There are two important differences between Daniel Scheinert’s first movie (2016’s Swiss Army Man) and his second (this week’s The Death of Dick Long).
The first is that Scheinert made this second film without his other half. To this point, Scheinert hasn’t really been Scheinert. He’s been one of two—the two—Daniels. The other Daniel is Scheinert’s longtime writing-directing partner, Daniel Kwan. Even if you don’t know their story, you know their story: The Daniels met in college, disliked each other at first (Scheinert never shut up, Kwan hardly participated), and then, like every pair of mismatched leads in a buddy comedy, became an inseparable unit. Together, they made a number of beautifully bizarre shorts, some absolutely wild music videos (“Turn Down For What,” anyone?), and then: Swiss Army Man.
Better known as “the farting corpse movie,” it was weird, too. Daniel Radcliffe gave his best performance—yes, ever—as a corpse named Manny who washes up on a deserted island, and both spiritually and literally saves a stranded man named Hank (Paul Dano). It was the talk of Sundance in 2016. A24 picked it up. It didn’t do great numbers, but it was a thing. The Daniels were on their way, and then...
Well, there’s actually no scandal or ugly split to recount. Instead, what happened next is that Scheinert linked up with his other best friend, the screenwriter Billy Chew, to direct a script Chew had been thinking about since college. “Billy and I are so close that it didn't feel like a solo film,” Scheinert says now. And actually, he adds, it was “really good” for his relationship with his other Daniel. “We're more excited than ever to make more stuff together. It's kind of like the band did some solo records and now we're so excited for the next album.”
But, The Death of Dick Long. It’s set in Alabama, Scheinert’s native state and Chew’s home state. And it’s just as strange—and even funnier—than Swiss Army Man. But the second important difference: Unlike Swiss Army Man, which was billed—brilliantly—as “the farting corpse movie,” there’s no snappy tagline for The Death of Dick Long. I can’t tell you why it’s so sublimely weird and hilarious, just that it is.
I can, however, also tell you this: Dick Long (Scheinert, as a beer-chugging bumpkin in a bad rock band) does indeed die. And his two bandmates, Zeke and Earl, spend much of the film covering up how he died. I can assure you that you do eventually find out how Dick died, and that the way he died is where things really get weird. Also, like Swiss Army Man, The Death of Dick Long’s not just weird for weird’s sake. It’s actually pretty deep—about love, secrets, and shame. But that’s it. I’ve probably already said too much. The less you know the better. Except for what Scheinert’s about to tell you...
GQ: So why this movie now?
Daniel Scheinert: The year I decided to make this movie, shitty dudes were in the headlines like ten times a day. Billy [Chew, the screenwriter,] had been trying to get the movie put together, and I'd been part of the project for years and years, reading different drafts and stuff. And while it's not a preachy movie, it explores something that was very much on my brain—the shame that so many guys live with, and the way that shitty dudes' behavior is rippling out across the country.
And then we talked about where to shoot it, because it wasn't explicitly set in Alabama. But Alabama's where I'm from and it's where Billy was living when he wrote the movie. And Alabama was in the headlines every week last year and the year before, too, and I was like, "I want to go back and explore this place—the bad and the good." Who gets to frame the narrative around Alabama is always a bummer. Usually the people framing the narrative aren't the majority of Alabama, which is women and people of color. It's some white dudes. It's Roy Moore, Jeff Sessions, and George Wallace.
What was your response to the idea when Billy was talking about it?
I remember he had to bring in several ideas for a screenplay his senior year of college. This was one of the ones he brought in, and everyone in class was like, "Don't write that." And he was like, "I think they don't understand why that's an interesting premise. They think that I'm just a shock value screenwriter who wants to do Human Centipede." So sort of to prove them wrong, he started working on it, and I was very supportive. I think when you can take crazy ideas and use them to get at human emotions, those are the best movies. If you're just going to recreate real life, make a documentary.
In some ways I think the reductive interpretation of Swiss Army Man and this movie is, "Ugh, what a broey premise for a movie." What excites me is to explore that and make the opposite—like a really sincere, humanist, therapeutic project about farts or dicks. That kind of juxtaposition is my favorite stuff. I don't really like fart jokes, but I really enjoyed making a fart drama. And this was kind of a dick drama, I guess.
Did you grow up around a lot of fart jokes?
Absolutely. And there's definitely a very gender normative culture—everywhere! But definitely where I grew up. Girls behaved a certain way, where they all wanted to highlight their hair and wear sundresses. And guys wore polo shirts. And I really, really felt like I didn't fit in. Because I wanted to wear a sundress and get highlights, and that wasn't allowed for the guys! [Laughs.]
More generally, what was growing up in Alabama like?
I grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, which is kind of like suburban anywhere. But my family was scattered all around Alabama, so I'd end up in rural corners once a week, at least. I couldn't wait to leave Alabama, and then the funny thing was my best friend from college, Billy, moved there right after college and started telling me how awesome it was, and how funny and interesting it was. And I was like, "You're wrong! I left there on purpose."
It's funny, Billy kind of taught me to love where I'm from and be fascinated by it. Now I realize it's one of the things I have to offer as a filmmaker and a storyteller. I'm from a place that not many storytellers are from, and a place that's kind of misunderstood. I love and hate it. But I love going back. And I can't wait to make more stories there, because I feel like I learn something about myself whenever I go back there to shoot things.
