Movies can be split into two camps: stories about the beautiful people and stories about the weirdos. Daniel Scheinert only wants to watch the weirdos. The co-director of Swiss Army Man has temporarily severed from his partner-in-crime, Dan Kwan, to focus attention on his home state of Alabama and all the delicious weirdos who populate the region. The Death of Dick Long is a hilarious and mysterious misadventure that periodically dips its audience into dark wells of sadness. While watching, I was often unsure of the origin of my tears. Was laughter the culprit, or something more sinister? The answer is less interesting than the conversation that the question elicits.
I spoke with Scheinert in the Midnight Manor karaoke room of The Highball in Austin, Texas. Fantastic Fest was in full swing and I was struggling with a series of complicated feelings regarding The Death of Dick Long. The movie dumped me in a low place with the gears of its empathy machine grinding my emotions to mush. Thankfully, a few hours after such internal combat, I had access to the filmmaker directly, and he provided much aid to my garbled innards.
Our conversation begins with my response to the film’s climax (don’t worry, we do not spoil plot specifics) and then we turn towards Scheinert’s initial reaction to the screenplay, as well as how the film evolved through casting and production. Scheinert cares deeply for the people within his films — both the fictional players and the actors who wear them. Their enjoyment on set means a great deal to the director, and he firmly believes that if he can put extra effort into protecting his crew’s physical safety then he can put just as much energy into guarding their psychological comfort. The world could use more artists with such heart.
Here is our conversation in full:
Man, I came out of the movie last night and I was shocked at how sad I was. Like I really engaged with those characters and I felt for every one of those characters.
And it was very funny — extremely funny — but it never felt mean-spirited or mocking. How did you go about steering that tone with those characters?
I spent a while unpacking what we were going for scene by scene with Billy [Chew], who wrote it. Unpacking where we wanted to leave people so that by the time we were shooting, we had a pretty good idea of where on the empathy roller coaster we were at different points of the film, you know? That was how I internalized what I was going for with each scene. Whether you’re on their side or not at certain parts. But, you know, as a testament to his writing, I really just kind of dug into the text whenever I was in doubt because this script just kind of resonated with me on a level that was hard to academically explain. And I love movies like that. I kind of turned back to it and just tried to make sure with every scene: Was it worth it on a dramatic level? Was it a little playful as well, so that it was never just bleak?
What was your headspace when you got done reading the script that first time?
I’ve read so many drafts over the years. I’m trying to remember the first. I remember when he finally cracked the ending. My headspace was worried it was too bleak, but it kind of fucked me up. Just like those guys at the end keep going.
Yeah. Agreed. Same.
They just like kind of shrug shit off, you know? And it starts all over again with a new girl. Even though it’s funny and you really care about their friendship, they really put in this jokey but bleak space. It starts all over again.
Yeah, as I said, I came out of that feeling very complicated about the movie. It’s funny as hell, but there is a lot to process there.
Are you married or do you have kids?
I am married. I don’t have kids.
I find the movie resonates differently with married men.
On a certain level, it’s a different movie for married men then it is for married women, and it’s different for kids of divorce. People come at the movie from different corners. There’s a certain nervous adult man laugh that I love listening to.
That could have been me. [Laughter]
Sometimes I’ll be sitting near someone and I’m like, “Oh, this is hitting close to home for that guy.” [Laughter]
It’s weird because you set it up as this mystery surrounding what happened to Dick Long, and we’re not going to talk spoilers here, but when you finally reveal what’s happened, you know, it felt like, “Oh, am I watching a really intense version of Dumb People Town?” Are you familiar with the podcast?
No. Dumb People Town?
Yeah. It’s the Sklar brothers podcast where they find a news article regarding an absurd situation and then they break it down. Some random Florida man gets stuck in a refrigerator.
Yeah. That’s my shit.
So you should listen to Dumb People Town.
Yeah, so The Death of Dick Long is the most intense and sad version of that show.
How did your relationship with the material evolve over the course of the production, from those early screenplays to shooting the script to editing it all together?
