Firmly established within the independent film community, Amy Seimetz is arguably the hardest working actress that most people don't know about—yet. Just how hard-working is the Florida native? Put it this way: Since 2010, she's appeared in over 20 films, from quirky comedies (Lena Dunham's breakthrough flick Tiny Furniture) to critically respected, dark genre fare (A Horrible Way to Die). Earlier this month, Seimetz starred in one of the year's most buzzed-about indie films, Upstream Color, acting as the sympathetic anchor amidst writer-director Shane Carruth's mind-warping themes and script.
This weekend, though, it's time for Seimetz to call her own shots. The versatile indie stalwart, who started out making short films, got behind the camera again for Sun Don't Shine, her feature-length debut that made a big splash at last year's SXSW Film Festival. Written and directed by Seimetz, Sun Don't Shine (opening in limited theatrical release today) follows a dramatic, nervy woman, Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her more rational but still beleaguered lover, Leo (Kentucker Audley) as they drive around the hot, sticky, and desolate region of central Florida, with a dead body stashed in their trunk and guilt and paranoia mounting inside of them. Accentuated by dreamlike imagery, an effectively lucid pace, and vulnerable voiceovers, it's an impressive achievement of mood over exposition and emotions over narrative.
It's also a loud announcement of a major new directorial talent. Before Seimetz starts work on her next feature, though, she'll be busy adding onto that acting resume. By the end of the summer, she'll have co-starred three high-profile projects: HBO's improvisational comedy series Family Tree (premiering on May 12), the highly anticipated third season of AMC's The Killing (which returns on June 2), and the sleeper-hit-in-the-making horror film You're Next (August 23).
For now, it's all about Sun Don't Shine, one of 2013's best movies so far. Complex recently spoke to Seimetz about the film's nightmare origins, Florida's homicidal edge, and how irrationality is the best way to cope with doing really bad things.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
In addition to writing and directing Sun Don't Shine, you've been working nonstop as an actress in recent years. Was this film a way to take a break from acting and get back to your filmmaking roots?
It was. I came from the world of experimental stuff that wasn't very narrative. As I was acting in more and more people's movies, narrative became more interesting to me. I saw how people used simple devices to get across the tones and the moods that I'd want to get across in my own films. Working with people who were using the caveat of a narrative device to subvert things and make movies they wanted to make in their own unique ways.
That was where interest came for me. I started firstly as a director, and then found my way into acting in people's movies somehow. [Laughs.]
It's interesting to note that you started off making experimental films, because Sun Don't Shine, even though there's a traditional narrative, has an experimental feel and construction. The sound design and the visual presentation seem like they come from an experimental sensibility.
Yeah, for me the interesting thing with narrative and filmmaking in general is when there isn't a linear, cut-and-dry approach, and when it speaks more to some kind of emotional truth rather than trying to wrap up some cut-and-dry plot. I find when people do that well, it's really impressive and great, but I want to be left feeling something. Sometimes the ideas of emotions and feelings and mood aren't rational narrative devices—they come through images and sound and editing, and evoke some sort of mood. Some of that stuff is intuitive and some of it comes from playing around with lighting and sound in my previous films.
That's the most important element of Sun Don't Shine for me. I wanted to feel what it's like to be in the car with these people, what it's like to have done something like this, more than I was interested in explaining the plot through exposition or focusing on the twists. It's a familiar narrative—we all know where a movie like this is going to lead. I wanted to convey this feeling of being suspended between time and space, to where they can't connect with the world anymore, and what that would feel like. It's the window state between committing a crime and then the consequences of committing a crime.
Which brings up the point that you don't give much, if anything, about either character's backstory, or how the crime went down exactly. The viewer doesn't leave the film knowing why they did what they did, or how exactly they did it. It just puts you right in the moment with them.
I didn't want to add anything that wasn't going to come up in natural conversation, because there is such an in-the-moment mood, even though there are some dreamy sequences. The narrative takes place during this very specific window of time.
There are several reasons for not going into an exposition moment. One, I hate exposition. [Laughs.] Let's just get to the good stuff. And, two, another interesting thing to me is, and I was talking to Kate and Kentucker about this early on, that once somebody commits a crime, they suddenly becomes dehumanized, in this way where it doesn't matter anymore what your childhood was like or what specific memories you have from being a kid. You're just suddenly a criminal. I thought it made better sense to just jump right into these characters being criminals and then dropping in small hints along the way, because that would be an existential way of exploring this man and woman who've become criminals.
There are these passages where they talk about their childhoods and memories from when they were growing up, and that, for me, was what makes the movie heartbreaking. It's that scene where they're at the bar, and it's meant to humanize them. Suddenly it becomes really sad because you realize that they're human beings who are probably going to go to prison forever.
I think that's the effect I was going for: distracting them from their lives, because ultimately reconnecting to their pasts doesn't matter after they've made the portion of their lives. For Kate's character specifically, that part of her life is over now that she's killed someone, so why should we as an audience go back to that part of her life?
There's a lot of attention paid to her character throughout, and it's interesting to see how she doesn't seem aware of the fact that she's basically a femme fatale. She's ruined Leo's life and she doesn't know it. By giving Crystal a number of voiceovers and focusing more on her, the audience understands how Leo could've been so swept up by her.
Right, but there's also a sweetness to her. I don't think, for the most part, that people think that they're bad people, especially when something initially happens. There's a lot of rationalization about why you've committed this action, and I don't think that she thinks that she's done something horrifically bad. She's just starting to realize that throughout the movie; there's this transformation, specifically when she watches the mermaid show in the aquarium.
She's reverted back to this childlike state, which happens to people when they experience some kind of intense trauma. We see that in the beginning when she's throwing tantrums like a child would, and there starts to be this realization that she's going to have to take responsibility and be a team player, but that team player attitude comes a bit too late. It's this transformation of her going from being completely unaware of her actions to becoming a woman, in this really strange way. You see it when she puts on the pink dress, which, in my strange mind, coming from Florida, that's what you do when you become a woman. [Laughs.] You wear lycra.
But, yeah, it's this very calm moment before she deals with the consequences of her actions. She finally understands that she's responsibility, but she doesn't want to deal with the consequences yet.
Which makes that last shot in the film so clever, when someone asks her if they should call the cops, and she says, calmly, "Not yet." She's not ready to go to jail just yet, She wants to live in the moment a little bit longer.
Yeah, and that's the thing. That's the first moment when she really gets that she's going to go away for a really long time. I think that her character is somebody who's had a pretty rough life, anyway, so, in a strange way, this might be the most peaceful moment that she's ever had. In my brain, there's something really sort of quiet in that scene—it's the calm before the storm. I would make references to my sound designer and to Kate, as well as my cinematographer, to how when you have these huge, emotional outbursts, and you finally calm down, everything seems really still. It's the same thing as when you have a nightmare, you wake up, and everything seems really still and calm and as quiet as it possibly can be.
That's the rhythm I was going for: these tantrums followed by these really quiet moments, and then the tantrums get bigger and then it all escalates into the most peaceful moment of all.
Is it true that Sun Don't Shine was inspired by some real-life nightmares that you had?
In my nightmare, I'm actually him, Leo. Well, both characters have parts of me. But, yes, I was having this reoccurring nightmare where I had this lover who just killed somebody and I would do anything to cover it up. I think that's a simple narrative, metaphorically, for anything; like, if you fall in love with somebody so intensely, you want to do anything to protect them. That emotion is beautiful, but it's also dangerous. It can tumble quickly into an unhealthy dynamic.
Also, I was going through a pretty rough period of time where I had to deal with a lot of death, so both characters became manifestations of my reactions to having to deal with all of this bureaucratic paperwork and everything you have to do once someone you love dies. You have to keep doing stuff that everyone tells you, "You need to do this, it's logical." And then there was the other side where you want to kick, scream, and beat people up and be a complete hot mess. [Laughs.] That's how I wanted to react to the deaths and cope, but then I'd have to go and sign some paperwork.
Crystal seems more in touch and more logical than he does to me. The fact that anyone has a plan for anything…. I have goals, and I make up my plans for those goals, but really I'm just winging it. So the fact that Leo wants to have a plan of action for something where you've crossed such a far boundary is insane to me. The fact that you have a plan to go bury a body is crazy—I wouldn't know what the hell to do, and to think that I'd come up with a good enough plan to do that is insane. I also think that, during a period of time like that, there's no other way to act than insanely. After murdering someone, I don't think there's a sane thought that can go through your head.
Growing up in Florida, most of the insane crimes I would read about were all taking place in Florida. All of the stuff where you'd read about it and say, "What the fuck? Who would do that?"—that happens in Florida. To me, the main factor is that the heat is so oppressive, and it makes you crazy. It builds up so much angst, and you can't think during it. The crime rate goes up in the middle of summer. Florida is this amazing clash of paradise and violence.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)