|Interview: Jim Mickle on "We Are What We Are"
|by Peter Sobczynski
The director of "Stakeland" talks about his latest work, the acclaimed horror film "We Are What We Are."
Based on an acclaimed 2010 Mexican film of the same name, "We Are What We Are" tells the story of the Parkers, a reclusive family living in a remote area of the Catskills. As the story opens, tragedy befalls them when the matriarch of the household dies in a horrible accident. This proves devastating enough to the family but to make matters worse, it happens just before they are about to perform a long-standing religious rite in which the eldest female is the chief participant. This responsibility now falls to the two Parker daughters--Iris (Ambyr Cilders) and Rose (Julia Garner)--and their father (Bill Sage) insists that they go through with it for the sake of the family. Oh yeah, the ritual in question involves cannibalism.
Because of this description, you may assume that "We Are What We Are" is either some kind of mordant black comedy or an all-out gorefest with viscera dripping from every available surface. You would be wrong because the film is actually a surprisingly low-key and enormously effective meditation on family and tradition that takes its potential lurid material and treats it in a serious manner that is as far removed from the barf-bag extravaganza that it could have been as possible. (That said, when the film does go for moments of a more gruesome nature, it knows how to handle them as well.) Anchored by a smart screenplay by Jim Mickle & Nick Damici (whose previous film was the cult vampire favorite "Stakeland") and beautifully acted by the three leads, "We Are What We Are" is that rarest of birds--a sensationally effective horror movie that could play equally well in arthouses and grindhouses alike.
Recently, Mickle, who also directed "We Are What We Are" (which is slowly opening in theaters around the country) came to Chicago to promote his film and sat down with me to discuss its origins, the challenges of doing a film dealing with cannibalism and the film that terrified him as a small child
What first got you interested in filmmaking in general and the horror genre in particular?
It was the other way around, actually, because I got interested in horror movies first. When I was really little, I remember that my parents were watching "Ghostbusters" and I came in the back of the room and watched it without them knowing it and it scared the shit out of me--I had to sleep on their floor for months because I was so terrified of it. From that, I grew a morbid fascination with them and would pop in and watch some of them on their TV and scar myself. That kept happening for a long time and I think I had a weird fascination because of that. From there, I got interested in creatures and special effects and animatronics--there was a show on The Discovery Channel where they would go and make cool monsters. I just loved the idea of creating a world and demons and stuff. I got interested in that and in special effects and then began doing elaborate Halloween costumes.
At some point, my dad got a video camera and I figured that I had to start making movies. I would watch every horror film under the sun to see what was going on with the effects and by the second or third time, I started really getting into the idea of how to stage and film something and how to add music in afterwards--I was enamored with the whole process. I started getting more and more into horror movies that were doing different things. I started getting into Sam Raimi and what he was doing. John Carpenter--I started watching his stuff and began to branch out to look at his entire career.
And you can now get through "Ghostbusters," right?
I can. I don't know if I ever have, actually. . .
How did you come to doing "We Are What We Are" as your third feature film?
It came to us. A couple of producers that we were working indirectly with on a couple of other films acquired the rights and they said that they felt that it was something that was in our wheelhouse--it dealt with similar themes and was kind of an elevated horror film--and would we be interested in doing an American version. I knew everything there was to know about the film because I had heard so much about it from the festival circuit and because IFC had acquired both it and "Stakeland" and given them both a similar release. I had a lot of friends who saw it and told me that they loved it. By the time it actually came out, I never saw it because I thought I knew everything about it and my fascination with it had come and gone before it had even come out.
When I finally watched it, I thought that I knew what it was going to be and then I realized that it wasn't exactly what I thought it was going to be. I loved it and what it was but I thought it was going to do this and that--I loved that it didn't but I also felt that there was all this other stuff that you could do with the concept. I watched it with Nick Dimici and he felt "Why remake it--what's wrong with it?" As time went on, I think we were both kind of interested in the other things that you could do with it and over a couple of weeks, we began to find new things to pull out of it and once we thought about switching the genders and making the story about two girls and the responsibility that they inherit, it became a no-brainer.
The horror genre is one that has been especially susceptible to the idea of remakes and while such things are often poo-poohed out of hand, there have been any number of great remakes over the years, such as David Cronenberg's "The Fly," John Carpenter's "The Thing," Phillip Kaufman's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and Paul Schrader's "Cat People" immediately leap to mind. Having now done one yourself, why do you think there is such a fascination with revisiting the genre's past amongst filmmakers?
