Known for numerous collaborations with people like Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett and so on and so forth, Amy Seimetz is a filmmaker raised through the festival circuit of indie films. Years later, Amy still mainly does indie work but that her purposeful decision, allowing herself to make what she wants, when she wants. Lately you may have seen her TV’s The Killing and Family Tree, as well as guest appearances in a few other programmes, but Amy is also known for two fantastic films from last year which are both very different – one the very entertaining, fun horror ride of You’re Next, the latter an abstract, surrealist picture that speaks volumes about everything called Upstream Colour. Below we begin by talking about Ti West’s great mockumentary (rather than found-footage) horror film about a fictional cult called Eden Parish, based on the story of Jonestown. Atmosphere is important and the palpable sense of dread and impending doom makes the audience tense throughout. Amy Seimetz talked openly about the film, reading abstract films on the page and her varied career.
Warning: Possible MILD SPOILERS ahead for The Sacrament and You’re Next.
How did you get involved with The Sacrament?
I met Ti West years ago with Joe Swanberg. It’s weird. I actually met Joe and Ti on the very same day. I was meeting Joe for another film, Alexander the Last. They were really good friends, they were friends from the festival circuit. Anyhow, I had known him and I did Alexander the Last and then I did Silver Bullets which I produced, I was in briefly and Ti was in. So we all became friends that way. Joe Swanberg, Kate [Lyn] Sheil – who’s also in The Sacrament – and myself in Silver Bullets, so it’s sort of a gang of us who all knew each other.
Does Ti approach you with all his projects?
My understanding is that Ti wrote the parts for us. Me, Joe, AJ Bowen, Kentucker [Audley] and Kate [Lyn Sheil], we all had made movies together or peripherally have made movies together and were all friends so we all have this short-hand together. I think Ti wanted that feeling, a familiarity with the characters, especially because of the style that it was, so he wrote these parts for us. He basically said ‘I wrote these parts for you, will you do it?’ so I said yes. [Laughs] Not only am I a fan of his work but he’s also my friend.
Is it a lot of pressure when someone comes up to you and says ‘I wrote this part for you.’ Do you feel like you have to accept? [Laughs]
[Laughs] Well luckily I’m a giant fan of his work so it works out nicely! It’s incredibly flattering. [Laughs] I guess we all kind of grew up together, too, as filmmakers. We’ve all worked on each other’s projects in different capacities so it’s all in that world. But I don’t want to say – I have to stress that I can make myself busy if I don’t want to do something. [Laughs] So to that end, I said yes because I’m a fan of his work.
I’ve been told that you had a interest in cults before the film. Is that what drew you to this particular film? Did you do your own research on the Jonestown yourself?
Yeah, I feel like everyone is sort of fascinated with cults. I was obsessed with them for a while; digging in and understanding like why these things happen and that it’s more common than you would think. You could say a religious cult but you could also go into politics and perceive the cultish elements of politics. Also, pop culture and the cultish elements of pop culture, again, where people are sort of obsessed in believing in a diatribe of sorts. I was obsessed with them for a while. Specifically Jonestown was of interest to me, before he had even approached me. The topic of how do people take that leap of faith and give over that much trust, is really fascinating. Also taking into account and understanding that it’s not something that happens overnight. People join cults don’t set out and go ‘Oh today I’m going to go join a cult. That sounds like a good idea.’ [Laughs] It’s a process. They want to believe in something. The rest of the world seems scary to them and these ideas – religious or political or whatever they are – seem to help them get through life. It happens over a period of time, it doesn’t happen overnight. Yeah, I had already been obsessed with them prior to Ti asking me to do it.
It’s interesting you bring up the investment in it as well. I was curious, when you approached your character, did you see her more as a victim or as a perpetrator?
Hmm… [Fumbling] Hmm…
It’s weird because I’m also fascinated by things like ‘victim status’ and exploring that. I kind of explored that a little bit in a film I directed [Sun Don’t Shine]. ‘Is there a real victim? Who is the victim? Is there such a thing?’ It kind of goes hand-in-hand with victim and aggressor. In this situation, I think they are all victims to a mass idea. There’s power in numbers, in this group Eden Parish. That man is only as powerful as they allow him to be. They’ve given up all of their trust to him. They’ve allowed this process to occur and he’s taken advantage of it. Yeah, I think she is a victim in someways and, again, saying that, people have free will which is an interesting thing. You have to understand – specifically with her – she had a past with drugs, she’s struggled, she’s tried to cope with life in another way by numbing herself with drugs or finding something else. This seemed like the answer [to her], it got her off drugs which is very positive. She felt like this was the answer of how to cope with life. She threw herself full force into it.
