The Next Day: Writer/Director Amy Seimetz and Actress Kate Sheil on the Eerie, Darkly Comic Anxiety Dream of She Dies Tomorrow
“It’s so great that you own a house,” biologist Jane (Jane Adams) says to sister Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) by phone early in Amy Seimetz’s trippy drama of psychological contagion, She Dies Tomorrow. “This is the best thing you could have done.” Amy has only just moved in, boxes are everywhere, but a new L.A. mortgage hasn’t quelled whatever demons have pushed her to a tremulous and despairing state—Jane can hear it in her voice. “I’ll come over,” Jane says. “Don’t do anything you might regret. Go for a walk. Or why don’t you try watching a movie?” “A movie’s 90 minutes,” Amy replies.
In the time it takes Jane to arrive, Amy drinks, plays Mozart’s Requiem again and again, changes into a fancy dress, smokes, enters into alcoholic relapse, sets a small fire and attacks her backyard with a leaf blower. When Jane finally shows up, Amy makes a stark declaration: “I’m going to die tomorrow.” (Oh, and Amy says that after she’s gone she would like her skin to be used to make a leather jacket.)
That line—“I am going to die tomorrow”—becomes a mantra spoken by different performers throughout Seimetz’s second feature as the story’s scope expands beyond Amy’s house across Los Angeles. (There are great turns here by not just Sheil and Adams but also, among others, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Michelle Rodriguez and, as a grizzled leatherworker, filmmaker James Benning.) Variously a suicidal cry for help, a bleakly comic provocation and an expression of numbed acceptance, the phrase, passed from person to person, is also a marker of viral transmission. Punctuated by strobing disco lights and blasts of orchestral music, She Dies Tomorrow broadens from an experimental character study of one on-the-edge woman into a haunting and consistently inventive kind of sociological horror film. And Amy’s dark words become—especially when heard through the filter of today, when fractious political speech enables an actual virus to march across the country—the incantation of a dying society.
Or, perhaps, within a film that Seimetz says is about anxiety, the repetition of “I’m going to die tomorrow” is just evidence of racing thoughts. “The word is now a virus,” wrote William Burroughs in The Ticket That Exploded. “The flu virus may have once been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.”
Seimetz began as an actress in the early aughts, appearing in numerous independent films before directing 2012’s Sun Don’t Shine, a sun-blasted noir that suggested a cross between Wanda and They Live by Night. Following that debut there was more acting—independents as well as studio films and television like Alien: Covenant and Stranger Things—and the STARZ series she created with Lodge Kerrigan, The Girlfriend Experience, for which Seimetz wrote and directed her own episodes across two seasons. Financed in part with fees she earned from performing in the 2019 Pet Sematary remake, She Dies Tomorrow marks a return to her independent roots as well as, with its expressive effects and genre-slipperiness, a bold new direction. Cinematographer Jay Keitel, who shot both Sun Don’t Shine and episodes of The Girlfriend Experience, experiments with filters and theatrical lighting, giving the film’s modish Angeleno homes an eerie luminosity. Tonal changes are sometimes abrupt—a hilariously painful birthday party scene, where the dialogue revolves around dolphin sex, sits just a few moments away from the bleakest breakup you’ll ever see onscreen. And, playing a character named Amy, Sheil is excellent as a woman attempting a new beginning while sifting through the emotional detritus of a past failed relationship—and doing so amidst, possibly, the end of world.
She Dies Tomorrow was set to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. That, of course, didn’t happen, but a NEON acquisition did, and the film is scheduled to be released in August 2020. I talked with Seimetz and Sheil about anxiety, real estate and the film’s unplanned resonances with the current times.
Filmmaker: I want to start with an observation of sorts, which is that She Dies Tomorrow is very much a film to just experience. It’s metaphorically and thematically rich, but it’s also kind of a trip, with its lighting effects and sound design and music. So, I thought I’d ask you, Amy, about how much of the film’s sensory intensity was baked into it from the beginning, and how much you added or discovered later in the filmmaking process.
Seimetz: I think it was a little of both, really. It’s an anxiety movie, like most of my stuff is. And because I’ve been writing for TV, I was interested in something that’s not so overt. I wanted to play around with a plotline that was, for lack of a better term, obvious but also obtuse, in a way. Because keeping it obtuse adds to the anxiety, you know? It’s a monster movie, but because you’re not revealing the monster you don’t really know what they’re running from. So, how do you visually and sonically convey that to the audience?
In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a short film. We shot the film in pieces, and because we had that luxury the shooting could inform the writing. I would shoot some, then I’d rewrite based on the strength of what we were shooting. Every time we’d shoot something, I’d be like, “Oh, we can get away with less explaining and more experience.” And the more we shot, the more I was able to lean into the visuals and sound design and performances, as opposed to overexplaining what [the characters] were feeling.
