Very much the film of today, She Dies Tomorrow studies how a single idea can develop symptoms of paranoia and become swiftly infiltrated by hysteria. The narrative’s elusiveness provides viewers with ample space to grapple with their own mortality and the difficulties that arise from doing so. We sat down with Seimetz to talk about the process of recreating panic attacks; the universality of existential dread; and how this film is placing women right at the centre of its crisis.
I think a lot of our readers will recognise you, Amy, from your work as an actor, whether it’s from Netflix’s Stranger Things, Pet Sematary or Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant. Who they may not be as familiar with is Amy Seimetz, the writer, producer and director – which is interesting because this what you started out doing, working behind the camera at university. So, can you tell us about how it all began? How did you first get into writing and filmmaking?
The funny thing is I always thought I’d have to make a living doing something else. When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon, and then I thought I could be a writer on the side. I didn’t grow up in a family that was in the arts so it wasn’t something I thought about as a career – or anything you could make money doing. I just suddenly decided I wanted to go to film school; I wanted to make films. When I started out, after graduating, even though I made films and acted in them, I still took jobs as a seamstress and a nanny, so I thought for a long time that I would need another job to support my habit.
What is it about the feature film that made you want to return to this form of filmmaking after having worked on various other kinds of tv/film projects? Why now?
I really enjoy writing long format for television and directing long format – but it takes so much time to develop it, process it, get it off the ground and shoot it. And you live with these things for, you know, two years or so. I wanted to do something I could condense into an hour; I could do quickly; I could play around with and overcome in one ‘jump’.
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She Dies Tomorrow covers a lot of bases in terms of subject matter and genre that, theoretically, we could talk about it from so many different angles. It’s all-at-once a film about crisis, existentialism, the contagiousness of fear etc. But it is also very much a film about women, isn’t it?
Yeah, I feel like, even today, we still only have access to performances like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), in which a man is allowed to confront his existential anxieties. I think part of my responsibility in making this film was about allowing women to have these existential crises on screen and allowing them to question things that are beyond the tropes of motherhood and being a wife.
And these ideas certainly find their feet through the two dominant female voices within the narrative, Amy and Jane. What was it about Kate Lynn Sheil and Jane Adams that made you think, yeah, I’ve found my Amy/Jane?
In this movie, in particular, I wanted to look at something that transcends beyond gender, which is death, something that happens to all of us, and I wanted to allow women to be at the centre, at the core, of it. And so, with Kate – well, I put her in everything – I think she’s brilliant, and she’s able to perform these ideas beyond what I imagine them to be. She can perform me better than I can! I guess I should say that concerning the feelings, the emotions, the intellectual ideas of the film, Kate was able to emote them and perform them in such a transcendent way that there never was a question about her playing Amy.
And then with Jane, she’s also a dear friend, and she was involved in the inception of this idea about anxiety that the film explores. Both Kate and Jane are two people, in my real life, that I call when I’m having an existential meltdown! So, it seemed perfect because a lot the conversations that take place in the film are conversations that Jane and I actually had in real life. And so, it’s just one of those things where I have the luxury of being friends with really brilliant actors. I had to put them in there!
From what you’re saying, it seems like you’re more than familiar with the current discussions surrounding the anti-heroine archetype. Roxane Gay, the writer of the 2014 essay Bad Feminist, notes that these archetypes confront the requirement for female characters to uphold attitudes of niceness and social etiquette. Gay says: "When a girl is unlikeable, a girl is a problem." Antiheroines, she claims, "are reclaiming this narrative." So, would you agree that they can be thought of as challenging this wider narrative on the female character? Was creating anti-heroines something that you set out to do?
Well, as a filmmaker, I think about this a lot – and then I forget it. Do you know what I mean? I think about this concept in terms of how it feels to be a woman and then I absorb it and try to make something entertaining. But at the same time, I have to think about myself as not just a female filmmaker; I am a sum of all my parts. I’m not just a white female from Florida; I am how I was raised too. And sometimes a project has something to do with being a woman, and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I’m creating, I think about being a mother and being a partner to someone – but, then there are times when I’m thinking about myself as a human being, and I have other things to worry about. And, in response to your question, I don’t spend my days worrying if I or my characters are likeable or not. I just try to be as true to myself as possible; and so, for me, it’s refreshing that we are getting to see more women behaving in these incredibly human ways. And even more so that it’s being done diversely. We’re able to see Black, white, Asian women in these roles. We’re in a time when people get to be people, and it’s not just white men getting to do that.
