We don't have a healthy relationship with death. Can humor and science help?

Salon talks to Matthew Broderick and director Shawn Snyder about their new tragicomic film "To Dust"

Published February 7, 2019 4:00PM (EST)

Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig in "To Dust" (Tribeca Film Festival)
Matthew Broderick and Geza Rohrig in "To Dust" (Tribeca Film Festival)

Two-time Tony Award-winning actor Matthew Broderick and Shawn Snyder, the writer and director of his new film, joined Salon's Alli Joseph on "Salon Talks” this week to talk about “To Dust,” a tragicomedy exploring the questions many of us have about death.

Shmuel (Géza Röhrig) is a Hasidic cantor in upstate New York. Distraught over the untimely death of his wife and quietly obsessing over how her body will decay, Shmuel seeks out Broderick's character Albert, a local community college biology professor, to help him find the answers he seeks.

Broderick has been making audiences laugh and feel since his Broadway run of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in 1983, and is no stranger to quirky characters. Snyder studied religion at Harvard University years before embarking on an in-depth anthropological research journey to find out exactly what happens to our bodies when we die.

This curiosity, fueled by a sense of incomplete loss around Snyder mother's death 10 years ago, begot “To Dust,” which is darkly funny and thoughtful, and opens in theaters nationwide February 8.

Read the interview below, or watch it here:

This is an uncomfortably funny and unusual premise. Shawn, what prompted you to write this film?

Shawn Snyder: There's lots of threads that came together. The earliest seeds of the idea, and the original catalyst, were planted when I lost my Mom 10 years ago to cancer. It was 10 years in September. I come from a Reform Jewish background, which is certainly not a Hasidic Jewish background, but nonetheless, there's a timeline for grief, and guideposts and guidelines through that grief, and I've always felt that those . . . the Jewish way of grieving is incredibly profound, and poignant and wise and while ancient, also incredibly intuitive in terms of our modern understanding of the psychology of grief.

It's very life-affirming, even in the face of death, and allows for a period of intense externalized mourning, before trying to lead the bereaved back to the land of the living. So ,I've always found that wonderful and beautiful, and yet, nonetheless, when my Mom passed away, from the vantage point, and in the depths of, that very specific grief, on one hand I felt, you know, honoring my Mom and mourning with my family and my community, and some personal, spiritual ties to mourning in the Jewish way, but that my grief was spilling outside the boundaries of those confines.

It needed to express itself, and grow, and evolve, and I feel that 10 years later I'm still on a pilgrimage of grief, but it's not something that I think is particularly depressive, or something that I need to purge, or get beyond, its something that lives inside me, and that evolves, and that I'm actually grateful for in many ways. So, the movie is sort of this exploration of the right to personal meaning, the right to honor someone who's been lost, and to cope in a way that is befitting to the individual, and to that specific relationship.

It is indeed a process. I lost my own mother to cancer 11 years ago, so we have certainly something in common there, and a primary part of her loss, for me, is the sadness about what she's missed, right? Both from a family perspective, children, and also what's happening in the world. So, working together on on "To Dust," . . .  is there something in this grief process that you've both learned from losing your own loved ones, that helped inform different parts of the film for you, Matthew?

Matthew Broderick: Well, I don't know. I've lost both my parents, so I win. Yeah, it's a very deep thing that happens to people. Is there a question?

There is a question, the question is, did you tap into your own experiences with loss here? Even though this is obviously . . . some of it is very funny, but it's a journey, as he says.

Broderick: Well ... yeah. Yes. A bit, I mean, the character I play is sort of trying to avoid those feelings, you know. Geza, the cantor, the Hasidic cantor who I . . . He has just lost his wife, and he's miserable, and I sort of try to help him out of that. But I sort of avoid personal feeling about it, in a way, the character does, so it's not like I was exactly exploring that.

Snyder: But while being a lost soul, with —

Broderick: Absolutely, but he's the type who likes to not think about the . . . it seemed to me, to not be thinking about those things.

He's a bit of a stoner, right?

Broderick: He's a stoner and he likes Jethro Tull, and doesn't seem to like teaching, but he teaches, and I think he does have all those feelings, he just sort of hides them, at first, anyway. But certainly, working on the movie made me think about what it's . . . about death, frankly, and the movie delves into what happens to . . . you know . . . What is death, physically? too, which is something that nobody likes to think about too much, but everybody's curious about it.

Exactly, and that's a part of why this has such relevance, I think, for anybody. I was attracted, a little morbidly, to the science of decay that the characters study in this film, and for that reason, it might be difficult for some people to watch, but I was sort of a former bio-geek, and so . . . Shawn, you've said that forensic anthropology really interested you, and you did a tremendous amount of research to put this together. Did you study it for the film?

