[Fantastic Fest interview] ‘DEATH OF DICK LONG’ director encapsulates small-town life in offbeat comedy

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

AUSTIN – Over the weekend, THE DEATH OF DICK LONG played at select Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas in the area. While it’s no longer playing in theaters, the film’s distributor, A24, plans to release the movie On Demand.

So, if you missed this film, which I believe to be one of the year’s best (read my review here, and James Cole Clay’s review here), don’t break a sweat! You will know what the movie (with a poster featuring a man shooting a roman candle between his legs) is all about soon enough.

That was the No. 1 inquiry I got about the film after I saw it at Fantastic Fest in Austin over a week ago: “What’s THE DEATH OF DICK LONG? That’s such a weird title, and that poster is even weirder.”

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG is a great film to be curious about. The story is essentially a Coen brothers-like comedy about two small-town men, Zeke and Earl (Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland), trying to cover up the murder of their mutual friend. The journey (and detours along the way) makes it such a delight. Where it leads is downright shocking and bizarre, but it is also oddly beautiful.

At the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard in Austin, I sat down with the film’s director, Daniel Schneinert (SWISS ARMY MAN). We discussed the outlandish themes and how exploring the concept of secrets led to some fascinating and moving results.

Director Daniel Scheinert on the red carpet for the regional premiere of his latest film, ‘THE DEATH OF DICK LONG.’ September 20, 2019 at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Blvd in Austin, TX. Photo credit: Jack Plunkett.

Preston Barta: So, where to begin?

Daniel Scheinert: “[Laughs] These are funny conversations.”

Do they all start the same way?

“Well, folks really want to talk about the movie, but we also have to talk about things you can publish [Laughs].”

For sure, Well, I guess we begin with how much can be read between the lines in your film. I don’t want to put you in the same box as other filmmakers by comparing your work to others because you have your own style.

“Go for it. I am never offended by that.”

This film reminded me of Richard Linklater and Harmony Korine’s films. Both filmmakers seem to be drawn to moments that seem so insignificant in the scheme of things, yet I walk away with those moments being my favorite moments. They feel so honest. I admire how you trust your audience to pick up on subtlety.

“Kwan and I came up doing music videos. We would make really dense things with the idea that people would rewatch it. It was fun to sneak in subtlety on the outskirts of hit-the-nail-on-the-head insanity. It’s been so interesting and rewarding making features and realizing just how smart audiences are and how they can invest in the reality of these characters. It’s not an Easter egg-y kind of way, but the emotional truths of how people talk and what’s underneath what they say.”

“When I’ve tested both of my movies [DICK LONG and SWISS ARMY MAN], I recognized how much people picked up on. I was like, ‘Wow! I can just leave that in the edit.’ I thought I was going to have to cut a lot of that out. I should have known that because I love that as a filmgoer. But yes, sometimes you underestimate audiences.”

What’s also interesting here is that you are working with a central character who has a dark side to him. It made me realize how we all have skeletons in our closets. It may not be as dark as what unfolds in this film.

“Hopefully not [Laughs].”

I thought a lot about my own regrets in life. The film offers some healing there. It made me revisit those dark moments from my life and embrace them. I stewed on how it changed and informed me to become a better person. Was that the journey that you wanted to reflect on screen?

“Absolutely. [Screenwriter Billy Chew] wrote it with [what happens at the end in mind,] but the truth is that path allowed him to explore the biggest secrets he ever kept. It’s a deeply personal film, and it scares [Chew] to talk about it. However, we (the actors and myself) all started sharing stories from our pasts, and we projected that onto what Zeke and Earl were going through. It was a therapeutic experience.”

“The dream is to have audiences laugh and have a good time from the mystery/comedy side of it. But also, we hope that it causes folks who have been through the pain of secrets being in a family feel not alone. We don’t want people to feel bad for having felt bad for so long, or however long you’ve been going through the pain.”

