Film In Conversation
AMY SEIMETZ with Madeline Whittle
“I’m going to die tomorrow.” These words are uttered within the first few minutes of She Dies Tomorrow (2020), the second feature from director Amy Seimetz, by Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), the film’s surname-less protagonist. “It’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay. It just is.” Her interlocutor, Jane (Jane Adams), is disconcerted and concerned for Amy’s emotional well-being. Over the course of a few hours, Jane and a small cascade of other characters adopt the same conviction, apparently transmitted by some kind of viral contagion. Out of this epistemologically fraught premise, Seimetz cultivates a vividly subjective interrogation of the occupational hazards of self-consciousness and acknowledging one’s own mortality: anxiety, depression, grief, transcendence. The source of this conviction is left decidedly ambiguous—is it superstition, prophecy, delusion?—but its effects are stark. As others have noted, when She Dies Tomorrow was set to premiere this spring at South by Southwest (until the cancellation of this year's festival due to COVID-19), the expansive ideas that drive the film’s line of inquiry are resoundingly and uncannily well-suited to its political and cultural moment.The Brooklyn Rail spoke with Seimetz remotely over Zoom on the occasion of the film’s release.
Madeline Whittle (Rail): I was hoping you could start off by talking about the fact that the protagonist is presumably named after you: the film centers on Amy, and is shot in the house where you live, I believe. Do you see this as a kind of self-portraiture?
Amy Seimetz: It felt easier to access the things that I was trying to touch by just naming her Amy. It’s strange now, talking about it in interviews, because it’s so abstracted from working on stuff but, you know, Jay Keitel who is the cinematographer, and Kate Lyn Sheil, and Jane Adams are some of my closest friends. And so, what we were trying to explore—what I was trying to explore—was something incredibly personal that I couldn’t really put into words, and so it just became this conversation piece about all of us, together. It wasn’t just me exploring. I found it was much more honest about the experience of what I was trying to get at when I was just like, “It’s me.” But it is and it isn’t: obviously this movie is not real [laughs], and strangely the only time I’ve ever ridden a dune buggy is when we were shooting the movie. But it allowed me and Jay and Kate to have a conversation about some of these things we were exploring, and sort of took the artifice out of it. It opened it up to, “Let’s talk about the feeling and the adventure of where we wanna go.” Yes, it’s a character piece, but at the same time you can build characters in so many different ways, and with Kate—she’s able to access this very visceral [mode] beyond words. I was saying the other night at the Brooklyn [drive-in] premiere, sometimes, when I’m watching movies, the first 15 minutes are giving me a character’s CV, [spelling out] what this person does, what they do for a living, their boyfriend, their relationship status…as opposed to accessing something that I can’t put into words and just showing me their behavior, which I’m much more fascinated by. To do away with, “Okay, this is the character I’m exploring,” and just go, “We’re exploring that feeling,” and doing that with each individual actor and saying, “This is the energy you’re bringing to the scene,” as opposed to, “You work as a florist.”
Rail: You say a lot of these ideas that come through in the film are hard to put into words and yet, it’s a very talky film, a film that explores different kinds of talking. There’s the small talk at the birthday party and the discussion of dolphin sex, there’s the scene with Jane Adams at the doctor’s office where she keeps pulling out all of these metaphors to try to express herself, and it sort of gets at the awkwardness of being depressed, anxious, or otherwise consumed by something—among others who aren’t. What was the process of crafting the dialogue like? In some ways it feels very improvisational, but in other ways it feels very carefully honed.
Seimetz: With everything that I do, with any movie or TV show that I’ve directed and written, I have a script there but I’m very open. I plan it, and I know why I’ve written things into the script, but if we discover something on set that’s better, then we’ll go with that. It’s not improvisational, but I’m not a stickler, because [when] I’m working with brilliant people there’s a freedom—“Why don’t you try saying that, why don’t you try letting it fly out of your mouth?” Because if it doesn’t work, I’ll just edit it out, you know? That’s the power you have when you’re writing, directing, executive producing, and self-funding. [Laughs] But at the same time, with Jane, I think that the what and why is because she’s trying to put it all into words in the scenes. She just keeps trying. And I find I speak a lot in metaphors to friends because sometimes the words don’t do what I’m trying to express justice, you know. So she’s trying to verbalize how she feels, and I felt like that was an important aspect. But also, in that party scene, that sort of cacophony while you’re trying to express something is really horrific to me. There’s a little bit of that Punch-Drunk Love (2002) element to it—which is its own anxiety film—that anxiety of not being able to express to someone how it feels to feel the feelings you’re feeling. I think a lot of anxiety and a lot of mood disorders, the frustration and things that make it so hard, is that people don’t understand what you’re going through.
Rail: You’ve spoken elsewhere about how this is a movie about anxiety and the contagion of anxiety, contemplating mortality, the fear of death. Both She Dies Tomorrow and your last film, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), put forward different expressions of the feeling that despair is looming on the horizon, a depressive element in addition to the anxiety. What was it about the experience of those states of mind that you are drawn to?
