After a string of shorts and music videos, writer-director Daniel Scheinert—along with his frequent collaborator Daniel Kwan—broke into feature films with Swiss Army Man. Casting Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse alongside Paul Dano’s depressed loner, the film carved out a slew of fans who were intrigued, repulsed, and delighted in equal measure.
Now, Scheinert has branched off on his own for The Death of Dick Long, a darker venture than his last. It’s one steeped in sadness and anxiety, despite, or perhaps, in part, because of, its close relationship to comedy. The result is a film that has viewers follow characters who are both reprehensible and highly relatable in equal measure, with the narrative around them weaving between buddy comedy, bumbling police procedural, and severe familial breakdown.
With the film now in theaters, we sat down with Scheinert to talk about establishing character dynamics, working once again with members of Manchester Orchestra, the terrors of nuclear families and faking it, and getting to do your own version of a Quentin Tarantino scene. Also, trolling fans of the long-forgotten band Hinder.
The Film Stage: The first thing I noticed with this film, with some of the marketing and anticipation, there is a certain level of, ‘from one of the directors of Swiss Army Man,’ and I think for some people, there’s this idea that there will be an emphasis on this kind of ‘whacky comedy’ element. Despite Swiss Army Man having a very emotional center.
Daniel Scheinert: Yeah.
The Death of Dick Long does use comedy in a lot of ways—it deescalates tension, it subverts scene structures, it creates humanity—but at its core, it’s a deeply sad film.
Can you talk about what the process was like for figuring out the film. It starts off as a goofy idea, but when you chew it over, it becomes something quite sad.
Yeah! I would say the same about Swiss Army Man. It’s funny when people are like, ‘Oh, Dick Long is not as funny as that one,’ because such a huge chunk of Swiss Army Man is about a suicidal man thinking about mortality, and there’s just a lot of farts.
With The Death of Dick Long, it’s a different movie because I fell in love with the script that my good friend Billy [Chew] wrote, as opposed to writing it for three years with my buddy Dan [Kwan, who co-wrote Swiss Army Man]. I was just talking to my friend yesterday and she was like, ‘I’m kind of scared of you,’ because she just finished the movie. And I’m like why? We can talk about it!
But, I really love going to the darkest places I can go, and then still trying to have a sense of humor about it. A lot of my art does that: kind of giving you permission to laugh at the scariest things in life. So yeah, this is a movie that’s kind of trying to be a horror film, of sorts, about keeping a secret from your wife and family; but I’m still trying to inject as much humanity and humor in there as possible. Because life’s funny.
One of the ways that humanity comes out, in its most obvious form, is in the dynamic between Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland). There was something so great about their dynamic in the way that, at one moment—like in the scene in the lake—they’ll be roughhousing, but in the very next, they’ll be extremely sensitive with each other. It’s like they switch this kind of front on and off.
Was it a lot of working with the actors to get that? Or was it all written? How did you go about establishing their back and forth?
It was both, working from the script and with the actors. Michael and Andre both agreed to just live in a house together, which was what I asked them to do.
So, for like a month and a half, Andre and Mike were just living together. So, any days that they had off, they’d just get breakfast or lunch or just hang out. I think that really created a comfortable rapport between them, which paid off in scenes like that one in the lake, when Andre really did bite down on his tooth and they both just didn’t break character. That moment in the lake is real life.
We just kept filming! And then after the scene was over I was like, ‘Guys, as long as you’re both okay, can you reenact that for the wide shot so we can put it in the movie?’ And they were like, ‘sure, sure.’
They were really just that familiar with each other. Mike really did just swim over and start digging around in Andre’s mouth to see if he was okay, which just blew my mind. And that dynamic is also just based on real life; with my closest guy friendships, one moment you’re pranking each other and throwing each other into the bushes and the next moment you’re having really deep heart-to-hearts. There really is this kind of masculine code-switching that goes on that’s like…so weird when you take a step back and photograph it.
Like, what is this thing we do? [Laughs]
Sticking with the dynamics, but between Zeke and Lydia (Virginia Newcomb), there was a scene that really struck me that takes place in the kitchen of their home. It was a very emotionally intuitive scene for me to watch, and it really captures the seesaw of feelings you go through when you’re having a revelation about someone you’re spending a lot of time with.
What was it like working out the emotional arch of a scene like that?
Yeah! That central scene in the kitchen we actually rehearsed very little, and we sort of rehearsed everything else. On one hand, I love having tons of forethought in getting a shot just right—which Dan Kwan and I do a lot with our visual effects-heavy things—but I also really love capturing those raw moments with actors. This movie gave me a chance to do a lot of that.
So, we rehearsed very little and the very first take was just Virginia staring down the lens and reacting how she would react. So, to prepare, it was more about building the scaffolding of their relationship and then just letting the scene happen, than it was about like, ‘let’s talk about what kinda face you’ll make here!’ Or, ‘what are you thinking about when he says this?’
