With the evocative title of She Dies Tomorrow, one might think they can predict where Amy Seimetz’s second feature is going, but the writer-director is keen to pull the rug out from under the viewer every step of the way. Her story of a woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) thinking that it’s her last full day left on this mortal coil and the contagious effect she has on people is not full of twists and turns, but it’s in the subtle ways Seimetz is able to upend expectations in the structure and visual approach that will have the viewer themselves entranced and perturbed by the spell that is cast.
Ahead of the film’s digital release this Friday by NEON, following its drive-in debut last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Seimetz about subverting a classical structure, her number one piece of advice for filmmakers, her dream double feature with She Dies Tomorrow, release plans, and more.
The Film Stage: Having only read the logline before seeing She Dies Tomorrow, I was quite struck but the structure of the film. Every choice, both narratively and visually, seems to take a different turn you didn’t expect. Can you talk about your approach?
Amy Seimetz: What I have learned from writing for TV, I do like writing in these classic and commercial structures. I really enjoy it. With this though, what you do with these structures, you have to sort of follow these rules and you answer the questions you raise. With The Girlfriend Experience, we did a lot with subverting expectations. We treated it like it was a genre in itself. Like, there are tons of movies about escorts like Klute, etc. There’s this embedded expectation that she is in danger, so we treated it like a genre all in itself. People are going to wonder if she was in danger and we would use that anxiety and subvert it. It was a lot more commercial than a lot of my independent work. But in Sun Don’t Shine and She Dies Tomorrow, I was doing that in the same way, but going a little bolder and a little off the rails the same way Lodge [Kerrigan] and I approached The Girlfriend Experience [in season one] and I then how I approached the second season.
What was so fun about it was that it is still following this classic structure––I hate using the word classic. I guess what I mean is traditional. I love following rules. As a director, if there are rules in place, you decide how to work in those confines, whether that is on the screen or even on the production side solving these problems behind the scenes. What I really wanted to do was follow my instincts. Like with a joke, the leather joke I found so hilarious on the day, like, “You’re going to make yourself into another jacket.” As the movie was unfolding and I was writing and shooting it, I was like we have to follow through on this joke. Which is part of the three-act structure. Don’t bring something up if you’re not going to have a payoff. Even if they seem random, I said we had to address it again, for the sake of feeling like it’s a cohesive movie. Even though it feels dreamy, I wanted it to feel very gratifying at the end. That joke wasn’t random. We now have the pay-off at the end. It’s in this very real and sobering moment of what do you do with the body after everyone’s going crazy?
I feel like if we didn’t have to be so sociable as humans, we would be talking about how we were going to die all the time. I like how this film really dives into that in a way that feels realistic, and there is also something comforting about seeing someone go through it. I was wondering if the movie was cathartic for you in any way?
Well, unfortunately in the process of making the movie and it coming out, it didn’t make me immortal, so I still have to deal with my own existential dread. [Laughs.] In the movie, it was instilling the idea, like the line when Amy says, “All these stupid things I would say, all these stupid things I was into,” and he says, “I like those stupid things that you say.” It was really tender and I don’t say that I am cold, but when I was shooting it I thought that this feels very vulnerable to me and is this too tender? But, no, this is what the movie is about to me––for me, it’s really about anxiety and my own existential dread, but it’s also about me trying to embrace what is around me.
I get to make it with several of my best friends; Jay Keitel, the cinematographer, Jane Adams, Kate Lyn Sheil. Even working with them is embracing it. Like, Jane makes me laugh so fucking hard all the time and that is the stuff that life is made of. So even though there is this ending point, I get to talk to Jane and Kate everyday about whatever, it doesn’t matter what it is. That’s so special. There isn’t this big epic answer of what life is and it does assuage the anxiety a little bit, but again, it didn’t make me immortal, so I guess I still have to struggle with it a little bit. [Laughs]
Jay Keitel and Amy Seimetz on set. Photo by Brett Smith.
Speaking about your collaboration with Jay Keitel, there are scenes that are almost Lynchian, where the characters are looking right at the camera and we’re wondering what is happening––it feels like we are being passed this contagious thought. I’m curious how you came up with the idea.
Jay and I have known each other for so long that we are kind of on the same page instinctually. He is not just this way with me. He is a brilliant cinematographer that can instinctively understand what a director is trying to get to even without the layers of years of experience, but that just makes it all the more fun. It’s really really wonderful as I have been growing up in film and in learning all these things to also be growing up and watching my friends learn things and keep building upon that.
