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Everything Everywhere All At Once: Evelyn’s Journey is the Screenwriter’s Journey Pt.1
In this episode, I’m going to try to do the impossible, and help you understand how the screenplay Everything Everywhere All at Once was built. The truth is, to fully break down the structure of Everything Everywhere All at Once would take me a full day. In fact, it did! Back when the movie first came out, I taught a Master Class during which I broke down the full structure of the movie over an entire Sunday.
I’m not going to try to do that in this podcast. What we’re going to do today, in Part 1 of this podcast, is compress some of the incredibly complicated ideas in this film into some useful concepts that you can use as you’re trying to do what’s probably the hardest thing for all screenwriters: to balance the art, the craft, and the business of screenwriting as you find your way through the multiverse of possibilities for your own writing.
Then, in Part 2, we’ll do a detailed breakdown of the opening sequence of Everything Everywhere All at Once and look at the ways it sets up everything to come in this remarkably ambitious, Academy Award-winning script.
Building a screenplay, even one far less ambitious than Everything Everything Everywhere All at Once, can feel overwhelming.
We often feel caught, as writers, between three competing challenges: what we want the screenplay to be, what we believe the market is telling us a screenplay needs to be, and how to develop the craft we need to solve the screenplay and make it do those two other things at once.
There are so many possibilities for who the characters could be, for what could happen. We are adrift in a sea of good and terrible ideas.
As writers, we are actually experiencing everything, everywhere, all at once: every possibility in the multiverse, all at the same time.
We feel overwhelmed, just like Evelyn, the main character of Everything Everywhere All at Once, feels sitting at her desk covered with papers.
And when we feel overwhelmed, we tend to fall back onto some tropes that we probably know aren’t true, but seem easier and safer than the discomfort of the unknown.
We convince ourselves to let go of our own dreams for the project, often both the art and the craft of writing our dream script, and instead just try to focus on the business side: What should I do? What should I write? What is selling right now? What is hot?
We lie to ourselves, looking for a formula that’s going to solve the script for us. Then we ask that formula (or that guru) “Tell me what happens in this act!”
We’re looking for a simple model to solve the problem of structure for us, because like Evelyn in Everything Everywhere All at Once, we feel overwhelmed. And like Evelyn, we are finding all the wrong answers, because our real problem usually stems from not listening to our characters.
When we get overwhelmed, instead of listening to our characters, instead of listening to that simple voice within ourselves, just like Evelyn, we get distracted by the chatter.
Instead of seeing the beauty that is in front of us, we get distracted by what we, or our writing, or our characters, are supposed to be.
There is a beautiful line, in Everything Everywhere all at Once. It’s really the seminal line of the movie. Joy says to Evelyn, “You could be anything, anywhere. Why not go somewhere your daughter is more than just this? Here, all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense.”
And Evelyn responds with maybe one of the most beautiful lines in cinema: “Then I will cherish these few specks of time.”
What I’d like to suggest to you is that your job as a screenwriter is to cherish these few specks of time when your movie makes sense, and to recognize, especially early in the process, that it’s going to feel like just a few specks of time.
But despite Joy’s feelings about herself and the movie she’s in, about the story of her life, the truth is that by the end– by the final draft that we all saw– the film made a lot of sense. Despite the fact that there are so many pieces that are too complicated for us to fully understand, we were actually able to go on the journey, have an emotional experience and make a heck of a lot of sense out of some tremendously complicated elements.
But along the way of writing our screenplays, we often feel like the characters of Everything Everywhere All at Once. We feel like Joy. We feel like Evelyn. We feel like we’re supposed to be something we’re not. And we fail to recognize that our screenplays are actually built around those few specks of time where things make sense. Those few moments, those few scenes, those few images, those few lines of dialogue; those are actually the beginning of making sense of your script.
As you’ll see from this script analysis of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the commercial and the craft elements of screenwriting grow out of the art, rather than the other way around.
And the art of screenwriting begins with those few specks of time where any of this actually makes any sense. Those few moments in your script that really matter.
