Welcome to World Builders, our new ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople in the industry. In this entry, we chat with She Dies Tomorrow cinematographer Jay Keitel about depicting the organic elements of dread.
The end is inevitable. You, dear reader, are going to die. Sooner than you’d care to imagine. Or, maybe not. Maybe you know exactly when you’ll die. Maybe it’s tomorrow. With an expiration date stamped on your forehead, do you feel better or worse?
In She Dies Tomorrow, writer/director Amy Seimetz rips into the apocalyptic notion that many people are feeling today. At the start of the film, a poisonous thought of finality strikes Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil). Her death will occur the next day. The idea is not mere anxiety — it’s a fact. She should live her last minutes to their fullest, but the climax in her near future palls every ticking second.
Unable to pull herself from her doom stupor, she stumbles through the film, spreading the cataclysmic conviction to everyone she encounters. Tomorrow, she’ll die. Tomorrow, her friends will die. Tomorrow, you will die.
We are living in the end times. Will you take the opportunity to check off those last adventures on your bucket list, or will you bury your head neck deep into a black hole of Ben & Jerry’s? Pass me the Cherry Garcia.
Unusually, cinematographer Jay Keitel joined She Dies Tomorrow during the early stages of the writing process. This not only allowed him to percolate on Seimetz’s concepts of anxiety and dread but gave him an incredibly long lead-in regarding various visual tests. Keitel sought to capture the narrative foreboding photographically. To meet that goal, he returned to his previous works.
“There were certain aspects of my still-photography I reexamined,” he explains. “I then went out into the woods and the city with that feeling [of anxiety] and started taking photos. It’s basically acting with a camera. I’m exploring while having that emotion. Then, I take a look at it and edit.”
She Dies Tomorrow plants the audience right on top of the characters. Scattered throughout the film are a series of portraits that trap the actors in the various stages of catastrophic confrontation. Through these close-sups, we witness the excruciating slow experience of staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Amy gravitates toward close-ups,” says Keitel. “She wants to zero in on the actor and on that emotion. Then I think about how the lighting on the face makes me feel. What resonates with me? I adjust that based on my response to the actor and Amy’s response to that. So, each one in each situation becomes unique.”
We tend to think of cinematography as a science. We don’t consider a DP’s capability for improv. But on She Dies Tomorrow, Keitel found the frame on the day. Crucial to his process is his ability to free himself from a structure.
“I’m totally prepared,” he says. “I have an idea ready for what I’m going to do, but I’m also totally able to very quickly respond to the actor and any ideas Amy and I have at the moment. Both of those two things are important.”
In addition to depicting anxiety through portraits, a variety of kaleidoscopic spells pepper She Dies Tomorrow. They’re unrooted from a physical reality but speak directly to the dark sour sensation anchored to the soul of these characters. To craft them, Keitel locked himself away in his garage laboratory.
“That’s a lot of backlit elements,” he says. “Organic elements like plants, viscous fluids, food coloring, and what have you. We utilized different lenses that have unique qualities to bring out certain aspects. We wanted psychedelic, acidy, trippy kind of visuals. There was a lot of garage-tinkering with that stuff. It was a lot of fun.”
Most of what you see of the spells, Keitel achieved in-camera. Naturally, there is some level of editing, manipulation, and color correction occurring in the digital intermediate, but as much as possible, Seimetz and Keitel kept the frame tangible. Nothing was ever created exclusively through a computer screen.
“Apart from the flashing lights,” he continues, “there’s a lot of really subtle stuff going on with the color and the grain patterns throughout the whole movie. It’s kind of unique, but we took cues from the sound design work, which was being done at the same time.”
The two departments reside in the same building in New York. While he was dabbling away on his images, Keitel would pop his head into the sound department and listen to what they were concocting. Similar to a jam session, the two instrumentalists inspired each other.
“We would do our color pass, say on Tuesday,” says Keitel. “Our color would be sent to the sound design people, and then their sound would be sent to us the next day. We’d be like, ‘Wow! They’re doing this really cool cue here. We can augment, or move the color in a direction in time with those cues.’ It’s really like musicians playing together. You do a rehearsal, and you find a way of playing together that’s unique and tight.”
Keitel shot She Dies Tomorrow using multiple cameras and multiple lenses. He captured the backlit spells using an Arri 100mm Macro Lens as well as a 500mm Leica Reflex Lens. A Canon C300 Mark II shot the first portion of the film using a Richard Gale Clavius Prime Lens. For the final two eerie sequences of the film, he employed an Angenieux Uncoated 28-76mm Optimo Zoom.
“The C300 Mark II has slightly more grain,” says Keitel. “The Alexa is a little cleaner but still has a softer film look. What I wanted to do was start in genre. I took clues from [our previous collaboration] Sun Don’t Shine, which was very Super 16 and very grainy. Our idea was to start more grainy, with a genre feel, and then, as we move into flashbacks, make it a little cleaner. Then, in the end, make it the cleanest image possible with our lens and camera choices, and really, really make those emotional beats of the script distinct.”
She Dies Tomorrow represented a cinematic candy store for Keitel. By picking and choosing various cameras and lenses, he was able to experiment in ways his previous films simply could not creatively permit. The joy he took in the selection and shooting process was immense.
“I love two aspects of the film,” he says. “I love the sharp, Angenieux Zoom lens look at the end. It’s an uncoated front element. You get really nice colored flares, but you also get very sharp details. I love that. On the flip side of that, on the Clavius lenses we use, the rear element comes off, and you can tick in colored Boca filters, and that was really fun. I had finally found some lenses I could sink my teeth into and play around, using their different color hazing and Boca. So, that was really, really fun.”
While the characters of She Dies Tomorrow cannot find any glee when facing their end times, Jay Keitel discovered pleasure in depicting their pain. Bringing form to the overbearing anxiety we’re all caught inside is an act of catharsis. As he and his director bashed their dread into shape and action, hopefully, the audience can do the same. If we cannot re-form our own outbursts of worry, then at the very least we can allow their film to take on and expunge some of it.
She Dies Tomorrow is now streaming on VOD.