This was a busy night for Nick Damici on set, so we basically grabbed whatever time we could with him in between his vampire-baiting and vampire-stabbing moments. Maybe it’s his character actor roots that makes Damici such a character himself, clearly the showman of the creative duo, but the fact he co-wrote both Stake Land and Mulberry Street tells us there’s a lot more going on inside that head than what might be immediately evident on the surface. Even so, it must have been hard to get out of character talking to us dressed up like the vampire-killing Mister.
ShockTIllYouDrop.com: Can you give us a little background on what kind of vampires we’re dealing with in “Stake Land”? What are the rules?
Nick Damici: We’re not really doing the lore of the vampire. They call them “vampires” because they drink blood basically, and the only way to kill them is to stake the motherf*ckers. So, our lore is, it’s like a disease. Some of the lore works, sunlight, this that – but basically, as far as the vampires themselves, I wanted to lean away from the Anne Rice sort of romantic thing and movies that are all about the vampire as a sympathetic character. I wanted to make the vampires just feral, and just go with feral kind of vampires, you know, like animals. They get out of the sun and daylight, they wake up at night, and look for something to eat.
Shock: Where does all of this come from – is it a plague or something else that starts this?
Damici It’s a plague. We kind of tie it in, in the voiceover, to pig flu in South America. It spreads up, and basically the whole world just ignites. People are being chased north by it. We’re trying to make their way to Canada through this. But the thing is, the vamps are mutating. The longer they live, they become… Like this one is a newbie. In this scene, Mister says, “Oh, it’s a newbie. Shouldn’t be too hard.” But once they survive a couple of weeks and get their vamp legs, they start to get more vicious and harder to kill. Eventually when they get to Berserker stage, you can’t even stake ’em. They’ve got a breastplate. You gotta stake ’em in the back of the skull to kill ’em. The nemesis vampire, the big evil one, he’s one of the characters, who later becomes a vampire. He becomes what we call “a thinker”. Mister says, “I ain’t never seen a f*ckin thinker before. This one’s smart…” So it gives you somewhere to go, but we’re basically making up the lore.
Shock: Do we learn this over the course of the movie or is there a flashback that shows how it all got to this point?
Damici It comes in somewhere. Mostly what we did was a voiceover. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the script. It’s action paced, just a beautiful panorama of shots shot on location in Pennsylvania – a traveling road movie. The kid, through it all, is doing the voiceover. He hardly has any lines in the movie, Martin, which is kind of cool. But you hear him always saying – he’s the one always saying – Mister said this, Mister said that, this is that kind of vamp… We kind of squeeze it in that way. We have a couple of scenes where Mister is telling the kid, “This one’s a Berserker, you can’t stake him in the f*ckin heart. Got a breastbone like f*ckin iron, monkey f*ckers. Gotta hit ’em in the back of the skull – it’s like booting’ a computer!” We’ve got a couple of scenes like that.
Shock: What got you down this road doing the apocalyptic thing?
Damici I always wanted to do a vampire movie. I think everybody here did. I like horror movies, and I always wanted to play a cowboy. We were just looking for something to do. Originally it started as a kind of webisode idea – something we could do easy. The webisode was going to be in the modern world without a plague, but I wrote like 33 webisodes for them that were so f*ckin good, that when Larry Fessenden got involved, and MPI started getting involved, we said “Hey – let’s make a movie.” We went back to the drawing board and rewrote the world it was taking place in. At that time, Obama had just been elected, so I kind of said, “Well, what if it failed? What if the New Hope fails? And then, vampires!” It kind of created our world for us.
Shock: The political component or aspect of it. Is that something you embraced right away or did you worry about how it might piss people off?
Damici Well, Mickle, he tones me down. Me, I don’t care. Obviously, the brotherhood is the Klan. In my script, they were the Klan. White Aryan brotherhood Klan motherf*ckers, taking over Pennsylvania. But we can’t call them the brotherhood, can’t call them the Klan.
Shock: Yeah you don’t want them coming after you.
Damici Aw, cmon. They’re gonna hate us anyway. I don’t care. F*ck ’em.
Shock: Considering how much you write, did this spawn from one specific idea or did you just evolve this, pick parts from different scripts, etc.?
Damici We write everyday. We do dialogue. We cut stuff out. Add stuff that comes in. Sometimes, action scenes like this. We like ’em rough. I don’t like things too choreographed, doesn’t agree with me.
Shock: Being a writer / actor, how do you separate your mind from being an actor when you write? I find it interesting that you’re writing a part that you’re going to play yourself, yet there’s very little dialogue in this film.
