The utterly loopy and emotionally devastating multiverse sci-fi family comedy/drama Everything Everywhere All At Once went from springtime indie release to a $100 million dollar box office haul and a high-probability Oscar favorite. It has remained one of the most memorable films of 2022 for many reasons: the commanding performance by generational talent Michelle Yeoh, matched only by a breakout turn from Stephanie Hsu—to say nothing of the return of legend Ke Huy Quan; the mind-melding, genre-bending, but ultimately relatable, heartwarming premise; and of course, the healthy dose of much-needed silver screen representation for an underserved culture. All of those things are huge, of course, but the moment that most firmly implanted EEAAO at the top of mind when considering the movies of 2022? The butt-plug fight scene.
In one of the film’s most instantly iconic moments (even trumping hot-dog fingers!), our hero Evelyn (Yeoh) battles two enemies over an IRS trophy that is shaped just like a sex toy. In the EEAAO world, irrational and improbable actions allow the characters to access skills from alternate universes, so one of Evelyn’s foes leaps ass-first onto the trophy mid-brawl, because what could be more effectively irrational? On its own, it may seem like just another wild visual gag cooked up by the directing duo of the “Daniels,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schienert, but amongst all the film’s riotous visual and conceptual ingenuity, it serves as the peak emblem of how their fun, unconventional approach to filmmaking made their $25 million dollar film into A24’s highest-grossing movie of all time.
While the film’s fights are filled with surreal touches (like Jenny Slate wielding her tiny lapdog on a leash as a retractable bola), the Daniels were adamant about filming their complex, highly-choreographed combat sequences in the classic Hong Kong style. Because of Marvel’s influence, the search for people who could execute their vision wasn’t easy, says their longtime collaborator and producer Jonathan Wang over Zoom. “I can’t tell you how much the industry has moved towards the Marvel direction, which is like… you set up two to three cameras, they choreograph a fight scene with a second unit and they film it like crazy and cut the shit out of it. And that’s your fight scene. It’s chaotic. Hong Kong style is very choreographed. It’s like a dance.”
In search of the right, very specific type of martial-arts background and comedic flair, the Daniels turned to the internet and found brothers Andy and Brian Le of Martial Club, self-trained martial-arts fanatics who gained a huge following on YouTube making parody videos. The siblings had a difficult time conceptually grasping the film just from reading the script, but the brothers knew one thing after meeting the Daniels: “They were passionate,” says Brian. “They had heart. They were kind of goofy. We looked at each other and were like… Yo, they are just like us… We should work with them.”
At the time, Andy and Brian had never worked on a Hollywood set, and the producers paired the talented, albeit green, duo with stunt coordinator Timothy Eulich to choreograph the action. “They brought a very raw energy and passion to the set. If they were happy with their performance, everybody on set knew it,” Eulich says of the Martial Club, whom he described as “amazing encyclopedias of Hong Kong cinema.” The energetic duo spent years teaching themselves martial arts by watching the same classic Hong Kong films that the Daniels referenced in their original pitch deck, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with Michelle Yeoh. Stephanie Hsu, who plays Evelyn’s daughter Joy and emerges as the film’s antagonist Jobu Tubaki, says “One of the Daniels’ special skills is finding people on the internet who genuinely inspire them outside of name and celebrity.”
The Daniels loved the Le Brothers so much that they wrote the fight scene for them to perform in the film. Their sheer enthusiasm for the opportunity to showcase their love for this specific style of martial arts led them to go above and beyond, initially mapping out a nine-minute version of the butt-plug scene in a previsual. “We pulled out everything in our arsenal,” says Brian. “For us at the time, it was like… oh, this is our first movie and we got a fight scene with Michelle Yeoh? We gotta go in.”
Although this was their first time working with the martial-arts legend, the brothers have been acquainted with her for a long time. “She’s probably known now by American audiences from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Crazy Rich Asians. We’ve known her since [1985’s] Yes, Madam,” Brian gushes. “I’ve seen every film she’s done,” Andy adds. “I’ve studied every fight sequence. I know what she can and can’t do. The first day on screen though…” He trails off, getting visibly emotional thinking back to their first day shooting with her. Even two years later, the nerves and joy from that day are still apparent. “It’s like a 180 turnaround you know? We grew up literally freeze-framing her movements on VHS and now we are across from her. It’s such a surreal moment.” said Brian. “It was hard to function because you don’t want to mess up in front of Michelle Yeoh.”
