The directors Steven Soderbergh and Amy Seimetz had prepared for a significant spring. Her new film “She Dies Tomorrow” was intended to debut at the South by Southwest film festival in March, after which she’d fly to Detroit to act in Soderbergh’s crime drama “Kill Switch.”
Those plans were made pre-pandemic, of course. As the spread of the coronavirus in the United States reached alarming levels, South by Southwest was canceled, and “Kill Switch” was halted two weeks before shooting. Hollywood had come to a standstill.
“I knew nothing was going back to normal anytime soon,” Seimetz said. “It was an interesting process to watch everyone face the facts.”
But a funny thing has happened to Soderbergh and Seimetz in lockdown, as two of their movies have found new resonance during the Covid-19 era. “Contagion,” Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller starring Matt Damon, rocketed up the iTunes rental charts in March, while “She Dies Tomorrow,” out Friday in drive-ins and next week on digital, offers a more subjective take on going viral: An anxious young woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) is convinced she will die the next day, and anyone she tells is soon gripped by the same fearful prophecy.
“‘Contagion’ is relentlessly objective in its style and its formal structure whereas Amy’s film, by design, is this sort of fever dream in both its style and its storytelling,” Soderbergh told me this week during a pandemic-focused Zoom call with Seimetz. “It’s interesting to me as an example of how you can give artists the same central idea and they will go off on two completely different tangents just because of who they are.”
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What were the first few months of lockdown like for both of you?
STEVEN SODERBERGH I knew in January from talking to my friends in the world of epidemiology that this was serious. I would call them and say, “So what do you think?” and their entire quote was “It’s going to be bad.” But you’re trying to balance these very conflicting, primal reactions to what’s happening with the virus and your own career advancement, so it’s a really strange collision of your civic duty and your ego. I had moments of trying to check myself.
AMY SEIMETZ Another thing that’s evolved is my conversations with executives. At the beginning of this, they were like, “We’re not in the office anymore, so we’re just going to call you all the time and ask when things will be ready.” It’s been interesting to see how those calls all dropped off in silence, which I prefer because it allows me to do the work. The other side product of this is that I have an entire freezer full of vegetable stock from the beginning of quarantine. Like, huge lifetime supplies of lentils.
What did you make of all the people who were drawn to “Contagion” during the early days of the pandemic?
SODERBERGH It does pose a larger question about why we’ve had this attraction to disaster movies. Why is this kind of imagery, this spectacle of destruction, so compelling to us? Is it pure fantasy, or is it something darker that’s wound into us that we don’t fully understand?
SEIMETZ I have a theory about that, because I actually witnessed myself doing this. When the pandemic first started, in order to not feel anxious, I was binge-watching completely mindless crap like “Too Hot to Handle” and “Love Is Blind,” and I was like, “Why do I feel so ill after? I’m just trying to take my mind off things.” And then I was like, “I’ll watch ‘After Life,’ with Ricky Gervais,” and I was just sobbing the entire time, but I felt so much better!
I needed to feel those emotions, like loss and sadness and fear. I think suppressing them sort of makes you more anxious, so there’s a cathartic element to watching something like “Contagion,” which I found strangely comforting.
Steven, I found this take on “Contagion” published back in 2011: “It’s one of the most accurate movies I have seen on infectious disease outbreaks of any type … very dramatic, tense, exciting.” Do you know who said that about the film?
SODERBERGH No, who?
It was Dr. Anthony Fauci.
SODERBERGH Oh wow! That’s nice. We tried to be really rigorous about the science, obviously, and I think I can defend most of that. The biggest conceit that we indulged in was how quickly the vaccine was found — we compressed that timeline greatly, especially given what was technologically possible then.
Is there anything happening now that you didn’t foresee when making the film?
SODERBERGH What I couldn’t have predicted was the fracturing of society that it would generate, and all of the things it would expose when the tide goes out, so to speak. I didn’t anticipate that it would reveal so starkly the sort of economic disparity that we’re aware of intellectually but that a lot of us are able to insulate ourselves from being directly affected by. Now, nobody escapes this. There are very few people whose lives will not be completely altered by Covid.
The other thing we’re all dealing with, that the movie doesn’t address because of its focus, is the general psychological effect on the public because of an event like this. A cure, a vaccine, mitigating therapies — all that stuff is hugely important, but there’s going to be an incredible psychological toll that we’re going to have to figure out how to address. It’s not like we can just turn a switch and have it be like it never happened.
