Writer/director Amy Seimetz has been a longtime favorite of this writer, between her stellar work as an actress and the daring projects she’s created as a filmmaker and storyteller. Her latest effort, She Dies Tomorrow, is a breathtaking examination of fear, isolation, mortality, and our need for human connection, and truly feels like the perfect cinematic encapsulation of what we’ve all been collectively going through since March.
This writer was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Seimetz last week in support of the release of She Dies Tomorrow, and she discussed the personal nature of the project, getting to collaborate with friends new and old alike, and more.
She Dies Tomorrow is currently playing drive-in theaters around the country and is also available to rent digitally, courtesy of NEON.
Amazing job on this film, Amy. Can you discuss the genesis of this idea for She Dies Tomorrow and your approach to the journey that you take people on throughout this story, in terms of fear and isolation and dealing with mortality?
Amy Seimetz: It is very personal. It's dealing with my own anxiety, obviously, with the anxiety of fear of death and not being able through, certain experiences in my life, including taking care of my dad and then losing him, not being able to actually deny it anymore. Even though I have a healthy ability to deny it, because I obviously work as an actor and work with other people and am not constantly bringing them into my fear. I’ll just say this: I've been doing these interviews and I keep being like, "Oh, I had this anxiety and I keep sharing it with people and I realize I'm spreading it."
But I should point out for people that I actually have a healthy relationship with it and can function, because making a movie is quite a feat in its own right. But anyhow, so what I wanted to do with it is, because for me, with anxiety and where it stems from, I can drill down and understand that the fear, no matter what is triggering it, the fear is really just about death. And I feel like if I was immortal, I wouldn't have anxiety about anything because nothing really needs to be resolved because you have forever.
And, so, in that vein, because sometimes what I found that I was talking to my friends about whatever was going on with me, I felt like I was spreading the anxiety or negativity, if you will, to them. But in addition to that, I was finding that, in terms of the structure of the story, just in real life, I was finding I couldn't quite find literal words to express what it felt like. And so I knew that with the structure I was going to play around with these horror tropes, because I work a lot in horror movies because I act in them. And then in addition to that, allow it to subvert those because the catharsis of the language of horror films is that you know where it's going. They all have a rhythm.
The problem with anxiety or real-life problems is, there is no prediction as to how they're going to unfold. I knew that initially, this needs to utilize this buildup of horror tropes, because that's how it feels when you're having a panic attack or an anxiety attack, is this buildup of tension and anxiety. But then the resolution to it, you can never expect what that is. Whether it's somebody telling me a joke, or somebody being like, "Look at this new shade of lipstick." There's sometimes a really mundane solution to the anxiety, of distraction. And so I knew that the film was going to follow these horror tropes, but also the resolution to the anxiety was always going to be the subversion that was closer to life, or what I could get the closest to life. If that makes sense.
It does. And I think what's really interesting about the way that you frame everything here, is that anxiety is something that's very universal, I think. Especially with the things that we're dealing with and there is such an eerie timeliness to this film as well, which I'm sure wasn't intentional because how could you have possibly known? But I love the fact that, for as universal is that fear is, there's something very personal about how everybody goes through these things. I was wondering if you could talk about that duality, because that really resonated with me. All of these people have that moment of, "Oh my God," where they're facing this big universal truth. And yet, ultimately, everybody's reaction is different. I just thought that duality was extremely compelling.
Amy Seimetz: I can talk about the personal side. It's having taken care of my father for years and then losing him, watching the family react, everyone that's lost anyone knows that people don't react in the same way to grief. There's that underlying it. And then, because my brain and my emotions are sometimes not in agreement with each other, and my brain constantly wants to rationalize my feelings and understand these things, I then found my way to these articles to intellectualize it, these articles about people's responses to death and their own mortality. And there's these things called distal and proximal responses to death. And I'm sorry, I'm not an intellectual. This is why I make films.
But one response is to being told that you're going to die tomorrow, and one response is, you say, "You're going [to die] tomorrow, or you're going to die at some point." And some people are like, "Fuck it. I'm going to smoke a bunch of cigarettes, dive out of airplanes, and drive cars really fast." And then there are other people who are like, "Well, crap, I'm going to die. I might as well make sure life is as long as I possibly can. So I'm going to work out. I'm going to eat only protein and vegetables." Or whatever. There are these very different reactions.
There's another reaction that I found really fascinating. They did all these controlled tasks where, I won't go into it, because I know you have limited time, is that, people, when they're reminded about their own mortality, they cling to their morals because the idea of death is something that they can't control. Therefore, they're going to control what they do on Earth here.
