Known for being one half of the directing duo, the Daniels, Daniel Scheinert’s first independent film, THE DEATH OF DICK LONG, is one that is sure to leave viewers laughing, while simultaneously cringing, as the story unfolds into a bizarre narrative that no one ever really sees coming. Centered around a night that changes the course of their lives forever, the film follows Zeke and Earl after the sudden death of their friend Dick, as they try to cover up their tracks before the truth of what they were doing that fateful night is revealed.
Ahead of its World Premiere at the 2019’s Fantastic Fest, I had the chance to speak with director Daniel Scheinert. Born and raised in Alabama, Scheinert has brought to life a part of Alabama that many people don’t get the chance to see as well as the stereotypes so often associated with those from the South. During our chat, we discussed everything from the subject of empathy, to bringing Billy Chew’s story to life, and, most importantly, the decision in using music from Nickelback.
Hi Daniel, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you today. To start things off, what was it about Billy Chew’s story that made you want to take on this film?
Daniel Scheinert: Billy is my favorite writer and one of my best friends. For years I’ve been reading everything he wrote and getting bummed when movies would almost happen but not get made. I just wanted someone to do a Billy movie and do it right, like he’s so talented. That’s the simple, selfish answer, but the script is also a page-turner. It’s the only script I’ve ever read that made me sweat while I was reading it. Not many movies surprise me with that feeling of terrifying nervousness.
What was it like in terms of adapting the story especially when towards the end of the film there’s a rather pivotal tonal change that takes place?
Daniel Scheinert: It was definitely a challenge. When watching it a second time, people have found the first half to be emotional once they know Zeke better. Suddenly the way he treats his daughter breaks their heart. But during the first viewing, the mystery is kind of at arms lengths until you know. You are arms-length from the family with what they are struggling with. I think that’s one of the challenges with audiences in terms of the whiplash of the film. Some of my favorite movies do that to me and we tried so hard to make it palpable and not lose them. The fun of the script, and the fun of the movie, was that it would be an empathy roller coaster and that you’d be laughing at them at one point and then later finding them to be frighteningly relatable, feeling like you have a lot in common with this person that you have nothing in common with. It’s been fun screening for audiences and realizing how willing to go on the journey they have been cause I personally like a movie that tests me but rewards me along the way.
The relationship between Zeke and Earl is really such a prominent focus of the film. Can you talk a little bit about the casting process of those two?
Daniel Scheinert: Mike Abbott Jr., who plays Zeke, was at the same management company as me. I wanted to find people who were from the South so they wouldn’t fake their accents because I feel like I can tell (laughs). Everyone was from the South or South adjacent. Andre Hyland, who plays Earl, got pretty close to Yankee but grew up in Cincinnati, which is like adjacent to Kentucky and there is a certain kind of Appalachian dude that he based Earl on. He was like, ‘Oh man, these dudes are everywhere in South Cincinnati!”
Were their performances a collaboration between you, Billy and Mike and Andre? Or did you let them improv when need be?
Daniel Scheinert: Billy has a lot of specificity kind of worked out for his characters. He has ideas of where they grew up and went to college but then loves talking to the actors about where they connect with it, combining their real lives and their imagined lives with what he had in mind. The dynamic between the characters are so on the page, like that’s very much something he kind of designed, which I loved about the script. But then working with Mike and Andre, they brought it to life and became really close during the shooting of the film. They lived together, we put them in one house so they really did wander around rural Alabama for a month which paid off (laughs). There is a moment in the film where Andre chips a tooth, that’s real. He actually bit his tooth and they just don’t break character. Because they were so close, Mike just swam over and started reaching around in his mouth. We were still filming, wondering if we should cut but then realizing it was too cute (laughs). Afterwards, I asked if they wouldn’t mind doing it again for the wide shot so that we could put it in the edit. I don’t think that would have happened with just two actors if they weren’t four weeks deep into a really close friendship.
With the film being set in Alabama, was it supposed to be a commentary on how people view those from the South?
Daniel Scheinert: It wasn’t explicitly meant to be set in Alabama but I didn’t want to go to a town that I knew nothing about and get it wrong. I think to a certain degree I did want to explore those stereotypes and in little ways blow them up and make people who came in excited to just dunk on some rednecks, leave feeling really uncomfortable by the end (laughs). The ensemble is a chance to explore all the weird, funny, colorful, beautiful underrepresented Alabamians and then the protagonists get to unpack a certain kind of “bro” which aren’t really good at expressing their feelings.
I noticed that you used a lot of pops of colors and orange tones. Was there a reason for that?
Daniel Scheinert: Cinematographer Ashley (Connor) and I talked about the color scheme a bunch and I really didn’t want a drab, sepia-tone Southern movie, I wanted the place to look colorful. We talked a bunch about reds and greens because Alabama is so lush and I wanted to embrace that. Then we made an active choice to have very little blue in the movie so that we would have those complementary colors. I didn’t want a teal, orange movie which is like every Hollywood color scheme. Ashley came in hot when I first met her with references by [cinematographer] Robby Müller, who shot Repo Man and a whole bunch of gorgeous, colorful old films. She wanted to make it pop and not be a drab small town and I loved that. We used a bold palette to show that this place isn’t boring and it’s not a drab, brown, dirty, poor place which is what you kind of see a lot.
What was the scheduling like for the shoot and did you run into any challenges?
Daniel Scheinert: It was pretty short but it felt right. I really like shooting fast so that you can keep the thread of the scene alive. If it takes a day and a half to shoot an interrogation scene perfectly, you start to go cross-eyed. It was a very, very fun shoot and I really wanted to play with how I make movies with this one. It was low budget but we went into it seeing how community-based the production could be. We made a real big effort to get involved in the community so that we wouldn’t be the kind of production that’s just shutting down streets and pissing everybody off. We wanted to try and get to know the neighbors and borrow and rent things from them and really live in the place. Whenever possible we would go to real locations and make it worth their while that we’re there. Instead of building things from scratch or going to some prop house, just hired a guy named Mr. Steve who helped us out. He ended up building our own wet-down truck cause we wanted a wet street at night. He had all these cow feeders and he just threw them on the back of his truck and came out and was able to wet down the street that way. Our production designer was lamenting that she hadn’t found a way to do it and she was going to ask the fire department and Mr. Steve said he could build one. Mr. Steve ended up doing so much on the production and deserves a title card. It made me able to sleep at night even though we were making a fucked up movie but knowing that we were making it in a really ethical way. It also made the movie better cause we were meeting the people. There wasn’t just a wall between the production and the place which is, for understandable reasons, usually how movies work, but it sucks.
Lastly, we need to talk about the music choices. How did Staind, Creed, and Nickelback become the anthem of this film?
Daniel Scheinert: Some of it was written into the script, like the end of the movie it’s them singing Nickelback and the opening is them singing Staind. It was sort of a joke to put a bunch of butt rock from the ’90s in a movie. We just think that’s funny, to make art that we are proud of but mix things in from the world that maybe we don’t like. At the same time, the movie is sort of an empathy game that’s trying to get you into the world of someone that is different than you. We started with them being guys in 2019 who are still really into Staind because that felt like a fun way to set up the challenge. That Nickelback song [at the end] is great, the lyrics are solid, it’s a banger. The hope is by the end, the audience is laughing but are also like, “That’s a pretty good song, I get these guys.” I think it’s fun to develop a character with music as opposed to putting in whatever cool songs people like these days.
Interested in knowing more about the movie? Check our Fantastic Fest review here.