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'Everything Everywhere All at Once' and its many worlds with Jason Kisvarday

On designing a familiar and familial multiverse
Winner of the Best Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards, EEAAO's production designer Jason Kisvarday speaks with STIR on the magic and mundanity of the film.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Mar 20, 2023

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 Wang Household’s living room was made deliberately messy and ‘crowded’, full of objects specific to a Chinese-American family household | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The Wang Household’s living room was made deliberately messy and ‘crowded,' full of objects specific to a Chinese-American family household Image: Courtesy of Jason Kisvarday
  • A sketch showing the arrangement of various items on the family’s mantle, adding to the authenticity of the overall proceedings | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    A sketch showing the arrangement of various items on the family’s mantle, adding to the authenticity of the overall proceedings Image: Courtesy of Jason Kisvarday

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 recreation of the laundromat focused on activities of people around the machines and along the passageways to add patinas and time-inflicted patterns | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The recreation of the laundromat focused on activities of people around the machines and along the passageways to add patinas and time-inflicted patterns Image: Courtesy of Jason Kisvarday
  • Special emphasis was laid upon the floor finish and other material finishes to get the feel of the laundromat just right | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    Special emphasis was laid upon the floor finish and other material finishes to get the feel of the laundromat just right Image: Courtesy of Jason Kisvarday

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.

  • The IRS offices were another space where a different interpretation of mundanity was implemented | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The IRS offices were another space where a different interpretation of mundanity was implemented Image: Allyson Riggs
  • The staging of the ‘Bagel’ within the IRS office building | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The staging of the ‘Bagel’ within the IRS office building Image: Courtesy of Jason Kisvarday
  • Plan of the IRS office building, marking locations of specific events and sequences in the film | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    Plan of the IRS office building, marking locations of specific events and sequences in the film Image: Courtesy of Jason Kisvarday

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.

  • The alternate universes were achieved through minimal alterations to the grounded, central universe | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The alternate universes were achieved through minimal alterations to the grounded, central universe Image: Allyson Riggs
  • Interiors of Evelyn and Dierdre’s home in the hotdog fingers universe | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    Interiors of Evelyn and Dierdre’s home in the hotdog fingers universe Image: Courtesy of Jason Kisvarday

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.

  • Apart from the residences and laundromat, all locations for the film were actual, existing buildings | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    Apart from the residences and laundromat, all locations for the film were actual, existing buildings Image: Allyson Riggs
  • The film’s emotional core remains intact through layers of absurdity and the multiverse | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The film’s emotional core remains intact through layers of absurdity and the multiverse Image: Allyson Riggs

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 Temple of the Bagel, Jobu Tupaki’s sanctum, was envisioned in all white to add to the dream-like effect of the sequence | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The Temple of the Bagel, Jobu Tupaki’s sanctum, was envisioned in all white to add to the dream-like effect of the sequence Image: Allyson Riggs
  • The sequences for the temple were shot inside a decommissioned LA church | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    The sequences for the temple were shot inside a decommissioned LA church Image: Allyson Riggs

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.

  • All the tech in the film was intentionally designed to look as if salvaged from older, less advanced machines | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    All the tech in the film was intentionally designed to look as if salvaged from older, less advanced machines Image: Allyson Riggs
  • “Mundanity was absolutely the point in all these sets”, states Jason Kisvarday | Everything Everywhere All At Once Production Design | Jason Kisvarday | STIRworld
    “Mundanity was absolutely the point in all these sets”, states Jason Kisvarday Image: Allyson Riggs

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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