Interview: Director Jim Mickle, co-writer Nick Damici, and actress Kelly McGillis of 'We Are What We Are'
On re-making, flesh-eating, flashbacks and slow-burn horror ...
Sitting down to talk about their Sundance Midnight film "We Are What We Are," director Jim Mickle, co-writer Nick Damici and co-star Kelly McGillis don't look quite as somber as their grey, rainy slowly-building horror film. A re-make of a 2010 Mexican film, 'We Are What We Are" chronicles a very busy and strange week in the life of the Parker family, whose rigorous lifestyle and public piety is constructed to conceal their annual feast on human flesh, a family ritual the Parkers have kept for generations. Picked up for distribution at Sundance, "We are What We Are" has a creepy-cool sense of style, but when it boils over, it's scaldingly scary. We poke with Mickle, Damici and McGillis in Park City.
MSN Movies: Starting with you two gentlemen, how important is it to alter things wisely when remaking a film, i.e. to not do the bad shot-for-shot fuzzy carbon copy?
Nick Damici: Hopefully we did that.
Jim Mickle: Yeah.
Damici: We didn’t really approach it as a remake. You know obviously it is, so we kind of went from the beginning with the idea of what ... we watched the movie and just said, "Okay, we got it." And we really didn’t go back to it into sorts of saying, "We have to do that shot" or "We have to do that scene." We basically took those characters and situations and transposed it to upstate New York. You know we kept the mathematics of it in sync, but everything else we changed. So it really wasn’t a process of a shot-by-shot remake thing.
And it's also very easy to imagine like a bad Platinum Dunes-produced version with nothing but gore. Is that a point, always to have a slow build?
Mickle: Yeah, I think Nick's also said before which I think is smart is that it's more like you're covering a song, you know? And so it's almost like in a way the beginning the original's a little bit of like an acoustic version, and ours is much less acoustic. It's still kind of a quiet slow burn. So yeah, I think actually early on, I feel like there was a draft early on that did go a little bit further and stuff got a little crazy, and crazy stuff happened to your character, Kelly. But I think in a way that was like sort of getting it out of your system, you know? I felt like that was like kind of like the, you know, like this is where a cannibal movie could go, you know? And this is where things could go, but then I think it was an interesting process sort of pulling it back and bringing it back to the characters and sticking with that idea, keeping the cannibalism as a looming thing, not the thrust.
Miss McGillis, how great is it to play the best possible neighbor in the worst possible circumstances? You don't know what's going on inside the Parker house so you kind of stumble into everything horribly. You've read the script, you know what happens to you, but is it fun to play that kind of necessary naivete to drive a horror film forward?
Kelly McGillis: Yeah, it is. It's really fun, I guess, to be a little bit of the comic relief in a very tense film.
But I mean, comic but real. I mean you're not walking around in a muumuu with like crazy curlers in your hair. You're just very...
McGillis: I was close. I was very close. (Laughs)
McGillis: I don’t know what you were watching, but it was pretty damn close to that.
It's very easy to imagine that character's like the nosy neighbor from "Bewitched," right?
McGillis: Oh yeah.
You do not go into that level. Is it important as a supporting character in a film like this to maintain a kind of reality cover to be unaware of all this ghastly stuff so the audience has a better entry point to how they can react to it?
McGillis: You know I would have to say as a character, I don’t know that. That's Jim's job.
McGillis: My character only does what she does, and knows what she knows, and wants what she wants. But it's his job to direct it that way. It's not my job to act it that way. But I do think that Marge knows there's something kind of off about the next-door neighbors. She just doesn’t what it is.
Mickle: Right. What's weird about your performance though is that there's a sense that you're like you're hoping that it's not ...I get that sense watching it, but you're like hoping they're not that crazy. You're hoping they're just a little bit eccentric. There's these great, little, subtle moments I think where your conversation with Bill where you're kind of like, "Okay that guy's off, but it's not like I have a lot of options for friends so I'll ..."
McGillis: I can't really move right now out of my trailer (Laughs)
Mickle: Yeah, exactly.
And also you show up bearing vegetarian lasagna and not like a SWAT team. When you're concerned, at the worst you come armed with hospitality.
McGillis: Of course. That's what a good neighbor does.
