‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Producer Jonathan Wang on Asian Representation, Hotdog Fingers and Why He Wants to Get “Weirder” With Storytelling

‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Producer Jonathan Wang on Asian Representation, Hotdog Fingers and Why He Wants to Get “Weirder” With Storytelling
Mar 2023

The producer and longtime creative partner of directing duo Daniels tells THR which scenes in the breakout best picture nominee were hardest to shoot, how it felt to bring Ke Huy Quan back into Hollywood and put Michelle Yeoh on the top of the call list, and why he thinks the movie is resonating with audiences.

The idea for Everything Everywhere All at Once was born during the 2016 press tour for Swiss Army Man, the Daniel Radcliffe-Paul Dano flatulent corpse two-hander that put directing duo Daniels on the map. Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan had watched a Fight Club and The Matrix double feature and were inspired. Producer and longtime creative partner Jonathan Wang recalls, "It was like an escape from the Swiss Army Man press that we jumped into Everything Everywhere." They started working on the script immediately and began shooting in 2020. Wang says the timing was both a curse and a blessing. "We got to edit it for over a year because of the pandemic," he says. "That's what allowed us to get it to the place that it is now."

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Everything Everywhere has become a success by all traditional measures, earning more than $100 million at the global box office on a $14 million budget and collecting dozens of awards, but also a few unexpected ones. THR spoke with Wang about bringing former child star Ke Huy Quan back into the Hollywood fold after he'd given up on acting, making Michelle Yeoh the lead of a U.S. film for the first time and breaking down barriers for Asian representation.

Other than collaborating with Daniels again, what was it that made you excited to be involved in this project?

When we started talking about multiverses, I realized the immigrant experience writ large is existing in a multiverse. When they wanted to set it with a working-class Chinese family that would speak Chinese, English and Cantonese, it just felt very much like my story. At the end of the movie, there are two credits, the fake credits and the real credits. The first one says it's produced by Alexander Wang, my dad, and then the movie at the very end is dedicated to him. He passed away after Swiss Army Man. The movie is very much a love letter to our immigrant parents.

How did your collective parents respond to the movie?

June Kwan is very funny. She called Dan after the nominations and was like, "Explain to me why your movie's good." That is a very Chinese-mom reaction. My mom is a very lovely churchgoing, God-fearing woman. I was nervous that she would not understand the movie and would be horrified by some of the more, I'll say, avant-garde approaches. But, she told me that her friend Phyllis from church brought her whole family and they really loved it, and they are able to identify the themes. My mom has seen it three times, I think, and is very happy and proud.

Is there any part of the response to this film that you are surprised by?

We knew what the movie meant to us when we were making it, and we knew it was about our immigrant families, but we didn't know just how much it was about teasing through the trauma. Once we put it in the world, one of the first questions we got at South by Southwest was, "So, this movie's about generational trauma, talk to us about that."

That storyline really hit a cultural chord. The reaction we've had from Asian audience members, especially queer Asian audience members, it means the world to them. Because they've had to come out to their parents many times. They have to keep telling their parents, "I'm gay." It's not that Asian parents don't want to accept it, they just know how hard it is to exist in America as an immigrant. They know how hard it is to make money, and that's why they want to push on their kids these things that will assure assimilation and success. That's why you hear these tropes about Chinese parents pushing their kids to become doctors, lawyers, etc. This movie helps them articulate that and helps them be able to see their parents, and also helps the parents be able to see their children. Hearing all these stories about families reconnecting, or kids being able to actually have meaningful conversations with their parents for the first time, that is the thing that we can all die happy knowing that we were able to help in some small way.

How has the awards attention felt for you guys?

It has been very, very, very humbling and very cool. It's just hard to comprehend because we never set out to make an awards movie. We wanted to make a movie that was honest to the story we wanted to tell and to be unwavering in the creativity. So the fact that we got to make the exact movie that we wanted, and to have the audience react this way, and that awards are coming in, it's too much to really be able to comprehend. It gives me a lot of optimism and hope for the kind of stories that we want to keep telling. Now it feels like we have permission to just get weirder and weirder with the stories we tell and to push the envelope because of this movie. It's very exciting for what is to come for us and for other filmmakers. I'm very excited to watch those movies.

There's weirder left?

I hope so. I think so. Weird for weird sake is never what we like to do, but weird for human experience. I'm a huge Dostoevsky fan and in Dostoevsky, there's so much stuff that's just so odd and human. Like the fact that we all know that we all die and decompose. We all know that we have bodily functions that are comical to some, or disgusting that we want to hide. But, the fact of the matter is, we are these things. We have these things in us, and that's what led to Swiss Army Man. To explore humanity, to explore the depths of the human experience, is to explore oddities and oddness. So, when I say weird, it's more about being able to look at the parts of ourselves that we maybe have said it's beneath us to tell that part of the story. I hope that stories can get weirder, in that sense, insofar that they're more human and honest.

Which of the multiverse worlds was hardest to pull off?