She is a recovering drug addict but it isn’t played up that much in the film. Did that inform your portrayal of her? Did it change your performance?
Yeah. In a way. For her, it’s the answer. How do I explain it? Having had people close to me struggle with addiction, it’s hard! It’s a hard thing. In order to get of it, they have to find some other pattern to get into, to replace that addiction. A lot of times what happens is they can get really regimented and go full force into crazy exercise or being really strict with eating habits. They sometimes cover that one addiction with another addiction. That, to me, was where it helped. She’s still struggling in life but she thinks she’s found the answer. She wants to be really positive about how good this is for her and stress that and be maybe a bit delusional by thinking that this is the answer for her.
Yeah, so she becomes addicted to Eden Parish.
Gene Jones is brilliant in this and you both seem to have a rapport and chemistry on screen. Did you work on it behind the scenes or was that something that came naturally?
He’s just wonderful. He’s a wonderful human being. [Laughs] I should stress that! He’s not a manipulative monster like in the movie. [Laughs] He’s so well trained that it’s easy to jump in and have him respond. It’s a gift to be on screen with something that, you know, you reach for their hand and they know to grab it; they’re open to your suggestions but still in the zone of their own game. He is just so well trained that he’s so responsive and on top of his game that it was easy to work with him.
Ti West said that in the interview scene, he actually captivated the audience of extras in front of him. He said it was an incredibly enigmatic performance. Were you there for that? Did you get swept up in it as well?
Yeah! Even still, when we watch the movie, when he starts speaking we all just go silent – even Ti. We were doing video commentary recently. We were talking, talking, talking, you know, and then suddenly Gene came on screen and everyone went silent because you want to hear what he’s saying. His voice is so powerful. His delivery is so crafted and beautiful and effective. He just has this powerful presence that is so captivating. All of us were present. The takes were so long – I forget what it was – but it didn’t feel that long because he was delivering it so beautifully and took these ideas and made them relatable. The audience, the extras, didn’t have the script but they were filled with the energy and were responding without being told to. Usually, you know, you tell the extras to be quiet but because they were responding so genuinely to their performance, that I think Ti allowed them to continue doing that because this works so well. They were not interrupting him, they were responding in the breaks, exactly when they were supposed to. He commanded the audience – which is something so rare, that you don’t really find in scenes where you have like 50 extras.
It definitely added to the atmosphere that he was sort of God-like to them.
Yeah. I think – and Gene’s talked about this too – is like he’s coming at it in he believes what he’s saying. He’s not doing it because he doesn’t believe in it, he believes what he’s saying. That’s what makes the performance really great is that this man believes what he’s saying, he’s not trying to pull a fast one on anyone. Another part of it that I think is really effective, something I discussed it with Ti, is when there’s these flickers of something dark, malicious moments, where he seems to be attacking AJ’s character in the film, it’s not out of pure malice, it’s more out of ‘I’m protecting my family’, like he does believe that this is his family. The ideas that AJ and the Vice guys are bringing in are detrimental to his family, he really believes that, that’s what’s really interesting about his performance.
The film is sort of filmed in a documentary style to it rather than found footage. Was this something new to work in for yourself? Does it change your performance at all?
The hardest thing with this was training yourself to look into the camera. [Laughs] At first, it really throws you out. Those sequences we’re shooting in long takes – we shot everything in really long takes. You’re in the middle of doing your character and you know you have to address the camera at some point so you look into the lens. Having done movies before where, if you do that, you think ‘I just blew a take!’ It’s hard to turn your brain off initially to look down the barrel of the camera and not think ‘I just blew that!’ [Laughs] Your body just responds out of the pattern of doing it over and over and over again where you’re not supposed to break that wall and look at the audience. When you do it, you’re like ‘Whoa this wrong, it feels wrong’ but once we got that pattern down it was kind of fun to use those moments, to pick moments, that you could use the camera to give insight into what you’re talking about or what internally you’re going through. Especially for my character who is paranoid of the camera, paranoid of the presence of the camera. This camera, as a character, is making me talk in a different way. She’s performing for the camera. So yeah, it definitely affects my performance. I’m performing as an actor, but on top of that, my character is performing for the camera. She’s not being honest, she’s selling this place to them.
