Amy Seimetz Talks Complex Women & Strong Emotion in Her Directorial Debut ‘Sun Don’t Shine’

Bursting onto the screen with frantic gasp of air, Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine grabs you by the neck and holds you captive. From its fierce and emotionally-charged opening scene—a rough and muddy lover’s quarrel—to the dreamy back road driving sequence that follows, you’re entranced in the film’s hot and sticky world straightaway, teeming with tension, anxiety, and fear. With swampy earthy tones of the Everglades and rosy hues of passion, Seimetz’s directorial debut is both visceral and expressionistic, playing out through feeling and texture, guiding you with potent emotion as you follow a young couple on the run.

A character study that picks up after the act of murder, Sun Don’t Shine exists in the balance of what comes after, the post-crime delirium and limbo before consequence. Hazy voiceovers that harken back to memories of hopeful intimacy are woven throughout the unraveling and unnerving narrative, shedding light on the paranoid couple that ventures into the seedy tourist trappings of southern Florida with a dead man in the trunk. Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley bring a frightening sense of life into Crystal and Leo, playing them with every nerve exposed and emotions seeping out and fusing into the sweat on their skin.

 

With her first feature, actor, writer, director, and producer Seimetz has established a voice that’s powerfully distinct, pulsating with a heartbeat that screams. After making short and experimental films for years, producing other people’s work, and acting in films from Joe Swanberg and Megan Griffiths—to name a new—Seimetz stunned us in this year’s Upstream Color alongside Shane Carruth. Not only did their performance prove to be one of the most enigmatic yet beautiful portrayals of love, but it was the first collaboration for the two filmmakers, who seem to share more in common than the simple idea of confounding audiences. And while continuing to write and direct on her own terms, Seimetz also recently joined on to be a part of AMC’s mysterious hit The Killing, and HBO’s upcoming Christopher Guest project The Family Tree.

 

In anticipation for the film’s theatrical release last Friday, I got the chance to speak with Seitmetz about evoking feeling rather than exposition, the complexity of female characters on film, and not having to answer to anyone.

 

As an actress and a filmmaker you’ve done so many wonderful things just in the last year. But in terms of this film, what was the inspiration to tell this story? I’ve heard you say it stemmed from a recurring dream you were having.

I was having this reoccurring nightmare for a very long time—initially from when I was very young and I’m not sure why—but I was more Leo’s character. But in the sense that your dreams are all you, I guess I’m all the characters. The dream is that I have a lover and this lover has killed somebody, and I want to do anything I can to cover it up. And so that was the impetus for it, because I find that level of love and wanting to do that for somebody very beautiful. But I also find it really dangerous and interesting, and can tumble into something very bad very fast. So there’s that, and I had been through a pretty rough time and wanted to make a film that dealt with death. There’s an angle that deals with death in this film, but the two characters are not in denial of the actual death. You keep it out of sight, but the whole movie is about death even though these characters are doing these things that seem like it’s not about it.

 

It’s interesting that it came from a dream, because the whole movie felt like a nightmare. It was very expressionistic and so much more about tone and atmosphere than actual narrative. I found that very beautiful because it evoked so much more feeling than any sort of exposition would have. The feeling of anxiety and fear speaks for itself.

I have no interest in exposition at all. I get that it serves a purpose in a narrative for people, and I use it sparingly in the film to help people along, but the idea that they would say anything outside of what they would say to each other is not very interesting to me. To force people to say stuff just so the audience can get on the same page is really not that interesting in my head. Also, I started with no interest in narrative film at all, I wanted to make experimental film—I don’t even know what that means anymore, everything’s sort of an experimentation at this point. But I was more concerned with mood and tone and emotion and how that feels, and just to visually and sonically tell emotion and tone and what it feels like to exist. I don’t think that that is literal. And so, specifically with this story, I was obsessed with what it feels like to have crossed that boundary into this space.

 

Some of my favorite moments were the shots out the window when they were driving with the cut up voiceover. There was strength to those scenes . They were filled with so much emotion and understanding of the characters even though very little was being said.

Yeah, the voiceover is beckoning back to a period in time when they’re feeling okay and they’re feeling intimate and discussing things. That’s a place that they can’t go back to, and that was an acknowledgment on my part that I’m not really interested in the story that ended before this story begins. Everyone’s life is a series of different stories and I make reference to what they were like before and how they got there because that is interesting, mostly to the emotional plot points that I wanted to explore—which is how you can be so irrational and tumble into these things. I’m not really concerned with if she’s telling the truth or not, but to her it makes sense and to her that’s the story that she remembers and that’s the story she’s going to tell, and that’s all that really matters at this point. And not only that, the story that happened before she’s killed her husband, the end of the story is that she kills her husband and now a new narrative has begun because she’s completely cut herself off from society. She’s crossed this boundary, and so the new narrative begins when you cut yourself off from being able to relate to society as a free standing citizen who plays by the rules and expects things back from society. So her new narrative begins when she’s made this irrational decision and then is completely cut off and society coming back is consequence. So I was interested in the suspended period of time after the cut off from society, which is the crime and then the consequence, the reentry into civilization which is going to prison. 

