Amy Seimetz’s new film She Dies Tomorrow is a harrowing experience. Somewhere between a horror movie and an experimental film, it follows a woman named Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) who suddenly becomes utterly convinced that she will die within 24 hours. As she shares this conviction with her best friend Jane (Jane Adams), she sets off a chain reaction of spreading fear and anxiety, with a growing cloud of people confronting their own mortality. It’s a riveting film, but it doesn’t lend itself to easy answers or analysis.
Seimetz is a longtime actress, known for projects including Stranger Things, Alien: Covenant, and The Killing. She’s also the writer-director of the film Sun Don’t Shine, and co-creator and producer of Starz’s series The Girlfriend Experience. But she’s never written and directed anything quite like She Dies Tomorrow. So Polygon talked to her about what she intended for the film, how it channels her own anxiety, and how viewers have been interpreting it.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Is anybody experiencing this film the way you want them to experience it? So many of the reviews are trying to unlock it like a puzzle. Have you had any response that’s either a spot-on interpretation, or just taking in the movie the way you intended?
Amy Seimetz: I have to be quite honest, I haven’t really read that much. I’ve been trying to stay off the internet. But I think the most fascinating thing, my favorite part, is that it feels like people are taking it in personally. That’s all I want, is if you can just go with the movie, then ask your own questions. I’m not telling anyone what to think about it, I’m not giving anyone any answers. What I intended was like, “Come along with this. Come along on this ride with me, because this is how I’m experiencing life. Then do with it what you will.” It’s intended to entertain, but it’s also intended to stick with people and keep them thinking about their own experiences with death, and their own experiences with isolation and anxiety. I do think, from the little I’ve read, that people are writing about it in a very personal way, which is exciting.
That’s what struck me about it — people are responding to it from their own experience, but they’re also so definitive about it. The movie feels as if it was designed to be open to interpretation, but then a critic will say something like “The ending isn’t cathartic because it’s specifically about how treating mental illness is an ongoing process. That is what this movie means.” How does that kind of decisive statement land with you?
I think they may be correct, but there are also so many other things that it’s about. That’s why I took such a minimalist approach to it. That statement you mentioned does apply, but the film also applies to the idea of death in general. Like, it’s okay to say you’re not OK. It’s OK to be scared. It’s OK to not be OK all the time. And that’s true in any situation. Toward the end, where Amy says, “I’m OK,” and is trying to be OK, that came from my real life. I was by myself, dealing with something, and I realized I was saying out loud to myself, “You’re OK, you’re OK.” And I realized, “No, you’re obviously not okay, because if you were, you wouldn’t be saying this out loud, repetitively. And that’s OK that you’re not OK.” And suddenly it alleviated the pressure to be OK with everything. To talk in the language of recovery, acceptance and admitting that there’s a problem is the first step. And that applies to so many things, to any form of denial.
Is it important that people come away from this film having learned something, or having new questions for themselves about anxiety or mortality? Do you want to reassure people, or teach them, or just get them thinking?
I would be the first to say that I don’t want to teach anyone anything, because I’d be the first to admit that I don’t know anything. [Laughs] I if I wanted to teach, I’d be a teacher. But I would just be a terrible teacher, because I would admit to my students every day — actually, I’ve taught college, just one class or something — and the first thing I say is, “I don’t know anything, so you might as well take what you like from this, and then throw away the rest if you don’t like it. Because I don’t know more than you.” I’ve listened to teachers where I was like, “That doesn’t make any sense.” You take what you can from any teacher.
And then the other thing is, the way I wanted the movie to function was on this emotional and sensory level. I wanted the film to feel like an experience, and not necessarily close up loose ends. But if you really allow the film to take you, then you go through this range of full anxiety and laughter and humor, adult gallows humor. The mundane moments are even important. For me, dealing with my own personal anxiety — everyone’s anxiety is different, but for me, it goes really crazy and wild, and feels like I’ve got to resolve something immediately. Then I’m suddenly laughing at myself, and how indulgent I was about it. Then it’s back to complete silence. And then the cycle maybe ramps back up. But I’m always just left with myself. So this was a way to give somebody else the experience of what I’ve been experiencing.
James Benning, who’s in the film, I’ve worked with him before, he makes these beautiful experimental films. And he and Thom Andersen, who teaches at CalArts, both say the more personal you get, the more universal your art will become. I use horror tropes in the film, but even if you’re using tropes, as long as your film is scratching to where you honestly are, trying to express something, it will reach people. Maybe there’s no way to do this on a completely universal level, but the more personal and honest you can be about the experience, the more people will relate to it.
That horror angle does come across — this feels like a cross between the original Suspiria and It Follows. Did you look to any specific horror films as you were developing your visual language here?
