Writer-director Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow isn’t the first 2020 release to gain unexpected layers by arriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s perhaps the most prescient. A visually vivid absurdist thriller that’s unsettling and darkly funny in equal measure, it concerns Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil), a woman consumed by the notion that she will die tomorrow.
Her’s isn’t a suicidal inclination, rather an unwavering conviction of her imminent demise. She vocalises this belief to her friend Jane (Jane Adams), with Jane then gripped by the same doom-laden anxiety. Jane then talks of her own death tomorrow to her brother (Chris Messina) and his party guests, and an increasing number of characters become ‘infected’ by this emotional contagion, the effects including transcendental visions and varying degrees of either panic or acceptance.
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Whether consciously or not, much of the multi-talented Seimetz’s work has concerned mortality in various ways. Her striking first feature as director, Sun Don’t Shine (2012), is a Florida noir that resembles what you might get if Lynne Ramsay adapted a Jim Thompson story – like Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (2002), it involves the attempted discreet disposal of a body. As an actor, Seimetz’s credits include several key horror films of the last decade, from independent breakthrough You’re Next (2011) to studio spine-chillers Alien: Covenant (2017) and Pet Sematary (2019). Her fee for the latter reportedly funded She Dies Tomorrow.
Speaking to us via Zoom, Seimetz discussed the film’s existential dread and eccentricities.
Where did the idea for She Dies Tomorrow come from?
I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and wanted to make something that went beyond words or reason; to follow the arc of what a panic attack feels like and try to touch on that experience, what it feels like internally, and outwardly express it.
In addition to that, I was incessantly watching news. I was addicted and realised that, every 3 days, the news – no matter if you’re on the right, left, centre – would latch on to an idea and just drill it home. Everyone would be talking about this one thing one day, and then the next day it was a new topic. It was these headlines spreading as opposed to drilling down to what was actual fact.
I became fascinated with melding those 2 ideas because I felt like my anxiety, when I would talk about it with friends, was contagious in the same way that, on a macro level, some of these fear-based headlines people were talking about on the news were also spreading in a contagious manner.
This is a hard film to classify, but a lot of the aesthetic has the spirit of horror.
I always try to utilise parts of genre that I love so much. I really enjoy bending them or subverting expectation. Specifically, I love the sound design of horror films, and that I definitely wanted to play around with, allowing the undercurrent of the emotion to be the sound; what’s happening internally but utilising it in horror language. And part of the terrifying nature of horror is probably 75 per cent sound design.
Experimental filmmaker James Benning has a memorable on-screen appearance in She Dies Tomorrow. How did that come about?
This is actually really hilarious. My cinematographer, Jay Keitel, went to CalArts, and I was in his thesis film, Black Dragon Canyon, when I was 21. And I met James Benning at a screening. He’s a character. I love his work, and he’s so rigid and disciplined about the way that he approaches films. I love experimental film, and I was a big fan of his, but I didn’t know him.
He came up to me after a screening of Jay’s film – he’s almost a Neil Young kind of presence but stranger. He just came up to me, did not introduce himself and launched into this story about one time he hit a cow with his truck. He sat by the cow’s side as the cow died and stared into its eye and watched the life drain out of it. And he felt really bad and felt that they had this connection. It was this really intense story. Then he just walked away. And I was like, “Who the fuck is that?” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s James Benning. That’s his way of telling you good job.” And then he wrote a movie for me to act in and we’ve been friends ever since.
Was the film’s streak of gallows humour part of its original inception?
It’s so inextricable from my personality and my experiences in trauma and loss. When you lose somebody or go through a traumatic period, all your emotions are running so high, but that doesn’t exclude humour. Your sense of humour is so heightened because of the juxtaposition of the darkness. Then when something light happens, it’s so wildly hilarious. I find in essence, to talk about death or life without a sense of humour – at least for me personally, and this is a personal movie – would be a lie.
How do you feel about releasing the film right now, knowing that the COVID-19 pandemic will colour many people’s interpretations?
It’s very surreal for me. I could not have predicted that any of this was going to happen, but also, my experience is that I don’t know how people would view it without the lens of the virus. [The film was set to have its world premiere at the cancelled SXSW festival in March.]
In the beginning of the pandemic, I was watching a lot of trash television to take my mind off of it, like Too Hot to Handle. And then I started to feel ill, so I put on Ricky Gervais’s Afterlife, thinking that’ll be fun. And I watched it and it was so upsetting. It was hilarious, but I just cried the entire time. And afterwards I felt so much better.
I’d been avoiding these emotions because in isolation you forget, when you’re moving throughout your day, the range of emotions that you go through. When you’re alone and you’re in quarantine, you’re stuck with whatever you’re feeling that day. It helped me watching Afterlife, and hopefully my movie will connect to people and exorcise some of that anxiety, but also allow them to feel like, “Oh, we collectively are all going through this.”
Whether it’s the coronavirus, but also outside of it, everyone is going through some sort of existential crisis internally, all the time.
- She Dies Tomorrow is on BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download from 28 August