Just three features into his directing career (four if you count his just-completed fourth work, COLD IN JULY), Jim Mickle has made his first truly great work, which was preceded by two very good films--make no mistake. And the biggest shock about WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is that it's a remake of a 2010 Mexican-made feature about a family that practices horrifying religious rituals in our modern society. Mickle and his constant co-writer Nick Damici have approached the material from such a different perspective, that the final film is a remake in name only; they've even changed the sex of the lead characters just to mix things up.
I caught both the original WE ARE WHAT WE ARE and Mickle's previous work, STAKE LAND, at Fantastic Fest 2010, and I was so impressed with the way both films wove the corruptive, corrosive power of religion into their twisted universes. One of Mickle's key strengths in WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is his superb cast, which includes Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Kelly McGillis, Wyatt Russell, and the legendary Michael Parks. It's a parade of great actors with great faces, and perfect casting is a practice that Mickle has always excelled at.
Mickle was in Chicago last week for a Q&A screening of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, and we had this chat just a few hours before that event. Please enjoy my talk with Jim Mickle…
Capone: What your first exposure was to the Mexican original?
Jim Mickle: It was after they brought it to me, then I watched it. But, I was well exposed to it beforehand because of Fantastic Fest and because of being there with STAKE LAND and everyone talking about that film. And then both films were at Sitges, and it was kind of like one festival after another. There was a string of about three or four months where you go to a film festival and everyone was talking about it.
I love going and watching movies at festivals. It’s nice to do the press stuff, but I love going and being able to watch other stuff. But I somehow kep missing it at each festival. So, I knew about that, and then when it came out, I was following it really closely because IFC released that and STAKE LAND on back-to-back weekends. So I have this whole history with it well before I saw it and got approached for it.
Capone: Right. It’s sort of having mutual friends with someone but never actually meeting.
JM: Totally! Exactly, exactly.
Capone: If you watch the two films back to back, I can almost make the assumption--and you tell me if I’m wrong--that you do not like remakes.
JM: Yeah! [laughs] I hate remakes!
Capone: Because you’ve gone so out of your way to change as much as you can, and improve upon, in most cases that I could draw the conclusion, “Yeah, this is not a guy that digs straight-up remakes.”
JM: Yeah, that's funny. No, not at all, not at all. I hate it with a passion--really passionately hate it. Like, I’m the guy that reads about a remake and goes, “What the fuck? Why are they remaking that?” I would have been the first guy in the world to be upset at the idea of someone remaking this movie, not because I hold it near and dear to my heart, but just because I get so fed up with the motivations behind why they do it, and how poorly executed they almost always are. And being someone who likes to discover new, exciting foreign horror stuff, it’s always a disappointment when Hollywood grabs it. And now there's this whole trend of grabbing it and not even releasing the original? It’s just like, “What the hell are you doing?” It’s really frustrating. So, yes, I really wanted to make sure we weren’t one of those.
Capone: So you watched the movie, you know you have the opportunity of redoing it, what is your approach with Nick Damici on deconstructing and rebuilding? How do answer the questions, "What can we improve upon; what can we do differently?"
JM: This one started with the location, because when it was brought to us, they were very, very smart to say, “We want to do an American version.” It wasn’t, “Hey, do you want to remake this?” It was, “Do you want to make an American version?” And they’re good producers, one is Andrew Corkin, who did MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and I love that movie. So, the fact that he was involved, instantly I thought, “OK, good, it’s not Dreamworks remakes A TALE OF TWO SISTERS.” It felt like the right mindset. So we watched it, and I remember right away, Nick was like, “Why remake this? It’s totally fine.” Is it the greatest movie ever made? No, of course not, but it’s doing everything this guy wanted to do. We both had that reaction, and then we said, “OK, just for exercise’s sake, let's just talk about it, where would we put it?” We said New Orleans; that’s a cool spot. You need somewhere that has a rich history, you need somewhere that…
Capone: …has a history of twisting religion.
