If you pay any attention to independent cinema, you've likely seen Amy Seimetz's face before. As an actress, she's appeared everywhere from Joe Swanberg's ubiquitous films to Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture. But at this year's SXSW, Seimetz showed off her talents behind the lens with her award-winning directorial debut feature, Sun Don't Shine.
A deft, efficient story, Sun Don't Shine is a road film that takes place in the hours immediately after a serious crime was committed. Opening on Crystal and Leo (Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley) in the throes of a fight, we quickly learn there's a gun in their car's glove compartment, and that's all it takes to keep you hooked on the slowly revealed details.
Shot on Super 16mm in the sticky Florida heat, this lovers-on-the-run noir grabs you in its first frames and wrings you with dread for its speedy 70 minutes.
Sun Don't Shine is screening this Sunday at Cinema East, so we sat down with Seimetz earlier this week to talk about her film and the importance of writing working class characters.
Culture Map: You're better known as an actress, so tell me how you got started directing.
Amy Seimetz: I actually started out as as filmmaker and a writer. I would be in my own projects, because when I was 18 it was easier to just be in everything myself than to figure out how to communicate my ideas to an actor. I guess I was intimidated by working with actors. And then I realized I liked being in front of the camera.
It took a really long time to admit it — until my mid-twenties, actually — because it felt vain to say I enjoyed performing. That meant I thought people should want to watch me. But then I realized all the arts require some level of vanity if you are putting work into the world and wanting people to connect and pay attention to your interpretation.
CM: So what made you decide to direct a feature?
AS: I'd always intended to return to writing and directing. I never saw acting as a detour but as another part of the process. And I was getting to the point where I started having the urge to tell directors what to do when I was in their movies. And I realized that I really needed to have my own project.
CM: Where did the idea for the movie come from?
AS: It's based on a reoccurring nightmare I've had for years. The dream came back more frequently last year when suddenly I was surrounded with death and dying. The characters in SDS emerged as the two sides of the grieving process. There's the survivor side that has to get things done and fill out forms and rearrange schedules, which is Kentucker's character, and then there's the side that just wants to curl up on the floor, cry and kick and scream and be a wreck. And that's Kate's character, Crystal. She's the fireball of emotion. Both are necessary components to grief — but if you are only one of these all the time, then you have crossed into denial of reality or life. I think both are wildly irrational responses but also completely understandable. Separating these two polar reactions into two separate characters created a dynamic for a classic story, I thought, about the struggle facing death.
CM: And the movie is really efficient. Details come out, but they're revealed slowly, so it adds to the mystery. But there's no wasted information.
AS: Yeah, I didn't have much interest in forcing backstory into the present narrative. We-- Kate, Kentucker and the entire crew/cast-- knew the backstory and created it in the prep-work. It was more important to me and Jay (Keitel, the Director of Photography) to create a mood and tone to support the performances and state of mind.
This is actually the most linear narrative I've done (as a director) — I had mostly worked on experimental films before this. As far as this story, I don't think it matters what happened before this crime or what happens to them after they get caught. I was interested in representing the time after the crime and before the punishment. It's suspended. Before the rest of the people know you've done a bad, bad thing.
I wrote the script quickly with Kate and Kentucker a part of that process. I would send them half-formed moments or images I wanted to use. So they saw my ideas evolve, which made our rehearsal process much shorter. When they came to Florida to shoot, they already knew what I wanted, and it made the whole process faster.
CM: What interested you in working with Sheil and Audley?
AS: I'd acted with both of them before on other projects. Kate as an actor is incredibly vulnerable and willing to go to some of these darker places, but then secondly, she can back it up so it doesn’t seem false.
She has this incredible ability to catapult emotion at the drop of a dime, but also to make it really grounded and come from a place of honesty. I’ve worked on several films with her, and no matter how absurd the situation or character she’s playing, she’s always found a way to make it really graceful and honest. She’s super alluring.
And it’s the same thing for Kentucker. He’s super alluring. He reminds me of Paul Newman. It’s not even in an aesthetic way. He’s charming in this off-beat, weird way.
CM: And he’s also a filmmaker.
