“Who do you think will be here?” someone asks me. I think his name is Michael. He’s writing for Esquire; he tells me he’s here in case he needs a colorful background scene.
We and about two dozen other journalists are at the New York City offices of A24, the independent studio that's been on the rise for the past couple of years with the crossover hit Ex Machina and their first major Oscar win (Brie Larson for Room). We'd been invited to a promotional opportunity for Swiss Army Man, the company’s controversial Sundance pickup about a man who finds himself stranded on an island with a farting corpse, an event the good people of A24 have described as “a magical bus tour with friends — both real and imagined.” Swiss Army Man was directed by The Daniels, a filmmaking team comprised of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. “The Daniels” have worked together on music videos for artists like The Shins and Foster the People, on commercials for Converse and Levi’s, and on their own short films. Swiss Army Man is their first feature-length film. I assume it is a coincidence that they’ve chosen another Daniel to be their star, but no one has clarified that for me, so I guess it's still possible this is a Daniel-for-Daniels’ sake venture.
“I imagine it’s Daniel Radcliffe,” I say confidently, even though I have absolutely no idea. Someone in my office told me that someone from A24 told them that the special guest was Daniel Radcliffe, who plays the aforementioned farting corpse, but I don’t tell Michael this.
And I am only half wrong: When we climb onto the open top double-decker, we’re greeted by Radcliffe’s corpse, who sits hunched over in the corner. An A24 rep named Nicolette explains that the life-size doll currently staring out from the back of the bus — pale-faced with his mouth hanging open, in tattered clothes, hands limply spilling onto the adjoining seat — was used as a double for Radcliffe in the scenes where the corpse he plays has to perform feats beyond the capability of a live human being, such as basic dead-guy stuff: boner compass, flatulence-powered jet-ski, etc. The doll’s name is Manny, one of several used in making the movie. This bus, Nicolette tells us, is going to mark the start of Manny’s tour around America to promote Swiss Army Man. We’re told we’re welcome to walk to Manny as the bus rolls through the tour, and that there will be one stop at the end for us to take pictures.
I admire Nicolette’s ability to confidently and enthusiastically address a group of writers about a hunk of polyform’s vacation plans. One writer asks if we can we tweet about this. “Yes! You can tweet whatever you like,” says Nicolette, before amending, “well, not anything mean.”
As the bus starts, I realize that, no offense to Nicolette, I’ve shown up for nothing. There’s nary a Swiss Army Man in sight (unless you count the doll), the only writer I know here is engaged with people he knows better, and I’m on a tour bus with no tour guide. Save for one beer, a chicken sandwich from Shake Shack, and the corpse in the corner — all of which were kindly provided by A24 — this might as well be a regular bus. My phone is too low on battery to be a distraction, I forgot my book at home, and I have no clue what the trajectory is for the rest of this tour. Professionally speaking, I’m trapped. Personally speaking, I’m delighted.
I am more relaxed in the 20 minutes I spend bumping down Broadway alongside a gaggle of journalists and a polyform cast of a dead Daniel Radcliffe than I have been in months. Usually if I want to be suspended for an indefinite period from all human or digital contact, I have to hop on a plane, and this bus has more legroom. I have no control of the bus; its movements remain mysterious to me. The animated conversations of the journalists around me are familiar and friendly and blessedly undistracting. The clanking and honking and hustling in the streets below take on a decorative quality the second you’re removed from them, which I am because I’m on a tour bus with my new clay corpse friend. Manny’s lifeless arm dangles down the side of the bus from his seat three rows in front of mine. We pass another bus group, presumably actually on a tour, and someone on my bus shouts, “Does your bus have Daniel Radcliffe? Ours does!”
We drive for a while. It’s very bright and very hot and maybe it’s just a trick of the vitamin D and UV rays, but I’m floating in a surreal state of bliss that apparently only exists for people who find themselves suspended in motion 10 feet off the ground. The A24 publicists are blasting the Swiss Army Man score, which was written by Manchester Orchestra members Andy Hull and Robert McDowell and sounds like it came right from the Celtic castle where Enya lives with her 14 cats and no men. This is only helping. I pray no one tries to talk to me, and for the most part no one does. I wonder if this is how Manny feels all the time, since he never has to worry about material responsibilities, but then I remind myself that Manny doesn’t feel anything since he’s a doll. I wonder if this is what the movie is about.
