“The strangest crimes in the newspapers always happen in Florida,” says filmmaker Amy Seimetz. Indeed, when it comes to the genre of broad-daylight noir, Florida is hard to beat. Compare the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald and Roman Polanski to the Miami of Charles Willeford or Michael Mann, and Brian De Palma. It’s not the heat that deranges people, it’s the humidity. Plus the mosquitoes. And the whole pernicious moral influence of the swamps. If Plan A fails, you can always sink the evidence in the Everglades.
Into the seedy, sticky tradition of Florida crime comes Seimetz’s thriller, Sun Don’t Shine, which premiered at SXSW and will make its New York City debut at Rooftop Films this Saturday (June 9). Based on a recurring nightmare of the director’s, it tracks the mysterious peregrinations of a young couple around the backroads of St. Petersburg, Seimetz’s hometown. The atmosphere of torpid panic in the car, and the lack of air conditioning, is palpable; clearly, they’re both about to snap. The question of who goes first—Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil), a chattering doe in the headlights, or Leo (Kentucker Audley), gruff and levelheaded, but slightly dumb—drives the suspense.
This is Seimetz’s first feature to write and direct. She’s already known as an actress and producer. You may recognize her from her roles in Tiny Furniture, The Off Hours, or A Horrible Way to Die. Sheil was a prominent face at SXSW this year, appearing in three other films, V/H/S, The Comedy and Somebody Up There Likes Me. Audley directed Seimetz in his 2010 film Open Five.
I spoke to Seimetz over the phone on Monday about Florida, lady criminals, and her plans for Sun Don’t Shine.
Let’s talk about your research. During the SXSW Q&A, Kate Sheil said one way you prepared her for the role was to send her mug shots of women.
These characters are going through a really intense experience. In all my research, I found that women who commit crimes don’t understand rationally what they did. I watched a great documentary through Women Make Movies [by Allie Light and Irving Saraf] called Blind Spot. In all these stories, these convicted women criminals had no rational explanation for what they were thinking during the act.
But yeah, in Florida, they have these magazines that the prisons put out to make money. Basically, anyone who gets booked, they sell their mug shots.
Oh, right. I’ve seen those at gas stations in Texas. [Interviewer’s note: these mug shot tabloids, with titles like Slammer and Just Busted, are printed by small private companies throughout South and distributed in convenience stores. The government does not sell mugshots, but must grant access to the images at the publishers’ request, under the Freedom of Information Act. Disturbingly, these tabloids are moving online, and charging people a fee to have their photos removed from the site.]
Is that Constitutional? They haven’t even gone to court yet and their mug shots are published. You’re seeing a picture of someone at probably the worst moment of their life. I find it extremely depressing but also I can’t stop looking. The women, and the men too, all have this deep frown. It looks like the weight of their whole life leading up to that dead-end moment.
Kate and I worked on that, just to find that [facial expression] without being over the top. It’s also in the way she’s carries her body.
Her performance of that physical transformation is really impressive. Her appearance is constantly changing with her mental state.
Without being too on the nose about it, that’s one of the women-oriented themes of this movie. All her costume changes are about this metamorphosis she goes through, and where she ends up. It’s why we included the mermaid scene. She’s trying to figure out how to act like a woman, what it means. I love films about women who are trying to be “good” women, but don’t know how, like [Barbara Loden’s] Wanda or [Andrej Zulawski’s] Possession.
Trying to understanding what femininity is—take that pink dress at the end. That’s a really normal outfit for Florida. When I take [the film] around to other places, people are like, “That pink dress is just insane!” But in Florida, it’s hot, and you wear the least amount of clothing you can. When we were shooting at Weekiwachee Springs [the mermaid amusement park], little girls would come out of the bathroom where Kate was changing and be like, “I love your dress so much!” So the idea of femininity in Florida is different than what it is in California or in the New England.
The dress is definitely Crystal’s last attempt at being a good girl, like, “Look, I put on a pretty dress and I’m trying to be sweet to you.” She just doesn’t know how to do it. I guess that’s what makes her such an interesting character.
In other interviews, you’ve mentioned A Woman Under the Influence and Two Lane Blacktop as inspirations. While I watched it thought of Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide and George Armitage’s adaptation of Miami Blues. Anything to add about your inspirations?
Kate and I did an interview for Michael Dunaway for Paste. We started out saying, “I’m not sure anything directly influenced us,” then for 20 minutes went on listing books. I studied literature in college, so I’ve read so much. What we were trying to make is a hybrid of crime novels, road films, even contemporary horror movies. And classic Americana, like the mermaid shows left over from the 1940s and 50s. The characters don’t live in an urban population and don’t have the means to cover up their problems with money. They’re in that situation because they don’t have money. And they’re in Florida. Florida is this weird anomaly the South doesn’t want to claim. It’s like the bastard child of the South!