I believe you handle the secret reveal with grace. I’m going to tip-toe around what happens, but you treat it in such a way where it’s like, “Hey. This is me. I’m not proud of it, but it’s me.” There’s a scene where Zeke faces that head-on, and there’s a beauty to his acceptance.

“Yeah. Yeah, for how terribly things go for Zeke, both [Chew and Abbott Jr.] talked a lot about how good it felt to say what happened. Things go wrong after that, but there’s this moment of joy that overcomes Zeke. [Abbott Jr.] was like, ‘I don’t know what it is, but I feel really good now that I’ve finally said it.”

“I think if Judge Roy Moore would come out and say what he did, he would feel so much better. He would be a mentally healthier man. All these judges, if they would just come out [Laughs]–”

Yeah, it’s exhausting to hold onto all those things.

“Oh, it is.”

L-R: Scheinert, Andre Hyland and Michael Abbott Jr. star in ‘THE DEATH OF DICK LONG.’ Courtesy of A24 and Fantastic Fest.

I wanted to shift to talking about the film’s atmosphere. You capture this small-town feel without feeling you are poking it with a stick. You’re simply capturing these little moments as funny and real as they are. I don’t want to steal the film’s thunder about pointing out specific examples, but let’s just say they involve a roped lawnmower and listening to Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness.”

“[Laughs] Yep. Yep.”

How did you find all these honest moments? There’s so many of them that it’s surprising how none of them became a joke themselves. They are just depictions.

“One of my favorite parts of the whole process was setting up rules to have fun and look for comedy, but not base any of the jokes off of the media representations of small-town America. Instead, we went in like anthropologists with a sense of humor. We looked for interesting and funny people. It was such a rewarding way to make a movie. Everybody had permission on the crew to help tell the story.”

“Andre Hyland, who plays Earl, is always looking for funny people, outfits and cars. He’s a voyeur who takes photos. In this case, we were using it. We’d be eating lunch and be like, ‘What did you see today, Andre?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, man! I saw this one lady [and he’d show us a picture of this lady] – look at her socks!’ And we’d use it.”

“It’s been so fun to take this movie around the country and see people pick certain things out of it that they’ve witnessed before. I didn’t really have an agenda other than to be curious while I was shooting in these locations. We just wanted real people. Sometimes they would be on board with us showing them a certain way, other times they didn’t.”

“For instance, the guy who owned the red truck that had a white and green grill and Confederate flag sticker wanted $500 for us to put his truck in the film. So, my production designer [Ali Rubinfeld] painted her truck to look like this guy’s truck [Laughs]. We just showed up with a lookalike truck. We just stole the look of it.”

That’s so funny. It goes along with what you were saying during the film’s Q&A at Fantastic Fest about filming the child in the movie in such a way so she doesn’t actually have to say a cuss word on camera, but the audience believes that she does. Is it enjoyable to work out these equations on set? You have an idea of what the movie could be, but you always have to adjust when it comes to the day of shooting.

“I’m the kind of filmmaker who loves to encourage my actors and crew members to take charge. I want them to feel like filmmakers themselves, because they are. I love being surprised as opposed to seeing all my dreams come to life. To see actors make decisions that I wouldn’t have even thought of is special. I love being more of a curator than a genius with ideas. So, being surprised and adjusting and modifying things is so satisfying.”

I’m happy to hear that. I feel like I would be such a meticulous and calculated filmmaker, but yet, the movies I flock to are the ones that have this organic flow to them.

“Yeah. It’s something that film school kids, myself included, get the wrong idea about, like you’re job is to be Kubrick and spend a week thinking about doorknobs.”

Yes, exactly. I felt like most of the student films I saw in film school were ones that looked real good but didn’t have an authentic story to tell.

“Yeah! You lose the forest for the trees. Also, it’s really not fun to make movies that way. Why miserably make movies? You should have fun while you’re doing it.”

Well, it certainly looked like fun to film, and the audience reaps the benefits.

“Oh, good! That’s great.”

THE DEATH OF DICK LONG will release On Demand shortly. Keep it on your radar!

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.