The Death of Dick Long, the latest indie film from A24, arrives in theaters on September 27. The explores the corrosive power of secrets and male fragility alike, all while exposing audiences to a side of Alabama they don’t often see. Director Daniel Scheinert sat down with Screen Rant to discuss how different the story is from his previous effort Swiss Army Man, why getting the setting right was so important, and how to avoid the polluted browser history that his film’s title threatens to inflict.
The southern Alabama setting seems to be a big part of The Death of Dick Long. What do you think that environment adds to the movie?
Daniel Scheinert: It's where I grew up, and the script was just set in rural America; it wasn't specific. Growing up in Alabama, most movies set there got it wrong. So, wherever I shot my movie, I didn't want to get it wrong because I’ve kind of seen firsthand as a kid how demoralizing that is. I decided to go where I'm from because I understood that place, and I wanted to let the place inspire me. To look for interesting textures and not come to it with a series of stereotypes that have been handed to me from a culture that I'm going to recreate, but instead be like, “Who's here? What's around?” which was a really fun way to make a movie.
It's kind of an organic process, where we had a really tight script, but sort of an improvisational approach to the places and the textures and the people and stuff.
How did you get involved with this film in particular?
Daniel Scheinert: Well, one of my best friends in college started writing it right after college. I've been reading drafts of this movie for 10 years. and I was always the biggest fan of the script. A few years ago, Billy [Chew], who wrote it, was trying to get the movie put together. We had dinner, and he was like, “Daniel, you should direct it.”
That's crazy. This is a dark comedy that seems to have a lot of influence from Raising Arizona to Weekend at Bernie's. Can you talk to me about some of your inspirations for the film?
Daniel Scheinert: There's a bunch. It gets compared and gets called “Redneck Fargo,” which isn’t inaccurate. You know, Billy and I are obsessed with the Cohen's work and with Fargo in particular. But also, the other day I jokingly said it was Gummo meets Moonlight.
You know, we're inspired by kind of abrasive, weird stuff. And, at the same time, really deeply humanist stuff that’s really kind of poking at taboos. Billy's obsessed with the book Lolita and had me read it a few years ago; it kind of blew my mind. Big fan of David Gordon Green and, as a kid, watching southerners make weird movies about weird people, with poetry kind of infused in there – that really spoke to me. All that kind of stuff.
Fascinating. You cast older women in key police roles, which is a contrast to most Hollywood films. Can you talk to me about the process of casting and breaking from the norm?
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah, absolutely. The overall casting approach was to just find the most interesting southerners I could, so nobody in the movie is doing a fake accent. If anything, they're imitating their relatives. Everybody has some Southern roots, which was kind of important to me. Because it was always a pet peeve of mine when people really ham it up and do a Gone with the Wind accent, which nobody really has.
Then there was a moment after Donald Trump got elected where I was like, “I don't want to make a movie about a bunch of guys.” Billy and I had a discussion about how interesting it would be to have specifically women and people of color kind of surround these dudes, and by the end of the movie to have Zeke just cornered by all the ladies who were cleaning up his mess. And we got really excited about that, because I feel like it's a metaphor for Alabama and America.
It is not based on cops I know in Alabama; there aren't many sweet old chubby lady cops in Alabama. But it is inspired by my relatives. I have a bunch of strong, opinionated Southern ladies in my family. So, like when casting Lydia, [Officer] Dudley, and [Sheriff] Spenser, I was having such a blast auditioning these ladies and being like, “Oh my God, you remind me of my grandmother or my aunt or my mom.”
I love that each character so definitively unique. Which character do you think is going to stand out to audiences the most?
Daniel Scheinert: One of my favorite things about the movie is that it hits different audience members differently. So many husbands and fathers feel like imposters, like you're doing this kind of this farce to convince your kids and your wife that you're not a broken human. So, some people really connect with Zeke and the kind of Liar Liar vibe of his life just falling apart.
Yeah, it's like a car accident you can't turn away from. It's so entertaining.
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah, thank you. But I really love how many people connect with Earl, his best friend, who’s just unapologetically shitty. I'm a huge fan of Andre Hyland, and it was so fun putting him in this movie and adding real stakes to his hilarious character actor capabilities.
Then Virginia [Newcomb], the female lead. She's from the area and just kind of blew our minds. We were pursuing celebrity options, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is gonna be so thrilling.” She's so incredible and just totally surprised people when halfway through the movie she becomes the lead.
