Interview with Jim Mickle

October 8, 2013

in Interviews, Movies


Jim Mickle, director of 'We Are What We Are'

Jim Mickle
“We Are What We Are”
Image: The Film Stage

I recently met with Jim Mickle, director and co-author of the soon to be released We Are What We Are, a horror film with some interesting touches. The following is taken from that interview.

BAD: You talk about wanting to explore the darker elements of American culture through horror. What is it about horror genre that attracts you?

JM: I grew up loving horror films but being terrified by them. So, part of it is an exploration of that childhood fear. But it’s also the best place to explore deeper ideas. Within them, anything goes, and you can set your own rules. I like to come away from a film feeling like I’ve had a visceral experience and it’s a genre that is tailor made for that. The horror audience is also a challenging one because they have seen every trick in the book. You can give them schlock, but, if you want to be good, you really have to be innovative and creative.

BAD: Much of horror is about overt depiction, but your film – for most of it – shows a lot of restraint. This seems like a particular form of horror, more art house rather than mainstream. Was that your intention?

JM: It wasn’t intentional to get into art houses, but it was intentional to make this kind of film. I am a horror fan and often I’m frustrated by the kind of horror films I see. I’ve been really inspired by Japanese horror films which have the confidence to sit back without always asking am I scaring you? – I was always fascinated by that and admired that they could get away with it so well.

BAD: Any in particular come to mind?

JM: One called Pulse scared the living daylights out of me, without really doing anything. There were just a couple of ghost moments and then it just went into a kind of classic Japanese mode with what I remember as a lot of long black hair. There’s also a Korean film called A Tale of Two Sisters which was a huge influence on We Are What We Are – the design, the tone, the haunting story telling, and the way it made use of beauty to be unsettling was great.

Pulse (Japanese, 2001) was directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is unrelated to noted Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. A Tale of Two Sisters (Korean, 2003), directed by Kim-Ji Woon, was inspired by a traditional Korean folk-tale entitled The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon.

BAD: The next to last scene is rather explicit. Why there did you decide to break the restraint of the film?

JM: We had a different ending in mind originally – I even forget what it was at this point. But the film up to that point is pretty unsettling, claustrophobic and depressed and keeps the audience “beat down” in a way, and I thought, from there it has to have a memorable ending, something really hard core, with huge stakes. So I challenged Nick (editor’s note: Nick Damici, co-author of the screenplay) to come up with an ending with an emotional impact the movie deserves. Sort of in a fit of desperation he sent me this draft and said “what do you think of this?” and I went “Wow, this is exactly what it needs to be.” And, at that point, there was absolutely no turning back. Every character gets the perfect ending for his or her arc, and, in one fell swoop, everyone is brought to an appropriate close in his or her own way. This is just the way it ends, whatever people might say, and it seems perfect.

BAD: The very last scene is, in a way, more chilling even though it is more restrained, more subtly horrific. Was that intentional?

JM: Yes, we didn’t want a classic hand out of the grave ending, as in, you know – sequel time!

We Are What We Are is inspired by, though not a direct adaptation of, the Mexican film Somos Lo Que Hay (2010), written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau.

BAD: Iris and Rose are two beautiful, charming, intelligent girls. How did they get this way growing up in this household? You want to keep them realistic, as regular high school kids. Is the significance of this that normality is a total illusion?

JM: Yes, a lot of time I think it is. If you are told something all your life by people that you trust, then “what is normal?” becomes an interesting question. So, Rory, the little kid, asked at one point “why are we eating dinner like this?” and I just explained it was kind of like Thanksgiving – a ritual, a ceremony. That’s where horror movies can be an interesting mirror. After all, who wants to watch a movie about the absurdity of Thanksgiving? But, especially when you can draw these parallels, it becomes fascinating.

BAD: Iris and Anders know one another from school. Do the girls have other friends, do they come over to the house, what do they have for after school snack? This cult has presumably gone on for generations, but what is it like to marry into this family? How do you break the news to a prospective spouse?

JM: We are exploring that now, in a prequel with another filmmaker, and the original Mexican director is developing a sequel to ours, so I’ll leave it at that.

BAD: Setting this in California, as descendants of the Donner Party, might have made a bit more sense. There might have been historic justification for this. How did the cult in We Are What We Are develop?

The Donner Party was a wagon train caught by a severe snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in 1846. Thirty-six of the eighty-one original members perished. Some who survived had resorted to cannibalism.

JM: The 1780 story in the film’s flashback is just that sort of explanation. The great great great grandmother did this out of necessity at first, and then, over time, it became ritualized. (Diaries of people in the Donner Party certainly influenced us.) All religions seem to start with one guy laying down a story and then later it becomes gospel, which is fascinating.

BAD: Are there any other religious cults other than New Guinea where cannibalism is regarded as a religious obligation?

JM: That is the biggest one we could find.

BAD: Was it weird to have news of the Ariel Castro story from Cleveland surface in May?

In May, 2013, three women from Cleveland who had been abducted by Ariel Castro between 2002 and 2004 and kept in captivity by him since that time were rescued.

JM: It’s weird. This is the third movie we have released and, every single time we release one something happens in the news that is eerily similar to it. The first film was about rats taking over in New York City (Mulberry Street, 2006) and literally the week before we released it there was a whole scare about rats in fast food restaurants. And then, to some, Stake Land (2010) (editor’s note: about a vampire epidemic during a period of economic and political collapse) began to look like the sudden rise of the Tea Party. Recently there were also some cannibalism stories, one, in particular, about a guy who ate someone’s face. And just recently there was also a story about a guy who had plans to rape, kill and eat children. They discovered that he had a whole chamber in his basement that was ready to go, and he had a DVD collection with every film about cannibalism. In another year, our film would probably have been up there.

BAD: Somos Lo Que Hay was also about cannibalism?

JM: Yes, but did not address it quite as directly as our film.

BAD: The tone of that film was also different, a bit more humorous?

JM: Yes, there was a sort of futility about it, about becoming the man of the household and how tough that can be.

BAD: Do you think there is a form of fatalism you express here?

JM: It can definitely be seen that way. However, I hope the ending is actually a bit more ambiguous than that. But, people ask me “what scares you?” and I say “organized religion” – in the way that people go about blindly doing what they are doing as long as they feel they’re in God’s graces, and it’s tough for people to break out of that.

BAD: What is the similarity of this cult you depict to traditional Christianity, re the prayers, the dress, etc?

JM: Yes, I imagined it was some warped version of it.

We Are What We Are, directed by Jim Mickle, co-authored by him and Nick Damici, is slated to open this Friday, October 11th, at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge.

– BADMan

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