Movies

‘The Death Of Dick Long’ Director Daniel Scheinert On Properly Satirizing The South And Why So Many Get It Wrong

The Death Of Dick Long is very much “my kind of movie,” but it’s also the rare “me” movie that I feel great recommending to almost anyone. It’s funny, but also: touching, thrilling, tragic, and heartwarming. I honestly believe that if more movies were more like The Death Of Dick Long, we’d be a less divided nation.

The film is the work of director Daniel Scheinert and his long-time friend and collaborator, Billy Chew. Scheinert is half the directing duo, along with Daniel Kwan, known professionally as “Daniels,” previously of Swiss Army Man, a movie in which Daniel Radcliffe played a flatulent corpse. The Death Of Dick Long is set in small-town Alabama. It tells the story of Zeke and Earl (Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland), a couple good ol’ boys who play Nickelback and Creed songs in a cover band, and their subsequent attempt to cover up something terrible, which remains a mystery for most of the movie.

With such a quirky logline, and two main characters whose personae certainly are but are not limited to “dumbass yokel,” the temptation would be to make a quirky movie. You read it and expect a quirky movie, full of comedic actors winking and mugging and doing bad accents and generally conveying “isn’t this quirky??” But if you actually reckon with those characters as human beings, it’s not quirky. It’s real life.

Most movies about rural America are either quirky comedies that skate above the material or serious dramas that fetishize poverty. The Death Of Dick Long is neither, and even in telling an absurdly high-concept story it manages to capture rural America in all its eccentricity. It helps that Scheinert and Chew both have roots in Alabama, and that the movie was actually shot there, but plenty of Southern filmmakers have failed that challenge.

The Death Of Dick Long‘s authenticity is just one aspect of its empathy. And achieving that authenticity isn’t just some pointless hipster obsession, it has real-world consequences. As Scheinert points out in our interview, inaccurate satire is the enemy of self-reflection. Most people don’t mind if you have a little fun with them, but you have to get it right. I would point out that the reverse is also true: accurate comedy brings us together.

So I can’t remember the last time I sat in the theater while the credits rolled and was laughing so hard that I had to sit through almost all of the credits before I could collect myself.

Wow, I hope you include all this in the article.

Done and done. So you and the other Daniel, you guys had such a good shtick going calling yourself “Daniels.” Why did you want to screw it all up and get sole credit on this one?

I know, I was so fucking greedy about it. Billy, who wrote this, is one of my other best friends and he used to live in Alabama, which is where we shot this and where I’m from. I came up with the idea after Swiss Army Man to go shoot Billy’s movie while Dan did the first draft of our next movie and it just felt like a fun kind of side project. So that was kind of the mentality. There was never for a moment the idea that like, “Oh, Daniels might break up.” It was just a fun chance for me to go visit my parents and make a fucked up movie with my other best friend.

So the title. Why does it sound like a porno movie?

I know, I guess it’s the word Dick, huh? I just love a crazy title. Boring ones, like why even have a title if people are going to forget it? But it kind of has multiple meanings. It’s a tease of the plot, there’s so much that revolves around Dick being short for Richard and stuff, but the movie’s also about masculinity. So in a weird way, “The Death of Dick” is a joke that also hints at the themes of the film. And we want to kind of intrigue people about the mystery. What’s this crime comedy? How did Dick Long die?

Right.

I’m just proud of the poster. If nobody sees the movie, I’m still just so psyched I tricked A24 into making that poster and putting it out in the world.

So I don’t know how the hell I’m supposed to ask about this movie without doing spoilers, but let me try: how much of this was based on the real story that comes up when you Google the act at the center of it? And by the way, I’m blaming your movie if the FBI ever asks why I’ve been Googling that.

Yeah, it’s a dangerous Google. So the way we talk about it is like, there are real-life crimes that inspired this film, but it is not at all based on any one guy or girl or event. It’s funny, since we made the movie there’s like five or six stories a year where there’s something in this realm that happens and gets plastered all over the news as a punchline. And so the cast and crew will send it around in group text and be like, “It happened again.” But still, we did not base it on a person. There was an event that happened that was in a completely different part of the country that very early on Billy heard about and was like, “That’s an interesting writing prompt.”

Like, what would the not-jokey, dramatic life of that guy look like? What is it like to keep a secret? And that’s the scariest secret I can imagine.

