From the Set of Stake Land: Director Jim Mickle

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Jim Mickle is clearly the quiet guy in the creative partnership with the talkative Nick Damici, but he’s making a fairly ambitious jump as a director with their second movie together from a simple New York City horror movie to something more expansive. We spoke to Jim fairly late in our visit to the set, and as we began our interview, Kelly McGillis walked into the trailer to clean up after wrapping her filming for the week, so we started there…

Shock: What made you think of Kelly McGillis for the role of the nun?

Jim Mickle: They want to know what made us think of you for the role.

Kelly McKllis: Yeah? I want to hear this.

Mickle: Well I had no idea she was even available. I definitely didn’t think she’d be interested. But her name came up on the list – on a very short list – and I thought, “Holy sh*t this is amazing.” I didn’t think it was gonna happen, but we could at least try. Then, I think I wrote you a letter. Did you get that letter Kelly?

McGillis: No, I didn’t. I did not get a letter.

Mickle: I thought that was what did it. And also, she was locally from around there. It seemed all the stars kind of aligned in the right way. It made sense, but I still thought there’d be no way in Hell, and I don’t know if you know this Kelly, but we were going to get shut down had you not joined us.

McGillis: Really? I should have pitched a bigger fit.

Mickle: Yeah. At some point we were maybe three days into the shoot and the word was that we’d probably get shut down, or at least postponed if Kelly didn’t sign on by 5 o’clock, I think. I was scouting a set, freaking out and nauseous, and thought there’s no way in Hell she’s gonna say “yes” to this. Then right about 5:02 I got a call from a producer, saying that she was gonna do it, so I freaked out and hugged everyone.

Shock: How long have you had a vision for “Stake Land”? Did you already have this in mind when you were doing “Mulberry Street” a few years back?

Mickle: No, not at all, actually. I wanted to stay away, completely, from doing another multi-character/siege/horde/monster thing. I really wanted to stay away from it, and try to do a movie that was wildly different from that for a while. There’s a book adaptation that hopefully we’ll wind up doing next year… But I really wanted to separate from that kind of story. Then fate sort of brought Larry (Fessenden) into it, and at the time we had kind of become frustrated trying to get funding for a bigger movie, and we came up with this idea of doing some tiny little webisodes that we could do one at a time. We could shoot on weekends. Kind of go back to the Mulberry idea of just shooting it, get the camera and a crew of friends. Nick had sent me like this 10-page thing, which is now the opening of the movie. We originally started with that. Twelve different chapters of that. When Larry came along and said, “I have this connection, we might be able to do this bigger, feature idea,” we tried to fold it all into one big feature. It never quite worked until – it was during the election – that kind of set this backdrop, politically and socially and culturally and economically behind the story that wound up giving it the context it needed to all piece together.

Shock: Is this really a vampire movie, or is it something else?

Mickle: No. It’s something else completely different. I guess the closest thing is like “Grapes of Wrath” with vampires, but it’s also an impression of what could have happened had the economy continued to collapse even further – and maybe it still will happen.

McGillis: Oh, don’t say that!

Shock: Why vampires then?

Mickle: I don’t know. It wasn’t inspired by the “Twilight” stuff or any of that. The original script was written about a year and a half ago, and it just kept evolving from there. It just started from that one story at the beginning. Two guys driving in a car, a boy and Nick (Damici), hearing something in the trunk, turning around and shooting it. You don’t know what it is. Then we flash back and you find out about the vampires. I don’t know why vampires, specifically. We’d just done zombies, and I really wanted to stay away from that, but also, people in suits are never that interesting to me, so the idea of being able to play that human angle – like what we’re doing here (on the set) tonight with the special FX guy Brian Spears, there’s still a soul behind each character.

Shock: How frustrated were you, at all, when you found out “Zombieland” was happening?

Mickle: I still haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard about it. I feared “The Road” more than anything. I imagine all the reviews will say it falls between “The Road” and “Zombieland.” They’re good movies, so I don’t mind being part of the company, but at some point you have to say, it wasn’t inspired by those things, it’s coincidence, so you don’t try to steer away from it – you just keep going with what the original inspiration was and hope that the final product is something that enough people will wanna see. You can’t really make them for the audience, you have to kind of make them for yourself, and trust that there’s enough other weirdos like you that are going to be into it.

Shock: Do you think at all that movies like “Twilight” are sort of ruining the market for vampire films?

