Mulberry Street and Stake Land director Jim Mickle came to Park City this year with his third film, a remake of 2010’s We Are What We Are and walked out of Sundance with a deal to release the critically-acclaimed work nationwide. Premiering at midnight on the first full day of the fest, We Are What We Are was instantly acclaimed and marks a notable growth in style and ability by its talented creator. Starring Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Bill Sage, Michael Parks, Wyatt Russell, and Kelly McGillis, We Are is the story of a family of cannibals but it’s not the blood-and-guts extravaganza you may be expecting. With an eye for composition that reminds one of Guillermo Del Toro’s horror films and a strong vein of surreal tension a la David Lynch, this is one of the most memorable scary movies to premiere at Sundance in years. The director sat down with FEARnet to talk about the difficulty of making a rain-soaked film when it doesn’t rain, how Robert Altman & Peter Weir influenced this work, and the fine line a director walks when staging scenes of a family eating human stew.
FEARnet: Had you seen the original?
Jim Mickle: I hadn't seen it until the producers came along and said they had the rights to it. We played like four straight film festivals with Stake Land with (the original) We Are What We Are and so I kept hearing it and seeing it and thinking, "This movie sounds awesome! This sounds like something I'd be really into!" But then I just never saw it. And then they asked if I was interested and my first response was that I wasn't really into remakes. It's not kind of what I'm into as a fan. Then I watched and thought there was some cool stuff there but also so much more that could be done.
You really deviate FAR from the original. Without spoiling anything, the bare bones are the same but that's about it. They gave you that complete freedom?
That was one of the things. We were like, "What's the goal?" I wanted to do it sort of like an "answer" to the original and not a translation. They were like, literally, "Anything." So then it became a fun game. I felt like the original was very personal. So we took the opposite approach. What was kind of cool was how much still lined up -- the religious angle, the blind faith, all of that lined up but in a very interesting way.
It also lines up with your filmography. Stake Land had deep religious themes as well. So is that something that made this project attractive to you?
Yeah, totally. That was what I kind of liked. Stake Land is broader, bigger scale. It was also still sort of a Mad Max-y, John Carpenter ride and so there was a, not cartoon, but "big" element to what we were doing. And there's a balance to that and I've met people who thought Stake Land hit too hard on the Christian Fundamentalist thing. There was also a quieter side to that that I wanted to explore. When I heard this concept I thought that you have such an amazingly strong, primal response to cannibals. You have that in your back pocket. You can have that response linger over the entire movie and it gives you space to do other things and, still, technically, make a horror movie.
You reveal that they're cannibals early and so it's not a "gotcha" element like we would see in so many similarly plotted films. It allows for tension.
Totally. And it's also really fun to make a movie with expectations. We're not starting from scratch. People come in and know what it is. By the time it plays one festival, people know what it is. And so we're going with the presumption that the audience knows that these people are cannibals and so we're not holding it back to trick you. We're working with "what kind" of cannibals and what that means. And then that became a fun way to play with things.
And then how do you find your cast? The two girls are stellar, especially Julia Garner.
One of our producers did Martha Marcy May Marlene and I'm a GIANT fan of that movie. I love love love that movie and Julia was in that. He was like, "What about Julia Garner?" "That girl with the curly hair? She'd be GREAT." I met with her and saw a lot of the stuff she had done for Electric Children. It was her first lead and, coincidentally enough, Bill Sage plays her father in that too. I loved her from that and had a really good meeting. She's a pretty exciting actress. Ambyr, we had somebody else cast and it didn't work out schedule-wise. I went through a binge of watching tapes and her audition, for another movie, blew me away. The script was bad and it was a bad scene but I was glued to her. We just took a shot. I knew she had already shot The Master with Paul Thomas Anderson and I love him and he trusts her. She came from a Mormon household and so her understanding of it. She got it. That was a big thing, drawing parallels to new religion.
Do you speak thematically like that to your cast, not just working with them on a character level but expressing what the whole vision is about?