“I don’t spend my days worrying if I or my characters are likeable or not. I just try to be as true to myself as possible.”
One of the other most striking elements I found about this film, speaking about the work in terms of artistic influences, was the cameo appearance from maverick, formalist director James Benning – who produces this really rich, meta dialogue with the viewer about the processes of film-making and contemporariness and what it means to be contemporary in film today. So, when film students are writing critically about She Dies Tomorrow, I can imagine that they are going to footnote James Benning’s work in their essays. I’m interested to know whose work you’d put on the reading list for this film.
Oh, I would definitely watch James Benning’s work because, when I was younger, I thought I was definitely going to just make art films - and he was one of the filmmakers I watched a lot. I watched a lot of the California Institute of Arts crowd. I was a big fan of his work, and what I love is that his movies are very much studies of the environment, and I take a lot of inspiration there. And I guess Barbra Loden’s Wanda (1970) would be a good one to add.
Two films in particular really really brought out my love of absurdity and surrealism: Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and Belle De Jour (1967). I love Claire Denis, High Life (2018) would also be one – even though I was in the process of making my film when I saw it. I thought there was something very similar that we were both, like, scratching at – so I like to align myself with Claire Denis as much as possible! (I flatter myself by saying that). And then you have Twentynine Palms (2003) by Dumont because in my film I’m dealing with the desert and that movie is so iconically scary. In my film, I’m pulling from Dumont’s film the idea that these vast, open spaces facilitate the notion that something bad could happen and no one would know. The list goes on and on, really.
Oh, but I would also add Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Last Night of the World (1951). It’s about this couple that knows the end of the world is coming and they don’t know what to do, so they make a cup of tea and go to bed.
This film has quite a fascination with the psychedelic use of colour – specifically in its application of reds and blues. Can you talk us through where this vivid application of colour came from? Who or what inspired you to think of the film’s colour palette in these terms?
We danced back and forth between – and I don’t want to say ‘mundane’ because that makes it sound boring – the domestic and the anxious. Jay Keitel, the cinematographer, and I were always talking about showing the audience a domestic look – something that looks normal and creates a stillness so that it feels like you are in a home. And then mixing that with what it feels like to go through a panic attack. It was about conveying what is happening internally, which is so bombastic; but if you were looking at it from the outside it’s incredibly boring.
And also, at the time, we were reading about near-death experiences, and about when you die and how your body releases all these chemicals. And there’s this flood of every emotion – fear, excitement and curiosity that courses through your body. That, I think, is where the inspiration came from.
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When it comes to sound, this film seems to take the classical and bleed it until it becomes something strikingly modern. Mozart’s Lacrimosa haunts this film in a way that really underlines the requiem’s function as a death song. How was it working with the composers, Mondo Boys, for this project? Why do you feel their work was essential to convey the film’s message?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mondo Boys on several projects. I worked with them on The Girlfriend Experience (2018), and, from then on, I’ve discovered that they can do pretty much anything! For this film, I wanted to use the requiem because it is a song that mourns death. And so, I handed it over to them and asked them to come up with something and, in the space of a few days, they gave me back something workable, something that our sound mixer, Marilyn Morris, could really play with.
The sound of this film was always something that we were adding to as we went along – it wasn’t left to post [production]. And [the composers] really helped make that happen.
There’s quite a lot of discourse surrounding the film which positions the work as a COVID-19 metaphor, and in many ways, the film’s anxiety with contagion and death is eerily fitting with the current climate. How do you respond to this interpretation of your work?
Yeah, the response has been really unexpected because it’s not something that we intended when we were in the process of making the film. It’s happened organically, and it is very interesting.
Just as final note, as a filmmaker, is there a current topical issue you would like to give visibility to in the future? What can we expect from you next?
The thing is I don’t see myself as actively producing work that goes out of its way to challenge topical issues. When I’m making a film, I try not preach to my audience. Instead, I try to give them some space to explore and think I want to cross social boundaries, you know, question what’s inappropriate – and, for me, that’ll always be about creating tension.
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