You filmed a lot more scenes with yourself and the brother character but it unfortunately got cut. What did it really delve into and were you sad to see them go?
You know, there wasn’t that much that was cut. [Laughing] Of course, there could be a whole other hour of us just going into our family and stuff but… I think what is so shocking about is, is what doesn’t happen on camera. I think that’s another tool that Ti utilised too. Sort of, the suspense of it is that whatever is on the camera is the only things they have access to or the only things they’re investigating. That helps build the suspense of what’s going to happen next. Everything that is in front of the camera is just as important as what’s hidden from the audience as well. I wouldn’t say I missed anything too much.
That’s true. As an audience member, I was always worried about the brother character because you don’t see him and everyone points away from it so you’re concerned for his welfare.
Exactly. Yeah, exactly. He could be being brainwashed or he could be off being kidnapped. It helps not knowing what’s going on, this isolation feeling that these Vice guys have in this world.
You’ve directed a few times yourself, but only one feature so far with Sun Don’t Shine. What was the experience of moving into directing? Do you have any plans to direct in the near future?
Yeah, Sun Don’t Shine was my first narrative feature. I did another feature that was experimental that was called City on a Hill. I’d done a bunch of shorts and written a bunch of stuff. The thing is I’d made shorts from the beginning of… I basically started as a filmmaker and as a writer, more so than I was an actor. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to continue acting, it’s kind of a surprise to me. [Laughs] Every day I’m wondering who’s going to figure out that I don’t what the Hell I’m doing. It’s a surprise to me that’s been the bulk of my work or that’s what people have recognised about me, because I started out as a filmmaker first and then fell into acting.
I guess when I was making Sun Don’t Shine it didn’t feel like I was trying anything new, it just felt it was about time for me to make the leap into narrative feature filmmaking. Not only that, for me, having acted in stuff, it really helped inform how I was dealing with my actors – which is something, when I was younger, I don’t think I was very good at. Like, first, casting people who I think are great storytellers to begin with, innately; secondly, understanding that they’re carrying the weight of the emotional storytelling, giving them the space to do that but also giving them the information to do that. Yeah, I’ll be directing very soon. I’m in the middle of writing something right now. I can’t talk about it yet, but it will be revealed soon. [Laughs]
You continually collaborate with your friends like Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett etc. What makes you continue to work with them?
There’s a trust there. What I find interesting is that everyone there is a different filmmaker in their own right. I think they’re all exploring different genres and different forms of storytelling. I think that’s really exciting because I can see in their filmmaking how they’re evolving and it keeps it interesting, for me to continue working with them. But also there’s a trust when you go in with people [you know] that I think is overlooked in the Hollywood system of wanting to cast famous all the time. Those are fine, those movies are fine.
There’s a benefit to having famous people and new people in your films. There’s a benefit to bring something different to your films, but I also think there’s something irreplaceable when you work with the same people, time and time again. I think there’s an intimacy that you can execute that you can’t do when you’re working with new people constantly. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it but I know I respond really well to films where everyone knows what kind of movie they’re making. I feel there’s a way to get to a much more vulnerable place – as filmmakers, friends, actors, performers, whatever – when you’ve worked together repeatedly; you know about each other’s lives, you can talk openly about all that stuff, you can find an interesting way to portray it on screen.
Is it different working with your friends? Is it more open and honest because you knew each other so well or do you not want to offend each other?
I try to be open and honest even when I’m not working with friends. Not only that, but I should also stress, it’s not that we were all friends and suddenly decided that we should be in movies. We were all working in movies anyway – actors, filmmakers, whatever. It’s not like we just looked at each other one day and said ‘We should make movies too.’ [Laughs] For whatever reasons, whenever we read articles, it’s ‘Just these group of friends that decided to pick up a camera’ and it’s like ‘No, we were making films, we all came together while making films and collaborated’ so we became friends in the process but it all started with film.
I think there’s an honesty but we definitely… I don’t want to make it sound like it’s some amorphous thing, where we’re all throwing ideas out there and it gets out of control. Ti and I were in You’re Next and Adam [Wingard] was directing that; it was very clear that Adam was directing that and we’re actors. When we came up with ideas, we came up with ideas that only pertained to our characters – no one else. It wasn’t like I was overstepping my boundaries and being like ‘You know what would be great? If you made Sharni [Vinson] go do this thing!’ [Laughs] That way, the delineation is clear: ‘You’re the director, it’s your story, I’m here to help you see that through.’ It is honest, but it’s not amorphous where we’re all giving ideas of how to direct.
