By MICHAEL GINGOLD
With her second feature as writer/director, actress Amy Seimetz tapped into anxieties specific to herself, and came up with a slow-burning thriller that is now relevant to us all. Emerging in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has added extra topicality to SHE DIES TOMORROW, in which the certainty that one has only a day to live becomes an infection that starts with Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) and spreads inexorably to her friends. (See review here.)
Seimetz’s onscreen career has run the gamut from independent terrors like Adam Wingard’s A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE and YOU’RE NEXT to the major-budget likes of ALIEN: COVENANT and PET SEMATARY. Her experience behind the camera has also included TV’s THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE and ATLANTA, and for SHE DIES TOMORROW, she was joined as producer by RESOLUTION/THE ENDLESS filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and their production partner David Lawson Jr. The result is a unique and personal venture into psychological unease.
At the time PET SEMATARY came out, you mentioned that you were writing a horror film. Was that SHE DIES TOMORROW?
It was a different one that still might be made, but did not get made when I wanted it to [laughs]. That was part of the impetus to do SHE DIES TOMORROW the way I did it. In addition to that movie, there were a few television projects; it takes a long time to develop things, and those weren’t moving as fast as I wanted them to. So I was like, I need to make something right now, and that was SHE DIES TOMORROW.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how SHE DIES TOMORROW relates to current events, but what was it about the world pre-pandemic that inspired the film?
I’m incredibly addicted to the news; I’ll be the first to say it, even though I know that it’s not healthy. I’ve gotten better about it, but I was watching every side of the political spectrum and every walk of life, and I saw the way fear-based information and ideas were spreading like wildfire, whether you were on the right or the left or rich or poor. In addition to that, it was like, people were reading headlines as opposed to reading the articles, you know? Saying these very digestible things that instill fear, but you don’t actually get to the bottom of it and have the facts.
How did you develop that idea into SHE DIES TOMORROW?
I personalized it, and made it about my personal experience of having anxiety about my own existential dread, and just life in general. I would talk with my friends, including Jane Adams [who co-stars in the film], about my anxiety, and she’d be, “OK, you’re making me anxious too, and I can’t handle this.” I felt like I was spreading my own anxiety to my friends, and other people, and then they’d go off and be anxious.
Since the lead character is named Amy, how much of yourself did you put into her?
There’s quite a bit of me. I mean, the movie was shot in my house; her home is my home. Obviously, the movie is not about things that happened in real life, but there’s a lot that’s sort of digested and put in there in such a way that it’s an interpretation of myself, if that makes sense.
How would you define the movie in terms of genre? It has very few overt horror elements, but would you consider it a horror film?
I don’t know if it’s straight genre, but I do utilize genre tools, specifically the sound design and the ratcheting of tension, and the arc of traditional cinema. Most of my work as a director and writer utilizes those genre elements, whether it’s thriller or horror; even THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, in some capacity, is an anxiety-inducing series. I could say “genre-bending,” but that sounds sort of pretentious, doesn’t it? I’d say “genre-playful” is a better way to put it [laughs].
Well, “genre-bending” is fine, as long as we don’t get into “elevated horror.”
I’ve heard that! I’ve had friends who accidentally said that and didn’t really mean it, because they couldn’t find other words, and then they got slammed on all these genre websites!
That said, the genre definitely has been elevated in recent years, and it’s a very exciting time for women directors in horror right now.
Yeah, it’s exciting to see diversity in general–not just women, but diversity of people directing and in movies in general. I mean, it’s about time, right? There’s a lot that’s evolving behind the scenes about understanding that point of view means something, and perspective means something, and what you can bring to a narrative means something. I mean, I was a horror junkie when I was a kid, but I’m able to hold this space in my head, as a woman, of seeing damsels in distress and women being brutally murdered, where I’m able to enjoy the genre and still understand that it’s sexist, or had been. Growing up loving books and literature, even outside the genre, I had to accept that for the most part, most of these books that were championed were written by white men. So it’s interesting when you talk about things shifting; it’s like, I can love a book and understand that it’s still sexist, and it’s about time that there are more women involved, and again, diversity in exploring and directing and having the lens and the voice to say something.
You were in a couple of Adam Wingard movies, and now he’s in SHE DIES TOMORROW; can you talk about your professional history with him?