I think Hollywood underestimates horror audiences. I keep saying that the thing that makes any movie good, especially a horror movie, is if it has a point-of-view or something different going on so that it isn't just spitting a concept into a movie machine--"Oh, it worked once so lets do it nine more times!" John Carpenter loved "The Thing" and turned it around and made his own version of it that injected Western elements into it and things that he was in love with and which inspired him. David Cronenberg made this beautiful love story out of "The Fly" and that is the best thing about it--you take away all the fun, sci-fi David Cronenberg stuff and it totally works just as this beautiful romance that just happens to be about a guy that turns into a fly. "Cat People" has its own crazy fucking Paul Schrader thing going on. That is why those films succeeded--they weren't just going "Okay, how do we sell this concept to make it as marketable as possible?"--and I hope that one day, our film will belong in the same conversation as those movies.
One of the most striking things about the film is the way you approach the whole notion of cannibalism. For one thing, the revelation of this particular aspect is made much earlier in the proceedings one might have ordinarily expected. For another, it seems that when films do deal with the subject and they don't involve a plane crash in the Andes, the filmmakers tend to either play them for dark humor or sheer gruesomeness. Your film, on the other hand, approaches it in a more serious and straightforward manner that retains the horror of the situation without resorting to barf-bag theatrics. Can you talk a little about you hit upon this particular approach to the material?
To us, what it became--and it didn't start off that way because we set out to make a film about cannibalism--was a horror story about tradition and ritual. I like when horror films are able to use the horror as a stand-in for something and once we realized that was what we were doing, we took that full-force and decided to go for it. What was so cool about Jorge's film is that even before I saw it, the idea of a family whose traditions were falling apart allowed you to explore some interesting family dynamics. This was a really beautiful way to do a character drama that happened to have this element and a taboo subject that you could play with and float hints of it in ways that would be more interesting than actually showing it itself.
That was sort of the conceit going in and as it developed, it was great because the longer you didn't have to make it a cannibalism movie, the cooler it was. In the original drafts of the screenplay, we had the preparing of the body that was this whole gruesome thing--we had these contraptions that ripped the rib cage open and this and that--but while it would have been cool to shoot and the gore fans would have gone crazy, I have seen that and it didn't feel new or interesting and I thought it was going to undercut the themes we have been talking about. It would be better to treat it the way that the girls see it--as this beautiful thing that had this aesthetic to it that was almost more comforting that the rest of their lives. I think that was great to be playing with expectations. What was really fun was doing a remake, where there are expectations, and doing a remake about a taboo subject, where there are lots of expectations, and throwing all those expectations out so that no one knows what to expect.
The pace of the film also came as a surprise--instead of the sort of rapid-fire editorial aesthetic of most horror films, this one had a more measured and contemplative pacing to it that helps to further ground the story in a sense of realism. Was this always the intended approach and how were you able to reconcile this notion with what I presume was a fairly short shooting schedule?
It was always that idea going in because the original was like that and that was one of the things I liked about it. I wanted to do something that was slower-paced and more methodical and composed, something that was more old-fashioned and which didn't rely on special effects and action set-pieces. Something where the conflict came from within and was not from a quick adrenaline rush like a vampire attack--something that would linger. I really wanted to do that but it is tough to do that. What I liked, in a weird way, is that the original did play with those ideas and part of the challenge of remaking it would also be the challenge of staying within that box. I almost liked it because it was going to force us to make that kind of a movie and not branch off and go crazy.
In terms of shooting it, that does make it harder in a weird way. It is nice that you don't have to break off and do stunt scenes and stuff, which makes things easier. However, once you commit to making a very methodical movie, that carries over to everything and makes the style very precise and detail-oriented, which can be tough when you don't have a lot of time or a lot of money. Every prop is important and every detail is important. We wanted to keep the camera on a dolly or a tripod instead of doing things hand-held, which is what we had done with our other movies and which is easier and a little more fluid in that it allows you to make things up as you go along without worrying about perfect focus marks. When you do decide to make a very composed movie, you have to hold yourself to a somewhat higher technical standard and that can be complicated on a tight schedule.
Considering that you are dealing with two separate but equal types of audience expectations--those of horror buffs who are familiar with the original and those who are unfamiliar with the material but who no doubt have certain preconceptions about films in which "cannibalism" is a part of the log line, how have the screenings--both festival and promotional--for the film leading up to its release been going?
It has been great. Everyone seems to come out of it thinking "I wasn't expecting that at all" and that is what we wanted. Part of the whole challenge of the remake thing was being able to make a film that would work for people who came in knowing nothing and for people who came in thinking that they knew everything because they saw the original. We tried to make a movie that was going to be able to please both sides of that. A lot of times, I hear people saying "I don't like horror movies and I would never go to a cannibal movie but I loved it." I love that response from people who don't think that they like horror movies.
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originally posted: 10/13/13 18:32:23
last updated: 10/14/13 07:50:45