What do you love about Alabama? And how do you feel like people misunderstand it?
As a kid, Southern niceness—where every time you walk into a store they go, "Hello! How are you doing today!"—kind of drove me crazy, because I kind of thought it was fake. You go to church and everybody is so excited to see you, but then they're gossiping about you behind your back.
But then I left Alabama, and now I go back and realize that 90% of the time they're serious. They really do want to know how your day was, and it's so easy to just strike up a conversation with anyone in Alabama. People have this perception that it's people in trucks screaming slurs at each other, but it's actually a bunch of sweet, talkative folks who are in no rush to get somewhere. It's like the opposite of New York. If you need to hitchhike in Alabama, it's pretty easy. People will pick you up and take you somewhere.
I also think it's misunderstood that, politically speaking, the majority of Albamans are victims—not villains—-of some really toxic, embarrassing politics. There's this perception that everyone down there's got their Trump hat on. But really, there's just a lot of demoralized people from decades of politics not working for them. And that's really convenient for the people in power.
In your film, the three main dudes are, for lack of a better word, rednecks. They're constantly making the wrong choice and making dumb decisions. Were you worried about seeming to portray Alabama that way?
I was, yeah. We tried to make them dumb in a relatable way, like as dumb as I am on my worst days. I'm not a great liar, and I don't think I'd be good at covering up a crime. We tried to make them human, not the butt of a joke.
But there were two things we kept in the back of our heads to combat the redneck blanket perception of the film. One was I wanted it to be an ensemble film, and for you to really love this place by the end. So it was really important to me to have interesting, smart, lovely people populating the film so that it wasn't 100% dumbasses who can't cover up a crime. And then, really the goal of the film—which I'm reticent to tell people before they see it—was we wanted to make a movie where at the beginning you're given permission to laugh at these guys, because that's the rural America most people are used to: Ha ha, I get to laugh at the dumb people. But it's supposed to take the audience on a roller coaster; the dream is that by the end you're scared at how much you empathize with them. I think if people give it a chance, they'll see that our objective was to complicate rednecks, and make the people laughing at them in the beginning realize, "I have a lot in common with these guys."
A lot of the ensemble is filled with people like Roy Wood Jr.'s character and Sunita Mani's character, who are smarter... and not white dudes.
Another thing people are surprised about is just how diverse Alabama is and how not segregated most of it is. I went to college in Boston, and I was like, "Where are the Black people?" People forget that in Alabama there's a huge Black population. Roy Wood's from Birmingham and Sunita's from Dickson, Tennessee. She's an old friend of mine. So yeah, casting Southern people of color was really fun for me, because those are the people I miss when I watch movies about rural America.
Were you a fan of Roy Wood's comedy prior to this?
Very much so. He came up through Alabama doing prank phone calls on morning radio long before The Daily Show. So he's a bit of a hometown hero. There were a couple go-to bits he would do. Like he'd call people about a bill that they didn't owe, which is a really interesting version of economics prank phone calling. People would lose their shit about a car payment they were certain they weren't behind on. There's something sad about that prank, because it's kind of a portrait of a place.
Nickelback and Creed feature prominently in the soundtrack. Are you a fan of those bands?
It's kind of the same as my relationship with Alabama; it's like a love-hate thing. But I do love... Their hits are hits for a reason. They're solid. But there's also something inherently kind of funny about those jams, and about people who would still be super fans today.
Do you have a favorite song?
"How You Remind Me" is, like, unironically a great song that Billy and I like. But some of Nickelback's songs are the worst songs I've ever heard. There's something funny about that dissonance of, No, I genuinely like this song and it's hard for me to admit it. [Laughs.] In pre-production, we did karaoke, and I put that song on to see if people like it [in Alabama]. And it killed! And I'm not good at karaoke.
Did you have to get permission from Nickelback and Creed directly?
We started with Staind, and got their permission. And then Nickelback's songs were the others that were really written into the script. So I wrote a letter to Nickelback. We had to convince Chad Kroeger. I couldn't help myself: In the letter I said, "A lot of people may not remember how good this song actually is 20 years later, but this is how we'll remind them." And they said yes.
Are you and Billy animal lovers?
Yes, we're both huge animal lovers. My dog has a cameo in the movie. His name's Puddle.
I think America has a weird relationship with animals. Everyone in America loves pets and is terrified to go onto a farm and see stinky animals. And they'll eat meat three times a day and then spend $5,000 to get their dog a knee replacement. That's just so weird and interesting, and I feel like we're so willfully ignorant about the animals around us.
This is one of the funniest movies I've seen all year, and yet it's not a traditional comedy comedy. More and more, those are the comedies I've been drawn to. Do you have thoughts on the evolution of humor in movies?
It's hard for me to say overall where comedy is going. But as a filmmaker I track where I laugh, and I do personally find lately that I don't laugh at witty jokes nearly as much as I laugh when I'm emotionally invested in the human experience and comical but relatable things unfold.
Midsommar is all about trying to not offend a cult to their face, and I found it hysterical. Good Boys was okay, but I laughed infinitely more at Midsommar.
So I love that this movie that could be described as a drama to some is some people's favorite comedy of the year. That's very much what I was trying to do—make something that was funny, but about real people, and not about a writer's room of smart people hunting for jokes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.