June 5, 2012

INTERVIEW: Amy Seimetz

by Steve Dollar

SUN DON'T SHINE's Amy Seimetz

She owns an IMDB page stacked with credits that many of her acting peers might take a lifetime to accumulate. But what many folks don't realize is that no-budge MVP Amy Seimetz started out with ambitions as a writer-director, which she takes to the limit in her debut feature Sun Don't Shine. Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil star as a couple on the lam, rambling through the Gulf Coast of Florida, a lost wonderland of faded pastels and mosquito-bitten dreams. As we noted after the movie's premiere at SXSW this spring, the film evokes Terrence Malick's Badlands as a Suncoast eruption of l'amour fou—that glockenspiel chime on the soundtrack an affectionate homage—the story as much an experience of sensation and memory as forward action, suspended in small observances as the actors' voices float over the breeze as their car races south. The atmospheric style snaps into visceral engagement as the couple negotiates their situation, which becomes apparent soon enough, and the audience begins to sort out their place in a cinematic cosmos of getaway episodes.

Seimetz says that someone told her "it's a surrealist movie posing as a vérité movie," and from the jump, she's created an immersive experience whose cinematography and sound design enrich a minimal screenplay that pushes faces, character and passion to the foreground, using a pulp-noir genre template as a structure for something surprisingly visionary. During SXSW, I met up with Seimetz, at far too early an hour, to talk about the film over coffee. Sun Don't Shine has its New York premiere this Saturday as part of Rooftop Films' SXSW Weekend program.

Sun Don't Shine

The movie begins on a very bold note, with the viewer literally shoved right into the muck with this screaming, fighting, mud-slinging couple that they have no earthly idea about.

It's really fun to have secrets. It's really fun for people. After a while, I think maybe I'm having them expect too much. But, no, it jumps right in to the action from the get-go, and you don't know what's happening and you don't know what to expect next. I really wanted to make something where it's a really familiar story but you don't know where it's going to go.

All you need is a girl and a gun!

It's true. It actually is true.

It felt like you got rid of all the dramatic build-up and just cut straight to the emotion.

It's a really personal movie. Even in the narrative of it, it's a nightmare that I had. The specific plot points are things that happened in dreams of mine that are metaphors for whatever I've been going through. In terms of the period of time I wanted to explore, the experimental side of my brain wanted to wait until about 45 minutes into the movie, but that's pushing it a little far. I don't know if I can hold people's attention that long. I really wanted to find a space, after the crime and before the punishment, where it's suspended outside of any moral construct or social norm. They're suspended and grasping at things and making up their own rules, even with each other. They can only exist in this fantasy. Without getting too deeply personal, there were several really traumatic things that happened to me in the past year and a half—I didn't kill anybody—before it sets in what's actually happening. You can't say out loud what it is, because to say it out loud to somebody else means that it's happening.

This is somebody who has really been abused a lot. We don't go overboard. But she's a real damaged person and she's developed these coping mechanisms to maneuver herself through the world and survive. In my brain, she's a survivalist, but under these really horrible conditions. You want to be mad at her, but it's so upsetting. She knows her victim status, but she's also a victim of being a victim. She can't control it. I don't want to talk about the end of the movie, but in the end she makes a choice not to be the victim forever.

Things were scripted?

I wasn't a stickler for the lines at all, but I definitely had a traditional script for the movie. On set, if things started to get too complicated to grab a location, I just rewrote scenes.

Sun Don't Shine

I love that the camera work is so intimate and intense.

Like right in their faces, you mean? We had gone back and forth. It's a road movie, so we decided to go with getting stuck in the car with them. We also shot for a week, and we stopped, and then we shot for another two weeks. We were able to get all the footage and see what was working and then come back. It was doing pickups in reverse. I recommend that. You can see what's working in performances, and where the heart of the story is. My script was a lot colder. Kate and Kentucker on that first week were so sweet. There was such a softness to their relationship, I realized we had to allow that exist within this dark, crazy thing.

That creates sympathy, which then makes you uneasy as the story rolls along.

[Cinematographer] Jay [Keitel] and I have known each other for 10 years. The first thing I worked with him on was 16mm. You can stay on shots a lot longer with film, because it's moving. This grain that's alive, a breathing force. It's much more forgiving. Especially with how high the speeds are now, you can pick up a camera and shoot just the same way you shoot digital. It's not going to work like super-slick Hollywood, but you use all those things to your advantage. And the grade is so gorgeous. The opening shot, if we had shot digitally it would just have been white in the background, if we had lit for Kate's skin tone, it would have been blown out, We got the film back, and you can see the blue sky behind her face. We were shooting on 200 speed, and you forget how wonderful it is to have that grade. Especially when you've been shooting digital for so long.

