Amy Seimetz and Kris Rey on friendship and filmmaking

Amy Seimetz with fellow filmmaker Kris Rey (on phone) who is a close friend. Their new movies, Seimetz's "She Dies Tomorrow" and Rey's "I Used To Go Here," are being released on digital platforms on the same day. <span class="copyright">(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)</span>
Amy Seimetz with fellow filmmaker Kris Rey (on phone) who is a close friend. Their new movies, Seimetz’s “She Dies Tomorrow” and Rey’s “I Used To Go Here,” are being released on digital platforms on the same day. (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

It’s always nice when friends go through things at the same time. So it seemed when Amy Seimetz’s “She Dies Tomorrow” and Kris Rey’s “I Used To Go Here” were each scheduled to premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March. Then the event was cancelled and both filmmakers found themselves in post-COVID limbo. Now, their films are, coincidentally, getting a VOD release on Aug 7 from separate distributors.

The two women are longtime figures in the independent film scene and festival circuit. Already established as an actress and producer, Seimetz directed her first feature “Sun Don’t Shine” in 2012 and went on to write, direct and executive produce two seasons of the Starz series “The Girlfriend Experience” and direct two episodes of FX’s “Atlanta.” As an actress, she appeared in “Alien: Covenant” and “Pet Sematary,” using her earnings from “Pet Sematary” to finance “She Dies Tomorrow” herself.

In “She Dies Tomorrow,” actress Kate Lyn Sheil plays a woman named Amy who becomes obsessed by the thought she is going to die the next day. (Amy’s house in the movie is Seimetz’s own house.) After a visit from a friend (Jane Adams), she too is infected by the viral death thought and in turn passes it on to others. The film is an unnerving portrait of living with anxiety and a creeping fear with an ensemble that also includes Tunde Adebimpe, Katie Aselton, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Chris Messina and Michelle Rodriguez.

Rey’s debut film, 2009’s “It Was Great, But I Was Ready To Go Home,” starred the filmmaker and was improvised during a trip to Costa Rica. Her next film, 2014’s “Empire Builder,” stared Sheil and was also improvised. “Unexpected,” in 2015, starred Cobie Smulders and Gail Bean and premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I Used To Go Here,” which counts the Lonely Island team among its producers, is a coming-of-age comedy about realizing the life you planned for may no longer be the life you want. Gillian Jacobs plays an author who is seeing the release of her romantic novel fall apart, with a cancelled book tour and shattering reviews. A surprise invitation for a reading at her old college leads to a reconsideration of who she really wants to be. The cast also includes Jemaine Clement, Jorma Taccone, Kate Miccuci, Zoë Chao, Forrest Goodluck and Hannah Marks.

Writer/director Kris Rey on the set of her film "I Used to Go Here" with actress Gillian Jacobs. <span class="copyright">(Blair Todd / Gravitas Ventures)</span>
Writer/director Kris Rey on the set of her film “I Used to Go Here” with actress Gillian Jacobs. (Blair Todd / Gravitas Ventures)

Seimetz and Rey have been friends since 2008 or so, having first met at the South-by-Southwest Film Festival. The two have also seen each other through recent changes in their personal lives. For Rey, “I Used To Go Here” is her first film since changing her last name following her divorce from filmmaker Joe Swanberg. Seimetz unexpectedly saw her private life go public recently after her former partner, filmmaker and actor Shane Carruth, posted a photo online that revealed a restraining order she took out against him.

Seimetz declined to speak about Carruth directly, but she did acknowledge how elements of her real life made their way into her film’s portrait of living with anxiety and fear.

“That’s the thing about anxiety, is there’s a mundane-ness to it, because when you’re having an anxiety attack or you’re having anxiety about something traumatic, it never reaches a pitch where there’s a finality to it,” Seimetz said. “You have this wild feeling like, ‘I gotta do something, I have to do something about it right now.’ But then suddenly the anxiety attack passes and then there’s this weird calm, sort of like, ‘I guess nothing happened. I guess I just keep going.'”

The two friends and filmmakers recently got on a Zoom call together, with Seimetz in Los Angeles and Rey in Chicago.

Since South by Southwest was cancelled and the plans you had to launch your films were thrown into disarray, what have the last few months been like as filmmakers with new movies at the ready?

Kris Rey: For me it’s been a struggle, honestly, it’s been sort of fighting for everything I can manage to get for this film, fighting for its life. Really. And there was a moment I think when South-by was talking about getting canceled, I know Amy and I were on the phone a lot, like what are we going to do? And we have to try to figure out alternatives and it’s just, it’s like your flesh and blood, your movie. I can’t let this just die. And for everyone else involved, so many people put work into the movie both before it happens, when you’re shooting, afterwards, but when it comes down to it, it’s yours and no one cares more about it than you do. And in the end, it has felt to me like the last few months I’ve had to fight harder for this movie than any other movie that I’ve had, because it’s almost like you’re forging new pathways.

Amy Seimetz: Like Kris was saying, we were on the phone and it felt like minute to minute everything was evolving. And just from that moment when we were getting snippets of, ‘South-by might get canceled,’ and even to now, it feels like it was both five years ago and yesterday. Time from that moment until now, it’s like time doesn’t exist. There’s so much that’s happened, and so little that’s happened. It’s very confusing for the brain.

And I’m talking just specifically to the film community, because obviously this has a ripple effect everywhere. Everyone was trying to figure out what to do and nobody had a playbook. And I remember just saying to my team, I’m selling it because I don’t think there’s a film festival coming anytime soon. And so things for me happened really rapidly. Basically I think that like a few days after I was to premiere at South-by we sold it to Neon.

