By Steve Prokopy
Filmmaker Amy Seimetz is perhaps best know for being one of the few actors to walk comfortably on both sides of the line that separates micro-budget indie works and bigger-budget studio movies. For most of the early 2000s, Seimetz starred in early works by Joe Swanberg (Silver Bullets, Alexander the Last, Autoerotic), Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture), and Adam Wingard (A Horrible Way To Die, You’re Next). In fact, she entered the film world through the side door of producing independent films, including Barry Jenkins’ 2008 feature debut Medicine for Melancholy.
But in more recent years, she’s made career-defining turns in such works as The Myth of the American Sleepover, The Sacrament, and the television series “The Girlfriend Experience,” which she also directed. She’s also moved into more mainstream works, with turns in Lean on Pete, Alien: Covenant, Wild Nights with Emily, and last year’s Pet Sematary. When Third Coast Review last spoke to Seimetz, it was about these latter two films, in April 2019.
In 2012, she moved from directing shorts to helming her first feature, the revelatory, central Florida-set Sun Don’t Shine, which she also wrote, produced and co-edited. Her latest work as a writer/director is She Dies Tomorrow, the story of a woman (frequent Seimetz collaborator Kate Lyn Sheil) who wakes up one morning utterly convinced she’s going to die the next day. Worse than that, every person she tells about this feeling begins feeling the same way about their own fate. The feeling sinks so deep into their bones that it’s difficult to do or think about anything else, and this strong communicable dread spreads from person to person. It’s an eerie, brilliant thought exercise that plays like part horror movie, part existential grad student thesis about the way ideas and emotions move through society. There’s so much we don’t know about the reasons behind this phenomenon that the tension and anxiety build slowly and substantially.
I spoke with Seimetz recently about her personal connection to the lead character in She Dies Tomorrow (who also happens to be named Amy), as well as the idea of raw emotion being transferred from person to person like a hungry virus. She’s a fantastic talker and a great analyst of her own strengths as an actor and filmmaker.
The film is available via PVOD (premium VOD), but you can catch it on the big screen in Chicago on Thursday August 13th at ChiTown Movies drive-in (2343 South Throop Street, in the Pilsen neighborhood), where She Dies Tomorrow will screen at 8:15pm as part of a Horror Double Feature that also includes a preview of the new Russian sci-fi thriller Sputnik. Following She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz will take part in a virtual Q&A hosted by director Kris Rey (I Used to Go Here). The evening is co-presented by Music Box Theatre and Elevated Films. Enjoy the interview…
This idea of contagious thought and feelings reminds me of friends I’ve had who have been diagnosed with depression who don’t necessarily want to be around other people because they’re afraid it will somehow leach out to these friends who want to help them and instead bring them down as well. What was the jumping-off point for you in considering this all-consuming thing that could be passed from one person to another?
Well obviously I couldn’t predict what’s happening right now. I have bouts of depressions, but to say I have chronic depression would be a lie—I don’t. But I know a lot of people who actually struggle deeply with depression and other disorders. But I do have anxiety and panic attacks, and there is this feeling that when you do talk about it with friends that you feel like a burden and that you’re passing it off to them, and you don’t want to feel like a burden, and that actually makes your anxiety worse, when you feel like a burden and passing it along.
But there’s also this idea of “What if I could, not wish pain or anxiety onto people, but really quickly, in a fleeting moment, here’s what it feels like so you can understand what I’m going through, and then we can move on and talk about it and maybe laugh about it.” So that was the impetus of the movie, along with watching society at large. I’m addicted to the news and am weening myself off of it, but it’s hard because there are so many things moving at the same time. But watching society seed these ideas out there, as opposed to really mine for the truth, like seed an idea—whether it’s left, right, center, whatever—and just taking a headline and repeating it, as opposed to what the actual article is about.
Somebody said this movie was about contagious fear, but I don’t feel that everybody in this film is as afraid of this realization as everybody else, especially Jane Adams’ character, who seems also euphoric with this knowledge she thinks she has. How would you describe this condition?
I don’t think it’s purely fear or dread. I think it’s also ecstasy and curiosity and wonderment. Basically what I described to them in the direction to each actor, when the lights are flashing, is every emotion coming at you, like you’re suddenly downloaded with every emotion and information and secrets in the world, and it’s too much to take in. The humor and the absurdity that we all die—I’m not saying death is so terrible, but at the same time, it’s so fucked that we’re all born, we’re conscious, and we die. There’s an absurdity to that because there’s an absurdity to life, so it’s allowing all of those emotions to come into play.
The lead character’s name is Amy, and you wrote this and you’ve used Kate Lyn as a proxy before, so I have to wonder, how much of who she’s playing is an extension of you and your fears and feelings?
We’ll put it twofold: It is me [laughs] or else I wouldn’t have made the mistake of calling her Amy. But I also know that I’m not that self-important that I think that everyone cares that the lead character is Amy. I know that there are going to be people experiencing the movie that won’t make that connection. But for me, in exploring this character with Kate, who I’m extremely close with as a friend but also in our working relationship, when I write these characters for television or for Sun Don’t Shine, I’m always taking some part of myself, taking the personal and instilling it in there because it’s my access point to understanding a character. But it’s also not me.