Like Kate, all of the things she has done on her own in terms of building her craft is wonderful. It’s great to have a finely tuned machine where we not only just have a shorthand because of how well we know each other, but where we get to bring the things we’ve learned to the table and hopefully it continues to feel that exciting. It feels like the Olympics. Like in the beginning, it felt like we knew some stuff but we were still fumbling through it. I’m working on a really low budget with some of the best in the industry and we can do whatever we want. The word gymnastics keeps coming into my brain. Like if my body could do the things that these Olympians do, I would be doing them in the streets all the time. It’s like, wow, we’ve trained and we’ve trained and we’ve trained and we’ve trained and now we can just get wild.
Today is opening day in drive-in theaters, which is exciting. One of the staples of drive-in theaters is a double feature, and I was curious if there is any film you would pair this film with?
It’s so funny because I had this answer when we were making the movie and it escapes me when it is time to actually say it out loud. I would say that a good pairing would be The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a [Luis] Buñuel film because both films, in my opinion, are talking about these really wild ideas and the mundane-ness and the repetitive nature of, like, them just going to dinner. One of my favorite moments is when the soldier just walks up and is just telling him about the wars and they are like, “Oh, thank you for giving us a show.” I think that would be a really great pairing for this movie.
It’s quite an incredible ensemble with some surprises if you didn’t know much going in. How did you get this cast together?
That was what so fun about it, being able to work with people who you trust innately that are extremely talented. It was really easy to go, “Here’s the cast, here’s the script,” but to also be able to ask if they had a better idea. The number one piece of advice I give to other filmmakers is to keep your ego in check and hire smarter people than yourself because you will only look better. [Laughs.] That goes for every department. That’s why I’m not in the film. They are all better than me. [Laughs.] Everyone brought so much. Jane and Kate, again, I trust these people because not only are they my friends but I am such fans of their work, that I give them an idea and their ability to run with it and emote it, I am just continually impressed with it. With most of the parts, everyone I pretty much knew or worked with, including James Benning and Adam Wingard and Chris Messina, Katie [Aselton], Tunde [Adebimpe], Olivia Taylor, and Jen [Kim], but I didn’t really know Michelle [Rodriguez] or Josh [Lucas].
So with everyone else I knew, I kind of catered the parts to them, but I also allowed them to surprise me. But with Michelle and Josh, I didn’t really know them that well so when they showed up it was like, “I don’t really know you, so let’s play.” I think for them, what was so magnificent about them is Michelle was like, “I have one more day on Fast and the Furious and then I could come by.” I was like, “Cool. How long do you have?” She was like, “Six hours. We can make it work.” And same with Josh Lucas, he was on his press tour for Ford v. Ferrari and he said, “I have a half day here, can you fit me in?” And I said sure, and I kept good on my promise for the amount of time, which you get very good at when you do TV. They were grateful that I respected their time, but I think for everyone involved, I think everyone was so happy to be a part of something that was so collaborative. On my set, or at least I try to create this feeling, that everyone is so equal. Like again, we are artists and everyone is working on this level and this is a playground to work with everyone at the top of their game.
This is really reaching an audience that it may have not reached so quickly in a standard roll-out. I’m curious what you think people will take away from it?
It’s a very interesting time––for everyone. I want to be conscious of things outside of the film industry. My mom works in the medical field and she works in the hospital, so I’m very aware of the ripple effects and how every industry is trying to figure out how to move during this time. But for us, SXSW wasn’t happening and it felt like things were changing every single second. Once it became very clear that SXSW wasn’t happening––which I think was absolutely the right decision––I was talking to other filmmakers about what we are going to do, and they were like “maybe I’ll wait for Cannes” or “maybe I’ll wait for this,” And for our movie, it was born out of not wanting to wait for something to happen, so it’s not in my personality to wait to see what someone else is going to do.
So immediately Adam Kersh, who is my PR person, we asked XYZ Films and were like, “Nuh-uh, we aren’t going to wait for anyone,” so we just decided to sell the movie. We are just going to go for it because who knows when anything is going to go back to normal. There was no playbook for any of this. The film industry is still figuring out what to do, along with all the other industries. So there is this kind of wild west of playing safely by your own rules. It takes instinctual effort to know what feels right for your movie.
She Dies Tomorrow is now playing in drive-ins and arrives digitally on August 7.