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Why Justin Timberlake didn’t star in The Death of Dick Long

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And other revelations from director Daniel Scheinert, about Nickelback, empathy, the bro code, and butts

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Photo: A24

The Death of Dick Long isn’t exactly what viewers might expect, judging from the mild innuendo of the title and the trailer portraying it as a comedically dark disaster about a boys’ night out that goes wrong. It’s also not necessarily what viewers might expect based on its creators, director Daniel Scheinert and his longtime friend and collaborator, screenwriter Billy Chew. As half of the writing-directing team Daniels, Scheinert has been involved in a lot of giddy mayhem, from colorful music videos (most notably for Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What”) to bizarre, exciting short films. They’ve created complicated experiments in interactive cinema, and they made their feature-film debut with Swiss Army Man, a strangely tender movie about a shipwrecked man who survives with the help of Daniel Radcliffe’s aggressively farting corpse.

So it’s surprising how empathetic and personal The Death of Dick Long is, for a noir crime comedy about a man who dies with mysterious anal injuries, leaving his friends to frantically cover up the circumstances. Set in Scheinert’s native South, it’s sympathetic toward the hapless bros who witness the death of Dick Long (played by Scheinert, though he tried to get Channing Tatum for the role) and turn it into an even bigger, more darkly comedic disaster than it already is. I sat down with Scheinert at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, where the movie premiered, to discuss the film’s thoughts on fragile masculinity, the bro code, dodging Southern stereotypes, trying to stunt-cast a dead guy, creating empathy for Nickelback, and butts. Especially butts.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Why are the Daniels so into stories centering around butts? I’m thinking about Interesting Ball and Swiss Army Man, and it’s relevant again here in The Death of Dick Long.

[Laughs] I don’t know! Something about lowbrow and highbrow at the same time is my favorite comedy, and anything about bodily functions is universal. Everyone across the globe is born with a butt. Fifty percent of them have vaginas, and that’s funny, and 50 percent of them have weiners, and that’s funny. Dan and I joke about which bodily functions we haven’t made movies about. Like, we’ve made a movie about barfing, but not burping, and pooping and peeing.

Are you working from a checklist? Do you need to get to belching soon?

I guess so! Another real answer is that for Dan and I discovered that for music videos, if you want to tell a visual story, you go for physical comedy. Bodily functions resonate with people, and with us, and make us laugh. They help us explore the human experience. Bodies are weird.

At the same time, Dick Long doesn’t track primarily as a comedy. There’s a lot of emotional drama, and a lot of time spent in the heads of people in very sad, uncomfortable places. Is it harder to mesh that kind of lowbrow bodily humor with serious drama?

No, that’s my favorite, dramas that make me laugh, or comedies that make me sad. Billy wrote a script that gave me permission to have fun and make jokes, as long as it wasn’t at the expense of the characters. Dick dies under a farcical set of circumstances, so there’s a lot of opportunity to have fun. But you’re right, it was also an opportunity to do some three-dimensional scene work with actors. Huge chunks of the film just focus on the reality of these bizarre circumstances.

Photo: A24

So you’re from Alabama, and Billy isn’t, but he spent some time there, and you’ve said he was sending you messages like, “Your home state is fascinating.” How did he end up there?

After college, he moved there. His ex-girlfriend lived there, and he went and lived with her and her parents for a while. They discussed it, and they didn’t want to go straight from college to the big city. It didn’t feel particularly right or fun to them. He got really excited about going somewhere specific and weird and interesting, and learning about the world. So their plan was, “Let’s go to Alabama for a few years and figure out exactly where we want to go next, and what we want to do next.” And they lived there for three or four years.

What kind of perspective did he give you about Alabama?

I respect him a lot. He’s a smart, interesting guy. So I thought he’d be bored. But then he would tell me the stories he’d read in the local paper, or heard around town, or who worked at Panera with him. They would remind me of people I grew up around, but it blew my mind that he thought it was so interesting. A lot of people grow up in the South and claim to have Southern pride, but actually have Southern shame. Like, “Where I’m from is boring. Nobody cares about little me living here in this silly state.” He was finding out things I loved and knew, but thought wouldn’t interest other people. And now I realize that’s not true. And it’s something I have to offer. I come from somewhere specific, and not many filmmakers are from there. So I can use that until the rest of the world catches on and starts hiring people from Birmingham, until there are like 20 of us.

You’ve talked about making this as a response to movies like The Hangover, bro comedies about male bonding over terrible behavior. Why was that important to you?

I love those movies, but I’m ashamed of loving those movies because the things the characters do have no consequences. Some of the people enabled by those stories are my least favorite people in the world. I love Jackass and The Hangover, but I thought this was an opportunity to explore man-children and add in some real repercussions. What’s it like keeping secrets? What toll does it take psychologically? They brush over that in The Hangover, the secret they all keep. “Bro, we’re not gonna tell anyone what happened last night” is a terrible way to start a marriage. It’s a tragic movie! In the end, he marries her, and his friends are all, like, “We’re never telling anyone!” I was like, “Fuck, that’s a sad, sad metaphor for nuclear families across America.” [Laughs]

Photo: A24

This movie is so much about that kind of masculinity, about the macho code of “We will never speak of our emotions, and we’ll police each other constantly for any sign of weakness.” How did you want to approach that idea?

