Writer/director AMY SEIMETZ has been making genre films as an actor and director for several years now, but her latest, SHE DIES TOMORROW, is a massive leap forward. The indie film sees a slow contagion begin to spread out from a woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), who might be suffering a relapse into alcoholism or actually becoming cognizant of the fact that she will, in fact, die the next day. As the idea takes hold in Amy's mind, she begins voicing it aloud, and it starts spreading out among her friends. Watching the contagion take root in the minds of everyone in the film is quiet, but nothing less than paralysingly terrifying. We spoke by phone with Seimetz about her process of writing and directing this stellar film.
STARBURST: We talked to you last year ahead of the release of Pet Sematary, and one of the things that you had said, regarding directing, was that it's very important to have a grounded and emotional experience in horror. Was the reason so many people on She Dies Tomorrow were ones with whom you've worked before due to wanting to have a small and honest performance from every actor?
Amy Seimetz: Yeah, the reason I work with all of them so much is because – well, they're great, but also we have throughout the years developed a shorthand. And that's not just with the cast but with my cinematographer Jay Keitel. He and I have known each other for 17 years so, when you have that shorthand and that base of friendship and then also, collaboration over the years, you can go much deeper, in a way. There are a lot of things that you can reach or you can execute without having to say too many words. You have this trust and this understanding with these people that really get you on an intrinsic level. It's almost like you don't have to really over-direct them.
There's a level of acceptance in all of the characters in this film. What led you to go with that? Jane (played by Jane Adams) is essentially the only character who really has a super freak out about this. Everybody else seems to be very accepting of their situation.
I guess we've already seen the apocalypse movie where everyone's running from it. There's this really great story by Ray Bradbury [The Last Night of the World]. It's just a short short story in Esquire, and it's about this couple who both realised that they had a dream that the end of the world is coming and they don't really do anything but make tea and go to bed. What's weird is that I had read that when I was younger and it wasn't until we were well into the middle of shooting that my assistant, Alex, was like, “This reminds me of this short story.”
I reread it and I was like, “I have read this before and it's somehow stuck in my subconscious.” It's so overwhelming, you know – that feeling that I was trying to like have them express is that there is no arguing. It's just a fact to them. The feeling is so overwhelming that it's just become effectively like there is no argument of the feeling. It's just going to happen. There is no fighting it. Once it comes, it's like, “This is just a fact. There's no refuting it. We can't run from it. No matter where we are, even if we run, we might run and get hit by a car. It doesn't matter.” It's not the how: it's just going to happen.
Jane has the hit her own freak out because she's just trying to connect to people that understand the feeling and she wants to be with people that understand the feeling and then, with Katie Aselton – who plays Susan – her response is to blame Jane, as opposed to completely accepting it. It's like, “We need to we need to blame Jane. It's Jane's fault.” Which happens a lot, in fact.
I feel like I've really responded to that Ray Bradbury story but, also – again, I forgot I had read that until well into shooting and I was like, “Oh good. If it's good enough for Ray Bradbury, then it'll be great for a movie,” because there is the temptation, if you're making something like this – a contagious movie or apocalypse movie – to really push it into territory that you've seen before. I just was interested in watching, in a darkly comedic way, what if everyone's kind of failing at having their last day, in a way?
It's interesting you say that because it feels like the performances are so much more honest, because it's things that hadn't been in film before, but it's things that are seen in real life. When people accept that something is over, their false front drops and there's just this honesty. The conversation between Tilly (Jennifer Kim) and Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) is just refreshingly honest, while at the same time being absolutely brutal.
Oh, god, yeah. I want to say that was completely made up, but somebody actually said that to me when my dad died and I actually – this is really fucked up – I actually really appreciated it when he said to me, “I was waiting to break up with you until your dad died.” If you haven't gone through it, on the surface it sounds so cruel, but it actually was telling me, “I know that you felt that this relationship was bad for a while, but like I was trying to be nice and not bring it up.” It was actually kind of kind.
Exactly. They were being honest but they weren't being unnecessarily cruel.
Right? It would be different if it was like, “You're a nightmare. I'm glad your dad's dead” or something but it's not what it was. It was like, “Now, we can breathe. Now, it's time.”
Considering the use of sound and colour in the film, it seems as though ‘psychedelic’ is getting thrown around a lot regarding the light seen by the characters as they become infected, as well as the photographs that Jane takes of the bacteria under the microscope. Where did you pull this idea of using color for communication? It seems like light and color and flashing lights does seem very Close Encounters but where did you pull it from, particularly?
There is a little bit of that way otherworldly: whether it's being abducted by aliens and being implanted with this knowledge, being probed with light, but also just based off of people having near-death experiences and trying to express visually – and sonically, with the sound design – what would that feel like, to be flooded with every single emotion.
The performances and what the actors are doing – I never said, “It's purely fear.” While they're so scared, what I wanted them to perform and they did a fantastic job doing is there's a curiosity to the feeling. There's a sadness. There's an elation. There's these ecstatic, really conflicting emotions that they're feeling, so trying to reach that ecstatic state with the flashing colours was overwhelming the senses in the best way I could for a movie, because I only have sight and sound. If I had smell-o-vision, I don't know, but they say people smell burnt toast when they're having a stroke?
But, yeah: just trying to reach what I interpreted from reading near-death experiences or also physiologically what happens to the body, which is your body – when you die – it's flooded with all of your hormones right. I wanted to think about how wild that would feel: it's your serotonin, of course, and then they have this theory that DMT gets released from your perineal glands in mass quantities when you die, so it's like all of the hormones essentially being released.
What would that look like? What would that sound like to you? What would it feel like to you?
Speaking of sound, was the Lacrimosa movement from Mozart's Requiem that Amy listens to – where she's just lifting the needle up and dropping it back down again at the beginning of that record – was that written into the script?
I wrote it into the script and I wanted to keep it. I wanted it so bad that I filmed it live with her listening to it, but then I had the Mondo Boys cover it and we replaced it, but I always wanted that. I double-checked and knew that we could get it if we covered it. That was the song that I was listening to over and over and over again, thinking that I'd go through some sort of metamorphosis and realise like, “Oh, I'm not scared of death anymore, because Mozart confronted it.”
I guess you could say in some ways, this would be my Requiem, but I didn't really approach it that way. At the same time, I think it's a fascinating sort of endeavour to really confront your own death with composers but then also just in writing. Johnny Cash had all those cover albums that he came out with. That, to me, would be a requiem.
The other song that I thought maybe would go in there, but it's too sentimental and not the right thing, was Claire de Lune, which I listen to be really indulgent. Obviously, because the movie is confronting death or my way of confronting death in some way, I was like, “Oh, yes: this is perfect for this movie,” and also just the relationship of wanting to be so indulgent, too. I find myself doing that. Where, when I'm feeling sad – and everyone does this – I just want to listen to really sad music or really dramatic music.Blue Finch Film Releasing presents SHE DIES TOMORROW on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, and Digital Download on August 28th. Read our review here.