Horror remakes are nothing new, but “We Are What We Are” is something different. Jim Mickle, whose “Stake Land” brought an evocative feel to a post-apocalyptic vampire story that garnered comparisons to Terrence Malick, was hardly selling out by taking the opportunity to remake “Somos lo que hay,” the acclaimed horror drama from Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau. In Grau’s 2010 film, a family of Mexican cannibals deal with mounting suspicions of their antics. Mickle’s version, which premiered at Sundance’s midnight section before traveling to Cannes, transplants the action to upstate New York, but that’s not the only change. In his version, a pair of daughters cope with their psychotic father and other mounting problems that endanger their secret lifestyle.
Mickle’s creepy approach has paid off: “We Are What We Are” was picked up for distribution by EOne which plans to release the movie this fall. Meanwhile, the producers have planned to turn “We Are What We Are” into a trilogy, and Grau has come onboard to direct the sequel. In Cannes with Mickle to celebrate the European premiere of “We Are What We Are” at Directors’ Fortnight, Grau sat down with the remake’s director to discuss how the project came together and where it’s heading next.
“Somos lo que hay” premiered in Director’s Fortnight in 2010. So how did that compare to the premiere of the remake?
Jorge: I was very nervous and felt like a chicken. I was not surprised by the film because I saw it before this screening. But when the film ended, people jumped up and clapped for a very long time. I was happy because I feel very proud of the team, and we were very excited to see that people enjoy the film.
When did you first start thinking that the film could be remade?
Jorge: The two producers Rodrigo Bellott and Andrew Corkin contact me to ask me if I wanted to make the remake. I never considered that option — really, I think that’s more an American idea.
So you didn’t want to do it yourself.
Jorge: No, I said, “Well, we need to talk.” Because my fear is that they would remake it as a commercial film. But when I talked to them, they said, “We want to choose an interesting director and let him be free to work.” After that they sent me the option, and it was Jim Mickle, and I said, “Yes, okay. That’s a good choice.” And I worked a little bit with him, I sent him all my notes and we talked about the first ideas I had. And after that, I let him be free for the film.
Jim, when did you first encounter the film?
Jim Mickle: I knew about it from a lot of film producers who thought it was fantastic, but I didn’t see it until much later — whenever I’d be anywhere and ask, “Oh, have you seen anything good?” Everyone would always say “You’ve gotta see ‘We Are What We Are.'” And it was always one that I missed. And then IFC released it, and they had it in theaters for one week. I remember tracking it and thinking “ugh, they just put it out for a week of release.” And then when Andrew and Rodrigo approached me, we were working on something else and it was like, “Oh, we don’t want to do a commercial American remake and do a really bad version of it.” They were like, “Take it, do whatever you want. Don’t feel like you have to make a traditional remake.” And then [writing partner] Nick Damici and I sat down to watch it for the first time to say, “What do we take from this?”
Did you say yes before you saw the film?
Jim: No, I saw it first, and then I contacted Nick and asked him if he wanted to do this together, and he was like, “Uhhh…” and I was kind of like, “Yeah, this could be kind of a bad way to do it.” And then I went down to my living room and sat down and watched it, and at the end we were both like, “This is awesome. There’s so much you could do with it.” When I first heard the concept, I was kind of envious that he had found this great concept that would allow room to make this great family drama, with this overarching taboo subject that was lurking in the background. I loved that idea, and I loved that you could make an intimate character story.
Jorge, had you seen Jim’s other films when he came on board?
Jorge: Yeah, when they said Jim would be the director, I knew “Stake Land.” In Mexico, “Stake Land” was a success, and he had a lot of fans in Mexico.
Jim: I didn’t know that.
Jorge: And that’s why I felt secure in his hands, because the way he directs and tells these stories is something I’m very close to.
So how much did the two of you talk when you were in these early stages?
Jim: It took them so long to set the call up, so by that time Nick and I started writing it, and we had a first rough draft of what we wanted to do, and the visuals were there and everything. And then I got on Skype with Jorge to tell him all of this, but I didn’t want to come out and say we already wrote it. And so we had Rodrigo as a translator to kind of ease things along, and I said “We might do this…” and “We might do this…” And Jorge spoke in Spanish for a few minutes and he was really passionate and I was like, “Oh no, he hates it.” And then Rodrigo came back and said “Oh, by the way, he really liked the idea.” [laughs]
So, Jorge: What did you like about it? Because it’s a very different movie.
Jorge: Yeah, it’s a very different movie. I loved the pure feminism of its universe. I really like that because I don’t have that pull — my three films are about men. “Somos le que hay” is very pessimistic with its view of the family, and “We Are What We Are” is the opposite. It makes the family closer.
And you’re directing the sequel now. Do you want to import anything from the first film?
Jorge: I don’t know, I’m working on the treatment and I want to respect the first idea of an intimate family, contained in a tiny story.
How many of these could you do?
Jorge: It depends on the producers. Right now they are the owners of the rights. But I think the story has that life.
Jim: And I think they wanna do it right and are in it for the right reasons and want to tell the best story. They don’t want to cheapen either of the movies by trying to go again and do another. That’s why I love that Jorge’s doing one and they’re going to do a prequel also…
Jim: I don’t know how they’re going to do it.
How do you feel about mainstream horror? Do you watch a lot of new stuff?
Jim: Me too, I see it all, but I feel like nine of them are “eh” and then one is great. Yeah, it’s pretty rare. That’s the great thing about indie horror, all the good ones come from there.
So who owns the rights to this franchise as a property now? I know IFC released “Somos le que hay” in the US, but they don’t own the whole franchise.
Jim: Well, there were a lot of producers, I’m not sure which of those…
Who did they purchase the rights from?
Jorge: It was directly from me. They wanted to buy the rights to the film and we thought that I couldn’t sell the film because it is property of the Mexican Film Institute, so I set up the rights for the script. That’s why they could do all these changes for the remake.
You’re saying that technically it’s only a remake of the script.
Jim: Oh wow.
Jorge: Andrew, Rodrigo, and maybe Jack and Memento [Films]… I don’t know what they’re going to do with it. Rodrigo and Andrew worked on it and, I don’t know, six months later…
What’s the name of their company?
Jim: There’s a lot of companies, too [laughs].
Jim, you’re already working on a new movie called “Cold in July.” Do you want to remain involved in the “We Are What We Are” franchise?
Jim: I’d love to still be involved in these films. I think Jorge has done a great job of having them get on the right track and then say, “We’ll take it from here.” It’s a continuation of whatever stories we have to offer.
One of the things I like about both movies is that you don’t entirely know what they’re about for such a long period of time, and yet a lot of people know that “We Are What We Are” involved cannibalism. How much did you assume audiences would know in advance?
Jim: We went into ours assuming that at least 90% of the people would know, whether they knew about the previous film or read about this one. But that was part of the fun was making a movie where you technically have a reveal, but most people know the reveal. That’s why the script throws people off with the mom dying in the first scene — it was something right off the bat that’s really different. The audience is just waiting for the filmmaker to catch up with the original. Maybe they would it was going to be like an Eli Roth torture porn thing. And then the fun was like, not really showing the cannibalism, but showing things like lipstick stains. Then the ending has another surprise. I think it’ll be an interesting challenge, though, for the sequel.
Jorge: That’s the kind of surprise I like, because all the people arrive to the cinema thinking that it’s a cannibal film and the surprise is that it’s not a cannibal film.