I’m going to share with you an early draft of Everything Everywhere All at Once. And when you look at this draft, you are going to be really shocked to see how different it is from the film.
First off, Evelyn’s not even the main character! In fact, her name isn’t even Evelyn. The main character is Waymond– who, by the way, isn’t even named Waymond at this point. In this draft his name is “Jackie Chan.”
You’ll notice that the structure of the script is a hundred times more confusing than the one that won the Academy Award. It doesn’t hold together yet.
You’ll notice that the emotional core of the script isn’t built yet.
And most importantly, you will notice that the opening sequence– which we’re going to discuss very deeply in part two of this podcast– doesn’t even exist!
Rather, we are dropped directly into the madness of the action film.
Why doesn’t that incredible opening scene exist in the early draft of Everything Everywhere All at Once? It doesn’t exist because just like Evelyn, the writers of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schinert, were still making sense of their own project!
They were still making sense of their own journey. This project, which turned into an Academy Award–winning film, and beyond the awards an incredibly moving film, was not born in its final form. It was developed into that form.
It’s so important for you to see that you are not the only person writing crappy first drafts, crappy second drafts, crappy 22nd drafts, that the professional writers that you admire, like the Daniels, go through the same process that you go through.
But they go through it with a different kind of experience and a different kind of approach.
Rather than looking for what is broken in their script, rather than looking for what they are supposed to do, the writers that you admire start by looking for those little specks where things actually make sense.
They start by looking for those little moments of beauty, those little simple elements, those little things that point towards what the film really wants to be.
And then they build around those elements. They apply craft and they apply genre elements around those little moments of beauty.
Now, the Daniels have a long history of doing the impossible. In fact, working on their earlier film Swiss Army Man– which, if you haven’t seen yet, run, don’t walk–- they actually made a list of all the things that they hate in movies. They made an epic list, and then they made a movie that did all of those things, and that did them in a beautiful, powerful, funny, emotionally moving, ridiculous, playful, goofy way.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, they took this approach to the next level.
Everything Everywhere All at Once was built in the opposite way the Daniels built Swiss Army Man. Instead of pulling inspiration from the movies they hate, they pulled from the movies they love. They’re pulling from The Matrix. They’re pulling from Wong Kar-wai. They are pulling from Home Alone.
If you watch the director’s commentary, there are about half a dozen other movies that they mention they are pulling from. So they’re doing this epic adaptation, where they’re pulling from all these wonderful Kung Fu and non–Kung Fu movies that they love, and they’re trying to transform them into a Kung Fu movie about empathy.
Oh, and by the way, they’re also trying to capture the idea of the multiverse: the idea that maybe there are a trillion billion quadrillion different things happening all at the same time, that what we consider our reality is actually a fragmentation of different possible lives, real and imagined.
And they’re also trying to tell a story about the immigrant experience in America, and what it’s like to be a child of an immigrant, what it is like to be a child of a parent who comes from a different culture than you.
They are trying to do all this, all at the same time.
The Daniels are trying to make a movie about empathy, about listening, set in a world of Kung Fu. And what’s so moving and so powerful about Everything Everywhere All at Once is that they actually achieve it.
They do it successfully, but they didn’t do it in one stage or in one draft. They did it in multiple stages. And this is going to be similar to the process that you experience in your own writing.
If you try to get there in one step, you’re not going to write something commercial. You’re also not going to make art. What you’re going to make is a paint-by-numbers approximation of something commercial. And it may feel good to finish that, but that is not going to sell your movie.
Whether you’re writing something really complicated, like Everything Everywhere All at Once, or whether you’re making something really simple like The Banshees of Inisherin, you’re always trying to do the same thing: you’re trying to figure out what your story is really about.
And I’m about to say something a little wild about this, but I think when we finish this script analysis of Everything Everywhere All at Once you will understand it.
Every screenplay, when you get down to it, is really just a character-driven drama dressed up with genre elements.
