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How Everything Everywhere All At Once Became an Oscars Frontrunner

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Less than a year ago, Everything Everywhere All at Once was released on 10 screens across the U.S., grossing over half a million dollars in its opening weekend. From there, it expanded and has since earned more than $100 million worldwide, becoming the independent production company A24’s first film to do so.

Its box office success was matched by critical acclaim, racking up enough accolades to have their own Wikipedia page. In January, Everything Everywhere garnered 11 Oscar nominations—including for Best Picture, Best Director (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as the Daniels), Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actress (Stephanie Hsu and Jamie Lee Curtis), and Best Supporting Actor (Ke Huy Quan)—the most of any movie this year.

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But nobody expected for the film to make it this far—perhaps least of all the Daniels, says Jeff Yang, co-author of Rise: A Pop History of Asian America From the Nineties to Now. This was an indie spring release, while most Oscar heavy hitters, by major movie studios, premiere at prestigious fall film festivals. Other Best Picture nominees, like All Quiet on the Western Front and The Fabelmans, for instance, opened at the Toronto film festival, while The Banshees of Inisherin and Tár premiered in Venice. Elvis and Triangle of Sadness debuted at Cannes, and Women Talking at Telluride.

“There were so many good stories about the film, but they’re all the kind of stories that point to indie success and critical darling,” Yang tells TIME. “They don’t point to awards blockbuster. They definitely don’t point to a clean sweep—every major mark of inevitability that is possible coming up Everything Everywhere All at Once.”

Allyson Riggs—A24/Everett CollectionYeoh in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Feel-good stories swirled around the movie, including, but not limited to, Ke Huy Quan’s return to acting after nearly two decades away. Then, between mid-February and early March, came a string of recognition from Hollywood: the Directors Guild of America (DGA) gave Daniels a trophy for feature directing. The Producers Guild (PGA) bestowed the film its top honor. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) showered it with awards. The Writers Guild (WGA) named Everything Everywhere Best Original Screenplay. Not to mention the Golden Globes that Yeoh and Quan picked up in January. The movie soon became a veritable frontrunner for Best Picture.

But, as Yang qualifies, “I have to sometimes be reminded that all of the accolades coming from these guilds—and even the Academy Awards—if we actually put them into context, the only reason why they are so meaningful is because we haven’t had them in the past. But they really are this weird sense of us clutching at the hem of the Hollywood establishment.”

Read More: Where to Watch or Stream All the 2023 Oscar Nominees

In early March, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative launched the Oscars report companion to its forthcoming Inclusion List. The report revealed that 20 nominations, or 9% of all Asian nominees, were named in 2023—the highest number and percentage yet. More than half of those nominees were associated with Everything Everywhere All at Once.

“We can herald Everything Everywhere All At Once, but the concern is: How is it a token illustration, rather than looking at a governing body that’s really committed to inclusion over time?” says Stacy L. Smith, the founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. “We have 35 years where no Asians have been nominated, in the 95-year history. 35 years.”

How the movie got here

Yang first saw the film at a press screening in late February of last year, a month before it came out. He didn’t expect it to change the world. Rather, he and many others felt connected to it intimately and individually—the polar opposite of watching a Marvel movie in a packed theater.

Allyson Riggs—A24/Everett CollectionKe Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh, in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

“That’s why it’s such a gratifying shock to see that all of us—all of us who were having this one-on-one personal relationship with hotdogs-hands Jesus—are now forming this mighty army that might actually be getting this thing the Academy Awards’ recognition and mainstream artistic and commercial success,” Yang says, “that in so many ways has eluded this particular type of defiantly independent Asian American film for so many decades.”

Everything Everywhere is definitely Asian: it pays homage to Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love, Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow, kung-fu, and martial arts—upon which Michelle Yeoh built her career. In fact, Yeoh’s lead character was originally conceived for Jackie Chan.

And it is simultaneously a deeply American film—and a deeply Daniels one. Its technicolor multiverse concept originated in 2010, when Daniel Scheinert was watching Sherman’s March. The documentary’s main character meets a linguist who tells him about modal realism, the idea that all possible worlds are real in the same way as the actual world.

“That’s really appealing to us because we’re maximalist filmmakers,” Kwan told Vulture. “The multiverse became a vessel for us to point at infinity in a way that most other premises probably wouldn’t allow for.”

“Maximalist filmmakers” is, perhaps, an understatement: Before Everything Everywhere, Daniels were best known for the surreal black comedy Swiss Army Man, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano. In it, a marooned man (Dano) teaches a flatulent corpse (Radcliffe) about the ways of the world. And before that, the duo directed whiz-bang music videos, including DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What.”

The everything bagel: cultures, languages, generations

A maximalist movie peppered with sight gags ranging from hot dog fingers to butt plugs is, on the surface, an unlikely candidate for Best Picture. But then there is, of course, the everything bagel. Jobu Tupaki (Stephanie Hsu), the film’s quasi-villain, has created a singularity: a bagel topped with literally everything in the universe.

Allyson Riggs—A24/Everett CollectionFrom left: Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, James Hong in Everything Everywhere All At Once, 2022.

The bagel is, in many ways, a microcosm for the film. Most of its main cast is Asian, yes, but the actors’ backgrounds are diverse: Yeoh is Malaysian, Quan is Vietnamese, Hsu is Chinese American, and James Hong grew up partially in Hong Kong. And Everything Everywhere is a rare trilingual film, rotating between English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Zhen Zhang, the director of the Asian Film and Media Initiative at NYU, considers it both sinophone cinema and very much an American film.

“This is what I mean by a new multiculturalism: more culturally, linguistically informed, more complex and layered, rather than, say, 20 years ago, the ‘salad bowl’: just mixing different colors together,” Zhang says. “It’s not about colors; it’s not about black or white or yellow. There are many shades of all of these colors. Asians, everywhere in the world—I guess ‘everything’ refers to that in some ways, too.”

The movie bends genres just as it does the space-time continuum. It’s also a melodrama—a central research area of Zhang’s—which unlocks pathos and emotion. And it bridges generations, both in its plot and its reception. Its feeling of gamification was a lot for Zhang to take in, even as a film scholar.

But her son’s generation is “so used to moving instantaneously between different dimensions and building worlds,” she says. “And in that way, the film has this interactive aesthetic, as well. So you need to be engaged in it, instead of just relaxing and chewing over your popcorn.”

Everything Everywhere All at Once is, at its core, a movie by and for everyone: young and old, Chinese-speaking and not, Asian and American and Asian American, laundromat goers and movie stars. It is intrinsically universal in its specificity.

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