I’m so blessed to have access to actors who are so good—so giving and trusting. You know that saying, don’t work with your friends? I couldn’t disagree more. I only have the best sort of deep relationships to the films, especially on the independent level, because I’m able to explain and maybe overshare with [my friends] where exactly [the material] is coming from. And so for me, the personal becomes universal because I’m able to work with my friends.
Filmmaker: What was the first scene that you shot?
Seimetz: The very first thing that I shot is Kate inside of my house, her feeling the floors, feeling the walls and putting on the record. That’s my house, and her name is Amy.
Filmmaker: I was going to get to that.
Seimetz: There’s a lot of meta in the film. Sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes I realized subconsciously I was making these meta decisions. When I started shooting it, I was… I should say frustrated. As an actor, I get to practice my craft quite frequently. I like to go on to sets and then leave and not have it be my responsibility to figure out if the movie is finished. But as a writer—and I’m extremely lucky to be writing for television—and as a filmmaker, it takes so much time to put something together to shoot. So, while I was developing one of these TV shows, I really just wanted to start shooting something. I knew the general idea: my house, that was easy. And it’s Kate and Jay, who shot Sun Don’t Shine. We lived in Miami together and did my second season of Girlfriend Experience. So, it was just really easy to put it together, and I gave myself permission to lean into the moment, into the atmosphere. With TV, or any normal film production, you start production, and it’s a marathon. I just leaned into the “I don’t know quite yet” element and was very present with making each moment alluring in the beginning.
Filmmaker: The idea that depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation could be contagious—did you have that concept at the beginning, or was it more of a portrait of the Amy character in your house?
Seimetz: It was more a portrait. I knew that she was certain that she was going to die tomorrow—what does that feel like? I didn’t want it to be a cancer movie or about battling a disease. Then, when I introduced Jane to the situation, it was really interesting. As soon as Jane came on the scene, I was like, now Jane has to have it. It just fell into place.
Filmmaker: Kate, what were your questions going into this project in terms of how you’d portray a character named Amy in a film directed by Amy and shot in her house?
Sheil: Amy and I have known each other and worked together for a long time, so I feel like there’s a great deal of shorthand between us. When the project started, I knew basically what Amy just said—that this woman knows that she’s going to die the following day. I had to make a decision at the top as to what that would look like for me personally, and there was personal work that I did to try and ground it for myself. But, I feel like you hit on something important, which is the experiential nature of the movie. That was my experience of shooting it, too. Amy was exploring her house with the camera, and she was directing me what to do, so those early shoots were very physical, in a way. You’re listening to the song and touching the wall and that’s a very tactile, simple thing to do. Then, Amy kept expanding the world, which was great.
Filmmaker: For you, Amy, what was it that personally grounded the film and the Amy character?
Seimetz: [Before shooting] I had an incredible amount of anxiety. I was a first-time homeowner by myself in my house and trying to figure out, am I supposed to have more of a relationship with this house than I feel right now? So, I was actually doing the things that Kate was doing [in the film] and had this sudden [thought] when I was by myself: What if somebody was watching me right now? What if somebody just saw me laying on the floor, touching my floors? They would think I’ve lost it and that I’m suicidal and completely crazy. It made me laugh really hard—I have such a dark sense of humor—because [the behavior] is kind of crazy. But that’s how the style of the movie evolved. While shooting, we’re extremely internal and subjective, then we pop out for these little flutters of comedy. Kate and I talk about this all the time. Anything I find hilarious has a little drop of poison in it. I think Sun Don’t Shine is hysterical. And even parts of The Girlfriend Experience, which is, I think, a secret comedy.
Filmmaker: Was the process of buying your house an anxious one?
Seimetz: No, it wasn’t, honestly. I didn’t even know if my credit was good enough because when I was younger, I maxed out my credit cards to make my movies and never paid it back, so my credit was terrible. My credit is good now, so I was like, let’s see if I can actually do this. I put a bid on a house and lost, and then—and I don’t know what that says about me—I got really competitive. The second bid I put in, I got it. I was in Montreal filming Pet Sematary when I closed, and I was like, “Oh my god, I have a house that I’m going back to.” I was essentially a vagabond for 10 years, living out of a suitcase, then subletting. So, I come back from Montreal and suddenly own a house. When you go into the arts, you kind of give up the idea of ever owning a house. It was like, what did I just do? And the first thought in my head was, “Well, now you have a free location.” And I just started making the movie.
Filmmaker: The record she puts on is Mozart’s Requiem, which is famous as a sort of death mass. But it’s also an unfinished work, filled in by others after Mozart’s death. Is there a significance to the music choice other than the fact that the work is associated with death?
