In the past few years, there has been very few discussions about the rising slate of horror directors without mentioning Jim Mickle. Together with his writing partner and frequent star Nick Damici, Mickle came out like lightning with his After Dark film, Mulberry Street, before turning heads across the independent scene with his epic vampire road film, Stake Land. In wrangling a cast of horror heavies and giving them dramatic weight in the world of terror, punctuated by a sprawling and distinct visual palette, Mickle has been going from radar to radar in the horror community as fans patiently await for his break into the mainstream.
But if his newest film, the haunting and unforgettable We Are What We Are, is any indication, Mickle has just the right tools safely within the independent scene. Crafting a patient and heartfelt tale of repression in a family that partakes in inherited cannibalistic rituals, Mickle creates one of the finest horror stories of the year with absolutely commendable performances all around. Most of all, Mickle keeps his films rarely predictable, as the dark places We Are What We Are venture into make you question exactly if the behavior stems from depravity or possibly a far-too-disparaged humanity. Taking time out of his press tour for the film, a remake of Jorge Michael Grau’s film of the same name, Mickle graciously spoke to Diabolique about his new film, his unconventional approach to subgenres and how the stigma of the term “remake” informed his decision to make We Are What We Are…
DIABOLIQUE: Your last film, Stake Land, was a critical and fan favorite upon release and has definitely grown a reputation amongst the horror community as one of the great vampire films in recent memory. What led from going from a vast project like Stake Land into something as interconnected as We Are What We Are?
JIM MICKLE: [We Are What We Are] came to us. We were focused on other movies that we were trying to get going for a number of years and I think, out of frustration, a couple of producers came and said, “Are you familiar with this film? Would you be interested in doing the remake?” Our instinct was “No”, right off the bat but over time, I think we kept thinking about it and thinking about it. The movie stuck with us and pretty soon, we had our own take on it.
DIABOLIQUE: We Are What We Are depicts the methods and way of life of a family of modern day cannibals. Was there anything you specifically wanted to avoid in your depiction of cannibals as seen in previous cannibal movies or do you think the original film did enough of that on its own?
MICKLE: I really liked the way they were treated in the first one. I loved that [Jorge Michael Grau] treated them like real people, but I still think there was a little bit of detachment from there. I think there was a competitive spirit to them in that one, which leaned towards a team sensibility. That worked beautifully in that movie, but we wanted to try our flavor. The biggest thing was that we didn’t want them to be monsters or these horrible, horrible people, but even if you didn’t agree with them, we wanted you to understand why they do what they do. I think that was important.
There’s also not that many “movies about cannibals” out there, and the one’s that are fall into two camps. One is the exploitation part and the other is the campy side of things. I like horror movies that take really crazy concepts and treat them head-on, and look at them like a true story. So we decided to do that and take a straightforward cannibal movie that will catch you off guard by also making it beautiful, delicate and fragile kind of thing, and upturn all the preconceived notions that someone might have.
DIABOLIQUE: In this film, you have assembled an amazing cast, including Bill Sage, Michael Parks, Julia Garner and Kelly McGillis. Were you ever concerned that by assembling such a strong cast as the core family you would be having that these characters may come across as too sympathetic?
MICKLE: No, not at all. I actually though that was the thing. Bill Sage is an actor I’ve been a fan of for a long time. He’s really a fantastic, fantastic actor, and we were looking for someone in that part who would have a lot of layers to them. We specifically looked for someone who was charismatic and was actually a good looking guy. That was actually the goal. We could have cast a number of people who make a good living off of playing rednecks, hillbillies and backwoods folk. We sought him out because of that.
For the girls, again, we wanted that delicate thing. A lot of our production design is like light fabrics, natural textures and very floral. What I loved about Julia [Garner] was that she had that porcelain doll quality to her, yet also had a very conducive, strong will even if she has a very fragile personality. I think we wanted We Are What We Are to be a very classy experience, hence Michael Parks, Kelly McGillis and even Nick Damici. We wanted to bring a higher quality than what you’d expect.
DIABOLIQUE: Your previous films have had such a unique visual style to them. We Are What We Are does as well, although this one has a much more polished and concise focus on what was being conveyed. Were you and cinematographer Ryan Samul on the same page in terms of the look that you intended for?
MICKLE: Yeah, very much. We set out to have that style. Coming off of our last movie, we really wanted to be very precise and honed in on what we were doing. I gave the composers the first draft of the script so that they could start working on it then and gave them references. We wanted to play that music on set so that everyone could be in the same exact mindset. It’s by far the most composed and premeditated movie that we’ve done, stylistically. That also made it really hard, too, because once you go in that direction, you sort of have to go that way with all of the decisions. There isn’t a moment where you can break it up and go, “Oh, let’s just wing it and do this and see what happens.” You sort of have to stick to your guns.
But I think this movie called for that, and I’m a big fan of adapting to what the story is and not just sticking to your own tone or style or something. You have to go with what makes the most sense [at the moment]. If I think it makes the most sense to make the movie one way, then that’s what I think there’s no sense to do it another way. Hopefully, that’ll always make me adapt a little bit.
DIABOLIQUE: We Are What We Are has a very calculated pace behind the storytelling. Especially considering you’ve grounded yourself in the independent filmmaking scene for so long, was it ever difficult to make a film with that pace without worrying about keeping up with the shooting schedule?