 

What’s so appealing about their relationship is how cut off they are from the rest of the world. They’re so alone and this is all they have, but we rarely see them in a tender moment. They fight but you understand why that tension is there, and understand that there was a time with a lot of love there but they’re in a completely place now.

I definitely can relate to those emotions, but without murdering somebody. Sometimes you get in situations where love seems like the most important thing, whether or not it’s hard and upsetting, and you suddenly feel like it needs to be solved right now. You’re stuck with this person or you want to figure it out with this person, and so the voiceover is another metaphor. I know they’re trapped in the car most of the time and they’re trapped it these situations where it’s just them, but its also like in love. There’s this idea that as long as you just don’t leave the bed or the bedroom that you guys are going to be totally fine, and then once you start thinking about society and introducing all of these other elements and these other people into the equation, it starts to unravel.

 

Yeah, even the smallest things. She keeps telling him about these things she wants to do with him—go to the grocery store, lie in a bed, get on a boat. They’ve never been able to do these things and now they never will.

No they can’t, and there’s a love behind it but there’s also this fantasy version of what the relationship can be. I notice in myself, being a complicated human being and making mistakes, my reaction is to be like—I can be the good girl, I can be the wife, I can be ambitious, I can good at my job, I can be a good mother—I’m not a wife or a mother—but the idea of it. I go back to like, wait, I want to be those things. And then you start fantasizing about those things even though it’s not taking reality into consideration—I’m complicated and I come with problems and I should be loved with those problems. And so going back to the love thing, I do think it’s really beautiful, the idea of somebody really wanting to love you through this giant mistake. I do think that that’s a beautiful idea and I wanted to flip that trope on its head. Very rarely do you see it being a man loving this troubled woman. Very often you see this troubled man that a woman wants to save—unless it’s a stripper. So I found it really alluring. Going to Badlands for instance, she’s so innocent and so trusting and loving and accepts whatever he says and goes along with his reality even though he is an extremely troubled and bad person. And you just accept that she loves him and you don’t really question it. But it’s a really interesting thing to flip it and allow it to be a man with a woman. I’ve seen some distaste for that, like, why didn’t he get the fuck away from her? I’m glad, I want those questions to be raised because I see it a lot in cinema, this idea that women are supposed to accept that a man’s troubled. For instance, I was very fascinated when I was younger about Kierkegaard, and he said to Regina— the love of his life—that he was too dark to be with her. So he removed himself from her and wrote all these works like Fear and Trembling yet kept sending her manuscript after manuscript, which is like torture to this poor woman. But also being in love with someone and being like, I’ve already accepted that you’re this tortured soul and now you’re telling me that I don’t have the capacity to understand it. As if I don’t have any existential crises of my own? This idea she has to accept that he would be this way and just move on, and he would never accept her was basically what he was saying. So time after time after time narratively I kept seeing these stories of women accepting the neuroses or violence of men, the stand-by-your-man sort of idea. But never really saw it flipped on its head; so it was fun to play around with that.

 

Crystal wanted to be this good woman but she just couldn’t do it. And these extreme emotions she was feeling and had no control over reminded me a lot of Gena Rowlands in a A Woman Under the Influence.

Totally. A Woman Under the Influence and Gena Rowlands’ performance in that, or Gloria or—

 

Opening Night.

Exactly, anything. She was so fearless and so explosive. Also Barbara Loden in Wanda or Isabelle Adjani in Possession—her performance in that is unclassifiable, just this gorgeously crazy emotional roller coaster and she’s so unpredictable. What makes her so interesting to watch, including Gena Rowlands, and even Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in 3 Women, is what’s so alluring about them is that you start to trust them and as soon as you start to trust them and love them, they turn and become unpredictable. That became fascinating to me, that you could hold a movie with that. Kate’s not only a great actress, she’s a cinephile and she’s a very interesting person, and wonderful and not crazy but a complex woman, and actually quite a wallflower when you meet her. It just became completely interesting to place her in a sense where its like, we’re going to want to love you and as soon as we want to love you, you’re going to flip a switch and be unpredictable because that’s intriguing.

 

There was such a juxtaposition in her performance depending on her emotional state. When she was upset, even her voice was totally different than, say, the voiceover, or when she was in the bar with him acting calm for once. To see those two very distinct sides to her was so dynamic.

