For indie icon Amy Seimetz, filmmaking is therapeutic as she channels her feelings and emotions into her characters and films. In her latest independent feature, She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz used her own anxiety to fuel the narrative as her longtime collaborator Kate Lyn Sheil plays a character named Amy, who’s directly based on the filmmaker and Pet Sematary actor. Sheil’s Amy has an overwhelming sense that she’s “going to die tomorrow,” and she passes that deadly anxiety on to those around her, much like a contagious virus.
“I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and in lots of therapy, and I was trying to drill down into what and why,” Seimetz tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And essentially, when you have anxiety, your body or your brain is like, ‘I need to solve this right now.’ And then I asked, ‘Why do I need to solve this right now?’ And I realized: because I’m going to die at some point. So, I wanted to make something that was dealing with what my current situation was and not wait for it to be developed. I wanted to make something independent and go back to my roots as an independent filmmaker.”
Unlike most storytellers, Seimetz also isn’t hiding the fact that the main character of Amy is based on her.
“Well, with most of my work, there are versions of me or emotions that I’m dealing with, and then I create them into characters,” Seimetz explains. “By removing the artifice of a different name and a different character, I was able to allow Kate’s character, which is Amy, to be me. There was no, ‘I really want her to do this, but this character wouldn’t do that.’ It was like, ‘I really want her to do this and she can because it’s an extension of me.’ So, I was able to have a lot more freedom of where we went with it. I definitely remember, though, on set when I decided to call her Amy. I said out loud to everyone, ‘I’m going to regret this later.’”
In a recent conversation with THR, Seimetz also discusses the impact that film festivals have had on her life and career, why negative feelings inspire her the most and how she approached sexuality on The Girlfriend Experience.
So I’m curious about which way the scale tips right now. If you had to fill out your tax forms tomorrow, would you write actor or filmmaker as your occupation?
(Laughs.) I think I write everything. I write “actor, writer, director.” This past year, it’s more so writing than acting, but that’s just because, you know, quarantine.
There’s an idea in this movie that functions like a contagious virus, and the movie is obviously coming out at a time when a deadly virus is still sweeping the globe. Have you been able to maintain what the film meant to you during writing, shooting and editing, or has its meaning evolved because of the real-world virus?
I think the meaning would’ve evolved whether or not we were in quarantine and dealing with coronavirus because every film that I’ve ever made, I look back and I’m like, “How did I not see that that was what I was writing about?” (Laughs.) But it’s interesting because the part that’s illuminated a little bit more is this feeling of isolation and this feeling of wanting to connect to people. Missing that, missing being around people, missing seeing their faces and interacting. And wanting them to understand you and understand your being, or understand how you’re feeling. Specific to what we’re going through in quarantine, that’s the part that has really come to the surface a lot more than I had imagined it would.
So what was the first kernel of the idea for this movie? What happened that made you say, “I better write this down”?
I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and in lots of therapy, and I was trying to drill down into what and why. Where is this anxiety coming from? And essentially, when you have anxiety, your body or your brain is like, “I need to solve this right now.” And then I asked, “Why do I need to solve this right now?” And I realized: because I’m going to die at some point. If I was immortal, then I wouldn’t need to solve anything. (Laughs.) It could be whenever I want to, whenever I get to it, right? In addition to that, I was developing things for television, and they take a very long time. So, I wanted to make something that was dealing with what my current situation was and not wait for it to be developed. I wanted to make something independent and go back to my roots as an independent filmmaker. And so, the very first thing that I thought of in dealing with the anxiety was poking fun at myself and how bizarre my behavior would be if I’m by myself. So, the initial idea was watching Kate Lyn Sheil, who plays Amy, moving around her house in this very strange way, and if you were to observe her, it would be alarming, almost suicidal in a way.
While I was watching the film, I kept thinking about why it often takes bad news or some kind of threat for us to become more honest and adventurous. Why does something alarming tend to motivate us to live each day like it’s our last, as the cliché goes, and not something joyful? Were these questions also on your mind while making this movie?
