Based on a cult favorite 2010 Mexican film of the same name, We Are What We Are is a brooding genre film from co-writer/director Jim Mickle about family traditions. For a vampirical family made of actors Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, and Julia Garner, their tradition happens to be cannibalism. When bones start trickling into a small town’s river supply, a cop (Michael Parks) begins investigating their placement, while continuing the search for his missing daughter.
Mickle has gained notoriety in the horror world for his past films, Mulberry Street and Stake Land. He is currently working on Cold in July with Michael C. Hall, described as a western, which also marks another screenwriting collaboration with actor Nick Damici. We Are What We Are screened at Sundance 2013, and also played at the “Director’s Fortnight” section this past year at the Cannes Film Festival.
I sat down with Mickle for an exclusive interview in which we discussed the key to working with genre, a bulldozer death sequence, casting Michael Parks over your co-writer, and more.
We Are What We Are opens in Chicago (at the Music Box) on October 11.
Who wrote Michael Parks’ line, “Did you eat my daughter?”
I had read that initially this movie had a murder with a bulldozer. There is certainly no trace of such within the final version.
The bulldozer was big, but it was more of an overall thing. At that point, I think we had the first half of the movie and we were like, “This is great, this is awesome” and then I think Nick’s instincts sort of said, “Now we got to make it count. We set all these people up, now we got to start knocking them down.” So the first draft the he had, the second half went in a total different direction. But if that movie had been made, it probably would have done much better than this movie. It was much more what you would expect, but then I remember sending it to our producers and writer friends and they both came back and said, “The first half is strong enough, with just the family, that it feels like you’re denigrating the movie with the second half by doing a straight genre thing.”
Was there a moment where you had to decide between the first genre-heavy idea and with what you have now?
No. Only because, as time goes on, I think we have been rewarded in that we could have made more commercial forms of our previous movies, but they have succeeded because we have tried to do more and I think that is what makes it really easy to not be tempted to think down or something, which is good. Because whenever I see filmmakers that I like, as they go on and get bigger, I wonder how they deal with the pressure and was afraid if I’d be able to do that. and so far I have.
What filmmakers have you been looking at in terms of this transition?
Everyone would say I am like him, but I’m not a huge fan – Danny Boyle. I love all his movies though. But what I love about him is that he hops genre to genre, and I think that’s kind of fascinating. Paul Thomas Anderson. The Coen Brothers, they started with Blood Simple and started to grow and find their own voice, and at the same time when they found their own voice became more accessible. I would say them, actually.
What is the key to doing genre films fresh?
I think giving a point of view is the biggest thing. That’s what is missing in most movies, and specifically horror movies. When you look at horror movies it’s obviously somebody constructing elements on a page that you know will make sense and can fit on the back of a DVD box. Larry Fesssenden, that’s the first time I was really catching on to that. Even Ti West, I don’t love his movies, but they are specifically his movies, and I respect him for that. And I will see every one of them because of that.
When you’re making a movie such as this, what do you envision your audiences will be thinking about your film before they see it?
For this one, it was cool because one of the cool things when making it is that even if no one sees the trailer, it’s got the same name as the original. By the time I got to Fantastic Fest with Stake Land it was like, “Oh what movies have you seen? ‘We Are What We Are,’ the Mexican movie about cannibals.” Almost in the same sentence with the title, and I think that was 90% of people’s experience with it. So that was actually fun, because it wasn’t like we were going to hold onto this secret and then let the secret out. Our challenge was to make a movie that would work for people who knew going in it was a family cannibal movie, and for people that had seen the original, but also those who didn’t know and came in cold. I think it was really fun then to be clever about things and to let people know, but at the same time have fun with everything. I think it’s the characters that ground everything, no matter what the plot conceits are, regardless of the twists and turns. As long as you’re grounded in the characters, that will take care of almost anything.
Would you say that such is the driving force for a script?
I think we learned that on Mulberry Street, which was a $25,000 dollar movie and had terrible effects, and bad stunts, and had my college roommate running around with a rat suit on, that could have been a Troma movie. But the movie succeeded and outdid expectations because we presented characters you could really buy into and relate to and really see yourself in. As long as that through line works, all the other genre elements and action elements, all this stuff will just find its place naturally. And with this, its two daughters, we never talked about it as a cannibal movie, or an evil family movie. It’s about these two daughters who were questioning their religion. As long as that works, the other elements should work.
Do you remember what you ate the day of the climactic dinner scene?
I don’t remember what catering was, but I know they had just brought out cold cuts and turkey from craft services because they were using it for the scene. It is a mix of stuff that someone had made, and then grabbing things from craft services and having them guzzle it.
