Caution: This interview contains spoilers for The Death of Dick Long and should be read only after seeing the movie.
Listen, I don't want to start this off in a confrontational manner -
Daniel Scheinert: No, let's do it.
- but for my money, you're kind of a genius.
...That's very confrontational.
I want you to absorb that and be okay with it before we move on.
OK, I'm good.
Swiss Army Man is one of my favorite movies, full stop. And I saw Death of Dick Long yesterday, and y'know what? That one's great, too.
Thank you. And thank you for repping Swissy over the years.
Oh, of course. I've got the Blu, I've got the soundtrack -
Well, that's the secret weapon.
Yeah, soundtrack's a good gateway drug to Swiss Army Man.
I was in the hallway waiting for a [Fantastic Fest] screening to start and one of the theaters had something playing with part of the [Swiss Army Man] score. It had "Montage" in it. I was like, "What is happening?!" It triggered me.
Is it hard for you to talk about Dick Long, pre-release? Because it seems like many of the questions one might have about this movie would revolve around the reveal that occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through, when we found out how Dick Long was killed.
It is and it isn't. It's so easy to talk about why we made the movie or what it's about, because it's not about that, y'know what I mean? That's just a hyperbolic way of getting at these things that are universal to the human experience. But then it's also really fun to talk to people who've seen it, because then you can kinda be like, "So, what weird internet rabbits holes have you been down [as a result of watching this movie]?" So, yes and no.
I mean -
I just did it. I didn't say what it was.
You didn't. Strolled right around it. Impressive.
It's funny because for years, among all my friends, the story was: "Billy [Chew, screenwriter of The Death of Dick Long] wrote a horse-fucking movie". Everybody knew.
Wait, when did he write it?
He wrote the first draft in maybe 2010 or 2011. Years ago.
So, this would've been post-Mr. Hands.
Right. But I'd read drafts of it for years and years, and about two years ago we suddenly got very excited about the idea of making it together.
So he just had this script sitting around and you were like, "Time to do the horse-fucking movie"?
Well, he'd been trying to get it made, and - as one of his closest friends - I had been cheerleading it and giving him notes, just a really big champion of it. But career-wise, it didn't make sense until after Swiss Army Man. That was just my focus for so long.
It felt to me like a barely-dramatized retelling of the Mr. Hands story. That's gotta be intentional, right?
It is. It was inspired by Billy hearing a news story about this guy dying in a crazy way, and then seeing it become kind of a punchline on late-night talk shows. And Billy was like, "Well, hold on - what was that guy like?"
He had a wife! And kids!
Yeah! Exactly. And he was like, "The punchline's kind of boring, but the story is interesting." It kinda ended there, but he wrote a fictionalized story inspired by hearing that story. He did basically zero research, because he wasn't trying to engage with that man's tragedy and the fallout with his family...
Billy's done a few things like that, which are inspired by real stories but then [his take] ends there. I think anything "based on a true story" is kinda ethically dubious, y'know? You end up changing things but not changing names...it's just kinda messed up.
The needle drops in the movie are phenomenal.
I can't believe we got all of them.
Neither could I! Then again, I don't think anyone's banging down the door for some of these songs, y'know?
Right. We got Staind first, then other bands were like, "Well, Staind said yes and for this price, so, yeah, okay."
You've got Puddle of Mudd in there. Creed. Can you talk a little bit about this? Were these the preferred songs of the people you grew up with?
Those [songs] were all in the script. Billy writes music into his scripts a lot, and listens to a ton of music when he's writing. A lot of his writing's mixed, just unabashedly his favorite songs in the world combined with these endurance test, weird songs. That's very much [Swiss Army Man co-director] Daniel Kwan's and my taste, as well. Like, Swiss Army Man was an attempt to make the most gorgeous music we could, but also "Cotton-Eyed Joe" is in there, y'know? We love that dissonance, of what it's actually like to live in the world.
But also, the movie's sort of an exercise in empathy, so it was fun to force the audience to live in the world of these characters, amidst the songs and music they love. My hope is that, by the end of the movie, some people in the audience are listening to the lyrics of Nickelback's "How You Remind Me" and are kinda like, "....damn." It's a movie about men bottling up their feelings, scored by songs where men are pouring out their feelings. Butt rock is actually emo, and that's so funny to me.
