The Death of Dick Long’s Daniel Scheinert talks cicada noises and tiny spoons
You will not see another movie like The Death of Dick Long this year, or perhaps ever. The A24 film arrives in theaters this Friday and tells the story of two friends in small town Alabama with one big problem, their friend Dick died last night after band practice and they’re trying to keep it quiet, but news travels fast in a small town.
Being originally from Alabama, this film caught my attention from its trailer, so it was a pleasure to speak with director Daniel Scheinert (half of the team behind Swiss Army Man), who also hails from the Yellowhammer State to dissect this small town opus of his and learn about getting the details of rural life right.
ComingSoon.net: First, I just want to say that like you, I am also from Alabama.
Daniel Scheinert: No way. I was going to ask. You sound like someone I know.
CS: When I saw the trailer for this movie, immediately my ears perked up just from the way it looks and from the way people talk. It kind of made it a must-see just because as you are well aware, we don’t really get a lot of attention in that state for things like this.
Scheinert: Yeah. I really hope—you haven’t seen it yet?
CS: No, I watched it last night. I really enjoyed it.
Scheinert: Oh you did? Okay. Yeah, it was a trip, going back there. I don’t live there anymore, but yeah, I grew up outside of Birmingham and the cast and crew is filled with Alabama folks.
CS: What I want to get into first is specifically creating the small town vibe, because it’s on there perfectly. What are the discussions like with your crew, and then maybe, with all the other creatives about establishing this world and being authentic?
Scheinert: Yeah, the script wasn’t initially explicitly set in Alabama. But then when Billy (Chew, screenwriter) and I were talking about making it, I was like, I want to go somewhere that I know, so I can get the details right. Because as a kid, I would see movies set in Alabama and I’d be like, I don’t know anyone who talks like that.
Scheinert: No one talks like Gone with the Wind style or that’s like one in one thousand, you know? So, we went there and we kind of set some rules. I wanted Alabama to be kind of like a muse for the film and I wanted the crew to be small so that we could go to real locations and not have to kind of shut places down or build them from scratch to make it. And I wanted to hire a ton of locals in the cast and crew so that they could help me keep it accurate, so that like, a movie that’s bound to offend some people at least wouldn’t seem like we didn’t care about the place we went, you know?
Scheinert: So we tried to get involved in the community and really kind of explore the place and use the place as inspiration and kind of a discussion with my cinematographer and production designer was ‘If you see something interesting or funny, let’s put it in the movie.’ But that I don’t want to fabricate stuff from scratch based on just kind of archetypes of what rednecks are like. So we kind of went in like anthropologists with a sense of humor, just exploring thrift stores and location scouting people’s homes, just taking photos of like, oh my god, like so many people have a wall covered with tiny spoons.
CS: Yes, that was one of my favorite details.
Scheinert: We’ve got to do that. And a lot of people have a cross wall as well, all their crosses on one wall in the house. Stuff like that, we’d ask like, “Can I give you $20 and borrow your spoons for a few hours?” And then they’re like, “Absolutely.” And so, it was so fun. We had a blast and met a bunch of locals who were just really excited that that was how we were approaching things.
CS: Yeah, that leads to another question of mine, which is, you’re talking about a place and life experiences that are probably foreign to a lot of people, especially people that go see A24 movies. But at no point does the movie punch down that style of living or belittle small town Alabama life. So was there ever any sort of pushback against not doing that? Or did you have to like quell maybe gut instincts against doing it?
Scheinert: Against punching down or—
Scheinert: Yeah, I’m so glad you think we didn’t do that because I was constantly balancing, like I wanted it to be a really funny movie, and I think all people are pretty funny. So I’m an equal opportunity satirist, generally where like everybody stutters and says dumb shit. But I think there were probably times where we’d come up with a joke and it would be funny, but not authentic to what the character would say in the moment. And those were the things that kind of fell by the wayside because we always wanted everything to feel like it was coming from the characters. Bu it’s something I’m still—I hope to make more movies in Alabama, because I feel like we only scraped the surface of like, all of the interesting fun textures there. And I feel like it’s one of the gifts I got as a filmmaker is I got to grow up somewhere that most filmmakers didn’t grow up. So I have a point of view on that kind of stuff. And it’s actually in the news all the time.