JM: Yeah. A history of twisting religion. That was one of the big things I remember was realizing that Mexico has such a deep, long history, and America is much younger. And so it’s harder to be able to tap into the sense of tradition that they could very easily tap into in the original. So, I remember that being one of the stumbling blocks. And then I said, “OK, New Orleans sort of fits the bill for that. We’re going to set this in New Orleans!” Then, I went to upstate New York, where I live, and try to do a lot of work out of there, and Nick stayed in the city, and we’d call each other back and forth. Then at some point, he called me and was like, “Have you ever been to New Orleans?” I was like, “Once,” and he’s like, “Yeah, me too, I don’t really know anything about New Orleans.” I don’t fucking know anything about New Orleans.
I grew up outside of Philadelphia, so then we were like, “Cool, what about Philadelphia?” He was like, “Yeah, it’s cool,” and I was like, “Yeah, but I don’t really know anything about Philadelphia; I grew up in the country.” So, ultimately we just said, "We know upstate New York. We know it like the back of our hand. Whoever is going to tell this story has to make it about a place that they really get and resonate with, and that was us. Once it became that, then it also started to influence the story. Now we’re in the middle of nowhere, you can really convince people of something if they’re in this tiny, little fishbowl. And then we started talking about flipping things and seeing what would come from that. And I remember at some point falling asleep and thinking, “Oh, it's sisters.” As soon as I did, then it was just like “Boom!” Dramatically it works, stylistically it works, visually it works, everything, totally works. It works with the religion thing, and then I went to bed, and then I thought, “OK, we’re going to make this movie.”
Capone: The other thing I could guess about the person who made this movie is that you are not a fan of a particular kind of religion that is used to keep people captive and influence them to do bad things. That you’re not a fan of religion as a rule. Because this is a horror film about religion.
JM: Yeah, totally. That’s what it is. "Organized religion" is the quickest and most efficient way for us to describe it. Yeah, something that’s rigid and structured and has rules.
Capone: There’s a very specific religion that you’re looking at here, and it does seem to exist in these smaller communities--at least in movies they tend to. But, it’s not something that you could set in an urban environment like the original film is, so.
JM: That's true. I grew up very close to Amish community, and I actually have a ton of respect for the Amish. Like a lot of religions, there are a million things that it’s doing that are great and admirable, and more people should be looking at it philosophically as the right way, and everything that they do it great. But, it’s also really rigid, and is also comes from a desire to please an invisible being. And there’s a book that tells them what should be done and what isn’t good. It’s incumbent upon the oldest to interpret that and tell you what those words mean, and it doesn’t really encourage letting you interpret it in any other way. So, I think like most things, there’s a point where it’s interesting, it’s interesting, it’s interesting, it’s following a philosophy; oh, now it’s setting rules; oh now it’s telling us what we can and can’t do. It’s like there’s an evolution to it, and I think both Nick and I and later when Bill got on, he recognized right away more particularly the connections to Mormonism because that’s something you can really follow the very beginnings of, the very genesis of. It’s young enough that you can track its stuff back. You can see the characters, all the things that you presume is probably what’s going on with Christianity and every other religion, you can actually see firsthand the birth of it and the evolution of it, and how quickly it becomes so powerful.
Capone: In terms of the family, what’s so interesting about the film is, this is not a movie just about these cannibals. It’s as if you and Nick sat down and said, “OK, if these people are doing this, why are they doing this?”
JM: Yeah, totally.
Capone: In so other movies--horror films--where there is cannibalism, they’re cannibals just because they’re cannibals, and you have to deal with that. Here, you’re more interested in why they’re doing it, or why they may not like doing it.
JM: That was Nick. I didn’t think it was even possible, but I remember that was the one thing when he stopped, he was like, “In our version, I’d want to understand why they were doing it,” because that was one thing that was really missing from the first. And I don’t say “missing” like, “Oh, they missed the boat.” That was their choice that they made not to explain. The fact that they didn’t explain made it almost a bigger thing to buy into, because it was like we don’t even talk about it it’s so important.
So in ours, you could study it from the outside. And I think once Nick said that, it was like, “What if we actually explored almost as if the audience is a family member in this and sort of can see how this repression and how all these things that are handed down can start to--not brainwash you, that’s too simple--steer you in a direction and think, “Maybe this is okay what we’re doing.”
Capone: And your approach to the two girls reminded me of what people are even saying today about, for example, gay marriage. As the people who are against it start to have kids, their kids are going to be more accepting. But these girls are trying to break free of these practices.
JM: That’s right.
Capone: As far as the sort of blood and guts go, I think it’s fairly restrained.
