Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are is outwardly a film about a family of cannibals, but once you watch more than five minutes of the film you’ll realize there’s more at work than a simple story of flesh-eating humans. The film touches on a number of themes that aren’t often found in the horror genre, or at least not handled with the sort of empathy Mickle brings to the material. In speaking with Jim, it became clear that wasn’t some random occurrence. Many directors look at the horror genre as a quick paycheck, but to Jim it’s about something bigger — a way to wrestle with ideas and concepts in a subversive way.
CINEDELPHIA: The original film, We Are What We Are, got good press when it was released internationally and then later by IFC; were you familiar with it when you become attached to this project?
JIM MICKLE: Yes, definitely. I became familiar with it at Fantastic 2010, when we played that festival and were in competition with it [NOTE: The Jim Mickle-directed Stake Land played alongside the original We Are What We Are]. So I kind of knew about it from that because Stake Land didn’t win. The original We Are What We Are won, and every festival after that it would be playing. I kept bouncing around, trying to see it, but I never was able to be there on the day that it was showing. So, I always felt it was a movie we were always chasing and I really loved the concept. People that saw it were like, “You’d really love this film.” So I was very, very familiar with it, and then IFC released it in April 2011 the week before IFC released Stake Land and I remember following the path at least for We Are What We Are because we’d have the same sort of release. They really kind of flubbed the release for We Are What We Are. They did a really shitty job of releasing it, and they did a really shitty job of releasing Stake Land. I felt this kindred spirit for that film, almost, because of that. But I never saw it, almost because I’d read so much about it and heard so much about it and really liked the concept. I was envious of Jorge for coming up with this great, new, fresh horror idea. I almost didn’t want to see it because of that, so I didn’t watch it until I was approached by the producers about redoing it.
C: So did it influence the way you approached this film? I know you took some pretty drastic shifts in gender and even the overall story.
JM: Yeah, it did, because when we finished Stake Land it was like such a big, sprawling movie and it was still a really small-budget film but the scope of the storytelling was so damn big. We had so many action set pieces, which I love doing, so as soon as we wrapped I was like, “I really want to do something next that doesn’t rely on that. That really just relies on good performances and confident storytelling, and make a movie that isn’t about short bursts of action to keep you entertained, and let the fact that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on be the driving factor.” I think the original We Are What We Are is a perfect example, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a perfect example, of films that hopefully make the story interesting by what it doesn’t tell you. That’s part of the reason why after making Stake Land that I was like, “I kinda wanna make a movie like We Are What We Are, one of those kinds of things.” So originally when they presented it I didn’t want to do for that reason but then kind of learned to think, “Actually, there’s another movie you could make out of this story.”
C: You mention that you wanted to do something a little different, a little more low-key. I know a lot of your films don’t function like traditional horror films, and fare a little better with critics because of that. Do you look for material that goes in that direction, that maybe is a little more languid in tone?
JM: Yes, to me I think it’s more about the characters than anything else. I think that’s what’s missing from horror films. It’s tough when you read a script for a horror film or a story, usually the concept can be really cool, but unless there’s good characters to fill out that concept it just goes in one ear and out the other. I read a lot of things and people will be like, “Oh, it’s just the coolest horror script.” I’ll read it and it’s like, “Yeah, but I know what this movie is gonna be.” You need the characters, and I think when Nick started sending me scenes for Stake Land, I was kind of like, “We did this before. I did the movie with Nick fighting vampires or zombies, you know?” But it was really that it was this coming of age story of this kid who lost parents and finding a new family. I was like, “This is the backbone of the story. This is what I love.” We did the horror as a backseat to that story, and the same thing here. It’s not the cannibalism that I think is fun about this movie, it’s the fact that we really, really take an honest look at this family who goes through the loss of a parent and the responsibilities that fall on the remaining family members. What I think is interesting is the way it’s able to take a keener look at religion and faith and tradition. So it isn’t about looking for something different, it’s about looking for something that has strong characters.
C: You brought up the religious aspect and I saw there was a link between that and Stake Land in the way they both went into religious fundamentalism. Are you trying to explore the psychological effects of man’s relationship with God?
JM: Yeah, totally. I think with Stake Land it was more about when things break down, how that can be sort of relied upon. When that came about, it was during the election. It was Obama and Bush, it was the Tea Party starting off, and you started to really see the strong influences of fundamental religion being worked into politics in a way. I thought it was really interesting when Nick started to jump off into that territory when he was sending me the script. I thought it was a really interesting way to look at an apocalypse rather than just the way vampires kill people. So we explored it there, but I felt it fell a little bit into, not cartoonish, but it played big with B-movie elements. There’s a lot in that story.
What I like about We Are What We Are is that it’s kind of a bit more low-key look at that idea, and for me also, more about women. I always wanted to make a horror movie about women but not as the last girl. What it means to be a woman surrounded by old white guys. To me, that’s scary. And I wanted to make a horror movie about organized religion, particularly Mormonism. I think there’s so many really creepy aspects of that, that I find really, really interesting. So in a weird way, we finished the script, Nick finished it, and I looked at it as, “Wow, this is that movie. This is the movie that ticks all those boxes.” We didn’t set out to do it that way specifically, but it’s kind of cool you sometimes don’t realize what you’re inspired by until you look back.
