The weird, wild, expansive world of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has enthralled critics, audiences, and awards voters. But it was the emotional center of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s sprawling story that helped cinematographer Larkin Seiple find his way into the film. Here, he talks about creating a distinct look for each of the film’s universes and the lessons he learned from shooting music videos.
How did you decide what the various universes in “Everything Everywhere” would look and feel like?
A lot of my job was to try to make all of these places relatable visually, to ground them and make them not too fantastical. The other challenge, as much as we wanted to try to be subtle, is that there are so many [universes] that we had to make sure you could separate each one visually, so we started separating them out via colors and lighting choices. Ultimately, it was just trying to find the emotional core of each universe and what you wanted it to feel like. So there’s the intimacy of the alleyway [in the Wong Kar-wai–inspired universe], and there’s the openness of the rock universe. But then [it was] also making sure that the main universe wasn’t too spectacular and it wouldn’t feel over-the-top compared to the other universes.
You began your career as a music video cinematographer. What did you learn from that world?
The big thing with music videos is you have to work on a budget. You have to know your resources and be very fast. Any time I shoot a film, I make sure that I have a couple of options of how to change the scene or the approach. Back in the day, you would change how you shot or lit based on if the talent was late or the venue wasn’t great or the weather was bad. Now, I’ve taken that concept and I’ll create a couple of different approaches to scenes based on the performances or if directors want to change the blocking. Music videos really force you to adapt and to be quick on your feet and to be able to change your plan on the day. I think that’s the best thing that I’ve carried over into narrative [filmmaking].
You recently earned an Emmy nomination for Starz’s “Gaslit.” How does working in TV differ from film?
You have to shoot at a pretty good clip—you’re usually around four to five pages a day. Whereas in movies, you’re hopefully closer to two to three, which means that you’re usually shooting with two cameras. And you’re not able to explore the scenes as visually; the choices you make are trickier. You also get to explore a lot more characters, and a lot of times, you have these side characters that become your favorite. There are so many great actors; that was the best part of “Gaslit”—the talent was just so fun. It was also fun to do a show from the 1970s. But for me, the biggest difference is that, with film, it’s more of a singular vision. With television, it’s clearly made by a much larger team of people.
What advice would you give DPs who are just starting out?
Try to get a job on set where you can watch other cinematographers work and that can pay your bills and allow you to not have a 9-to-5. Try to crew up and get on set and watch other people. Also, the thing is, really, to find the director. I always say the most talented directors have a cinematographer they’re working with. That’s rarely an open door; you have to build that collaboration from the beginning. Hopefully, they’ll take you along for the ride if they find success.
Tell me how “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was first presented to you, and what your reaction was.
The main thing we talked about was universe jumping and the logic behind that, the absurdity that anything was possible in the universe. If you can imagine it, that universe exists. I think [the Daniels] explained that there’s a universe where if you’re trying to escape a room and the only way to get out is to use a cat as a nunchuck, that universe exists—so you could jump to that universe where you could become that person. That was a very weird concept for me to hear for the first time. I didn’t know about the emotional side of it, the actual heart of the story, the first time I heard about it, and only upon reading the script did I realize that there was a much bigger story they were trying to tell. That’s where it got really exciting.
[The film is] very absurd and silly, and I was excited about all these ridiculous fight sequences. But when I found out that the story they were trying to tell had a real heart to it, it became a really fascinating challenge to see if you could make something as silly and goofy as this that also could work emotionally. That’s always been the fun part about working with the Daniels: They’re trying to do both, you know, they want you to laugh and cry at the same time.
You’ve worked with the Daniels throughout your career, including on this film and “Swiss Army Man.” What do you enjoy about collaborating with them?
I think the most interesting part is they never settle—once they’ve done something, they want to move on and try something else, or they want to try a different approach. They don’t really like to repeat themselves, even though their stories are all kind of wild and crazy. There’s always something they’re striving to get. What I like about it is it keeps me on my toes. I get to constantly find new things or think of our work in a different way. And they always have so many different influences. You can tell from the film, they’re influenced by music and books, by psychology, by pop culture, by memes, by interviews. So on every project, it’s always fun to find out what muse it’s based on.
How did you decide on what the multiverse-jumping would look like?
The jumps are either a really big visual choice or they’re really simple. The simplest version is just that [Michelle Yeoh’s character Evelyn] blinks and all of a sudden she knows kung fu. But the first time she jumps, she flies through a time tunnel of the universe, and that was really hard. To do that required building these walls of LEDs that would play the video back so the colors reflected on her face and she was against a green screen. That was actually a very expensive setup to do.
There’s another version where she jumps and the camera flies up as though she’s shooting through the ceiling, which we shot on a dolly and then on a drone in a parking lot to make it feel like she lifted out of the universe. At the same time, a lot of the jumping is just them tilting their heads up and coming back down. I think that’s probably more influenced [by] “The Matrix”—whenever Agent Smith takes over someone, there’s like a little head jerk that happens.
My favorite one is probably when Waymond [Ke Huy Quan] chews the chapstick and then slaps his head to the ceiling and slowly tilts it down, having become a fanny pack kung fu master. That was the most important jump in the film—or not the most important, but the most fascinating. We had this whole camera move designed to pull back from him after he’s become this version of Waymond. We had a lot of fun with the jumps, and they kept changing based on the emotional choice—like Evelyn’s first real jump, we needed to make this whole deal of what it felt like to fly between universes—and then the rest of the movie is pretty simple.
Was this a fast shoot?
It’s funny, “Swiss Army Man” was a 23-day shoot for $3 million, and we got by on the skin of our teeth. This was a $15 million movie shot in 36 days, and we thought that was going to be luxurious. When we tell that to producers or directors who do movies of bigger scale, they’re shocked. I still am always like, “36 days felt good!” But it’s a two-and-a-half-hour script and it’s an action movie, and whenever you do an action movie, the action takes forever. All of a sudden, one page takes two days to shoot. And you’re just like, How are we going to do this? It was very fast. But we adapted to it. We decided to set the majority of it in one location, which made it a lot easier and made us a lot faster. Because we didn’t have to travel and unload and reload trucks every single day, we could come back and keep chugging away on the same sets.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.