'We Are What We Are' filmmakers talk cannibal thriller...over dinner!
Actor and screenwriter Nick Damici’s new film We Are What We Are concerns a close-knit clan of cannibals. So when he welcomes EW into his New York apartment for a home-cooked dinner one obvious question springs to mind: You’re not going to eat me, right? “No, but you’ll notice my girlfriend’s not here,” Damici chuckles, before handing out plates of spicy peppers and what one hopes are pork sausages to EW and We Are What We Are director and cowriter Jim Mickle.
Set in a rain-lashed upstate New York, We Are What We Are, which will be released in L.A. and NY on Friday, is a remake of the 2010 Mexican film of the same name. Mickle’s heavily retooled, Sundance-screened version stars Bill Sage as the clan’s paterfamilias and Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, and Jack Gore as his children, as well as Damici, Kelly McGillis, and Tarantino favorite Michael Parks, among others. The movie is Mickle and Damici’s third film collaboration after 2007’s virus-oriented terror flick Mulberry Street and 2010’s epic tale of a vampire apocalypse, Stake Land. The pair also recently completed shooting their first non-horror film, the Michael C. Hall-starring Joe Lansdale adaptation Cold in July.
Below, the pair talk about the conception of We Are What We Are, the film’s problematically rain-free production, and the reception its unforgettable climax (we’ll say no more!) received at the recent Deauville Film Festival.
Incidentally, at the end of the evening, Damici’s girlfriend did make an appearance — and mercifully not on a plate.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your version of We Are What We Are is in many ways very different from the original. How did you approach making the material your own?
Nick Damici: Jim got the offer and my initial reaction, watching it, was — it’s good, don’t get me wrong — but why remake this? But it was good for us to say, “Hey, we’ve done two original things, let’s show people we can adapt.” Then it was about saying “How do I make this work for me?” You know, we can’t do Mexico, we don’t know Mexico. What do we know? We tried Louisiana, we thought about that, but I don’t even know Louisiana. Upstate New York we knew.
Once that decision was made the rest of it was simple stuff. Flip the boys for girls, flip the mother for the father, flip the corrupt cops for an honest guy. I think they’re great bookends. You can watch one and watch the other and they’re totally different movies, but on the same premise.
The performances in the film are all so good it seems ignominious to pick one out — but Bill Sage is a revelation. How did you come to cast him?
Jim Mickle: I loved him from Hal Hartley movies. When I grew up, Hal Hartley was one of the filmmakers I really loved. I saw Simple Men so many times and I loved Bill Sage for that.
His name popped up on a list and I remember specifically saying, “No. I love Bill Sage but he’s too good-looking, he’s too chiseled, he’s too debonair, I don’t buy him as this guy.” And then he came in for an audition dressed for the part, he had all these weird tics down, he was playing with his lighter, and he sat across the table and just intimidated me. Before he’d even said a word I was nodding to the casting director: “He’s in.”
The film doesn’t directly reference Hurricane Irene…
ND: But it definitely influenced us.
I had a house share upstate that summer and actually fled from Manhattan to there ahead of the hurricane hitting, never dreaming it would follow me.
JM: Nobody did.
ND: And it basically missed New York and hit there. Jim called me up and said, “You guys want to get out of New York? Come upstate!” Because he has a house in Margaretville and at that time we had a house 20 minutes from there. I was like, “Nah, we’ll hang.”
JM: We were in our yard and we looked up and there were CNN helicopters floating around. We were stuck there for three days. The only road out of town was under 10 feet of water, so we were screwed.
ND: The people there still haven’t recovered.
And then you shot the film during a record-breaking dry spell?
JM: The fire department would come most days and fill up a giant tank of, I don’t know, 5,000 gallons of water, and a lot of the places we shot were next to the creek so we could throw a line into the water. I watched it again recently at the Deauville Film Festival on the biggest screen I’ve ever seen in my life. I was like, This movie is epic and huge and it does what it’s supposed to do and it’s funny to think that in the water shots it’s someone from the props department with a hose chasing Bill down the street.
There’s one shot in it where its real rain. It’s a close-up of a blade of grass with a raindrop falling on it. That’s the only shot in the movie with real rain.
What was Deauville like?
Deauville was amazing. We go to the screening, and we walk in, and it’s 1,500 people, and there’s a spotlight, and Famke Janssen comes up and bows to us — she’s on the jury — and there are all these big French actors. It’s a f—ing big deal. We watched the whole movie — and they’re all local, older French folks — and it gets to the end scene and half the audience stood up and started booing and hissing and screaming in French. I had no idea what they were saying. The distributor turned to me and was like, “That guy just said ‘Out with the director!’ and that guy said ‘It’s a butcher show!’ and that guy said ‘It’s not cinema!’” All these people are shouting stuff, and then the other half stands up and ushers those people out and cheers and “Bravo! Bravo!”
It was like a football match. We had ushers usher us out of the theater and there was a line of people just screaming “Zero! Zero!” Like, pointing their fingers and hissing at us!
That seems rather an extreme reaction.
I thought the film was an exercise in restraint. I was like, “You guys made Irreversible! Don’t come griping to us!”
You can check out the trailer for Mickle and Damici’s We Are What We Are below.