Daniel Scheinert is best known as the redneck half of the writing/ directing duo DANIELS along with Daniel Kwan. Together they won Best Director at Sundance 2016 for their feature film Swiss Army Man, and Best Director at the MTV VMAs 2014 for “Turn Down for What.” Scheinert was born and raised in Alabama, and plays the titular role in his latest film, The Death of Dick Long (out September 27 through A24) because the screenwriter Billy Chew dared him to.
When I read an early draft of Billy Chew’s The Death of Dick Long, it was tentatively titled Something Happened in Wyoming. Years later, when we discussed actually making the movie, setting the story in Alabama instead was an obvious choice. Billy had been living in Bama when writing the script, it’s where I’m from, and I love love love shooting movies there (been doing that since I was 13).
In spite of how friendly and fun and affordable every shoot I’ve ever done in Bama has been, I had a fear word would get around that our movie was making Bama look bad, folks would mount a backlash against us, perhaps even with my friends and family members on the other side of the battle front shouting, “Shame on you, Daniel! Shame on you!” (No spoilers here! You have to see my movie to find out why I was so nervous. September 27th!)
My partner of 12 years, Stefanie Lynch, mocked me for this irrational fear, then helped me come up with a fun way to combat it. Inspired by Stef’s previous career helping to open restaurants with a community focus, I decided to make this film in the most community friendly way possible. Nobody would tell us to go back where we came from if we were spending thousands of dollars at their restaurants, and teaching free classes to kids, and donating to the food kitchen, and giving their uncle a cameo.
It was so fun. I learned a lot. Getting involved in rural Alabama naturally made my movie way more authentic to the place. It changed how I want to make movies for the rest of my life. And my friends and family members still haven’t begun protesting. If they try to ban me from Bama when the movie opens September 27, I’ll use this article as part of my defense in court.
As I was anxiously complaining to my dear friend (and great listener) Eleanor Marks about the approaching deadline for this article, she offered to impromptu interview myself and Stef, who’s credited as the film’s Community Outreach & Sustainability Producer. Eleanor is also great at asking questions.
So, what do you mean by sustainability?
Stefanie: Sustainability to us meant not showing up to the small town, using up all the resources and leaving behind a pile of trash. It meant trying to do things the most ethically we could for the community and the environment that we were making this film in.
Daniel: As far as using up the resources, it’s always bugged me that film shoots get a tax incentive from the state, and then we rent a load of hotel rooms at the Holiday Inn or whatever, and you spend thousands at Home Depot (these huge chains) and local businesses barely benefit from all that. So I suppose I’m jumping the gun and getting into community involvement … but which resources we used was important.
Can you give me some examples of what you did?
Daniel: OK, some quick examples: Everyone did their own dishes at lunch, but they got to have actual plates and actual silverware and actual coffee mugs (purchased from a non-profit thrift store). It just meant people had to do a summer camp-style do-your-own-dishes exercise after lunch, which took 30 seconds and everybody kind of bonded over it.
Stefanie: We composted all of our food and we gave it to a pig farm down the street and got some meat back in return.
Daniel: And pig-fat soap! Also, anyone who was having a bad day went with Stefanie and fed the pigs, which was a real morale booster. There were little to no disposables, which means we didn’t have single-serving snacks or throwaway plates or bottled water or soda. Instead everyone got a hot-cold canteen, and we made sure that there was potable water available, usually at multiple different spots on set.
Stefanie: We bought as locally as we could, we employed a bunch of locals who had never worked on film sets before. Also, we outfitted the entire set with almost entirely thrift store or Salvation Army material, and then we donated it all at the end. One organization was a woman’s shelter for domestic abuse which really needed a rocking chair. And we gave leftover food to a couple food kitchens. We did so much. I don’t remember it all.
From your perspective, do you think that this was successful? I want you to answer both financially and artistically.