We hit a patch of trees somewhere around the Chelsea Piers — it’s probably the first time in about two weeks that I’ve been able to see multiple trees at a time, and not from behind glass. Did you know that trees rest at night? This is a difference between the tree and myself, since I stayed up the night before this working so I’d have time to get on the magical mystery bus tour. Of course, this also puts the tree at odds with Manny, who — being lifeless both in material and in performance — is incapable of either rest or activity.
It occurs to me that if I were a tree, I’d have at least 40 limbs bursting from my waist to the top of my head. My human nervous system and digestive system would, if I were a tree, coincide with my circulatory system, so my brain, my heart, and my stomach would be a single continuum coursing from my roots to my limbs. My limbs would have branches and their limbs would be leaves, which are like hair in that leaves can be easily tossed by wind — the way my hair is being tossed by the wind into the face of the journalist to whom I have not introduced myself who is sitting behind me on this bus. But in contrast with the leaves, and especially as my hair is now — three months overdue on a haircut that wasn’t that good to begin with — my hair is dead. As dead as Manny the dead corpse mannequin, who bears a professional resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe.
Sometime before I’ve completely solved the problem of fusing myself simultaneously to the tree and the twice-lifeless mold of clay that was made from a cast of Daniel Radcliffe, the bus pulls over. The Hudson River is behind us; it’s time for the photo opportunity. There’s some commotion, and my heart sinks as I realize that my perfectly useless day is about to be ruined by the Daniel Radcliffe, the real one, who has just walked onto the bus.
With Manny’s living model present, the limitations of recreating a human being via polyform and silicone jump out. Daniel Radcliffe’s eyes radiate generosity and kindness; Manny’s eyes are painted on kinda crooked. Since Daniel has gotten on the bus, Manny has been carried by an A24 rep to a new seat behind Daniel, who moves of his own accord, walking to pass a microphone from himself to the writers who have come more prepared for human interaction than I have. (Manny lies like a lump behind Daniel, sympathetically.) Living Daniel Radcliffe gamely offers to shake all our hands, he makes considerate eye contact with every person who asks a question, and he answers those questions articulately — all of which is very jarring considering I’ve spent the last half hour building an empathetic bond from across the boundaries of the living and the dead to Daniel’s stunt double Manny, who is still a big dead doll who has to be carried every time he needs to move seats. By contrast, I barely have to try to empathize with Daniel — being alive and human, he’s doing a vast majority of the work for me. Manny played much harder to get. If I look over Daniel’s shoulder, Manny is still there, same as ever — slack-jawed, his slightly crossed, painted-on eyes empty as death. I wonder how many generations you’d have to go back for the materials that made Manny to be considered organic. Manny’s existential malaise feels more out of place with Daniel present — you’re promoting a movie, Manny, the least you could do is smile — but his constancy is inspiring. (“I love this movie," A24 cofounder David Fenkel had said to me before we embarked. "The Daniels have made something totally fresh. You’ve never seen anything like it. It’s about discovering life, it’s this generation’s existentialism.”) A journalist asks if this movie has changed the way Daniel Radcliffe thinks about death. Radcliffe says he doesn’t think about death often, and I believe him.
After a few more questions about his creative process and the film’s directors and what it’s like to have someone make a life-size mold of your body, Daniel notices the bags we’re all sporting.
“Oh! Have they given you swag?”
A couple of writers pull out the gifts, unfolding the silicone bongs we’ve been given, and also the giant towels with Daniel in his Swiss Army Man costume printed on them — although I suppose since Towel Daniel is in character, the figure on the towel could be interpreted as Manny, too? Either way, Daniel seems amused.
"I've been so excited to promote this film because when we were making it we would joke about what kind of merchandise they could sell, and, well, there you go!"
From his seat in the corner of the bus, Manny stares, saying nothing. It’s only his first day of this promotional tour; you can’t blame him for being apathetic about merchandise. He’s probably still not past the trees.