I’m glad you brought up You’re Next actually because I was wondering, did you ever get to watch it with a first-time audience?
No! I haven’t. I’ve heard that too. It’s really upsetting. For whatever reason, I feel like I was shooting… shooting… something when it premiered. I could never be in the same place as it was playing for whatever reason. [Laughs] I finally did see it and it’s like so fun. It’s such a fun movie. Sometimes it’s hard to see your friends in movies and be really objective about it, but it’s just a really entertaining movie. So I wish I got to see it with an audience because that’s all I kept hearing was that it was such an audience thing, it’s so fun, and that seems like such a fun movie to experience with a large audience.
The reason I was asking is because you’re gearing up for your run in slow-motion, I was wondering if you were just sitting around the audience smirking to yourself because you knew what was coming.
That got me so off-guard.
[Laughs] I think it’s such an absurd movie. I think what was so fun – again, going back to friends making movies – we all sort of clicked in. What was awesome is that the same team of people that we were all comfortable with, but then also bringing in new players who just jumped right into the dynamic as well. Like Nick [Nicholas Tucci], who plays the other brother, and Wendy [Glenn], who plays his girlfriend, and Sharni [Vinson], who’s the lead, she’s incredible and kick-ass. It brought something new because we get used to each other’s improvs, the rhythm of performing with each other. To throw these other great performers in there, it added just so much dynamic to the whole thing. They did great with casting. They couldn’t have cast better for that.
Another great film of yours from last year was Upstream Colour. Is it hard to gauge what the film will be like from a script or is it much more clear on the page?
I read it when I was talking to [Shane Carruth] about it, I was in the middle of editing my film, and I wasn’t sure if – I was a fan of Primer – it was the right thing for me to do, to walk away from editing my movie and go act in something. So I requested to read the script which I now realise was a big request because I was the only person who was allowed to read the script. I read the script and the first thing I said to him was ‘This is so ambitious…’ [laughs] ‘How the Hell are you going to do this?’ So we had a conversation about that.
I immediately responded to it. It’s crazy but it’s so detailed that whether or not I understood why things were there, in every single place, it was so confidently written. The same way is films are, it was so confidently written, that it didn’t matter if I understood why things were in certain places, like why I was reading about pigs. The confidence just took me on this journey and then by the end, the movie and script made so much sense, that it didn’t matter what the details were. I didn’t question it because it was so confidently written. Detailed. I knew it had something important on its mind. I think that’s a testament to his writing. His writing is so razor sharp.
It’s very similar to what was on the page – which is kind of crazy to say to people because it’s such a visceral, cerebral movie. Which is usually really hard to execute on the page but it was just so precise and otherworldly that it worked.
I know it’s a film open to interpretation. I found it really interesting the questions it raised and how it made me think about pretty much everything, big and small. I’m just curious what your interpretation is and what you thought while performing?
Shane and I got on really well. He had never seen anything I acted in and asked me to do the movie from a cut of my movie that I sent him. We were talking, he knew I was an actress, our friend David Lowery [director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints] had recommended me. He did the fine cut of my movie, Sun Don’t Shine, and did the fine cut of Upstream Colour. David – again another person from that world of Joe Swanberg. I met David with Joe Swanberg and Ti as well. David recommended me to Shane, so Shane watched an interview and was like ‘Great!’ or whatever, ‘Get her on the phone!’ [Laughs] Then we talked on the phone, I said I was editing my movie, he asked to see a cut of it. Similar to how I was the only person allowed to read the script, he was the only person who I had allowed to see the movie at that point. There was a lot of trust building already. He watched the movie and loved the rough cut of it and asked me to be in the film. I think already we had the short-hand of how we were storytellers. There was that.
His job was to keep in mind the spectrum of the entire story, my job was to focus in on Chris’s microcosm. The more grounded, the more focused, the more confused I could make her about her specific microcosm, that would help whatever he was trying to do. For me, it was to trying to understand her specifically and interpret what she was going through. Strangely, for me, at the time was very easy. I was going through something traumatic. To have something, for me, in its simplest form, is to have someone who’s gone through something traumatic, turned your life upside down, and now you don’t know why but you need an answer, you need something to blame. The upsetting part about that, and what’s so tragic for me, that’s not the answer, you feel like you need that to get through it. It was just completely relatable. Whenever something traumatic happens, it feels so abstract. You can’t put your finger on it but you have this desperate desire to want to identify what exactly is causing all of this stuff.
