The director of She Dies Tomorrow opens up about how anxiety and existential dread feed her creative spirit.
American actor Amy Seimetz made her first foray into directing with her 2012 feature Sun Don’t Shine. After making two seasons of The Girlfriend Experience, inspired by the 2009 Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name, she’s written and directed her second film, She Dies Tomorrow. Being released on VOD due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the atmospheric horror examines how fear spreads when a person is faced with inevitable death. It’s a sharp meditation on Seimetz’s own anxiety and is rich with her own caustic sense of humour.
LWLies: The anxieties in She Dies Tomorrow resonate with the pandemic and lockdown. Does the film feel more timely now than when you made it?
Seimetz: It was a personal film to begin with – I’m not sure if you can tell because I named the lead character Amy and I shot it in my house! I was dealing with two things: my own anxiety and existential dread, and then I’m addicted to the 24-hour news cycle. Before the 2016 elections I started watching it incessantly, and I noticed that every few days it would be like, ‘It’s the end of the world!’ Then I made the connection with my own anxiety, because when I would talk about it with friends I would feel like I was spreading it.
I could not have imagined that we would be in this situation with Covid, but I think what’s interesting are the themes of isolation and the desire to connect. In California we opened up and now we’re locked down again, so there’s this constant battle that you’re going through of, ‘What do I do now?’ Then in writing I was like, ‘What would you do if you knew you were gonna die tomorrow?’ and it’s so overwhelming that you can’t make a clear decision.
Did you intend to play Amy, or did you always have Kate Lyn Sheil in mind?
I always thought it was gonna be her. I don’t like acting in my stuff. Kate is a far superior actor than I am – my acting agents will not like hearing this, but it’s true! I wrote Sun Don’t Shine and this for her because we’re such good friends. We have this shorthand – I don’t have to say much to direct her, I can be like, ‘Remember when I told you this story?’ and she knows how to translate that into a performance and emote things that aren’t literal. When I finally committed to naming her Amy, I was like, ‘I’m gonna regret this later!’
Because everyone’s asking why you did it?
Yeah! Well, more because it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have to talk about anxiety and whatever, and it’s gonna be so personal when I just want them to watch the movie.’ But it actually is a benefit because my interviews are much more personal. Not just because of the times we’re in, but also because I went ahead and named her Amy, so she’s a proxy for me.
Doing that with Amy and calling Jane Adams’s character ‘Jane’ makes it easier to project yourself onto the film.
Yeah, and Jane also is my friend – she’s who I call when I have anxiety, sometimes at like 2:30 in the morning! Pretty much everyone in this movie is my dear friend or I’ve worked with them closely in the past.
Have you ever told Jane that you’re going to make yourself into a leather jacket like Amy does in the film?
No, I haven’t gone that far! But I do make jokes. I feel like every day I’m talking about my anxiety, but I function quite well in the world. Although, on the highway when the semis are there I’m overwhelmed with the fear that they’re gonna not see me and run me off the road. It consumes my whole body, but it’s very brief and once I get passed a semi it dissipates.
What Jane and I laugh about, and Kate too, is when you are in the throes of something that’s making you spin out, whether that’s a trauma or a loss, when your emotions are taking over your reasoning, you say and do really bizarre things. So, there is humour to it because you have to stop and laugh. I do, because it’s how I get out of these things. So that’s where the idea of the leather jacket came from.
“I’ve seen the apocalypse movie where we run from the thing and I wanted to make one where you can’t run from it.”
One of my favourite scenes is when Amy dances to the ‘Lacrimosa’; it’s hilariously absurd to dance to a requiem! Could you talk about the music and the Mondo Boys’ score?
Oh yeah, they’re amazing. One of the early things we shot was that scene where Kate’s dancing to the requiem, and when I sent it to them they really enjoyed it and they sent me another track which we used when she hears the baby crying and she walks into her hallway. They were just tossing around ideas, but I loved it so much that I used it on set to pace Kate’s walk. It just felt like this wonderful collaboration.
