WOMEN IN HORROR ’13: Q+A WITH AMY SEIMETZ OF ‘SUN DON’T SHINE’
Amy Seimetz sits down with Fangoria to talk about her 2012 directorial breakthrough SUN DON’T SHINE, genre-bending filmmaking across new American cinema, acting vs. directing, her involvement in UPSTREAM COLOR and transitioning to television with AMC’s crime show THE KILLING.
Following a series of performances in some of the most talked-about genre pictures of the last few years, the ever-surprising and hyper-prolific filmmaker Amy Seimetz directed her first narrative feature with SUN DON’T SHINE – a curious, spellbinding and seamless mix of genre, textures and tones, ranging from pulp-infused Americana to the road movie, the paranoid-to-psychotic woman’s film and the doomed relationship drama. Following Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentuckler Audley), lovers on the run through the humid and haunted landscapes of Saint Petersburg, Florida, SUN DON’T SHINE had its world premiere at SXSW in 2012 and was recently acquired by Factory25 for a Spring 2013 release. In the following, Amy also discusses her collaboration with PRIMER director Shane Carruth on his mystifying, visceral and unclassifiable sophomore effort, UPSTREAM COLOR and her recent casting in the AMC series THE KILLING, now shooting its 3rd season in Vancouver.
FANGO: SUN DON’T SHINE is a particular film for genre-related reasons, but also because it seems so spontaneous. It’s a movie that has a specific narrative to it, but that is also so much informed by the locale you shot it in and the actors you chose for the part. How does a film like that come together for you?
SEIMETZ: I was living in Florida where we shot. I was born and raised there, in Tampa, St. Pete. [The film] explores a really strange place. Obviously there’s the vacation stuff and the tourism stuff, but there’s an underbelly to Florida that sort of vibrates with violence. And it has to do with – and I don’t know if people will get this but it makes sense to me – the humidity and this sort of pulsating, vibrating feeling that something might go horribly wrong, that you might meet the wrong person and your whole life will be fucked.
I grew up with that feeling, even though I had a decent childhood. There were just tons of kidnappings and weird murder stories and I kind of, in a very strange way, just accepted that there might be a possibility that as a kid, I might just end up kidnapped and dead in a ditch somewhere.
I don’t know how to describe it in literal terms but the only way that I could figure out how to get the feeling of it was through texture, image, sound and story – atmospheric elements. And so I wrote the story and picked the actors that I wanted to be in there and wrote characters specifically for them so they could knock it out of the park. I wrote each scenes specific to locations I had childhood memories from, whether good memories or bad memories, just to have a sense of familiarity with the location. I was also going through a really, really awful period of time where there was a lot of death going on [around me], so that seemed like a good outlet for that.
FANGO: You play with a lot of American conventions of genre storytelling: you have the noirish setup; it’s very economic in that way, it’s almost like a pulp novel. And then you embark on this journey with them and it’s as much a relationship movie as it is a road movie about solving problems and getting from some place to another. Was it an intentional thing for you to play with all these conventions or did that just happen out of necessity for this story?
SEIMETZ: There’s a lot of crime and noir and pulp novelists that have come out of Florida and lots of novelists that have moved to Florida to write. It’s so weird to talk about because it’s not a referential movie – it’s not homage to anything – but there’s a lot of inspirations in there. I really love stories about women who don’t know how to be “good” women – Barbara Loden’s WANDA (1970), WOMEN UNDER THE INFLUENCE or Zulawski’s POSSESSION. Utilizing the woman that doesn’t know how to play good women and then utilizing the femme fatale and marrying the two [in the character of Crystal] seemed like a really interesting thing.
There’s also the mermaid metaphor in the film, which in mythology are sirens that lure men to their deaths. But all they really think they’re doing, these mermaids in mythology, is they think they’re just playing with [the men] like dolphins. Unknowingly being the femme fatale and not being able to control it became very fascinating to me.