Rey: But also trying to manage all of this while the world is falling apart. And we’re both people who live in the world that are also trying to reckon with everything that’s going on. And sometimes through this process for me, I was like, ‘Wow, what is less important than my little independent film right now?’ And trying to grapple with your understanding of everything in humanity and what’s important and also trying to maintain your career and your art.

When the two of you met it was kind of the peak of the micro-budget independent filmmaking movement that came to be known, pardon the phrase, as mumblecore. From that scene emerged Barry Jenkins, Greta Gerwig, Mark and Jay Duplass, Lynn Shelton, Lena Dunham and a lot of other performers and filmmakers who have gone on to much bigger, more mainstream successes. What was it about that group of people and that particular time?

Seimetz: I think it’s the same reason that Kris and I are friends, or any of us came together in the first place to make any of these movies, is that everyone had this drive and this desire to make something for nothing. And everyone understood when you’re acting in these things and making a movie, it isn’t just a camera and an actor, somebody needs to be holding the boom, somebody needs to be figuring out where lunch is coming from. And sometimes you as the actor are doing all those things and you have no ego about doing that. It’s all about making the movie.

Kate Lyn Sheil in 'She Dies Tomorrow,' written and directed Amy Seimetz <span class="copyright">(Jay Keitel /Neon)</span>
Kate Lyn Sheil in ‘She Dies Tomorrow,’ written and directed Amy Seimetz (Jay Keitel /Neon)

Rey: It never felt competitive. It always was about support and I think it applies to the way that Amy and I related to each other with these projects that we were doing last summer that were supposed to premiere at South-by this year. And that are now premiering on the same day. The two films that we made are really different from one another. They’re tonally different. They were made very differently. We went about them differently. But we related in the same way that we always have. ‘It’s just so cool that you’re doing something, here’s what I’m doing.’ And I feel the same energy that we had for each other, and that everybody had for each other, when we were first getting started.

Seimetz: I wanted to make a joke, cause it made me laugh and I just wanna make Kris laugh. As we’re talking about not being competitive, in my head I was like, ‘We’ll see what the box office says about that. Let’s see how noncompetitive we are. We’ll see who wins.’ I don’t feel that way at all. I just think it’s funny.

I want to talk about that fact that the movies you’ve both made are so different. You started in a similar place and have gone in two completely different directions. Amy, I’ve heard you say that your work in television gives you one kind of creative outlet, so that now when you make a movie, you feel like that’s your place to get weird. Even from ‘Sun Don’t Shine’ to “She Dies Tomorrow,’ what’s pushing you to be more abstract, to make work that is stranger and stranger?

Seimetz: There’s several things. In independent film, and I don’t want to say that the movie is for me, I don’t think that’s a true statement. If it’s for me, I ‘d draw little pictures in the sand and let the tides wash it away. But there’s a level of, as an artist, giving yourself permission. And a lot of the past two years that’s not necessarily inherent in the narrative of the movie, but there was a lot of, for me as a filmmaker and as an artist, of giving myself permission to do things, giving myself permission to buy a house, giving myself permission to take a vacation, because I’m extremely frugal, and giving myself permission to get weird.

And, in a lot of ways I was able to have that freedom because of all of the commercial things that I’ve done. And so I gave myself permission, you don’t have to prove yourself with this movie, you don’t have to prove to the world that you know how to make a movie. You can just make a movie and trust yourself.

Kris, on the flip-side your work has become more conventional. The shape and form of your new movie is much more easily understood than some of your earlier work. How conscious has that been for you?

Rey: As Amy was speaking I was thinking that I’m actually giving myself permission to go more conventional. And I think especially coming from those early days, making work with Joe where really the impetus was on producing stuff that is not mainstream. That was really valued, in that it maybe would have been perceived as sort of uncool to try and do something more accessible, but I really love it.

And I think my movie, I mean, it’s not a studio comedy, it’s still definitely an independent film and there’s definitely some weird stuff in it but it was everything that I wanted to make. I didn’t make the movie because I was trying to please some producers or something, that really is my script that I wrote. I think it’s funny. I think it’s fun. And I wanted to do that and I still want to do that. I’m working on writing something now that’s even more commercial from this, and that is exciting. I really want to go down this path for a while. I’ve had a big personal transition over the last couple of years, and I think giving myself permission and not looking for someone else’s approval in terms of the kind of content that I’m making has been a big factor for me.

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 04: Amy Seimetz, writer and director of "She Dies Tomorrow." <span class="copyright">(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)</span>
LOS ANGELES, CA – AUGUST 04: Amy Seimetz, writer and director of “She Dies Tomorrow.” (Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Is there anything else I should ask while I have the two of you together?

Seimetz: I do want to point out that our friendship, it is really special, but it’s not that uncommon. And I think that’s why I wanted to talk about it, but I also want to point out that you and Lynn [Shelton] had that, they were equally as special and supportive. It’s not as uncommon as people want to believe.

Rey: I do think there, there are industry relationships where you’re like, ‘okay, cool. I’m getting a lot of support from this person right now because they think I could become really successful and they could potentially get something from me.’ This definitely is a true friendship. All that doesn’t matter. It’s really cool that Amy made this movie. We would have been just as close had she not.

Seimetz: And I just want this in print, that Kris and I had the best New Year’s ever for 2019. I just want to see that in print, but it’s true. It was like for us, 2019, we need a new … year. And we did it right.

Rey: We were in LA. I think we went to five different parties that night. We showed up to a couple parties where we did not know anyone, they did not expect us.

Seimetz: And started a dance party at every one, even when the vibe was not dance party.

Rey: It was way before COVID-time.

Seimetz: So not COVID-time.

Rey: I don’t know how or where you can fit this in, Mark? I think maybe the title of the interview, this incredible, important information.

Seimetz: ‘An incredible new year for Kris and Amy.’ There. Got it.

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