I think it’s twofold. I said this even before quarantine, but for me personally — which I can only speak about; I can’t speak for the world — but for me personally, I’m not inspired by pure joy. (Laughs.)
You know? Like, there’s nothing more motivating than negative feelings, right? Whether that’s spite, or “I don’t like these things about the world,” or “I’m having this anxiety, I need to alleviate,” or whatever’s fueling it, it lights a fire under your ass to get out of it. And I wonder if it’s a level of fight-or-flight, you know? Because I feel like fear is such a barbed entity. For instance, in the movie, even if somebody tells you something where you’re like, “That’s not going to happen,” somewhere inside of your body, it’s like a barb has caught on because I think there’s a level of survival that happens with information that’s fear-based. Intellectually, you can be like, “That’s never going to happen,” but your body is like, “I just heard some information and I need to keep one eye open when I sleep for survival.” (Laughs.) There’s just something that gets stuck in your body, and you’re like, “I need to do something about it,” even if you don’t necessarily or intellectually believe it at the time.
I really appreciate how you aren’t hiding the fact that Kate Lyn’s Amy is based on you. You can often tell when a director is drawing on their own life, but they’ll try and disguise it by doing something obvious like changing the name Kevin to Kenneth. What led you to be this transparent as far as the Amy character is concerned?
Well, with most of my work, there are versions of me or emotions that I’m dealing with, and then I create them into characters. Even with Riley’s (Keough) character in The Girlfriend Experience… I’ve told Riley this and I’ve said this in press before that, “You’re the version of me in my 20s that I wish I could’ve been,” but also taking that concept and pushing it even further. In my 20s, I was very apologetic, in a way, and I wanted to create a character, like Riley’s character, where she just never felt the need to apologize. (Laughs.) But when you write these characters and you’re taking pieces of yourself, there’s a lot of things that you can’t do with the character because it doesn’t fit that particular character. And so, by removing the artifice of a different name and a different character, I was able to allow Kate’s character, which is Amy, to be me. There was no, “I really want her to do this, but this character wouldn’t do that.” It was like, “I really want her to do this and she can because it’s an extension of me.” (Laughs.) So, I was able to have a lot more freedom of where we went with it. I definitely remember, though, on set when I decided to call her Amy. I said out loud to everyone, “I’m going to regret this later.” (Laughs.) I was like, “It’s funny right now, but I will regret it later.” (Laughs.)
Adam Wingard plays Dune Buggy Man, and you’ve worked with him many times over the years. There seems to be a whole group of you guys, such as Joe Swanberg, Kate Lyn Sheil or AJ Bowen, who help make each other’s projects. How did this little family tree start, and who’s the John Hughes at the center of it?
(Laughs.) I don’t know if there is [a John Hughes]. It’s so weird. I went to Florida State and what’s crazy about the time that I was there is that I met Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski, David Robert Mitchell, my friend Justin Barber, who made Phoenix Forgotten, Wes Ball, and Joi McMillion and Nat Sanders, who edit for Barry. Then, I met Joe Swanberg and Kris Rey, who has a movie coming out, Lynn Shelton and all of these people at a film festival after I produced for Barry’s Medicine for Melancholy. So, it was this very organic process of meeting all of these people. What was interesting with these film festivals — which is a sad portion, obviously not the saddest portion, of what’s happening right now — is that none of us knew each other, but we organically found each other because we were all making these movies in these little pods across the country. That’s the beautiful part about all of these filmmakers: Adam, Joe, Kris, Lynn, and Megan Griffiths, who I acted for. We all help each other because there isn’t this competitive nature in the way that you would think there would be. And what’s beautiful is that there is no hierarchy. It’s just a bunch of people who really enjoy making independent film.
She Dies Tomorrow also re-teams your Sun Don’t Shine leads, Kate Lyn (Sheil) and Kentucker (Audley). Does superstition ever play a role in working with the same people again?