As far as the execution of it, I wanted it to feel really spontaneous for them to perform it. I always hear [people] saying that [the performances are] really natural and realistic and I’m like “I don’t know what reality you guys have been living in!” [Laughs]. What Kentucker and Kate and everybody else is pulling off, which is magnificent and why I wrote it specifically for, not just Kentucker and Kate, but also AJ Bowen and Mark Reeb and Kit Gwin is because I knew that they would be able to grasp this straddling of the line between realism and this high-frequency, pulpy performance.
FANGO: And it’s as great opposition between the two: you have Crystal that is so fizzy and broken and absent-minded, yet at the same time so deeply in her head that she cannot communicate, while Leo is kind of the hyper-aware paranoiac. It’s a dynamic that is fascinating and I would agree that realism isn’t the right word. It’s a skewed reality.
SEIMETZ: That’s the thing. I’m more interested in hitting an emotional truth and an emotional experience and tone, rather than executing what “really” happened. I’ve seen some film that can get close to realism, but the thing is everything on screen is imaginary anyways. Even realism is about how people see reality. I don’t know, maybe I’m just an emotional person [Laughs], but the tone of SUN DON’T SHINE comes closer to a realism of my emotional state when I’m in some sort of traumatic situation, rather than going through the motions, showing facts point by point.
FANGO: How was the shoot, itself? I can imagine it being so humid, and you having to direct, coming from the perspective of an actress and working with Kate. Working with this high-level of intensity for an extended period of time, did it ever get tiring?
SEIMETZ: This isn’t my first film; it’s my first narrative film I guess. I’ve directed a bunch of shorts and a feature that was more experimental. Especially because I had been an actor, I knew how to be sensitive to both Kate and Kentucker. I knew to be sensitive to [the fact] it’s going to take her some time and that here’s a scene after she comes out of this emotional situation; to let her know what’s reading and what’s not and to let her know how far she needed to go if it was getting exhausting.
It was 100 degrees in the middle of July when we shot. We shot on 16mm. Jay [Keitel], the DP and I always say that it almost saved money and time and exhaustion out of everyone to be shooting on film because you can’t be shooting all day. You have to allow a couple of rolls for scene; you have to make sure you saved rolls for the bigger scenes and so on. It kinda regulates how long you can shoot – and I don’t think we shot more than 8h a day, save for the last day. Sometimes we’d shoot for about 4 hours a day.
I think that that goes back to working with people you’ve worked with before; knowing when you get a scene and making sure that everyone is on the same page. Say we shoot for 4 hours and then I discover something in shooting that, I thought that it would behoove the movie more for us to go home and discuss what that discovery was, and then for me to go back and rewrite an entire scene for the next day so that we didn’t have to keep shooting just because it was on the page, you know?
FANGO: The film has very brief, but amazing moments of horror in it that, as a viewer, come as a shock — whether Crystal’s dream or the great reference to Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. This film seems born out of Crystal’s mind and those two scenes go a long way to give the film an intensely gloomy atmosphere. Can you discuss these?
SEIMETZ: This entire film is a nightmare of mine – and so it’s her nightmare and so is the scratching and all these things. I love horror films when they’re done really well. The reason I love them is not for the kills or anything like that. It’s because – and I’ve described this before – horror sort of took over what American cinema was able to pull off in the 1970s in some of [the decade’s] strange films: tones and really weird situations and characters.
Crystal is inspired by a lot of 1970s, early 80s female protagonists. And you can’t really get away with that stuff anymore in, I guess, dramatic movies, because you have to call them “a drama”. They can’t just be a film. The way that people have coped with trying to get out some of these weird, vibrating fears and trembling of death ideas is by throwing them into genre pictures. And so, I definitely made a conscious choice to use sound elements and visuals that were of the genre, but in the way that I love [them], ignoring that I have to show people getting stabbed.
I love the build-up. That’s what I love in horror; the build-up to you getting stabbed. I actually cover my eyes when people do [get stabbed] but I can’t stop watching the movies because I love the energy. It’s ecstatic and electric. Having been a part of Ti West and Adam Wingard’s films and that sort of new horror genre that is not necessarily about the slasher – the kind of horror film that I like that is character-driven and has strong emphasis on aesthetics. Less about stabbing because even that can make you numb after a while.
