It’s a strange thing attending a remake of a festival hit at the same festival where the original film made a splash. But We Are What We Are is a rare thing in many ways. It’s more of an English-language companion to the original Jorge Michel Grau Spanish-language chiller than a direct copy. It totally subverts what we’ve come to expect from the “cannibal hillbilly” horror subgenre, and it raises its director’s personal cache from “interesting” to “formidable.” This is a stunning, mature work of dramatic horror.
That director is former storyboard artist Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street, Stake Land), and We Are What We Are confidently confirms his place within a growing scene of indie horror filmmakers. The film gets up close and personal with the Parker family upon the death of their matriarch. Bill Sage is frightening as Frank Parker, seeing after his two teenage daughters (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner) and young son, while losing his grip on keeping his family’s dark secrets from nosy neighbors (Kelly McGillis) and a doctor playing detective (Michael Parks).
Movies.com sat down with Mickle the day after his first Fantastic Fest screening of the film, and we could feel the young director still riding high off the goodwill he felt the night before. We talked about the origins of the project, the difficulty in turning a Mexican film into an American one, and working with McGillis (Top Gun, Witness). He also touches a bit on his next film, an adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s Cold in July, with Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson.
Movies.com: How did the project come to be? People tend to want remakes of known commodities, but how did someone approach you to do a remake of an unknown commodity?
Jim Mickle: Good question. To back up, we’d come to SXSW with Mulberry Street. I’d just read Cold in July -- this is 2007, I guess -- and had written to Joe [Lansdale] and told him I’m really interested in doing this thing. We met with him at the Omni hotel here and we’d shown him Mulberry Street and he really liked it. We did kind of a handshake deal, like, “Let’s do it! I have faith in you guys!” So, fast-forward through the six years it took to get that made. We just kept beating our heads on the wall with it. We’d done Mulberry Street and I think people were like, “That’s cool you’ve got this Texas '80s thriller thing, but what’s another horror movie we can go out and sell and do well with?” Stake Land kind of came about out of that same frustration -- we did one thing and people just wanted us to do that -- so let’s just do another movie that we can do on weekends. That’s weirdly how Stake Land came to be.
Then Stake Land did well, so it became this thing of, "Great! Let’s go back to this thing we’ve been trying to do for a while and shift gears here." A French company called Memento Films got involved with Cold in July. It was a movie set in the summer, but it was November. It never seemed like the scheduling was going to work, so here [writing partner] Nick Damici and I, out of frustration, were like, “Well, what are we going to do this winter?” And Memento said, “Interesting you should ask. We just acquired the rights to this film [Somos lo que hay]. Have you heard of it?” Yes, I’d heard about it at Fantastic Fest. I hadn’t seen it yet, but I felt this kind of weird spiritual connection to it because IFC had acquired it and was releasing Stake Land. I think they released them in consecutive weekends. We were in that IFC pipeline with the original.
But I didn’t know anything about the movie, and I hate the remake idea. I think it’s hard to sit down and do new stuff when the original film is still fresh. Nick and I would just throw ideas at the wall. You have this giant canvas, and you can kinda do anything. As much as I hate remakes and as much as I hated the idea when it came to us, it was kind of this fun challenge to say, “Okay... we know we have to stick to these core ingredients, but we can do whatever we want after that.” And I really liked all of the ingredients. It’s not like we’re taking something and saying, “I don’t really like this, so let’s find a way to make it work for us.” I really do like this. I don’t understand it all, because it’s Mexican, and I don’t know what it’s like to live in Mexico City. But I know this [referring to the remake’s Catskills setting].
It became this really interesting process. I think because they were a foreign sales company based in Paris, it wasn’t a studio thing. It wasn’t Let Me In/Let the RIght One In. It wasn’t like they were saying, “This movie has a great following! Let’s just do it again!” They were more like, “We got you guys because we like your original stuff, so take this and run and do whatever you want with it.” And every time we would come back they would say, “That’s great! Run with it!” It was a really cool thing.
What’s crazy was, after all that time it took for us to get Cold in July developed and Stake Land and my other films, we sent them the first draft of the script on a Friday and basically they went to Berlin Film Festival on Monday or Tuesday and told us it was green lit and ready to go. Maybe because it was a remake? It’s not a slam dunk commercially, but maybe because it’s a remake it lights up people’s eyes?