It changes every step of the way. It’s a really weird exercise. As a filmmaker, you have to get so into the weeds with these characters. Then you also have to imagine being the first-time viewer and try to ignore everything I know about the characters and all the context that I’m excited about. Specifically, you have to consider someone who has just met these characters, watching the film for the first time. What are they going to feel? I have to make sure that I’m being a helpful guide to those folks.
That’s hard. By the time I’ve cast the characters, I’ve fallen in love with all of them and I’m working with them all on set all the time. I forget sometimes that people will be shocked, you know? I’m just busy thinking about what Zeke is up to in this moment and how stressed he is and how hard that is to act cool in front of these cops, you know? Yeah, so I made up an arc in my head of what I wanted the audience to go through, and I would use that like a roadmap every once in a while to go back to in the edit and on set.
So you’re constantly thinking about the audience during the process of production?
A ton. Yeah. And like when Dan Kwan and I are writing, a lot of times I pitch ideas, not based on character motivations, but based on audience reactions. And I’ll be like, “Oh, the audience will be like this. Oh, they’ll gasp because they’ll feel this. Or what they’re going to think is happening is this.” And as opposed to like what Zeke would do is this. Sometimes it’s dangerous, but that’s cinema. You’re basically creating a little theme park ride. And if you forget that — I don’t like those movies.
You don’t want to sell them a lie.
Right? With some movies, you think maybe it should’ve just been a book or a news article. If all you want to do is convince me of your political opinion, then write a great journalistic piece of work. Don’t make a pseudo-narrative biopic that’s filled with factual inaccuracies. [Laughter] Shots fired, First Man! Oh, drop a fricking thing on the moon. That didn’t happen. [Laughter]
Oh, man. So First Man was a really intense experience for me. Awesome filmmaking. Love the space race stuff. Obsessed with that stuff.
Yeah, but then, some of that biopic nonsense? Made it a very strange watch for me.
Yeah. We could get on a real tangent here, but I guess I’ll spare you. [Laughter] Let’s talk about your casting. The moment you cast these actors in these parts, the narrative changes. What surprises did this cast offer you?
It’s one of my favorite parts of filmmaking and this one was my favorite ever to cast because it was such an ensemble of juicy roles. We got greenlit and it wasn’t casting-contingent. You know, like chasing celebrities can be kind of exhausting. Whereas in this case, I just got to meet interesting southerners. Everybody who’s in the movie auditioned. Except for Roy Wood Jr, I guess. And Sunita [Manii]? No, she auditioned. Myself. I didn’t have to audition. But anyway, it was so fun. I try to have a loose idea of what the character’s going to be when I’m casting. Because so often casting is just like some director looking for a 5’7″ woman who’s about 170 pounds with curly hair because that’s what he imagined, you know?
It’s a waste of their time to make them even audition. So we auditioned men and women for Sheriff Spencer. I’m just looking for fascinating people who are going to elevate it and keep me curious and surprise me. And it was so fun. The cast is probably 60 percent trained actors and 40 percent just people sort of playing themselves who came in. Like folks who had never been in a movie. It was really fun to have people like Virginia [Newcomb], who is just like the most incredible actress I’ve ever worked with, but then also get to like make a weirdo feel comfortable and then capture that moment. “Cool. We got it. We got that weird dude on camera.” Like mixing those.
So talk about like capturing the weird dudes. How do you do direct the found actors versus seasoned veterans?
I feel like most actors, the way I like to work with them is just to make them feel comfortable and help them just not overthink it and believe in the lie of filmmaking. You know, help them to not notice the lights. That works on both sides. I try to have a light touch and not come in and be like, “Here’s the 20 things I want you to be thinking about while you do this scene.” And just cast people who are smart and interesting in the first place.
Each actor has a different method. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going to make that person feel comfortable. Shooting them first or shooting them second, you know? Really talking more with them so that they feel like they know what I want or not talking to them at all so that they’re not overthinking it. And yeah, this cast ran the gamut. Some people really wanted to talk about their backstories and some people didn’t.
Maintaining your actors’ comfort is important to you. Especially your child actor.
You mentioned in the Q&A that you did not want this film to be a job for her. You wanted her experience to be like camp. What’s your concern there?