If you strip away all the Kung Fu, all the magic, all the film references, all the multiverses, all the humor, all the commentary, Everything Everywhere All at Once is really just a movie about a woman who married the love of her life but lost her father, and ultimately that relationship as well, in the process.
It’s a story about a woman who chased her dreams, only to end up feeling like her dreams didn’t work out, only to end up feeling like she’s trapped in a bagel (or in a dryer going round and round), doing laundry, paying taxes.
She feels like she’s living the worst version of her life.
And because she feels like she’s living the worst version of her life, she’s also not able to see the beauty of the people around her.
She is not able to see the beauty of her husband: she sees him as a wimp, and she doesn’t realize that he has his own beautiful way of fighting.
She’s not able to see her daughter: she sees Joy as having been possessed by something that’s made her attracted to women, that’s made her daughter into something that Evelyn, as a mother, cannot understand.
And in seeing Joy that way, Evelyn has pushed her daughter so hard that she’s broken her. She’s broken something fundamental in her.
Evelyn’s been abandoned by her father for pursuing her love, and yet she’s still trying to please her father. She’s carrying his disappointment with her, and in the process, she is doing the same thing to her daughter that her father did to her.
She’s being audited by the IRS, and she sees her auditor, Dierdre, as a monster coming after her, preying on her because she is an immigrant.
Evelyn sees all this without seeing her own part: without seeing that she is unfocused, that she is not listening. Evelyn is not dealing with everything, she is distracted by everything, everywhere, all at once. All the elements of her life are overwhelming her.
And again, if you strip away all the beautiful action sequences, this is really just a story of a woman reconnecting with her husband and her daughter. Learning to accept her daughter as she is, and learning to stop working out her own stuff on her daughter.
She’s learning that she has to confront her father, and stand up for her daughter.
She’s learning that she needs to fight with love and not just with fists.
She’s learning that she has to focus on what really matters to her in a world where it can feel meaningless, that it’s actually those few specks of time where the meaning can be found.
She’s learning that the fact that “nothing matters” actually means we can do anything and be anyone we want.
So, we have a character driven drama about a woman who cannot listen to her daughter, who cannot see the people in front of her, who is distracted by the thousands of things happening all around her.
It’s a character driven drama about a woman who’s distracted by all the possibilities she failed to live and her own damaged self-esteem, the past choices that she’s replaying again and again in her head, the gap between where she expected to go and where she is. A woman who feels she’s living the worst version of her life.
And if we strip away all the magic and all the action, we build to a point where she realizes it’s all meaningless.
We meet a woman at the beginning of Everything Everywhere All at Once whose husband presents her with divorce papers, not because he wants to divorce, but because it’s the only way he can imagine that he might get her to actually pay attention. And we watch her fight the divorce.
She doesn’t want the divorce. How dare he try to divorce her? How dare he think divorce is okay? We watch her fight.
We have a woman who believes her daughter has been possessed by something that made her different than she supposed to be: that made her attracted to women. And while she’s trying to be supportive in her way, she’s “allowing it” (the way she sees it), she’s not really able to accept it.
In Evelyn’s mind, this is not the way it’s supposed to be. It’s like some malevolent force, some Jobu Tupaki, took her daughter over and transformed her, away from the vision Evelyn had for her.
And we watch a woman fight within herself, because at the end of it all she still wants the approval of the father who abandoned her.
So we begin with this beautiful, tragic scene where Evelyn’s father, Gong Gong, is supposed to meet Joy’s girlfriend, Becky. And Evelyn introduces Becky not as Joy’s girlfriend, but as Joy’s “good friend.”
And this causes a rift between Joy and Evelyn that starts the whole journey– not just of the action, but of the character driven drama underneath.
We build from there.
Despite all the action sequences, if you really look, you’ll see that each act of Everything Everywhere All at Once is not built around action. It’s built around character-driven drama between Evelyn, Joy, and Waymond.
It’s built around a character-driven drama, a journey through which these characters will come to see each other more clearly. And particularly, a journey through which Evelyn will come to see both Waymond and Joy more clearly.
Evelyn begins the movie– and this is a purposeful pun– feeling like she needs to get her “Joy” back.