JM: Me too.
Capone: Was there a time when flesh was getting peeled?
JM: Yes, there was, there was. There was a draft in there…Nick always leans toward that, and I lean toward that. And, I think that’s part of our relationship; he’ll sort of push for something, he’ll go for it. I shouldn’t say “go for it,” but he’ll sort of go for hardcore and what’s expected. He grew up in the drive-in era. He’s in his mid-50s now, so he’ll always be like, “Oh, I remember when I saw this at the drive-in, that’s why you’d go.” So he’ll say at some point, “OK, so we’ve got the first half of this movie, we’ve figured out they’re cannibals, we’ve set the whole thing up. Now, I want to see them fucking eat some people.” So, I remember the second half of the first draft went to that territory. And, when they’re preparing the body, I remember looking at the original and it was the scene [in the original] behind the tarp, where the mom and the sister are going through, and we were saying, “OK, we’re going to do that scene, but how are going to do it so it’s that scene but it’s not that scene? We’re going to top it; we’re going to have this contraption that rips ribcages open.” And we had a whole thing in there. And then stepped back and said, “You know, this is just fluff.” We’re just coming up with stuff, and in reality there’s a real story being told here and real characters, and let’s do something that almost undercuts your expectations to see any of that and throws it back on these girls.
Capone: Was there a moment when you guys said to each other "Every time we feel the urge to go this way, let’s downplay it"?
JM: Yeah. It didn’t come about right away, but the second half of that script went for everything that you would expect to be in a cannibal movie, and it totally would have played like a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE sort of thing. At times, it got a little campy. And then, at some point, we said, let’s just dial it back, let’s dial it back. And then we realized that what’s working is at the beginning, it’s just sort of a chamber piece about these three people--these two daughters and their father--and this weight of religion bearing down on them, and then it’s sitting around the table. So, the more the story is about the three of them and what they go through and keeping it small, leeping it around the table, the better it is. There was an original ending where Michael Parks is on a cliff, and they all jump off the cliff together. It was this whole thing that just got crazy. It totally would have been good and would have worked. When it comes time to make the film, that was really fun with my cinematographer to say, “What’s the expected thing? Great! We know what the expected thing is, we can do that. OK, now what’s the other way to go?” And that motivated almost all of the visual decisions after that.
Capone: Speaking of keeping it to a small number of characters, the character I think that does the most in the film is the rain. That sets into motion all of the change that comes after it.
JM: Yep, it washes up their history.
Capone: Exactly, and it sends them all scrambling and panicking. I realize there are artificial means to making rain happen, and I don’t know how much rain actually happens in the Catskills, but man, that’s a bold choice.
JM: Yeah, I know. Yeah, it happened. Hurricane Irene hit there the year before we shot, and it just demolished that town. I live in that town, in Margaretville, and it just demolished it. So, we saw firsthand how devastating it can be, and I think it was an element of all the stuff we’ve done regarding nature always wins, and it’s always more powerful. You can put up levees, you can do whatever you want, but if nature wants to, it’s going to destroy something or it’s going to reclaim it. I think there’s an element of all that in MULBERRY STREET [Mickle's first feature] and STAKE LAND; I think it works into the pandemic thing, I think that works in the post-apocalyptic thing, the whole traveling back in time with the characters in STAKE LAND.
So I think we knew before we did this we wanted to make a movie about a small town that was recovering from this epic flood, which is what happened there. So, that was always at the genesis. And then that was also one of the first decisions when it was, “OK, we’re going to set it here. It’s going to be not just small town, but it’s going to be post-storm small town.” And then all that stuff just comes out. It’s Nick; he just explores and plays with it. We don’t outline anything, we talk about ideas, we talk about themes, we explore stuff. We know what we both want, what we don’t want. And then I just wind him up and let him go. He just sends back, sometimes 20 pages a day of a script, and I just get to sit there and read and say like, “This is great. Throw this out, throw this out, let’s cut all the dialogue here. Let’s do this, let’s do this, let’s explain this a little bit more.”
But it’s this great experience where I am almost like an audience member and get to sit and see what comes out of him. And all that stuff comes out of him, all the flood, all the Biblical stuff. And then I think I’m good at identifying what he’s doing and I'm able to say, “You know what you’re doing here.” At some point, I remember saying, “You know that we’re doing a Mormon horror movie.” Let’s go for that, let’s explore that further.
