The less you know about The Death of Dick Long the better, which is to say: If you plan on seeing it, I highly suggest you close this tab now to keep yourself pure because there are—major spoilers—in the interview below with the movie’s director, Daniel Scheinert. Not all will love this movie or necessarily think it’s worth sitting through to get to the reveal, but I did—so much so that I wondered if I should even cover it at all.
But ultimately, I couldn’t resist talking to Scheinert about his bonkers movie. He was initially reluctant to discuss the twist and only after assurance that this interview would be flagged as containing spoilers did he relent. The film concerns two friends living in Alabama, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), who after a night of partying, drop dump their friend Dick (played by Scheinert himself) off at a hospital. Dick soon dies while Zeke makes bumbling attempts to cover his tracks from everyone around him including his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) and the police who are investigating Dick’s death, Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker) and Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane). The movie makes you assume the worst, but then makes you see you had no idea what was coming.
Scheinert previously co-directed Swiss Army Man, which you may remember as the movie in which Daniel Radcliffe played a farting corpse. Though not exactly devoid of sophomoric humor (see: its title), Dick Long is decidedly grittier and less whimsical. It exists in flux: it mocks its Southern characters while asking its audience to take them seriously. Via a storyline that many would consider to be gross-out at first blush, it attempts to foster compassion. Via phone earlier this month Scheinert discussed his film, its big reveal, its considerable debt to Fargo, and his use of “redneck” stereotypes. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity and oh yeah one more time: This interview contains spoilers.
JEZEBEL: Who did you envision the audience identifying with? I had guessed that it was Lydia, Zeke’s wife, since she and the audience learn the secret basically simultaneously.
DANIEL SCHEINERT: A lot of my favorite films are kind of empathy games that kind of open the audience up to empathizing with someone they didn’t think they could. That’s what’s fun about foreign films and people that are different than you—by the end you’re like, “I relate.” In a way, I wanted to make a movie that in the beginning gives you permission to laugh at people who you think you have nothing in common with and then by the end, kind of scare you with how relatable they are. But it’s a real rollercoaster there, in the middle. The hope was kind of start where you’re laughing at rednecks and then take them on a journey where you’re starting to relate to this guy who wants to be a good father and then pull the empathy rug out—but the movie’s not over! And then spend more time with him, and hopefully by the end you’re like, “I’ve never been through what you’re going through, but I relate to how he feels and how his family feels and that’s what’s kind of scary.” You know, that there’s a universality to the least universal twist in the world. That was our point of view, constantly tracking so the audience had someone they liked and someone they could relate to, but not letting them get comfortable.
You grew up in Alabama. Did you have a particular agenda or strong feeling about the portrayal of “rednecks” on film and playing with these tropes?
I do have strong feelings, and it made the movie scary, but I kind of like diving into a movie that scares me a little. I don’t really like sermon films. In a lot of ways, I grew up embarrassed by how the rest of the world thinks of Alabama. This movie’s not exactly me trying to counter that, but I kind of grew up pissed off the actors weren’t getting the accent right whenI watched Sweet Home Alabama, which was shot in Georgia. I watched movies about racism in Alabama and I get kind of upset at how two-dimensional the racists are. The scariest thing is that they’re humans. I didn’t grow up around people who were screaming racist slurs out of the back of their trucks; I grew up around people who were getting elected into office and secretly redlining the town. I don’t know how much that applies to this.
Well, maybe not redlining, but there are are people of color in your movie. You cast Sunita Mani, and from what I understand, she grew up in Tennessee. Your Alabama is not entirely white.
Birmingham is one of the most diverse places I ever lived. It kind of shocked me when I moved to Boston for college, like, “Damn, Boston is segregated. And Alabama gets the bad rap?” It was important to me to fill the movie with people of color because that’s true. There are certain bars you walk into where it’s like, “Whoa, this bar is all white truckers with a beard,” but it’s a really colorful place and it’s a bummer that the news the rest of the world hears about Alabama is the horrible, embarrassing shit that white men are doing, and occasionally Kay Ivey, our governor. In a way, I see this movie as a metaphor for that: There’s some really embarrassing white guys in the center of this movie, but I also wanted it to be a love letter to the ensemble of women and people of color who clean up their mess. They’re the part of Alabama that I think people don’t see much or hear about or talk about.
