Sometimes, the official logline for a Sundance movie simply doesn’t do it justice.
Take Swiss Army Man, the new film starring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival yesterday. The festival guide describes the movie as such: “Alone on a tiny deserted island, Hank has given up all hope of ever making it home again. But one day everything changes when a dead body washes ashore, and he soon realizes it may be his last opportunity to escape certain death.”
That’s an intriguing, Castaway-like premise, but it’s not how the film is going to be remembered. It hasn’t even been 24 hours since Swiss Army Man debuted, and I’ve already been asked by several different people, virtually verbatim, “Have you seen the movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse?”
Yes, I did, dear reader. I did indeed watch a movie where Daniel Radcliffe plays a farting corpse that Paul Dano rides across the ocean like a jet-ski, propelled by the power of Radcliffe’s post-mortem flatulence. This is also a movie where Dano and Radcliffe make out underwater while Dano is dressed like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a movie where Radcliffe pukes up buckets of water that Dano eagerly swigs, and a movie where Radcliffe stares at a musty Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and then grows a stiff and mighty erection, which Dano then uses as a compass to point the way back to civilization.
Needless to say, this isn’t your usual Sundance indie … or your usual movie of any stripe. We’re only a few days into the festival and the purposefully puerile Swiss Army Man is already the most divisive movie here: There was a constant stream of walkouts at the premiere, but I’ve talked to some people since who found the film’s central friendship surprisingly profound, as though they’d stumbled upon a rare film that channels both Michel Gondry’s inventiveness and the gross-out humor of the Garbage Pail Kids.
And it must be said that in the central role of a corpse who comes back to mysterious life after Dano begins to care for it, Radcliffe delivers one of his most likable roles, against all odds. (Especially because he spends most of the film in stiff repose, delivering creaky lines out of the side of his mouth, or farting his way across the ocean.) I caught up with Radcliffe at the movie’s post-premiere party and he was practically giddy about what he and music-video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert had been able to pull off.
“Every day I got to set and we’d be thinking, ‘How the hell are we gonna do this? It’s impossible!’ And every day, we got it done,” he said. And Radcliffe was quick to dispel the notion that this low-budget feature used CGI or doubles whenever the corpse acts as a farting jet ski, or spits out a harpoon: “I would like to take this opportunity to say that it’s mostly me. And I’m proud to say it!” he laughed. “I watched the first six minutes of the film and I’m so proud of how dead I fucking look!”
Since I’m a responsible journalist who’s curious about low-budget practical effects, I asked Radcliffe about his erection. How’d they manage that wiggly piece of equipment, which gets plenty of close-ups as it points the way home through Radcliffe’s pants?
“That day actually came quite far into the shoot, and we’d sort of been building up to it for a while,” said Radcliffe. “And also, you’ve got to remember that the directors have a little bit of experience with moving dicks, because they directed the ‘Turn Down For What’ video,” where one hyped-up dancer gets so excited that he boasts a sweatpants-straining member. Radcliffe grinned: “So I knew I was in good hands when it came to that.”
How did the mechanical boner rig work? Radcliffe said it went through several iterations. “One of the pieces that I had on was just a wooden — wow, I can’t believe I’m telling you this — it was like the end of a broom. It was all just like one line, and too smooth. So that was the one note that I gave, and they took it and ran with it.” Radcliffe started laughing. “Is this too much information?”
If that tidbit failed to trigger your TMI detector, then maybe Swiss Army Man is the future cult classic for you. “I know it’s not going to be everyone’s film, but the people who love it will hold it very dear to them for a long time,” said Radcliffe. “I see this film as being a triumph of creativity over practicality. We shouldn’t have been able to do it, but we did.”