Seimetz: Well, one, yes, it’s Requiem, and she’s very intentionally playing that to feel something about her death. She’s not sure how to connect to the idea of death, so she’s playing it over and over to find some semblance of what she’s supposed to be feeling. And in terms of it being unfinished, I mean, that’s part of what the movie’s about—you’re never really ready. I don’t know how many people are ever ready for death even though we’re all going to die. There’s no finality except for the actual moment that you die. You can’t solve death.
Filmmaker: Kate, what are the challenges of playing someone who has that inability to connect or access emotion?
Sheil: The disconnect between wanting to feel the enormity of something and being unable to is something I can relate to pretty easily. As a person who suffers from anxiety, which many of us do, it sort of puts you at a remove from actually feeling the thing that you’re trying to feel. And death is one of those things we’ll be struggling with for our entire lives leading up to it. The enormity of it is impossible to process. The movie is also about the concept of believing people. That is something that I maybe didn’t even realize in the moment of shooting, but there is such an overarching theme of a person speaking their truth, or saying what is happening to them, and that person not being believed. Then, at the end of the day, it turns out that whatever that person’s experience was was the most truthful.
Filmmaker: The Amy character has flashback scenes to an earlier relationship with a man played by Kentucker Audley—your costar, Kate, from Amy’s Sun Don’t Shine. Were the two of you drawing from the relationship in that film in any way or starting from a clean slate? Is that another meta layer in the film?
Sheil: Definitely a clean slate in terms of how we approach the scenes, but I don’t think the slate could ever be entirely clean. Amy was doing something very intentional and smart by having Kentucker play the part because we do have history and a rapport and chemistry. I’ve known Kentucker for nearly as long as I’ve known Amy. I have no idea what anybody else’s experience of it will be, but when I watch the film it seems like we have some sort of relationship. It’s part of an actor’s job, but it can be difficult to fake intimacy. And he and I have actually some level of intimacy as friends.
Filmmaker: Amy, can I ask you to unpack one thing: the leather jacket? The Amy character goes from web surfing for her cremation urn to wondering if her body can be turned into a leather jacket.
Seimetz: As Kate knows, a lot of stuff like that starts out as a joke, and then I’m like, “Wait, that’s really great.” Unfortunately, because of loved ones who have passed away, I’ve had to think about those things. And, again, all of my humor has a drop of poison in it. When I had to go through some of these [situations], I would be laughing [while asking], “What urn do we choose? Does it even matter? Maybe we should build [the ashes] into a firework?” This is the gallows humor that happens when shit hits the fan, you know? And what’s the psychology of somebody who is [thinking], “I’m going to die tomorrow”? Seeing, unfortunately, people who were actually dying, their brains go to weird spaces. And so, I jokingly said out loud when Kate was feeling the floor, “What if you say you want to be made into a leather jacket because you realized that the wood on the floor used to be a tree and used to be alive?” I said it to have some levity in the moment, but once I said that, I knew on a writerly level that I had to pursue it.
Filmmaker: I have to end on the obvious question: What’s it been like seeing your film go out into the world during this time of pandemic, when people have been isolating themselves? I watched the film initially when it would have come out, the time of SXSW. I watched it again before this interview and experienced it in such a different way, especially in thinking about the anxiety of personal encounters during this pandemic—this idea that maybe if someone isn’t wearing a mask something invisible is being passed to you.
Seimetz: Completely. Social anxiety is really heightened for people. I’ve been in quarantine for months, except for going to marches, then I was driving to Colorado. I had my masks and Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, and I felt like a crazy person because I’d stop to go to the bathroom and I’d be one of the only ones in a mask. I thought, have I just been living in my L.A. metropolitan bubble? In the same way everyone was so shocked by the 2016 election, I thought, am I the crazy one? Am I not seeing what everyone else is seeing? But I kept my mask on.
[The film’s release] is completely surreal. We made it in a vacuum, and what was on my mind was, obviously, my own anxiety but also how contagious ideas can be politically. We didn’t have a proper premiere at a festival, so it’s been interesting having people watch it now, with what’s happening. It’s no longer obtuse—it’s suddenly very literal, which is very strange to me. It’s really interesting that it is about isolation and wanting to connect but not being able to in a lot of ways. You know, my relationship to movies always changes based off of what I’m going through. I rewatch a lot of my favorite films, like Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and [take] a different meaning from them. I don’t want to ignore how traumatic and tragic it is for the entire world, but as a filmmaker, it’s like, wow, I didn’t see the relationship of [this film] to the viewer coming at all, you know?
This article is part of Filmmaker‘s 2020 Summer issue. To support Filmmaker and read the entire issue, please consider purchasing the digital PDF edition here.