Mike and Virginia both just really naturally fell into the scene and they both murdered it. My job as a director was just to make sure we pointed the camera in the right place.
Yeah, Virginia is just a knockout in that scene, it’s kind of unbelievable to watch.
Yeah, I was so thrilled. She’s like, such a happy person, like a really goofy, happy person 99% of the time. So when she does a really dramatic, emotionally-wrought role, there is still so much humanity in it. I just love that and I think it’s one of the reasons that when comedians play a dramatic role, it’s so watchable. They can’t help but keep the silly humor in there. There’s something so watchable about Punch-Drunk Love or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when these funny people play melancholy roles. I think Virginia is a little bit like that.
Regarding the music, Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, two wildly talented dudes.
You worked with them on Swiss Army Man. The way the music functioned in that movie was very integral to every other part, like with the actors having to learn the lyrics. What were the conversations like this time around, when you’re working with them again, but on a more traditional film score?
They just read the script and we chatted about their reactions, and what the role of the music would be. We had a blast doing a more traditional score together; we’d talk about what the key themes would be and when they’d reoccur, then we’d try to crack those themes and thread them throughout the movie. We’d also talk about the score fluctuating between being, ya know, these guys [in the film] are in a shitty garage band, so we wanted the score to be inspired by that.
So that was really fun, but then we also wanted the score to work on a Shakespearian level as well, as a bottle drama, and take itself seriously at times. We tried to use the music to balance out where the audience might be [emotionally] in a given scene, and either add weight to something that could be mocked, or to ground it in this shitty garage band world—without getting too melodramatic. Andy and Robert are so good at both of those, being part of a rock band themselves who do operatic, insane, epic music. So we got to take advantage of their range there.
This might sound crazy, but sticking with the music, there’s this needle drop in the movie from the band Hinder.
Which I had literally not heard since I was maybe 12?
The song is talking about how, ‘You can do much better than me,’ and the needle drop alone just made me laugh, especially contrasted with the images it was playing with.
But then the fact that, lyrically, the song resonated as the film developed was just…astounding to me. I don’t necessarily have a question there, but I was blown away at the audacity of that choice.
[Laughs] I’m so psyched! You’re the first person who’s brought up Hinder. Everyone wants to talk about Nickelback and Staind.
In college, Billy and I had a shitty hobby of trolling Hinder fans on YouTube. We’d go on there and we’d say something that would get them riled up, and then we’d get into a comment war.
Such a shitty thing to do…But, when we were working on the movie and started putting all these songs in there, on one level it’s kind of a way to develop the characters in a way that’s winky and kind of funny. But also, with every song, the lyrical content is on point. This rock and roll music from the ‘90s and early 2000s is just so emotionally wrought! People make fun of emo for being lyrically so wrought, but the lyrics are the same with these rock bands! It’s just the instruments that change… the voice got a little more nasally.
But… Nickelback songs are emo as shit. [Laughs]
What became so interesting about those needle drops in the film, versus the score and The Avett Brothers song that plays late in the film, what I started to notice was the way the poeticism of the score contrasts with these early 2000s, alt-rock, post-grunge-but-really-emo songs. The rock songs feel like the surface-level emotion that reflects the lie that these two guys are trying desperately to keep spinning. Then the score feels like it cuts through that and get to the truth, the gooey center of what’s actually happening. I thought that was a fascinating contrast to have playing throughout the film.
Yeah! Well put. I love when a movie’s music doesn’t just do one thing, doesn’t just hit the nail on the head for an hour and a half. If it can create contrasts, then that’s so fun. To be able to, in one scene use music to continue a lie and in the next, to poke through it. Obviously, people who watch this movie will be like, ‘holy cow, the music is all over the place!’ Which is kind of just my taste, but also, it’s a way to try to use music to tell the story and not to just pace up the film. Sometimes, scores just feel like they’re trying to pace the movie up and keep it pleasant.
Yeah, you’re not trying to just sell records. Sometimes, it feels like people curate soundtracks to be like, ‘Oh this is a great album and I want to listen to every song, regardless of the movie.’
Yeah, I actually wanted to put out a soundtrack with all of it on there, but Andy and Rob don’t want to. They’re like, ‘yeah, can you put our music out on its own, please?’
[Laughs] Are you telling me that the people behind Manchester Orchestra don’t want to be contrasted with Creed?
I guess not. They’re just like, ‘I just want people to be able to hear the music we made.’ I’m like, fair.
Yeah, it’s pretty all over the place. Brenda Lee, Gucci Mane, and Hinder…
Wen ‘With Arms Wide Open’ [by Creed] dropped when they’re in the trailer. That was such a perfect encapsulation; it hit this very unique feeling for me and really worked with the betrayal Zeke is feeling in that moment. It was so interesting to contrast those two things.