Capone: Julia just won this [Best Actress in a Horror Film] award down at Fantastic Fest. I read that before I saw the film, and I remember going into the movie thinking she was going to be the big standout performance, and she’s great, but both the girls are great, equally great.
JM: I know, I know.
Capone: But, just talk about her and Ambyr and bringing them together.
JM: Julia was the first to come in, and she, I hate to say it, but after that and ELECTRICK CHILDREN, she was sort of just born for this kind of movie. And now, she’s going to do SIN CITY 2, and she’s doing other stuff. So I hope that she gets to break away and not just get pegged as like the creepy cult kid. So, she was the first to kind of come in, and then we actually had another girl cast for a long time as Iris, but she couldn’t do it for schedule reasons right before. I scrambled and just sent William Morris--they repped the film and myself and everyone involved--and they just sent tons and tons and tons of audition tapes of actresses, and I just sat and went through them, one after another, after another. I was just like, “Eh, OK, OK, OK, OK.”
And then I saw Ambyr, and I was like, “Whoa!” I watched it at first, and it was with the sound off, and I was like, “This girl is incredible.” And then in talking to her, I found out she grew up in a Mormon household, and she knows the whole thing. She understood immediately, and I was like, “OK, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding,” this is great. Julia is very similar to her character; Ambyr couldn’t be more different from her character. Amber is 25, she was by far the most mature person on set. She’s had a whole life experience. She’s got a 3-year-old daughter; she’s like all this stuff. For her to play this 17-year-old girl who’s kissing a boy for the first time, it’s just so not who she is at all!
Capone: I remember her from THE MASTER, and he has a couple of really great moments in that.
JM: She does. That hadn’t come out yet, but that also helped. We were like, “Paul Thomas Anderson cast her. Okay.”
Capone: That’s the seal of approval.
Capone: I’ve been a fan of Bill Sage through the years, since all the old Hal Hartley movies. SIMPLE MEN, TRUST…
Capone: And, of course, as Mariah Carey’s father in GLITTER. [both laugh] There’s a certain shorthand to him, a certain weight that he brings to everything. Even still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him be this quite so messed up and scary. Tell me about him, what did he bring to this?
JM: So, I came from the same, exact place on him. To me, it was SIMPLE MEN. Hal Hartley was one of the first outside of the genre, outside of the horror filmmakers that I really fell hard for; I just loved what he was doing. So, I knew Bill from that, but then I saw a movie called EVENHAND, where he played a really cocky, over-the-top, super-macho Texas cop. I remember just being like, “That’s the same guy from SIMPLE MEN? What?” Every time I’d see him, he makes every movie better, and you can’t peg him down to what he actually is because he’s such a chameleon.
Capone: That’s true.
JM: So, and then I saw him in ELECTRICK CHILDREN, I just saw a couple scenes, and I saw Bill. Then when the casting director and I were talking, we were like, “Who do we need for the dad?” and I was like, “I just saw Bill Sage in something, and we need a Bill Sage type,” and he was like, “Well, let’s go to Bill Sage.” And I was like, “Yeah, but he’s too clean cut, and he’s a chameleon, but I don’t know if he can go that far.”
Capone: That’s true, I don’t think I would have envisioned him in this.
JM: I wouldn’t have at all.
Capone: I could hardly see him. A lot of times, he's got on glasses and is clean cut.
JM: Exactly. And he’s really chiseled face-wise. And then the casting director is like, “Well, bring him in, meet him, and if you still feel that way, we’ll go after somebody else.” So then the next day they sent it to him, and maybe two or three days later he came in in costume, and he let his beard grow out. And he was already starting to play with the lighter and do all the whole lighter thing, and his eyes do this twitchy thing. And, he just like sat there across from me and was like, “OK, we’re going to do this,” and I was like, “Fuck, this is it!”
But what he brought to it I think was a really layered performance, because what I was really terrified of was going into the cliche, evil dad, cannibal hillbilly thing. Right away, one of the first questions from him was, “Have you read 'Under the Banner of Heaven,' the Jon Krakauer book about Mormonism?” and I was like, “Yes,” and he was like, “Yeah, I figured.” This whole thing, he got everything instantly. And then, he also got the first thing we talked about, which was he’s a dad, first and foremost, and really the only thing he knows that he’s doing is trying to hold his family together and raise two teenaged girls without a mom.
