The ‘We Are What We Are’ Team Talks Religion, Cannibalism and Their Hatred of Found Footage
The saying “you are what you eat” has never been more true than in Jim Mickle’s and Nick Damici’s We Are What We Are. Their debut feature, Mulberry Street, played to raves at TFF 2007, and the two filmmakers continue to collaborate. From a mutant rat plague in NYC in Mulberry Street to the post-apocalyptic vampire-controlled world in Stake Land, Damici and Mickle’s content has been fiercely original, so horror fans were baffled by the news that they would be working on a remake of We Are What We Are. True to their filmmaking process, however, the two took the original premise of the film and ran with it in unexpected directions.
We sat down with Mickle and Damici and their two lead actors, Bill Sage (American Psycho, Trust, Boiler Room) and Julia Garner (Electrick Children, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Martha Marcy May Marlene), to discuss their latest feature, the family atmosphere on set and what horror trends they think should go away—forever.
Tribeca: I don’t think I would even consider We Are What We Are to be a remake or a reimagining. It’s more of a reinvention of the cannibalistic clan subgenre, if anything. Were you two at all daunted by taking on this project?
Nick Damici: We weren't daunted by it. We were baffled by why anyone would want to remake it when there was nothing wrong with the original. Obviously, the idea is to do an American version, so I get it I guess. Once it was clear that the producers really did want to greenlight this project, we didn't want to pass up the opportunity. We took really a good look at the film and asked, “what can we do with it to make it different enough to make it worth doing again.”
We didn't want to venture too far from the original because we did like the dynamics of the family structure. We did decide to flip a lot of the other elements of the original to see where that put us—taking it out of a city and putting it in the country; making it about two daughters instead of the two sons; having the parent be the father instead of the mother; and substituting the corrupt cops with an honest doctor. We went through an interesting exercise in how to translate and reinvent something. I think you can watch both movies back to back and not necessarily realize you are watching the same movie, except for the cannibal theme.
Tribeca: There was this fascinating religious aspect to the film. Ritual is involved in the first movie, but the motivation is more "eat to survive" than fulfilling an ancient tradition. Why did you choose to emphasize the religious part of the story?
Jim Mickle: A lot of that comes from Nick's script. I jumped on it because, for a long time, I wanted to make a horror movie about organized religion. I felt like there was a great story to be told there. Once the first draft of the script was done we felt that we had done it. It felt like we didn't set out to comment on organized religion; it just happened I think. The original film gave the characters vague motivations for why they acted the way they did, hinting at the competition between the brothers.
In our film, we try to provide strong enough motivations so that by the time the audience realizes that the girls are doing these horrible things—and that the father is doing these horrible things—there actually are reasons for their actions. We wanted to be sure that the audience could almost understand why the characters are acting the way they are.. We asked what are the things that would motivate people to do these horrible things? Love or fear of God? Very few things are enough. We settled on fear of God because that is a motivation that is understandable and that makes the audience feel for these girls in a way.
Tribeca: The final sequence is so wonderful. It’s almost like Rose and Iris are taking communion from Frank. What initially drew you both to the script?
Bill Sage: I was really fascinated by exploring why people do strange things. Plus, like Jim said, the strength of this family’s beliefs really drew me to the script. Fear of God is just an extreme motivator, especially in this country, and it was interesting to explore how that fear might manifest itself. The character of Frank is falling apart, and he is what drew me to the story.
Julia Garner: The dialogue drew me to the script. I remember that when I was reading it, I couldn’t put it down. I’m really not even into horror films. I first thought it would be unthinkable to do this because I would have to completely trust the director. But I had a great first meeting with Jim, and I knew that it was going to be good. Then I heard that Bill was doing it too. [laughs]
BS: I thought, this is gonna be great. I read it and I said to my wife: “This is a great script. Oh, and honey, they eat people.”
JG: Honestly, when I first heard that I was like “what!?”
Tribeca: Jim, how did you know that Bill and Julia were your Frank and Rose?
JM: I met Julia first. There’s something about Julia that’s sort of indefinable. You can see it when you meet her in person and from her work. I saw scenes from Electrick Children with Bill and I knew that Julia could give us exactly what we wanted for the character. The Martha role is so similar, and Julia came in and immediately started asking all the “whys.”
JG: I was so interested in the script. I never read anything like it!
JM: What’s cool is that her character asks questions the whole time, and Julia is like that as an actress. As an actress, you have to understand your motivations. Her character has the same need. She doesn’t just do something because her dad tells her to. She has to find her own reason. It was really cool how that came together.
As for Bill, we just saw Hal Hartley's Simple Men again last night. I had seen that movie so many times growing up and always thought, “God damn, this guy is so damn good.” He’s a chameleon. I love actors that aren’t afraid to do something different with every role. I hadn’t seen him be really dark and grizzled but he pulled it off brilliantly. In Mysterious Skin, he played a dark character but he looked like Redford, so it was not quite the same. We could have easily gone with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre redneck kind of guy, but Bill’s versatility allowed us to go the exact opposite way.