CS: Yeah, tell me about it.
Scheinert: The Alabamafication of the United States is underway.
CS: Building off something else you just said there, I love that the movie, it walks a very thin tightrope in regard to its tone by one scene, it’s incredibly dark and dramatic, and then the very next scene, it has a very absurd laugh that comes with it. So talk about the balancing act of making that work.
Scheinert: Yeah, I’m glad you think it worked. It’s definitely just like, what moves me as an audience member is tonal shifts are my favorite. If I just sit in one tone, you know, for two hours, it’s pretty tough unless you’re like one of the greatest filmmakers alive. So I think we were embracing putting comedy next to drama, and then we were always kind of looking for a way to make sure that it didn’t get too bleak for too long, knowing that at the end of the day, we have some big ideas on our mind and we’re going to kind of take them seriously for the last half. But I was so pleasantly surprised when we started screening to audiences how much uncomfortable laughter there is in the second half of the film. Because I was worried there’s not as many joke jokes, but there’s so many jokes that just kind of come out of like, anxious nervousness, which is like, it’s like theater kind of comedy. I laugh the loudest at absurd dramas. I don’t laugh that loud when I’m watching SNL. I laughed a lot louder at Midsommar.
CS: One other sort of just logistical question is, I had to look in the credits to see where it was shot, so what did the City of Bessemer even say when you come to them and say, “We want to make this movie here and do it by the book”?
Scheinert: Yeah. We didn’t have to ask, you know?
CS: Oh wow.
Scheinert: People were really supportive. We shot in Birmingham, Bessemer and McCalla. And you know, kind of just one-by-one, we just asked locations and stuff, “Can we shoot here?” And we had an initiative. My partner Stephanie was a producer on a film and her title is “Community Outreach and Sustainability Producer.”
CS: I noticed that, yeah.
Scheinert: What we tried to do was just like do what too often film sets don’t do. Normally they’re kind of like bulldozers who just show up and rent 40 rooms at some hotel and leave a ton of garbage and destroy some people’s houses. And so, we were like trying to get involved in a bunch of like, community organizations and have a food kitchen, where we donate our leftover food. And we did like a workshop before we started filming, where we partnered with Sidewalk Film Festival and got a bunch of high schoolers through adults who came and did a workshop with all of our department heads and learned about filmmaking. Then when we would turn to a local hospital or the school system and be like, “We want to shoot here,” we could kind of sincerely list off all the nice things we’ve been doing and it just opened doors for us. And it saved us money because people would be like, “That’s so exciting. Just give me $1,000 and you can have the run of the place for a week.” And so, it really was like a positive cycle with it. It was pretty easy. The most stressful one was getting the Jefferson County Board of Education to let us film there.
CS: Oh yeah?
Scheinert: Because I had to like, go in front of the Council, the Board of Education and you know, I didn’t tell them the plot.
CS: I was going to ask if you had to disclose that to anyone.
Scheinert: I told them it was a rated R film, and that the school, if anything, is like an oasis of safety for the daughter who gets dropped off there. It is not making the school look bad at all, but I admitted it was a crime film following criminals who committed a rated R crime. And that was kind of where we left it. Yeah, it was an interesting thing. Anyone who was on camera, we told them. We didn’t want any actor to later be like, “What? I’m in what movie?” It was interesting.
CS: Another element that felt genuine to me as someone that lived there for most of their life is the sound mix. Every time you open a door or a window you can hear every cricket and cicada, that’s hidden in the yard.
Scheinert: I’m so glad you think so.
CS: Yeah. So I just want to hear more about that process a little bit.
Scheinert: Yeah, I’ll tell Brent and Paul that you asked. That’s our sound designer and our editor. Paul’s from Birmingham and then Brent’s from Kentucky and it was really fun sound designing this movie. And my hope was that anyone from Alabama, and really anyone from rural America would kind of like feel enveloped by these spaces and get that nostalgic jolt, like ‘Oh my god, yeah, I’m back.’
CS: Right, yeah.
Scheinert: Which is how I feel when I start watching it, where we watch the movie and it’s like being back in Alabama. So we tried to add sounds that a normal film would take away and just make the house creaky and make it so that you could hear the air conditioning turning on or the freezer ice machine turning on. And Paul was militant about the fact that cicadas make a different sound in the morning than they make at nighttime and that tree frogs only come out at night. And so, we layered all of that in there and we would actually like, go on YouTube (and search) “Alabama tree frogs.” And you just find plenty of recordings of people who just filmed it and we just stole that audio and stuck it in the movie. But it’s been really fun talking to southerners who notice that.
CS: Another thing I wanted to ask about is the Sheriff Spenser character, which is to me, sort of played like this inverse of the roles that we see in “No Country for Old Men” with Tommy Lee Jones or Jeff Bridges in “Hell or High Water” where it’s like an old guy who’s a sheriff and no one bats an eye. But the in this one, you have an old woman who’s a sheriff. Was that an intentional choice on your part?
Scheinert: It was. You know, in the first few drafts I read, the character was a man. And we started trying to talk about how to make it interesting. And then I realized when I swapped it for a lady, suddenly Sheriff Spenser reminded me of my aunt and my grandmother so much. And these kind of southern battle axe ladies. And I was like, oh, this is exciting. I’m so excited to cast this and have this lady. And instead of drinking whisky, she should be drinking Malibu rum because southerners love their sweet drinks. And it just kind of came to life for me where she’s not based off of police officers I’ve met, but she’s based off of southern ladies I’ve met. And that lady Janelle plays the part. She’s done like costuming work in Birmingham a lot and a lot of community theater. She’s just some local lady and that’s just what she’s like, you know? She’s just an actually terrifying, hilarious lady, very blunt. And yeah, it was real fun to find her and do a sheriff character I hadn’t seen before.
CS: Now you appear in the film in the titular role and have one line. And as someone from Alabama, when I heard that line I was like, I know this person because I know that accent. I’ve heard weird phrases like that before.
Scheinert: Oh great.
CS: Were there any variations on your line or was it always that one?
Scheinert: That was very explicitly written into the script, “Hey, y’all mother f***ers want to get weird?”There was no variation allowed. But we joked that it would be fun to cast a celebrity and have them have one line, but Channing Tatum and Justin Timberlake said no.
CS: Channing Tatum would’ve been amazing.
Scheinert: And then Billy was like, I have another bit of stunt casting idea. And he pitched that I play the part. We were already prepping the film at this point. And it was scary, but the thing that kind of convinced me was we started talking about how nervous we were that people in Alabama would think we were making fun of people from rural America in general. And that’s absolutely not why we wanted to make this movie. The movie’s like an exercise in empathy, where by the end hopefully you’re scared how much you relate to this deviance. So we got kind of excited about putting the biggest target on my own back and being like, I’ll play the most embarrassing role, just sort of as an exercise in making me the butt of the joke or putting me in the line of fire a little and it saved us money because I didn’t need a trailer.
CS: I was fully prepared to ask you why there was no sort of football mention, but there is the one shot of the (University of) Alabama hat in the truck.
Scheinert: Yeah, we don’t go too much into football or even church, which is like, that’s all anyone talks about.
CS: Well, that could be its own movie, you know?
Scheinert: Yeah, so Billy and I have a whole TV show we want to make of southern stories and we’ve got football and church episodes that we’ve already outlined. But yeah, this one, we’re saving it for later.
CS: Oh man. Well, I can’t wait to hear more about that. And you know, just before I let you go, I had one teeny minor nitpick.
Scheinert: Hit me.
CS: Which was when the deputy goes into the gas station and buys the scratch offs.
CS: That was the only thing that I was like, ‘Ah, maybe not that.’
Scheinert: You can’t get scratch offs in Bessemer.
Scheinert: The gas station where we shot, they did actually have scratchers.
CS: I thought that might be the case.
Scheinert: Yeah, but there were a specific kind that somehow was a loophole. And I think we even changed the term to like match the little machine that was in the gas station. Yes, there’s still no lottery. That’s a fair nitpick.
The Death of Dick Long opens in theaters nationwide tonight.