Amy Seimetz’s Mirror Worlds

In her new absurdist thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, the director-actress dares to think the unthinkable.

Amy Seimetz. Photo: Brett Allen Smith/Courtesy of NEON
Amy Seimetz. Photo: Brett Allen Smith/Courtesy of NEON

Amy Seimetz is laughing. The laughter is always triggered by things one might not normally laugh about, from the ravages of illness to the catastrophes of the pandemic. It ranges from a wry chuckle to a full-on roar, her head thrown back. This happens countless times as we talk about She Dies Tomorrow, the 38-year-old director-actress’s third feature. The movie is about a woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) who has a breakdown over the prospect of her impending death. At least it seems impending: It’s never explained why, exactly, Amy is convinced she’ll be gone before the next sunset. We just observe her as she melts down in her house (which also happens to be Seimetz’s home in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Los Angeles). Amy obsesses over breakups and relapses into alcoholism and then, over the course of the next few hours, her fear of oblivion spreads to others. First comes her friend (Jane Adams), who then spreads it to her caring but exasperated brother (Chris Messina), and his self–centered wife (Katie Aselton), who is having a birthday party and berates her husband’s sister for being a bummer.

“Death is the cruelest joke, you know?,” Seimetz tells me from her living room. That the set of She Dies Tomorrow serves as the backdrop to our conversation adds one more plane to the hall of mirrors. “You’re born, you’re conscious, and, the entire time, the trick is to deny the inevitable.”
Death and grief are adjacent to a lot of narrative art when they aren’t at the center. But it’s still striking to look at Seimetz’s filmography as both performer and filmmaker and realize how many of her projects have dealt with death, either as an abstract concept or head-on, via genre. Last year, she starred in the remake of Pet Sematary, an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel about a family that discovers it can bring the dead back to life with monstrous results. In 2017, she was a member of the ensemble cast of Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction’s indestructible franchise about violation, gestation, extinction, and rebirth. In 2013, she starred as the mother of a murdered teenage girl in AMC’s The Killing. Two years before that, she co-starred in Adam Wingard’s indie slasher flick You’re Next. The year before that, she co-starred in Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die.

You could even say death was the inspiration for her award-winning 2012 feature, Sun Don’t Shine, a microbudget effort that got a modest release but wound up as a critics’ darling. The film follows a desperately unhappy couple (Sheil and Kentucker Audley, who also co-stars in She Dies Tomorrow) traveling through a swampy landscape (Florida, Seimetz’s native state) that becomes more menacing by the scene; in the trunk of their car, we learn, is the body of her murdered husband, which they’re hoping to ditch. “Facing death was ruining a lot of my relationships and the way that I related to the world,” Seimetz said at the time. “This was a good caveat to explore that.” Death looms over Sun Don’t Shine, whether as a narrative fact or a tonal element: The film opens with the couple embroiled in what appears to be a fight to the death, the heroine struggling to escape her controlling boyfriend’s grasp, grappling on swampy ground, literally getting down in the muck. The scene embodies Seimetz’s earthy, blunt approach to filmmaking, although — in collaboration with another trusted creative partner, her regular cinematographer, Jay Keitel — the visuals are also spectacular and intuitive, shifting with the emotions of their heroine from mundane to nightmarish and back.

Both Sun Don’t Shine and She Dies Tomorrow are notable for what they don’t reveal to the viewer, letting mood, performance, and striking imagery do the work of carrying us along elliptical narratives that might have, in other hands, leaned more heavily into genre. She Dies Tomorrow plays like a slasher picture or a pod-people movie in which the audience is denied a glimpse of the threat all the way to the end. Instead, we see Amy both close up and from a distance as the character wanders her house crying and babbling and leaning against a living-room wall, touching it as if it’s hot. But after a while, a funny or maybe not funny thing happens: She Dies Tomorrow morphs into a pitch-black absurdist comedy as each new character becomes infected by Amy’s fear of death after coming into contact with her. The film’s deft handoff of dread inspired critics to peg it as a “pandemic movie” when it premiered at this year’s South by Southwest — online, of course, as the festival had been shut down at the last minute so it wouldn’t become an epicenter of plague. But to Seimetz, it’s a semi-autobiographical exploration of feelings that she suppresses every day, whether or not external factors like a pandemic or the loss of a loved one happen to amplify it.

“When I drive on a really high bridge, the thing that’s going through my brain is, Don’t drive off the edge, don’t drive off the edge,” she says, chuckling. “It just goes through my head and goes through my head. Freud’s theory was that insanity, schizophrenia, and bipolar are [the conditions] of somebody who cannot deny death. And society, in order to function, needs to have denial of death because it’s paralyzing. In order to make progress and to think about future generations, you have to deny that you’re going to die.”

Seimetz says she named the protagonist of She Dies Tomorrow Amy because it seemed ridiculous to pretend the character wasn’t herself. “I thought, Let’s just get rid of the artifice.” At the heart of the film lies Seimetz’s experience from 11 years ago, when she put her career on hold to return to the Tampa–St. Petersburg area, where she grew up, to care for her father, who’d had several strokes and was in decline. “It’s like if you see this giant house in the distance and all the lights are on and then you’re watching one light from each room go off over the period of like three years,” she says.

