Caught in a Trap: An Interview with Amy Seimetz
by Miriam Bale
After years of accomplished work as a producer (on films such as Alison Bagnall’s The Dish and the Spoon, Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy and Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets) and as an actress (in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Swanberg’s Alexander the Last) Amy Seimetz has directed Sun Don’t Shine, a film so streamlined, sophisticated, and personal that it’s shocking to learn it’s a directorial debut. It’s clear that wearing every hat in an indie-film production was ideal training for this totally assured writer–director. When she was in New York this summer, I had a chance to talk to her about some of the very specific choices that went into making this dreamy, reflective, gritty road movie about two lovers on the run. She also described how she went about collaborating with her lead actors, Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil, to get astonishing performances from each—playful, personal, and yet in slightly different registers. The direction and the two leads are well-matched complements, each pushing against the other with equal friction to create a new peak in low-budget American cinema. In its slippery vitality that comes from contradictory contributions by director and two leads, it is not dissimilar from another cult film, Vertigo.
While it would seem a disservice to compare a new no-budget indie film to the newly crowned “Greatest Film of All Time,” Vertigo, in the case of Amy Seimetz’s American road movie, it’s a useful comparison. In both films, the two leads perform at their peaks, and while the performances are gorgeously paired, they never quite settle in together. And in each film, a familiar genre is wrung inside out until it’s a raw personal expression of the director’s creative process. For Hitchcock, that’s expressed as the conflict between control and need. And in Seimetz’s story about a battered woman’s new chance at love, raw emotion and sweet manipulation get twisted into a tight knot.
In a film with influences that Seimetz has described as “aggressively masculine and aggressively feminine” (Two-Lane Blacktop, Deliverance, Rocky, Wanda, Jeanne Dielman, and A Woman Under the Influence), the director is identifying with neither the man nor the woman in this story, but instead with the nuances of an inextricable relationship.—Miriam Bale
Cineaste: So you wrote this for Kate and Kentucker, after working with each of them?
Amy Seimetz: Right, Kate and I worked together on Silver Bullets and we just got along really well. And she’s just the kind of actor you want to be working with—ready on the drop of a dime, and ready to be thrown into any situation. And it’s the same with Kentucker. You can put them in any situation and they can give really great performances, but it doesn’t have to seem like a movie. You don’t need trailers, none of us are dying to win an Academy Award. It doesn’t have to be more than this collaborative experience. We’re not thinking of what comes next; we’re just thinking of right now. So we don’t need to pretend like we’re better than we are right now, or that we have more money or resources than we do right now.
I think a lot of the anxiety that goes into filmmaking comes from trying to keep up this presentation for the actors or whomever you have involved that it’s a real movie, and we should all care about it. But Kate and Kentucker—who are both actors and filmmakers—and I all come from this community of filmmaking where we know what goes into [making a movie] and we know that you don’t need all that. You just need heart, and good performances and good storytelling. I’m a filmmaker, but also an actor, so I felt like we were all on the same page.
Cineaste: So there wasn’t that clear dividing line of, “I’m the director!”?
Seimetz: Right, in working with people I already knew, we could just jump that hurdle of me explaining what we were going to be doing. Instead, they could trust that it was something that we could all enjoy, and that we were going to be building together. So for months, we were Gchatting back and forth about ideas, and I told Kentucker about this nightmare that I used to have about these lovers on the run. He said, “Well, that’s the best idea we have, I think we should make that movie.” And I said, “Great, but I don’t want to be in it. I think Kate would phenomenal in it.” I wanted to giver her an opportunity to be extremely explosive, to knock it out of the park, because I’ve seen her be brought to that point, almost in a teasing manner, but I know how explosive she can be and knew she could go further.