Snyder: I studied it for the film. The film was born of the research. It had all of these components of my life that have been laid in and latent, and then they were all sort of unlocked. The organization The Alfred P. Sloan foundation, which not only funds a lot of scientific research, but actually funds what they call a mission statement, the public understanding of science through the arts. They're very generous, and they incubate projects that have something to do with science.

And I never felt, innately, that I had a scientific idea, but I had these thoughts about my Mom's body when she decomposed, hauntingly, and conveniently, Jewish grief, you know, the timeline of Jewish mourning, sort of offered this template to graft atop. You know, I'm checking in at seven days with where I'm feeling, but where's my Mom's body? What's happening down there at seven days, at 30 days? And I've never felt comfort at my Mom's grave, but you have these sort of horrific nightmares, and I think, as we all generally do, I repressed those, and kind of ignored them. I didn't go crazy with them, but I do think that when you repress, things fester. And that's individually, and that's societally. I think as a society, and our cultures therein, we don't have a healthy relationship with death. But if one were, you know, when the idea for the film occurred, I realized that if one were to engage that reality, it would, in essence, be a scientific question.

Then you would put science in conversation with religion, and so simultaneously researching, going down the rabbit hole of the Hasidic world, and not only the cultures and the trappings of it, but the ethos and Kabbalistic mysticism, and the folklore of that world. And also at the same time, going down the rabbit hole of forensic anthropology, which I didn't know much about. I knew about forensics and criminology, but I assumed that when I would set out on this idea, I might google what happens to a body, and there would be a pretty simple answer, and there would be no drama. But what I found instead was this young and blossoming field of science that moves at this breakneck pace, in terms of the discoveries that are made, and an infinite number of increasingly minute factors that affect how any given body is going to decompose, and it's fascinating. And my own descent into that research, I visited a body farm in Tennessee.

Those are real things, right?

Snyder: And those are real things.

What he's referring to is a real anthropological study park, these do exist — I learned in the film, and then read about it — where they actually study decomposition, and the different states that bodies break down in nature for science.

This is a little strange of a question, but, I mean, it's all relevant. What's the most interesting thing that you guys learned about how we decompose after death? And I imagine you may have absorbed some of this?

Broderick: I did, yeah.

And you said, "fester," before, so I just have to say, good ... you used it in two other ways, and it's just oddly appropriate.

Broderick: Well, I was surprised to learn that in some instances that ... I don't want to spoil, but that bodies . . . that not much happens to them sometimes. In some situations, they would look pretty normal after much longer than I thought.

And you'd think it'd just be melted down, right?

Broderick: I thought it'd be a nice, you know, Hammer Film skeleton —

This is horrifying.

Broderick: — after about a week, but it's not.

And I read a book about forensic anthropology way before this. I actually did read the book, I think it was called "Dead Men Do Tell Tales."

Which is a really good book.

And one thing I remember, this has nothing to do with the film, but you asked, is they found two blobs of silicone in the woods, and —

Of course they did. Well, you know where those came from?

Broderick: No, but the student said, "Are these jellyfish? She could not figure it out." And the guy was like, "Those are breast implants."

She's not cosmopolitan.

Broderick: They looked perfect, apparently.

Well, of course they did.

Broderick: So, your whole body goes away, and there's just two —

Snyder: The soul remains, and the silicone.

Broderick: ... and one fake tooth.

One fake tooth? This is what I'm thinking, so in this age of so much cosmetic surgery, and stuff like that, I have had this thought, like, everything breaks down, and if they were to look in a casket . . .  there's just this pile of metal and plastic.

Broderick: Yeah, every bit of metal in you. I have a bunch of little bits of metal.

You're going to look good, then, Matthew. Somebody could like, melt you down and sell you.

Broderick: Even after being cremated, they can sometimes figure out who it was, just from the bits of metal that didn't melt.

It's cheery, isn't it?

Tt's delightful. Are you guys enjoying this? This is really fascinating stuff, so if you're interested in anthropology and biology and chemistry, and the breakdown of things in nature, this is fascinating to explore.

[To Snyder] It's clear that you explored some of these ideas at Harvard. You studied religion. Were you drawn to Jewish ideas about death and religious law in particular when you were there?

Snyder:  At Harvard, I was studying the comparative study of religion, and with my own background, obviously, Judaism factored into it, and it was both an intellectual study and also an excuse for my own spiritual searching. I started to focus very much while I was there, not on any individual tradition, but on this idea of . . . I'm going to sort of get academic and thesis-y, but religion in a postmodern world, and how in conversation with, or outside of our own cultures of origins, we sort of create religions for ourselves, and how we have a personal right for meaning, and with those religions, we build our own rituals around those.