The iconic moment comes when Michelle Yeoh and Andy are jostling for position, and a pantless Brian soars over them in slow motion, gripping his knees to hold his legs in a cannonball position as he lands directly on top of the trophy-turned-sex-toy. When the Daniels initially presented the stunt idea to them, the brothers thought it was a joke. “They were straight faced,” remembers Brian. “Like, ‘Yeah Andy is going to have a cool scene fighting with Michelle and then Brian is just going to jump over and land in the squat position on the floor,’ and we’re just like, ‘Oh dude… they are serious.’”
These high-flying wire stunts were highly influenced by classic Hong Kong cinema, but with an adjustment. “There’s a tendency in those films to be lofty and fantastical, so I wanted to ground a lot of our wire movements in reality, even if the reality that we’re grounding in is still kind of crazy,” says Eulich. As unbelievable as these universe-spanning fight scenes can be, one of the reasons that they work so well is that they build on the character arcs and advance the plot through the emotion of martial arts. “It’s important that the action serves the story and develops the character,” Eulich continues, “One of the best ways to do that is to actually see the actors doing these big stunts. We couldn’t just put stunt doubles.”
Hsu, who just earned her first Critics Choice nomination for her role, trained in wushu to prepare for the film. Through her schooling, Hsu says that she learned that “it’s less about the action sometimes and even more about the integrity of the movement. It’s about the essence and the story behind it.” One of her favorite things about the film are the fight scenes, “because they feel balletic even when they are really silly. There is something really artistically satisfying about them.”
In one scene just as—if not more—ridiculous than the butt-plug fight, Hsu weaponizes two dildos in front of Yeoh’s character. “We would practice with the actual doink doinks,” she laughs. “I think they have footage of us practicing. We actually did this one move that didn’t end up making it into the cut, where I would swing it around and catch it in my armpit. I remember being pretty good at it.” That was the first scene that she shot with Yeoh. “It was so fun. In some ways I was really glad that we started there. Because I think it launched the weird. It set a tone for how far we could take our movie.”
So how did the legendary Michelle Yeoh react to filming a scene where she battles over butt plugs? “She had a total breakdown on that day,” says Andy. “She’s never done a movie like this before. She usually plays a stoic, graceful [character]. In this? She’s off her wits. When we were fighting over the butt plug… I was taking my pants off and she just lost it. She just started laughing. She was on the ground for 15 minutes.”
Creating a space where a performer of Yeoh’s caliber was comfortable filming fight scenes with sex toys and confident working with two young men without traditional industry experience is where the magic of Everything Everywhere lies. “It’s a testament to Michelle, honestly,” says Wang. “We’ve made one movie together: Swiss Army Man, and it’s about a farting corpse. The fact that she fully just let go and trusted us to do that and have such a stupid fight with these unproven people. Michelle has such a good nose for talent that she had a meeting with Daniels and I and was like, ‘Okay, I trust you, let’s make this movie.’ She had a meeting with Andy and Brian and was like, “Okay, I trust you, let’s do this, let’s fight.’”
“I would only take on a project if there is real passion. If, when I speak to them, I see the passion in their eyes,” says Yeoh in a video interview earlier this year for GQ’s Iconic Character series. The legendary actress became overwhelmed with emotion as she explained her reaction to reading the script for the first time: “This is something I’ve been waiting for a long time… that’s going to give me the opportunity to show my fans, my family, my audience what I’m capable of. To be funny. To be real. To be sad. Finally somebody understood that I can do all these things.”
An off-screen moment while shooting the fight scene sticks in Wang’s mind as a key example of how they approach filmmaking. At one point Andy loses his power “and rolls into the ladder and a ceiling tile lands and falls on him… That was Daniel Sheinert holding a tile above him, timing it out and dropping it on him. Everytime I see it, it reminds me of the old-school way of making music videos. That’s the spirit of filmmaking we never want to lose. We want to feel like we are at summer camp and keep that joyfulness as we approach the craft.”
An indie like Everything Everywhere All At Once breaking box office records and receiving major award season buzz gives hope for what’s possible in a film landscape increasingly dominated by big-budget blockbusters. When asked if he’s noticed changes in conversation around the industry about what stories are greenlit, Wang offered a hopeful perspective: “I think it leads to creativity and ingenuity around the craft. It’s like, ‘Whoa, you did all that VFX with six people who are your friends who worked really hard because they were empowered to be creative and make creative decisions? That’s insane!’ Whereas [most effects artists] are part of a factory farm where you have to roto[scope] out these things and click these buttons and deliver these things on schedule, which is soulless. It’s all about how we can lead with creativity in our industry so that it can be more humane. I hope the industry can see that and get inspired by that and be like, we need to put whatever they have in their water into our water.”