There’s a delicate tightrope between lovingly skewering the South and its stereotypes and exploring very real issues such an environment can foster.
The script [written by Billy Chew] wasn’t overtly set in Alabama. We were talking about where to shoot it, and we went to Alabama because it’s a place I knew and I was like, “Okay, I can get the details right,” but it also made it so scary to explain to my parents why I was back home, what the movie’s about.
And now, I want to talk about the twist. About two thirds of the way in, it’s revealed that Dick died from internal injuries he suffered after being fucked by a horse, and that Zeke and Earl are also zoophiles. How much research on or even immersion in the world of zoophilia did you do for this movie?
Just enough. Billy did a lot more than me and Mike Abbott, who plays Zeke, did more than me because it was important to the people writing and playing it that they get to know that world better. We talked about it and read a few articles, and I read about the true story that this is inspired by, but this was not at all an attempt to tell anyone’s true story. At the end, the twist is a way to make people feel something in a theater again. We wanted to tell a story about masculinity and repressing things and keeping secrets and how that feels and what it does to people. We didn’t care that much about zoophilia. It was a way to capture what it feels like to keep a secret. We wanted to make sure we weren’t inaccurate, but we weren’t trying to educate people on zoophilia. Although I will say, the most interesting thing I learned is that some people who are zoos identify more as just, “I’m someone who connects with animals more than I connects with humans.” So in a way, your crazy cat lady aunt is a zoophile.
I kind of relate to that.
Some of them take that affection further, but within the forums, they’re like, “Aren’t animals easier to connect with than humans?” That’s not that hard to relate to.
Was the story that this was inspired by was the one portrayed in the 2007 documentary Zoo?
It was. I think Billy heard about that story, and his mind started running with, “What was his life like? What’s the version of that story that’s not just a punchline on late night?” He kind of got obsessed with making a movie about a guy keeping a secret from his family, but it being that. It just felt like a really fun writer’s prompt. A lot of my favorite movies take something so human and do a hyperbolic version of it so that you feel that feeling.
We wanted to explore shame. Even talking about this movie, I feel those feelings again. Like, “Cool, there’s something interesting.” We’re not sympathetic to animal abuse and didn’t go into too many details so that we could make an ambiguous story. What a boring movie to be like, “Hey, it’s bad to fuck horses.” Duh.
By putting that image in people’s heads, though, I imagine you’re infuriating some viewers. Have you heard those kind of responses?
I’m waiting for it. Not really. There was one woman who leaned over after the screening we did in Dallas and said, “I grew up raising ponies and five minutes into the movie, I leaned over to my husband and I was like, ‘The horse did it.’” What? She was like, “I knew, I knew. I loved the movie.” One of the homeowners of one of the houses we shot in—and we didn’t go into too much detail about the plot—but she one day showed up with a shirt that said, “I try to be the woman the horses think I am.” I thought that was so beautiful and so scary.
What do you think about the Fargo comparisons this film has received? Were you thinking of that movie as you were making this one?
Absolutely. It’s one of Billy’s and my favorite films ever. We wanted this to be its own movie, so we did not use [Fargo] as a cinematography reference or an editing reference or a score reference, but Fargo’s a fuckin’ incredible movie and if I made a movie that people call Redneck Fargo, I’m fine with that. I would like to see a Fargo set in every state in the country. It’s just such a good movie that explores the human condition and the specificity of Minnesota nice. They took it and blew it up. If my movie can do that for redneck self-delusion or Southern nice, then cool.
Toward the end of your film, one of the characters says to another, “People sure are inscrutable on their insides, huh?” Do you agree?
I absolutely agree with it. My identity is a performance. On certain days, I feel nurtured and loved by my community of friends and on other days, I feel like nobody knows me. They don’t know me. And I don’t know anyone else. When a movie gets at that kind of bleakness, it cheers me up and makes me feel less alone for having those feelings. In a weird way, I wanted to make an upliftingly bleak movie that wasn’t mean to the audience and was entertaining.
The Death of Dick Long is now playing in theaters.