I approached it just as a fan of the script. I tried to find the most interesting actors, and talk with them about what felt truthful. I didn’t want to do a reductive satire. I wanted to make something that would resonate with these kinds of guys, something they would enjoy. So we approached it honestly, and found all of us have a lot in common with these characters. Not extremely specifically, but we’ve all bottled shit up or had a week where we don’t want to admit to a significant other or parents or ourselves what we’re going through because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

There are big comedic elements to the movie, especially in some of the dumber decisions the characters make. But you don’t want them to come across as stupid or laughable. How did you approach that with the actors?

We would look for variations in each scene, in how to play it, but we were always looking to find humor in the situations, as long as we were grounded in reality. I wanted the movie to never not be funny for longer than a couple minutes, so people wouldn’t forget the film had been silly for the first half. But I also think that’s accurate to real life. When people are sad, and their marriages are falling apart, they’re a mess. They fall down the stairs, they misspeak, they stutter. But in movies, people are so articulate, and they hit their mark. I find it unrelatable when people are going through tragedy and they look great, and they’re standing in perfect light and giving speeches. When I’ve gone through hard periods of my life, I’m ridiculous. So it felt like, in a way, the comedy was another way of chasing authenticity. Because real life’s funny.

There’s so much sensitivity right now about anything that seems to examine what it means to be a straight white dude, especially if there’s any hint of criticism or critique. Even acknowledging that there’s a culture there makes some people uncomfortable and angry. Did you have to contend with that, or have you been seeing that kind of reaction?

A little. And then my brain just went in the opposite direction. There’s a culture of people just wanting to really dunk on straight white man culture in a way that feels unhelpful. For alt-right bros to refuse to self-examine, or admit that maybe something’s wrong with their outlook, is dangerous and bad and terrible. Gamergate and that kind of culture is about building up walls, creating a siloed-off culture. But there’s also the opposite siloed-off culture of people who want to break down the patriarchy and can’t admit that the guys are just their neighbors. One of the things I love about Billy is that when he writes, he has all this stuff in the back of his mind, but he tries to go into the gray of the world and have a ton of fun there, and have things to say without creating a preachy, preachy sermon. People these days often really want to stick to extremes, but I don’t. I think movies are more fun when they’re an exercise in empathy.

Photo: A24

You’ve talked about the challenge of creating empathy for weird things, like getting people to connect emotionally to a farting corpse. Or in this case, to—

To Nickelback!

Why is that an urge for you?

My favorite films do that to me, so I aspire to do that to another audience member somewhere. I want to make people have an emotional reaction they didn’t expect, or didn’t think they could have. It doesn’t blow my mind if a movie makes me sad when the dog dies. But it blew my mind how the end of Midsommar gave me an emotional, spiritual experience. And it shouldn’t have. It’s supposed to be fucked-up. I love that, getting persuaded to empathize with culty murderers. And it’s a fun process as a filmmaker to remind myself that empathy is the end goal because then every choice you make is just you understanding some humans. What are they like? What are they up to? As opposed to moving them around as pawns.

Is it true that you pursued a lot of stunt casting for Dick Long himself?

Yeah, we actually reached out to Channing Tatum and Justin Timberlake’s PR teams. And I feel bad in retrospect. I’m so lucky to be in a position where I can reach out to people like that, but this was a pretty mean role to offer someone. [Laughs] Especially now that I’ve played the role. It would have been miserable. I mean, it was fun. Dick gets to shoot fireworks and guns, but then he gets dragged around and dropped on concrete and covered in fake blood for a long time. They wouldn’t have had much fun. But I think Justin Timberlake’s team — we got in touch with his agents, and they were like, “We’re not even showing this to him.” Which has never happened to me, where an agent was like, “No. Hard pass. We’re not even telling Justin.” Maybe they were afraid he’d say yes, and they censored him!

What would you do if Channing Tatum or Justin Timberlake approached you at a film festival and said “I can’t believe they didn’t tell me about this role. I wish I’d been Dick Long!”

I’d be like, “Let’s do another one! Next time! I’ll find a role for you!” But I’m glad it didn’t work out. I love that nobody in this film is a celebrity, like a big, super-distracting, famous face. Because there’s a whole genre of indie film that makes me feel like I just went into a small-town world, and I hope this movie’s like that, like a window into a community. Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Moonlight. Sundance has like 10 indies every year that are like, “Here are 10 super-celebrities playing a small-town Arkansas family.” Like Kings of Summer. It’s a good movie, but everybody’s parents are so famous in that movie, it kind of distracted me. And this isn’t that.

Why was Dick Long a solo project rather than a Daniels film? Are you guys planning on doing a series of separate projects?

Dan and I are constantly figuring out our process, and trying to make our working relationship healthy. So it just felt right at the time. We have tons more work that we want to make together. This one — Kwan and I had been outlining our new movie together, and then he sat and wrote a draft while I made this movie. That was an experiment in our writing process because I could be a pretty impatient writer. This time I said, “Okay, you’re going to have three or four months, and I’ll be around to talk, and then I’ll come back and we’ll make the movie this winter.” That was two years ago. [Laughs] Like, six drafts later…

It’s been good for us. I don’t think we’re going to solo direct a lot, but we have been learning that giving each other some space is really fun. With a music video, doing everything together makes sense. But with features, some space is nice because we can surprise each other. “Okay, you did a draft, made some discoveries, and now it’s my turn.” We’re excited to do some solo writing and editing, but we also have dual directing plans.

How’s that film that’s been in scripting for two years?

It’s coming along! I’m so proud of it. We’re inches from being able to shoot it this winter. So awesome.

The Death of Dick Long opened in theatrical release on September 27th, 2019.