Seimetz: It’s interesting, because if you ask anyone that’s on my sets, we laugh hysterically. Even on The Girlfriend Experience (2016–), everyone’s like, “This is a secret comedy,” and I’m like, “Yes, I just have a really dark sense of humor.” I find even parts of Sun Don’t Shine really hilarious and also wildly upsetting. Comedy and tragedy are so closely linked, and there’s comedy in despair, in a way. With Sun Don’t Shine there’s the denial of death—denying that there’s a body in the trunk—and that was a very real thing that I was trying to express at that time because I was taking care of my father, and I realized, “I know what’s coming, and it’s coming really soon, and god knows when it’s coming,” but I wasn’t ready to accept it yet. So while I was taking care of him, I was trying to still have a life, and when I’d be around people I would try to have conversations—when they’d ask me how my day was, like, “Do I really need to talk about how my dad got sent to the hospital again?” And you know, [I’d think], “Do I really go through this and tell you, or do I just pretend everything is okay?” It’s like this compartmentalization of my life when I was around other people to not kill the mood [laughs].
If you watch their behavior in the film, they talk about random-ass shit, and even though they’re doing this really fucked-up thing—taking the body to go bury it somewhere—it feels like you have hours of driving. You can't just ask, “So where are we gonna bury it?” over and over again, so you start having arguments about whether mermaids are real or not. That was just sort of how that state felt, [having] to deny this portion of my life in order to function and keep moving; but after [my father] passed away and several other friends passed away, I realized there’s never going to be a point in my life where I'm just done dealing with death, whether it's a friend or a family member. Or I'll just be stuck with my own mortality. Even with the anxiety, with this sort of existential dread, that sort of gets to the heart of where anxiety comes from; you wouldn’t have to solve anything, you wouldn’t have anxiety, if you were just living forever. There would be no anxiety about solving anything, you would just think, “I will get to that in a hundred years; right now I just want to lay here for maybe a hundred years and just stare at the sky” [laughs]. If you know my friends and the people that work with me, they know that I’m very vocal about [these feelings]: “Do you ever have this fear about…” whatever, and then I laugh about it. I do have those fleeting and all-consuming moments where I think, “If this car makes this little swerve, I’m fucking dead,” and for a split-second it consumes my entire body, and then I’m fine, I get past it. It's not like it's consuming me, and that's where the humor comes into it, because when I'm in a conversation I might suddenly have a thought pop up in my head, and I say [to myself], “I'm just going to ignore that because this person will think I’m crazy If I say it out loud to them right now, and I know it's going to pass.” But then I'm also still going to die…How do I reconcile these two things?
Rail: You’ve worked extensively as an actor, and I think a lot of the humor and the darkness of the film comes across in the non-verbal elements of the performances. Is this something that you had conversations with your cast about?
Seimetz: Half of my job as a director is casting the right people, and all of the people that are in the movie understand that, concurrently in life there are so many fucking parallel energies, and you can hold all of these things. There is comedy and fear in all of these things at the same time. If [actors] have questions—“What do you want me to feel?”—I can say, “It's everything all at once, but allow it to just unfold.” Even with that party scene, it's like, “This is your place, you’re pissed at Jane here, she’s disturbed and acting crazy, and [you] feel very sensitive to that, but your wife’s also really pissed that her birthday is…” So just creating a tension around that, and also the party guests that were tuned in—I can’t stop laughing at them, the awkwardness of that. It's just [a matter of] hiring and working with people, reminding them where their place is in the scene.
Rail: There’s one moment early in the film, after Amy has had her dawning realization, when Jane urges Amy to watch a movie, and Amy counters with the line: “A movie is an hour and a half.” That line has stayed with me, perhaps because I’ve been watching so many movies during this period of isolation, and it's not always clear to me whether the point is to distract myself from what’s going on in the world, or just to pass the time. I’m interested in your perspective as a filmmaker, imagining a character who is confronted with the prospect of watching a movie when she knows her time on earth is limited.
Seimetz: I find that line really funny, because we don’t know what’s happening to Kate’s character yet, and it becomes apparent in this moment that she is very aware of time, and we don’t know why yet. I hate exposition, but I love dropping off these moments—there’s this inside glimpse of what she is feeling right now, and she is so devastated by just [the suggestion of] watching a movie, which is hilarious to me, so melodramatic and silly. She’s becoming way conscious of time, but she also doesn’t know what to do with time. Do I watch a movie or do I dance? Do I go out in the yard and touch things, what the fuck do I do? I just realized in another interview that in a lesser sense, it's sort of like New Year’s Eve when you were younger and everyone was like, “We have to find the best place to be,” and you party-hop and you inevitably wind up having a shitty New Year’s Eve. It’s just like, “We didn’t have fun, we should’ve just stayed at home and had fun together, as opposed to searching for the things that would be fun.”
The whole movie is very meta, like Jane’s house: unexpectedly, the most convenient place to shoot was one of my old ex-boyfriends’ houses that’s down the street. I can’t believe that this location was the easiest to shoot in, because I know it so well, I spent five years in a relationship with this person that lived in this house…so the meta-ness, sometimes it was intentional but also, not intentional. I decided: “We are going to talk about death, and are about to waste or enjoy an hour and a half watching this.” There is sort of a hint to everyone, like: Guess what? A movie is an hour and a half, and you're also going to die, and now you're watching a movie, and let’s just let the snake eat its tail all over again [laughs].
Rail: There’s a strong sense that the movie replicates the contagion it depicts, transmitted via the act of watching it—but this sense is conveyed with a wink.
Seimetz: Hopefully it was a little cathartic. Even in these interviews—it’s kind of interesting because there is a catharsis [there], too, and they’ve been extremely personal, much more personal because of the nature of quarantine. I get to talk to people about their experiences in quarantine, which is sort of like what the movie is about…It is all becoming even more and more meta. All I’ve ever wanted was to connect to people, and now I get to!