Kate and I have similar taste, in general, in movies and also books. I always know when she’s going to like something or not like something. And I knew immediately [she was excited about this] when we started the conversation about this film and I said I want to do something with extreme emotions, and write a part like this for a woman. Now, I doubled in art history and literature, and while I watch a lot of movies, Kate has definitely watched more movies than I have. When I asked her if she’s noticed this pattern, about the parts like this for women in the Seventies and early Eighties, Kate—who’s just a genius when it comes to movies, she’s a movie library—would say, “Yes! And there hasn’t been a movie like this since.” She’d reference a few movies and I’d watch them. And we’d notice, okay there hasn’t been a movie like this since around ’86. Then [this kind of movie] became something else, like Fatal Attraction.
Cineaste: Right, but so you see a lot of roles like this for women, like the one you wrote for Kate, in the Seventies and early Eighties, but not really any more.
Seimetz: And I don’t get it! I don’t get why it stopped. Now there’s this idea that a strong female character is a woman who is conflicted about her career and falling in love and raising a family. Okay, that’s a concern in life, but that’s not a character.
Cineaste: So you were reacting to the lack of drama in contemporary film?
Seimetz: Yeah, I think people are afraid of melodrama, mostly because it is seen as bad acting or overacting. But when you have good actors, then you can go to those places and it’s really intense. I haven’t seen anything like that, that constantly being explosive and very theatrical, since the Seventies and early Eighties in films like A Women Under the Influence, 3 Women, and Possession, and even Wanda, somewhat—that ability to combine very theatrical performances with a vérité style.
I don’t know if America is actually getting boring, but people in movies in the Seventies were such characters. Even in something like Two-Lane Blacktop—which is this really meditative film—they’re such characters. There’s the strong silent type, and then this sleazy guy, who is almost over the top. But there are men who are really like that. I feel like contemporary film, especially independent film, is afraid of pushing actors to these really theatrical places. People view it as bad melodrama or bad acting.
It is hard to get anger on screen. Anger and extreme sadness are really hard to access, just from an acting standpoint, and access them genuinely. And they’re also the emotions that you have the least gauge on once you actually get there. Because you do get angry and you do get really upset. So when you’re done with a take you have no gauge, because you just made yourself feel really bad. So, if you’re doing it right, you have no idea…it’s a scary place to go to. You basically have to accept that you’re losing control. So, I think it is a difficult place for actors to go to and a hard place for directors to encourage their actors to go to.
Cineaste: Have you been encouraged to go there before as an actress?
Seimetz: Yeah, I mean, I’ve done a lot of screaming and crying for horror movies. But not really, not in the sense that there’s something on the line that seems more realistic, as opposed to being specifically a genre picture. Sun Don’t Shine plays along genre elements, but it’s not a horror movie, though it does have the heavy anxiety of a horror movie. So, no, I have not been asked to do what I asked Kate to do.
Cineaste: I think you’re right, people are afraid of melodrama. But they get a pass for it in horror.
Seimetz: I love horror. I like horror for a lot of reasons, because you can get away with overacting and making weird characters—I think that’s where the weird Seventies characters went; they just got marginalized into horror movies. I also like that there are these weird plot twists. I was watching Last Tango in Paris, and even in that, there are scenes of Marlon Brando having this long, theatrical monologue with a dead body. You can only get away with that now in horror—a man in a room having a monologue with a dead body—he has to be crazy! But if it has drama and sadness and has another tone…It just can’t be as weird and fucked up and unusual as that scene is unless it’s horror now.
Cineaste: So you wanted to play around with genre but not quite go to horror?
Seimetz: Yeah, to get stuck in a frequency where it’s as if you’re in a horror movie. We’re not going to show people stabbing each other, the movie’s not about that. But they’re stuck in a nightmare, in this horrible situation that is real horror, but it’s their reality. They’re stuck in a horror movie but they’re not malicious and awful people. They’re stuck in what feels like an electrical current that they can’t get out of.
Cineaste: Between them?
Seimetz: No, there’s this extended period of time. Like once you decide to do something, like stick your fingers in the socket, when you’re being electrocuted, you can’t pull your fingers back out, your whole body is being pulsed through by the current.
