Just three years after Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexican film “We Are What We Are” played at the Cannes Festival market (see clip and original Mexican trailer below), Jim Mickle’s American remake, which debuted well at Sundance, played in the festival proper in the Director’s Fortnight, which sometimes welcomes smart well-made horror films such as this one. EOne opens the elegantly shot, well-acted film–which deals with a small town religious family maintaining their long tradition of ritual cannibalism– September 27.
The trailer for “We Are What We Are” is here.
Raised in rural Pennsylvania without much access to movie theaters, writer-director Mickle is a horror film fanatic who supported himself as a jack of all trades after graduating from NYU Film School, doing corporate videos and low budget films, often with rookie directors, as a electrician, grip or storyboard artist. He’s yet another example of today’s DIY ethic, as groups of would-be filmmakers pull together to help each other make low-end HD movies.
Anne Thompson: When did you decide that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Jim Mickle: I grew up first wanting to be a magician, that evolved into special effects makeup, monsters, then weirdly into movies. I’d watch horror movies for the effects work, the makeup and trickery of it. One morning I watched “Leprechaun,” it was terrible, the lamest thing. Then I watched Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness,” and everything clicked, the makeup and monsters and fun exercise of film craft. I was blown away by the thoughtful inspiration behind the writing, acting, effects and camera work. ‘These people consider this an art!’
When did you start making films?
I got my camera background in [home] moviemaking with my sister (who is now a very successful production designer), neighbors, and friends. When I was in high school I got into film because my dad would take me,
starting when my
parents split, every September I’d miss the first week of high school to
go up to the Toronto Film Festival. We’d see around five films a day.
It was amazing. My sister started working on my
friends’ films in film school. She was into painting, studied video art
Then I had gone away from horror, loving foreign films, challenging independent films. I turned my back on popcorn horror stuff. When I first went to NYU, I was very pretentious: ‘I’m a film student.’ Four years of film school reverted me back to wanting to entertain. I fell out of love with the typical standard pretentious 22-year-old privileged ways of the world. I got fed up with that.
My senior film student film was a little tongue-in-cheek horror film “The Underdogs,” about a town of dogs that teams up to overtake humans, a 50s monster movie, with German Shepherds, Collies. From there I was having fun with it, playing with style, the make-believe aspect is what turned me on. I fell back in love with that. I’m rooted in horror fandom. When it’s done well, I love it.
What did you do after NYU?
I graduated school, bounded around a lot of jobs, painted in NY, did grip work, editing, spent a lot time in preproduction, production and postproduction. You were waiting for someone to give you $1 million to make your first feature: NYU set you up expect that, but it doesn’t happen. I met Nick Damici, my writing partner on all three of my films, the lead in the first two, and the sheriff in this one. I met him on a short film I was working on. I liked him as an actor, liked his ideas and writing, his screenplays. I helped him. He played the killer in Jane Campion’s “In the Cut.” He felt his career wasn’t happening. We both felt beaten up, hoping to have an opportunity. They weren’t going to come to us. We’d have to take it.
How did you make your first film?
I dreamed of making a movie, we’d raise what we need, strip down the story as much as possible. Nick writes “Mulberry Street,” originally like “Night of Living Dead” in the snow on farmland, a nice experiment. But we can’t make that for $10,000. That dies, we shelve it. Then he comes back, we rework the movie for a one bedroom tenement on Houston street, and shoot it all in his place with a DVX 100 Panasonic mini-DV camera, which I loved. I was doing a lot of corporate video, and I’d borrow one for the weekend and conveniently keep it for a week. I was pulling people I had worked with on sets who wanted to do something bigger. They would not get paid, but at least they’d have something to show. Ryan Samuel, my cinematographer, I had done a lot of grip work with. I got it in for $25,000, then started getting accepted to festivals, won awards, got critical response, which especially given the genre, I was not expecting.
Early on as we were putting this together a gazillion zombie movies were coming out, like “28 Weeks Later,” a newer batch of Romero “The Dead” movies, and a “Dawn of the Dead” remake. We were trying to strategize to set ourselves apart, not beat them with effects and spectacle, but tell the story and create characters that were not the stereotype, but relatable to the masses, and try to say something also. It’s a lot about gentrification in NYC, and eminent domain, which was a big deal at the time. The lack of budget gave us the freedom to do something more than stupid zombie movies.What did that lead to?
We talked about doing a web series, we moved apartments and the new place had no cable or TV. We wanted to zone out and watch the laptop online, we were looking for web series, and kept thinking we’d do “Lost” for the online crowd, “someday somebody will.” Nick started sending me five-page episodic stories about a guy and a kid traveling across America after a vampire epidemic. Some were episode action genre, some were beautiful stories about an orphan kid and his adopted father. We wound up with 30 things we didn’t know what to do with.
[Producer] Larry Fessenden, who I’d been contacting for years since I was a freshman in film school, called me up out of blue. “House of the Devil” had done well at Dark Sky Films, did I have anything? “We have 300 pages of short vignettes, what if we did these as a feature, gave it a backbone and structure?” That was “Stakeland.” A lot of episodes were still zombies with fangs, but we turned it into a very raw gritty campfire story, more like a Romero idea or the vampires in “I Am Legend.”
It sounds like “The Road” or “Walking Dead.”