She’s fun to play with. There’s a play on sound; I’m not just directing her on an emotional level, I also direct her with her voice. I’d tell her a certain pitch that I want and she understands that sonically we’re taking it to this high frequency, pulpy level. That takes an incredible amount of trust and I’m lucky that I got it from her. It’s musical and her performance is extremely sonic as well as emotional.

 

Yes, and it seemed absolutely exhausting.

Oh yeah, for both of them. We’re shooting in 100 degree weather in the middle of the summer in that humidity. So there were exhausting days, but we didn’t shoot more than eight-hour days because we were shooting on film so we only had so many takes. And on top of that it was just brutal outside, so we had to be really economical.

 

Setting the film in Florida, there’s so much to the location because it’s this place that’s part tourist attraction but has this seedy, violent underbelly. It gives the film a haunted, almost southern gothic quality. You grew up in Florida. Did you write the film specifically for this place?

Speaking to the southern gothic thing, Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorites and the story…

 

A Good Man is Hard to Find?

Yes! That’s one of my favorites, and that totally has come back around to me. But then also Florida is this really strange fantasy world where people came to build dreams and build this vacation or a place to relax and retire. But it took a really long time to colonize Florida because it was so uninhabitable, it was swamp lands, and no one was really supposed to live there—the same way Los Angeles is a desert and no one’s supposed to be living there. But  they sent all these prisoners down to Florida to dredge it and they were given this deal that if they dredged certain parts that they could get out of their sentence and they could get a piece of property. So they were workers for the government and for these companies that were going to make money off vacationers, but the first people that were there—aside from the Native Americans who had been killed off—were these criminals that were sent down and promised their freedom. And then they sent vacationers down, so that’s the foundation. Well, that’s not just the foundation of Florida, that’s like the foundation of the United States. But on top of that, the vacation aspect of Florida also bred the road trip idea and there’s all these road side attractions there and a lot of southern sort of Americana elements to Florida still, and I really wanted to incorporate that into the film with the underbelly of denying all these dark things. But that’s also part of the narrative—they’re denying what they’ve done and she ends up watching mermaids in her final hours of being a free person with a body in the trunk that’s needing to be dealt with. 

 

Her watching those mermaids was great, it’s the ultimate escape and transports her back to a childlike state where none of this ever happened.

There was some woman years ago that kidnaped her kid and she’d been missing for days and when they found her she was at Disney World, just sort of hangin. And I was like, I guess if you’re with your kid and you love them so much you’re willing to kidnap them—in that desperate, maybe not healthy love—then yeah, you shouldn’t be holed up in a house, go to Disney World. You know you’re screwed, why not have your kid’s last memory of you be that? But on top of that, while I was writing it and while we were shooting, the Casey Anthony trial was going on. I couldn’t tell if she knew she was lying anymore and I couldn’t tell what story she thought was straight. She would get so emotional but then she’d get real cold real quick.

 

It’s pretty fascinating how the mind works sometimes.

It’s incredible, almost brilliant in a way. I don’t want to say that because it’s so dark and awful, but just misguided storytelling. And she believes it and the only way to do that is to believe it. I was also fascinated with a character you didn’t really ever know if you could trust. 

 

Watching Upstream Color and watching this, the two share a sensibility. You and Shane both seem to share a similar cinematic language with a very unstructured and emotionally-rooted way of storytelling.

Both of us see our tropes of narrative as subversive ways to get at something that’s transcendent. It feels like there’s a lifetime to tweak it, but I don’t think that linear or logical explanation for anything explains how it feels to be an emotional human being or an experience of the world. You have the facts, and those facts are important for sanity purposes, but what it feels like to be within those facts is a much more interesting. Using the caveat that there is a problem to be solved is a way to keep the audience engaged and come with you to solve it, so I think we both share the same attitude that it doesn’t really matter—here are the ideas I want to explore and I’m going to trick you into exploring them with me. 

 

It’s much more about evoking something in the viewer. The entire time I was watching this I felt totally ill at ease, and for me, that’s how I knew I was truly engaged and enjoying it.

You bring character and mood and that’s more interesting as a sensual and experiential element because the universal thing about human nature is that there really are only a few narratives, and if you can just tell those and bring your subjectivity to it, that’s what we’re interested in. 

 

As someone who works in a specific pocket of the independent film world, where do you find the state of things?

We’re in a period of independent film where, in order to make something that is actually your own voice, you have to fight so hard to do it and find the money to do it. I think the recession gave filmmakers a lesson in who gives a fuck, I’m going to make what I want and play around with ideas. But I don’t even know what it means to be independent anymore, it’s lost its meaning, its like HD or organic.  I don’t really care to be a part of a club or be indie unless it means that I don’t have to answer to anyone.

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