C: You bring up that you wanted to make a movie with women, and the two young actresses you cast as the leads have really strong performances in it; were you setting out for a gender shift from the original film to focus on the relationship between the daughters and the father?
JM: I think to me it was more about when we flipped it, I think the thing about the original that was really cool was the idea of responsibility and this burden that befalls boys in Mexican culture. I thought it was a really interesting way to look at men as the head of the household in Latin America and Mexico, that was really interesting. But it also felt like I don’t know what any of that’s about. I’m not from there. In my family, my parents split and my mom had moved out and I got to see the other side. My dad who, dads aren’t usually the ones who raise a family, but it was a really interesting time to see a guy who wasn’t that well-equipped to raise a family suddenly have to raise a family, and he did a great job. But I think there’s something more, I can speak more to that.
Once we made that switch and said it was gonna be women, it was really fascinating because I think the thing that interests me about Mormonism and organized religion is that something that’s supposed to be very open-minded and very compassionate and very loving and caring can have these really dire consequences for women. And the way that we control reproductive rights and gay rights, I just find that fascinating. It just seems likes it’s okay because we’re told that God says it’s alright to do this. I always found that really interesting, and that was the perfect way to show the responsibility that falls on women as opposed to the boys of the original.
C: You’re touching on it a little bit when discussing these deeper themes but that’s not something people traditionally associate with horror. Do you see horror as something, like the original Night of the Living Dead touching on racism, as a way to deal with really big issues?
JM: I think Night of the Living Dead is as good of a movie about Vietnam and civil rights as anything that came out then. I think people are afraid of horror movies, and what bugs me about most mainstream horror movies is that they’re not made to make you think about anything. They’re there to scare you, whatever their quota is, 10 or 11 times, and hopefully let the credits roll before 90 minutes with a kick-ass song in the credits sequence, and get out to hopefully make enough money opening weekend to make a sequel. To me, I think horror movies are the way David Cronenberg was playing with the idea of AIDs in the ’80s with his stuff. I think horror more than any genre can look at bigger themes because by having these interesting stand-ins and metaphors for things, we don’t actually have to deal with those themes head-on. I think the genre gets such a bad rap, but I think it’s the best place to do that. I think it’s also the best place to experiment, too. Horror crowds are probably the sharpest audiences out there and they really know when they’re being told a cliche or being shown something they’ve seen before. I think they’re always looking for one thing further, so you really have to be a couple steps ahead and be willing to mix things up and experiment in order to survive in this genre. That’s something you don’t see in romantic comedies. I love it for that. It’s a great playground to tell stories.
JM: I think we fill in each others strengths and weakness really well. We both have the same sort of weird taste. What I love about working with him is, he does the physical writing. He sits in front of Final Draft and starts with a blank page and pours out pages and pages a day. I’ll read over them every night to give him ideas and encourage this or discourage that. What I love about him is, he’s got an old-fashioned sense to him, which I think is great. In a world where Hollywood is always looking more towards reality television and really quick ways to set up shallow competition, there’s something great that he’s inspired by. Old westerns. The films that inspired him are different than what inspires me or you or guys from our generation, there’s something really cool about that. I think also because he’s an actor first and foremost he’s able to approach material not as a guy going, “Oh, it’s going to have a great trailer!” That’s the way I look at stuff because I come from the directing side. I’m always thinking about what the final film is going to look like, feel like, and sound like. He’s able to write purely thinking from the character and what they’re go through. When you get to set, especially working actors, it’s great to have a script that’s been thought out by an actor enough, because everything is in arcs, everything is a beginning, a middle, and end — every character, every prop, every location. There’s something to that, that I think actors respond to, that’s why I’ve always gotten great performances, because it comes from his voice.
C: In my research it came up you were raised in the Pottstown area?
C: So you’re actually from the Philadelphia area?
JM: Douglassville, which is right outside of Pottstown.
C: Did that inform the way you’ve gone into making films, the way you look at them? Not as a typical New York director, you know.
JM: I think so. Whenever I meet people from L.A., they always ask, “Why don’t you move to L.A.?” Well, there’s this bubble in L.A and that’s why every movie that comes out of there looks the same. It’s the same goddamned movie, because it’s the same group, small group, of people that sit around the same scripts and same ideas and same actors. The movies, had I not grown up from around here and had I not moved to New York and stayed in New York, I wouldn’t have made any of these movies because they’re very specific to the region. Half of Stake Land was shot in my dad’s backyard in Pottstown, and it’s because we knew we had that, we knew that was going to be part of our flavor that was something different from what someone in L.A. is going to do. The Book of Eli comes out and it looks like they shot it in the damn studio, because they did. Our movie, even though it was post-apocalyptic and had one-percent of the budget of that, it feels real because it was actually filmed in a real spot, in locations that we know. Same thing with We Are What We Are, it was an area I know. I think growing up in a small town gives you a different perspective rather than growing up in the industry.
We Are What We Are will open at the Ritz at the Bourse on Friday, October 11, 2013.