Adam would be the first to tell you that he owed me a massive favor [laughs]. When we were trying to figure out who was going to play Dune Buggy Man, I sent an e-mail to my producer Dave Lawson, who also works with Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, and he suggested somebody, and I was like, “No, no, no, he has to be a little trashier. Adam Wingard!” I forwarded that e-mail to Adam [laughs], saying, “Be in my movie!” He replied with, “Did you just call me trashy?” and I was like, “Yes, I did!” [Laughs] And he’s not, he’s the loveliest, but he knew he owed me a favor, because there was one day of shooting on A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE that went for like 36 hours. So when he got that e-mail, he was like, “I have to do whatever she says, because I owe her probably four more of these day-player parts!”
You mentioned Moorhead and Benson, and SHE DIES TOMORROW has some thematic similarities to their work, so how did they get involved on the producing team?
I’ve known them since 2012. We met in Lund, at the Fantastic Film Festival, and have stayed in touch since then. And in turn I met Dave Lawson, and they have since started this company [Rustic Films]. I was producing SHE DIES TOMORROW by myself, but it becomes unwieldy at a certain point to do that, and I asked Dave if they could help me with some of the nuts and bolts. At first, I was going to try to do it through their company, but then I felt I didn’t want to have to make something that was straight genre, and I decided to self-fund it with my paycheck from PET SEMATARY. But Dave and Aaron and Justin helped with the unions and locations and crewing and all these other things. They helped me make everything possible, as opposed to doing it myself.
As an actress, you’ve been in very small horror films and very big ones. Can you contrast those experiences?
What’s interesting is that my first day on ALIEN: COVENANT, which was also the very first day of shooting, I was actually very intimidated, to be honest. I’m such a huge fan of Ridley Scott–I mean, THELMA & LOUISE, come on! We did this epic shot, walking off the ship into this wonderful landscape; we were in New Zealand, it was the entire cast, and who was I being there with Michael Fassbender and Katherine Waterston and Billy Crudup? We did that, and then suddenly the entire cast left and it was just me by myself [laughs], with this giant crew. I grew up making independent films, and I was so intimidated, and I was sure the first few takes were just gobbledygook coming out of my mouth.
But then Ridley came up to me and said, “You’re doing great.” He has this way about him that’s very disarming, and suddenly it became very simple, and it reminded me that even though there was this massive machine behind the film, when you call “Action,” it comes down to sound, camera, actor, atmosphere, and that’s it. And every independent film I’ve been in has been the exact same way; once you roll camera, it’s all the same fundamental things. That’s something I want younger filmmakers to understand, because sometimes when you’re doing these smaller films, it’s like, “We’re not making a real movie”–but you are making a real movie, because they all boil down to these basic things. So along with Ridley being extremely disarming, it was also incredibly encouraging for me to realize, OK, I get it, this is all it comes down to.
Has it been exciting, or a little scary, for SHE DIES TOMORROW to be coming out at a time when it has even more resonance than you might have intended?
Scary? I don’t know… It is interesting that these interviews feel a lot more personal, and I’ve really enjoyed engaging with people that way. I’m excited–at least, from what I can see of the response to the movie–to have people engaging with the movie in a personal way.
How do you think the pandemic will affect the movies we’ll see in the future, and the way they’ll be made?
I actually just talked to Steven Soderbergh about this. He’s developing a health protocol for how we can go back to work. Leave it to Soderbergh, of course; I mean, the man made CONTAGION, so he knows [laughs]. He’s working with universities and hospitals and all these experts, figuring out what a safe working environment is–specifically for film, but hopefully to also develop it for other industries. I’m hoping to sort of copy him, which I feel like I’ve done my entire career [laughs], but to see what he has developed and how it goes and follow his lead, because I’m in the movie he’s doing this for.
But what we were discussing was that there’s a big gap. There’s stuff like SHE DIES TOMORROW that we could probably make, because it’s such a small crew, so social distancing while you’re shooting is a lot easier. Obviously, there are a lot of things we have to figure out to make sure it’s safe–probably a lot of filming outdoors, with fewer characters–but there’s a huge gap between SHE DIES TOMORROW and the movie Soderbergh is making, where he has to have the budget. So in my opinion–and I love when people prove me wrong–but I think there’s going to be a massive gap between [films on] the SHE DIES TOMORROW budget and then those in the millions. And I don’t mean $2 or $3 million, I mean upwards of $15, $20 million, and the protocols that will need to be in place. In addition to that, I’m very curious to see if anyone kisses for the next two or three years on screen [laughs]! Because it might be that nobody will be kissing in movies, and it’ll be very strange–puritanical, almost.