Amy Seimetz: Breakout Actor/Filmmaker of the Year

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If the independent film world ever got it together enough to elect officers, surely the unanimous choice for Official Muse would have to be Amy Seimetz, our 2013 Breakout of the Year. In the last five years, she’s appeared in 40(!) productions, mostly feature films along with some shorts and TV series. Many first discovered her as the female lead opposite indie stalwart Barlow Jacobs in Joe Swanberg’s 2009 feature Alexander the Last. Others discovered her back in 2010, when she appeared in Lawrence Levine’s Gabi on the Roof in July, David Robert Mitchell’s The Myth of the American Sleepover and Girls creator Lena Dunham’s feature debut Tiny Furniture. My own favorite role of hers is probably as the lead in Megan Griffiths’ stunning 2011 debut The Off Hours.

But here’s the thing—in that same five-year period, she’s been a producer on four films, a writer on four, the director on three and the editor on two. She’s the Magic Johnson of the film world, able to slip into any position and make huge contributions. But 2013 was the year she made her first All-Star team, acting in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (our #5 film of the year) and releasing her directorial debut Sun Don’t Shine (our #16 film of the year). Somewhere along the way, she found the time for lead roles in indie films Pit Stop, 9 Full Moons, and The Sacrament, as well as major roles in TV series Family Tree and The Killing.

And Amy Seimetz is not slowing down.

“I just like seeing good art made,” Seimetz says. “And I’ve been fortunate enough to be around people who were making good art, and I could get involved, as a producer or a writer or an actor or a director or whatever. I think that independent film, for me personally, is not something that’s going to take me to the next level, but it exists and it’s self-starting. No one cares as much as you do and your peers that are helping you get this train going.”

She filled all four of those roles (producer, writer, director, editor) for Sun Don’t Shine a sun-and-sweat-drenched Central Florida ode of sorts to Terence Malick’s Badlands. It’s a testament to her genius that her film points back to the Malick classic, but offers something completely new. It’s one of our favorite films of the year.

Amy Seimetz’s direction, like her acting, doesn’t announce its greatness full-throated, yelling at the top of its lungs for the audience’s acknowledgement. And the style of Sun Don’t Shine won’t be to everyone’s liking—a sort of Malick-esque post-mumblecore mood piece. But patient viewers will be rewarded with some of the deepest rewards of the year. The pacing of the film, which seems needlessly pensive at first, begins to draw you deeper and deeper into the story. Every sun-soaked shot seems rich with meaning. And the striking performances she coaxes from her leads, Kate Sheil and Kentucker Audley, are subtle masterpieces.

“It’s funny,” Seimetz says with a smile, “because there are so many people that talk about how the performances are very realistic, inspired by, I guess, mumblecore or whatever. But I always get baffled and say ‘Who do you know that acts like this?’ What the actors are doing is really difficult, and that’s to all of their credit, not just Kate and Kentucker, but A.J. Bowen, Mark Reeb, and Kit Gwin. I’d worked with all those people before, and I knew I could access a heightened level of pulpy performance while still grounding it in reality.”

The plot of the film may seem vaguely familiar, but the atmosphere is anything but. “Sun Don’t Shine is about Crystal and Leo,” Seimetz explains, “who have done a really bad thing and are on the lam. It follows them as their relationship becomes an emotional rollercoaster with each other, as they try to run away from the law and run away from the reality of what they’ve actually done. It takes place in Florida, in my hometown. I really wanted to make something about criminals in this suspended period of time after the crime and before the punishment … that 30 minutes ‘before the devil knows you’re dead.’ It’s pulpy and noir, but realistic with these bridges of surrealism because they’re in another zone mentally.”

One of the key elements in bridging that sense of reality and unreality is sound design. “I worked with Skywalker,” she says, “with Pete Horner. And with my composer, Ben Lovett, we worked really carefully to create that soundscape. I think that sound can be a story too. There’s this pulsating element, whether people are aware of it or not, that keeps the subconscious streaming throughout the movie. And Pete also did Upstream Color. If you watch those two films, which are so different in their soundscapes, you’ll understand just how brilliant he is.”

When the time came for distribution, Seimetz turned to a trusted—and familiar—source. “Factory 25’s catalog is awesome,” she says. “They just have basically every film I love. So going with them, I felt like I was in good company, and I felt like people would flock to something that was more curated than just a simple distribution. It’s really a body of work. And I think that’s also what Fandor is doing, targeting interesting movies and curating a group of films instead of it just being willy-nilly. It’s more focused.”

Upstream Color, Shane Carruth’s beautiful, elliptical film that divided Sundance audiences so sharply last year, helped expose Seimetz to an even larger audience. Some of those audiences, though, have struggled with the film. “It’s really interesting,” Seimetz says, “to see everyone react to the movie. I didn’t realize people were going to approach it like a puzzle to be solved. I responded to the material in a performance sense on more of an emotional level, and it was really clear to me what he was trying to tell emotionally. It’s very emotionally intact for me, as an experience film.”

“I think the point of the movie is not to have an answer,” she continues. “In the movie, characters come up with their own stories because they can’t remember what their stories were. So they have to piece it together themselves. So it’s only right that when people walk out of the movie, they’re trying to project their own story onto the movie, and relate to it in a personal way. Which is kind of a magnificent feat, I think, because that’s how we all want everyone to experience our movies anyway.”

With so much indie success, Seimetz’s career has begun creeping into the mainstream as well. She was featured in three episodes of Christopher Guest’s new series Family Tree this year, and she plays a key character in the third series of AMC’s cult hit The Killing. Even bigger projects lie in store, no doubt.

But don’t expect Amy Seimetz to abandon her indie roots any time soon. “It’s almost impossible for me to not do those roles,” she says. “It’s almost like a curse and a blessing at the same time. It’s really addicting to keep doing it. If I have 10 dollars in my pocket, I’m trying to figure out how I can blow it on film.”

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