Following his debut film Mulberry Street (2007) about rats spreading a zombie-like plague, director Jim Mickle embarked on a post-apocalyptic vampire movie called Stake Land (2011). I directed 2nd Unit on this film. The course I navigated to find myself in this job position can be found here.
About 80 percent of my work on Stake Land involved directing shots of the “hero car” making its way across a vampire-infested America. If you’ve seen Stake Land, you know it’s a road trip film as much as it is a horror movie. The lead characters cross the country in a beat-up 1969 Mercury Marquis. There are numerous scenes of dialog in the vehicle (shot by Main Unit) punctuated by shots of the car driving through beautiful countryside or post-apocalyptic decay (shot by 2nd Unit).
On the shoot, the car broke down nearly every day, and there was no double to take the vehicle’s place when it refused to perform. On day one of the upstate New York shoot, I was scheduled to take the car out all day and get mostly the above-described driving shots. That morning, the car would not start.
For the first half of the day, a mechanic worked under the hood of my “star” while I improvised. I didn’t care if that car never rolled a foot that day, I was going to return to HQ with every shot on my list, dammit.
I redesigned half of my shot list. My crew and I took another car out to 2nd Unit’s numerous locations, and I made most of my shots by shooting out of the windows, letting these POV images replace shots of the car rolling through the frame.
By lunch, the car was running again, and I was able to return to what director Jim Mickle and I had originally planned: shots that actually included the temperamental vehicle.
Stake Land was a very tightly scheduled shoot. Getting my driving shots on another day was not an option. Failure was not an option either. I returned at the end of the day with every shot on my list, plus a bunch of bonus shots for Jim to use if he desired.
Frustrations with the car, and satisfaction with how things turned out in the end, dominated my thoughts about Stake Land. I was not thinking about whether I would like the finished film or not. I wasn’t worried about how much 2nd Unit footage would be in it. I had successfully delivered what Jim wanted, and I was content with that… Then I saw the movie.
I was completely knocked over by how damn good Stake Land turned out – and I was overjoyed to see how much of my 2nd Unit footage Jim had used in the final edit. I suddenly realized I had made a sizeable contribution to a movie I loved.
Last summer, I was hired to direct 2nd Unit for Jim Mickle’s follow-up to Stake Land: the sinister, gruesome, and suspense-filled We Are What We Are, currently screening at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
My workload on We Are What We Are was substantially heavier. While I did a fair number of “vehicle driving by” shots for We Are What We Are, these represented only a small percentage of the wildly diverse shots and sequences I was to direct for the movie.
On Stake Land, I did not work with any of the actors (though one could argue that the ailing 1969 Mercury Marquis was a main character in that film). Doubles for the actors had occupied the car on 2nd Unit. On We Are What We Are, however, I directed several of the actors - including leads - for various shots and sequences, and although none of them suffered engine trouble, my experiences on this shoot were anything but stress-free.
My nemesis on We Are What We Are was the clock on the wall. My 2nd Unit shot lists for each day were lengthy, and often I had so little time to accomplish them, my assistant director would literally be standing nearby, calling out the minutes I had left to complete each shot. “You have two minutes, Eric… You have one minute… You have thirty seconds…” There were also multiple out-of-the-blue ambushes: “Eric, we need you to get this complicated shot before lunch – you’ve got fifteen minutes.” Such shots sometimes involved multiple actors, moving vehicles, complex blocking, and rain towers. In addition to orchestrating these shots, I had to make sure they fit into Jim’s big picture, and had the tone and energy that Jim was achieving on Main Unit.
Often, Main Unit was shooting nearby. This made a lockdown (the prevention of crew accidentally walking into the shot) time-consuming and borderline impossible. Some of my most complex shots had takes ruined by Main Unit crew members accidently strolling into my frame, prompting my crew’s frantic, chaotic reset as my remaining seconds ticked down. When Main Unit was rolling on a sound take nearby, we would have to shut down our rain towers, because they were too noisy… and I’d stand there waiting to do my next take, shooting nothing, while the hands on the clock continued to turn – faster than usual, I’m pretty sure. And then there was the sun, that big yellow light source I needed for daytime exterior shots. Many times I got the final take of my final shot of the day in the very last moments of usable light, just as the sun slipped from view at dusk.
Despite all the challenges, I returned each day having captured every shot on my list – often with a few bonus shots. The pressure was intense, but that was only because I had the same determination I had on Stake Land: Letting Jim down was unacceptable. Anyway, the pressure is not something I curse. It is part of the job… and I’d much rather have that adrenaline shocking my system daily than do any other job on this planet.
This past holiday season, Jim Mickle very generously let me see his work-in-progress edit. Because I had enjoyed Stake Land so much, I screened this unfinished We Are What We Are cut with higher expectations. I also found myself rooting more for We Are What We Are - because I want Jim to succeed, certainly, but also because my contributions to this movie were much greater. Additionally, because I had spent so much more time behind the 2nd Unit camera, I was eager to see a lot of my work on screen.
Jim warned me in advance that the focus of the narrative had been refined during post-production, and a lot of the subplot about a flood devastating a community had been removed. Well, half of what I shot on 2nd Unit involved water – lots and lots of water – so I sat down to watch the movie assuming I’d see almost none of my work on screen.
First and foremost, even in its rough, unpolished form, We Are What We Are lived up to my high expectations. I was (again) incredibly impressed. Secondly, I was selfishly thrilled to (again) see so much 2nd Unit work in the film. There is probably double the amount of 2nd Unit in We Are What We Are compared to Stake Land.
As a horror fan, I am very happy Jim Mickle is making movies. If I had never even met the guy, I’d be first in line to see each film he makes. I have plenty of opportunities to collaborate with many filmmakers on a wide variety of movies, but I value deeply working with people I like and respect, making movies I would want to watch… so imagine how fortunate I feel to have now worked twice with Jim Mickle and the high quality of collaborators with whom he surrounds himself.
We Are What We Are will be screening at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival through January 26th. Feast upon the schedule here.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze