A Conversation With Amy Seimetz (SUN DON’T SHINE)
Recently, Amy Seimetz has made the news in a big, big way. As an actress, she is currently featured in Shane Carruth’s much talked about Upstream Color. Beyond that, she was recently cast in Christopher Guest’s new HBO show Family Tree as well as landing a coveted role in the new season of AMC’s The Killing. But frankly, all of that pales in comparison to Seimetz’s work as writer/director on Sun Don’t Shine, which is without a doubt one of the fiercest new American releases of 2013 (read Cullen Gallagher’s HTN review). Distributed by Factory 25, Sun Don’t Shine opens theatrically in New York City and Seattle on Friday, April 26, 2013—as well as on VOD—and expands from there in the coming weeks. After wrapping another day’s work on The Killing in Vancouver, Seimetz spoke to me over the phone about her approach to filmmaking and her borderline suicidal decision to shoot Sun Don’t Shine at high noon in summertime Florida.
Hammer to Nail: I was just thinking back to November of 2011, when we were in Poland and you were screening a rough cut of Sun Don’t Shine as part of the American Film Festival’s “US in Progress” program. Now, almost a year-and-a-half later, we’re three days away from Sun Don’t Shine’s theatrical release, and you are in Vancouver, acting in a high profile TV show after having just acted in another high profile TV show. Not to mention your role in one of the most talked about new American films of 2013. Are you too busy to take stock of all that’s happened, or do you feel like you’re spinning around in a whirlpool right now?
Amy Seimetz: It’s funny because throughout all of the past two years, I haven’t really been in cities where it would click in, like New York or LA or anywhere people might know that I did stuff. [both laugh] I’ve been in Florida. Then I moved to LA for the Chris Guest show, but I was only there for a month and a half. Two days later, I booked The Killing and had to move [right away]. And now I’ve been in Vancouver, so I don’t know. I know there’s a frenzy about Upstream Color? But I have no idea. I haven’t really thought about it much because I’m always just happy to work, more so than think about it. And that’s just how it’s always been. So it still doesn’t feel any different. But, for instance, the show runners and stuff are like, “Are you ready for people to be really angry at you and hate you?” I’m like, “Uh, no!” [both laugh] “No, I’m not!” I mean, she’s great, but I play a pretty difficult character so it’ll be interesting to see. So I haven’t even processed what this year has been like since I’ve been so removed from it.
H2N: And like you just said, your appearance in this show will take whatever is happening now to a whole ‘nother level.
H2N: I do want to focus on Sun Don’t Shine here, but the fact remains that it’s pretty impossible to separate these things. My hope is that this recent acting notoriety will really help to broaden the reach of Sun Don’t Shine.
AS: It’s exciting to be in a position where you don’t get called an “indie darling” anymore. It’s a nice position to be in to release the film, which is where my heart is: in these small independent films. I’m making a choice to do it this way. There’s a choice in making something small. It’s not just that no one’s gonna fund your script. There are directorial decisions behind making these things the way that you do.
H2N: A great example of that is your determination to shoot your low-budget movie on celluloid. Sun Don’t Shine would have still been a strong movie if you had shot it on video, but using Super-16mm made it seriously bad-ass. Can you talk about your decision to do that?
AS: There are several [reasons]. Film, for each frame, is completely different. It has its own life that is not controlled. The grain moves and breathes. It is also indicative of the cinema I was interested in harkening back to, which is 1970s cinema and this form of Americana. But also, on top of that, we wanted to shoot in high noon, and the grade on film as opposed to digital, in order to get that with a small crew, was actually much easier to do with film, ‘cause the grade is so vast. Whereas on digital, you shoot the camera right at the sun with the face being right at the sun, and you have all these dark shadows, so you have to use all these bounce boards and you have to have all this other equipment. So, really, it ended up being that the workflow of shooting on film was a lot easier. But also, we wanted it to be gritty and dirty; we wanted to straddle the line between realism and surrealism, and I think that film has that sort of whimsical element to it while still being gritty and stark.
H2N: I think you’re the first person I’ve ever heard say they wanted to shoot at high noon! I’m assuming that connects directly to our feeling watching the movie, that this is as grimily accurate a depiction of Florida as it gets?
AS: There’s nothing more brutal than having to be outside at high noon in Florida in the middle of the summer—and not doing something like sipping martinis or cocktails or strawberry daiquiris on the beach. [both laugh] When you have a task, even if it’s just going to work. Like, having to walk the distance from your house to your car at high noon is brutal! Jay [cinematographer Jay Keitel] and I talked about that. I said, “I want beautiful sunsets too, but I want it to fit into the timeline, I don’t want it to just be this “beautiful portrayal of what it’s like to murder.” There’s also something really terrifying to me, as opposed to horror’s [tendency] of shooting in complete darkness, of shooting at the brightest point in the day when you’re doing something so dark. That became really fascinating to me, and scarier.
H2N: I’m sure there was some spraying down of Kentucker [Audley] and Kate [Lyn Schiel] to enhance the sweatiness, but you did actually shoot in the dead heat of summer, correct?
AS: We shot in the middle of July and it was 110-degrees sometimes. [H2N laughs] But we had a Winnebago that my high school English teacher donated to me. And so we did have that to get some respite from the heat, but we were aiming for high noon. We weren’t just faking high noon; we were shooting at high noon. And this is the other thing Jay and I found with shooting on film: you can’t just do take after take after take. So really the best AD that you have is shooting on film. It’s like, “Well, we have this much to shoot, we can’t keep going.” In order to make the movie within the budget that we had, we had to figure out exactly how many rolls each day and what we were willing to shoot. So that regulated time as well. I think our longest day was like eight hours.
