When writer-director Jim Mickle was touring the festival circuit a couple of years back with his vampire-apocalypse epic Stake Land, he couldn’t help but be envious of another horror film then doing the rounds, Mexican filmmaker Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are. “It played every festival Stake Land did,” recalls Mickle. “I kept missing it but I was kind of jealous because it sounded like a great concept [which] merged genre filmmaking with the intensely emotional. I was like, ‘Ah, s—, I wish I’d made that kind of movie.'”
And now Mickle has done exactly that with his English language remake of We Are What We Are, which will receive its Sundance premiere this Friday at 11.45pm at the Library Center Theatre, Park City. Set in a flood-ravaged Catskills, the film stars Bill Sage as the paterfamilias of a clan with an horrific secret; Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, and Jack Gore as his children; Top Gun and Stake Land actress Kelly McGillis as a friendly neighbor; Tarantino favorite Michael Parks as a doctor; and Mickle’s screenwriting collaborator Nick Damici as a local lawman.
Below, the director talks about his movie, his cast, and praying for rain.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Folks who have seen Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are will be familiar with the film’s central horror “hook” but the plot synopsis I read for your version was extremely vague on the subject. Are you hoping people will see the film in a state of blissful ignorance?
JIM MICKLE: I would hope, yeah. In an ideal world, if nobody knew what it was about when they went into it, I would love that. I think in reality, by the time it reaches whatever its final audience is going to be, most people will probably know about it. But we tried to play with people’s expectations. Hopefully people will be wrapped up in the characters and what’s going on and then it will come back and smack them. We’ve only just finished the film and I’m as interested as anyone to see how it will be received because of that.
I’ve seen your film, but not the original. How similar are they?
Not at all, actually. [Laughs]. [The original] is more about these two sons sort of battling to take over and be the man of the household and it doesn’t go as far as we do into explaining things.
How did you deal with having both quite extreme material and young cast members?
Differently for all three of the kids. Amber, who played Iris the older daughter, is 24 and very mature. Then Julia is a little bit more like an innocent teenager in real life. So for her it was a big leap, in a good way. She sort of had to trust Amber, both as an actress and as a character. Then Jack, who played Rory, knew only [his scenes]. We had a conversation with his parents saying, “How much do you want him to understand?” We all agreed that the best thing was for him to know as much as his character knew.
I get the impression that Michael Parks is a bit of a character.
Total, total character. Yeah. [Laughs] I’m a huge Michael Parks fan and always wanted to cast him in something. You have dinner with him and hear one incredible story after another. Whether it’s his music days, his TV days, his film days—he’s just an unbelievable guy. And so fun to work with. I adore that guy.
Kelly McGillis seems to be enjoying an almost Bette Davis-style, horror movie-based career resurgence thanks to you and Ti West (who cast the actress in his recent haunted hotel film The Innkeepers).
I love her and I think she has so much fun doing it. The minute we finished the script we sent it right to her saying, “Please come back and do it again.” If there was any justice in Hollywood, she would be one of the most bankable, mature character actresses out there. I just think she’s incredible.
The movie also features a cameo from your fellow horror director Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, the forthcoming Beneath).
There’s three people that have been in all three of my movies and he’s one of them, weirdly enough. To me, especially because he has a place up there, a horror movies in the Catskills without him just seems wrong. But he’s always killed in the movies. I was psyched to do one where he just got to play a guy that didn’t get killed in some horrible way.
Half the cast spend half the movie in water one way of another. What was that like?
Yeah. [Laughs] Well, weirdly enough it was in the driest freaking summer in upstate New York. We sort of based it around Hurricane Irene because that really took the sails out of the Catskills. Partly I wanted to shine a little bit of a light on that and also I thought, “Oh it’s great, the art department is already there in a way.” But, no, it was the complete opposite. There was no rain at all. I think there’s just two shots of actual rain in the movie. The rest of it is hoses and post-.
It’s the magic of Hollywood!
Yeah, totally. Only not “Hollywood.” More like, “Anyone on set who had a hose.”