Then with Kate dancing to the requiem – I always find that when I’m feeling bad, I try to connect to that feeling intensely. Amy knows she’s gonna die so she tries to connect with something. By choosing a requiem she’s facing death, but also trying to connect to a feeling. It’s so overwhelming that, in an ADD fashion, she starts dancing, then she’s on the floor, and now she’s outside. She’s trying desperately to connect but can’t surrender to it.
Putting on a requiem for yourself while you’re still alive is so matter-of-fact. That’s what’s so frightening, the stoicism with which everyone says, ‘I will die tomorrow’.
I’ve seen the apocalypse movie where we run from the thing and I wanted to make one where you can’t run from it, it just is. There was a really great Ray Bradbury story in Esquire years ago. It’s about this couple who dream the world’s gonna end tomorrow. They talk about it very calmly and one asks, ‘Should we try to escape?’ and the other’s like, ‘It’s not worth it, it’s just gonna happen.’ Then they say, ‘Should we tell the children?’, and they’re like, ‘No, they’re just gonna be like really upset.’ They don’t do anything except drink tea and go to bed.
I read it when I was younger, but I’d forgotten about it, then halfway through shooting my assistant Alex sent it to me. This movie was interesting because I was pulling from my subconscious movies that I love, but I wasn’t trying to overtly reference anything. But with that, I was like, ‘I’m not crazy! Ray Bradbury did it!’
It’s so original, like the experimental shots of blood-like liquid you intercut with the action. How did you make those?
What’s so fun about making films with your friends who are at the top of their game is that it feels like you’re a little kid again and you get to make potions, but you have all this adult knowledge. So, with Jay Keitel, my cinematographer, we turned my garage into a lab, and I bought a microscope. We were playing around, like putting prosciutto in there and food colouring. Then we built this thing with plexiglass and a camera down below on a motorised track and we were using these macro-lenses, extremely tight close-up lenses. We had the camera beneath the plexiglass, and I went to this craft store and bought glitter, Rit dye, and oil. Then we went into my yard and filmed it until we got images that we liked. We have like four hours of that footage because it was so fun.
It’s an extension of the images of water you often use, like the mermaids in Sun Don’t Shine and the conversation about dolphins in She Dies Tomorrow.
Well, I’m from Florida so I think it just makes its way into the conversation somehow. I have this joke with Jay where pretty much every piece of mine has a pool at the end. There’s a pool at the end of Sun Don’t Shine, of the Sundance short I made, When We Lived in Miami, and then this movie. I even end with this like desert lake in The Girlfriend Experience season two. I just love bodies of water, they’re a baptism of sorts, a metamorphosis or transformation for the character when they reach a body of water.
When I was younger my grandmothers would say the ocean could cure everything. Like I would be vomiting, and they would be like, ‘Go swimming in the water!’ What’s strange is they’re kind of right, it actually makes you feel better. There’s just something so therapeutic about being in the ocean that it actually does solve certain illnesses and moods.
It’s like Amy is rising out of the water at the start and end of She Dies Tomorrow, and the same in the opening shot of Sun Don’t Shine where Kate Lyn Sheil is gasping.
Yeah, me and Kate laugh that I just like making her gasp. Look, I only have a few tricks to share, it’s only one brain working here! Both of my movies are dealing with offshoots of death. Sun Don’t Shine was the denial of death, and the suffocating nature of denial. You just really need to breathe; you’re gasping for air and gasping for life. Then the metaphor of these mermaids. My favourites aren’t the jolly, sweet mermaids but the old sea-shanty legends where they’d lure men into the water and love them so much they’d squeeze the air out of them.
In She Dies Tomorrow, it’s the confrontation of death, of not being able to deny it. When you’re like, ‘Can I wake up from this bad dream?! Oh, wait – death is inevitable.’ We’re in a living nightmare because it’s just gonna happen! There is no waking up from death. It just is. For me, the gasping for air is asking how you can escape these things. These films are really good companion pieces to me. I didn’t plan it this way, but their initials are ‘SDS’ and ‘SDT’, so I’ve made a joke where the next movie I make has to be ‘SDU’.
Maybe that should be a mermaid horror film.
She Dies Tomorrow is on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and Digital Download 28 August. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
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