Was it hard to find someone that would let you make this?

I mean, I’m a spoiled baby. I love A24 and I guess the feeling’s mutual. So after Swiss Army Man, I brought the script to them first. I knew I wanted it to be a small crew because I wanted to shoot in real locations in the South and not need tons of infrastructure or have to build giant sets and stuff. So we went to them and said we don’t want a ton of money. What do you think? And they took a chance on us and said yes. So I’m the most spoiled indie filmmaker alive for how simple the financing process was.

And then once you convince them to let you make it and maybe even after they’re like looking at dailies and stuff, was there a second part where you had to convince them that like the concept itself was the joke?

I mean, I think that that just really came from the script. You read it and you were like laughing and yet the next moment the reality of the world jumps out at you as these characters react the way that a real-life human would and not the way a joke writer would write them to. And then, that in turn makes me laugh even more. Like if I believe the characters, then I’m laughing right there with them. So I think just developing the script over the years with Billy is kind of where he nailed that tonally and it made for what a lot of people, myself included, have said is one of the funnest scripts to read.

So you said Billy had lived in Alabama. Did you grow up there also? It seemed like you guys were very familiar with these kinds of characters and the setting.

He grew up in the Northeast and then moved to Alabama for like two or three years with his girlfriend at the time. And he had a couple of friends down there and we were already close friends by that point. And the weird thing was like, he moved back to Birmingham, where I’m from, and just started telling me how interesting my hometown was. And I was like, “I don’t think you’re right.” I left on purpose, you know?

And our friendship really blossomed as he taught me to love where I was from, in a weird way. He was working at a Panera Bread and just met the weirdest people working there. He finished writing the script while he was down there doing that.

But the story was never about Alabama, it was just about we’re rural America. But then when deciding where to shoot it, we decided let’s go somewhere we’ve been, that we know that we can get right. So we went to Alabama, even though I have a love/hate relationship with my home state. We went there because of the love part, you know?

Right.

Because I knew that it was beautiful and that there was a film community that’s untapped and super enthusiastic and that it’s really fun to shoot there because you knock on people’s doors and they’re just so excited you’re making a movie. They’re like, “How can I help? Can you put my nephew in it?” And so that was kind of why we went there. Not because there’s a bunch of [SPOILERS REDACTED] there.

Am I allowed to leave that in? Is that a spoiler?

Yeah, it’s a spoiler. You can’t leave it in. But you can say we went there because of the beautiful stuff, not because of Roy Moore, Jeff Sessions or George Wallace. That’s the nightmare, embarrassing side of Alabama that most people are familiar with.

How do you think Hollywood and mainstream comedy usually treat these kinds of characters?

I think they treat them poorly and they don’t care about getting it right. Growing up I would see movies and I was so confused when people would get the accent wrong because it seemed like such an easy accent to me. You’d watch Sweet Home Alabama and be like, “Nobody talks like that.” And I think there’s something fucked up about satirizing things inaccurately because it really hurts your own argument, you know?

There are real problems in Alabama, but when the assholes in Montgomery see late-night shows making fun of Alabama and getting it so wrong, then they don’t reflect on themselves. And that just feeds Roy Moore’s supporters when people get it wrong. Anyway, it’s a pet peeve of mine. So the whole cast, everybody was from somewhere in the South and that way no one had to do an accent they’d never done. And then I tried to celebrate the crazy variety of human beings and of accents, where it’s like not everybody has the exact same drawl in the movie. Roy Wood Jr. has a certain way of talking and that’s super different than the sheriff or even like Mike Abbott Jr., who has more of like a cowboy accent. We embraced that. The South is a melting pot, like everywhere in America.

Right. I mean, I’m not even from the South. I’m from a rural area that reminds me a lot of the South, but I’m not from there. And you don’t necessarily have to answer this or put it on the record, but I remember seeing Logan Lucky and it just feels like it’s told at such a remove from all the people that it’s supposed to be depicting. And then I looked up Steven Soderbergh, who I normally love, and I found out that he’s actually from the South! I’m so confused about how you can come from there and still make a movie that inaccurate.

Yeah, I was pleasantly surprised when I watched that movie and they got it so wrong because I was kind of scared when the trailer first came out. I mean that movie’s harmless fun. And I respect Soderbergh and Channing and Kylo Ren a lot. But I think that’s the downside of casting a bunch of awesome celebrities. I see the benefit of that, taking a bunch of money and a bunch of celebrities and making your movie. But then everybody’s putting on an act and you’re faking NASCAR and you’re not actually going to shoot NASCAR because you can’t do that with all your stars and money.