With Kate and Kentucker, specifically, I just find them incredibly alluring and incredibly charming. And to me, Kentucker has — and this what I felt when I put him in Sun Don’t Shine — this sort of modern Paul Newman-esque charm to him when he’s on the screen. And all of these people have such a sense of humor. I need people with a sense of humor on set, and they have very bizarre senses of humor. And Kate, to me, is the Meryl Streep of our time. Her face is just unbelievable. And her decisions, whether they’re subtle or wild — she has this incredible ability to be incredibly precise, whether it’s just a look to the left, or when I want her to be more explosive, which was much more in Sun Don’t Shine. Her ability to go from zero to 100 is kind of mind-blowing. But also, she’s so finely-tuned that you can make these really tiny adjustments, and she just executes. And on top of that, she’s a dear friend of mine. So, we have this shorthand with all of these people, including my cinematographer, Jay Keitel, too. There’s a shorthand there and a lot of trust, as well. So, it’s very easy to get to these deeper or weirder places when you have that shorthand and that trust.
The opening shot of Amy’s eye is really cool, and we eventually learn that her initial voiceover comes from her monologue later in the film. Did you have to play with the timing of the monologue so the VO fit the length of the opening shot?
A little bit, but not really. When I was shooting the film, I would be in my head going, “This would be a better opening shot.” So, everything was planned. There wasn’t anything really loosey goosey about it. But at the same time, when I was shooting and once we shot that monologue that she says to Craig (Audley), I realized that this is a really great way to open the movie; I also love (Luis) Buñuel. I was like, “Oh, that’s a really visually arresting shot that we already had,” but I wasn’t quite sure exactly where the placement of that shot was going to go. I think it was midway through the shoot that I was like, “In the beginning of the movie, no doubt.”
The reflections of light in her pupil were VFX, right?
Yes, there’s a little bit. We put a little bit of some of the experimental footage into her eyes, but [DP] Jay (Keitel) was able to do a lot in camera, too. He’s incredible.
Since Amy (Sheil) and Jane (Jane Adams) play Mozart’s “Lacrimosa dies illa” on loop, presumably for comfort, what’s a comforting piece of music you tend to play on loop?
If I’m feeling really indulgent and want to be nostalgic and maybe shed a tear, I put on “Clair de Lune.” Like everyone. I feel like that’s so cliche. (Laughs.) But I was, during the time actually, listening to “Requiem” a lot. I was trying to find music to write to, and then it really took hold. While this movie was solidifying in my head, I was listening to “Requiem” over and over and over again. And with this movie, I was also listening to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”
I admired the fact that you never showed actual violence or death take place, just the before and after. Was this choice meant to maintain ambiguity as to what the actual threat was?
Yeah, it’s very intentional for several reasons. One, it keeps the viewer asking the correct question that it’s not how; it’s just when. And then, in addition to that, I couldn’t not acknowledge violence. I had to acknowledge that violence did happen because it’s important in a movie where ideas are spread. It was important to acknowledge that ideas become facts and there’s consequences for them. There’s consequences, good and bad, for ideas, right? We have an idea. There’s buildings everywhere. There’s cars. These all start from ideas. But there’s also really dangerous ideas that can lead to, like, Jane getting stabbed and Craig getting killed. But the ambiguous nature of, “Was it Craig that killed himself or was it Amy?” was, to me, not important to the story. It was just that this idea led to this violent act. If I were to show the violence, it’s just a different movie. And in some ways, if I were to have shown the violence, I feel like the viewer would have distanced themselves a little bit because then, it wouldn’t feel so personal, if that makes sense. It’d be like, “There’s these people going through this thing,” as opposed to being like, “What happened and would this happen to me?”
I thought the microscopic art motif was really cool. Did your affinity for it carry over from your own life?