Somebody took her Joy. What happened to her Joy?
She fell in love with the love of her life; she was supposed to live a life full of joy, and instead, she’s chasing around in a circle, doing laundry, paying taxes, getting nowhere.
She has lost Joy, her daughter, and she’s lost her personal joy.
The events of the movie will force Evelyn to start to see her husband, her daughter, and herself more clearly. And at first, seeing them more clearly will overwhelm her.
Evelyn will go on an epic journey from fighting her husband to not get divorced, all the way to signing the divorce papers because it’s not worth pretending anymore.
She will go on an epic journey from fighting for her laundromat, all the way to smashing her laundromat with a baseball bat, saying, “I always hated this place.”
In other words, she will personally go on the same dramatic journey that Jobu Tupaki goes on in the big epic magic journey. She’ll become so overwhelmed by actually looking at everything rather than running from it– by actually accepting the overwhelmingness, the complexity, and the meaninglessness of the universe– that she will get sucked into nihilism. Into letting go of any belief in anything.
Evelyn’s journey into meaninglessness and nihilism in Everything Everywhere All at Once is a dramatic journey that you’re probably familiar with if you’re a screenwriter.
We all start off excited about our characters and our journeys. We’ve got the best idea for a screenplay! Maybe dad’s saying, “hey, you’re sure you don’t want to go to law school?” But we’re not going to give into that kind of doubt! Not when we’re on the edge of greatness! We’re saying “I need to do this. I’m going to follow my dream.”
But then we get overwhelmed by the impossibility of it all. We get overwhelmed, not just by what makes it hard, but by all the possible choices, and not knowing how to make sense of all those possible choices: all the ideas that come to us, the rules of who we’re supposed to be and who we’re supposed to please, and not knowing how to make sense of all those rules, and all those demands, and all those things we’re supposed to be dealing with. Not knowing how to pay our bills, and how to stay afloat, and how to feel like we’re not just running in a giant circle, doing laundry and paying taxes.
We go on the same journey as Evelyn.
And what rescues Evelyn, after all of that, just when it looks impossible, are the characters that already exist around her. What rescues Evelyn are the people she’s already surrounded herself with, who she’s just failed to really look at and listen to.
Because on the other side of that hopelessness, she learns a couple of things.
The first Evelyn learns in Everything Everywhere All at Once is that it’s one thing to destroy yourself as a mother. It’s a second thing to see your daughter destroying herself.
Again, let’s strip away all the magic of “the bagel.” What Evelyn is really watching is her daughter choose self destruction and meaninglessness because of the way she’s been treated. Because Joy’s actually been treated the same way by her mom that Evelyn was treated by Gong Gong.
The second thing Evelyn learns is to see the beauty in her husband. This guy that she saw as such a total wimp.
Again, we’re stripping away all the magic, we’re stripping away all the action sequences and the Kung Fu.
We’re toward the end of the “Everywhere” section of the movie. Evelyn has destroyed her laundromat and any hope of saving herself from Dierdre, the tax collector. And then her husband does something amazing. He does his own kind of Kung Fu, which is about cookies and talking, about empathy, about listening, about understanding where other people are coming from.
And he gets them another week. He gives them a glimmer of hope inside the meaninglessness. And she starts to see him differently.
In the action world, she starts to fight like him– and we get this gorgeous kung fu sequence that’s all about empathy and love.
But in the dramatic world, there’s something even more beautiful going on.
Sure, this is playing out in magic-land where she and her daughter have turned into rocks so that finally things can go quiet, they can stop being distracted by the noise, and they can actually just communicate with each other.
But really, what’s happening is a character-driven-drama-land is a scene about a daughter and a mother actually listening for the first time.
And out of that connection, two things happen to Evelyn:
Number one, she realizes she’s been fighting the wrong way, and she’s been judging her husband wrongly. And now she’s going to try to fight like him. She’s going to try to be more like him, be more empathetic.
Number two, she actually is able to acknowledge the mistakes she’s made with her daughter.