You have some seriously talented friends. I really liked Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as well.
[Laughs] Yeah, I do.
You’ve been in a lot of critically acclaimed films and you’ve moved to TV with The Killing and Family Tree, they’re both really successful too. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way at all but you seem to be just outside the mainstream, so to speak. I’m not trying to say that success is measured by the bigger films or anything like that, but I’m wondering if it’s a conscious decision? Do you find indie projects more rewarding because of the freedom you get?
It’s hard to understand that. I started out as an experimental filmmaker and I had no interest in doing anything that resembled a narrative at all, up until the age of 25 or 26. That included acting in stuff. I was in some really abstract things and made some really abstract things. Then I sort of became fascinated with narrative and what you could do with narrative and a little less defiant in my ways, maybe? [Laughs]
Again, I only know how to go about things the way I’ve developed. I don’t have the personality to wait around for something to happen. I’m constantly making decisions that fulfil me creatively – whether that’s going off and directing and writing my films or participating with a filmmaker I really believe in. That’s how I’ve been able to make my choices: whatever is right for me. Maybe it’s a little controlling [laughing] of my career since I don’t really wait for somebody to say ‘You could be in the next Marvel comics film!’ and you go ‘Oh great, I’ll wait for that to happen.’ It’s just not a part of my personality.
I just know I’ve made the movies that have seemed right and felt right for me. From where I started either, I don’t really care to be famous, I guess. Unless it means I get to make more of the stuff that I actually want to make but I don’t even know if that’s the truth. I think maybe if you get more famous, you get ushered into having to make other decisions that you don’t want to make. I guess my goal is not to be famous, it’s to make the films I want to make and I’ve been lucky enough to do that.
I’ve kept you over the time now so I just have two final questions.
One of them is: how in the world do you have time? As you just said, you’re constantly working and your filmography seems like you’re constantly working. Is it exhausting? Will you be having a break soon?
[Laughs] What’s funny is, right now I’m only writing which feels like such a luxury. I’m always thinking ‘I have to be doing something else’ because of the years when I was writing AND producing AND acting and they were all three different films! [Laughs] Right now, my interest is focusing in on doing one thing at a time and seeing how that feels. [Laughs] I don’t know if I’ll end up going back to it. I always have stuff in play, that’s just the nature of film as you’ll never know what will go, but it feels nice to get to sit down and focus on writing. Just to be quite honest, television allowed me to do that. [laughs] It allows me to go ‘OK, I have the resources now to sit down and focus on this’, not forever but for a period of time.
It’s made me quite sad to know that writing is considered a break for you when I find it so difficult haha.
Oh no, no, no, trust me, it’s a constant battle. It’s a back and forth like all day in my head but it feels like a luxury to only do that.
My final question now. Just simply, what’s next for you? What are you working on next that you can tell us?
OK, I can say that the thing I’m writing right now is television. I’ve found recently that it’s a really interesting combination, because I went from total DIY and still do DIY stuff, the punk-rock filmmaking, to television and jumped over the whole Hollywood film system. Kind of by choice because I’ve found a lot of television is interesting recently and a lot of networks are open to a different approach to storytelling, more so than Hollywood is. Even in the independent world, it’s very rare that I really love a film. [Laughs] I like film but I feel like people are still catering to Hollywood’s format of storytelling. I felt like television was a place to break that open and, through the whole process, it’s basically been really encouraging. It’s gotten much further than I ever thought it was going to. That’s what I’m working on now. Then I’m producing for Shane’s next movie and then producing another film for Barry Jenkins.
With your TV series, how will it be distributed?
I can’t tell you that yet! [Laughs] Soon, it will be revealed.
The Sacrament is available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray now and well worth a watch. It’s also worth going through everything Amy Seimetz has ever done as she’s a continually interesting actress, producer, director and writer. Her TV series has since been announced. It is an extension of Steven Soderbergh‘s The Girlfriend Experience film (which he is attached as Executive Producer) that will be on Starz network in the US. No network is currently linked to the UK leaving it possibly open to VOD distribution like Breaking Bad‘s final season.