Meet the Filmmaker: Amy Seimetz (“Sun Don’t Shine”)

Writer/Director/Actress Amy Seimetz brings her debut feature about a road trip gone horribly wrong with Sun Don’t Shine. With an intensely visceral style, this taut thriller follows a couple traveling with secrets, lies, harsh truths and realities on the sweltering back roads of Florida.

Seimetz discusses her film with us, screening on Saturday, June 9 at Open Road Rooftop in the Lower East Side. She will be around for a Q&A after the screening.

Rooftop Films: I have so many questions that I’d like to ask, but I’m afraid that anything I say could ruin the wonderfully suspenseful experience I just had watching your film! That said, the story was very character-driven, with strong dialogue as well as powerful performances from the lead actors (Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley). Did you have any experience with them prior to the film?

Amy Seimetz: I met Kate Sheil on Silver Bullets and Kentucker on his film Open Five. I am not sure what is in their bag of tricks-but these two could listen to a clock tick or watch paint dry and it would be captivating. On the flip side, they both find humanity, truth and an ease in explosive and off kilter displays of emotion. I wrote the script in a series of long rambling emails to Kate, Kentucker and Jay Keitel (cinematographer). I shared this morphing of an abstract nightmare into a solid, linear script and on set we were all much more familiar with the scenes because of this process. Having worked with both actors before as an actor myself, allowed for an immediate foundation of trust and openness of what was working and not working. I should mention that I worked with every single other actor and crew member on my set as well– AJ Bowen, Mark Reeb, Kit Gwin, Jay Keitel, Kim Sherman (producer), Lanie Overton (production designer), Mike Wilson (1st AC), C-Nug Brown (sound), Andrew Hevia (associate producer). Dalila Droege (co-producer) was new but it felt like we had been working together forever….

RF: The road film has a very rich cinematic history – they built-in odyssey of it all really lends itself to visual storytelling, as well as American mythology. I was reminded most of Badlands, in terms of the cinematography as well as your use of voice over. Were you inspired by any particular films in preparation for Sun Don’t Shine?

AS: We wanted to create a New Americana-a hybrid of classic and contemporary America-not just cinematically, but also in the people we portrayed and the story that unfolds. Two people escaping their past– it’s how America (post Columbian) and Florida were populated. These characters are not political figures, but they represent people who are affected by the American economy, the American Dream, and American sexual politics. Florida’s state roads and routes are scattered with remnants and ruins of old roadside attractions, developed in the heyday of road trips so it wasn’t a far reach to work these images into this narrative. Sun Don’t Shine is a melding of American cinema, the road film, the thriller, noir, lovers on the run, horror, and the current trends of relationship movies, as well as the vision of masculinity and femininity of 1970’s film. Ben Lovett’s score is particular to a classic American musical style. The inclusion of Southern tinged songs by Brian McGee and Cary Ann Hearst is a deliberate choice to embody the New Americana.

The film is deeply personal so I don’t want to paint the picture of a film that solely hangs upon its cultural references. It’s based off a reoccurring nightmare and written during a time when I had a lot on the line and death at the door. But I was born in Florida and I am an American- so the film is inextricable from the culture I come from. I am belaboring the point: Yes here are a few films: Two Lane Blacktop, Badlands, Wanda, Urban Cowboy, Wild at Heart, Woman Under the Influence, Deliverance, and the not so American Possession.

RF: There is a bit of role reversal going on the film, one that serves to show the strengths and weakness in both the male and female characters. Were you concerned with portraying the masculine and feminine roles in Crystal and Leo’s relationship?

AS: I was interested firstly with exploring issues of what it means to be a victim– how being a victim manifests itself– where the line is, if there is one, between involuntarily and voluntarily being a victim and how blame is a part of this issue. Whether it’s used as a manipulation tactic or an excuse, blame is a major component to victimization.

Gender politics is an inevitable next step in this exploration, especially when discussing abuse. We knew we wanted to incite a discussion of gender politics, but make it as sticky and blurred as possible– so people have to bring their own issues into it. This film is not cut and dry. These characters are not malicious people– they are incredibly wounded, lonely souls in a very dire situation.

But this is an analytical explanation– the film is suspended in a high frequency of emotions– almost stuck in an electrical current or altered state. Crystal (Kate Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) are not thinking clearly and if they were thinking clearly they’d be cold criminals. They are trapped in the throws of fear, love, blame and insecurity.

I also love films about women who don’t know how to be “good women” and the men that love them.

RF: You shot the film on location in your hometown, St. Petersburg, FL, yet the film presents the locations as otherworldly, and sometimes desolate. How does it feel to see your hometown transformed on the screen?

Florida is otherworldly. Pick up a newspaper and I am sure you can find something sanely inexplicable happening in the South’s bastard child. (ie. recently the zombie in Miami)

Every frame of Sun Don’t Shine feels like home/familiar/personal, but transformed in a nightmarish way…

I like the beaches. This is not a film about Florida’s beautiful beaches.

RF: Shooting on 16mm is rewarding, but not without its particular challenges. How did choosing your format come about?

I wrote this film for Kate and Kentucker to perform and for Jay Keitel to shoot on 16mm. If any one of these elements were to have changed– I would have written another story. I would have still made a film exploring these issues, but these were the textures, tones and emotions necessary to execute the story in my head.
I was firm on these elements and everything else had to fit around them. I needed to be flexible with everything else.

I wrote the supporting characters for the specific actors– AJ Bowen, Mark Reeb and Kit Gwin. I had other scenes written for other specific actors– Jane Adams, Mary Bronstein and Margery Fairchild– but our schedules didn’t align and so I rewrote these scenes. I didn’t want to make a film where I could just plug in x-type of actor. Same goes for the medium.

RF: This is the fourth film you have worked on to be screened at Rooftop Films! How does it feel to be returning as a director this year? And with your first feature, no less!

Rooftop makes audiences feel like they are a part of a whole experience. It feels like a special event. It’s the way independent film screenings are moving-ReRun in DUMBO, and Cinefamily in LA do this well too. Rooftop definitely knows how to bring in a crowd. I am excited to see this rural Florida film screen on a rooftop in NYC-it will add to the otherworldliness of the film.