Amy Seimetz on Pet Sematary, reading Stephen King “way too young” and going to dark places

We talk to the excellent Amy Seimetz about why Pet Sematary gets under your skin and why you can get weird in genre

Over the last 10 years or so Amy Seimetz as emerged as one of the most interesting actors and filmmakers out there. She made her mark on horror fans with a dazzling break-out turn in Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way To Die, starred in Shane Carruth’s superb (and uncategorisable) Upstream Color and appeared in the likes of You’re Next and The Sacrament. She recently co-created and co-directed the acclaimed TV series of The Girlfriend Experience, and has been making an impact in big mainstream movies like Alien: Covenant and TV shows like Stranger Things.

Now, Seimetz is starring as Rachel Creed in Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer’s remake of Pet Sematary, diving into extremely dark material as the Creed family is faced with the dire consequences of ignoring the rule that “sometimes dead is better…”, and we took the chance to talk all things King.

What was it about this new take that appealed to you?

I was sort of pushed by Dennis and Kevin to do it and I was a big fan of their first film, Starry Eyes, I just really liked how they dealt with tone and atmosphere and genre in general so I was excited to see what they would do with their remake. In addition to that, the conversations that we had before I agreed to do it were exploring what was already so strong in the book. Even though it’s genre and scary, it was trying to bring out the honesty of grief and loss in the characters and that was so interesting to me.

Were you familiar with the story already?

Yes. I had read the book when I was way too young, when I was younger I got into a kick of reading young adult stuff that was horror, like Christopher Pike, and then wanted more and started reading my mom’s books and started reading Stephen King. I started reading Cujo and then I read Pet Sematary and I read Christine and then I read IT and I was all of eight years old! But my parents were just really excited that I liked reading so they were like “I don’t know, let her read Stephen King!”

So I’d read the book before I saw the movie which was kind of around the same time when the movie came out, ’88 or ’89, I saw the movie as an eight year old and was extremely disturbed both times! I saw the movie in the theatre with my mom. [Watching the movie] is a different relationship, reading a book is so intimate and you’re left with your own thoughts with the book, it’s like a personal relationship…which is very disturbing when you’re eight and you read something so honest and scary, and not scary necessarily in a zombie way but scary in an “Oh my god, adults are really fucked up!” way!

And then of course the original movie being such a great horror iconic horror movie and so fun, I had a different relationship with the movie. It was interesting because I wasn’t sure if I would have directed it that way! Maybe it was the first thought that I had because it was the first time I had read a book and then watched the movie… But I loved the ending scene, when I decided to do it my sister was like “Oh my god, do you get to do that scene where your eyeball’s falling out when you kiss your husband?!?” She was very excited about it!

It’s definitely a book that is pretty scarring, especially if you read it when you’re young…

The feeling I remember having from the book was: I wasn’t supposed to know this. I’m too young and I just remember that feeling of: I wasn’t supposed to know this right now, and I didn’t understand why I felt that way until I re-read the book before we shot the movie. And I was like “Oh yeah, this material is not for an eight year old!” Because it’s so honest and so intimate, just in terms of listening to Louis’ thought processes. Just even on a basic level of how he interacts with his job and people and his wife and his kids and the honesty there is not always nice. When you’re eight you’re like “Oh, my parents love me to the end of the earth and they’d do anything for me!” And then you read this book and he sometimes hates his kids, he sometimes has these emotions where he’s like “I hate them right now and they’re really annoying.” Or sometimes he’ll look at his wife and be like “I don’t understand why we’re married.”

These very, very honest moments in the book that I find incredibly intimate, it’s really well written and it’s more of a character study and a study on family and relationships than it is even a genre book. Because the horror doesn’t really kick in until later, you know, you’re so intimate with this couple and this guy who’s a husband and a father and you’re in his head. And once it gets into the grieving and talking about loss, I just found it to be very honest and accurate in a lot of ways. Even with the character, her desire to deny that death is coming or that death is inevitable. Just that avoidance that she has is really interesting.

Rachel has a lot of trauma in her past but she keeps it bottled up. What was your way in for the character?