I guess I’m that judgy parent at the playground who is like, “I don’t think you should be parenting that way.” I think child acting is crazy. And just from the little glimpses I’ve seen of it and I did it a little. As a kid, I got into theatre when I was young and then I started auditioning for some movie stuff or commercial stuff and it was not the same as doing community theater. It was not fun. It wasn’t camp. It wasn’t nourishing. I wasn’t growing. I was self-conscious about how I looked and what I was wearing and, luckily, my mom noticed that and was like, “Daniel’s not enjoying this.” And she’s like, “Do you want to keep doing this?” And I was like, “No, let’s just keep doing theatre.”
I was extra sensitive with this one because the movie is rated R and fucked up. So like if Poppy came in really thinking of it as like, “I’m the star of a movie,” then she’d want to know what the movie was about and she would want to watch the movie. I wanted it to be something where she just came to set when she came to set and had fun and got to see what movies are like and said some lines that she only had to say them, you know, a couple of times. She’s not memorizing this scene about a father abandoning her for weeks and searing that into her little child brain. Instead, it’s just like we have an exercise one afternoon.
But you went as far as to make sure she’s not even saying some of the profanity or hearing what the profanity of the film is.
Why so stringent on that?
It was sort of just an exercise. Like her parents were really cool about it and I know filmmakers who’ve been able to do some pretty dark things with kids in an ethical way. But I just thought it would be fun to try. We go out of our way to do stunts safely and not hurt someone. And it wasn’t that hard to just do a few movie magic tricks to make the child not have a traumatic experience. Because honestly, you do hear some stories about how they get performances out of kids and it’s fucked up. It’s not okay. I love City of God, but I think the one kid who’s crying at gunpoint was crying at gunpoint.
Sure. It’s not cool.
No way, man. I will never make that movie.
And clearly, you have found a way to stay true to the vision that you have and not traumatize a child or traumatize really anybody on the set.
Right. And also, the movie is sort of critiquing the repercussions that keeping a secret can have on your family. And it would be hypocritical if the movie was being bad to a kid, you know? Like, yeah. I don’t want Poppy to go through what Cynthia goes through.
Sure. Makes sense.
For her to have a traumatic experience as an eight-year-old on set? It would make me a bad filmmaker. Same with the horse. We’re like, this horse has to have a blast on set. We’re not going to abuse animals here, man.
Glad to hear that for Comet’s sake — or whatever Comet’s real name is.
Pecos. He was great. Horses are very nervous creatures. They’re pack animals. If they’re by themselves, they get nervous. So, Pecos came with friends. Off-camera are two other horses just peeing and shitting while we’re filming, and like eating hay.
To make him feel comfortable?
Yeah. Because then he’s a lot calmer and you can shoot for longer without him getting antsy because his buddies are right there. But they literally would just start peeing in the middle of takes and like just off-camera these two other monstrous horses. I’m at the monitor and it could eat my hair, you know? [Laughter] And then they’d go on walks together.
How’d you ultimately land on the look of the movie?
Ashley Connor shot it. After she read it, she then sent over all these references of Robbie Müller, who’s like a da Vinci of film. I loved that her first impulse was to make Alabama colorful and not drab and dirty and kind of sepia. We ran with that. We wanted this to be a vivid small-town America movie, not a drab one.
And then a lot of the choices kind of came from the story and the process and wanting to shoot it in a way that would maximize the performances. So, using handheld or not, a lot of times, was kind of dictated by the energy of the scene and just how precise or not precise we want it to be. Because a lot of times Dan and my work is really precise because there’s visual effects involved, you know? And we have to really have a fucking plan. It was really fun to do a movie where we could be a little looser and like lighten the room and just let the scene kind of take shape as it went and not worry about where the green screen is going to go.
There were a couple of sequences, like Zeke attacking the lamp, where we got to keep things kind of loose. It was really fun. Ashley is a very involved, in-the-story cinematographer, not at her monitor, tweaking lights. She really cares about the characters and which part of the story we’re telling today.
And that allows you to improvise on the day?
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, she’s encouraging that and she likes surprises and she has thoughts on where the character’s at and she’s communicating and getting to know the actors. And that was really fun to do this time.
The Death of Dick Long opens this Friday in select theaters.