The Academy has spoken. Everything Everywhere All At Once, A24's infectiously ambitious film with an indie heart, is the best film of 2022. It has had a near dream run both at the box office and in the awards circuit following its release in March last year, sweeping all major categories and a sizeable sum for its relatively small budget. It was this year’s definitive underdog story—one that was able to mobilise a massive number of supporters; and personally too, I do have to admit that it is one of the freshest nominees (and winners) in a long time. The movie won seven Oscars, including Michelle Yeoh for Best Actress, Ke Huy Quan for Best Supporting Actor, and Jamie Lee Curtis for Best Supporting Actress. Billed as an absurdist science fiction comedy drama film, and yet at the same time, defying as well as amplifying those labels, this multiversal adventure has much going on in terms of the design of its multiple parallel universes through often frenetically charged sequences, and the essential human core of the film, anchoring this multiversal mayhem. Jason Kisvarday, the film’s production designer and seemingly a fan of campy 80s movies, many of which have achieved cult status today and served as distinct design inspirations for the film, operates to design on both these scales—the intimate and the multiversal—with a deftness and economy that adds to the intrinsic fabric of the film in nearly every conceivable way.
The proliferation of the multiverse in the film (henceforth abbreviated as EEAAO) is an extension of the Butterfly Effect in Chaos Theory wherein each small choice or possibility leads to amplified, even mutated consequences—in this case, branching off into a new reality altogether. Even the mapping of the multiverse branches converging at the epicentre, the current universe of operation, has a distinctly cartographical, architectural notion to it. However, more than these implied connections which the film has aplenty, EEAAO builds its 'architecture' and constructs its overarching world as strata superimposed over essentially mundane everyday architectural places and spaces.
The notion of inducing a lived-in quality that is not only immediately visible, but also physically and emotionally tangible is central to the production design of the film. "Mundanity was absolutely the point in all these sets," states Kisvarday, on focussing and fulfilling the latter in what he calls 'magical realism.' The former, the magical, he states, didn’t even need to be as otherworldly or unconceivable as long as the world it was occurring in was authentic and grounded.
What a number of films handle cosmetically, Kisvarday and his team achieved by a sense of "overdoing" patinas and time-induced finishes on surfaces and materials for the film's backdrop to be so commonplace as to not stand out at all. Its closest architectural parallel would be a hyperbolised version of the decorated shed philosophy from Venturi-Scott Brown-Izenour's Learnings from Las Vegas, wherein an absolute functional architecture in form is expounded upon by layers of 'ornament'—here, the objects essential to rooting a life of a migrant Chinese family in the US. This is especially on display in the often messy, crowded interiors of the Wang household, replete with objects that could almost be relegated to artefacts if not for their haphazard, overcrowded arrangement—a rice cooker of a particular brand, the Maneki-neko, calendars that businesses give out as a staple during the Chinese New Year—not to mention the heaps of bills, and the laundry bags and washing liquid that inevitably escape into the home due to a chronic lack of storage space.
Kisvarday brings this trademark mundanity into the public realm of buildings through the family-run laundromat, among the most commonplace of places in the American landscape, second only to the convenience or departmental store. The stacking up of washing machines against narrow alleyways, the floor finishes and the signage, including the corrosion marks left behind from ageing and the dragging of washing machines, are all choreographed to contribute to the authenticity. This is evocatively opposite to the Playtime reminiscent IRS offices, where much of the action in the film unfolds, while the space itself exudes the uncanny and 'no-place' associated with modernist workplaces.
In relative contrast, the places specific to the multiverse, including the theatre where Evelyn and Waymond meet, the jungle where she trains, the Alphaverse—with its salvaged, 'as-found' tech, and the hotdog-fingers universe, harbour a heightened sense of that reality through either cinematic distortion or by expanding upon the architectural uncanny. However, in absolute contrast, the Temple of the Bagel is envisioned as a completely fantastical place, a figment of the imagination, its scenes ironically shot on location inside a decommissioned church in Los Angeles. Here, iconography and symbolism work to provide the anchorage to the 'real' world. The eponymous Bagel, for instance, adds to the long list of circular motifs Kisvarday casually peppers through the multiverse, apart from the mirror the film opens with, the washing machine windows, the googly eyes on the laundry bags, and later the characters themselves. Expounding on the euphemisms in the film’s title itself, the circular motifs are illusory to the distortion of space-time as in a black hole, and the circle of life, or as Kisvarday puts it: "sometimes, a circle is just a circle."
The ingenuity of the whole scheme especially peeks through in the most absurd yet seemingly simple moments—the rock scene is an unfettered example of that, and an expression of the film's truly unbound creative spirit. It is a superimposition of a human story and an emotional catharsis—one of a family, the migrant experience, and intergenerational trauma passed down through generations—on a world that has grit, gravitas, and solid ground, and layers of absurdity piled upon, with space for the emotional core to shine through all the time. In that, the migrant or refugee experience, that of being thrust into an altogether new world with traces of memories and skills from what may be called a different lifetime, seems to mirror Evelyn's multiversal travails. It is, however, also a tale of unfulfilled possibilities, a solemn reflection on Kisvarday’s snub of an Oscar nod for his brilliant, resourceful work on the film—now the most awarded film in history.
Watch the full interview by clicking on the cover video.
Also read: Dylan Cole and Ben Procter on designing the world of 'Avatar: The Way of Water'
In case you missed: Mise-en-scène with STIR—enticing conversations with four of 2022's Oscar nominated production designers.
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