Mickle: A little bit. But I also felt that way when we started shooting “Mulberry Street.” I think three zombie movies came out then. I was really worried about it then, but I think we did enough of a different take on it.

Shock: What sets your vampires apart?

Mickle: Well, they don’t date!

McGillis: They don’t look good. They don’t remotely look good.

Mickle: They don’t glitter in the sunlight. There’s actually blood in this one, like the other ones. I think “True Blood” takes it too far for me – at least the first four episodes that I saw – that social and civil rights kind of stuff. Ours has that sort of Romero approach to the characters, and really, these (action and gore) scenes I don’t like doing that much. We did a beautiful scene with Kelly back here in the hotel room that almost made me cry, sitting at the monitor, because it was just this character moment. And the opportunity to break away from doing a horror movie, and then setting up these real moments between people. In “Mulberry Street,” I found that was an interesting way to go. In a lot of ways, we upped the gore and upped the action and the horror, but we also upped the relationships a lot.

Shock: I’ve heard a lot about a Christian angle and that religious elements play a part in how everything turns out. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mickle: How it worked is, Nick basically sit’s at home and just writes, and writes, and writes and writes, and sends out a million ideas. A million pages of things, and you look at it – and then my role in the screenplay is to sort of step in and edit stuff. Shape things afterwards – go back and tweak – and then when it comes to actually directing the scenes, shaping them the way I see them playing out. Nick is filled with gazillions and gazillions of ideas, and his first script is always completely overloaded trying to do way too much sh*t. But the thing that I liked about his first draft was these characters – these kind of roving, morally righteous Christian right-wing survivalists. Especially at that time. It was right around the election when the script was getting written. Seeing Rush Limbaugh. Seeing Sarah Palin. Seeing all these things pop up – that’s what scared me the most. Originally they leaned a little bit more white supremacist. I think what scares ME more, is that sort-of Bible belt middle America. I have yet to see a horror movie that has really caught that, and I think there is a great horror movie to be made about that – the terror of that. A friend of mine did “End of the Line,” that Canadian movie, where they’re in the subways in a sort-of end of days thing. That was kind of cool. It was a little more action movie, but I think there is a terrifying movie in this.

Shock: So are you aiming to piss off every right-wing state out there?

Mickle: Not really “setting out to”. At the time of the election, I kept on telling Nick… We were so frustrated. We’d taken three years and we weren’t able to get funding for it. It was such a pain in the ass. At some point I was like, “Let’s make a documentary”… and that ended up getting tossed into this.

Shock: Most people learn by experience, so what did you learn from making “Mulberry Street” as a director, that you were able to try to avoid or do differently making “Stake Land”?

Mickle: Good question. I went out of my way in the beginning to try and make this a very composed film. Because “Mulberry Street” was so documentary style and so in your face, it’s more about learning about myself I guess that I went out of the way from the beginning of this film to make it very composed and very classical, especially because we were trying to do like a “Grapes of Wrath” story, really try to do it like an old-fashioned movie. And then along the way, you know, schedules and time constraints force you to rethink things a little bit. But then I find that going through things again that more and more we take the camera off the tripod and get in there and kind of go back to the way “Mulberry Street” was done, and finding that the scenes play better that way. I guess I’m learning more about myself, I guess, in how far you can try to do something and then fall back. I don’t know if it’s falling back onto something that’s safe, or falling back onto something that feels like it’s working.

Shock: So it’s a different style of film than your first.

Mickle: It’s a different style. In “Mulberry” we were doing like seven pages (of the script) a day. We had to stage these huge scenes and four extras would show up and stuff, so this time we’re going out of the way to make sure we have those things there – the effects tonight, the stunt people – having the ability to do that and thinking things through to be able to maximize all those things, I guess, is better. It’s much better. But that’s been the thing that I think about the most – if I have a tripod movie in me.

Shock: From what’s been discussed, there’s very little dialogue. You said Nick sends you a lot of ideas. Was this something you guys specifically set out to do from the start?

Mickle: Yeah, it’s great. It plays a lot like a western, the film, and that’s what I love – to tell the story visually. Especially now, having these actors on board. People like Kelly… every time she blinks, it’s perfect.