Seimetz started making films during a semester spent at NYU. She graduated from Florida State University, where she majored in literature and art history and acted in student shorts, making friends who would go on to be important in the film industry, including Moonlight producer Adele Romanski and writer–director Barry Jenkins, whom Seimetz met in the student union’s darkroom. When she moved to Los Angeles a year later, she had no intention of pursuing acting professionally, but she started performing in her own filmmaking efforts and accumulated dozens of acting credits before she directed Sun Don’t Shine.

The combination of Sun Don’t Shine and 2013’s Upstream Color helped establish Seimetz as a kind of ultra-indie icon. The latter is a meditation on mortality and rebirth in which she starred opposite her then-boyfriend, the director and actor Shane Carruth. They were together on and off over six years. Recently, it surfaced that she now has a restraining order against Carruth because of repeated instances of domestic violence and harassment. When asked about the relationship, she says, understandably, “That’s a no comment.”

The next project she worked on as a filmmaker, the Starz drama The Girlfriend Experience, concerns the sort of paranoia that stems from being stalked by a tormentor. The show was produced and overseen by Steven Soderbergh and starred Riley Keough as a call girl who becomes increasingly paranoid after an anonymous individual starts trying to blackmail her.

Seimetz co-wrote and co-directed The Girlfriend Experience, a loose adaptation of Soderbergh’s 2009 semi-improvised indie film. She also played a supporting role as the heroine’s sister, cast her close friend Sheil in a key part, and convinced Soderbergh to hire Keitel as cinematographer on seven episodes. In what Soderbergh variously calls “a filmmaking experiment” and “a shotgun wedding,” Seimetz was paired with veteran independent filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan (Clean, Shaven), who is known for his terrifying explorations of disordered minds. They had to write the entire first season together and alternate directing duties.

The second season gave Seimetz and Kerrigan their own seven-episode mini-shows, also dealing with sexuality, psychology, and fear of harm and death. Her old FSU classmate Romanski executive–produced. She and Seimetz first met at an FSU party, where they asked a friend to wander around with a disposable camera and take pictures while they photobombed in the background. “Amy’s brain is firing on so many cylinders that when she finally has the chance to stand on a set like the one on The Girlfriend Experience, the world is finally matching her interiority,” Romanski says.
Soderbergh, also a multi-hyphenate filmmaker, saw a version of himself in Seimetz but with a distinctive personality he wanted to encourage and reward. “I was struck by her presence on–camera,” he says. “She’s really arresting to look at, and she’s got a unique energy and seems incapable of doing something unbelievable. Then I find out she’s this gifted filmmaker in her own right. I haven’t found anything yet that she doesn’t do well. She’s a good writer, she’s a terrific director, she’s got a really good instinct for casting, and she knows what to do with a camera.”

That last quality impressed Soderbergh most: Seimetz never made the obvious choice for the show, always erring on the side of letting the audience intuit deeper meanings; it was clear from the way she wrote, staged, and shot a moment that there was more going on than people having conversations or sex in sleek hotel rooms. As an example, Soderbergh cites one scene, in which a john’s distraught wife meets the heroine, Christine Reade, in a bar and warns her to stay away from her husband, pouring on the resentment, threats of ruination, and intimations of violence. Christine absorbs it all, a poker-faced immovable object, but after the wife leaves, her hand shakes slightly as she picks up her drink and then sets it down. The episode ends by cutting to black on the clink sound of the glass touching the tabletop. “I saw that and thought, What an interesting way to show that she doesn’t really have it together,” Soderbergh says. “And the framing isn’t a close-up. I think it’s a cowboy shot, where you just see her sitting at the table from the ankles up. Amy and I have conversations about that kind of thing a lot: How do you find things like that that are simple but have a larger meaning or weight than they would seem to have if you isolated the activity outside of the context in which it’s occurring?”

Such choices involve figuring out how to talk about things while talking around them, which helps when you specialize in making films about death. This happens to be the narrative strategy for both of Seimetz’s films as writer-director — especially She Dies Tomorrow, which encourages the viewer to speculate on whether there is an actual threat against the characters or they simply pass the protagonist’s depression and paranoia around until they are all consumed by it.

This is Seimetz’s favorite way to communicate information onscreen. When offered a hypothetical scenario in which a financially strapped woman visits an ex and steals money from his wallet while he’s in the bathroom, she says she’d probably shoot the scene so the viewer has no idea whether the woman stole the money until the next scene, or maybe later. “Lodge and I used to talk about this when we were writing The Girflriend Experience,” she says. “Exposition becomes catnip for the audience.” But when a filmmaker or performer delivers information through actions and expressions, the audience has to “pay attention, because we’re not going to feed it all to you verbally. You just have to go with us.”

Or, as Barry Jenkins puts it, “When you watch an Amy Seimetz film, you never know what she’s gonna do next. And you never know when the end is gonna come.”

She Dies Tomorrow is available on demand on August 7.

*A version of this article appears in the August 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Amy Seimetz’s Mirror Worlds