Sidewalk Fest 2019: Interview with The Death of Dick Long's Daniel Scheinert and Billy Chew
Before showing The Death of Dick Long at Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama, Daniel Scheinert asked all of us in the audience to stand and greet one another. As we shook hands and introduced ourselves to each other, everyone couldn’t suppress their giggles and grins at the unorthodoxy of it all. After all, it’s a familiar gesture for people who grew up in a certain kind of church, but it’s not exactly what you would expect to do right before a film festival screening. Especially not before a movie quite like this one. The South emanates off the screen in a very natural and comfortable way I’ve seen few films capture properly, but things take a hell of a bizarre turn in this story.
Of course, this kind of thing probably shouldn’t be too surprising to those familiar with Scheinert’s work. His wildly imaginative projects as part of the directing duo, DANIELS (with Daniel Kwan), tend to be equal parts charming and alarming, from the music video for “Turn Down for What” to the 2016 feature film, Swiss Army Man. They’re always unafraid to disgust as much as they delight. The Death of Dick Long is no exception, though it is a touch more grounded than a story about a corpse coming back to life. However, this film is a solo directing project for Scheinert. The delightful-but-slightly-demented script is written by his longtime friend and collaborator, Billy Chew.
During the festival, I got to sit down with Daniel and Billy and talk a bit about the twist of Dick Long (in non-spoiler terms, of course), finding compassion for the unusual, and how the South influences their work.
Was Billy’s script fully formed when he came to you with it, specifically with regards to the plot twist?
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah, he had a fully formed script with the twist.
With that question, I was mostly just trying to figure out who was…responsible for that. [laughs] The twist was immediately divisive in the screening last night. You could tell that room split basically in half at the moment that was revealed, where half were into it, and the other half wanted to be anywhere else than in that room.
DS: Oh, man, did you see anyone walk out?
Yeah, a couple. The man sitting beside me had a really visceral reaction, and I could tell he’d have left if I wasn’t between him and the aisle. It didn’t surprise me, though; people walked out when I saw Swiss Army Man in Alabama, too.
That kind of brings me to my first question. I had this written down to ask you before I watched The Death of Dick Long, but it feels even more relevant now that I’ve seen the film. Do you ever worry about alienating the audience with weirdness, or is it just part of your brand by now?
DS: Alienating the audience is always a concern, but I don’t want to make something where that isn’t a risk. It’s easy to ask an audience to empathize with the girl who wants the guy who has the magazine job in New York City, because everyone knows how to do that.
But that doesn’t, like, realize the full potential of cinema. Cinema isn’t about staying the same and not being challenged. If someone can get me to empathize with something new in a movie, I feel like I’ve grown as a person while I was watching it. If you can get someone to feel for something, like…like…
Like a farting corpse? Or Dick Long?
DS: Yeah. That’s what I’m trying to do: get the audience to empathize with something they’d never have to encounter in any other way.
At the end of the day, if some people are alienated because they don’t want to take that leap or empathize with something different than the usual, whatever. That’s the cost of challenging preconceptions. Some people’s preconceptions are set in stone.
My next question is actually pretty relevant to this. Your work has always stood out to me, because even at its weirdest moments, there’s an emotional core and a sense of empathy that holds it all together. How do you find that balance between the weirdness and the empathy?
DS: It’s kind of about that empathy with the weirdness. I make a lot of weird stuff, so people actually recommend me weird movies all the time. They’re like, “It’s crazy; you’re gonna love it.” Then I really don’t like them very much. I don’t like movies where the weirdness is all about shock value. There’s gotta be a better reason behind it than just shocking the audience. There has to be real emotions there with the weird shit.
How did directing solo compare to directing as part of a duo?
DS: I’m a really collaborative person, so even though I was directing this film without Daniel [Kwan], I was still collaborating. I worked a lot with Billy, who wrote the script. There’s my partner and producer Stefanie [Lynch]. And just the whole cast and crew were really collaborative in making this movie.
Daniel and I have, like, a Venn diagram of our interests, and there’s a lot of overlap in the center. But, there are certain things that we differ on, or things we love to different degrees. Working on Dick Long gave me a chance to explore and express those things on my own.
How did coming from Alabama affect your filmmaking?
DS: I make movies for three reasons. One, I just love movies. And two, my brother made movies in high school, and I always wanted to do whatever my brother did, so, I imitated him. But three is Sidewalk Film Festival. I think a lot of little Southern kids don’t think that filmmaking is a career option. But, in high school, I came here and screened a kung fu movie my friend and I had made in an afternoon in his backyard in the high school block. There were a couple hundred people there, and that blew my mind. I met jurors and other filmmakers from around the country who were doing it for a living, and they complimented my stuff. Suddenly, it was like, “Holy shit, that’s a possibility.”
Being from Alabama…the older I get, the more I realize it is one of the biggest things I have to offer as a storyteller. I’m from a place that not many other storytellers are from. So, I try to find ways of incorporating that into my work, even if it’s like “Turn Down for What”.