These are weird dudes. We talk a lot about personal cinema – and I know sometimes personal cinema gets bashed, but those guys are making personal films. They’re weird guys [Laughs].
FANGO: I interviewed Joe Swanberg last year about SILVER BULLETS, which you were a part of, and something interesting he said is that he made that film as a way of dealing with his jealousy of this kind of notion of “built-in” genre audiences. There almost seems to be kind of a resistance within the genre community towards a film like SUN DON’T SHINE because it’s not purely genre. People are still calling thing very squarely and it’s kinda baffling. Is that something you ever consider?
SEIMETZ: We made SILVER BULLETS over the period of two and a half years so I know all the twist and turns of that, but yeah, it’s a really strange thing. I keep reading these reviews that are like “but it fails as a genre flick”. And I’m like “I didn’t realize I was taking a test!” [Laughs]. I took my SATs over 13 years ago and I thought that that was it! I didn’t realize that I was going to have to keep taking tests for the rest of my life. And I think that it’s the same for Adam [Wingard]’s films and what we did with A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE. YOU’RE NEXT was sensationally well accepted, but what is the criteria of success? Why can’t we just be making films, films that just exist and come out of your brain?
With SUN DON’T SHINE, I wanted there to be a minimalist plotline where I could explore all these tones, where I had a caveat where I could hold the hand of the audience, be aware of the audience – which I hadn’t done with experimental films. And allow them to engage with this conduit to weirder atmospheres and this high-frequency relationship. Most of my friends, peers, filmmaking community – even with something like UPSTREAM COLOR – make these films and you’re not quite sure how people are going to respond to them, but you know what goes into it. The only time you start thinking about how to utilize what went into it is because you don’t know what you’re audience is, but you want people to see it. And so, you start going: “OK, well I guess this is a genre film”.
SUN DON’T SHINE played a couple genre fests and we had so many walk outs because no one was getting murdered in the first few minutes [Laughs]. I think people either get it or they don’t. And when they do get it, they usually love it. The same thing goes about UPSTREAM COLOR, or SILVER BULLETS or A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE. People just usually love it or hate it.
I think a lot of it is that it frustrates people that they can’t define it; that it kind of blends into all of these different areas. Again, I think that all of us have a real respect and pull a lot of influences from the 1970s, when there was a true sense of an Americana and being a maverick filmmaker; discussing really strange things and making these strange movies without necessarily having to define them.
FANGO: It’s funny you should mention the 70s because this is something I find myself saying a lot when talking about you and your peers’ films. In a sense, it’s kind of the Roger Corman-Joe Dante-Jack Nicholson-etc. kind of thing all over again. In the grand scale of things, I think, I hope, that you guys are still at the beginning of your career, as a community, but also individually.
SEIMETZ: You realize when you start making this stuff and become a part of these smaller things — I don’t even like to say “smaller things”. You don’t have a studio, you want to make this and you want to make it for art and you believe and it and etc. I hate the word “small” and I even hate the word “independent” [Laughs]. Water finds its own level and everyone ends up finding each other because you are just doing what you want to be doing. You realize that there are not so many of you! [Laughts]. People are not doing it for the same reasons and that’s not a right or wrong thing, but you find people that are doing it for the same reasons so you keep them near you. And also, you find that on these budgets, they are the only ones that are going to help you [Laughs]. Because they know what it’s like and they understand the sacrifices and they’ve figured out how to, aesthetically, work under these conditions – instead of having trucks and trucks and trucks and giant production teams. All of that breeds a whole other kind of cinema that is totally fine and great. I say this working on [AMC’s THE KILLING] right now.
FANGO: UPSTREAM COLOR is unlike anything a lot of people have seen. I don’t know where you shot the movie in the chronology of your recent work, but going back to you, how was it to abandon yourself to Shane Carruth’s very specific vision?