I was always interested in this really intense period of time when you decide to do this thing, and you have this choice to turn yourself in or run from it, that limbo period has always been fascinating to me. Once you’ve crossed the boundary and there are no rules, you’ve basically established that you have no regard for rules, because you’ve broken a big one, the big one. You have no grounding, but also the world has no idea that you’ve done this yet. And so the story is after the crime has taken place, but it’s obvious you're going to get caught.
Cineaste: So there’s an obvious comparison to Badlands, but instead of the Malick technique of filming only in the magic hour, you decided to film only in high noon?
Seimetz: Yes, for the most part, we wanted it to look as aggressively stark and hot—just as hot as it could possibly be—and kind of unflattering. And there’s nothing like high noon.
Cineaste: But usually filming in high noon is thought of as not allowed?
Seimetz: Yeah, it’s not allowed. I guess because it’s unflattering? But Kate and Kentucker are the most beautiful people, so you put them under high noon and they just look normal. We’d spray them down with water to look even sweatier. But the cinematographer Jay [Keitel] and I had worked together for ten years, and he and I talked about shooting at high noon, and we knew that we could only get away with it if we were shooting on 16mm—there was no way we could shoot at high noon and shoot digitally.
Cineaste: Because it would just be whited out?
Seimetz: Yeah. The grade on 16mm, if you light it properly and you still have blue sky, is just incredible. And obviously there are harsh shadows at high noon, but we wanted that.
Cineaste: The color scheme is so interesting at the beginning, too, where they’re both wearing identical tans and blues.
Seimetz: Both in sort of drab beige. Yeah, well a lot of [the way the color scheme evolves] was about the transformation of Crystal into this other creature, or a transformation into being a woman, or towards understanding something. I don’t want to get too into it. It’s so many things; it’s very complicated. But I felt like that ill-fitting dress that we put her into later was kind of about her learning to become a woman.
Cineaste: Ah, it’s awkward to become a woman.
Seimetz: It’s really awkward. But also the ideas of what femininity is, are so different everywhere you go. And that dress actually is a form of femininity in Florida—people wear stuff like that! I would have thought it was the coolest, most beautiful dress when I was little. The textures and it’s bright pink... It is kind of this little girl’s idea of what you think is supposed to be pretty.
Cineaste: Right, and she’s wearing the dress of an older woman. And it doesn’t really fit...
Seimetz: In the script that dress was written as turquoise, but then we got to The Body Shop [a tight, lycra dress clothing store in Florida] and Lanie [Overton, production designer] walked over, she said, “Oh my God, look at this.” We put it on Kate, and that was it.
Cineaste: You were going for turquoise for the mermaid theme?
Seimetz: Turquoise or pink—I was just wanted Florida colors. Some really drab colors like cream and rust, clashing with oranges and teals: that’s how Florida looks. There’s the sand and mangroves, and it’s all kind of drab and washed out in the sun and then suddenly you see this bright pink building. I don’t know why hot pink and teal are the colors there, but they are.
That’s what I think of when I think of Florida, a weird clash of culture, not just in the color scheme, but in general. I think it’s a combination of that, you know, they sent ex-cons down there to dredge the swamps so it would be habitable. So, you have all these criminals down there making it a vacation spot. But those people are escaping something, and they’re also building the foundation of a place for other people to escape the monotony and retire. People go to Florida to escape something.
And you know, about what we were saying before about women not getting to be fully drawn characters, it’s also just poor people. People who talk about how dumb Crystal is, and I don’t think she’s dumb; I think she’s insanely brilliant. When I was watching the Casey Anthony trial, and I was listening to her web of lies, I thought, your brain is unbelievable! Her brain was obviously misused, obviously directed in the wrong way, but was always on, always clicking—for years and years, from second to second—in this ever shifting story. That takes a crazy brilliant brain.
Cineaste: But all for survival?