The most challenging shoot was the rock universe, even though there's no actors, because we had to drive out to the desert. Larkin [Seiple, the cinematographer,] really wanted to find this one location, which turns out is actually where he proposed to his wife, Emma. We had to go out to Anza-Borrego Springs in the middle of the summer, in the middle of COVID, and we were having to wear masks and shields and it was 110- or 113-degree weather. I was having to hold two umbrellas over the camera so that it wouldn't overheat, our trucks almost got stuck. So that one was tricky to pull off.

I would be remiss to not bring this up. You've got Michelle Yeoh: legend. Jamie Lee Curtis: legend. And hotdog fingers?

Yeah. It was one of the hardest I've ever laughed on set watching the two of them do the hotdog mating ritual. I was sitting next to Stephanie Hsu and she was dressed as her punk, angsty, teenage version of herself. So it's emo-looking Stephanie Hsu and me, and we both look like kids because we're like giddy trying not to laugh as we're watching two legends shove hotdog fingers into each other's mouths and squirt condiments at each other. It's just such a testament to how cool Jamie and Michelle are and how professional they are and how much they're able to trust Daniels. The reckless abandon to which they just relinquished control to Daniels and let them do whatever they wanted was crazy. That is why the movie is so good, because they just really released themselves to the process rather than fighting against it. You just feel it in the movie. You can just feel this genuine earnestness that they bring to it and why Jamie's performance is so great and why Michelle's performance is so great. Because, as absurd as it is, they trusted Daniels and then they just brought the real heart and the real love to it, and it was very funny and fun to watch.

It's one of those things that you're watching it and you're going, OK, this should not be good, but it is. I swear I still laugh about Racacoonie at least once a week.

Racacoonie is inspired by my dad, as well. I talked about this in The Hollywood Reporter roundtable, but he would famously always butcher movie titles. I didn't think of it when he was alive, but whenever he had free time he would turn on movies. He'd watch Turner Classic Movies, like Godfather. I remember watching Coming to America with him. It wasn't just highbrow, it was like lowbrow too, the full gamut. And he would just always butcher the titles. So, he wanted to go see James Bond, GoldenEye with Pierce Brosnan, and he said, 'Let's go see Double Seven.' He said Shookie Hookie for Sherlock Holmes, and he said Outside Good People Shooting for Good Will Hunting. This was just kind of his thing, and Daniels knew that joke about my dad. When they first wrote the very early draft, that Racacoonie joke was in there, almost from day one, and that joke never left. Same thing with hotdog hands. Those weird, shouldn't-be-good-but-turned-out-good moments are Daniels' wheelhouse, and whenever it's like, "This shouldn't exist, this shouldn't be good," that's when they are the most inspired.

When you were filming, was there a particular moment where it felt like all the various pieces were clicking?

The scene that really congealed the whole movie was the one where Evelyn and Joy-slash-Jobu reunite in the parking lot. I remember sitting in the tent outside in San Fernando, and I was weeping because it was so beautiful. To have such a big, boisterous movie collapse down into that parking lot scene, it was a big risk. If we didn't nail that, had we not felt our heartstrings being tugged in that moment, you have no ending. I looked over and everyone was crying, and it was just this really palpable experience. I was like, "I think it's all going to work. This is going to be good."

This has become a huge moment for Ke Huy Quan. What was it like watching him during filming and then to see the final product and also people's reaction to him?

When I watched The Goonies, I identified with Data. When I watched Indiana Jones, I loved Short Round. That was my childhood idol. I loved that kid. But the thing about Ke is that his career [had been] killed. He didn't get the parts. He would receive scripts where his character doesn't even have a name and it's a tropey Asian character with an accent, [while] Corey Feldman and Sean Astin and Josh Brolin are all shooting through the roof. It was a little death for him. That's why it's so moving and powerful to see him now, because he did get a second chance, and that's all he needed.

But I did get a call from him as we were in the trenches of editing the movie and he says, "Tell me honestly, am I good in Everything Everywhere?" And I was like, "Where's this question coming from?" He was like, "I just still can't get any parts. I can't land any parts." He was having to relive what he experienced as a kid because no one had seen Everything Everywhere and he was still being rejected, even in 2021. We like to pat ourselves on the back and say it's a redemption story and how great it is, but it's also a bit of an indictment of our industry. Had this movie not been a success, Ke would still be experiencing the same rejection and the same typecasting. I hope other actors don't have to experience what he experienced.

Michelle Yeoh has had a long, successful career, but Everything Everywhere gave her her first Oscar nomination.

This is insane, and I want people to know: We are the first American film to make her number one on the call sheet. So, again, it's beautiful -- "Rah rah, look at us. We did it!" But it's also an indictment that it took her this long, and that this is the first time that there's an Asian nominee [for best actress]. I think that we have to accept both sides of those coins and celebrate with a little bit of mourning as well. It'd be one thing if they weren't delivering gobsmacking performances, but they're so talented. This is the kind of movie that we need. This is the movie that people see themselves in, and this is the future, I hope.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.