[Laughs] I’m so glad you liked that bit. When we plopped that in there we were like, ‘There’s no way we can afford this [song],’ but… we got it. So thrilled.
In another very charged, very crucial moment of the film, there’s this really extended zoom that you do. It’s coupled with this almost elevator jazz tune, and it felt like the apex of the film. It’s extremely captivating to watch and it feels like everything piling up, every little bit from the movie, piling up into one moment. Can you talk about coming up with that decision?
Yeah! It evolved along the way. The song playing there at the climax is the same one that opened the film. When Ashley Connor (the cinematographer) and I were working on the look of the film, we came up with a few scenes where we were excited about plopping a zoom in. So, we had a zoom lying around and, as we started shooting a scene, found it to be a such a really fun way to photograph a noir or a mystery; to just go from a wider frame to just really zeroing in on something.
So, we got to that scene and I think we discovered that shot on the day—I can’t remember if we knew we were going to a long zoom [on Mike] or not. But it had been successful in so many other scenes, we were like, let’s try it! Mike Abbott just does such a good job, and we knew the rest of the scene was going to be so cutty, we were like: let’s just do one long, brutal shot, if possible. I was so happy with how it turned out. Just trying to do our Quentin Tarantino scene, our Inglourious Basterds scene; a bunch of people chatting around a table for five or six minutes.
I think what makes that zoom land even harder is because before it, there’s this absurd level of hysteria around the way it’s cutting and the way the sound design is coming in and being lifted up. It’s the most muscle-tensing sensation to watch that scene, because you are so cued into what every person is doing; everyone is reading each other’s dynamics and these little tics—people rubbing their hands together or scratching anxiously. So, to contrast the way that whole scene is cut, in a very frenetic way, with that extended zoom at the end is such a perfect way to culminate that moment.
Dope! Yeah, thank you! I’m so glad it worked so well for you. The movie has so many bottled up, tense scenes that we tried real hard to makes sure that they wouldn’t all be photographed the same way. That scene, in particular, it was a goal of ours to be like, ‘Okay, let’s make sure that doesn’t look and feel like the other ones.’ So, we planned to aim straight at their faces and get tons of coverage, and make it really not subtle, filmically, and just have it be all about their reactions. I was real happy with how it came together.
Going back to the theme of the film, when Zeke presents this idea of how, if you’ve gone through a period of your life where you’re lonely, it doesn’t necessarily go away when you find someone; you still carry those habits and feelings with you. I thought that was an interesting way to illustrate how habits and experiences linger with you, even after your circumstances have changed.
Yeah. I think the line is, ‘Sometimes when you’re lonely, it doesn’t go away when you get married.’
Yes, that’s exactly it. On one hand, I feel like he’s kind of spinning shit off the top of his head, because he’s in a very vulnerable situation, but I still thought it had an impact. Even if it’s scummy and sleazy, there’s still a truth behind having things that stick with you from childhood, from when you’re younger. Was exploring those ideas something you were trying consciously to tackle?
Absolutely. In that moment, I feel like he says something way more truthful than he meant to say right there. The whole movie is a nuclear family kind of exploding. We all talked about our own families and when they almost fell apart or when they did fall apart. I personally find nuclear families pretty terrifying, in a weird way.
I feel like there’s so many husbands and wives, and moms and dads, who feel like imposters. You kind of start playing a part of who you’re supposed to be. That can be a really brutal thing to do for 40 years of your life, ya know? This movie’s obviously a ridiculous hyperbole of it, but I think everybody feels a little bit like an imposter sometimes in their relationships. Whether it’s pretending to know what’s going on as a parent or as a significant other. But for Zeke, his imposter syndrome is out of control.
But, I wanted to kind of make a point about something that I think a lot of people can relate to. The goal of the whole film is to sort of fluctuate between these characters being the least relatable people imaginable and then being extremely relatable, as a way to test people’s empathy and their prejudice back and forth throughout the film.
I know we have to wrap up, but I just wanted to say that seeing Swiss Army Man in the theater with some of my best friends was one of the greatest movie-going experiences of my life, and I really dug this movie.
Dope! Thank you so much.
Keep doing stuff.
I will! I got more I want to make. I’m glad you got to catch that one in the theater.
I wish I got to catch The Death of Dick Long in the theater, too, because I feel like it would play crazy well with an audience.
It’s very fun with an audience. I talked to a couple festival programmers who were like, ‘I really loved your movie, but watching it with an audience was way better!’ Especially if you watch the movie and have a couple of nervous husbands and wives, or moms and dads in the theater. They become the most entertaining part, watching people gasp or whisper; especially nervous laughter. Nervous laughter is really contagious, when you’re like, ‘that guy’s nervous!’
So, I keep telling people, even if you watch it at home, watch it with somebody. Because then you go on a journey with a friend.
The Death of Dick Long is now in theaters.