Seimetz: Yeah for survival, I think you learn those techniques. It’s not a champion skill. But I think a brain that’s able to come at each situation and make it work, or control it, is a really brilliant brain. It’s just preoccupied by survival. Kate and I talked a lot about [Crystal’s] techniques, how they were all about how to get around someone to calm them down, so they’re not so angry. Because she shifts! She yells at him—until she can’t. And then, when he starts getting violent, she flips really fast. It’s survival techniques. But also, the violence, she’s pushing him towards it. It’s this cycle—you create the environment that you’re used to. If there was chaos when you were younger you often seek it out for the rest of your life.
By no means am I saying the victims are making this happen. It’s just victims tend to have been victims their whole life. It’s a cyclical thing. They seek out the violence, and if they haven’t found it in a person, they almost always find a way to find it again.
Cineaste: It’s a nuanced thing. There’s even a suggestion that we shouldn’t call victims “victims.”
Seimetz: I completely agree. And I don’t like getting too personal, but I think it’s important to talk about because so many women have been abused. I was in this abusive relationship, but when people would call me a victim in that situation, I would say, “No! I’m not going to live in that mentality.” And they’d say, none of this is your fault. And my attitude was: “No, I think that in order to stop it, I have to know how I played into it, so that it never happens again.” Because I’m a strong person, and I’ve gotten in fistfights before but it wasn’t abuse, it was just fighting. There was something that clicked in me, in this situation, where I backed down and was scared. And in trying to analyze it and see how I played into it. I really didn’t like the word “victim.” Instead, it was this dynamic that made it so that I was cowering to this person.
I was surprised at my emotions: I felt ashamed, I felt it was my fault. I would go over and over again in my head how I had created the situation. But all you have in the end is—no—it’s never OK to get beat up. Maybe you were an asshole, but you don’t deserve to get beat up, that’s it—that’s just the bottom line.
Cineaste: But you’re right. It’s so complicated; it’s like a trap.
Seimetz: Yeah, it’s a trap that I was walking into. And I never would have realized how emotionally abusive it was had it not culminated in this way. Luckily I got out quickly. Really luckily, because something like forty-one percent of abused women end up dying. That is, forty-one percent of women who have been abused have gotten beat up still go back to this person.
Cineaste: Death for her?
Seimetz: Yeah. Or the other way: where she kills him.
Cineaste: I heard that when you first talked to Kate and Kentucker about this project, you started out by saying you thought it was OK for a woman who has been abused to kill her abuser!
Seimetz: I think I said that the first time we all sat down to dinner at South by Southwest! I said, “Just for the record, I think it’s totally fine if abusive husbands get killed.” Because the thing is, a lot of the times they can’t just hit this person back or it will make it worse. So they have to kill them. Wait, I’m not encouraging this!
But in my situation, the reason I left is that there were moments where I went into fight or flight mode, and wanted to fight back. But in my head, something clicked where I realized, no, if you fight back he could kill you. Something is there, I don’t know what it is—it’s not familiar, it’s not safe anymore, and I just clicked off and didn’t fight anymore. I was like a rag doll. And that’s what scary.
Cineaste: The Kickstarter campaign for this film partially benefited a women’s shelter that you had volunteered at in high school, right?
Seimetz: Yeah. I had volunteered at a women’s shelter, but I mainly worked with the kids who had been taken out of abusive homes. That was the other thing in working with Kate that I emphasized. Even if you get taken out of this abusive situation, it’s terrifying. Or in my own situation, dealing with the death that was going on in my family while we were making the film—when something is taken away from you, you just revert to this childlike state of pure emotions and tantrums. It’s totally irrational and you don’t understand it.
And it was similar with the kids at the shelter. Their mother or father was not a good person, but they wanted their mom or dad, and they had really extreme emotions about it! And you’d have to calm down these tantrums. It’s so hard, I could I identify with it, and it’s almost like you want to let them have it out instead of calming them down. With Kate’s character, you almost want to let her just have it out, too. Let her fight for an hour, let her get it out.
Cineaste: Well, it goes back to what you were saying before about that electrical current, that entrapment. They both need to let it out and then also to calm each other down. And they need to comfort each other, because they’re the only ones who understand this crazy situation that they’re in. So beyond the romance, it creates this mutual need.