And that particular obsession has been, not only a personal journey for myself, but has weaved it's way throughout my artistic, thematic fascinations and interests, and that's really what the thread to To Dust is, this right to create our own rituals, to find our own meaning, where we seek it.

And you said something interesting earlier, that when you've gone to your mother's grave, and I don't know if this is the case for you, but it resonated with me, because I've felt the same. You go there, and you don't feel anything, right? There's not . . .it's just a place, because there's a sensibility that the person, or maybe the soul, is not there anymore. And a lot of people have questions about what happens to us when we die, which is why this should resonate with so many people. Do you both think that approaching it with humor, as you have here, though it's dark, might actually help some audiences reimagine or reframe their questions about death?

Snyder: I think so. I mean, humor is spiritual for me. The catharsis through humor. There's a lot of reasons why the film ended up as humorous as it did, and sort of started out with a sense of dark comedy, but I think, one is, we're looking at these taboos, we were looking and exploring, both imagistically and thematically,  and scientifically, these things that are very, very difficult to acknowledge. And there's this Jewish tradition of humor, and gallows humor, and laughing in the face of tragedy.

Number one, I think it elevates the tragedy. I think that humor is human. I think that humor is humbling, and I think that it felt very necessary to shine the light into the darkness of these themes with a sense of humor, to be humble before it, and also to ease the audience into this very ... you know, you can come along with us, but you're going to laugh, as well.

And obviously, you don't have to understand Judaism to see this, but if you were raised in like a ... you know, half in my case, Reform home, you believe as well.

I found some of the things you wrote very funny. I mean, with the superstitions and the stereotypes, and some of them were very relatable to me. I was trying to remember some of the Yiddish, and some of the things that I had growing up, some of which I saw reflected here. Did any of that come up for you, things that you learned as a kid, or ...?

Broderick: Well, I was brought up pretty ... not very religiously. I am half-Jewish, but ... or ... my mother, so ...

So, you would be Jewish, in the law.

Broderick: Yes, I know, and I ... yeah. But, I didn't grow up with a whole lot of religion, actually, to be honest.

Me neither, but we did a lot of the traditions . . . and that was important.

Broderick: Yes, and I definitely know the cultural ... I know that you're allowed to laugh at things, and ... I don't know, I get the ... I'm Jewish. I don't know why, but I am.

But that's the thing, it's sort of intrinsic here, right? And that definitely resonated with me.

"To Dust" has been compared to "The Odd Couple," in a way, and I saw those parallels very clearly. It's like a idiosyncratic buddy pic, in a way. Since you did star in the Broadway production of "The Odd Couple," what parallels about the sometimes peculiar nature of friendship between men could you draw between the two very different stories?

Broderick: Yeah, well it's not so dissimilar, I mean, these ... Felix and Oscar have known each other a long time, so they have a history of bickering, and it's a little bit different. These are men who have not met. Other than that, it's actually much more similar than I would think. I mean, they're both equally inept in this story. Neither of them know what they're looking for exactly, or how to find it. So, one thinks he has a handle on it, and the other doesn't, and that can switch.

And I am also ... you know, there's . . . rabbis . . . this is sacrilegious, but it is a little bit funny, sometimes, a long beard, it's . . . you know, there's a lot of comedies about dancing rabbis. It has nothing to do with that, but —

Snyder: Mel Brooks, by all means, yeah.

Broderick: Mel Brooks would think that was funny, I guess.

He would. I think he would as well.

Broderick: Not that there's anything funny about it.

Snyder:  But I think you guys are digging yourselves out of graves, but you also end up in these genres that you don't particularly belong in, and I think you're trying to dig yourself out of those, too.

Broderick: Yeah, and trying to communicate. We almost speak a different language, each of us, so it's just fun to watch them try to explain themselves to each other, because they never quite seem to understand each other. Maybe on some deeper level they do —

Right, but what I observed, I thought, was that they come to have, much like Felix and Oscar, a kind of a . . .  like a grumpy reliance on each other.

Broderick: Absolutely.

They each need something from the other, even though they don't communicate that well.

Broderick: No, but they realize that they know much more about each other than they thought.

Snyder: My writing partner, Jason Begue, and I, we're huge fans of genre, and genre-bending, and genre subversion, but you know, with great power comes great responsibility. You could mash genres together for cheap ends, as a gimmick, and we try to tread in a way that we only do so if it's going to be emotionally or thematically purposeful. So, I think we're taking things like B horror genre, but also, certainly, the buddy comedy, and saying, "Well, how is this also emotional?"