In particular there’s this one passage that I always point to in the book when she reveals to Louis what it was like growing up for the first time and she hasn’t really talked about it with him before. And once she starts talking about it’s almost like the dam has broken and this flood of memories coming out about her sister. Throughout the book she wants to deny it and then there’s this one passage where she starts sharing with her husband what happened. And it’s so descriptive and so moment-to-moment in her behaviour of what that’s like, she goes from laughing to crying to anger, all of the emotions that you have within grieving and trauma, this rollercoaster of emotions.

I just found that extremely helpful and extremely insightful into exploring the character so it’s not just one note, so it isn’t just always “Oh, I’m so traumatised’ and just crying all the time. That grief comes in so many different shapes and forms, it comes in maniacal laughter sometimes. Sometimes dark, inappropriate observations that you say out loud, to find the different shades of grieving and trauma in Rachel was where I was interested but that passage helped a lot in the book.

We were so excited when John Lithgow was announced as Jud! What was it like working with him?

I’m so glad that you’re so excited about John Lithgow! He is the best. I keep saying this and I really hope that people don’t think I’m just saying this because when people talk about people in interviews they’re like “Oh he’s the best!” But he really is the best! Maybe one of my favourite human beings I’ve ever met. Everything that you would want John Lithgow to be, John Lithgow is. The kindest, and warmest and smartest. He never complains, is always a professional, is always a joy to be around and in addition to that obviously he’s done so many iconic performances that he was a delight to work with.

How did you find the process of working with joint directors on this?

It was interesting because I really liked Starry Eyes and I hadn’t worked with co-directors before. And admittedly going into it I was very wary of it as a director myself because everything’s filtered through me and I’m in control! But they’ve got it down, they’ve got their whole co-directing down to an art. It’s interesting because their temperaments are very different but each person has their own way of directing to this cohesive vision of the piece.

Dennis is very into rhythm and the musicality of a performance, of hitting a mark and hitting this beat and hitting this line at this point in sort of what I would describe as the musicality of a genre performance. Whereas Kevin gives these very specific notes, like “Maybe if you hold your hand right here this will put your body in such a way that will evoke a specific performance.” So he’s much more into these very specific notes but each of those notes are adding to the bigger piece that is their shared vision for the film, it’s just a different approach to it and a different way of directing but the final thing that they’re trying to get to, they’re very much on the same page. I never saw them disagree with anything that we were trying to do. There was never any argument, they work extremely well together.

Your career is obviously not limited to horror and genre movies but you’ve done some amazing work in it. Is there something in particular that you like exploring in this area?

I’m attracted to genre because you can get weird with it and you can explore these topics like grief and loss in extremely creative ways and it doesn’t feel melodramatic but you can go hard towards melodrama. It’s very heightened situations and you can explore these topics without it feeling preachy or pedantic. You can just go to these really weird dark places and get kind of abstract in a way without losing an audience. You can hold your audience through really artful and bizarre and dark twists and turns in a way that with straight drama you might lose your audience. Because you’re working with this trope or construct of genre you can kind of get away with exploring extremely weird and uncharted territory while still holding your audience and bringing them on an exciting ride.

You’ve recently worked on some huge studio movies and shows. How do you find the experience of going from an indie set to a mega-budget production?

You know, it’s so interesting because the difference between indie films and these big huge studio movies is just that they have bigger toys. And for me as a director, when I get on set I’m like “Oh my god, there’s so many toys you can use! There are cranes and there’s five dollies, they just have so much equipment!” It’s really fun, not just as an actor but as a director, going “Oh my god, there’s so many resources here!”

But my very first day of shooting Alien: Covenant in New Zealand, I was so nervous and it was Ridley Scott, he’s amazing and lovely but I was so nervous. Not only that, but the whole day was only me, shooting only me alone. The very first day of shooting on this giant movie, it was just me alone on a planet tinkering at my spaceship. Which…that sentence alone is hilarious! [laughs] And so I was really nervous but it sort of dawned on me and I talked to Ridley about it, no matter what the size of the movie, once they say “action” it always just comes down to the actor and the camera and the sound. It just goes straight to the basics really quickly. So in terms of the difference in performing for an indie movie or a giant studio movie, once the camera starts rolling it’s very quickly the same exact thing, you’re bringing the same exact thing to the screen. Even if they have magnificent toys to support the whole thing.

Pet Sematary is in UK cinemas now. Read our review here.