You folks took a budget for "Stake Land" and made every penny sing. But I'm curious -- the fake rain, that a) had to be arduous for the cast and b) crazy expensive, or did you find ways to cheat it?
Mickle: Not that expensive, but it was our production designer built rigs to pull that off with hoses and pumps, and the local fire department helped, so it was more of like a collaborative (thing, where) everyone pitch in to find a way to make this work. And by the end of it everyone I think was running around at some point with hoses following people and trying to pull stuff off. But traditionally, yeah it would be very expensive, but we were fortunate enough to have a crew that was happy, not happy, but willing to build cheaper alternatives.
And you're willing to be cold and damp as the scene requires it?
McGillis: I didn’t have to be that cold or damp, did I?
Mickle: You weren't in the rainy stuff I don’t think.
McGillis: Yeah, only a little bit.
When Mr. Parker is getting his knees damp in sadness, you were very helpful to him. But you're right. It isn't rainy.
McGillis: No, it wasn't really pouring down.
Mickle: We had stuff dripping.
McGillis: They dripped it down.
I'm also very curious about, would it be wrong to see a little nod to the journals of the Donner Party some of the Parker family back story? Did you read those? Did you look at those?
Damici: Not at all.
Damici: When Jim and I come up with the backstory basically how this perdition started, it was a no-brainer. I had to place a pioneer family in that kind of peril and see what happens to them next. So it's kind of that was one of the most fun things, something ... we almost lost the backstory at certain points. I'm glad we ended up with it in the movie because I really like it. I think there's a whole movie in the backstory, so ...
So "We Were What We Were" will be the prequel? Past tense prequel?
Damici: All right.
McGillis: Can Marge be coming over the mountains, too?
Damici: Of course.
Damici: Marge's great, great grandma.
Mickle: Yeah, exactly.
I like how insidiously you violate the law of time and place just to get yourself a plot-rocking part.
Damici: With opossum pie.
McGillis: You get to do that in movies?
Mickle: They stumble on a time machine ...
Can we talk briefly about Mr. Gore (8 tears old) not only as a actor you direct but also as a costar you work with 'cause you had to keep him in the dark, or you did keep him in the dark, as to some of the grimmer elements to get a more naturalistic performance, but was that like playing a big sort of risqué game of hide-and-seek where you couldn’t let him get a sense of the horrors that were going on?
Mickle: No, no. It wasn’t that we weren't, (Laughs) -- he's passed out behind me -- it wasn't that we weren't hiding stuff from him, but I think he's like he knew everything. He would come in and have the whole page memorized, not just his dialogue but everyone's dialogue and action. He'd know everything to do and so I think for him it was like I got a sense that it was pretend. It was pretend and mimicking and that kind of thing. And I think it probably would've overcomplicated things to try to give him subtexts and you know what he's thinking but doesn’t play. So I think it was cooler to just let him know exactly how much his character knows. And I think his parents were happy with that because they didn’t have to get him in a situation trying to explain this.
McGillis: Yeah, how do you explain cannibalism to a little kid?
Mickle: Yeah, exactly.
But there's that great scene where you have where you're being a nurturing and pleasant mom and he tries to take a big chunk out of you saying, "I'm hungry."
McGillis: Yeah. You can't change what you are.
Right, but also how many takes does that take? I mean you want to keep it naturalistic and you don't want to like have the energy go out of it, but at the same time it's a tricky moment. How much effort does it take to get that scene in the can?
McGillis: I think, well that one seemed to be a lot about the camera and getting it placed right for the camera angle.
McGillis: So all I have to do is keep on doing this same action and kind of talking him through it as we were going through it, you know? "Lower your hand," Jim would repeat it. But he couldn't hear it so I'd say, "Lower your hand. Do this. Do that." So...
Your character also comes to a particularly cinematic and ugly demise. We won't say more than that, but is it fun to get strapped up with that kind of effects work?
McGillis: I never have before, and it was kind of fun. But I thought that it would be, my big fear was that it would be like cartoony. (Laughs)
Mickle: Oh no, not at all.
McGillis: Not you, but me being cartoony 'cause I'd never done anything like that before.
Mickle: Not at all. It's great, yeah.
Horrible injuries are kind of out of the Stella Adler technique where you can think back to that time you were slain with a knife.
McGillis: Well I've never had my...(Mimes horrible injury)
McGillis: ... done so I didn’t ...
Just as dramatically.
McGillis: ... you can only pretend there.
What did you find you had to pare out of the film as you made it? Was it something you paired out or was it more a process of additional accrual?
Mickle: Things just got pared down. There was a couple little, tiny side things that I think needed to be there on paper to make sense of things in a way that I think, you know, it's interesting when you get the final thing you realize a whole lot of things that you thought you absolutely needed in the script you don’t need. Or sometimes you need them there so that everyone knows what page they're on, and then they play it that way, and it's always there. You don’t need to come out and say things as explicitly I guess. And some of it was interesting how long you can get away with showing people grieving. I found that really interesting. It's moments where I feel like in movies when you see people, when people are going through tragedy, it's such a long process in real life and it always seems too quick in movies. I think especially in horror movies whenever someone's best friend gets killed they're like the next minute trying to find a way to get out of a scene or something. But in reality it was interesting seeing, like we tried to give as much tragedy as we could and see people grieve enough to sympathize with them. But I think there's a limit where audiences tune out, and it was interesting to see how quick that was.
It's like, "I will wallow in despair with you but only up until a point."
Mickle: Exactly, exactly. And then after that then you're whiny, and I really don't like you. And in a movie where you're trying to create sympathy for a bunch of people and each have a moment where you get to see them go through the process but then also get on with the story, it was an interesting balance I think for like the first 20 minutes of the story.
I am a huge fan of one action, one place, one time. Is it a nice kind of constraint to know that you're writing the process of four to five days in a row and that's it? Flashbacks excepted.
Damici: Yeah, I mean generally all that stuff. I mean "Stake Land" was we went away from that to get a long-term piece. But generally me and Jim kind of like to do it in real time close to real time as possible. So it was kind of, you know, it just keeps things easy.
I had the pleasure of being at the screening last night where at one point audience members shouted so loudly at an injury you would've thought they had been struck with the blunt object. Is it nice to know that for all of the atmospheric sort of blue grey classiness of the cinematography you can still get that classic "I'm going to yell at the screen like a lunatic" reaction?
Mickle: It is.
That tells you it's working?
Mickle: That tells you it's working. And also this one, it's more of a slow burn than the other films. And I think you get a visceral reaction from watching "Stake Land" with a crowd, and this one not so much 'cause it's so restrained for so long and so it's interesting 'cause for awhile you're like I'm not used to this pace. I'm not used to like you don’t really get a sense of it then all of a sudden people erupt and you realize, "Okay, they're hooked. They're in."
Did you have the pleasure of hearing that last night?
McGillis: I didn’t go. (Laughs)
Well to be fair, you've probably seen the film.
McGillis: No. (Laughs)
McGillis: And I've never seen "Stake Land" either. (Laughs)
Well to be fair, you are Kelly McGillis, and you get to do whatever you want. Let's leave it at that.
Damici: She's afraid of horror movies.
McGillis: Well, I don’t really watch horror movies.
Mickle: And then we always show it late.
McGillis: 12 o'clock is so late for me, and then they wanted to do a Q & A. I said, "Two o'clock? I had to be up at seven in the morning. There's no way."
Mickle: That's right.
It's also worth noting, but I've been hearing Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" on a loop in my head while we're talking.
No, no. It's okay. I'll get over it, I assure you. One final thing for you two gentlemen, which is, are you the kind of people who while making a movie sort of saying, "You know what we should do next? Something dry." Or do you think about what's next while you're making this one, or is it just a matter of..."
Mickle: No, I don’t really have time to. I looked, the first draft that (Damici) sent me of this was this week last year 2012, and so from there it's right into pre-production to shooting then finishing it last week there's no real time to really think about what's next. But there was a time in the middle of it where I was like, "You know what? It would be..." After "Stake Land" I remember thinking, "You know what? Just next time, quite conversations at a table," which is kind of what this is. And then there was a moment in the middle of editing this where I remember telling you like, "Let's do a monster movie, you know, something big and fun and blow s**t up, have some fun."
Something like with werewolves that don’t have tough inner family relationships, that would be nice?
Mickle: Exactly. No, they probably still will. But they will be werewolves.
So now it's kind of about whatever, letting this movie flow out and rekindle my passion for something new ...