Movies: Has Jorge Michel Grau seen it?
Mickle: Yeah, but he didn’t see it until the Cannes Film Festival. He couldn’t see it at Sundance due to a family emergency. The last time I’d seen him was right after the original first draft of the script when I pitched some ideas to him and he said, “Great, good, I love it, that’s cool. Have fun, make your movie. I won’t get in your way.” Then we made it and it premiered at Sundance and he was tweeting reviews of it but I still hadn’t talked to him. Then the coolest thing happened: he came to the Directors’ Fortnight [at Cannes] where you’re mobbed with people. At some point I was at a party somewhere and someone came over and was like, “Hey, this is Jorge!” and I was like, “Hi, Jorge!” Then I realized who he was and he realized who I was and it was this weird moment of meeting your doppleganger in a way, because we had this shared history with this story.
Movies: There’s a long history of hillbilly cannibals in horror films…
Mickle: Yeah, totally.
Movies.com: From Texas Chainsaw Massacre all the way up to, like, Wrong Turn 11 or whatever it’s on now. This is very different from that. It’s really a family drama that happens to go in a very, very dark direction. But with that legacy, was there an awareness of what it might be defined as? As a hillbilly cannibal movie?
Mickle: A little bit. More the Texas Chainsaw thing. One of the things I really liked about the original We Are What We Are -- and I was envious of Jorge -- was that he found this subgenre within horror that not that many people play in, so that he could sort of make his own rules. I really loved that. You look at Parents, the Bob Balaban movie, or others that stand on their own. They’re crazy.
Movies: There was a video from Europe with a talk show host that was going to eat human flesh on camera. It was revealed to be a hoax, but the concept was so repulsive on a primal level.
Mickle: I think cannibal movies are either really campy or really exploitative, like the Cannibal Holocaust types. Or it’s Texas Chainsaw, which is awesome and great. We wanted to stick to the idea that was Grau’s, that this was a family drama that happened to have cannibalism in it. I think the main thing was Nick being so insistent early on, that he wanted to care about these characters. He didn’t want it to be a competition, he wanted to care about them, and that was a real epiphany. That was the way to do this movie, to put you in these girls’ shoes and they’re not the villains in the story. They’re kind of the victims along the way.
Movies: It’s really complicated.
Mickle: It is, yeah. There was a first draft of the script, sort of the “vomit pass” that Nick wrote that was, for about 40 or 50 pages, fantastic, exactly what it needed to be. Then after the big reveal, the next morning, it became a body count movie. It was really fun, but Frank takes over and kills and everybody’s killing everybody who shows up at the house. And it was really fun, it feels familiar, but my girlfriend Linda [Moran, executive producer] read it and said, “I’ve seen this second half before.” And she was totally right; it was bigger than it needed to be.
Movies: Yours seems to be much more restrained on the gore.
Mickle: Yeah, we wanted that. That was an interesting challenge for us because we weren’t trying to top something.
Movies: You are sparing with the violence up until the moment when it really does hit.
Mickle: We talked a lot about that sequence. All that hillbilly stuff was in there early on, and there was just kind of a moment where we looked at it and said, "Let’s try to do something more interesting with it." We talked about that whole sequence of preparing the body -- it’s the baptism sequence from The Godfather. It’s this moment that has all of this ceremony. We shot it like a sex scene, scored it like a love scene.
Movies: The music by the two composers worked so well within the overall work.
Mickle: That’s the beauty of Jeff [Grace, composer]. I had it worked into the cut and it was something where -- it’s a cool process --where something can connect even more dots within the narrative.
Movies: Kelly McGillis' presence transcends into this almost symbolic middle finger to concepts of things like aging in Hollywood. Top Gun was almost 30 years ago, and if she was 30 then, it makes sense for her to look like a 60-year-old now. It is great seeing her in these films age appropriate, not full of Botox.
Mickle: She kind of wrestles with it. There are moments when she doesn’t really want to see the film and gets caught up in that, but yeah, I totally agree. She’s gotten to a point where she has no filter. No lies in her. Incapable of lying. And I think there’s a part of her who feels like all she did in the Top Gun era was lying. I think she lived for so long not as who she really is that now she just is who she is. It’s great. I love it.
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