In the first of a series of conversations with La Di Da Film Festival filmmakers, Amy Seimetz and Craig Zobel discuss gender dynamics in their features, Sun Don’t Shine and Compliance.
Two of this year’s breakthrough films, Craig Zobel’s psycho-sexual thiller Compliance and Amy Seimetz’s color noir Sun Don’t Shine, share much in common. Both are genre movies filmed in tight spaces, while also adhering to a very tight code of restrictions of form. Each film plays exactly within the rules of the genre while pushing against those boundaries, revealing the experimental indie roots of both filmmakers by just how far they push while staying within those identifiable lines. Zobel previously directed Great World of Sound while Seimetz produced Alison Bagnall’s The Dish and the Spoon and acted in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Joe Swanberg’s Silver Bullets, among others.
It turns out that both filmmakers have known each other for years; they met, in fact, through Seimetz’s former roommate Pat Healy, who plays the mysterious prank caller who drives the plot in Zobel’s Compliance. And while their films have been screening on the festival circuit this year, the two filmmakers have been having passionate conversations about gender as it plays out in various ways in their work.
This is the first in a series of conversations with filmmakers participating in the La Di Da Film Festival. Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine will screen at 92YTribeca on Saturday, September 15 at 9 pm. Craig Zobel’s Compliance is in wide release now.
Craig Zobel Even before we made both of our movies, we sat down and had coffee and talked about—
Amy Seimetz —I think we sat down for beers? (laughter)
CZ Yeah. Right, we drank lots of beers and talked about how we wanted to make genre movies.
AS We were talking about why independent film can’t be exciting and play around with these elements. Now people are doing that again. I think there’s a reemergence of genre. And even the new horror—American art horror—is so big right now. I guess you get to the point where you realize you can still explore relationships or even make a relationship movie, or even have a meditative movie, within your horror film.
CZ Right, but you can’t reject the genre in that story so that people who wanted just to see that are disappointed. Like, “Ah, we went to this and all we got was a bunch of people talking. They’re talking about genre things!”
AS Well, you have a choice to go either way. I guess it’s just knowing the movie you’re going make, or what your audience is going to be. I could have made a meditative movie that just played in museums. But I knew I wanted to make something reminiscent of ’70s Hollywood movies, which are big movies.
CZ Well, they’re big in our minds. Who knows how big they actually were? The business models were totally different back then. I’m obsessed right now with this movie Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman, this jewel thief movie, and, I don’t know, is that a big movie? Nobody thinks about that movie now. But it’s fucking fantastic.
Miriam Bale So you could have made a movie that just plays in art galleries, or you could have also made a movie that just played to friends of friends. What audiences were you trying to reach with these movies?
CZ I had this idea for the plot of the movie, just because it was something that I was genuinely fascinated with, and didn’t know the answers to all of the questions it raised for me. So I had this genuine curiosity. And I was like, how do you make a movie out of that? Well, you’d probably make a one of those European thrillers, like a Haneke or Lars Von Trier movie, that psychological-thriller thing. Can I call that a genre? A Lars Von Trier movie?
AS Genre itself is just weird to me. The categorization of things. I was thinking about it because I had to comment on Possession . . .
CZ Yeah, what genre is that movie?
AS You want to say it’s horror, but it defies horror; it defies categorization, because it’s so crazy! It’s like, if you’re going to make a movie about the devil, you have to have complete anarchy. Our movie, is about people who aren’t bad people, but who are doing extremely bad things. There are no rules anymore, after the crime and before the punishment it’s complete anarchy—they broke the rule.
CZ Yeah, but I feel like you accomplished making a really straight thriller, which is awesome. It’s an “on-the-run” movie: it’s about people who committed a crime and are on the run.
AS All you need for a movie is a girl and gun.
MB And a car.
AS And a car. And that’s it, a girl and a gun and a car.
MB You both made these really tense movies. Do you want to talk about the places you chose, and the challenges of shooting in those spaces?
CZ Well, I recognized that it was a weird choice to set the film in a fast-food restaurant. What I was fascinated with was this true story that had happened multiple times and had always happened in these restaurants. It needed to be in the location; I wasn’t clever enough to have the same thing happen in another space. I recognized that that was going to be trouble—if you don’t do that right you could actually visually exhaust the audience. I spent a lot of energy actually building the back room of the restaurant so that we could control lighting very precisely, so that the look would change over of the movie. Forty minutes of the movie happen in that room, basically, and the theory was you wouldn’t see all the way around the room until forty minutes in.