AS: He’s also a filmmaker. I had acted for him on Open Five and I remember when we were shooting it, thinking, "I’m going to write something for this guy." He doesn’t feel the need to speak all the time, but when he does, it’s incredibly witty and smart — like he’s been saving up all his words so that everything he says is 360 degrees bullet-proof.
He throws out these zingers that you think, "Wow, that’s not only incredibly insightful, but it’s extremely funny, completely offbeat and not what I was expecting." And he’s just really easy to work with. We have the same sensibility.
I had worked with all these actors on other films. And I knew how to get through scenes with them as an actor, so I knew how to talk to them as a director so that they felt comfortable and knew where they were going, because we’d already had these dialogues on other sets.
I also like to hire people that I know are really good writers. Then, if they’re not saying exactly what I wrote, I know they understand why it’s on the page and they understand what it’s doing to the narrative. I know they’re not going to tell a different story than what’s in the movie. Y
ou have to be able to trust people not just as actors, not just as DPs or production designers or producers: that everyone surrounding you is a good storyteller.
I think maybe that comes from having been in movies where we are improvising and it's required of you that you’re not going to say something dumb or you know how to serve the story and the other actors in the scene. But I don’t think even in scripted stuff that you can work with people who aren’t firstly storytellers.
And then it's however they want to tell that story, whether it’s emotionally or through their face as an actor or through images as a DP. Everyone you work with has to be, first and foremost, a kind of storyteller that you like.
CM: Crystal and Leo are working class characters, which you don't see much in micro budgets.
AS: It was a conscious decision. I don’t come from money. Even though I often play debutante types — and I love that, even though it’s foreign to me — I feel like in cinema there’s no representation of working class people. My family is working class, so those are the kinds of stories that feel natural to tell.
And in lower budget films, I don’t see stories about people who aren’t well put together or super hip. And if there are working class characters, they’re so downtrodden and so over the top that we know immediately that they’re poor.
Kate’s character, Crystal, doesn’t have the finances to get away from a horribly abusive relationship. She can’t hire a lawyer. She’s not backed by a family that will take her in. Money can afford you a hotel room, at least.
She’s completely trapped and part of the impetus for her relationship with Leo is, "I don’t have any other option. You understand and I can talk to you about this thing." So I think that’s how the characters fell in love.
She’s doesn’t have money to buy her out of her situation and she doesn’t have the education to buy her out, which is a really big thing that people forget about. There’s a lack of options for the working class that are overlooked.
CM: It also pares down the narrative. There's no easy escape.
AS: Yeah, they can’t end up on a yacht in Bermuda and launder money through a Swiss bank account. They’re left with just their wits, and their wits aren’t at their best in that moment. A person who is thinking clearly wouldn’t make the decisions that Crystal and Leo make.
CM: There are also slower, more poetic moments where the characters are just trying to escape the horror of their circumstance. You can almost see Crystal thinking if she just focuses on a fantasy or a pretty thing long enough, that everything else will go away. Let's talk about the Mermaid Theater that she goes to.
AS: It’s a real place. I made a documentary about it in 2008 with this other filmmaker, James Ponsoldt. This is an old roadside attraction from when Florida had tons and tons of these in the heyday of road trips in 1950s America. Weeki Wachee was built in 1947, and it’s these mermaids performing live in a spring.
The theater was built into an actual spring. They perform underwater and have oxygen tubes so they can breath and don’t need to wear tanks. And we made the documentary about these mermaids that come back and perform who were performers there in the 40s and 50s, and they still perform underwater. It’s incredible and so simple and so Florida. It was such a part of this time that passed in America, and specifically Florida.
So I really like the idea of incorporating it into this lovers-on-the-run movie, which was going for a very classic American feel. We were very conscious of making everything feel like this old Americana while also transforming it to make it more modern.
CM: Lastly, what's coming down the road for you next?
AS: I'm working on several projects, but I can't talk about any of them yet. But there'll be more very soon.
Sun Don't Shine screens at Cinema East this Sunday, July 22 at sundown. The screening is located at Yellow Jacket Stadium, 1156 Hargrave St. at East Rosewood and Hargrave. The short Z and Beau will screen beforehand. There will be a Q&A with Seimetz after the film. Shiner is providing free beer for the first 100 people in attendance.