And so, yeah. I’m kind of surprised myself sometimes when I look up who’s from the South and I’m like, “Wow, you really just abandoned your roots entirely.” This was an attempt to do the complete opposite and just really immerse myself back down there and go and meet the people that I always was curious about but too nervous to talk to when I was a kid.

On that note, tell me about the casting process. Where did you find your two stars and how did you choose them?

Like I said, I wanted everybody to have some sort of connection with the South. And so that really narrowed down the pool. I was a big fan of Andre Highland, who plays Earl, already because he’s just such a bizarre character-driven comedian and has a reputation in LA for just being one of those guys who comes and plays a character and never breaks at a standup show. I wasn’t sure if he’d be right for the part and then he did an audition and just, I couldn’t keep reading the lines with him because he was just such a wormy, unsettling person, you know? He just threw me off and I was like, “This is insane. I feel like you’re not even acting. I’m in a room with a slippery goober.”

So he just nailed it. And same with Mike Abbott. I didn’t know him, but we had mutual friends and he was repped by the same management company. And they’re like, “Let’s have this guy Mike audition.” And I was showing audition tapes to other Daniel and he was like, “I believe that that guy loves Nickelback.” You know?

Yeah.

And then Virginia (Newcomb, who plays Zeke’s wife), the other lead, is just a local from Birmingham. We just started casting locals from the theater community and she had done a fair amount of film work already. Everybody kind of suggested her and she came in and just killed it. There was like a huge debate about which role to give her because she was just so good.

With Andre especially, the way he plays that character, I can’t imagine being able to see that performance on a page. How much did his casting affect how the rest of that character got written?

Well, Andre said when he read the script he was like, “Holy shit. Who wrote this? They wrote it in my voice.” And I think usually he’s the kind of comedian who does a movie and just improvises like crazy, but this was definitely a mix. He definitely had certain verbal tics that I told him “I love those, keep those in.” But Billy wrote a character with a very specific voice that Andre just slipped right into. There are certain scenes that people ask us like, “Was that improvised?” But it’s exactly scripted like that. And then there’s other stuff that Andre really brought a lot to scenes and just kind of re-imagined. So, yeah, it was a mix.

Are there Southern storytellers that were an inspiration in doing this story, or just in general?

There are. The inspiration for the film is kind of all over the map, but I’m always excited to see Southern storytellers take a crack at showing aspects of the South. I love early David Gordon Green stuff. When I was in college I was like, “Oh, someone’s doing this. How cool.” And I saw that arthouse movie last year, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, and I was so psyched about the weird kind of corners that he went into and filmed and was really inspired by that.

Billy and I love Harmony Korine, who’s like from Tennessee and just such a balls-to-the-wall filmmaker. Gummo has no plot, but we love it. So I mean, those are some of them.

I feel like a lot of things don’t really capture the true eccentricity of rural life and this really does.

I had such a blast doing it. I keep telling other filmmakers like, “Just go to a weird small town and it’ll write itself.” There’s just so many interesting people and funny things going on that haven’t been told yet.

Is there anything in the film that you would have done differently with more time and/or a bigger budget?

Not a lot. I think it was important to me to keep it small because I wanted to go into these real places and the bigger the crew, the harder that is. And the inspiration for this were kind of like intimate indie movies, you know? I didn’t want to make Logan Lucky, I wanted to make Moonlighter, Beasts of The Southern Wild, or like these movies that go to the real place. But there’s always things. Every time I watch it I notice things. Like, “Oh, we could have done that.”

You mentioned it not feeling like a group of comedians playing these characters. And yet, there are comedians doing those cameo roles. Why does it not feel like that usually feels?

I think it was in the script. Like the dead-serious approach to the absurdity. And then, it was also a matter of working with them on a day to just be like — what I love about comedians is I feel like they’re really blunt, you know? Like, they’re unafraid to kind of get kind of ugly on camera in a really fun way. And we’re always looking for that joke that hits that sweet spot and is character-driven and develops the story. Where it doesn’t feel like a comedian just punching up the script with a one-liner at the end of the scene.

The Death of Dick Long plays select cities this weekend before expanding nationwide. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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