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From Rats To Cannibals – Part 1 Of 2


Surviving CinemaOn January 18th, We Are What We Are will premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.  The movie is directed by Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street, Stake Land) and it stars Michael Parks (Grindhouse, Red State), Bill Sage (American Psycho, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), Kassie Wesley (Evil Dead 2), Ambyr Childers (The Master), Julia Garner (Electrick Children, Martha Marcy May Marlene), and Kelly McGillis (Top Gun, Witness).  I directed 2nd Unit on We Are What We Are.  

Years ago, I went to see Mulberry Street during its theatrical release because I had a distant professional connection with that movie’s director of photography, Ryan Samul.  Other than the fact that Ryan had shot the film, and I had heard it was about a zombie-like virus carried by infected rats, I knew nothing about Mulberry Street or its newbie director Jim Mickle.  I absolutely loved the movie.  I was impressed with the look Ryan gave the film, despite the tiny budget, and I immediately desired to see what Jim Mickle directed next.

A couple of years later, around the time I was finishing up my feature film Ratline, filmmaker Aaron Crozier was directing a Mexican-wrestling-crime-thriller flick called Venganza Azteca, and I was brought on as a best boy electrician.  I worked on the movie only for a few days, but it was a great experience, mostly because Ryan Samul was the gaffer on the film.  My job fell right under his in terms of the crew hierarchy, so Ryan was my boss.  Unfortunately, Venganza Azteca hit a financial brick wall in post-production, so it has been shelved indefinitely.  (Sorry, Mexican-wrestling-crime-thriller fans.)

Within months of toiling on Venganza Azteca, I found myself again on a film set with Ryan Samul and Aaron Crozier.  This time, instead of joining the grip and electric crew, I was brought on to help shoot the “making of” documentary for Stake Land, Jim Mickle’s next film.

Stake LandBehind-the-scenes documentaries for DVD releases are not where I’ve focused my career, and I don’t have a lot of experience in this area.  Nevertheless, I jumped aboard - initially just as a camera operator for the documentary - because multiple people I greatly admired were making Stake Land.  I wanted to see what Jim Mickle did to top Mulberry Street – and now I’d be a front row witness to the making of his follow-up. Aaron Crozier had been hired as Jim’s 1st Assistant Director.  Ryan Samul was returning as Jim’s cinematographer.  Stake Land’s producer was a filmmaker I’d been a big fan of for many years, Larry Fessenden (Habit, The Last Winter, the upcoming Beneath).  Getting to hang out with Larry, striking up a professional connection with Jim, and being on set with Aaron and Ryan were already reasons to be there… but much more would come of my Stake Land days than just being around great people who were making a great movie…

A week or two into the Stake Land shoot, I was promoted to directing and editing the behind-the-scenes documentary.  I was no longer just running a camera, turning over the footage, and walking away.  The documentary was now mine.  

Production on Stake Land was split into two phases.  We shot near Philadelphia for about a month, took a break for two months, then continued shooting in upstate New York for another few weeks.  Between the first and second phases of shooting, I was “promoted” again.  I was still in charge of the documentary, but now, in addition, I would be Stake Land’s 2nd Unit Director.

I understand what a rare experience Stake Land was for me.  Seldom does one find themselves working alongside people they admire so much.  Seldom does one start out at such a “lowly” position, and then work their way up to something as important as directing 2nd unit within the course of a single film shoot.  Even when things do go as well as this, it is entirely likely the end result will be a disappointing film.  Didn’t happen.  I was blown away by Stake Land when I finally saw the finished movie.  I didn’t know what made me more proud – that I had contributed to a film I thought was pretty damn amazing, or that Jim had used so much of my 2nd Unit work in his movie.

We Are What We AreIn 2012 I was hired again to direct 2nd Unit on a Jim Mickle film.  We Are What We Are - a creepy and bizarre horror/drama about a family of cannibals - was how I spent last summer.  We Are What We Are’s budget was double Stake Land’s, influencing some, but not all, of the numerous differences between the two shoots.

During this past holiday season, Jim gave me a sneak peek at the unfinished edit of We Are What We Are.  Once again, I was incredibly impressed with what Jim had pulled off.  In next week’s blog entry, I’ll compare my reactions to seeing Stake Land and We Are What We Are for the first time, and how those viewing experiences were uniquely colored by my adventures on each shoot.

If you are among those prowling the Sundance Film Fest in the coming days, check out the We Are What We Are screening schedule.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze