Filmmaker Jim Mickle is no stranger to the staples of the horror genre. The 36-year-old director earned considerable scream cred for his 2006 zombie flick “Mulberry Street” and 2010 vampire movie “Stake Land.”
His latest film, however, skews in both style and subject matter to showcase blood-thirsty creatures of the human variety.
Inspired by director Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexican horror movie of the same name, “We Are What We Are” is the story of a family with a dark secret passed down through generations. After an unexpected death in the family, two young women (Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers) are forced to carry out their brood’s bizarre rituals at the insistence of their tyrannical father (Bill Sage). Oh, and their all cannibals.
Taking cues from today’s best indie thrillers, Mickle has crafted a horror film that trades gratuitous gore and jump-scares for slick cinematography and storytelling that builds to an ending worthy of even the most discerning slasher fans’ attention.
I recently caught up with Mickle to talk about “We Are What We Are,” his leading ladies and (without spoiling it) how he prepared them for a grisly ending.
David Onda: When you hear the term “remake,” it comes with a stigma. What would you say to people who might avoid “We Are What We Are” because it’s a remake?
Jim Mickle: It’s not really a remake. And it’s not really a reboot. We say it’s “inspired by,” and it’s a companion piece film. The director of the original, I think, really loves the film, and that’s because we didn’t try to just regurgitate his thing. We didn’t try to translate it into English and dumb it down and throw some American stars in it and say, “Here’s our version!” What I really responded to in the original was how personal it was and how it was clearly Jorge’s film about a place he understood and characters he understood, and I think we try to do the same and match that.
Onda: To call this a horror film is almost not fair. The film is slow-burning and has very subtle gore up until the very end. Was it intentional to hold back early on?
Mickle: Yeah, definitely. After “Stake Land,” after “Mulberry Street,” we had done these films that did have these big gore set pieces and I love that, I love it. That’s why I wanted to make movies to begin with. But after coming off of that, I was really inspired by movies like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and Japanese horror films and Michael Haneke films and films that were good and were creepy. It’s a different flavor of scare. It’s a different flavor than just a jolt or a shock, which is cool and it spikes your adrenaline and that’s fun, but it’s kind of over really quickly. How do these guys shoot this wide shot of this room and know that with just a little bit of an ambient sound, and because they’ve shot it at a certain angle, that it was gonna be effective and really creep people out? It was a challenge I wanted to put on ourselves – let’s make a movie that’s scary, not because of monsters, but because it’s real people and they never break out into the supernatural.
Onda: How much research did you do into cannibals and cannibalism?
Mickle: A bunch. It started off in the beginning, because we were trying to figure out what our twist on the cannibals was gonna be. We did a bunch on the history, where it comes from and some of the medical stuff – that’s where the Kuru disease part comes from. And then it fell away, because the important part is that it isn’t really about cannibals. And you sort of forget about it and you tell the story that you wanna tell, which is a horror [story] about tradition more than cannibals. And then it was nice that, by the time we were done, we knew what we wanted to say and we had all this information and we were able to circle back and hit some of these things and make it real.
Onda: Bill Sage plays an excellent and terrifying creep. How did you find him?
Mickle: He did a film in ’92 called “Simple Men.” It was a Hal Hartley film, and when I was first interested in films, Hal Hartley was one of the first filmmakers that I really was enamored with. It was my first taste of really different filmmaking, and I loved Bill from that. When his name first came up, I was like, “Of course, I love Bill Sage.” But he’s such a good-looking, charming, charismatic guy. I wanna go that way for this character because I don’t want him to just be a hillbilly, but I don’t know if I wanna go as far as Bill Sage. They were like, just bring him in and meet with him. He came in to meet with me, and he came in a [t-shirt] and he hadn’t shaved in three or four days. And he had a lighter with him, and he just clicked the lighter the whole time and his eyes twitched and he was already talking in that voice. And I was terrified. I was like, “This guy is awesome.”
Onda: Not to take anything away from Bill, but Julia is the true standout of the movie. What was it about she and Ambyr that impressed you?
Mickle: Julia, because I had seen her in “Martha” and I was a huge fan of that. We sent her a first draft of the script and she came in to meet, and she’s the sweetest human being ever. It’s hard to find innocence in actresses, but she came in and it was like talking to a puppy. Everything was new to her. What struck me was she kept asking me, “I love the script, but why do I do…?” She kept questioning why her character did all these things, and I realized afterwards that’s exactly what her character does. She isn’t gonna do something just because she’s told to do it, but she really needs to understand why. It’s actually perfect that she comes in like that.
And then Ambyr, I just saw an audition tape from her that just blew me away. Then I Skyped with her. I was in New York at the time, and I went out and sat in my car and Skyped with her. She was in France and it was six in the morning. She told me this whole story about how she had grown up in a Mormon household and had left because she wanted to be an actress and had this whole awakening. She was 24 at the time [we talked] and she had a daughter that was three years old and she’d been married for a couple years. She’s one of the most mature people I’ve ever met and she’s so opposite of Julia.
Onda: What were some of the unique difficulties of making this movie?
Mickle: One was the practicality of the rain. It never rained once for real, so we had to fake it every day. And every day we’d wake up – we’d shoot night scenes, go to sleep and you’d open the curtains hoping it would be grey and we’d open it up and it’d [be sunny]. And you look at the call sheet and every scene is “rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.” Our art department built these amazing pumps that could pump water out of the creek. Luckily, we always shot next to a creek or a river, and we’d run these long hoses to the river and they’d pump tons of water up and pump them out of fire hoses.
Onda: It’s hard to talk about the end of “We Are What We Are” without spoiling it, but how do you go about directing something like that?
Mickle: The whole movie, to me, is about these characters that are forced to keep things in and internalize all their emotions, all their beliefs and really keep everything under a tight lid. And finally, in that last scene, they get to sort of explode and blow off steam. In reality, we shot that scene three weeks into the movie and everybody was tense about it. Especially Julia. Every day, she would be like, “How are we gonna do that scene?” I was like, “I’m gonna ask you to surprise yourself and ask you to scare yourself, and if you don’t come out from the take feeling like, ‘Holy [expletive], I didn’t know I had that in me,’ you didn’t do it.”
So I think everyone went in with that feeling, and we did the first take and everyone exploded. It was like what it should be in the movie – finally you get to release and have this sense of joy that you get to overcome something, and I think that’s what happened on set. By delaying it that long and letting it build up, I think everyone was ready to explode. Ambyr, right away, dove in and she does this cool, sexy hair flip. She brought this whole sensual thing into it. I was like, “That wasn’t anything we talked about, but that’s awesome that you found that.” It was a really great day.
Find out how the story really ends. “We Are What We Are” is in select theaters now. Click here to order tickets on Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.