SEIMETZ: I got hired on UPSTREAM COLOR because[Shane] had seen SUN DON’T SHINE, an early cut of it, and my understanding is that he hired me because he needed somebody that understood the filmmaking process – the 360 degree of it. I think we’re very much kindred spirits in a narrative sense and a filmmaking sense. Because we clicked so well on that level, and really understood each other on that visceral level, it wasn’t very hard for me to click into what he wanted me to do.
I didn’t come from a theater background. I went to school for writing and art history, and started as a filmmaker before finding myself acting in people’s movies. The actors that I use, or want to be using, are people that, whether they’ve made a film or not, get that sort of knowledge that its filmmaking in front of a camera. To erase the term acting so that they also feel respected in such a way that they’re a filmmaker too. It’s just one of the parts of making a film. My producer is a filmmaker, my DP is a filmmaker. Everyone has to understand how it all comes together in order to execute. Talking about how isolate acting is a very strange thing to me because I wouldn’t be able to do it unless I knew where I’m being shot, how it’s being, where we are in the story and etc. etc. etc.
FANG: I can imagine that transition from actor to director, then, is very fluid for you? The way you speak of it, and the way your films speak of it, is that, in the end it’s all performance anyways.
SEIMETZ: Yes. I think that you always have to be looking at the whole; everybody has to be looking at the whole. I don’t know, because I’ve never worked on set with anyone just trying to cover their ass. That is alarming and scary to me; working on something where everybody is just there to cover their ass. I think that the best stuff comes when everyone is asking “how do I fit into this whole thing” and the job of the director is to guide all of these pieces together while being a part of that whole.
You know, I think Kate and Kentucker are brilliant storytellers. Kate is writing now. She’s never been a director, but in talking to her and knowing her, [you realize] she is so well-versed in cinema. She is so smart and really gets tone and mood and the trajectory of a story so well that to me, it’s obvious you should just call her a filmmaker.
I know there are people that love to call themselves actors and I don’t want to reduce that, but a lot of the time, it comes across as a reductive statement, like “oh, you’re just an actor.” I think the best [actors] are good filmmakers.
FANGO: Did you start shooting THE KILLING? It’s interesting to talk about that very communal aspect of filmmaking that lower budgets and “independent” filmmaking allows, as you’re transitioning towards something different: a studio produced TV show on which you’re hired solely as an actress. What do you expect from that transition and do you think it will be different?
SEIMETZ: I wrapped on Christopher Guest’s FAMILY TREE and that was HBO. And so far with AMC, this is the 3rd season there a lot of the same people working on this. My experience with Christopher on FAMILY TREE was that it was very wonderful to work on something [of his] because he is very loyal. He has a family he’s worked with for many years and now there on HBO. His producer, Karen Murphy has been with him for years, his editor, his DP, etc. These are all people he’s used for most, if not all his films.
I want to say that it’s different, but it’s almost like I want to say to my filmmaking family – and it’s funny because the name of the show is FAMILY TREE – “Mommy’s got a badass job, let’s go to Hollywood!” [Laughs].
One of my next couple of films I’m writing for Kate and Kentucker. You get told so many things. You should be doing this and you should be looking at these other famous people that you don’t know and you don’t even know if you could get along with on set. For having gone through that FAMILY TREE experience, you realize that it’s just bullshit. Not only that, but on this show too, there are some truly fantastic people that have signed on, like Peter Sarsgaard and a bunch of other people. They cast me in it, in a pretty giant role, and the two leads too weren’t wildly famous. So they’re also taking chances and building a filmmaking family where everybody knows each other. From just doing make up tests and stuff, you realize that everybody has this respect. Veena [Sud], the show creator has watched SUN DON’T SHINE and loves it and talks to me about that.
I want to say that it’s changed, but so far, not so much. It goes back to what I was saying before, where water finds its own level. There are certain roles in the world that I’m sure I’m not going to get because we won’t see eye to eye. You can’t force a round peg into a square hole, you know?
SUN DON’T SHINE is scheduled for a day-and-date theatrical/digital release April 29, courtesy of Factory 25. Stay tuned to their webpage for it HERE