You had the crew eat what the characters were eating.
Yes. It was really funny, everyone on that had some issue. [Young brother] Rory had to drink milk, but Jack Gore was lactose intolerant. So we had to do something other than milk. The girl in the cave in the beginning, she is a vegetarian, so we had to give her Tofurkey or something like that. And then one of the two girls didn’t eat beef, and everyone had these weird diet restrictions. And Wyatt Russell had to eat an apple, and then I overheard, “Wyatt doesn’t like fruit.” Are you kidding me? Doesn’t like fruit!
How much did the story change in the editing room?
A good amount, more so than the other films. And it was taking stuff out. Not just for pacing, but because it was so understated, it was stuff we backed up more so that it worked on the page. We had a lot of stuff for Michael Parks, but then we’re like, “We got to flesh this guy out quickly.” Maybe with a lesser actor we would have needed that, but he was like, “I know what you’re trying to do here, but we can do this, this and this” and we listened because he’s Michael Parks. So he simplified his first day of shooting in half, and then from there we even went back and pulled more stuff out.
Is there a lot of Michael Parks footage on the cutting room floor, then?
Not a ton, there was also this thing that his wife died the same day as a mirroring to the character of Frank, where his wife is elderly and dies because of the storm, and that’s what kicks off this quest to find his daughter. We shot it, but I don’t know if we ever even tried to put in the cut. By the time we were finished with him, it was like, “Your character is so damn good, and you’re hitting everything and filling in every beat, and so we don’t need any extra stuff.”
Who did you have in mind when you were writing Parks’ character?
Um, I know Nick was thinking Nick [laughs]. He was thinking him and only him. It’s easier for him to write and imagine people, he can write for a voice. I find that interesting and good, but then I run into a lot of walls where you’re writing scenes for actors, whereas the priority is always the characters in the story. I think a lot of times it is easy to throw another priority in there, and that fucks stuff up, so I am always quick to say, “We get the best script possible, then we cast.” Kelly, it was pretty clear that [part] was for her, it was a no-brainer. But in other cases, I try not to. As soon as it was done, Michael Parks was the first one. We had always wanted to cast him in these other scripts, but then they weren’t happening. Then Kevin Smith had him in Red State, and kind of re-discovered him and as soon as it was over it was a no-brainer.
Did you have to tell Nick that he was not going to play the lead cop character?
Yeah, it was horrifying, it was terrifying.
Would you say that may have been the worst part of the entire shoot?
It was the worst part of my life. I told him, and he was just like silent. And I was like, “Are you there?” And he said, “Oh, I’m here.” It was horrible. And then we didn’t talk for three days, and finally I got a hold of him, and he confessed that he hadn’t eaten for three days. It was horrible, it sucked. But at the same time, he was like “You’re the director, so my job is to trust you.” I think he thought there was some producer’s tinkering with the role, [like we were] trying to get a big name. And I said, “It’s not that, I just think it’s going to be better with him, and if we cast you in that people are going to expect you to rip your shirt off and start chopping people’s heads off and save the day, which is not what this movie is.” But what’s funny is , is that Michael Parks was on set and he and Nick had been hanging out, and Michael came by and he said, “Nick told me that he wanted to play the part but you wanted somebody on their last legs.” And I just looked at Nick like, “Fuck you!”
Quick Questions with Jim Mickle
Grapefruit? I was trying to think about this earlier. I realized this it morning. I had an epiphany. “I really like grapefruit.”
Last CD downloaded?
I just downloaded this Deer Tick album. He’s this guy in Rhode Island who does original Hank Williams style stuff. His first two albums were very old country. Now you can tell they are trying to explore stuff, which I usually like, but now they’re getting into 80s ballads. Check out the first two Deer Tick albums.
Reign of Fire. It’s not really a blockbuster because I wouldn’t assume it did well. I remember I lived on 88th Street in New York, and the summer I got out of school I was flat broke. There was a movie theater showing it across the street for free, and my roommate and I got really baked and crossed the street. It was summer, it was free, and it’s this dragon movie and it’s fucking great. It’s amazing. I think Matthew McConaughey’s performance is unbelievable, he doesn’t get any credit, it’s amazing. It’s just one of those perfect B-movies. It’s a B-movie, but everyone is going at it 100%. It’s really fun. And then I had a camping experience a couple years ago, and we got flooded , and we had to go to a hotel, and I didn’t know how I felt about abandoning the camp, but then we turned on the TV when we got into bed, and Reign of Fire was just starting.
If you could be someone else for 24 hours, who would you be?
Allen Iverson in his prime, not now.
Age of first kiss?
16, I think? Yeah.