AS Now I’m realizing how fundamentally similar our movies are. In your movie, you have to isolate the characters from reality, or else the trajectory of your story, the relationships between the characters, is lost. And the same thing with my characters: it’s only when they’re isolated in the car that their relationship works, and when they get outside of the car, it doesn’t work anymore.
MB Amy, didn’t you say you found new ways to film in a car?
AS The claim to fame of Two Lane Blacktop was that they shot in a car in more ways than anyone had ever shot in a car. We [cinematographer Jay Keitel and myself] said, “Oh, we’re going win!” But it was really difficult. We couldn’t take out seats because we had a five-person crew, so we weren’t going to disassemble the car. Plus it was my boyfriend’s car, so we couldn’t destroy it. So, we ended up putting mirrors up all around the car.
CZ Oh really? You shot into the mirrors. Oh wow, that’s brilliant.
MB I’m going to step away for a bit. Maybe you can talk about the gender stuff that you both wanted to talk about?
CZ Yeah, okay. Amy, first of all, tell me about the people who called you a misogynist. What was that about?
AS It was a review that was kind of offensive to me. I thought the review was sexist. Questions of what “sexist” is and what “misogyny” is are fascinating to me. I think Kate [Lyn Sheil]’s character, Crystal, is a strong female character. Maybe she’s doing bad stuff, and maybe she has vulnerabilities and is showing them, but at the same time she’s a full character. But this review said all the women in the movie just threw their vaginas at the problem. It said something about Crystal being shrill and that you just wanted to slap her in the face. I’ve heard that more than once, which is part of it, part of the violence of the movie.
CZ What’s so interesting about that to me is that I feel that Crystal has probably never had the kind of education to fully know how to solve her problems. All she knows is that it’s not right, whatever happened before the movie with her husband, however that went down. I feel like she’s an incredibly well-drawn character. Does she use her sexuality in order to manipulate Kentucker? Yeah, she does. Does Kentucker’s character in some ways put her down, or not fully let her be who she is, or tell her that she can’t have ideas? There is a weird power play in their relationship. That’s why it works.
AS Absolutely. The most important part of that review was it said I was a misogynist, but [the reviewer, a woman] was conflicted because she knew I was a woman. That was really interesting to me. So if a man directed this then he would be a misogynist . . . .
CZ That’s where I’ve landed in some people’s reviews.
AS But what is a strong female character? How do you represent a strong female character? Kate and I make jokes about it all the time, that maybe we should have inserted a scene where she’s trading stocks just to show she’s smart. But that’s not the character! Those are not the people I wanted to show.
CZ It becomes one of those issues of intent. Is it your job as a female filmmaker to be making movies that show women who are really powerful all the time? I think the men in that movie do sort of put her down in ways, which actually makes you talk about it.
AS Exactly. I definitely wanted to talk about gender issues, and the way men communicate with women and women communicate with men. Because I’ve found myself in relationships that are just horrid, and I feel like I’m a really strong, independent woman. But also, I do want to have babies, I want to be taken care of. I get conflicted about it, and then I get resentful. So, how do you be a woman? I don’t know! Honestly, I love movies that are about women who don’t know how to be good women. Like Wanda, for instance.
CZ And people have written really nasty things about that movie, too.
AS Oh, completely! And why? Is she a bad portrayal of a female character because she makes this decision that’s not “family first?" Which is basically what Crystal does in my movie too: she makes a split-second decision to reject family and run. The same thing in Wanda: she leaves her family for an ex-convict. I almost think that’s the existential crisis for women. We’re supposed to be these maternal figures, but as soon as you represent a woman who doesn’t want to be a mom, or isn’t good at being a mom, she’s bad in some way. Why?
CZ It’s weird, but because the character is a woman it becomes this big issue. If your movie had been about all men, no one would have even talked about it.
AS Even when there are representions of professional women in movies, there’s always the question, “Doesn’t that come in conflict with her starting a family?" If you [portray] a professional man, you don’t even have to explore family at all.
CZ What’s most fascinating is this expectation of what you’re supposed to be doing with your movie. Here’s a person who finds your movie misogynistic, and then is really conflicted because a woman directed it. It feels slightly lazy. It feels like not looking at what that movie is, which is, to me, a really interesting movie about gender dynamics.
AS Intelligence and abuse are not mutually exclusive. I could have made a movie about abuse with a really smart woman in it, and she’d still be in the same situation. Abuse is something deep-rooted, it’s a part of yourself. It has nothing to do with whether you’re smart or not.