The movie felt very authentic to me. There are characters in there where I was like, "I know that exact guy. I have worked with that guy."
That's one of my favorite things about this, is showing the movie to people who maybe grew up in small towns [or amongst people like Dick Long's characters] and have them not feel offended, but seen. Like, "Man, I know a lot of Earls back home." Our costume designer, Rachel, read through the script and said, "I've dated each of these guys." She went through her Facebook with us and was like, "So this is Dick. This guy's Earl. This guy is definitely Zeke..." They each had a look, but they're also authentic Southerners from Alabama, y'know? I just loved that, that she could be like, "These guys are real, and these are their names."
Since you brought up Alabama: you set this there for a reason.
Yeah, so, the first draft Billy wrote was titled Something Happened in Wyoming -
Hahaha, that's ominous as hell.
Yeah! But it was always about a small town. Growing up, I really hated seeing movies set in Alabama that were clearly made by people who couldn't be bothered to get it right and had just blown it. So, I was scared to go somewhere I didn't know and get it wrong, but I was really excited about the idea of going back home and trying to get it right. That's why we did it there, not because this story is about Alabama. That's the place I knew, and a place I really wanted to explore. Plus, it was just really fun to shoot there. Solid tax incentives, and people are super excited you're making a movie there. That's opposed to, say, every bar in Los Angeles that wants $5K in order for you to shoot there for three hours. Here, we had the run of an operational hospital for 24 hours for, like, $1500. They were coming to us like, "We're so sorry, but if an ambulance comes, do you think you could move out of the way for just a few minutes?" And we're like, "Yeah, of course we'll do that."
There were shots in there of the townspeople - a woman using a lawnmower on a steep hill with a rope attached to it, a dude on his porch, smoking while riding an exercise bike - that felt like they could've been captured just as you were driving around. Were those shots scripted?
We definitely reenacted things we'd seen around town. While we were down there we were always on the lookout for stuff like that which we could later shoot and add into the film. So, the guy on the exercise bike is our location manager. The woman with the lawnmower is one of our set decorators. After we finished shooting me and my DP, Ashley, went back there with a truck and a camera and just drove around grabbing "texture" for a couple of days, and those shots really helped the movie.
If you told me you got those shots randomly, I'd totally believe it.
There's some stuff in there that we just managed to turn the camera and see, but yeah, a lot of it's reenacted.
Someone spoiled this movie for me out of Sundance. Just casually revealed how Dick Long died, and then seemed surprised when I was like, "Uh, I don't think you're supposed to be telling people that."
It's really fun if you don't know. I talked to a lot of people who really loved it the second time around, knowing what they know.
You touched on the film's empathy earlier, and I'd like to circle back to that. Because given the reveal, and how extreme it is, you wouldn't necessarily expect the movie to then be empathetic towards these guys.
Right, if you know that element you might think it's gonna be a midnight movie thing, or like a Human Centipede situation.
So, you mentioned previous drafts earlier, as well. I'm wondering if the movie was always this empathetic, or if there was ever a more mean-spirited version of it.
No, that kinda thing's just not really to Billy's taste. But it was a constant journey, trying to figure out the tonal shifts of the film - how they should shift, how certain pieces of information should come out in order to maximize the cringey, awkward tension for Zeke and his family. The rewrites were kinda tweaking those things to make them just a little funny. That's my taste, a drama that also kinda makes me laugh. Like, there's this Dogme '95 movie, The Celebration, and early on there's a scene where a 60-year-old man's son announces, at his birthday party and in front of a couple hundred guests, that he would molest him when he was a kid...and then the party continues, because they already have all these events planned. So, it's this drama about a family falling apart, but they keep singing songs and doing toasts and the guests have to pretend like they heard nothing. It's so funny. But also, I saw that in an audience where no one else thought it was funny. Did that answer the question? I don't remember what it was.
No, no - you got it.
The Death of Dick Long is now in limited release and available to rent via Amazon Prime.