MICKLE: No, although it is tough. If this had been my first movie, I probably would have been more daunted and cut a lot of stuff out in an effort to speed it up and make it feel like a typical horror film. I was inspired by a lot of filmmakers and films that had the confidence to be a little slower and know they were going to turn some people off, but they knew it would be a more enriching experience if they stuck with it instead of rifling through it. We set out specifically to do that. I think because of the original, we had a lot of permission [to be patient], and we had a great producing team behind us. Everyone who was involved in putting that film together knew that this cut was the film we were putting together. I think because the original felt like that, in a way, that gave us extra permission to do that.
You can do that and you can do a lot of test screenings. I think that helps. Every couple of weeks, we would show it to a crowd of people and we tried to do as many diverse things as possible. That goes a long way in terms of telling you when something is too long or not long enough. I think this a movie that some people will find too slow, but the audience that we’re making the film for will hopefully think it’s great.
DIABOLIQUE: In the horror scene and in the attitude amongst fans regarding remakes, there seems to be always a little more leeway in the case of adapting a foreign film into an English language feature as opposed to remaking an already established property. Was this something that was attractive to you as a filmmaker? Had We Are What We Are been a remake of an English language film with a following behind it, would you still have pursued this project as it is now?
MICKLE: Probably not, no. I think that what was nice [about this project] was that this film had a certain amount of respectability to the original. There’s a certain amount of respectability and appreciation [for the original] outside of the U.S., but in the U.S., it’s not very well known at all. I actually had known about it more because it had played Cannes and done well in foreign countries, but when it came to the U.S., it really disappeared quickly. I think that gave us an amount of leeway so that the people who would be aware of it would be people who really loved it and discovered it somewhere rather than a movie that has been floating around for a number of years and that people can quote every line of.
I find that daunting; if you look at the Harry Potter movies, I’m always amazed at how somebody can do those because if you change one line of dialogue, you’ll piss fans off. That was not the way we wanted to go. But if you look at a film like Let the Right One In, by the time [Hollywood] decided to do that, I loved that movie and it was one of my favorite ever. By the time they were remaking that, they were going up against a whole line of fans. This film had sort of an interesting niche thing where there was not a high level of visibility behind it. A lot of people had heard about it, but they hadn’t actually seen the movie.
But then I think of the fact that we changed so much that I don’t think our film is meant to replace the original film, where people will go, “Oh, you don’t have to see the original if you see the remake.” I think it’s something where there are two different sides of this story. I think you can’t really do that with every movie. This one was sort of well set-up for that.
DIABOLIQUE: Like this original film, We Are What We Are takes place in a realistic world with believable characters. Did you ever have trouble in making sure everything seems simpatico? Was there any doubt while constructing the believability of this story on your part?
MICKLE: No, I think the script was very strong. I think Nick did a good job. Everything that was on the page worked really, really well. When stuff changes, I think it changes for character reasons. If an actor comes in and finds a different way to do something than how it was written, then I think you seize those moments, especially in where we were shooting, since it was the middle of nowhere.
That’s what I love about the area. The first chain store or recognizable logo is at least 50 miles away before you find it. I kind of love that about that area since you can really duck into a sense of timelessness, and it’s like you’re in a world away from our world in that area. That’s why we set it there and filmed it there, because you don’t have to fake a lot of stuff. It kind of gives you that [believability] naturally.
DIABOLIQUE: In the past, you’ve done genre films that have an aware subversion to them, like in Mulberry Street’s take on swarm disease/zombie movies and in Stake Land, you appropriated the conventions of vampire films to fit an apocalyptic setting. Obviously, you do the same here with the cannibal film in We Are What We Are. Is there any other subgenre that you’ve had your eye on tackling in such a way?
MICKLE: Yeah, totally! We actually just wrapped another movie a couple of weeks ago called Cold in July. It’s an adaptation of the Joe Lansdale novel, and I’ve always loved it because it’s about a normal guy that gets caught up in a tough guy thriller. I love that subgenre of movies, and the Coen Brothers do that really well. There haven’t been a lot of them recently. So we did that movie and we’re working on post-production right now. I’ve also been reading a lot of stuff and germinating. It’s a good time now that We Are What We Are is coming out and with the other one still being made, I’m looking at what’s going to be next.
I don’t know. It usually comes from the characters. The characters really inspire what’s to come, and if you look at Stake Land, I was really nervous because it had so many parallels to Mulberry Street that I was like, “I don’t want to do that movie all over again.” It was really the characters and what they brought to the film that really made Stake Land so different. I think I’ll always be attracted to that, and the rest always falls into place in the genre stuff. I’ll always be doing genre movies as long as the characters are interesting.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you have any other projects gestating at the moment? Do you think you might take a break after doing We Are What We Are and Cold in July back to back?
MICKLE: A break would be good, considering these things came sort of back to back. That’s good but you have to make sure you spend the time with [each project] that you need to spend to make them good. Not that they’re not, but I can see how tackling too many things at once can water things down and that’s the last thing I want. But with things with Nick, we’re working on a TV show right now and hopefully, something will happen with that. You never know but hopefully, something happens and that’s really it for the moment. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff, which I love because I love to see what’s floating around and what’s happening. But nothing really so far has really grabbed me. which is also okay, too, because if something came along, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it yet.
We Are What We Are, starring Bill Sage, Julia Garner and Michael Parks, opens in select theaters on Friday, September 27th from Entertainment One. For more information on the film, you can visit www.entertainmentone.com For more on We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle and Entertainment One, check back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com.