Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer Larkin Seiple about smashing a dozen or more films into Everything Everywhere All at Once
A buzz comes over you while watching Everything Everywhere All at Once. As the film rips across dimensions, pulling Michelle Yeoh from one universe to the next, your brain races to contain the myriad images. The movie truly chases its title, seemingly dipping into every genre imaginable while never letting go of its emotional core. It’s a story about mothers and daughters and recognizing life’s failings as possibilities.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the filmmaking duo known as the Daniels, propel their characters through science fiction, slapstick, melodrama, and action while also giving us animation glimpses. The experience is dizzying to the point of delirium. After the credits roll, you consider how they accomplished such a feat. And anxiety kicks in.
If Everything Everywhere All at Once is perplexing to consume as a viewer, imagine the iron will required to bring it to fruition. The Daniels are either geniuses, wizards, or a bit of both. Or they’ve merely assembled an astonishing team of the equally magical around them.
Cinematographer Larkin Seiple worked with the Daniels on Swiss Army Man as well as numerous shorts and music videos. They’ve got a hive mind thing going. And that’s the trick to pulling off a miracle like Everything Everywhere All at Once.
“I’ve been friends with the Daniels for quite a while,” says Seiple. “So I had heard rumors and whispers about [Everything Everywhere All at Once]. They’re always working on five projects at a time, it feels like, but I kept hearing about it, and I begged for the script. I remember reading it on a plane and loving it and then going, ‘I have to read it again because I don’t actually know what I read.’ You end up burning through it because the narrative’s so compelling, but I missed half the beats the first time I read it. I had to go back and take my time.”
For Sieple, his reaction to reading the script was like most folks’ reaction to watching the film. Keeping track of where the characters were was somewhat difficult, and understanding the narrative drive was just as challenging. The audience is continually experiencing reorientation, which replicates the film’s message. On life’s journey, you’re always lost, stumbling to get found.
“Very early on,” explains Sieple, “all the departments met and had a big talk about the different universes and how to separate them. More importantly, what colors to push. I’m actually a fan of more subtle approaches to some of these things. The Daniels were like, ‘We can be subtle, but we need to make sure that you really key into when a universe feels different.’ So, we’d start separating out the colors and the look of all of them. We created the most absurd references for half the universes just so we could have something to hinge on or to believe in; that was the theme.”
The filmmakers found alignment through their cinematic worship. They gathered and watched dozens of movies, pulling pallets that would allow them to differentiate the nearly endless worlds explored. Several influences are easy to pinpoint for film fans in the crowd, but others might come as a surprise.
“Obviously,” he continues, “there’s the movie star universe. Michelle Yeoh is actually playing a modern-day Michelle Yeoh. That’s all designed around the work of Wong Kar-wai, a mix of his early work like Fallen Angels and In the Mood for Love. Then we have the hotdog hands, which started as an ode to Carol. We thought it’d be hysterical to try to make that universe feel like a Todd Haynes film. But as we were shooting it, we’re like, ‘This could never be a Todd Haynes film.’ So, we started swinging toward more romantic comedies. We framed it in like the 2:1 Netflix aspect ratio to give it a different feeling.”
We discover the antagonist’s motivation during one significant sequence in Everything Everywhere All at Once. The revelation arrives in a large white room not too dissimilar from the Barmecide Feast, where Dave Bowman experienced his final evolution in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“We tried to make it feel like maybe Kubrick could have made it,” says Sieple. “We got some older lenses and tried to make it feel authentic. But even in some of the sillier universes, like Raccaccoonie, we were going off Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, which has these really strong primary colors, the reds and blues, and really beautiful skin tones. You would never understand that reference if you watch the movie, but those are the little things that all the departments keyed into, just picking up small ideas and running with it.”
The Daniels planned for an early scene in Everything Everywhere All at Once to operate like training wheels for the audience. The first moment when Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn is yanked from one reality to another. As she endures Jamie Lee Curtis’ auditor in one world, her husband (Ke Huy Quan) from another rips her consciousness into a janitor’s closet. Fractured, we try to balance the multiple conversations playing over multiple planes of existence.
“It was tricky to shoot,” he says, “because even on that sequence, we transitioned five or six times between the closet universe and the IRS building. They had a different transition in the script planned for each [universe] she gets pulled into. Jamie Lee Curtis pops up inside the closet, and then we snap back to a universe where a hand rips through a door. It’s a very simple scene, but it required a lot of prep to figure out when we’re cutting and into what we’re cutting.”
No scene is conquered in a single take, but things bordered on the surreal when it came to nailing this one. Shots became math problems, strenuously interrogated before, during, and after the shoot. We watch the movie as if it’s several dozen flicks crammed into one, and Larkin Seiple made the movie with the same mindset. The discombobulated nature of the shoot constantly necessitated invention.
“Michelle also splits in two there,” says Sieple, “so we had to shoot the scene twice and have her basically create the exact same movements and timing with the same camera moves and try to match it. To do that, we actually had to build a miniature dolly rig in the closet, which was a technical feat. I’m not sure if that part actually made it into the film, but I remember doing it.”
Everything Everywhere All at Once inspires hyperbole like Pulp Fiction and The Matrix did. Viewers lurch from the theater clutching their phones, furiously texting friends, “You gotta see this movie I just watched.” While the film trods in the familiar, the movie recontextualizes its inspirations into something unique and apart from what other creators are currently concocting.
Spider–Man: Into the Spider–Verse possibly gave us the vocabulary to understand its multiversal hopping, but the Daniels purposefully ease their audience through their narrative. Now that we’ve taken their hands, we’ll follow them wherever they want us to go. Our reality is never dull with them in it. And it’s secure as long as Larkin Seiple has the cinematic calculous configured.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is now playing in select theaters.