For instance, Riley [Keough] in “The Girlfriend Experience” or Kate Lyn’s character in that series, there are certain portions of me that get to play around with these aspects of myself but push it even further. But I can’t put my full self into each character because these characters wouldn’t make these decisions that are just purely me. Same with Crystal [played by Kate Lyn Sheil] in Sun Don’t Shine—because I was trying to touch this much more visceral idea that I was trying to access and explore, the feeling and experience of existential dread of anxiety. I felt it was important for me to say, “It’s Amy. I don’t have to have that boundary; she wouldn’t do this because this character wouldn’t do this.” Then it became an open conversation with Kate about how to touch that feeling through performance of this character and what she’s experiencing.
What is it about Kate Lyn that sets her apart and makes her exception to you, even in performances where she’s not working for or with you?
Many things because she’s such a complicated, wonderful, very good friend. Her brain is constantly working. What I love about her socially speaking is that, if you’re in a social situation with her, she can be quite the wallflower, and then you leave a party where she hasn’t said anything, and she’ll point out everything that happened and watch every minor movement that somebody made or something they said, and she’ll say “Wasn’t that awkward?” And you’ll be like “Oh, you were watching everything.” She’s always watching [laughs]. So when I’m in the position of directing and watching and observing her, I know that she’s somebody who’s constantly absorbing everything 360.
But as someone who also loves her as a friend, she’s so funny, deep and brilliant, and I don’t think there’s a film on earth she hasn’t watched. She is a catalog of movie and music knowledge. Watching her as a director, it’s really fun. She’s so precise in everything decision she makes, whether it’s a quick eye movement or a real slight movement of the face, which is why I love capturing her face, because she tells so much emotionally without words. In addition to that, she’s able to embody everything physically and emotionally but also keep a sense of humor to it. She’s a much more brilliant actor than I am, and it becomes endlessly fun because I trust her innately. She also makes the smartest, most intuitive, correct decisions—if there are correct decisions in performing—and she’s just lovely to work with.
You mentioned earlier the use of lights on people’s faces in the film. That’s such a great, old-school science fiction device to use—to have colored lights on someone’s face. How did you come upon the idea of doing something as simple as that to convey this transformation, and did the specific light patterns and colors mean different things?
What we were playing with, once we see that first sequence where it becomes ecstatic, we were trying to reach that arc and let people know it really was so overwhelming. Really, it was trying to capture what I’d read and what I’d been told about near-death experiences and the overwhelming nature of the visuals and the sounds. For a lot of people, they say “It’s like this but not. It’s infinity but nothing, at the same time.” In trying to translate that into a 2D sonic experience, what is nothing and everything at the same time? So we used getting to these really wild places, and then when Kate experiences it, we dropped the sound out completely, which you don’t usually do in films because sound keeps you grounded. Using that everything all at once and overwhelming to nothingness and calmness was what we were trying to reach. We did things with pacing, more colors, and once everyone is infected, to get to that ecstatic state of “Everyone is experiencing this, and it’s so overwhelming,” but also quite funny, because from the outside it just looks like everyone is screaming.
One of the more interesting aspects of the film is that we don’t really know where this is coming from or what form, if any, these predicted deaths are going to take. Will it be suicide or something supernatural? You’re very nebulous about that. How important was it for you to keep those questions unanswered? For all we know people might get over this feeling if they don’t die when they think they will.
Right. It was important for many reasons, but one of them is that it keeps the audience focused on the thoughts at hand. It also keeps the tension around. The “I don’t knows” are part of the movie. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, I don’t know anything. I just know it’s going to happen at some point. Even just leaving it where we’re asking “Are they going to die tomorrow?” or today, when it’s the next morning, it’s part of the anxiety about approaching death. We feel like there’s a catharsis as a viewer when you watch something and it’s explained to you how it happened, because then you’re able to cathartically go along and say “Okay, I get it. I get that this transpired and that’s how it happened,” and there is a distancing when you can answer a question for yourself. It allows you to calm down. But I didn’t want anyone to calm down [laughs].
In addition to that, I had to show that there are consequences for ideas, whether it was suicide or if Amy was the one who killed Craig [her boyfriend, played by Kentucker Audley], or Jane getting stabbed. It’s not necessarily the disease or contagion that’s causing it; it’s that these ideas have consequences, very real-life consequences. But every idea has consequences, good or bad. In society, there are beautiful things that people do because of ideas, because it becomes real. The same is true of dangerous ideas. Kate rides a dune buggy; that was an idea that became real. Jane gets stabbed because of Katie Aselton, who plays Susan; it’s her fault. It doesn’t necessarily matter how, why or what, but these ideas become real and it’s important to explore that as both a positive and negative.
I hope everyone gets the chance to get as unnerved by this as I did. Best of luck, Amy. Good talking to you again.
Of course. Thank you. It was good talking to you too.
Third Coast Review is Chicago’s locally curated website, specializing in Chicago-area arts and culture coverage. Read more at thirdcoastreview.com