Damici Well there’s nothing worse in a movie than when the subtext is being told to you. Or they tell you a story of what happened – I wanna see what happened. It’s a movie. I don’t wanna hear anything come out of your mouth. We do a thing in this, which I kind of like, to cover that end of it, because we were a little concerned – nobody ever says who they are – they don’t introduce themselves. But I said, “Look. Nobody has a history.” Peckenpaugh did it all the time – he never gave you a history of anybody. There’s a lot of guys that don’t. (John) Carpenter’s famous for it. No history. You don’t do back story. And it’s kind of cool. You just accept the characters where they are when you meet them. The history plays out through their actions and who they are, as they make it up. I mean, I’m (Mister) wearing my mom’s wedding ring on my pinky. But we never mention it. At some point, you do see it. I have the gloves off here and there. Me and Jim said, we can’t ever say it. That’s an actor thing. We know why Mister kills. If you see that ring, he’s got a woman’s wedding ring on his pinky. We know what happened to his wife, and why he hates these motherf*ckers. To do the back story is corny. So that’s how we approached that. Do it for the actor – the actor can make up whatever they want. As long as he believes it, the audience will buy that he has a back story… Hopefully.
Shock: You seem to have a good history and knowledge of horror films. How did you approach this in the sense of including some things that you love about the genre yet keeping it original to the story and your vision of how you want it to stand apart?
Damici I approach the genre from…. I’m not a director. That’s up to Jim; the vision of the film is always up to Jim. That’s why we co-write. I do the hands on writing, he comes in and edits with me as we go along, then we rewrite from there. That’s more of a question for Jim. Myself, I look at this as basically a Jack London vampire movie in modern times instead of the 1800’s. That’s kind of how I see it. I don’t go in thinking, “OK, I’m writing a vampire movie.” I’m writing a story. It doesn’t have to be vampires. It could be zombies, it could be giant rats, it could be whatever is killing people. I basically just want to tell a story. Keep it simple. “Mulberry Street” was just a simple family story, I think that’s what makes it work. The problem with horror movies nowadays is, everybody all about the special effects. The actors are terrible, terrible scripts, c’mon. We’ve got Kelly McGillis in the movie, and she’s blowing us away. With her acting. In a horror movie. That’s like. “oh, not allowed! Let’s change that.” You know what I mean? They used to do it. “The Exorcist,” “The Omen.” They used to take their movies seriously. I want to move away from the camp end of it. Take it a little more seriously, and have some fun. Basically, a melodrama, kid coming-of-age.
Shock: What’s been the process of evolution for you, as a writer and as an actor, from “Mulberry Street” to this?
Damici Hopefully I’m a little bit better? It’s actually been pretty good – I’ve been doin a lot of stuff, writing, since then. When you do that a lot, you learn and you grow. Even on this one, from the first two weeks we shot to here, you kind of find the character. I was never sure how far we were going to go with it, how far we were going to take it. Obviously, I’m from New York, so at first we were like, “OK – should we go Southern? I can do accents, but Id rather not…” So we just came up with Mister. Keep it low. Don’t do no accents. Just keep it straight. Just stay away from New Yawwk.
Shock: Well there’s not a lot of dialogue so that helps, too. Was this a conscious thought going in early on, not to have much dialogue?
Damici Yeah. I had written a Western that Jim and I are interested in doing called “Maldito.” Years ago. I usually write pretty ensemble pieces, but the lead character in that is a bounty hunter. He never speaks throughout the whole movie. He just doesn’t talk. Not that he’s dumb. He doesn’t talk, which I thought was really cool. A whole movie about a guy who don’t talk. How do you do it? It was actually pretty easy. Because he became such an enigma. People’d say stuff to him, and he’d just look, like…..
Shock: Sort of like the old Clint Eastwood movies.
Damici Exactly. I think there’s something about that. This one has a few … One big choice in writing it, the kid’s name is Martin. That’s from “The Searchers.” John Wayne – I think of the John Wayne character. He just wants to kill every goddamned vamp. That’s all he wants. Then he’s burdened with this kid. He kind of promises the father, “I’ll get him to safety.” You don’t even do it that deeply. The guy says, “My boy! My boy…” as he’s bleeding, and Mister chops his f*cking head off, but when he does, he does it like he’ll help. It’s kind of interesting.
Shock: Any feelings on “Twilight” or “New Moon” you want to put out there?
Damici Aww… It is what it is. Some guys like to play Rock Band. I look at these guys and say, “Play the f*ckin guitar.” But that’s up to them. Whatever blows your skirt up. You wanna go see fairy vampire movies and pretty boys? Fine, there’s an audience for it, and I respect it. Do it. It’s not what I wanna do, but do it. I like my vamps snarly and mean and… f*cking ugly.
