Now playing in limited release is We Are What We Are. Based on the 2010 film Somos lo que hay, the film centers on The Parkers, a reclusive family with strong sense of tradition and a taste for human flesh. Director Jim Mickle avoids the pitfalls of many American remakes by reinventing the film while staying true to the spirit of the original. With a bit of gender swapping and a complete cultural transfusion Mickle has taken the core of an idea and fleshed it out into a film that is grotesque, beautiful, and entirely his own. We Are What We Are stars Bill Sage, Julia Garner, Amber Childers, Kelly McGinnis, Michael Parks and Nick Damici.
Earlier this week I jumped on the phone for an exclusive interview with Mickle. He talked about what attracted him to the material, adapting a foreign film, his collaborative process with Damici, and creating a film with such a precise tone, and more. He also talked next film Cold in July. Hit the jump to see what he had to say.
What was it about the original film that made you want to create a version of your own?
JIM MICKLE: A couple things. I really like the tone. I really love that he set out to make the type of movie that I love, which is that family drama kind of wrapped in a horror backdrop; the slow burn approach, the emphasis on characters, the emphasis on themes. It was something I was almost envious of when I sat down and watched the movie for the first time. And then it was really just themes after that. I loved what it was talking about, kind of corrupted family values, the power of tradition and the power of blind faith. I thought all that stuff was just so ripe and so interesting to play around with in a horror film. At first I wasn’t really interested at all. I don’t love remakes, but it kind of stays on you because there’s a lot of things you can use.
Both of the films have a cultural specificity that’s very integral to the plot and feel. How did you go about translating something that’s so rooted in foreign culture and tradition into something that’s very American in tradition?
MICKLE: It wasn’t so much turning it into American, it was turning it into ours. It was myself and Nick and we both watched the original and loved it and loved what it was doing, but every element of it is very much Jorje’s film and very much of Mexican inspiration. We definitely wanted to make our own thing. I think the last thing we wanted to do is do a remake and just translate the original into English. I think we really wanted to find a way to almost make an original film that played by his rules and felt like it could exist in his universe. Then it wasn’t really about making it American it was just making it about what we know. Originally one of the first ideas was setting it in New Orleans. That’s a city that has a really deep culture and a long history so maybe these things could have stayed there for a long time and then I think we both realized that we didn’t know anything about New Orleans, [laughs] we had visited a couple days but then it felt phony. We both know upstate New York very well. We shot another film there and both kind of live there part time, and we’re very comfortable there. It’s something we’re familiar with and we understand and hopefully paint a real portrait of. Once we had the “what if”, we did a lot of “what ifs” and then we landed on what if it’s not the brothers that we focus on or the dead father, what if a mother dies and we focus on the two daughters and sort of the inherited responsibility of women in families. That, all of the sudden, was the thing that really grabbed me and made me feel like okay we’re onto something here.
MICKLE: He is the one that’s really sitting there banging this stuff out. He does the grunt work, so to speak. My role is I sort of give him a lot of space. We talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, throw ideas around, throw around “what ifs”, talk about scenarios that could work, rule out things that we don’t want to do and then at some point he just becomes a machine that stars really cranking out material. Then I’ll read what he’s sending every night and give notes and tweaks if necessary, but my goal really is to give him space to let him explore and find elements, and try to latch on the ones that are working, that feel right, that feel like something I could work with as a director. Then a lot goes into the rewrite process. There’s a lot of that, so much of that. That’s what we learned on our first movie, if you can get the first draft of everything, no matter how flawed it is, then you can go in and start sculpting it and make a movie out of it.
When you make your films you wear a lot of hats, between the directing, co-writing, editing, sometimes special effects-
MICKLE: Yeah, I love it. [Laughs] I don’t know how to do it any other way. We did another film this summer, which wrapped a few weeks ago, and as we’re doing the promotional stuff here we hired an editor to start working. And it’s good, but it’s sort of a weird experience for me to have someone else playing with our footage. I love it. I think it’s the most relaxing time, the post process, because there’s not a million voices, there’s not a million deadlines, and you’re not in the hot, sweaty, claustrophobic, locations. You can kind of just sit and tell the story in the dark and explore.
I assume you’re talking about Cold in July.
I’m curious why you decided to hire an editor for that one.
MICKLE: Really we’re under a very tight deadline, very tight deadline, and the reality was we knew we’d wrap and probably end up having two weeks off and then hit press for the next four or five weeks. We didn’t want to let it just sit there and wait on that, we wanted to get through it. So I hired an editor that I really like his work and really admire, and we have kind of likeminded thoughts. So really it’s an experiment right now to see if it works. I guess time will tell.
So while we’re on the subject of Cold in July, which I’m super excited for by the way, that cast is amazing, what kind of film can people look forward to with this one?