Wow, I didn't know she was at like a local.
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah, she is. It's been excruciating waiting to release the movie, because I just can't wait for the world to discover my leads.
Roy Wood Jr. has been a comedic force behind the scenes and in front of the camera for years now. What inspired his unexpected casting in the film?
Daniel Scheinert: It was one of the first ideas I had. He's born and raised in Birmingham, where we shot. I don't think a lot of people know that, but he's kind of an icon of Birmingham. He came up doing radio; prank phone calls on morning radio in Birmingham. I think he's a perfect example of the kind of people from Alabama that people don't realize exist – extremely intelligent, talented people of color kind of get forgotten with Roy Moore in the headlines.
You pull double duty on this project; not only are you the director, but you also play the title character in the film. How did you end up playing Dick Long?
Daniel Scheinert: Well, Channing Tatum and Justin Timberlake said no. We were short on time, and Billy like, “Daniel, you need to play Dick Long.” And then he mounted a campaign with the rest of the crew to bully me into it.
But it did two things: it that saved us money, because I didn't need a trailer. And I was very nervous that people in Alabama would think I was making fun of them, so I got excited about playing the most embarrassing role myself and putting a target on my back. That was just kind of existentially helpful for me. Right. And I could do my own stunts, which made me a little less stressed out. Justin Timberlake would have gotten some horrible poison oak if he had played Dick Long; but I got it and didn't sue production, I just kind of muscled through it.
Your last film, Swiss Army Man, must have had a lot of technical challenges due to the nature of the story. How did shooting this film compare?
Daniel Scheinert: It was a completely different experience, kind of by design. After making Swiss Army Man – which is such a cerebral, subjective, surreal film – it was so fun to take a movie that was about real people in a really specific place, and really focus on getting the performances right, and the casting right and the place right. As opposed to kind of what Dan Kwan and I do so often, which is visual effects-heavy dream imagery.
But at the same time, movies are movies. So it was really fun and hard for the same reasons.
Under the surface, The Death of Dick Long is about harboring and keeping dark secrets. Can you talk to me about that element?
Daniel Scheinert:Yeah, that's kind of the serious kernel of the film is by real life feelings, but not real-life events. Billy wrote a movie about what it feels like to keep a secret, and what happens when a secret is kept from you. And unexpectedly while making the movie, every single cast and crew member had a different real-life thing that they thought this movie was about. The movie is about the least relatable series of events imaginable, but at the same time, I think it's about very relatable feelings.
That was very intentional. At its core, that's what it is. It's trying to explore just how scary it is to keep a secret. By picking something as crazy as this movie, it makes you feel in the audience what you feel in real life. I think there's a certain numbness that I feel when I go to movies sometimes. It creates an emotional distance, which is the last thing I want.
Now, you do realize this film's title is going to alter Google searches all over the place, right?
Daniel Scheinert: You gotta do the whole title, or else you get the wrong subject matter.
Believe me, in doing the research for the film it, I was like, “This is gonna ruin my browser. My girlfriend’s going to get so mad at me.”
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah. Although if you search it in quotations – I think we've now buried this, but there's a real guy named Dick Long who died in the 20s. When we were making the movie, you would Google “The Death of Dick Long,” and you'd get his obituary.
So, long live Richard Long. I feel like your headline could be, “Cineplexes Across America Will Not Be Playing a Porno on September 27th.” Just really getting the word out that there's no full frontal in this movie. It’s just a joke.
That’s not a terrible title; I'm not gonna lie to you.
Daniel Scheinert: I’m getting paranoid about it. This weekend, I was like, “Man, there's gonna be so many people who walk into Alamo Drafthouse and say, ‘Oh, they’re playing a porno?”
What elements do you look for when deciding on a project?
Daniel Scheinert: I want a new challenge, and I like I like subject matter that scares me a little. So I know that I'll never get bored or kind of go into autopilot; straight through post-production, I'm going to be busy trying to get it right. And that was true this time.
I want to make a movie that adds something to the conversation or puts something onscreen that I hadn't seen before. The last thing I want to do is make movies that just entertain people; just distract them from real world issues of the day. I want to entertain people and add a little something, you know?
Well, I really enjoyed it. You’re right, it's relatable to me. Obviously, crazy circumstances; but completely relatable.
- The Death of Dick Long (2019) release date: Sep 27, 2019