She Dies Tomorrow: An Interview With Cinematographer Jay Keitel

She Dies Tomorrow has been celebrated for its unsettling sensibilities and unorthodox filmmaking techniques. Independent Spirit Award-nominated cinematographer Jay Keitel's work on the film is one of the main factors in the film's moody success. I recently had the chance to ask Keitel a series of questions about his approach to filmmaking on She Dies Tomorrow. 

I find intention to be one of the most important elements in filmmaking. From my perspective, the best films and filmmakers make active or intentional choices for every element on the screen. These choices add up over the course of a film to help tell a story using every aspect of movie-making, from plot all the way to props, lighting, blocking, and camera motion. She Dies Tomorrow is bathed in non-diegetic light: light that comes from outside the world of the film. Keitel and his director, Amy Seimetz, use light and color to help tell their story. I had to know why Keitel did what he did. What his intention was behind the heavy color toning.

Keitel explained that he was trying to put emotion on-screen as color, that for him color can represent emotion.  

If color can be a stand-in for emotion, I was curious as to whether certain colors represent certain emotions. For Keitel, it's more that certain colors connect with certain memories for him that only exist as light, color, and tone. Expanding, Keitel told me that the emotions in the script attach themselves to these color memories and feelings of light.

If you're an active viewer, you'll notice that different characters and different emotions in She Dies Tomorrow are treated with different colors, tones, and techniques. It makes for a fun puzzle to try to sort out emotions from the colors that Keitel uses. Once you've understood Keitel's patterns, you can read the colors of the film to give you a deeper understanding of the movie’s themes.

She Dies Tomorrow didn't have a script. Instead, the film's narrative was developed while shooting. Having to arrange lighting and camera gear on the fly for a feature-length motion picture is hard. I was curious how Keitel dealt with the accompanying stress and logistics. I was particularly interested in how Keitel approached a film that was developed while shooting in contrast to something with more of a planned-out structure.

Keitel explained that he comes to filmmaking from a place of exploration. For Keitel, shooting a film on the go permits a deep exploration of the film's themes with the director that just doesn't happen in traditional filmmaking. Keitel expanded, telling me that in contrast to something with a more planned structure, a less planned film provides the time and the ability to play, as opposed to speed and perfect execution from the moment you are hired.

If you weren't aware, She Dies Tomorrow was filmed over a period of a year and a half. Shooting over an extended schedule like this brings with it a whole series of challenges that shooting a film in one go doesn't. I was curious how Keitel handled that. 

Having experienced shooting on tighter timelines (like with Girlfriend Experience) Keitel doesn't think that it was really that hard to match the tone and look of She Dies Tomorrow over 18 months because lensing a film is like playing a piece of music that you have memorized and that you come back to. It is still there. For example, Keitel felt that he could return to She Dies Tomorrow and know what he would need to do to get back into the world of that story. He knew what it would look like — almost like acting in a way, like inhabiting a character or a part of yourself — but it’s the images of the film.

She Dies Tomorrow is a dense, almost experimental film that rewards active viewers. Being a fan of intention, I wanted to know how a cinematographer can help bring intentionally murky plot and character to life. 

For Keitel, working with Seimetz allowed him to be creative within a safe structure that he trusted. The space to be creative that Seimetz created was integral to enabling the crew to excel. As a team, Keitel would bring ideas and choices into creating the look of the film that resonated with him while at the same time resonating with Seimetz. Together, those ideas help support the emotion of the characters and the story those characters are living in. For Keitel, every choice you make either helps or hurts that goal.

I'll take the demands of being an active viewer over the ease of being a passive one any day filmmakers want to throw themselves into intention like Keitel and Seimetz. 

Every choice you make either helps or hurts that goal.

When Keitel and I arranged to connect, he was out scouting for his new project. I'm always looking for ways to provide aspiring filmmakers among our readers with valuable tips from successful professionals. So, I used this as an opportunity to learn about Keitel's scouting process in hopes that it might inspire some of our readers.

When scouting, Keitel is looking for a location that works on many levels. Does it inspire him in some way? Does it tell a major part of the story or represent an emotion that he has to communicate in a scene? Does it fit aesthetically into the tone and mood of the project? Does the angle of the light help with the mise en scene? Is the location a problem for production? Is it remote or close to other locations that have already scouted? The more of his boxes it can tick, the more Keitel will like it. Then, for Keitel and the rest of the crew, you play a game of what are the most important locations, and what locations are less important? How do they work together as a whole on all of these levels?

Intention, intention, and more intention. Count me as a fan of Keitel's approach to filmmaking.

Stills provided by Neon. 

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Mark is a Toronto based commercial photographer and world traveller who gave up the glamorous life of big law to take pictures for a living.

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I absolutely love that video it's so cinematic. wow I feel inspired !!
5.1 out of 10. A pity. The camera might be good but the movie is not. The reviews are shocking (many 1/10).