She tries to redo her mistake that launched us into the movie in the naturalistic dramatic world. She grabs Joy and Becky, she pulls them up to Gong Gong, and she says “This is Becky. She’s Joy’s girlfriend.”
She confronts Gong Gong, she is no longer willing to do to her daughter what he did to her. She’s no longer willing to fight for his love and respect. She’s going to do what’s right.
So you can see what a beautiful character driven drama this is! We’re building towards this wonderful Hallmark moment, right? A mother who’s gone from “this is her good friend” to “this is her girlfriend.”
Now we’re all going to hug and make up, right?
Nope, this is not a Hallmark movie. This is a character-driven drama, cloaked in Kung Fu and metaphysics.
Underneath all the chaos, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a simple, character driven story. But it’s not an oversimplified story. Because in real life, that one moment does not change everything.
What happens to Evelyn when she tries for a do-over introducing Gong Gong to Becky is a huge shock, not only for Evelyn, but also for the audience.
She’s finally done the “right thing,” and we’ve been trained to believe that these kinds of moments are supposed to lead toward resolution and good feelings. But what does her daughter do? Joy runs outside, runs away from her!
And they have this painful confrontation. They’ve gone through every permutation of who they could possibly be, and they’re back to the same confrontation that happened before, in the first scene, when she told her daughter “you look fat” when she really wanted to say “I’m sorry.”
Except this time, Evelyn makes the exact opposite decision. She opens her heart to her daughter. No bullshit. Evelyn tells Joy exactly what she feels. And Joy responds with exactly what she feels. And the incredible tragedy– again, strip away all the magic– the incredible tragedy of this character-driven drama is that it doesn’t work.
Evelyn’s done the exact opposite thing and found herself in the same place of fragmentation.
In fact, what comes out of Joy at this moment is even worse than what came out of her when Evelyn told her she was fat:
“You have to let me go.”
So we watch a woman who’s made her A to Z change, and it has not worked. And we watch her let her daughter go.
Again, Everything Everywhere All at Once is just a drama. Sure, visually, Evelyn is letting her daughter go in a thousand different metaverses all at the same time. But really, this is just a story about a woman who tried everything, a little too late, and who finally accepts that she needs to let her daughter go.
What’s so beautiful is that, on the other side of that moment, on the other side of what looks like a tragedy, we find a more interesting and complicated dramatic truth.
Having revealed their truth to each other, and having heard her daughter’s truth and let her daughter go– having done the opposite of pushing her daughter– Joy/Jobu’s hand appears back on the other side of the bagel in the magical world.
Or, to put it in character driven drama terms, Evelyn finally hears her daughter and lets her go, and this allows her daughter to reach back out.
And Joy at this moment shares a vulnerability, the one that I mentioned earlier:
“You could be anything anywhere. Why not go somewhere your daughter is more than just this? Here, all we get are a few specks of time where any of this actually makes sense.”
And this allows Evelyn to finally come to her realization.
Yes, nothing matters. But we can still cherish those few specks of time. And from those few specks of time, we can build a beautiful life.
In fact, at the end of this sequence, Evelyn says, “We can do whatever we want. Nothing matters.”
And you can see this is an even more complicated version of that A to Z change for Evelyn.
Evelyn starts at “everything matters.” We meet a woman who feels like everything is so important: the noodles and the taxes and Gong Gong’s birthday and the laundry were all as important as her marriage and her daughter. She’s so distracted by everything that she can’t choose anything.
And she moves to: “We can do whatever we want. Nothing matters.”
That’s her A to Z change.
And out Evelyn’s dramatic arc, we find a beautiful dramatic ending: again, one more twist on what the formula tells us should happen when characters finally reach their a-ha! moments.
Because even though Evelyn’s gone on this A to Z journey, she hasn’t completely changed as a person. She’s still who she is.
Becky drops her off at the IRS office, and she wants to say “I love you,” to Becky. But instead she says “Becky, you need to grow your hair.”
She goes into the IRS office and she gives Waymond the kiss that she wished for back in the first scene– which we’ll talk about in Episode 2. She gives Waymond that kiss.
