She Dies Tomorrow: How Amy Seimetz made a horror film for our times

Referred to as “2020: The Movie” the actor-director’s acclaimed new thriller – set in her own house – focuses on anxiety, contagion and mortality

Thanks to endless Zoom calls with colleagues and the home-broadcasting of celebrities around the globe, lockdown has made interior decor voyeurs of us all. In the case of actor-director Amy Seimetz, however, it’s not just her living room wallpaper that’s made its way into the public realm. Like many, I have become intimately acquainted with practically every nook and cranny of her compact, pleasingly neutral LA abode (when she briefly pauses our chat to let the plumber in, I can visualise her front door in my head, clear as day). For once, the weirdness isn’t pandemic-related – it’s because Seimetz’s house doubles as the set of her new film, She Dies Tomorrow, a psychological horror about anxiety, contagion and our relationship with our own mortality.

If you think shooting a horror film in your house and subsequently being trapped there alone for months on end during a global pandemic might have disturbing knock-on effects, think again. “Through film-making I learned to love my house!” says Seimetz, who claims that prior to the shoot she “didn’t know what to do with” her new home. “Because I treat atmosphere in my movies like a character, the house now is a living being to me. It’s not just that I love the house, I feel like the house loves me.” She pauses. “I don’t really, I’m not crazy. Or maybe a little bit.”

It’s not just the set that hints at She Dies Tomorrow’s autobiographical overtones: the film’s protagonist, played by Kate Lyn Sheil, is also called Amy. When we encounter her, she has been hit with the unshakeable conviction that she is destined, as per the title, to die the following day. Craving human contact, she confides in her friend Jane (Jane Adams), but the feeling turns out to possess viral properties – soon other members of the pair’s social network are grappling with the certainty of their impending demise. It’s a clever way for Seimetz to dramatise her own anxiety – and Sheil’s performance is among cinema’s most evocative manifestations of how it actually feels to have a panic attack.

An early casualty of the lockdown, She Dies Tomorrow was supposed to premiere at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March; now it is receiving a belated digital release. Yet rather than diluting its impact, the pandemic has only intensified the interest in the 38-year-old’s second feature (2012’s Sun Don’t Shine was a twisted road-trip movie also starring Sheil). It has been dubbed “The First Covid-era Thriller” by Indiewire and “2020: The Movie” (NPR). How does Seimetz feel about having such a personal project commandeered by an unforeseen global catastrophe? “I have no choice,” she laughs. “I guess I have to be OK with it?”

Amy Seimetz.
Amy Seimetz. Photograph: Tsuni/USA/Alamy

Seimetz needn’t worry too much about her film being remembered as some sort of coronavirus tie-in: humanity’s refusal to accept death is an issue unlikely to be resolved any time soon. And despite the ominous ambience, She Dies Tomorrow is far from a downer – partly because Seimetz was keen to harness the humour inherent in anxiety disorders. “When I’m having a panic attack, there’s the storm that’s happening inside me, that feels so important and massive and scary. But if you popped out and saw what I looked like, it would just be me letting the sink run and staring out the window. It’s simultaneously funny and disturbing. I love that tension.”

The laughs don’t end there. We scoff at Amy’s claim she will die tomorrow (so melodramatic!), as well as her decision to spend her final hours Googling urns, but we also note the ridiculousness of other people’s furious rejection of the possibility that the next day might, in fact, be her last. After all, it will happen tomorrow – one day.

“Society is built on denial of death,” says Seimetz, with the sprightliness she brings to even the most morbid of conversational topics. “In order to get things done, people have to constantly deny their own mortality. Freud’s theory is that mental illness is the inability to deny death and these people go mad because they can’t ignore death. Why are we chit-chatting? Why are we ignoring this massive thing?” Her chosen genre was always going to be the most suitable vehicle for such intense and abstract psychodrama. “Horror is always about the fear of dying,” she notes. “It’s about running from death, essentially.” It’s a genre that she’s found herself increasingly entwined with professionally – big-budget scary movies Alien: Covenant and 2019’s Pet Sematary are both on her acting CV – but the Florida native has been a connoisseur for a long time. “I grew up in the 80s so my entire childhood was wall-to-wall horror movies.”

Most of her underage cinematic consumption didn’t leave her too shaken, but the “fear of somebody watching you when you don’t know they’re watching you” has stayed with her. “The scariest thing to me is, you’re just going along with your day and they’re suddenly hunting you.”

From left: Amy Seimetz, Benjamin Rigby and Carmen Ejogo in Alien: Covenant.
From left: Amy Seimetz, Benjamin Rigby and Carmen Ejogo in Alien: Covenant. Photograph: Mark Rogers/Fox Film

I am told not to mention the restraining order Seimetz was recently granted against her ex-partner, film-maker Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color), following years of alleged abuse. But some of the threatening messages he sent her are in the public domain, and their contents give the horror tropes she describes, as well as the plot of her film, a new layer of significance.

Recently, Seimetz posted a screenshot of her mother’s review of She Dies Tomorrow, which read: “This is a weird ass movie Amy.” Seimetz laughs at her directness. “It was such a mom reaction. She cannot bite her tongue, which is hilarious. But we had a lovely conversation after she finished watching it – she was like: ‘I see how personal this is, and it shakes me.’”

Making a film with such devastating subtext can’t have been easy, but the director found solace in the tight-knit cast and crew. “The funny meta-ness of it is that in real life when I feel anxious [the film’s leads] Kate and Jane are who I call to talk about it.” This sense of community is deeply ingrained in the output of Seimetz, who found her feet in the independent film scene that orbited around Florida State University in the mid-00s (notable players included Moonlight director Barry Jenkins).

In the shadow of the pandemic, some have been sounding the alarm with regards to the future health of indie cinema. While Seimetz is sanguine about her own DIY approach’s chances – “we did She Dies Tomorrow with such minimal crew, so there’s a way to safely social distance while you’re making it” – she’s concerned about mid-budget movies, which can’t “be as nimble as the smaller things but they don’t have the money to support the protocols.”

It’s something she has been discussing with her friend Steven Soderbergh, whose delayed thriller Kill Switch she is set to feature in (Seimetz was also co-creator of the TV spin-off of his film The Girlfriend Experience). “Because he made Contagion, he knows epidemiologists who are at the top of their game, so he’s been in communication with them, in terms of what would be the safest work environment. There isn’t necessarily a [regulatory] body, so it takes somebody like Soderbergh to really figure stuff like this out – he’s as interested in solving how we go back in a safe way as he is in making the movie, it’s just his personality.”

Until Soderbergh works out how to single-handedly save Hollywood from collapse, film sets will have to wait. In the meantime, Seimetz has inadvertently already done the work of the most expedient post-pandemic horror. Just don’t expect to find any comfort from this haunting wrangle with eternal rest. “I’m still very afraid of death!” Seimetz says with a laugh, when I ask whether making the film has been cathartic. She can take solace in the fact that she’s not alone in that.

She Dies Tomorrow is on Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player and Digital Download 28 August


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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