Another thing that I wanted to discuss is, how do you escape that when you’ve been abused your whole life, either verbally or physically? How do you make that not a part of you? It almost becomes ingrained. That’s not to say that you can’t leave, but it’s very rare that women actually put their foot down—unless something really, really bad happens, like they get beat up so bad they have to go to the hospital and the men get arrested, and the [woman] can’t deny it anymore. It’s very rare that a woman says I’m not going to take this anymore and leaves. But I see a lot of movies where women do stand up and say that.
CZ So the thing is, is the job to be making movies where they stand up and say they’re not going to take it anymore?
AS It would be dishonest, for me.
CZ But your characters are very well-drawn. You still made a really good movie. That’s what’s strange about that whole thing. And then, with me, I was at first just fascinated with how people abuse power. That was where I entered into thinking about the story I was trying to tell. But really quickly it became hard to ignore that gender does play a big role [in power dynamics].
AS Because your story only works, really, if the person who is being exploited is a woman.
CZ I don’t know if I necessarily agree that it only works if it’s a woman, do you?
AS I’m only aware of the cases where it was a woman.
CZ Well, it was almost always a woman. And the motive of the criminal had to do with that.
AS The reason I feel like it wouldn’t work with a man is that women are taught to comply a little bit more than men are. I feel like if I were watching a man in that situation, it would just be unbelievable. I’d be like, I don’t buy it. And I wonder why I think it would only work with a woman. These are tricky topics to talk about, but [the characters are] complying with someone on the phone who wants them to do these horrific sexual things to this young woman. And the person who goes the furthest is the older gentleman, and I wonder what part of him started to allow it to happen. Do you think there was an enjoyment level? That has an interesting relationship to the audience, because part of the viewing experience is watching a young attractive woman. And she’s not unappealing to look at.
AS Before we even decided to do this conversation, I knew it would be really complicated to talk about women and gender because I don’t want to talk about Dreama [Walker, lead actress in Compliance naked, but you have to, at a certain point, because she is.
AS I think one of the most interesting reactions from the audience is that—just cinematically—when there’s a naked woman on screen, the audience is trained, in a way, to gaze at her. That’s just cinematic language. For the most part, when you see a nude woman, it’s a display of desire, or sexuality. I think what’s interesting in your movie is that when that’s happening, she’s completely in this really dark place; she’s being taken advantage of.
CZ I tried to not necessarily shoot it in a hyper-sexual way, in the actual photography. I tried to make it blunt. At one point I thought, maybe there isn’t any nudity in the movie at all, maybe we don’t go that far and we don’t see that. But I think there is some value to having it. Actually, making this movie has made me think a lot about nudity in movies. Now when I see nudity in movies that’s frivolous, I’m always like, “Wow, that’s very frivolous. That’s just there to get a rise out of the audience in a sexual way.” Whereas, [in my film] having some onscreen nudity helps create a tension. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. It makes it dangerous. But yeah, Dreama and I talked about it a ton.
Something that you and I mentioned to each other prior to this conversation, is what might happen if there were a less beautiful person in the role. That seems to be something a lot of people would be more okay with, which to me seems super weird. I think it’s fascinating that people would rather it be someone who was heavier, less attractive in this way or that way. I thought very distinctly about that before going into the movie, and said to myself, I would rather have people who are not thinking about this movie with the amount of thought that I am accuse me of being exploitative by putting a pretty person into this than putting a less-traditionally attractive person into this and be victim-blaming. Where it’s okay, because they aren’t as pretty.
I know that there are going to be people who reject the movie, and they’re going to reject the movie in either this way or that way, and I’m picking this one. I can’t win, in a certain sense, so I’m going to pick the one that is to me, weirdly, more ethical. It would just be a lot to talk about, if there was lots of victim-blaming. I wanted to focus on authority.
p(q). MB Talk more about “victim-blaming.” It is interesting that either way, you’d be worried about exploiting a woman’s body.
CZ Maybe that’s the wrong term. OK, my feeling about the world is that we carry around biases that have to do with beauty, and we forgive beautiful people things sometimes. We react in a different ways to people who are beautiful and people who aren’t. And I was concerned that if it was a person who wasn’t some sort of traditional form of attractive, people would—even unconsciously—be biased and be more okay with her being sexually assaulted. Which is not something that I wanted anyone to feel okay with. I wanted it not to be comfortable that it got that far, and I didn’t want it to be okay on some level, even an unconscious level. You know, people do that, whether or not that’s a thing that we all like to talk about.
AS But if you had gone the route where you found not an unattractive woman, but just somebody who looks like the rest of America, then I think there would be a distancing that the audience would do with the story. As if it was “those” types of people, that world of small town America. Not “victim-blaming” . . .