Found footage, to me, is the reality television of horror films.
Tribeca: I’m glad that in the press note you mentioned EvenHand, which is an incredible movie.
JM: When I first saw that it took me a minute to come to the realization that I was seeing Bill Sage. The role was not at all like any of the roles I’d ever seen him in. I love when actors do that. I would totally buy Bill Sage walking in with a Texas accent and a handlebar mustache being a totally cocky asshole. I could totally buy anything from him. In Simple Men, he was all bookish, so it’s funny when people don’t even recognize him at first as the scary cannibal dad.
Tribeca: Obviously the film is very performance driven. How would you describe Jim as a director in one word?
BS: Loyal, but trustworthy is better.
JG: Trustworthy. Whenever I talk about Jim, I always say, “I trust him.” That’s the first thing I say. ([laughs] Good for you, Jim!
Tribeca: When you’re approaching an ensemble cast like this, do you have rehearsals? What do you keep in mind when you direct so many actors?
JM: In Mulberry Street, we did a table read. I was blown away by how important that was. There were so many characters, which required so many actors to be in the same room. In so many movies the actors don’t feel like they are in the same movie, so it was a cool experience to get everyone together, and we did that on this film as well.
With Stake Land, Nick and Connor Paolo had this infectious thing on because Nick camped out and lived the survival thing all the way leading up to the shoot, including during the script writing process. During the shoot, the living off the land spread to all the other actors. Connor started doing it, even Danielle Harris and Sean Nelson got into it. It wasn’t a goofy method actor thing, but it did get to a point where the actors really inhabited the characters. That was great and made my job very easy because you could turn the camera on at any point and they were there.
Going into We Are What We Are, we didn’t know Bill and Julia before, but I think what was cool was that we went to the house and rehearsed. It helped that they had already played father and daughter before in Electrick Children.
JG: Also, it helped because at the place we were staying everyone just spent time with each other. Was it like a motel?
ND: It was like an old Catskill resort that had been taken over by a Polish couple. It was beautiful with all these old rooms. There was a main house and a couple acres with two ponds. The property also included this huge fire pit, so we’d have cookouts every night, play guitar, and just hang out and drink beer when we weren’t working. So it was cool that the crew, the actors, the producers, everybody were in the same boat. It was one of the most fun film shoots I’ve ever done.
Tribeca: From Mulberry Street to Stake Land to We Are What We Are, your budgets have continued to grow as your filmography progresses. Is more money a blessing or a curse?
JM: It’s both. Mulberry Street had a big apocalyptic story, but it was still set in an apartment building. Stake Land was the easiest one to do and it was probably the most ambitious. Plus, it was probably the most disproportionate in terms of its scale to its budget. I don’t know how the hell we did that for that budget.
With We Are What We Are, we were working with twice as much budget, but in terms of the scale of storytelling, it was so much smaller. This was a lot tougher shoot for me, and I still can’t put a finger on why. I think it was because of the claustrophobia and it was also the precision of the tone, how tight everything had to be.
I think that’s also what makes We Are What We Are good—that it does have that precision of tone the entire way. Even when you break out and show that these characters are monsters, the film still has this really classical feel to it.
ND: Stake Land was externally driven. So was Mulberry Street, although it was claustrophobic because it was set in an apartment. I think this film was different because in the other ones there were always outside monsters — you know vampires, zombies, things that attack you from the outside. This film involved the characters’ own demons in a sense, the cannibalism, the ritual thing that had been passed down was within them. We had to slowly build toward that revelation, so we needed to be precise and meticulous about each shot. We knew we had to get what we needed to make it play, which probably made it more difficult.
We try to provide strong enough motivations so that by the time the audience realizes that the girls are doing these horrible things—there actually are reasons for their actions.
Tribeca: Are there any current trends in the horror genre that you’re eager to see go away?
JM: Found fucking footage. Go the fuck away. I hate that shit. That to me is the reality television of horror films. Kids running around with a video camera, being like, oh no we stumbled upon… Paranormal Activity is an example of this.
BS: They’re getting away with murder.
ND: It’s a joke.
JM: It’s crap. There were a couple of fun films that used found footage in a creative way, like Man Bites Dog. Then Hollywood realized: “Holy shit! I can spend no money on this. I can go out of my way to not get stars or experienced actors, and I can make it look like shit and still make money!” They just use the cheapest tricks possible. I’m really annoyed by it.
ND: They save all the money for advertising instead of putting it on the screen.
JM: It is like reality television! But it is a business model that works.
ND: The torture porn trend was really bugging me for a while but it seems have really died down. The Hostel, all the Saw movies, I was just, “enough already.”
BS: The first one was clever but...
JM: That’s what happens! You get one film that is really cool and then other filmmakers try to redo it and forget what made the first one cool—the innovation.
BS: It seems like there should be some civic responsibility to remain original. Jim and Nick are fighting the good fight.
We Are What We Are opens this weekend in select theaters in NYC and LA.