Kate's face is a map of all the many shades of pink.

[The person] who did the color was really aware of that when we did the color timing in certain scenes, he incrementally—like when she was crazy in the car—he turned it up a little bit so it was bright pink when she was crazy and wild.

You grew up in ...

St. Petersburg. I knew every single location we shot at. It made everything really easy. We shot in Fort DeSoto, which is this state park. We cheated six different locations at that park for central Florida, and other parts of Florida, because there's so much vegetation around. There are so many looks to that park, and I knew all the spots because I'd gone there as a kid. it was really strange to throw people in there and say, OK have a fist fight now. I used to picnic there when I was three.

At the premiere, you told some funny stories about getting access to certain iconic spots like Weeki Wachee Springs, and various encounters with people who were really helpful in an almost naive way when you needed locations.

In Florida you have to have really good gut instincts about people because there are so many crazy people. I think the guy at Weeki Wachee—I had shot a documentary there before—said, "Oh you guys aren't going to do anything really bad." And we were like, "Uhhhh, kind of. We're going to pretend like we are."


You definitely have absorbed something inherently offbeat and vaguely sinister about the state, which filters into the vibe of the film.

In St. Petersburg there's all these alleys in my mom's neighborhood and we don't have a fence, so it looks like people are wandering through your backyard. A lot of times people will wander back there I can hear them out the window and there's obviously something bad happening. Do I tell them go away? To not do the bad thing in the backyard. Or do I pretend like I don't see it?

A lot of people got lost en route to the Fountain of Youth.

They sent all the prisoners down to Florida to make it a habitable place to live. They sent all the rejected and dejected, and now suddenly, now you can vacation there! Vacation in the swamplands with, like, prisoners. There are a lot of beautiful things about Florida, too, but I can feel that part of it: No one's supposed to live here! But it's also so beautiful and primal.

It was fascinating to watch Kentucker have to be so relatively buttoned down.

We talked about the balance of what he does best, between that neurotic and that really charming offbeat sense of humor, and that sweet, sweet, sweet Southern boy. But also, balancing it with the strong, silent type from Two Lane Blacktop. With that, we really ended up with this great character for Kentucker. He's the straight guy, but also not really. He's crazy for doing this, too. And with Kate, she's just explosive. I love all of her performances I've seen her in. She can hold so much emotion inside. I said, "I just want to see you explode." She has so much in her eyes and she can keep it so contained and it's so crazy to watch her onscreen. She's so quiet and unassuming. But she can go from zero to 100.

Our perception of her character is always shifting throughout the film. And near the end there's a remarkable sequence that reveals a lot about who she really is.

I don't think she's bad. I think she's so terrified of being alone, especially going through this thing. She also has so much anger against men and so much anger against the world. She's pent up. You can only hold your breath for so long underwater, and when you come up for air, and you've been under for so long, it's like a really violent gasp. That's the opening of the movie. She's been held down for so long that now we're watching her explode.

DId you have this idea cooking for a while?

I wrote it for them. But I've been having this nightmare since I was eight. You can't print it because it's the story. But I switched it around. In my dreams, I'm what Kentucker's character is. Kentucker and I were talking about we wanted to make something together. He's just so strange. Whatever he says I find so interesting, even if it's yes or no. He has that magnetism. I told him about my nightmare and he said, that's a way better story than whatever we were discussing. Let's do that. As soon as I started writing it, I thought of Kate.

People mention Malick a lot when they talk about your film, for obvious reasons. But you've worked a lot with avant-garde filmmaker James Benning and I wondered how he has influenced you.

Did you see RR? He shot a bunch of different trains from all these angles. And in the sound design, what he did was really simple. I liked that stripped down effect. I'm watching trains because I love trains. That's why he made that movie. It's beautiful. I can watch trains for hours. I agree. But not everyone can. The sound of it is so gorgeous, I don't know how he recorded it. It was loud and rock and roll and you could really feel the trains. It was also distant and meditative and really peaceful and he'd incorporate all these other sounds from where he was sitting and watching the trains. Really simple sound design, three or four elements and then the train. It's not directly ripping off James Benning, but I really liked the idea that you could take these three sonic elements and you don't have to flesh out the whole... there are footsteps here, and hear them chewing and eating sandwiches and the rain. You can focus on the rain, and their faces, on the cicadas.

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Posted by ahillis at June 5, 2012 12:44 PM