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Amy Seimetz Accidentally Made the First COVID-Era Thriller

"She Dies Tomorrow" locked picture before the pandemic began, but she says that film is the best way to mine her own anxieties.

Amy Seimetz on the set of “The Girlfriend Experience”

Amy Seimetz/Starz

It’s been eight years since Amy Seimetz directed her first feature, “Sun Don’t Shine,” and her second film, “She Dies Tomorrow,” carries her imprint. Both films pull you into an off kilter, menacing dreamscape where unreliable characters are capable of doing just about anything. Appropriately enough, her film was my last press screening before lockdown.

Recovering alcoholic Amy (Seimetz alter ego Kate Lyn Sheil) rattles around her empty new Los Angeles house, hugging the floor, dropping the needle over and over on a Mozart requiem, and slugging back wine. When she gets a friend (Jane Adams) to come over, she tells her, “I’m going to die tomorrow.” Her friend starts to feel the same foreboding, and passes the contagion to her brother (Chris Messina) and his wife (Katie Aselton) at a birthday party. It shares the same absurdist and morbid humor as Luis Bunuel.

At the Soho House premiere — a last-second substitution for the just-canceled SXSW Film — one attendee at the Q&A compared the movie to Yorgos Lanthimos. Another asked, “How did you know that we were going to be in this situation?” Everyone laughed.

Months later, Seimetz said she’s still sorting it all out. “I’m still trying to understand, in addition to everyone trying to understand what’s happening right now,” she said. “It’s really strange. It’s abstracted for me. It was not about COVID. It’s very surreal for me, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience.”

Only now, the movie’s suspense may hit closer to the bone.

“I was intentionally playing around with horror elements and tools,” she said. “Specifically in sound design and structure, and ratcheting up tension. It’s a monster movie without ever seeing the monster, and blending that with comedy. Mostly because the film itself is personal; it explores my own anxiety. I’m always the first person to laugh at my own existential fear, when I feel those emotions, they are very real and horrifying. Inevitably, I sort of pop out of myself, saying, ‘If you weren’t going through this anxiety, it would be funny to look at.'”

“She Dies Tomorrow”

Neon

After a hardscrabble upbringing in Central Florida, Seimetz studied at Florida State University, where she met Barry Jenkins. She later served as an associate producer on his “Medicine for Melancholy,” starred in Megan Griffiths’ “The Off Hours,” was part of the ensemble in Lena Dunham’s breakout “Tiny Furniture,” and produced and co-starred in Joe Swanberg’s “Silver Bullets” before premiering “Sun Don’t Shine” at SXSW in 2012.

Soon after, Christopher Guest hired Seimetz to play a recurring role in HBO’s “Family Tree.” Guest helped her recognize that the old canard “don’t work with your friends” was nonsense. “He ignores that,” she said. “It’s much better to work with your friends all the time. It’s like a family. As I was transitioning —  it’s not like I was staying out of Hollywood intentionally, I wanted to make money, I was very poor —  I got to work among independent films with a family of people. Christopher Guest just continues to do it. It was what I want. It’s OK to work with people you love. It’s rewarding, there’s so much love on set, people love coming to work. You don’t have to hire an asshole to get a good product.”

Like “Sun Don’t Shine,” “She Dies Tomorrow” stars Seimetz’s longtime friend Sheil. They met in 2010, when both had roles in “Gabi on the Roof in July;” the next year, they worked together on “Silver Bullets” and Alex Ross Perry’s “The Color Wheel.” Said Seimetz, “It’s so easy with her because we have not only a working relationship with everyone in the movie, but they’re my friends. I’m so close to Kate and Jane Adams. If I reference something, they get it.”

It’s hard to tell if Sheil is more shaman or muse for Seimetz. Both of their features channel the director’s anxieties: While “Sun Don’t Shine” was a way for Seimetz to express her feelings about her father’s death, “She Dies Tomorrow” was a way to grapple with her existential fears.