It’s an interesting question; I can’t put my finger on it. But I definitely think my style of filmmaking on set is much more Southern, nice, summer-camp driven, [rather] than a bossy, dictatorial citybro, you know? I think Southern people are pretty nice, and I try to be nice.
You’ve worked on your last couple films with the guys from Manchester Orchestra (Andy Hull & Robert McDowell), which I’ve always felt was an interesting pairing, because the first thing I ever saw from y’all was “Turn Down for What”. I always associated this much more hectic music with y’all’s filmmaking style, rather than the much more chill and vibe-y style of Manchester Orchestra. What makes your partnership with them so interesting and creative?
DS: It’s kind of similar to what we were just talking about. They’re nice. They’re just really pleasant but passionate and creative good old boys from the South, so we met and just kind of clicked. They kind of wear their hearts on their sleeves and work really hard, and they really value their families and each other’s friendship in a way that some really driven artists don’t. That sometimes makes it hard to work with people, I find, if there’s values I don’t have in common with them.
When I met them, I wasn’t familiar with Manchester Orchestra’s work, really. We just pitched a music video for them almost ten years ago.
Was that “Simple Math”?
DS: Yeah, the “Simple Math” video, which we shot in Guntersville. We met them and just creatively clicked. And, now that I’ve said that they’re super nice and that I’m super nice, they’re kind of assholes in the same way I can be, which I really loved. When I first met Andy, the record label manager said, “Can you just tell Andy to get his hair out of his face? The label doesn’t want the hair covering his eyes.” So, I was like, “Hey, would you mind moving your hair a little; they mentioned…” And he was like, “Who mentioned? If you need it, I’ll do it. If the label wants it, fuck that.” I kind of love that. He really tries to be true to himself and true to the artists around him. He has a bullshit radar that’s great.
So, anyway, we’ve just loved working with them and have done it a lot. [For] this script especially, I tried to find a lot of collaborators from the South so that everyone would have an opinion about the details, so it was a no brainer.
The details of the South in this movie are phenomenal.
DS: Thank you! Even my editor was, like, militant about the sound of the cicadas. He was like “They sound different in the morning and in the night,” and he was like, “Those are the wrong bugs.” Our sound designer was from Kentucky and had opinions about the dudes and their cars. Andy and Robert are Georgia boys. Our whole cast is from somewhere in the South, so if they were putting on an accent, they were at least imitating a family member, not a movie they’d seen.
So, anyway, I do think me being from the South is a big part of why I clicked with Andy and Rob. It just feels kinda homey working with them.
Billy, where on Earth did this idea come from?
Billy Chew: They say “write what you know”.
Yeah, but really, though.
BC: Really, it came from two places. One was kind of just a dare with myself to try to write a movie about this that wouldn’t just be a Troma movie that’s designed to just alienate and upset people. Then, also, in that dare and the process, exploring that - I kinda just teased out some of my own family history without getting into it, but - the weight of secrets. That was a perfect storm for me and a fresh way to explore shame.
Did that very specific plot twist come from anywhere in particular? Like a news story?
BC: Yeah, it did. That part came from hearing about it and hearing a bunch of people joke about it, and late night comedians joking about this news story. I just had this feeling like, I don’t know, some guy fucking died in a really gnarly way! Other people survived and are dealing with the repercussions of this. I get the joke, obviously, but like…
But it really happened!
BC: It really happened! There’s some real, dramatic meat there we’re all glazing over, because we like to compartmentalize it, like, “it’s a joke, I don’t have to think about that.” You get to distance yourself from it, you know?
DS: Billy pitched the premise of the script in a screenwriting class in college, and everybody said not to write that one.
BC: I pitched three. You were supposed to pitch three movies that you wanted to write.
DS: I feel like everyone said don’t write that one because of the nature of those late night jokes. They were like, “There is no meat there. It’s just gross joke material.”
BC: Yeah. “That’s a sketch, don’t…”
DS: Sometimes, the things they tell you in a screenwriting class not to write might be the best things to write.
BC: Well, I think so, because it forces you to set the bar really high. Then it’s like, “Well, everybody is doubting this, and I can’t make this mediocre. I can’t not pull it off.”
You have to nail it.
BC: I have to clear the bar, because if I don’t get it right, then what’s the point of doing this? It’s not even necessarily gonna be entertaining; it’s just gonna be tonally, “What the fuck is this? Did this person know what they were doing?” That kind of thing.
DS: Last night, Kyle [who introduced the film] told that story about my short film that played here that had a big farting [shooting] star. Billy made that movie with me. I was so psyched that he told that story…
BC: It was kind of perfect!
DS: …because I’ve made so much stuff with Daniel, but I’ve known Billy two years longer than I’ve known Daniel. We made that movie together in college, kind of as a “fuck you” to a professor.
BC: Yeah, not “kind of”.
Both: Very much so a “fuck you.”
DS: And this is another movie that is a slight “fuck you” to another professor that we made together. Those two movies are kind of linked.
BC: We’ve got to go back to school so we can have more professors inspire us to say “fuck you”.
The Death of Dick Long will be released by A24 on September 27th.