I recommend buying a microscope for everyone. It is so fun. (Laughs.) Like, you put anything inside of there and it becomes this wonderland of images. And it’s also a vestige of being a kid, of loving tiny things and loving the idea of tiny worlds; I had a microscope growing up. But yeah, I knew I wanted to explore the universe of tiny worlds, but then also get this 2001 imagery of, “Is that space or is that inside the body? Who knows? What is life?” (Laughs.) When I start to think about how small and endless the particles are, and then how vast and endless the universe is, my brain sort of does the same thing that it does when I think about death. It sort of deconstructs, and it just expands and sort of doesn’t know what to do with itself.
Did your actors ever ask you to explain everything in detail, or did they prefer to have their own interpretation of the material?
It depends on what it is. Again, with directing a lot of people that are in the movie, they know me so well that they already know directionally what I want. And also, half of directing for me is casting the right people, knowing that you can communicate with them. Every once in a while, I need to clarify something so that they understand emotionally where to go. But everyone that was in the movie really understood the concept. I thought I would have to endlessly explain it, but everyone that I cast or that I knew that was in the movie, they instantly got the concept and were able to interpret it themselves. And that’s the thing: I cast them because I love what they do, so I try not to micromanage each decision that they make.
The whole cast was great, but Chris Messina really impressed me.
Right!? He’s so wonderful. He and I are in a movie coming out soon called The Secrets We Keep. He’s just such a joy to be around and he’s hilarious, but he’s just so easy to direct, as well.
I read that you used your Pet Sematary earnings to fund this movie. Have you accepted other acting jobs in the past in order to help you make your own art?
Yes and no. That’s the thing. Yes and no. But I’ve never taken anything where I was like, “I just need this money to make something.” With Pet Sematary, I was really excited to do it. I love the original. I really like Starry Eyes, Kevin (Kolsch) and Dennis’ (Widmyer) first film. And I love Jason Clarke and John Lithgow. So, it was sort of a no-brainer, but also, since it’s a studio movie, I was like, “Oh great, now I have money that I can go and make my own stuff.” (Laughs.) It’s so unpredictable with what you end up getting as an actor. I’ve been so fortunate to be continually cast in things, and be able to make the work that I want to make and be able to have the luxury to say no to things that I don’t think I will enjoy making.
Before we wrap, I have to compliment you on The Girlfriend Experience. I love both seasons, but season one, in particular, was masterful. I can’t think of the last time I watched something where the sex scenes advanced character and story to that degree. Were they discussed and calibrated at length so they served a bigger purpose?
Yeah, I have no interest in shooting a sex scene just to have a sex scene. And not only that, but both [co-creator] Lodge (Kerrigan) and I discussed this… There’s a lot of information character-wise that you can exchange through sexuality or through sex. It’s a conversation between two people and their bodies, obviously. But yeah, we talked about it. I have no interest in just showing sex because that’s not interesting to me. We all sort of understand what sex is. And so, specifically with Riley’s character, because you’re dealing with sex, it’s like, “What is she getting out of this, and what is the other person getting out of it?” And that is the most fascinating part about those relationships. And even when we would perform, the actors knew going in that it wasn’t just — for lack of a better term, excuse me — grinding bodies, but it was actually, “You want something from her and she wants something from you,” and treating them like these scenes. There’s a beginning, middle and end. And when they walk away, they’ve either gotten what they wanted or they haven’t gotten what they wanted, which sort of ratchets up the tension.
Lastly, I have to tell you that I say the same thing as you when I drive across bridges.
Right!? (Laughs.) Or with semi-trucks, I just get so terrified. They’re so huge. It’s funny because I feel like sometimes in these interviews, I’m talking specifically about my anxiety, but I do leave the house. (Laughs.) I’m not walking out, looking at everything and being like, “It’s going to kill me.” But in those moments when you have that feeling, you can feel it in your gut. It takes over even if it’s a fleeting split-second. It just takes over your entire body, where it’s like, “Oh crap, I’m going to die.” And then, it’ll pass, but it’s just so unbelievable how much it seasons your entire being for that split-second.
She Dies Tomorrow is now available at select drive-ins, in select theaters and on demand.