There is no comic-book source material for Swiss Army Man, nor is it a sequel or a reboot of a beloved movie or TV franchise. There’s no canon or minute character details to question, no theories to be debunked or plot points to be confirmed. The upcoming film, from the directing team known as The Daniels, is a wholly original work, bursting with imagination and visual miracles — which means that, in today’s pop culture summer movie landscape, it’s likely doomed for obscurity.
It is the job of A24, the beloved boutique film distributor who bought the film after its loud premiere at Sundance, to do everything in its power to save Swiss Army Man from such a fate. Of all indie handlers, A24 is probably best equipped to do this; the NYC-based distributor is as creative as the film it is working to promote. But the movie, about a man stuck on a desert island (Paul Dano) who finds a magical farting corpse (Daniel Radcliffe), hits theaters on the same day as the inexplicable Independence Day sequel. That means the company still has a major challenge on its hands, one that requires some very unorthodox strategies.
Which is how I wound up on a double decker bus with Daniel Radcliffe and his lifeless stunt double.
With summer movie season in full swing, it’s obvious that A24 will not be able to get any sort of major media traction with a traditional marketing campaign. The studio has built up enough positive will with its weird tweets and untraditional movies that film bloggers are very willing to buy into its antics — especially if they’re being fed. So a group of us were invited to the A24 offices on 27th Street on Monday – plied with Shake Shack – and then loaded on to a double-decker bus with a life-sized corpse that looked like Daniel Radcliffe sitting in the back seat.
It worked almost too well: Right away, people began taking selfies with the dirtied Harry Potter sex doll, and the first question asked was a two-parter about free promotion: “Can we tweet about this, and do you have a hashtag?”
The answers: Yes, and simply #SwissArmyMan.
The bus eventually began its loop around Manhattan, with planned stops at major tourist attractions to draw attention to the video playing on the bus’s side. Jaded, rushed New Yorkers didn’t exactly flock to the bus (nothing fazes them) — until a few caught wind of the presence of a special guest who boarded in Chelsea: Radcliffe himself, in the flesh.
He took a few questions from the press onboard (one of which was a request for a selfie), and gushed about the Daniels’ boundless creativity and how much fun he was going to have promoting this film. It’s certainly a new kind of screen role for him; he’s lifeless for much of the movie, and his corpse character slowly learns to talk and emote in a very endearingly Frankstein-esque way (his rocket farts come naturally from the start). Radcliffe has long embraced challenges — remember when he went nude on stage in between Harry Potter movies? — and genuinely seemed enthused to be there. It didn’t hurt that everyone on the bus wanted to take selfies with him, of course.
Radcliffe’s corpse double, which was used in the film, will be touring around the country, with stops in LA, Chicago, DC and Denver — not coincidentally, high-end movie markets, exactly where Swiss Army Man will be released.
This is what independent studios have to do now, in order to get any sort of attention during the ever-longer summer movie season. It’s not enough to tweet, or schedule an actor on a talk show, or even get him on a podcast. Distributors have to create unique events, and get friendly press, many of whom are desperate to write about things other than superhero films, to spread the word. It’s not all that different than awards season, but without the prestige automatically tacked on to these movies (I’d give an award to a sweeter-than-expected farting corpse movie, but I don’t have an Academy ballot), the challenge of getting the public to care at all is even greater.
Who knows how Swiss Army Man will do at the box office. It certainly has some star-power, but it’s got super-stiff competition; along with Independence Day, it’s going up against the Matthew McConaughey war epic Free State of Jones and Nicolas Winding-Refn’s divisive film, Neon Demon, which should attract the same hipster audience as Swiss Army Man. But it’s clear that, at the very least, no avenue for creative promotion will go unexplored, no opportunity to grab some eyeballs will be wasted — even if it takes a moving billboard to ensure it.