Given the circumstances and the purpose and the reason with which you guys meet, and what you impart on the freshness of the relationship developing, versus a long-term existing relationship, and the hope that this bizarre relationship will be cathartic and healing in some way, I think that well . . . I say this about both of their performances, and you do certainly, you know, when you put you alongside Geza, you have a straight man and comedic relief on its surface, but it's the ways that Matthew makes me cry, and the ways that Geza makes me laugh, that I particularly find beautiful in their performances and their dynamic.

That's a lovely compliment.

Broderick: It is a lovely compliment.

It's good. And you did an amazing job. I mean, I really felt the pain of the two men in different ways. Your character's divorced.

Broderick: Yeah, absolutely.

He seems like kind of a lonely, curmudgeonly guy. And then, Shmuel, the other character, is trapped in his religious community and unable to explore things that are troubling him, and so you've helped each other, and ... What attracted you to the role of Albert?

Broderick: Oh, well, initially, I just was ... I liked the script, you know? I really enjoyed reading it and I wanted to ... and it was unexpected, and it seemed personal, you know, like written by a thoughtful human, not like a group. It seemed worthwhile, and I wanted to work with Geza, because I had seen "Son of Saul," and then when I met Shawn ...

But what attracted me to the role, I guess . . . it's more like I would read it and think, "I don't really know how to do this, but it seems like there might be something." I don't always say, "I'm attracted to this because of this." I don't always know. I just sort of think, "Oh, I'll take a bite of that and see how that is." So, you sort of, at least me, you sort of jump in, and then halfway through shooting it, you start to realize why you like the role.

And I imagine the script is paramount, I mean you have to like the flow of the story, absolutely.

Broderick: No, that's the first thing. You have to like everything, the people and the material, and then the writing.

I don't know what it is. It's hard to explain, what I would like about a role always, until I've done it, at least a bit of it.

And then I start to think, "Oh, this is fun. I get it now."

Was the pig wrestling fun?

Broderick: Pig wrestling was fun.

There's pig wrestling. It's macabre. It's a little sad, but . . . no pig was harmed. 

Broderick: No. The pig was extremely happy. I saw him, and he smiled the whole time, as pigs do.

Snyder: He smiled, and then he pooped everywhere.

Broderick: He took a huge shit the second he got on the stage, basically.

This is a lovely set, right?

Broderick: Welcome. And in a basement, in a den we were shooting in.

Snyder: Yeah, that had just been sold by a realtor, so ... you know, that helped the people who moved in there.

Broderick: And peed. An enormous pee, like a huge lake of pee.

Wow. You need a real cleanup crew.

Broderick: But, he was a very good pig, very easy to work with, and ...

Was it Orson Welles that said, "Never work—"

Broderick: No, it was not Orson Welles.

Who was it? Was it ... Who was it, that said, "Never work with children or ..."

Broderick: W.C. Fields.

Snyder: Well, yeah, and you can add, you know, rain machines and cemeteries to that mix. This film — 

Broderick: Hungarians. Yeah.

There you go. Pigs, rain machines. Of course it was W.C. Fields. At least I didn't say Winston Churchill.

A central theme of the movie is — and you mentioned this when we began — how far humans will go to avoid seeing death, as it really is, and decay in particular. And you've noted though, Shawn, that there's a spiritual element to actually looking this decay and the dissolution in the face. Why is that?

Snyder: First of all, a very personal element. I think we all have our own threshold, and I think that, should we choose to — you know, I said rabbit hole again, go down that rabbit hole, we shouldn't feel ostracized or strange, for wanting to do so. And I think that there's a lot of nuanced ways in which that science, to me, becomes poetic, and becomes mystical, and spiritual, and beautiful, but even just on its surface, this notion of a limited amount of matter in the universe, and left sort of unencumbered, unformaldehyded in the ground, and not in a vault of a casket, the way that that matter will become something else.

And I don't know, myself, where I exactly want to end up, but the idea of becoming a tree seems particularly beautiful, and profound, and spiritual, and almost Kabbalistic and mystical, in these strange intersections. Take the opportunity to plug, there's a nonprofit organization called the Order of the Good Death.

They have funeral homes, they have ... it's about, sort of ... It's also called the Death Positive Movement. It's about sort of re-shifting and reconfiguring our cultural and personal relationships to death.

Well, there's so many mores and stigmas against it —

Broderick: Good luck with that.

I don't want to die.

You're going to be like Walt Disney. We could freeze you. Maybe this is another movie.

Broderick: Yes, I want to be frozen. There's also composting now, I read recently.

Snyder: There was an article in the New York Times.


Broderick: Yeah, you can be composted.

Snyder: This has been happening in the Pacific Northwest, yeah.

Broderick: In California, you can be composted.

Snyder: I think, ultimately, the point is, to each his or her own.


Snyder: And that's where we leave it.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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