I ended up realizing that the film medium was much stronger for that.”
He made a quick pivot to the film industry. Since his father’s favorite movie was “The Godfather,” Wang found a friend of a friend who worked at the Coppola family production company American Zoetrope and asked for an internship. Soon, he was working under production executive Michael Zakan and Roman Coppola, who was in the early stages of developing “Mozart in the Jungle” as well as his feature “A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III,” an early A24 project. Wang watched Sofia Coppola finish “Somewhere” and prep “The Bling Ring,” while Mike Mills developed “Beginners,” which would embark on an Oscars quest of its own.
“It was this cool space to be around,” Wang said, and he began to build on the experience with a side hustle. “I would call my old band friends and say ‘I’m working for the Coppolas now! Let me produce your music videos!,’” he said. “I knew I couldn’t jump into the deep end with making movies, but I had this clout with music.” Soon he was enmeshed in the music video universe, producing videos for everyone from Bob Dylan to Skrillex.
Somewhere in the midst of all that, he came across the Daniels’ 2011 video “Dogboarding,” a brand-content gig for the VFX and motion design studio STASH, which imagined people skateboarding on top of dogs. “It was playful and fun, the kind of filmmaking that made me feel like I was a kid,” he said. Wang had produced some videos for the Daniels’ production company Prettybird, and asked their executive producer Candice Dragonas for an introduction. When she mentioned they would be attending the Los Angeles Film Festival for a music video showcase, Wang crashed the afterparty.
Wang was raised, like Kwan, in an Asian household — his father is Taiwanese — and when he met the pair met at that fateful LAFF party, his biracial heritage came up. “Dan Kwan was like, ‘You’re kind of in the middle us, like, you’re Chinese and white. Why don’t we make a little movie?,’” They quickly filmed a very Daniels-like short to send to the producer of their music video company in which the two directors slammed together and morphed into Wang. “That was our first creative act,” Wang said.
(Watch that video, available exclusively on IndieWire, below.)
Wang leveraged his music industry contacts to enhance the scale of their ambitions, which led to their incredible 2014 video for Lil John and DJ Snake, “Turn Down for What.” The dazzling three-and-a-half minute short, an action-dance routine with its crashing through floors of an apartment building, was such a viral sensation that studio offers poured in. “We started getting calls from Sony and Warner Bros executives,” Wang said. “They want to plug us into their machine: ‘Hey, would you ever want to do this or that movie.’ None of these studio meetings were working but it now felt like an opportunity to try something.”
Realizing that financing opportunities were somewhat easier now, Wang helped the filmmakers workshop their ideas for their first feature. That process would eventually lead to the bittersweet farting corpse epic “Swiss Army Man,” but the producer had to guide them away from an even more outrageous starting point.
The Daniels had their hearts set on a script called “Code Name: Operation: Heist School the Musical … 4?” (yes, really) which, in retrospect, shows the seeds of the “Everything Everywhere” concept a few years out. “There’s a character who’s a white kid who’s a southerner who roller skates around school,” Wang said. “His stepdad is Jackie Chan. These redneck dudes go into the high school to kidnap this kid to get a ransom from Jackie Chan and grab the first Asian kid they see because they assume it’s Jackie Chan’s kid, but it’s not. It leads to this whole set of hijinks as a heist and ransom movie all set to the high school musical ‘Grease’ soundtrack.”
Wang took a breath from that lengthy summary and laughed. “It was really funny, but way too much of a swing,” he said. “I was talking to the guys and said this feels really cool and I love that it is very us, but it’s missing the kind of ‘Why?’ The thing that the Daniels are so good at is smashing together the silliness with heart. This had a bit of heart — you can’t strip that out of their work — but it was mostly the spectacle, the fun, the things we learned how to do on music videos. So I was just like I think this might not be the first feature. Let’s think about something smaller.”
That led them to build out the concept for “Swiss Army Man” from an image they had discussed before — a man riding a corpse off a deserted island — and then they were cooking. Wang realized that despite the weird conceit, the movie could be pulled off on a small scale and budgeted it at $3 million. “The sandbox to play in was two dudes on an island,” he said. “If you give Daniels $3 million, I knew they could make it look like $10 million.” A24 acquired the movie out of Sundance, setting the stage for “Everything Everywhere.”