H2N: That’s why I like shooting on film so much. Of course, the clock also ticks and the sun also sets when you’re shooting digitally, but when you’re shooting on film, you’re forced to make sharper decisions.
AS: Something else Jay and I were discussing, we had this beautiful 1970s Aaton that Megan Griffiths gave to us that she owns. It’s the one that Calvin [Lee Reeder] shoots all his movies on as well. And we have this beautiful camera that when you roll it, our AC runs in front of the camera, everyone has a sense of action, that we’re all here to work and there’s no room for error. I don’t know, it feels more serious even though there’s only eight people on your crew. It feels like showtime! [H2N laughs] Basically, the film running through the camera takes the place of 30 other people that could be on set.
H2N: It’s funny, though. Some people would say that’s the argument against shooting on film, that it adds a layer of pressure. For me, it does that but in a really exhilarating way. I mean, provided you have performers that you trust and you’ve done your preparation and created the right environment on set, at that point, it should be exciting when the camera rolls as opposed to panic-inducing.
AS: I think it forces actors to make choices, I think it forces the DP to make smart choices, I think it forces the sound person to really focus in. That’s not to say that we weren’t loose on [Sun Don’t Shine]. Part of the structure in casting the film was finding people that, even if they started to improvise in heightened moments, I knew they were good storytellers and they weren’t going to throw something in there that was arbitrary or beside the point. And even if it was beside the point, it would still be an interesting thought. So it wasn’t to say that I was a stickler, like, “Okay, now you have to get these lines completely straight.” It was more like, “Okay, we all know the story. Just make it real and we’ll find it in here.” But that’s a casting choice and a lot of trust you put into the people that you’re building the film with.
H2N: I wanted to ask about how you use references. You mentioned the ‘70s Americana influence, and I know how well informed you are about movies in general. When you’re in the thick of writing and production, do you still incorporate references or does that stuff fall to the subconscious?
AS: What I really liked about 1970s cinema is the representation of masculine and feminine, what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. What I think maybe got lost somewhere is exploring those roles and not worrying about being PC about it. Not only that, but there are so many fantastic female characters that came out of the ‘70s and late ‘60s and I don’t know where they went. Namely, Wanda and A Woman Under the Influence, and then masculine roles like Two-Lane Blacktop, that was a big one. And even the early ‘80s, like Rocky and Zulawksi’s Possession. [Those references are] all sort of in the subconscious. I didn’t sit there and point to my DP and say, “I need this shot in the movie.” Or tell Kate to perform like [Isabelle Adjani] in the scene where she’s going to meet her demon lover in Possession!” [both laugh] They’re discussions that you have before you make the movie and then while you’re on set you make it your own.
H2N: I saw your new short, When We Lived In Miami, in Sarasota last week and really, really dug it. What it did more than anything was prove to me that you can direct yourself as an actor. I think we talked about this before and you said your decision to not act in Sun Don’t Shine was to enable you to fully focus on directing. Was your decision to do both in the short a testing of the waters, or was it informed by this specific project?
AS: I have no hard and fast rule, but first and foremost, the decision was a directorial one, which was that I wanted the little girl to be a little girl and not an actor. I wanted to capture some sort of essence of how, while this couple is going through their stuff, this child has her own life going on. And it isn’t waiting for a line or a cue, so the only way to do that in my head was to cast a non-actor… she’s just a little girl [both laugh]… and not filter what I was going to say to her through me. If I was directing and not acting in it, I didn’t want somebody else to have to control the actor. It seemed like I would break her trust somehow. Your relationship between the director and the actor is to build some sort of trust, and so with her, it was, “I’m gonna play your mom and we’re gonna talk and play on screen,” and that was the most important element to me: getting the relationship down between the mother and the daughter and how comfortable the little girl was on screen. The means of it, it was easier for me to just do it.
Also, it was a personal story for me. Having come from a background of experimental film, I don’t know if anyone will ever pick up on this, but it was these Cindy Sherman-esque aspects of putting the wig on and playing the role of the mother, not knowing how to be a mother and worrying about all these things. And a personal family narrative… it’s actually a true story! [AS laughs] So there was that secondary aspect too.
H2N: You’re on a bit of a hot streak as an actor, and you obviously don’t want to jeopardize that. But you clearly want to—and should—be writing and directing as well. How to you plan to find the balance between these two paths? Or are you simply going to figure it out as you go along and let each offer/project guide you?
AS: The way that I view my role as an actor and the way that I view my actors is that they’re all storytelling in a sense, whether it’s emotional storytelling or visual storytelling—that includes the DP—or logistical storytelling—which is the producer. I have come to a point where I have to carve out time for everything. But having worked this past year, it is really nice to know that if I wanted to go shoot a week somewhere that I don’t have to wait for money, and that’s a new thing! I mean, I can’t fund the entire thing, but the place I always wanted to get to was that I don’t have to ask anyone for money ever again. And so it’s really nice to know that you can start something. ‘Cause you know, the hardest thing is just to get started. Once you get the train going things start to pool together. And so it’s nice to be in a position where if I want to go shoot for even three days or a week—I’m not a big shopper, I don’t fucking care about Gucci bags and shit—that I can pay for it.
— Michael Tully