Director Jim Mickle on His Latest Horror Drama ‘We Are What We Are’

When it comes to remaking a film, the purpose is to breathe new life into the story. As a director, the challenge is to make it your own and imprint your voice into the work. And when it comes to films populating the horror genre, we’ve seen countless remakes fall short and leave us only wanting to go home and watch the original. But with Jim Mickle’s latest feature, he takes 2010‘s We Are What We Are and reinvents Jorge Michel Grau’s story as his own.

After garnering acclaim for his previous features Stake Land and Mulberry Street, Mickle now gives us a thrilling psychological family drama about cannibalism. More than your schlocky cannibal tale, We Are What We Are explores Mickle’s own obsessions and interest in extremism in religion and family tradition that binds us to one another. With a stellar cast featuring Nick Damici (who co-wrote the film), Kelly McGillis, Bill Sage, Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Mickle’s film premiered a few weeks back, but with its nationwide expansion has been continuing to entice audiences.

I got the chance to chat with Mickle about his magicians entry into filmmaking, his evolution as a director over the years, and the concerns of adaptation.

I read that when you were younger you wanted to be a magician. I found that interesting for someone who now makes horror films—there’s an element of special effects and tricks and theatricality in both.
Yeah! Crazily, it was magician for a while when I was young and I was into the slight of hand thing. I see that come back a lot now in editing, because in editing there’s a lot of bending reality and bending time—it dawned on me the other day how much of an overlap that was. So that led into an interest in special effects, and I was doing that a lot and then I started making little backyard movies as an excuse to do this stuff. I’d force my neighbor to come and act, that kind of thing. And then more and more I got interested in the other aspects of it—the camera, the storytelling, even basic tape to tape editing, and music. I became really got obsessed with the whole process, and then I saw the Evil Dead trilogy when I was about 13 years old and was blown away. It was the first time I really saw someone playing with these techniques and I realized that this is actually a talent, this is actually something you can do. So from there I was just obsessed and explored it as much as I could, watched as much as I could, and made as many little backyard movies as I could. And then I went to film school and got out and dug around the trenches for a while working on sets and learning along the way, and finally got to be able to go out and do it in 2005. That was like a backyard movie idea but in downtown Manhattan.  

Do you see with this film how much you’ve grown since those early days and how you’ve evolved that sort of backyard mentality?
Yeah, I think at first I was interested in a lot of creature movies, and then when I got to film school I graduated out of that or evolved and I was way into indie stuff—that was like the mid-90s Sundance days. I was in love with all that and a lot of foreign films and classics, and then I remember going through a phase where I was so anti-anything that was commercial. I made a couple student films, and I was surrounded by a lot of film students making meaning of life movies and realizing  there’s a middle ground here— to make stuff that’s artistic and is saying something but also has the fun of making movies and creating a world and creating illusion. I think now that’s crept into a lot of stuff that I make. You learn in the process and we learned with the first film as we went along. And then as you do more, you become more confident and by the time we started making We Are What We Are, we really confident to say that we don’t have to rely on set pieces or things like that. We knew that we could just be reliant on the character and tone, and know that we know works and we can do, but challenge ourselves to do something really different and more composed.   

So as a filmmaker, is it important to you to bring that character-driven base to whatever you’re making, regardless of genre—to make it a human story no matter what.
Totally. When we started, we were making crazy low-budget movies and we knew we weren’t going to be able to hook anybody with our special effects or our high concept storytelling. We weren’t going to be able to top anything and the smartest thing was saying, let’s make something where if the special effects don’t work, the action doesn’t work, if end up not being able to pull any of these things off, do we still have a movie? Do we still have a story to be able to hold everything up on? And as that goes on it’s a great feeling that you can make something that’s a little richer. So that really led to an obsession with that idea, and We Are What We Are was really that. We just wrapped a film called Cold July this summer—it’s based on a book—and I first read the book six or seven years ago and finally got to make it now. What I loved about it was that it was a total genre mashup and had all these stories thrown into one; I always loved the plotting of it. By the time it came to the shooting of it, what I realized was that the glue that held the entire crazy story together is that it’s one man’s story. So it’s fun to be able to get to the point after turning over five, six years of storytelling and realizing the the heart of this isn’t the genre, it’s the plotting and jumping around and the characters.  

How did you come to remake We Are What We Are, what attracted you to the original and thought it was something you’d like to make your own?
The producers had the rights to the film and they approached us and said it was a film we could put together quickly and that it would be an interesting to have an American version of the film. I hadn’t seen the film yet at that point, but was well-versed in it and had read everything there was to read about it. At first I was hesitant because I thought—how do you do this and not just make a bad American knock off of it?   

Did you have concerns about remaking the film, and how did you approach making it your own? 
Early on we did, and that’s why we started playing around with changing elements of the story. But we spent a lot of time brainstorming and finding a way to make it original and make it our own; at first we threw a lot of ideas at the wall. Then what was great was, we started to find those ideas opened up a lot more thematically. There’s a lot of things that the original did that were interesting to explore in their own way but we wanted to find things that we could explore in our way, and really once we switched the genders and made it not two brothers but two sisters sort of inheriting these responsibilities of their mother, everything sort of clicked into place thematically. It opened all these things I was obsessed about, like religion, I love to explore that in horror films. And then tonally and stylistically, it opened everything up. So I think as soon as that happened it was like, okay this a horror movie and our own and we didn’t have to refer back to the original film but pay homage.

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