Yeah, yeah. A little bit. I don't want to burden them but what was cool between the two girls was that Julia had her own approach. She had been home-schooled for the past two years. She had her own insular thing. And then Ambyr would be like, "Yes, this is what you do. You're afraid God will punish you. You're being told your entire life and so you do it." We would rehearse for a couple days and Julia wouldn't get something and Ambyr would explain it. It was AWESOME. I would try to push them in a direction but let them connect the dots.
The first thing you think of when I say this -- it could be a specific day or a general element -- what was the greatest challenge in making this film?
The rain. That was a nightmare. It didn't rain during the entire month that we shot. [The story of the film takes place during a torrential, flooding downpour. It rains in nearly every scene.] The whole thing...we wrote it around Hurricane Irene because we got stuck in the Catskills when Irene hit when I was working on editing Stake Land. We had no power. My girlfriend and I have a place up there. There was 20 feet of water on Main Street. So, that was part of the whole reason to make a movie there -- bring business back, highlight the area. We wrote the whole thing to rain the entire movie and then it rained one day, for 20 minutes, during lunch. That was a drag. You want to spend time working on emotions and you have to worry about where the water is falling. I give a lot of credit to the cast.
You never thought, "OK, maybe this scene doesn't need a deluge"? You never gave up on the idea for practicality?
Continuity-wise, it has to take place during flooding rain. The hardest thing actually for me was Stake Land and Mulberry Street were loose movies because we had no money and so you're just adapting to whatever is being thrown at you. This movie, I sat down early on and wanted to do something we hadn't done. No handheld. Naturalistic. Heightened composition. This is the way we planned it and this is what we're sticking to. It was a challenge but it was really fun.
What films or filmmakers inspired this work in any way?
David Lynch. Blue Velvet. What I love about Nick Damici's writing -- he really does the writing and I just polish, tweak, cut, break the news when something has to go -- is that he has this weird, completely dark, f**ked up side and then the love scene feels like a Kyle Maclachlan scene from Blue Velvet. It kind of has old-fashioned dialogue. Teenagers don't really speak like this but it captures what you're trying to say. Blue Velvet is one of my favorite movies ever. I wrote my thesis on it. Rosemary's Baby, 3 Women, Picnic at Hanging Rock.
What from Altman’s film? The style of the female characters and relationship?
The way that the girls are so strong-looking. They almost become part of the production design -- Shelley Duvall and her costumes. Early on, when we were trying to fine-tune design...our girls are so striking. They are the centerpiece of the set and you build around the textures of Julia's hair. What else? Martha Marcy was huge. A big mish-mosh of stuff.
How do you settle on Michael Parks?
I love that guy. Every time I'm working on something with an old grizzly guy character, I'm always thinking Michael Parks. It was always difficult to pull off in ways that financiers would go for since they were usually more lead roles. With this, I loved Michael and just sent him a letter. "I'm a huge fan. You're Nick Damici's favorite actor." We heard back a few weeks later. He was great. It's funny because Bill Sage told him that Then Came Bronson was one of the first things that made him want to be an actor. And, you know, Wyatt Russell's dad is Kurt Russell and they had done a bunch of movies together. Wyatt said, "The only time that his dad had been in awe on set was with Michael."
How do you walk the line by going too far into the grotesque? There are shots of human stew and there must have been edits or cuts where you were like, "OK, that's a little too much gore." How do you balance it?
Good question, good question. A lot of the editing was trial and error. We had a first cut quickly but then there was a two-month process of trimming. We did three or four test screenings with friends. I think filmmakers don't watch movies enough with an audience. They go see a movie for the first time and are befuddled by response. I relish sitting in a room with people and getting that response because I edit my movies too. I think it gives you a really good objectivity to get in the shoes of someone seeing the movie for the first time. Also, I learned things from the other two movies. This time around, it felt like we had a good sense of where we wanted the line to be.
Do you have any idea what's next?
We've been working on an adaptation of the Joe Lansdale novel Cold in July for some time. It's more of like a Cormac McCarthy, a neo-noir sort of thing. Not horror. Pretty horrific but not horror. And then we also have, Nick wrote a pretty great, "Native Americans versus a creature from the woods" piece. We just finished the first draft and got the call for We Are What We Are and jumped over.
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are was picked up by eOne before the end of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival with a planned release in late 2013.