Alabama Slammer

The Death of Dick Long director Daniel Scheinert (of “the Daniels”) talks stressful comedy, the South and Richard Linklater as he answers our life-in-film questionnaire.

Daniel Scheinert made a splash on the indie-movie scene in 2016 with the surreal and crude Swiss Army Man, alongside directing partner Dan Kwan. For his second feature with A24—and first away from the Daniels—Scheinert returns to his Southern roots with The Death of Dick Long.

Set in small-town Alabama, the story follows bandmates Zeke and Earl doing everything they can to avoid having to explain how their friend Dick Long died the night before. Billy Chew wrote the script, and Scheinert broke out in a nervous sweat when he read it. “I love comedies that are stressful. I get bored in movie theaters a lot and this was not boring.”

Chew, one of Scheinert’s BFFs, also has professional history with the Daniels: he’s acted in their shorts, and co-directed the interactive documentary The Gleam with Scheinert. “He lived in Alabama for a long time and that’s where I’m from, so I got excited about making his movie while Dan Kwan wrote the first draft of our new movie.”

Sunita Mani and Andre Hyland in The Death of Dick Long.
Sunita Mani and Andre Hyland in The Death of Dick Long.

That’s right: the Daniels are far from over. It’s just that other-Dan is “not from Alabama so it’s a fun chance to explore the few things that are not in [the Daniels’] Venn diagram of interests. But Dan and I have been busy, we’re still trucking, we’ve got more movies to make.”

Premiering at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival—just as his “arty farty” debut did—The Death of Dick Long is, according to Letterboxd reviews, “pretty bonkers, surprisingly touching, melancholic, and—in certain aspects—relatable,” with “early Coen brothers” vibes in its portrayal of loveable idiots on the run. The best compliment of all for Scheinert? It is “the most Alabama film of all time.”

“With this one I just wanted people who were colorful and interesting, who had Southern roots, because one of my least favorite things is Hollywood actors faking Southern accents. The cast is like a mix of folks who travelled in and there’s a lot of folks around Birmingham, Alabama where I grew up. Sarah Baker, who plays Officer Dudley, is a super-talented pedigree actress who travelled in and did all her scenes with Janelle Cochrane, a local actress who did theater in Birmingham. She plays Sheriff Spenser and that’s just how she acts [in real life].”

Now that The Death of Dick Long is out in the world, one of Scheinert’s favorite things is to pull out his phone and record audience reactions. “I have ten recordings on my phone of different theaters in different parts of America reacting to this movie because it’s fun.” He argues that laughter isn’t the only fun reaction to get out of an audience: “It’s just as fun to get absolute silence if they’re leaning forward and hanging on every word. It’s really fun to get people whispering or gasping or uncomfortably moving around in their seats, and this movie gets all of it combined. It’s rewarding.”

Sarah Baker in The Death of Dick Long.
Sarah Baker in The Death of Dick Long.

Daniel, it’s time for your life-in-film interrogation. What was the film that made you want to become a filmmaker?
Daniel Scheinert: Oh man. It was the show Jackass. I think there’s a whole generation of filmmakers who saw Jackass and were like “you just filmed your friends doing stuff and that’s content?!” My favorite movies look like they were fun to make, which I feel is true of all of Spike Jonze’s stuff too.

What’s a bizarre movie that you recommend to everyone?
Not to everybody, but this year I’ve been telling people to see Greener Grass, which is a bat-shit crazy movie that a bunch of comedians shot over in Georgia that just is a crazy satire of nuclear families.

Since Hallowe’en is coming up, what’s your favorite scary movie?
White Chicks. So scary. I think their white faces are the scariest monsters in movie history. I don’t watch it every Hallowe’en but that’s one of my favorite scary movies.

Which dark comedies and crime movies did you watch in preparation for The Death of Dick Long?
I rewatched episodes of Breaking Bad because I love how information is revealed in that show. It’s fun and colorful and vivid. Billy and I rewatched American Movie, which is one of our all-time favorites about buddies. That egotistical guy who just wants to make his goddamn movie, wilfully ignorant of the trainwreck of his life, is so relatable. A while ago I made Billy watch The Celebration with me, which is… some people would call it a drama, but I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever. It’s a European film about a 60th birthday party going horribly, horribly wrong.

The Death of Dick Long director Daniel Scheinert.
The Death of Dick Long director Daniel Scheinert.

Which film do you think best represents people from the Southern states?
I love that question and I was having a hard time coming up with one. Last year I watched Hale County This Morning, This Evening. It’s an arthouse documentary about rural, black, Southern life. I grew up near there and I had never seen the images from that movie [on screen]. Some of them were very familiar but some of them were not.

What’s your go-to comfort movie? The one you re-watch every year, you’re down to watch any time (and how many times do you think you’ve seen it)?
It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ve probably seen it start-to-finish like twelve times. I watch pieces of it and listen to the soundtrack all the time. Or Wet Hot American Summer. Similar number—maybe twelve.

What film do you have fond memories of watching with your parents?
That was a fun question. Probably, Airplane!. I watched Jackass 2 with my dad and he laughed so much, it was really fun. He’s a very serious man, until he’s not.

What’s a classic that you just couldn’t get into?
Would you call High Fidelity a classic? The “guy moping about his ex-girlfriend” genre is just rough for me. Maybe I’ll try it again someday but High Fidelity, man, is tough.

Daniel later sent us Billy Chew’s answer: Gone With the Wind. “He hates it. I’ve never seen it. But you look back and it’s a super-problematic celebration of the good ol’ days before the Civil War. Fuck that.”

Do you have a classic that you’re embarrassed to say you haven’t watched?
So many. I missed some Martin Scorsese movies. I’ve never seen Raging Bull. I know. I was talking about this the other day, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Back to the Future Part II from start-to-finish. I think I’ve seen pieces of it on TV. Dan Kwan is a super-fan. I don’t know if I’ve seen [the first Back to the Future] either. That’s embarrassing. I always wail on time-travel movies and I haven’t even watched these.

Which film was your entry point to foreign-language cinema?
I don’t know if Miyazaki counts because they dubbed Princess Mononoke so it’s probably Amélie. Actually, as a kid I was obsessed with the black-and-white Godzilla movies, and I would watch all of them, subtitled. I’d invite my friends over and they would get bored while I would get so excited about that monster smashing those cities.

Virginia Newcomb in The Death of Dick Long.
Virginia Newcomb in The Death of Dick Long.

What movie scene makes you cry the hardest?
It’s Freedom Writers. Anything with inner-city kids expressing themselves just strikes me out, and while that movie is not perfect, once the kids start reading their poems and their stories to the class, I just lost it. Later I found out that Richard LaGravenese, who made that movie, cast real kids and had them tell their real stories, so that’s probably why it hit me so hard. It wasn’t just a screenwriter.

What director do you envy the most?
I always talk about this because my answer is Richard Linklater. As a kid, I wanted to find a filmmaker who I could look up to. I needed to find one who made multiple good movies because I want a whole career, so that shortened the list. But then also I needed filmmakers who are not assholes and that cut the list way down because you find out all your heroes are assholes. And then I needed to find people who were also good parents, you know? Because so many filmmakers are divorced or don’t see their families, and basically it just [came] down to Richard Linklater.

What’s a film that you wish you had made?
Let me think. What’s that movie, I always forget the name, where he’s getting out of the limousine? It’s an arthouse film with, uh. [Daniel starts googling]. It’s French… Holy Motors! You ever seen Holy Motors? It’s a batshit crazy movie starring Denis Lavant. He’s just the best. It’s just him getting in and out of a limousine and wandering through a bunch of absurdist short films with each one zany in a different way.

What’s the best film of the decade, in your opinion?
That’s a tough one. It’s probably Moonlight. I love Moonlight so much. For me, it opened up empathy I didn’t know I had. After the third act of that film, I felt I grew as a person. My other answer, I googled it, is not this decade but it came out in the last ten years, is Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It’s just a perfect film. So I’m a super-fan of Moonlight and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

A24 is held in incredibly high regard—both in the industry and by the Letterboxd community—for the sheer quality of its output. As a filmmaker, what is the day-to-day experience of being in their camp like?
I feel spoiled. Half of my favorite movies I go to see and I go “Oh man, that’s the logo in front of my movie!” I got to meet a handful of the other filmmakers, which I feel so fortunate to have done. They’re such a hands-off company in a really cool way. I just feel like I got to make my movie and they just trusted me. They’re not helicopter parents.

The Death of Dick Long’ is distributed by A24 and in US cinemas now.


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