Seimetz: Yeah, we talked a lot about how we are in relationships, because ultimately even though it’s about this suspense situation, it’s still a relationship movie.
Cineaste: The craziness of those performances—that “I don’t know whether this is good or bad” level that you were describing before—did you push or pull, how did you handle that in your actors?
Seimetz: They’re just good. And through all these emails we exchanged, they were aware of exactly what would transpire. We had conversations about all this. Kentucker would talk about how he had problems with anger. Not so much anger, but expressing anger. He had to get into a place where he could express anger, because he’s not a mean-spirited person at all. So, he had a really hard time with the end of the movie. And when it was difficult for them, I knew to either ease up and let them do their thing, or to step in and explain something to connect the dots, to get them there.
Cineaste: You were commenting earlier about people being afraid of too much drama. I like Kentucker’s own films, but the earlier ones don’t go towards those dramatic extremes much at all, at least not in his performances. Did you see those elements in him that you wanted to push?
Seimetz: Yes, it’s interesting because he says he just wants to show reality. But his persona onscreen is so completely different from the Kentucker I know. I just found him really alluring, to be honest. When I started the script, I wrote him as more of a strong silent type, as in Two-Lane Blacktop, and I thought that he carried himself that way—a man of few words who just comes out with these little zingers that he pops out here and there. I guess I just knew I could get him there [to those dramatic places]. I don’t know how to explain it. I just knew I could get him to a place and I knew he wasn’t going to like it.
Cineaste: But he doesn’t push himself there in his own films?
Seimetz: No, because he really did not like it. We did not get along at all that day [when filming the end of the movie]. He came up to me after that day and said, “I’m sorry I’m so mean to you, but I just really have a problem with this stuff.” But I knew what was happening, so I thought, “Oh this is great, he’s angry at me!”
Kate and Kentucker are very different performers, obviously. But there is something similar about what makes them both such magnificent performers. I can say a few words and explain something, and it’s like a direct pipeline into expressing this in an emotional way. They don’t get caught up in overanalyzing. I mean, as much as Kentucker plays—not plays, is—neurotic and introverted, and gets caught up asking questions, he is always thinking and analyzing.
Cineaste: Well, kind of playing…
Seimetz: Right, kind of playing. I mean he named himself Kentucker! It’s fun and funny and interesting, but also he’s aware of what he’s doing. I think that’s great. You can either pretend like you’re not aware of things, or play with them. He’s an incredibly sensitive and aware person.
Cineaste: He notices everything.
Seimetz: Ev-ery-thing. If you’re across a room, and you make a joke under your breath, he’ll hear it and laugh. He’ll say, “I heard that!” And you don’t think anyone’s listening but he’s taking in everything. And Kate’s the same way. She’s a stunner, and not just beautiful but also interesting. Still, she has this incredible ability to play wallflower. She’s so quiet and has this really calm presence, so after a certain point she can just hide in the room. She’s stunning and you want to look at her, but at the same time she has this ability to listen and observe. They are sponges of what’s going on around them, but when it’s time to perform they just open up this channel, and it comes out.
And it’s interesting, maybe it’s because Kate is trained, but after she’s done giving a highly emotional performance, she’s able to just stop and be quiet. She doesn’t ask me if it’s good or bad, only if she has to do it again. I think that might be a trained actor thing. I just did this thing and I’m going to look to you, and as long as you say it’s good, and I don’t have to go again, then I’m going to shut it off. Whereas Kentucker starts to feel the emotions, and gets so charged with it, that it’s still with him throughout the room. And Kate’s not even aware of it, because she’s just emotionally responding. And he’ll stay in it, for a while.
Cineaste: You said you had to push Kentucker. I wonder if you had to rein Kate in at all?
Seimetz: She’s just so finely tuned! You can have her go one notch up, minuscule, tiny adjustments.
Everyone was in the room [in the scene] when she was waving the knife at Terry and going berserk. Our executive producer, Andrew Krucoff, had come to set visit, and was just hanging out and drinking a beer. He and everyone in the room, including the other actors, had just met Kate. And it’s just a shot on Kate, but I had Terry perform in the room so Kate had something to act off of. And I remember that being one of the most exciting things to direct.