Amy’s film is more about that psychological toll, and how quickly anxiety can become contagious itself.
SEIMETZ The tricky thing about anxiety is sharing that you have it can make other people anxious, and there’s a feeling that you’re burdening them by doing so. Your anxiety then becomes their anxiety, in a way that’s very literal in this movie. It’s happened with the news cycle, too: I found myself becoming completely addicted to the news, getting anxious from it, and then compulsively watching it more. So it’s also about news cycles spreading panic and the addiction to panic.
That reminds me of the Jude Law character from “Contagion,” who capitalized on the country’s panic to hawk a fake miracle cure. I’ve seen people reference that character when President Trump touts the unproven hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the coronavirus.
SODERBERGH It was amusing to me that at one point, there was a suggestion from outside the creative team that we cut that character out of the film. We’d have these test screenings and people would hate him! The cards would come back and I’d say, “I know! He’s supposed to be polarizing.” But we felt pretty confident that the issues brought up by Jude Law’s character in this film would be very central to the narrative when this thing does happen.
He’s also not wrong all the time, like with his rant on the park bench where he describes how they’re rushing the trials for the vaccine and how the pharmaceutical companies are going to be the ones who benefit. Look, I’m obviously pro-vaccine, but when you’re talking about putting something into the bodies of everyone on the planet, that’s a very, very serious thing. You could have a side effect that goes down to a decimal point you can barely see, but if you’re going to give it to everyone, that can still be tens of millions of people that have a negative reaction. In everybody’s rush to get to the other end of this, we really do have to be careful here.
Steven, you’re heading a Directors Guild committee to figure out how to get Hollywood back to work safely. What are the problems you’re facing?
SODERBERGH I think the biggest issue now is because of the resurgence [of the virus], how do we get access to the resources and the personnel that we need to run these protocols to keep a set safe? It’s one thing to do one or two projects and see how it goes, but there’s a movement in the last two or three weeks to get lots of productions back up and running at the same time. That’s going to be tricky.
With baseball, they got it back up and running but there’s already been a pretty significant outbreak. Could Hollywood face the same risk?
SODERBERGH Having spent a lot of the weekend very happily watching baseball, I was not happy about the Marlins, but I think that’s a much more difficult situation than we’re confronting because of the nature of the game and the fact that they’re traveling all over the place. We have an ability on a project to control how we move, where we move, how many people come with us — it’s something that can be manipulated to keep people safe.
I think if we can withstand the economic surcharge that’s going to come with keeping a project safe — which I estimate is between 15 to 20 percent of the budget, depending on the project — and if we can scale this quickly enough, then I know we can keep people safe. If you follow these protocols we’re about to finish up with, I feel pretty confident saying that you’re not going to get sick at work. If you got sick on one of our projects, it was during the 12 to 14 hours when I didn’t have you and I couldn’t control your behavior. That’s going to be the trick, is all of this downtime when you don’t know what people are up to.
But what happens if people do get sick in that downtime and then come to set?
SODERBERGH Look, it’s complex, but Joel Coen is shooting “Macbeth” in L.A. right now, and there’s a crew member who’s been [keeping] a pretty detailed diary. And it seems to be working! They’re using the rapid testing, which isn’t as accurate as the full-blown nasal PCR test, but they’re making up for that by testing a lot, eight times for every five-day workweek. That’s a good approach.
Amy, is the surcharge Steven mentioned going to limit the amount of independent films that can be made over the next year?
SEIMETZ I think there’s going to be a conversation with unions to ease up on some of the crewing mandates, because you can’t really shoot with a larger crew when you don’t have enough of a budget for those protocols. From talking to other filmmakers, they’re thinking about small crews and small casts and shooting outside, so there’s ways to do it. With “She Dies Tomorrow,” the [Directors Guild] was very gracious in allowing me to have a pared-down crew of about six people — we were pretty much following protocol [long before there was a] protocol.
What about bigger films? How will “Kill Switch” change when you resume shooting that?
SODERBERGH I’ll tell you in eight weeks. A lot of this is all abstract until you get on set and actually see how this stuff works, and I intend to be very public in my experience of making that movie in order to educate people. I’m sure I’m going to learn a lot, and I’m sure a lot of the assumptions that we’re making will turn out to need adjustment. This is a living thing, and it’s going to have to evolve, but in what way won’t be clear until we get out there.