CZ Yeah, I think that’s the wrong term
AS I think they would have had a reaction of, “Ugh, small towns are fucked up.” If you made it really realistic, and there was a girl who looked like she was from there—just normal, not traditionally beautiful, or cinematically beautiful—I think people would have distanced. They wouldn’t have been invited into the story.
CZ The other part of the story for me is the question of the viewer’s relationship to power. The story is about me asking myself how honest I was being when I first heard these [news stories] and I thought, “I would never do that.” But it happened 70 times, over the course of ten years, in 30 different states. It’s not just one group of people that made some poor decisions. I wanted to get you there in your head: “Am I being honest with myself that I’ve never gone along with something I disagreed with because the authority told me to?”
MB Interesting, in choosing an attractive actress you chose engagement over distance.
AS Another interesting reaction to your film that I’ve heard from actresses—especially actresses who have been nude—is that they had a really hard time with your movie. And I’ve been nude in movies before, and I don’t have a problem with nudity in cinema, at all. I just don’t. I don’t have nudity in mine, but it was a conscious choice to not have nudity.
AS Because the sex that they’re having is not intimate. And there’s something really vulnerable, intimate, and pleasing in nude sex. This sex wasn’t gratifying—
CZ —To the audience.
AS Yeah, but also for the couple. I wanted to make the least fulfilling sex scene I could possibly make. They’re having sex, but it doesn’t look like sex. It looks like this traumatic thing she’s going through. They just can’t connect. And I think nudity in some ways would have been fulfilling.
MB But you needed a sex scene.
AS I needed a sex scene. I needed to explore their sexual relationship.
AS Because I think in that moment [Kate’s character] is really jealous, and she’s trying to get [the man] to say that he’s only hers. So it’s like she’s peeing on this other woman’s bed where she and Kentucker’s character are having sex. She’s being really territorial—for lack of a better term. She is actively making him shun this other person.
The other thing is, I think sex is such a complicated topic. People say, “I don’t think there should be sex scenes!” And I think, are you kidding? It is one of the most complicated interactions that you can have with a human being. Because even when it’s empty sex, it’s complicated. And when it’s love, it’s really complicated. When it’s bad love, unhealthy love, it’s really complicated. It’s how you’re connecting; it’s what defines that you’re in a relationship and not just friends.
MB You can’t understand a relationship unless you see a sex scene. I like how Cronenberg is always adding a sex scene, because he feels like that’s a quick way to understand what’s really happening.
AS Exactly. I feel the same way! It is this nonverbal expression of how you feel about another person. Even the kind of sex you have is really telling. I mean, you could go on and on, because there are just so many ways you can do it!
CZ But to bring it back to audience expectation, you chose not to have nudity because it didn’t fit the story, and once you do sex with nudity, and you do it with a rosy kind of lens, it creates a—
AS —For the most part, the sex I see in movies doesn’t give me any information at all. That’s why I have a problem with it. And inversely, it also bothers me when I’m watching a sex scene and it’s so obvious that they’re avoiding nudity. But I get it. I guess I just don’t have a problem with it. I love European films because they just get naked all the time, and it’s fine.
CZ I actually have had actresses say that Compliance in some ways mirrors the director-actor relationship in a nude scene. Which is NOT something I was thinking of. It’s fascinating.
Like I said, even before talking to any of those actresses about it, I had to know why I wanted nudity in the movie so specifically.
AS I know you weren’t thinking about it in terms of directing actors, but that is a power position. As a director, you’re telling them to do something. Even outside of nudity, I’m telling [my actors] to go to some really dark places. For Kate to scream her head off, and to access a part of herself that is really dark and disgusting. And I’m telling Kentucker to yell at her, and he felt really uncomfortable about it! But we all made a pact to do it.
As somebody who’s had to be nude in movies, I don’t think about it. I do it and it’s fine. Then it’s up on the screen and I’m still not thinking about it, until people start asking questions about it. And then I’m like, oh yeah, people have a problem with this, and I just did it willingly. But I’m smart, there was a discussion, I was okay with it. It’s almost as if we get to the point where we can’t talk about the fact that the actress was aware of what the story was, that they weren’t just being exploited.
CZ That happens with all of the actors in my movie, with questions that come up at Q&As. “Don’t you feel that the director is like the bad guy in because he’s telling all the actors to do that?” And all the actors are, like, “NO. We read the screenplay. And wanted to participate in the story. What do you mean? Movies don’t accidentally get made. We didn’t accidentally find ourselves acting in a movie!”