Obviously, I didn't predict the COVID experience, but it gets to the heart of what we're seeing politically happen on either side, which is, it's terrifying, one. So each side is clinging to their morals and nobody wants to budge on either side. And I say that, I'm not going to talk about my political position because it has nothing to do with the movie, but it was just really fascinating to me. And so, in the personal side and then these intellectual sides, I really just wanted to show each character responding. Like Amy, who's played by Kate Lyn Sheil. I was listening a lot to Peggy Lee's “If That's All There Is.” I love that song so much. My grandmother and I bonded over it because she's very much a Peggy Lee character in real life. I wanted her narrative to feel like that song. Like, "If that's all there is, I'll go ride dune buggies." Or, "I'll drink some wine, let's break out the booze." And then there's Jane's reaction to it, which is, "I need to connect to somebody. I need somebody to understand me. I want understanding."
Then there's Susan and Jason, played by Katie Aselton and Chris Messina. Their reaction is to blame somebody. Well, it's more Susan's reaction to blame somebody. His reaction is to, because he doesn't know what to do, to support that person in a direction. Because there's that take on the whole thing. It's like, "I don't know what to do. I'm just going to support you in death."
There's also Tunde [Adebimpe] and Jennifer Kim's reaction. Tunde's an interesting character. I don't think I've talked about this in an interview yet, but he's more of a character that was already facing death with his dad. It's so subtle and touched upon in the movie. He was already facing death, so he was just like, "Oh. Well, now it's come for me." But Jennifer Kim, who plays Tilly, her reaction is regret for everything she didn't do. All those decisions she didn't do in life, and allowing them all to have their own reaction, which by the way, most people have all of these reactions.
And actually, I had all of these reactions when I've dealt with these things, and it's just breaking them all down into how people deal with this, and then manifesting it into a fantastical way so it's hopefully entertaining.
You mentioned some of your cast members in this, and you have a murderers' row of talent. Can you talk briefly just about putting together this cast? I absolutely loved seeing all these brilliant people in She Dies Tomorrow.
Amy Seimetz: Most of the people in the movie are people that I worked with before, whether that's directing or acting. I've been very fortunate in my life to work with such amazing people and then also build relationships where they trust me and I trust them. And also, not just because they're talented, but they're also just lovely and I want them around, and I can safely bring them to set and not have to explain things to my crew.
And so, Kate was a no-brainer for me because whenever I'm writing something, I am always thinking, "How can I make Kate do something in this?" Not just because I love her as a friend, but because I think she is our Meryl Streep. I'm not saying that as a hyperbole, I really truly think she is. And then, Jane Adams because I've loved Jane Adams since I first saw her in Happiness, and then the joy to be her friend, and the joy to see her brain work and to have her as a real-life friend. Obviously, this movie is personal, and Jane is my real-life friend who really does talk like this to me at times.
With Chris Messina, I did this movie with [him] called The Secrets We Keep. I directed Tunde in my second season of The Girlfriend Experience. Katie Aselton, I hadn't worked with, but it feels like we have, because we've been around each other so much in the independent film world. Same with Jennifer Kim. And obviously Adam Wingard, he owed me a giant favor because I stayed up for 36 hours doing A Horrible Way to Die and he knew he had to do it. For James Benning, he is an experimental filmmaker that I’ve worked with. And with Michelle Rodriguez and Josh Lucas, I'd met Michelle briefly. I loved her. And this is years ago. She was like, "Let me know when you want me to do some weird stuff." And I just called her.
Some people will say this, some people say that, and they don't mean it. I called in the favor and she was like, "I have one more day on Fast and the Furious, and then I'll visit, I'll come and do your set. I was like, "Okay, great." And she meant it. So she did, and she was so amazing and great. In addition to them being brilliant performers, I always consider how nice they are to my crew because my crew is my family. But I didn't know Josh Lucas at all. He just came on because he had a day off when he was doing Ford v Ferrari press and he was so lovely to the crew and just brought something else unexpected. For Olivia Taylor Dudley at the end, she's been a dear friend of mine for a really long time.
So, it was really fun to introduce all these people that I know, not just from working with, but also who are near and dear to me that I knew what they were going to do, but open to what they were going to say. But then I have these live wires of, "I'm not sure what Michelle is going to do," and I definitely didn't know what Josh Lucas was going to do, either. So to get to introduce that energy to the whole film was really exciting.
In case you missed it, read Heather Wixson's review of She Dies Tomorrow.