Jim Mickle takes a bite out of We Are What We Are

DIRECTOR OF WE ARE WHAT WE ARE

By Gary Murray 

Director Jim Mickle is very tall and scruffy.  With a half-growth beard and hair that needs a comb the young man looks more like a college student than a film maker. 

He was recently in town to talk about his newest film We Are What We Are.  The film is about the Parkers, a deep woods family with ancient customs and secrets.  When their mother dies, the daughters Iris and Rose must assume the responsibilities of the clan.  As the rain pours on their home, the girls must confront what they must do to survive. 

The film takes a major twist toward cannibalism, a shock that turns the family drama into a horror flick.  We Are What We Are has been playing the festival circuit and will be released in theaters this week.   It is based on the Mexican film Sornos Lo Que Hay but Jim and his partner Nick Damici take a very different turn on the material.

How did you come about to make this movie?

I was trying to make another movie, a completely different movie set in Texas.  We had been working on it for five or six years.  That was the goal, to make that movie.  Out of nowhere, the people we were working with said that we have the rights to this Mexican film and would you be interested in taking a look and redoing it.  We immediately said no because we don’t like the idea of remakes.  But, the concept kind of stuck with me and after watching the movie with my running partner, the concept stuck with us.  We both really loved the ideas and the themes it was playing with.  We felt like we could make an original movie based on this idea, it is not just a translation.  We took his movie and turned it upside down and came up with this.

What was the element that drew you to it?

What I loved was that it was a horror film with a really dark subject that hadn’t been seen very often that you could see dangling over top of this character drama.  It is really hard to make a horror movie and figure out how much horror and how much character you can get away with.  It is a fine balance that we have been trying to walk for a couple of movies.  You just say that word ‘cannibal’ and instantly you are hooked to find out what that’s gonna be.  And to be able then to temper that with a sort of an understated family melodrama is such a cool combination of things.  I really like thematically this idea of family, tradition and faith.  All these things that work really well in Mexico and in the US in two very different ways and that’s what made us feel we could do something interesting with this. 

Do you consider this film a melodrama or a horror film?

I honestly don’t know.  I guess I would say family drama more than anything.  But, I think all of our movies have an element of family drama mixed in with something that is funny.  I don’t know where to characterize that.  I don’t think it’s that horrific because you see it so much.  I’m a horror fan and I’m sort of desensitized to it.  We screened it at a film festival in France in front of 1500 older bourgeois French people and they freaked out.  They were with us for about 90% of the movie and then that last scene–they stormed out of the theater. 

They walked?

Half of them did and the other half stood up and applauded and sort of ushered them out.  It was crazy like a football game.  I had never experienced anything about that in my life–people walking by me and yelling in French.   The ushers had to lead us out through the lobby and there were people in the lobby waiting for us, yelling at us.  At the same time, people coming up and hugging us saying, “It was my favorite movie of the year. Thank you so very much.”   It was an insane experience.

So, which experience did you enjoy more—the booing of the cheers?

Both actually.  My first movie started off with terrible reviews, people hated it.  And, then it started to grow on people.  It started to win awards at festivals.  It had this complete 180 and I got to experience both ends of making a movie that people hated and came around and sort of loved in their own weird way.  I learned to really like the idea it wasn’t a middle of the road movie.  You really learn to appreciate the fact that it’s not a movie that goes in one ear and out the other.  People go, “Yeah I remember seeing that movie.  I don’t remember much about it.”  I like being able to have something that stirs up something, whether its hatred or affection.

This movie had some beautiful locations.  What was the biggest challenge of shooting so far in the backwoods?

Where we shot it, we had no cell phone, no internet.  It was kind of like making the movie the old fashioned way.  I thought that would be tough but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  It brought everybody together.  We all stayed in this farm homestead area in the middle of the woods.  You had ponds and lakes, hiking trails and waterfalls.  It was kind of a crazy experience.  We had a mix of people from New York and people from LA who all come in and find that their phone doesn’t work.  They turn it off and you can kind of get internet if you need it.  It created this great family environment because people bond much more quickly than you would if you were just reporting to work every day.   It became very much like a camp.  I think that wound up adding to what we thought would be a big challenge to pull off.  The biggest challenge was the rain.  It was a nightmare to pull off.  It never rained once, all that was done on-set with hoses.  We really cobbled together effects to make that happen.

How did you deal with all the rain shots?

We really did a good job of any day that it rained we had sort of a cover set that we were able to find.  The schedule was rigged in a way that even if there were one day of rain we could maximize all of our stuff and it never, ever came.  It was like this drought waiting.  The crazy thing was the year before there wasn’t a day where it didn’t rain and that is what we had based it on, this year before where it was a deluge and a flood everyday.  It was crazy to come back and see the exact opposite.  That was the fun thing that made it feel like a backyard movie because it was myself and other people running out and grabbing hoses to fill in the last piece of a dolly shot.  It was tough but when you see it, I’m glad it pays off.