AS When I’m being asked that question, I feel, “Should I feel ashamed about it?” I’m sorry, in my natural state I’m naked. I put on clothes to fit into society. As an artist, you’re constantly stripping down. As an artist, I try not to be inhibited, and so I’m openly exploring nudity and sexuality and all these things, because that’s what I’m asked to do. But on that same token, I have weird days and weird scenes, where I’m like, “No, I’m not. It’s not worth it to me. “
CZ Which is, when actresses see my movie, they’re talking about that day. It was unnecessary and the director pushes them to do something that ultimately they were uncomfortable with, I guess.
MB Even though that accusation is directed at you personally, it could be aimed more at the director-actor role in general.
CZ I’ve definitely found myself thinking about what that all is, in a way that I don’t think a lot of directors do. I don’t think they’re bad or wrong if they’re not thinking about that; I just think it’s such a complicated thing that unless you’re making a movie specifically about gender and power dynamics, your head doesn’t get wrapped up in all that. But for me, it will definitely effect how I’ll move forward in future movies.
MB Well, for women, all films are about gender. They’re not, but they are, because women are forced to think of this all the time. I do have a quick question: Do each of you have a point of identification in your film? With a character, with the film itself?
CZ David Mingo, a good friend and composer who scored my first film, when he finally saw this film, said, “It was like a space alien came down and watched all of these people try to make these decisions, and tried to understand what they were.” I thought the most interesting way to tell this particular story was to be objective in the extreme. I thought that creating that tension changed the relationship between the audience and the movie, and hopefully kept you thinking about power dynamics. I could have been subjective in the movie and made it about Dreama’s character and what she was going through, and it would have been a totally different movie.
AS I think I said this to you after I watched your movie, that if I directed it, I would have been much more geared towards her experience in that story, from her point of view. I don’t mean POV shots! But that the tone would be about the emotional state of this woman, and her observation of what these people are doing. I guess just a more subjective tone, because that’s where my eye goes. But that would have been a completely different movie and it wouldn’t have put into question what these people are doing. My version would have just been about how these people are doing bad things—this is scary, this is bad, I don’t like it, I don’t want this to be happening to me. But the way you shot it, we don’t know what’s good or bad anymore.
My film is just so personal, I’m in every facet of it. I was Kentucker’s character in these recurring nightmares I had of of these lovers on the run. But I was more interested in the woman playing the criminal, and doing the inciting act, because it flips the whole model on its head, where usually it’s the men who have done something bad and the women who are going along. I wanted [the woman] to be the driving force, mostly because I was exploring issues of me being the asshole, to be quite frank, and watching these men around me try to save me in some way.
CZ The beauty of the movie is that Kentucker’s character is definitely trying to save Crystal, but he’s also not great for her in certain ways.
AS Yes. When I would find myself being the asshole, they would feed into it in this unhealthy way. And I would feed into that. I was also dealing with a death in my family, and I wasn’t responsible for killing that person, but I was legally responsible for the decisions around that death. So, internally, I was having reactions like, I just want to roll around and bark like a dog and cry, and do these really irrational things. I felt like I had to overcome what I really wanted to do in the face of death, which is not rational. I want to get this out, but no, you have to fill out this form, you have to deal with this bureaucratic side. And then there was also my actual life that was continuing ahead, the things that I wanted to do. I was like three separate people. That was basically what the movie was about: those two people, the emotional and the logistical, and then this trajectory where it doesn’t matter what they do, because they’re just headed to the end.
CZ I feel like I’ve seen a bunch of movies about relationships, especially in the indie universe, and especially in the last five years or so, and I feel like it’s really hard to talk about co-dependence in a movie. It’s a very common thing, and it’s very rare that it’s well explored. But it is in your movie. Maybe because it’s couched in genre and that helps you explore it.
AS Maybe I was able to execute it better because I wasn’t trying to observe someone; it was a co-dependent emotional state within me. That crazy emotional fire inside of me needed that bureaucratic side, because it needed something to cling to, but the bureaucratic side needed something to solve.
MB So it’s not just that you were both Kate and Kentucker’s characters, the calm and emotional impulses, but also just the drive to get the film made. The calm, “get this shit done,” utilizing all those crazy emotions.
CZ Knowing the story outside the movie makes all that become very clear, but I also love that you don’t need to know any of that and it still works so well.
AS I’m still dealing with death, but I’m in a different place now. That was me wanting to deny it.
MB It’s not in the trunk?
CZ Right, it’s not in the trunk. You found a genre trope that also helped your emotional state. All these emotions that you had on this genre trip . . . that’s awesome.
Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine will screen at 92YTribeca on Saturday, September 15 at 9 pm.
Craig Zobel’s Compliance is in wide release now.