Shock: As far as writing, is this something you’d done before you got into acting?
Damici I always wrote. I tried to write short stories when I was a kid. I still got a lot of it. I sent a lot in to Alfred Hitchcock magazine, Science Fiction magazines. I never got anything accepted, but. You know when I started studying, was with Michael Moriarity in my late 20’s. He insisted that we all write stuff. He says it’s good for actors to write stuff for themselves, to kind of work through that process, and I was writing them for him when I realized that I could write some pretty funny stuff – some interesting stuff. The first movie I ever did was called “Fast Horses,” that I wrote. It never made it anywhere; I have it on videotape. That was low budget, like $30,000, but on film, super 16mm. Back in 1998 or so. It was just a slice-of-life New York movie about five gamblers. That came through Michael Moriarity’s class. A half-hour piece, and then we expanded that eventually into a play and then boom. Last time I did a play I played Sherlock f*cking Holmes and I never had so much fun in my life. Sherlock f*cking Holmes. That was the shit!
Shock: What I liked most about “Mulberry Street” was that it was a strong character-driven story, of a family-like situation in a building, coming together against formidable odds. It feels like your work is very character-driven. Do you come up with their stories first and then drop the horror elements in around them?
Damici Pretty much. I come up with a loose idea of a world. Where they exist. What’s happening? Then I start to fit the characters in. What would be interesting? Who would they find? They find this girlâ¦ “Okay, how about they find a nun.” That’s more interesting. In this situation, they find a nun, a soldier… You know. Instead of just anybody. You could get, like five co-eds. And they’re all dumb kids. There’s no break in the character. If that’s your f*cking cast, I don’t care if you kill ’em. You gotta care about the characters to like the movie. For me. Everybody’s got different tastes. But I wanna like somebody in the movie. I wanna follow somebody. Remember in “Alien” when they killed Tom Skerritt? First time I saw it I got up and left the theater. I was so f*cking angry. “This is the stupidest f*cking thing. How can they kill that guy in the f*cking movie? He’s the best guy in the f*cking movie!” Then I went back and saw it later on and said, “Oh, now I see why they killed him. Pretty f*cking smart.”
Shock: Can you talk a bit about your working relationship with Jim? You guys are doing “Cold in July” right after this. What were the early days like when you first met?
Damici I met Jim in Pennsylvania, shooting a student film for another guy – not for Jim – he was just working on it. He was in college. We were up there for like two weeks, basically just camping out and shooting. We just hit it off and wanted to work together. I had written a script called “The Phelbotomizer” – a horror movie, a real slasher. It’s what I wanna do, too, eventually. We’d started working on trying to get that done but it never happened. I’m 50 now, and Jim’s like 30, so he’s sort of like my younger brother. Things go smooth. We have a lot of respect and love for each other.
Shock: I’ve seen a lot of stakes and other weapons around set. There’s also a gun at your side. What’s up with that?
Damici We hardly use guns. I carry this through the whole thing but I use it maybe once. It’s a dangerous world. It’s not just vampires we’re afraid of. This gun ain’t for vamps. It’s for people.
Shock: The roles seem a bit physical such as this action scene you’re shooting. Was there any training involved for yourself or any of the actors? Obviously there’s a lot of punching and kicking and other fighting going on…
Damici We don’t want it to look like a Bruce Lee movie, but me and Conner – I’ve been training him for 6 months. He’s come to the gym three days a week. I do nasty karate kicks. We’re trying to keep it rough.
Shock: You mentioned working on “Cold in July.” Is this the next thing you’ll be working on, or is there something else before that?
Damici I imagine we’ll be working on “Cold in July” by the summer. We’ve got three fairly well-known actors ready to do it, so now it’s about raising money.
Shock: Do you have an acting role in the film?
Damici I may have a small part, but it’s an adaptation of a Joe Lansdale novel, so I didn’t feel compelled.
Shock: How did you guys end up getting that one?
Damici Jim just liked it, called, and said “Hey, I’m a fan, I liked it, I read this, I’m a director. Is it available? I’d like to option it.” Talked to him a little, talked about “Mulberry Street” – Joe liked “Mulberry Street”–called him back and said, “I love that movie, let’s talk,” and from there it got pretty cool. He’s a cool guy. He did a show – they did like a Lansdale play – it was crazy. All dedicated to Lansdale. Somewhere in New York. I think it was called “Drive in Date.” It was terrific! He was there, we got to meet him. Jim had met him once in Texas before that. Real nice guy.
Shock: Was it a lot harder to write an adaptation as opposed to something based on your own ideas?