Yeah! I love both of those films, and I love David Robert Mitchell. I’ve known him for a very long time, because he went to Florida State as well. And I was in Myth of the American Sleepover, his first film. I love It Follows, and was really struck by the film, how simple and playful that idea was. And I’ve worked so much in horror, as an actress. I’m so immersed in it, and so aware of the mechanisms at play. I watched so many horror movies, even as a kid, and the thing as a filmmaker, on a technical level, that I love so much, that I really wanted to utilize about horror, is the sound design and the use of music. If you think about horror films, without sound design, without music, they it wouldn’t be scary. It would just be “shot, cut to another shot.” The use of sound and music is so effective in the experience.
It becomes inextricable from the genre itself. And you can’t get away with that sound design in a straight genre. Though I say that, but then I also want to note that Shirley just did it. That film could have been a straight genre piece, but with Josephine [Decker]’s sound design, and her use of music, it’s incredibly genre-bending. That’s what my love is like for horror sound design. I also love the tropes of genre films, where it’s an actual conversation or contract with the audience. They understand the language of horror, and the ratcheting-up of tension. I was using those tropes, but then — I love subverting them with humor, or subverting tension with, you know, “Now we’re just going to cut to this very mundane moment.”
Those abrupt cuts out of scenes or conversations give the film a really staccato rhythm that adds to the sense of unease. Was that planned in the script stage, or developed in editing?
It was a little bit of a development process at first. [Cinematographer] Jay Keitel and I, and [She Dies Tomorrow actress] Kate Lyn Sheil, were exploring these ideas I had, and organically finding what that was on the very first day of shooting. Then I edited that footage, and I realized that what was really effective was going from extremely subjective, very close shots on Kate Lyn — you’re with her and her experiences, and it’s very sensual, but then you pop out to a different perspective, and you realize how crazy she looks. Which I found incredibly entertaining, because I do it with myself, with my own indulgences of whether I’m sad or anxious or whatever. My brain does this — I pull myself out of it by realizing how crazy I seem, or how funny the situation is, if I abstract myself from it.
The rhythm from that first day of shooting was like, “Okay, this is the language we’re working with, and this is how the movie is going to move, not just visually speaking, with the shot design, but also with the sound and performances.” Raising the tension, letting it hit such a pitch, and then just dropping out like immediately. Because I think it’s really unsettling. Because I want the viewer to have an experience. And because it’s about anxiety, unfortunately — sorry, guys! — I wanted it to be unsettling on many levels. [Laughs]
Putting this movie out right now means people are inevitably interpreting it in terms of the pandemic, in terms of the transmission of disease, in terms of free-floating anxiety and the fear and depression in the culture. How do you feel about putting this out right now, knowing so many people will see it through a time-specific lens, when if it came out like a year ago, or maybe two years from now, people would see it as an entirely different piece of art?
Hopefully it stands the test of time, and then people can revisit it and understand that I did not predict that this was going to happen. [Laughs] It is very interesting, but I don’t really have a choice, about people experiencing it this way. The moment I finished the movie, I was supposed to go to SXSW. This was the early phases of the pandemic reaching America and rapidly unfolding. Then SXSW was canceled, it’s months later, we’re in a whole different relationship to the pandemic, and there is no new normal. There’s no going back to normal.
Hopefully people will engage with it, and it’ll be cathartic in some way. But when you make movies, you have no idea how people are going to receive them anyway. It’s like sending a kid off to college: “I put so much work into you, and hopefully you go off and you do well. If you don’t, then I have to accept that as well, because you’re an adult now, and I can’t control every conversation you have with every human being.” So you do what you can when you’re building it, you do what you can to communicate all the ideas you’re trying to instill in it. And then at some point, you need to send it off. And that’s the relationship with every movie. This is very surreal for me — I wish I had answers for COVID in this film, because we’d all be in a better position.
Speaking of acceptance, that feels like the ultimate message of the movie, that peace comes when people accept their anxiety and acknowledge it’s real and painful, instead of denying it. Is that ultimately one of the movie’s key messages?
Yeah, I mean, that’s the only way — all the times I’ve gone through something really difficult, I always get to a place where I’m like, “It’s nothing. It just is.” It’s horrible at times, but there are certain things you go through where you have to say, “Yes, this is horrible. But there are also so many other emotions, so many things in life.” For me, that’s what I was trying to get to with exploring this movie. You can’t control anxiety. You can’t fix it, and you can’t control it. So many people ask me, “Was it cathartic for you to make this movie?” And I’m like, “Sure, on some level, but it’s not like I made the movie and now I solved death, and I’m immortal. I still have to live with my own existential dread. It just is that way, you know?”