And even Dierdre acknowledges, “things are better. you listened…”
But then Dierdre goes on to say, “…but you didn’t listen. Did you hear me?”
And in the last line of the movie, Evelyn responds: “Sorry, what did you say?”
We’re not watching a mother who becomes a perfect mother. We’re watching a mother who learns to listen sometimes.
We’re not watching a character who becomes the best version of herself. We’re watching a character who takes a step towards being that person.
And I’d like to suggest to you that Evelyn’s journey as a character is a lot like your journey as a writer.
The journey of a writer is not to become a perfect writer, but rather, to take a step every day towards being the writer you want to be.
And that step begins with art.
It doesn’t begin with what’s commercial, and it doesn’t begin with craft.
It actually begins with art, and art is really just starting to put things on the paper, even if they suck. Starting to experiment with the multiverses of possibilities, terrible and goofy and silly and badly executed and ridiculous and fun and moving and sad and tonally dissonant.
Starting to experiment and looking for those few specks of time where things make sense. Those few moments that point your way towards what the movie wants to be, which may be something more profound and different than what you expected when you sat down to write it.
I’d like to suggest to you that just like Evelyn’s journey as a character, your journey as a writer is about noticing the characters around you and accepting those characters as they are as opposed to how you planned them to be, seeing their beauty, understanding who they are and recognizing that all of the answers are right there.
It’s acknowledging the truth of the characters, not the formula.
The formula is that Evelyn introduces Becky as her daughter’s girlfriend, we build toward our Hallmark hug and everything’s better. But that’s not true. Not for Evelyn.
The truth of this character driven drama is much more complicated than that.
And that’s what we’re really looking for as writers: we’re looking for the truth. The truth for the characters, and the truth for us.
We’re looking for the truth. And the truth is much more complicated than whatever formula we’re following. So it’s our job to get beyond what we planned for our characters, to discover what actually needs to happen.
And once we do that, we now have a simple kind of “Captain Crunch Decoder Ring” for everything else.
Once you figure out the story you’re really telling, you can start to realize that whatever form that story is taking, it’s the exact same process.
Whether you’re writing a kung fu movie or a horror movie like A Quiet Place, (listen to my A Quiet Place Podcast), it’s the exact same process. Like Everything Everywhere All At Once, A Quiet Place is just another character-driven drama about a family that can’t talk to each other.
It’s the same story as Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s about the horror of not being able to say “I love you.”
Once you understand the dramatic story underlying your genre elements, you have a little decoder ring that you can examine all those genre elements with, to understand what needs to happen and what can’t happen.
You’ll understand what is right and what is wrong for your screenplay, what fits and what doesn’t fit, how to make sense and order out of the chaos.
As writers, we all live in a multiverse, just like Evelyn in Everything Everywhere All at Once. And one of the simple ways that you can bring order to the chaos of your screenplay is by asking yourself, “Underneath the magical fantasy, or the horror, or the Kung Fu, what’s the character-driven drama that I’m telling?”
You can ask yourself, “How do the characters change? What is their journey? What’s the emotional drama?”
And once you understand the character driven drama underneath, you can start to recognize that your genre elements are really just the symbolic representations of all the dramatic elements. And it’s those symbols that will expand into the action, horror, comedy, romance or any other genre or commercial element you need in your screenplay. .
In Part II of this Everything Everywhere All at Once podcast, we’ll carefully examine the first sequence of Everything Everywhere All at Once. I’m going to do a full breakdown of that opening sequence and what it can teach you about finding the character-driven drama underneath your own genre movie or TV show.
We’ll also talk about the Daniels’ writing process in creating it, and about how that scene brings focus to the almost impossible premise of a Kung Fu movie about empathy, set in a world of multiple universes, and how that one sequence lays the foundation for the character-driven drama underneath all that craziness. So stay tuned.
And if you’d like to learn more about an organic approach to structure that grows from listening to your characters, check out my Write Your Screenplay class.
Brilliant essay Jake!