Daniel: All around success! It’s hard to measure how much our efforts were a part of these things, but here’s a list of doors that opened for us: we met an enthusiastic local family (the Bradleys) and shot in three of their homes, dumped a car in their lake, borrowed a few of their trucks, and more stuff I’m forgetting. We got permission to shoot in a public school. The local hospital let us shoot in the ER for $2,000. One local restaurant gave us thousands of dollars of free kitchen equipment and the use of an empty building for a kick-off party. We got like 10 free pies from The Bright Star in Bessemer. We got to have a free screening party at The Saturn downtown. The fire department allowed us to open up the hydrants and do our own street wet-downs, and came to wet down the hospital for free/cheap.
Stefanie: We had one hotel for a couple of the day players, but otherwise we stayed in local people’s homes, and I think that was a really beautiful thing to help those local people make some money and actually live there. One woman rented us her father’s home, and she hadn’t let anyone live in it since he had died a few years previously. It was a very big moment for her to allow people into that space.
But also a lot of our local crew members hadn’t worked on many film sets before ours, and over two years later they’re like the A-Team for Birmingham, and I think it’s great that we gave some of them their breaks into features.
Daniel: I think it’s worth pointing out that I am embarrassed by Alabama every time I see it in the news and it was really fun to, without being preachy, celebrate caring about the environment. I genuinely think we empowered a lot of progressive-leaning Alabamians with this part of the production. This movie is not overtly about politics, but politics is unavoidable when you’re down there, and we were an unapologetically inclusive, feminist, eco-friendly production.
So what didn’t work?
Stefanie: The only things I can think of are things that I never got around to doing that I wanted to do. I don’t want to sound like I’m perfect …
Daniel: There were days where the model burst at the seams and we had to get disposable plates and bottled water. We had tons of extras at the school and we had to get extra supplies for that day. And there was a day we were shooting process trailer work and the AD team requested bottled water, which is a fair request when you’re two miles away from the water fountain on a hot Alabama day. Also, there would have been a revolt if we didn’t have La Croix. Ashley Connor, our D.P., is addicted to that shit. I also know that some people complained, but people complain all the time on set. I’m psyched they’re complaining about our good intentions falling short as opposed to Holiday Inn’s crappy breakfast, or whatever.
I’m gonna change the stream of the conversation a little bit. I want to talk about small-town Alabama, which seems to be a prominent feature of the movie itself. How do you feel today about the people in this small town in Alabama watching your movie?
Daniel: We just got to watch it in Birmingham at Sidewalk Film Festival which – shameless plug – is the best film festival. It couldn’t have gone over better. And I was genuinely nervous that some of the guests would take offense, because the movie digs into some of those stereotypes that are the only version of Alabama most of the world sees.
Stefanie: Right. Which was a big part of why you wanted to make it to Alabama in the first place.
Daniel: Yeah. We decided to make the movie as kindly as we could, so even if the movie itself offended people, this time the production wouldn’t offend them. Because almost every time I’ve been to a small town, I leave thinking most of them are mad I came, except the person who bumped into Daniel Radcliffe at Denny’s. Everyone else is kind of pissed that I shut down that street and stomped all over the National Park and left skid marks at the intersections.
OK, last question. What’s next for sustainable filmmaking?
Daniel: Well, Stefanie quit right after this movie and now works for Planned Parenthood, so nobody can hire her.
Daniel: But I have a hot take that I will unload in this editorial right here.
Stefanie: Oh boy. (eye roll)
Daniel: Filmmaking has been an art form for assholes for most of filmmaking history. Assholes boss around hundreds of people to bring their asshole dreams to reality. And I think there are an increasingly large number of very sweet, kind people telling stories these days, and it really really excites me that Barry Jenkins and Greta Gerwig are nominated for Oscars instead of, you know, all the same ol’ bullies of the past 150 years. And I have found when talking to filmmakers I really respect about how we made this movie, that it’s really in line with how they like to make movies, and that there are more and more people who care about the process, and think the process affects the final product, and that community outreach, community building and sustainability make for better movies. Basically, I think things are headed that way already. I think the future in general is sustainable and concerned with community, because we’re all sick and tired of the alternative.
Stefanie: The future is inclusive and female, too.
Daniel: Thank you, Stefanie, for your help.
Stefanie: Shut up.