Damici In some ways. When, organically, it’s coming out of my head, I just write the first thing down, but when you adapt somebody you have to worry, did I get the right tone, etc? I really respect writers that do adaptations now. We did change a lot of stuff, but he read it, and was fine with everything. He realized why we were changing what we did. I never had done it before, adapted. We basically took the book, read it and put it into screenplay form. Essentially. Then me and Jim sat down and started talking about how we were going to condense – because it’s a big book. I think it came to four hours, the original screenplay. So we boiled it down, to make it work. But basically, if you read the novel, and see the movie, it’s not going to be that dissimilar. We just condensed things. We left a little bit out, but not a lot.
Shock: Is Joe involved in the production?
Damici Oh, completely involved.
Shock: Whose idea was it to do a Joe Lansdale adaptation?
Damici Jim. I had never read Joe Lansdale before. I didn’t know. I read a lot, I just never came across it.
Shock: Have you since?
Damici Oh yeah. Everything I can get my hands on. “Leather Maiden” was f*cking great! The one I wanna do is The Bottoms. That’s a great f*cking book. I could play someone in that.
Shock: Any dream projects?
Damici “The Phlebotomizer” – I’ve got a special place in my heart for that one. That’s one I’d like to see get done.
Shock: Sounds like “Stake Land” is a film to be taken seriously. Is there any room at all for humor in this?
Damici We’ve generally tried to lean away from it – we had a few setup jokes in there. We only have one real setup joke in there now, that I refuse to let go because it’s too good. Tomorrow we kill a Santa Claus. Sean Nelson – actor – plays Willie. The things had him trapped for hours and hours, and we save him. It’s already dead, and he goes over to it, stompin on it’s head until it’s pulp. Finally I say, “Hey soldier, it’s dead.” He turns around and says, “I hate f*ckin Christmas.” We may not use it, but I said, let’s shoot it. Any other humor is going to come from character, and I think we’ll get that. Just characters.
Shock: It’s a very hard thing to balance, using humor in a film while bringing across a sense of realism and seriousness.
Damici European films do a much better job. You can cry and laugh in the same movie. In America, it’s one or the other. There’s always room for humor, just like in life.
Shock: Is sunlight an issue with these vampires?
Damici Yeah, we never super-establish it, you know, but we do have burnt vampires. The kid talks about it.
Shock: So they’re out during the day?
Damici They’re not out during the day, but they might be under that porch. You know what I mean? If you go into an abandoned room, watch out, they can get you in the daytime. If you’re out in the sun, you’re pretty safe.
Shock: Do these vampires smart enough to know not to go into the sun? Because they seem pretty animalistic – like they’re not the most intelligent of the bunch…
Damici Oh, we find roadkill. You know. “That dumb monkey f*cker, look at him. Got hit by a f*ckin car. ”
Shock: How worried were you when you heard they were doing “Zombieland”?
Damici Not at all.
Shock: Have you seen it?
Damici When I’m shooting, I don’t like to watch anything at all. I don’t want to change anything. I wasn’t worried. I mean, c’mon. The basic story goes back to “The Searchers.” A man and a boy. Well, not a man and a boy; there’s no muscle magazines in this movie! (laughs)
Shock: What’s it like working side by side with Conner?
Damici He’s a terrific kid. I hate to call people kids, but if I’m 50, and he’s 19, I guess I can call him a kid. He’s one of the nicest young guys I’ve met in a long time. He’s not lazy, he’s smart, he’s a lot of fun to be around.
Shock: Is Conner how you originally envisioned Martin to be? Does he bring something different to it than what you had planned?
Damici A little bit. We kind of wrote Martin younger, but then we realized we need an actor who is an adult. You can’t bring a 12-year-old kid into this environment. So it’s kind of interesting, when we made that decision, cuz I mean he plays real young. He’s looking older for this shoot because he is supposed to be, but that first shoot, when I think back, it seems like he was like three years younger then. Which is part of the movie. There’s an essence of time to all of it, and Conner fit into it perfectly.
We then take a break to watch Brian Spears clawing his way to the trap set on the porch dressed as a topless, overweight vampire woman.
Damici That’s the first thing he made. We signed him on – we weren’t even near anything – Brian sends us an email with this body suit. “I wanna play Sister Agatha,” he says. “Look, I made my tit’s!” All right, you got it!
Shock: Nick, what is you think makes “Stake Land” different or perhaps better than the rest of the vampire films being shoveled our way? What sets it apart from the pack?
Damici It’s flipping the genre backaways, and the style of filmmaking, Jim is a big fan of the 1970’s. I just think we’re in the opposite direction.