We Are What We Are director Jim Mickle on making a different kind of cannibal film
When Jim Mickle took on the task of remaking Jorge Michael Grau's We Are What We Are for American audiences, the last thing he wanted to do was film a strict remake. So his version of the cannibal-family drama ditches the urban setting and most of the plot points for a tight-focus, intimate view of a rural family who just so happen to eat other people from time to time. The intensity of focus and small scale set a distinct mood and paint a picture of a bizarre, horrifying world that the family's young girls accept as normal, making for a horror film that pushes much different buttons than the typical slasher. Before Mickle's film opens this year's Mile High Horror Film Festival on Thursday, October 3 at the Alamo Drafthouse, we talked to the writer/director about his approach to doing a remake, the influence of religion and how his version started as a very different film than it ended up.
Westword: How did you come to be involved with the project?
Jim Mickle: I had sort of a long history with the [original] film. I never saw it, but I played a lot of film festivals with it and had a lot of friends that saw it and told me great things. It was one of the movies I was looking forward to the most when it first came out. When it did I felt like I knew so much about it that I didn't actually ever see it. Then a pair of producers that I was indirectly involved with acquired the rights and brought it to us and said, "Would you be interested in [doing] an American version of this film?" My first response was no. Then we slowly kind of played with some ideas and found a way to make it our own, very different movie.
Yeah, within the first three minutes of the film, you've taken some pretty different turns.
I'm not a remake fan...hopefully you can watch [them] right away, back to back, and not feel like they steal from each other, but that they are two like-minded movies that take place in the same universe. Before we agreed to do it, [co-writer] Nick [Damici] and I sat down and watched it and both our first reaction was, "There's no reason to remake this, it's a great movie." [Original writer/director Jorge Michael Grau] set out to do a very specific thing and he did it perfectly, so why redo it?
As time went on, we talked about it as a challenge, like, "If you were going to do it, what would you do? How would you make it our own?" We talked about the elements we would change and before you knew it, in about a week, all of a sudden we were talking about it as if it were an original movie. We only watched [the original] once, actually.
One big, immediate change is shifting the setting from the hyper-urban Mexico City to a very rural setting. Was this an effort to connect to the deep, American current of "crazed redneck killer family" films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
If anything, we wanted to stay away from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe and really make it unlike any other cannibal movies that you'd be familiar with. For me, the biggest part of it was the faith part of it -- religion, and the effect that can have on families. We wanted to tell a story that the [original] didn't really try to, a story where you could really understand how two innocent, sweet beautiful girls would be driven to do something pretty horrible and believe that it was what they were supposed to do. In order to do that, we wanted to isolate them and I think that's where most of the fundamental religions are able to grab hold, is when they are taking place in a location where there's not much of a sense of perspective on the outside world.
It's classic abuser behavior -- isolate the victims and construct their reality so they don't have any outs.
You put the focus firmly on the weird, almost out-of-this-world reality of this family. It builds a palpable sense of mood and place that helps put you in the mind of these girls. How did you go about doing that?
As we were kind of uncovering it and going through, there was an early draft where the first half of the film played very much like that, then the second half became much more of a traditional, sort of Chainsaw kind of story, which I love. It's one of my favorite movies. It opened the story up a lot and headed a lot of different directions. It was all very good, but as we went through, what I was struck with in the first half was how much we cared about those girls and how much their internal struggle was able to fuel the whole movie. What I loved coming out of it was, I don't think we need this [shift]. Coming back to Nick, at some point, I was like this is great and showed it to my girlfriend Linda Moran, a producer on the film, and I trust her implicitly. I think we both kind of felt like [we] don't need this second half of the story. It's what's expected, but what was actually surprising was how well the first half was able to carry with no cannibalism and just with these two girls forced into a corner and coming to terms with that. I loved that.
So we really then made that the focus of the film. In the original draft, you saw more of the sheriff's character, more of the cops, more of the neighbor, more of the outside world. I think there was even another character in there. You see more of the outside world, but what it made more interesting was the smaller story. The ending was originally a much bigger, broader ending and it got better the more we downsized it.
Your debut film, Mulberry Street had a similarly tight focus, with its claustrophobic, besieged apartment-building setting. Is that kind of small-scale, intense focus something that you find appealing?
A lot of it comes from working with Nick. What I love about working with him as a writer is he's an actor first and foremost, so he comes with characters as a top priority. I think most movies, mainstream horror movies, it's not even a priority. When I think about things, when I think about a story, I'm more thinking about the overall story. I'm already thinking about, "What does it look like?" How will it be edited, the music, what the experience of the movie is going to be? What I love about him is he comes to things as they should be, he comes through with the characters and he's thinking about where the characters start and where they're going to go and how they are going to change. Horror is really more of a backdrop to that, and I love that way of thinking.
On Mulberry Street, we went into that film with like a $10,000 budget and knew we were going to have to make an apocalyptic siege creature movie and that we'd never, ever be able to afford everything we wanted to do and never be able to compete with Hollywood versions of the same thing. So I think we made a very conscious decision to say, "Okay, how are we going to compete with these guys? How are we going to exist side by side with these films and stand out in the crowd?" I think the one thing that they don't do, that we try to do, is create characters that you can empathize with and care about and want to actually watch. And hopefully by the end of the movie you aren't rooting for them to die, which is so often not the case in horror films. It was rewarding to see audiences really respond to that, for people to look past the budget. I think that's always kind of hung in there, because it was appreciated. Myself, I love horror movies, but more and more as I get older I'm more into the ones that affect me in a deeper way than the initial jump-scare moment. This was definitely an exercise in how far we could push it.
It's definitely doesn't play like a traditional horror movie. If you take the cannibalism out, it could be a "serious drama" about some rural family with issues of abuse and control.
Yeah, totally. That was the goal.
Is there anything else you'd like to say before we're done here?
Hopefully we've made a movie that isn't your typical horror film and I hope horror fans like it, but even more so I hope people that usually would thumb their nose at the genre will come check it out and see that there is more to the genre than Paranormal Activity and Saw. They can actually try to do a little bit more, and hopefully we've done that. I think a lot of mainstream horror films are sort of the fast-food alternative to genre storytelling. Hopefully, we're a little bit more of the organic, sustainably raised produce. It's all about supporting it and seeing these things and the more you check it out, the more farmers will grow interesting little horror films. And I think that what's going to keep the genre alive is that voice.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.