You know, I just directed her in sounds—I didn’t even say words! I would make these noises, starting low-pitched and then getting really high, to what we called the “Mermaid Voice.” And that’s like the whole sound design of my movie. And she got it; she just did it. And afterward, Andrew said, “I don’t know what the hell just happened, but I feel like I was just part of something really big in American film.” I was making noise to direct her, and I didn’t have to rationalize it, because it wouldn’t have been the time to make a rational direction, because it’s not a rational performance.
Cineaste: Tell me more about the sound design in the film. It’s really interesting.
Seimetz: I found that it was easier to create tension the fewer elements I used. I feel like for me, as sonically big as my movie gets, it’s really simple. I chose only a few sounds; it’s very minimalist in a way.
One of the films I was thinking about sonically was James Benning’s RR. All it is is just watching trains, just these portraits of trains. And his choice of a sound design is really simple. It’s only these three elements: of the ambient sound of where he is, the train, and then sometimes he’d have AM radio of church talk or something in the background. And it became really beautiful, simple, but it told a story of what America is. And that’s another element of my movie, this Americana road-trip movie. I felt like Benning really got that, because it gets really loud, and it gets really exciting. It’s just these ten frames, these static shots, yet it gets really exciting! You can hear the train in the distance, and then when it comes, it’s so loud. And then it goes away. He was able to build excitement with just sitting and waiting for the image of that train coming. So sonically what I wanted to do was start really low, and just build until it’s almost deafening, and you almost can’t think straight, and then let if fade out again. And then come back...almost like a train in a way.
Cineaste: And tell me more about the way you recorded the narration. It’s really internal, and reflective, very different from the tension going around in the scenes.
Seimetz: These long passages of voice-over were written into the script. And because of the momentum and the dynamic that Kate and Kentucker had built on set, we recorded it while were still shooting as opposed to waiting until post. So we would shoot visuals during the day and then we would record the voice-over in a closet in the house we were staying in. The closet sounded best, but also went along well with this idea of telling stories of when they were kids, and [imagining] what they could be. For that particular monologue, we shot in the car with diegetic sound, but then we also shot it with these dreamy images and then recorded it in another closet. It was nice; I would try to figure out other story elements and other visual elements while we were recording these dreamy monologues, since we were still shooting.
Cineaste: So the monologues would inspire images to shoot for the dream imagery, but also the dream imagery you were shooting would inspire passages of monologue?
Seimetz: Yes, and even in the editing we’d find these little pieces that we weren’t even aware of when we were shooting. I think everyone was so in tune with what the story was that it was just sort of subconscious in terms of what we’d shoot, and what they’d say, and how we’d cut this scene into the next.
Cineaste: So you were really aware of the way you recorded the sound, that it was not only dream imagery but a stylized, dreamlike sound?
Seimetz: Yeah, it's just their voices. But while we were conscious about wanting it to be super clean sound, we didn't want it to feel like that it was coming from an ADR booth. If you listen to it, they're not the cleanest tracks in the world, but they feel like they are, because they're surrounded by this chaotic sound design where these specific elements that we chose get really, really loud, and then suddenly there's just no sound. So it feels really still, and it feels like they're isolated and suspended in time and space. Anytime it was not sync or voice-over, I still wanted it to feel like it came from a source that brought a time and space with it. So the way that I was directing them (and the sound design of it) was that they were having this discussion in bed before the narrative began.
Cineaste: Oh, so even when things fall apart there's this connection of past intimacy holding them together?
Seimetz: Yeah, exactly. There is a reason people in love do crazy things. I don't get it, intellectually, but I'm all too familiar with the trappings of love. Intellectually I think what Crystal and Leo are doing is abhorrent, yet I understand social conditions that lead someone to do such things. And, honestly, I yearn to love and live with that level of commitment.
Miriam Bale is a New York-based film programmer and writer.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.