MICKLE: Very different, [laughs] very, very, very different. I think after Stake Land we really wanted to do something completely different from that and We Are What We Are was that answer. [Stake Land] was a big, sprawling movie and we wanted to do something that was really contained, and really quiet, and really consistently unsettling form start to finish. And I’m so happy with what we got because I think we set out to do something and then accomplished that. Cold is an 80’s revenge thriller. It’s still very character based. It’s still very family based. It’s a father-son revenge thriller, which I think is kind of awesome. We really set out to do a movie that was going to be fun from start to finish and wasn’t going to follow- you know it’s based on a book, but what I loved about the book was that it followed no formula and it had a lot of familiar elements, it had a lot of pulpy ingredients, but it just kept unfolding in a way that you could never guess. My experience reading the book was just I could totally give into the story because I wasn’t sitting there trying to guess what was going to happen next. I didn’t feel like, “Oh I know where it’s going now. It’s doing this.” I was able to just feel like I was hearing a story for the first time, which I love. So we set out to do that with this movie. To really make a movie that doesn’t play by any genre rules. It’s thriller, it’s action, its comedy. It’s really different. Right now it’s really fun for me because it’s kind of the exploration process of finding exactly how all these disparate elements will come together.
I’m definitely excited for that one.
MICKLE: Yeah, those guys are great. Michael [C. Hall], I always felt off of just Six Feet Under and Dexter was one of the most talented actors out there, but seeing him do this…he’s just incredible. Sam [Shepard] and Don [ Johnson] are also just equally incredible. Two very, very different human beings, but two really interesting people.
Jumping back into We Are What We Are, it has a very specific tone that’s very unique for a cannibal film in that it’s not exploitative or a gross-out film, though there are definitely some scenes that are hard to watch. How difficult was it for you to sort of toe that line?
MICKLE: Really difficult to be honest, really, really difficult. It was the hardest movie of the four that we’ve done. For me it was the hardest one to shoot because it was such a precise tone and to commit to it. And that was the thing I kind of keyed in with the cinematographer, “Yes, we’re going to do a lot of long shots. We’re going to do a lot of masters. We’re going to do a lot of slow, creeping dollies. We’re going to be on the tripod. It’s not going to be what we’ve done before, which is kind of get in there and get up close to the actors and be hand held and sort of let them dictate what was going to happen. We’re going to try to set this very formal, rigid style.” It’s really tough. It’s tough on a budget and it’s tough on a tight schedule. It’s really tough. I think ultimately I’m glad we did it, because I think it comes out and we didn’t compromise. We made exactly the movie we wanted to make. So I look at it now and I’m so thankful we did it. The reality of it, when you don’t have a big budget, it’s very hard to pull off that sort of formal filmmaking and have it all work together.
You guys totally pulled it off. It’s a good looking film.
I remember when Mulberry Street came out it was one of the 8 Films to Die For, which is always a mixed bag and people kept talking about this rat zombie movie so I had no idea what to expect, but when I watched it I totally dug it. Then Stake Land came out and I ended up really liking that one, too. And now I really like We Are What We Are. So for me you’ve definitely become a name in the genre whose films I look forward to and get excited to see.
MICKLE: Oh, thank you.
You’re welcome. I’m curious for you, are there any newer genre filmmakers whose work excites you and whose films you look forward to watching?
MICKLE: Yes. I love Bong Joon-Ho, who I just got to meet a couple weeks ago and it was kind of one of the highlights of my year [laughs]. I’m a big fan of Korean cinema and Memories of Murder, and The Host, and The Mother. Cold in July kind of wants to be that Memories of Murder sort of movie where you never know what you’re going to get, but you’re following a character and you’re kind of following him through every genre and every surprise. I love what he does. So I really love him. Who else? Who else? There are people I like and now I got to think about that. I like Adam Wingard’s stuff a lot and actually haven’t seen You’re Next, but I really dig what he’s doing. I love Larry Fessenden, obviously he’s a friend and stuff, but I love what he does and I love the mentality that he goes into making films with. I think it’s really important because over a long career he’s managed to make movies that he cares about. And I think his idea is making movies, even if it’s a genre film, it always has a point of view or a voice or something to say. I think it’s really important and not enough people are doing that. There are other and now I can’t think of them. That’s so frustrating. Hong-jin Na, the director who did The Chaser, I think is kind of a genius.
What else is coming up for you that you’re excited about?
MICKLE: That’s it really. Usually we make a movie, it comes out and then we have a couple years of gestating the next thing. This is the first time that we were able to stack two together so quickly. Part of it’s overwhelming, part of it’s exciting to be able to push through and know that by the time We Are What We Are is coming out on video we’ll probably be done with Cold in July. So I think just waiting to see what happens and what speaks to us next and what kind of opportunities there’s going to be. I find that exciting. I don’t know if We Are What We Are will open doors or if it will put us firmly where we are. I have no idea. It’s kind of fun to not know.
Are you guys working on any original scripts right now?
MICKLE: Not right now, we talk about stuff. It’s funny, todays the first day that I’ve actually been in the same room with Nick in weeks. It’s crazy. We wrapped and then right away started traveling for We Are What We Are and just got back in. We just sat down and said, “Hey about that idea” and then someone came in to talk to us. It’s kind of funny. I guess this is a good problem. This is a good place to be where you have a couple movies out. But it’ll be nice once it dies down to be able to sit down and kind of get back to what started it in the beginning, which was sitting in Nick’s kitchen and talking about the kind of movies that we wanted to see and make. I’m sure whatever comes next will boil out of that.