Shock: The scene you were shooting on the porch. I was watching her on the monitor, and she looked great and doesn’t have to say anything and there’s so much coming across…

Mickle: Aww, she’s so good. I know she has issues about aging gracefully and stuff, but my biggest hope is that this movie just completely rejuvenates her career. And it should. I always knew she was good, and she was talented. I don’t know how to put this into words correctly, where she wouldn’t be offended by it somehow, but she’s found this Mickey Rourke kind of thing. She’s found this inner truth, this trust, with her surroundings. And now for her to be able to be herself, completely, in every move she does – it’s so cinematic. So photogenic. But having people like that, and Danielle and Connor–who I was afraid of, at first, because I didn’t want to cast, like, a TV guy. Having all these really great actors who are able to just play things visually, and not worry about trying to sell dialogue. We had all these scenes that were originally written out with all this long dialogue, and you say “Just play it,” and you find that the dialogue is getting in the way a lot of times.

Shock: Do you plan on staying in the horror genre – is that your passion?

Mickle: It’s my passion, but the more I’m doing, the more I’m enjoying the non-horror aspects. A night like tonight actually isn’t so bad. Some scenes on the last night of the shoot are going to be such a coordination nightmare with the gore and everything, the effects – but more and more, it’s fun to just relax and trust actors and let them do their thing and give them good material to bite into. We’re going to be doing “Cold in July,” a book adaptation. We’ve had that for a couple of years, but couldn’t raise the financing, but now we finally have the cast together that will hopefully get the financing. I’m so looking forward to that, especially after a big sprawling thing like this, with like three guys, a lot of character study, and slow…. There’s a need to deliver on the action stuff here, but I love that that book is just like slow, slow, slow, slow, slow, and then it hits!

Shock: So, going from “Mulberry Street” to “Stake Land” to “Cold in July”, are you finding that your focus as a director is shifting?

Mickle: Yeah, definitely. I think that the reason (“Stake Land”) is working for me is because we’ve found a completely different way to do it. “Mulberry Street” was all claustrophobic, in tiny hallways, and now we’ve been able to stage things much bigger.

Shock: Is that your intention, to go off in a different direction eventually?

Mickle: Definitely.

Shock: Have you discovered anything about your capacity as a director that you hadn’t really been aware of before you started this?

Mickle: I guess maybe a sensitivity to it. I think Kelly liked working with me and I just thought it was gonna be bad. The first day she showed up she was like, “It doesn’t matter what I do – it’s just a horror movie.” Then we had some discussion about that, and how we were trying to do it gracefully. And I think through that, finding more capabilities for those kinds of things. I grew up wanting to do special effects – that’s what got me into it. Slowly it’s starting to turn past that, I guess.

Shock: Obviously “Stake Land” is set in a very tough world. I’m sure you’re not looking to be rated PG-13. How far are you going with the gore?

Mickle: We’ve just gone for it. I don’t know if you were able to catch the opening scene? It’s a rough cut so we could show how things were going. They showed it to AFM to some people. That’s got a lot in there. And the goal there was definitely amp it up right away. In “Mulberry Street”, the first couple of things that happened weren’t that big. I could feel the disappointment with the audience – when I got to see it with a horror audience – they’re waiting for the first big thing to happen. There was a little bit of an, “Aww, that wasn’t as good as I wanted it be.” So in this one, we’ve really gone out of our way to, right off the bat, kick you in the ass. All motivated and still centered around the characters and what’s happening, but yeah, we definitely wanted to push it. I was so tired of seeing “True Blood” and “Twilight” and those kinds of movies. They’re so… ugh!!! I was so not into them. All my friends would make fun of me for being into horror movies. They’d be like, “Oh, did you see “True Blood”? It’s just amazing…” No! I’ve been telling you for years that you can make B-movies, or horror movies, and still give them real characters and real emotions. But it’s cool, because it’s on HBO.

Shock: How hard was it to balance the drama you wanted to get out of this film, while still delivering on the raw horror aspects that fans expect to see?

Mickle: It wasn’t hard for me, because they did such a great job of writing it in there. It’s never written as a character moment, and then a horror moment, or an action moment. It’s kind of a James Cameron ability, to tie in all the action. Especially when you bring Conner in. Conner is unbelievable at being able to read his role, and taking a scene where he was really just a character in there because he had to be in there, and finding a way for him to build that scene around his character. With that, we’ve been able to make every action scene and every piece really a turning point for somebody. It’s never just, “We wanna show this cool effect.” It’s always, “Why would that character…” So actually it’s not that hard, I would say. It happens pretty effortlessly.

(At this point, special effects artist Brian Spears walks into the trailer dressed as a semi-naked vampire nun.) And then to just blow all the legitimacy of what I’m saying, in walks this guy…

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Source: Edward Douglas