“In the film, these things come out,” she said. “Feelings are irrational. Talking about something on the nose doesn’t solve it for me. I find that talking about the specific things causing the anxiety don’t actually solve the anxiety. I was having these panic attacks. You have to allow them to happen and trust your body is going to do what it needs to do. You aren’t going to die, your body is going to kick in with what it needs and calm itself down. Let it ride. With me, the more you fight it, the worse it gets.

“I once caught myself saying to myself, ‘It’s OK, I’m OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.’ I said, ‘You aren’t OK, because if you were OK you wouldn’t be relating like a crazy person. But that’s OK, that’s OK.’ It was an incredible feeling in a way. It’s OK to say you’re not OK, or afraid of death.”

On set, actor Adam Wingard told her he got over his fear of death by taking acid in high school. “Did you really get over that a long time ago?” she said. “I want your drug dealer. I’m still afraid of death, yes, because it hasn’t happened. I am fucking terrified.”

On the set of "She Dies Tomorrow"

On the set of “She Dies Tomorrow”

Brett Allen Smith

Seimetz also expects her actors to be willing to reach for their own primal depths. “That’s why I chose film as my medium,” she said. “You don’t have to express it in words. There’s a limitation to explaining how you feel through words, or reason. Emotions are by nature irrational; words, which have boundaries, are used to express rational things to communicate in concrete ways. It’s easier to express it through sound, image, and emotions, to get closer to how I’m feeling.”

Both Seimetz and Sheil love to reference Isabelle Adjani’s performance in Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film “Possession.” “That’s what possession looks like,” said Seimetz. “Possession is not rational — ‘the devil is inside of me’ doesn’t get anything across. Her body and being is unhinged and wild.”

Donald Glover, who Seimetz directed in “Atlanta,” is another inspiration. “I went to see him in concert as Childish Bambino,” she said. “It was overwhelming, with thousands of people, watching your friend perform at the highest skill level. He looked possessed. I was not only watching a friend at the top of his game perform unbelievably, I was scared for him. He was accessing something. … I was both impressed and excited and really disturbed.”

Seimetz also got personal with the primary location for “She Dies Tomorrow”: She used her own home. “It was the first house I ever bought,” she said. “I shot a lot of stuff with Kate early on. It was more me struggling with, ‘What does ownership mean in life and your relationship with your house while facing death? How do you have a relationship with things?’ I bought a home. I didn’t know what to do with it for 10 years, I was living out of a suitcase, a vagabond. Owning a house was strange to me, with a lot of closet spaces and I didn’t know how to fill them. I lived out of two suitcases. Kate was with me in the house as well. Now I live there comfortably.”

Seimetz’s directorial career is just beginning, but she’s not unlike venerable auteur John Sayles — or her mentor Steven Soderbergh, with whom she worked as showrunner on Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience.” Although she turns down projects that get in the way of her writing, Seimetz uses commercial work to pay for her filmmaking. When she visited my 2018 USC graduate writing class, she brought a sheaf of thick scripts with notes sticking out to show how she multi-tasks, keeping several projects of varying sizes going at a time.

“Working in TV gives me the comfort to be able to fund myself,” she said. “I feel privileged to be able to do that, coming from my childhood where I grew up. Soderbergh isn’t ashamed of it. He self-funds so many things. That’s a goal of an independent artist, to hopefully one day make enough money so I can make ‘She Dies Tomorrow.’  The end goal wasn’t to have, like, Jennifer Lawrence’s life. That’s not something I want. I like my anonymity, and to be able to make a living and make the choices I want to make.”

Up Next: Several acting projects are on hold during lockdown. She costars with Messina and “The Killing” star Joel Kinnaman in Bleecker Street’s “The Secrets We Keep.” Showtime series “The Comey Rule” details the events leading up to the 2016 election. And she stars opposite Joe Manganiello in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s “Arch Enemy.” Meanwhile, she keeps writing. There’s one big movie and one micro-budget movie, as well as a mini-series: “You have no control over what goes.” And maybe Soderbergh’s “Kill Switch” will revive; she learned he was keeping it alive during a New York Times interview about pandemic movies. “They’re developing all these protocols,” she said. “I can’t wait for him to figure it out so I can copy it, like everything he does.”

“She Dies Tomorrow” is currently playing select drive-ins and is available on VOD. 

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