Larry produced “Stakeland” for Dark Sky Films, the company that financed it. We could have premiered before “Walking Dead,” we were pushing the distributors to release this movie, they sat on it forever and “Walking Dead” came out. That was the beginning of my struggles with distributors, hopefully that will not be repeated with this. It was a debacle. They showed up at Toronto announcing the release and gave the wrong impression. It wound up winning the Midnight Madness audience award. They didn’t know what to do with it. The movie was better than what they were used to: direct video stuff. The film had an amazing life, won awards, we traveled for a couple years around world, it built a strong cult following. It’s a shame that it didn’t get a big push.
How did you come to make “We Are What We Are?”
Ever since “Mulberry Street” we’ve been trying to make a thriller, a book adaptation that I’m hoping we’ll be announcing in Cannes, which is finally going forward. It was tough to find financing. It’s not horror, it’s an art film, it’s in between, and leaves sales people scratching their heads. We were battling to get that film up and going in the summer, it was winter, so we had to wait a couple months. Meantime, Milennium got rights to this Mexican cannibal film: “Would you be interested?”
I usually scream against remakes and reboots, especially horror movies or recent foreign films like “Let the Right One In” make me livid. “We Are What We Are” had played at film festivals with “Stakeland,” I had always wanted to see it. I remember hearing the synopsis and was jealous that the guy came up with it, beat me to something I’d like to do. It was an awesome concept, he was doing what we were doing, making a movie about a dysfunctional family and yet he had a fresh gut-punching genre concept.
You wouldn’t have to play that much with it. I had an idea of the movie before I saw it. They gave it to us, we went back and watched it. It was a weird feeling: half of me liked it for what it is, but also, I felt the director made a personal film that was culturally specific. There was a lot left over that I was into. I felt like it was the kind of film I’d want to make. I felt like he’d made his own take on that. I was able to creatively get into it, to try to remake it or top it, make it our call-and-response effort to a personal film about growing up without a father in urban Mexico. We’ll do our version about growing up and losing a mom as a teenager in a small town. We can equally tell an interesting personal story and tackle religion in an American way. He had a metaphorical Mexican twist on it.
How do you and Nick work together?
He’s the workhorse doing the writing. He gets up at 6 in the morning and does bang out a couple hours so there’s a draft waiting in my inbox for me to read that day, tweak, shave and go back and forth on it. It’s always changing, it’s always different. Sometimes it’s like 50/50 back and forth. We start talking about what is exciting to both of us about story. This is a horror film about Fundamentalist religion, being able to fold that into the other concept. It goes from there. We could try to do it more traditionally, I guess, but we have to do our own weird undisciplined attack, and tear it to pieces.
How did you find your cast?
I first loved “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and Julia Garner, she was all questions, “why do this?” She was trying to get into it as a character, doing what the character was doing, questioning and doubting. It was cool to see her struggle with that. I wanted the dad to be not a cartoon monster, so we cast someone likable, soft and charming, Bill Spade. I’m a huge fan of “Flirt,” the poster is on my wall, I thought of him as a young dashing sweet-faced guy. He came in and auditioned, and scared the shit out of me, his white shirt had not been washed in days, he had a beard, had it all mapped out, with the twitchy eye thing. He intimidated me in the room. He’s kind of like Nicholson in “The Shining,” able to give tough scenes a weighty feel. He got immediately that he was not playing a monster, but playing a guy trying to keep his family together. He struck a literal interpretation of what had been passed down to him and followed that as much as possible.
Michael Parks: I’ve been a huge fan a long time. I wanted to see him not be a bad ass Tarantino guy, but somebody who had a heart who you could feel for. I wrote him a letter, he said “yes.”
I gave Kelly McGillis a thankless part in “Stakeland” as a nun brutalized by a militant Christian group. I just wanted her to smile–nobody smiles in a movie about the apocalypse. So I wanted to give her lighter part and open up her comedic side. She was a lot of fun.
I saw an audition tape for Ambyr Childers for something else that her agency sent over. I go through gazillion tapes of 30-year-old actress types, a lot of duds in there, I was blown away by her. She grew up in a Mormon household, ding ding. She went for it. She was skeptical at first, she had done “The Master,” this was a cheap cannibal movie in the woods. She was a discovery for me.
Sundance must have been a trip for you.
It was a blur, in a lot of good ways. I didn’t finish the movie until right before, edit, FX, out the door. I would have been sitting freaking out otherwise: work work work, right up until the first night. It was like pulling off a bandaid. It was great, a really cool experience because the opening went well. We were not fooling anyone. By that time they are aware of this movie, know it’s about cannibals, or a remake, so they’re interested going in, the expectations are there. It became about how we handled our twist surprise. It’s not how you would expect us to treat it, in an almost romantic, sensual way, underplayed. That became part of the fun, to not trick you, mislead you as to which way it’s going to go.
What was the reaction?
“Mulberry Street” was a love and hate splitter. I got tough skin from that. The Hollywood Reporter liked it. I felt like I could see an evolution in the perception during the week of the festival, all five screenings, you could see as it went on, it became looser, people knew they could laugh, maybe knew the ending was a surprise. It was a slow burn. I was very nervous on the first one. It was a process of getting validation with Sundance.
And were you expecting Cannes?
Julia Garner’s mom is psychic. On the shoot people would
call, she’d give advice. After two days at Sundance, Julia was talking to her mom, hands me the
phone, I pick up: “I hear you will do well and go to Cannes because they really like the
treatment of religion.” Literally that night, Edouard Waintrop of Director’s Fortnight saw it and loved it and wanted to have a drink. The whole time we talked, he was gushing about the depiction of religion.