Capone: These kids clearly love their dad, and I don’t think that’s because they’re scared of him. I think that, probably when the mom was alive, he was a little softer, a little more gentle and less threatening.
JM: Yeah, he had to have done something to be able to lure the wife into this whole bloodline. We kept talking about that too. There was, “Remember this is a guy who married a beautiful woman, and he was able to convince her this is the way.” There’s got to be a charisma to him, and we’re just catching him at the worst moment of his life
Capone: I remember the original film having like this really dark streak of humor running through it, and you’ve removed most of that. That’s a bold choice, because I think people are expecting this to be a little campy.
JM: I think that would have undercut it a little bit. There’s a certain tone of humor that I think works in horror great, and not in a self-referential way like in SCREAM. That’s one thing.
Capone: Yeah, but you had it in STAKE LAND; there’s some over the top stuff.
JM: Yeah, a lot of it comes from when it’s unintentional. I think when you’re trying then it really sucks, but I think when it’s something that bubbles up on set, when it’s something that grows out of the situation and you can weave in the edit, then I think it’s awesome. There’s a lot of stuff in MULBERRY STREET that we left in. Characters would improv in the situation, and you’re like, “It’s actually true to what’s going on. It’s not us trying to make a joke here to deflate humor or undercut something." And, I thought it was a great message that we were going here. I didn’t want it to be undercut by gore or humor.
Capone: I think you’ve already shot another film [COLD IN JULY]? Is that right?
JM: Yeah. We wrapped a couple weeks ago.
Capone: With Michael C. Hal.l It’s based on a book, right?
JM: A Joe R. Lansdale book. Do you know Lansdale?
Capone: I do. The "Hap and Leonard" series.
JM: He wrote BUBBA HO-TEP; that’s what he’s best known for.
Capone: He certainly did.
JM: It’s Texas based. I read this book six years ago, and I just fell in love with it; right away we optioned it. It’s very BLOOD SIMPLE, it was written in the '80s, and it falls into that Texas noir thing that I really love, and they don’t really make anymore. John Dahl did a lot of them. I love those movies, and so this is our version of that. I pitched it as if DRIVE is of a love letter to Michael Mann L.A. noirs; this is sort of our love letter to Texas noirs.
Capone: John Dahl did many episodes of "Dexter."
JM: He did, I know.
Capone: I’m a huge, huge fan of John Dahl.
JM: Yeah, me too. I love his stuff. Ours is also like A SIMPLE PLAN. It’s also that normal guy gets sucked up into a tough-guy movie. I just love that, it’s just a structure that I love, and what was amazing is Michael who is the best regular guy. Because, in reality he’s the most normal guy ever, and what’s fun is, we think of him as David Fisher [from "Six Feet Under"] or Dexter, but in reality he’s the most normal guy, and he had so much fun playing a normal guy in this. He had so much fun. So, it’s going to be really different from this and tonally sort of all over the place. Don Johnson is in it and Sam Shepherd and Vinessa Shaw, and a lot of personalities kicking it around.
Capone: Do you and Nick just have a drawer full of half-finished scripts or first drafts?
JM: [laughs] I wish! The only reason we were able to roll into this so quick is because we optioned that in 2007, and we’ve been trying to get it made for six years, and finally someone was like, “Alright, you’ve made three movies.” Everyone was always like, “Is it a thriller? Is it an action movie? Is it a noir? Is it a character-driven piece about masculinity? Is it a revenge thriller between fathers and sons? I have no idea what it falls under.” So no one really wanted to touch it, and I think finally they were like, “OK, you've made three movies that are kind of horror movies, but they’re also other things, and they’re working" So finally someone said, “OK, we’ll greenlight this,” and we were able to say, “OK, great. We’ve been working on them for six fucking years let’s go.” So yeah, I wish we could roll into something else as quickly after this, but I don’t think we’ll be able to.
Capone: Just focus on one.
JM: Focus on one at a time.
Capone: Cool, I’ll see you in a few hours.
JM: Yeah, thanks, man! I can’t wait. This will be fun.