Developed over the next several years, “Everything Everywhere” demanded greater resources, but ended up with a relatively modest budget of $14.3 million. “If you give them $14 million, they could make it look like $50 million,” Wang said. While some estimates have placed the budget closer to $20 million, Wang shrugged them off.
“There’s AFM and EFM, and in those markets, numbers get thrown around that might be elevated to help a sale or garner attention in a certain way,” he said. “My very specific number is from the agreed-upon budget that everyone signed. That’s your smoking gun. There are overages and amendments from time to time. But the number we all signed and agreed to was $14.3 million.”
That required some hard bargaining to get the actors they wanted, including Ke Huy Quan, whose lawyers initially scoffed at the offer. “The lawyers do the thing, they go back and forth, ask for more, and I said, ‘No, this is the number I have in the budget. It’s a very small budget, we’d love to have him, but this is the number,’” Wang said. “I know there are great and powerful actors out there who deserve all the money. We don’t have all the money. We were able to solve the problem together.”
Wang instinctively describes his role in creative terms. “The job of our art is not to state solutions, but if you can articulate problems really well, then the world can solve them,” he said. “The thesis with ‘Swiss Army Man’ was that shame keeps us from love. With ‘Everything Everywhere,’ if you take a multiverse movie to its extreme, it will lead to nihilism, and nihilism is what leads to meaningless and despair.”
As the movie went through multiple drafts, that theme became its north star. “We currently live in a world where it’s either nihilism and despair or fundamentalism,” Wang said. “You’re entrenched in your dogmas. You’ve become conspiracy theorist. How do we bring these two things together? It’s active love — the idea that, no matter what universe you’re in, I will always want to be here with you. Maybe that’s not the solution but it states the problem.”
Which is all well and good, but Wang will acknowledge the practical side of his work when prodded. “There’s the production side of it — operating the business, talking to the agents, getting the money,” he said. “The middle side of it is the creative space. They like to throw out ideas to invoke a reaction. I try not to think like the studio executive and worry about the rating or target audiences. I just try to hear it from a creative standpoint. Then the third lane is the philosophical and ideological side of things. I’m trying to stay caught up on what they’re reading, thinking about socially, and then feeding them podcasts, books, articles that will by default influence them. If it’s wackiness for wackiness’ sake, we actually hate it.”
Wang said he often pushed back on perceptions of what the Daniels do. “I think a lot of the industry has viewed us as these wacky dudes with crazy humor,” he said. “If it doesn’t lead to a deeper emotive thing, then, no, we don’t want to just make dumb jokes. We don’t care about that. But we also find that being funny helps unlock something deeper.”
As part of the Daniels’ new first-look deal with Universal, Wang said he was hoping to streamline the process of setting up challenging projects so more name actors could work on original movies. “Our whole system in Hollywood is set up by scarcity,” he said. “You have to call an assistant to set up time to talk to an agent to talk about the actor. That system is meant to build this sort of Greek mythology of all these people so you can’t just talk it through together. At the end of the day, it’s just humans trying to figure out life. I’ve always held onto that.”
Like Kwan, he was galvanized by the impact of the movie in the Asian American community. “To be able to highlight this experience while there is such violence toward Asians — especially Asian elders, which blows my mind — I think it’s really humbling,” he said.
Now that the movie has grossed over $100 million worldwide en route to its frontrunner in the Best Picture race, Wang speaks with a degree of confidence about the potential of investing in original filmmaking over blockbuster IP. “I think a lot of times people will see ‘Top Gun’ as the movie that brought everyone back to cinema,” he said. “I think it brought a certain type of movie back to cinema. Our movie brought a different one to the tune of $100 million globally. It still blows our mind that our movie did that. We’re still grateful to even be here. To know that we built a new multiverse branch wherein indie cinema can keep going is very, very exciting.”
Wang said he and the Daniels often spoke about the attention economy as their biggest hurdle. “Do we need comic books where everyone’s excited to see what happens in the next comic? Or do we need to be excited about totally original filmmaking?” he said. “If the bottom part dies out, because the attention machine of Marvel or ‘Top Gun’ drags all the eyes away from the indie space, it would be a real tragedy.”
For the moment, that means he’ll continue holding fast to the third leg of the Daniels’ triangle. “I’m not going to say no if Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese or Barry Jenkins want to work with me,” he said, “but ideally, I could bring my friends along with me, so we can do it together.”
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