Exclusive Interview: Stake Land’s Jim Mickle

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Opening in theaters this Friday

In Jim Mickle’s Stake Land (review), America’s got a big problem. A vampire problem.

Bloodsuckers have overrun the country, dividing the U.S. into various territories. The film follows a hunter, known only as Mister (co-writer/actor Nick Damici), who takes on an apprentice, Martin (Conor Paolo). Through Martin’s eyes, we witness a landscape of frightened survivors, religious zealots and merciless vamps.

With the film, Mickle is tackling a considerably larger storytelling canvas. He last helmed the claustrophobic urban terror flick Mulberry Street (also starring/written by Damici) and he says he was thrilled to step away from the damp confines of that project to explore America’s East Coast for Stake Land. Mickle was gracious enough to talk with Shock by phone recently…

Shock Till You Drop: How much were you influenced by the works of Richard Matheson, Stephen King or even Cormac McCarthy?

Jim Mickle: In some ways. I think it’s weird, there’s so many things going on in it. Nick and I talked about stuff and he goes away and mapped stuff out, sometimes it’s exactly what we talked about. Sometimes he went off on a whole new thing and then we’d sort of run with that idea. “I Am Legend” is the greatest book ever. You sort of start working, then when you look back on it you’re like, “Oh yeah, I see that there.” You can see pieces of this and pieces of that. So, yeah, I think that’s one of the things. We have a lot of different ideas we sort of referenced and things that we’d drawn. But, there’s a couple of things that definitely overlap strongly as that’s probably both of our favorite books, “I Am Legend”, and I just remember being so disappointed when they were going to be redoing it with Will Smith and then that came out and then ruined it for me.

Shock: Are there any difficulties in the script process when you know you’re co-writer is also the film’s leading man?

Mickle: No, for Nick, it’s like, the thing you trust the most is for him to be honest. He was writing it and while he was writing it he was carving weapons. So, I come down to meet with him and he was already making his own costumes, his own outfits. His shoes he stitched together. He made those leather pants. I’d be working and he’d email me pictures of stakes and he found out how to make a bow and arrow from a stick that would shoot straight. I think it’s method, but it’s like his own method approach, “I want to play this character out to the fullest.” It’s not tough at all with him because I think he’s really good at writing really terse dialogue and really sort of minimalist, almost Cormac McCarthy sort of prose. I think it’s just kind of natural to him, especially in this case where he knew that he would be that guy. I think he just sort of hit a wave and really wrote it.

Shock: Touching again on the mixed stew this film offers, what genre trappings did you want to avoid?

Mickle: We were writing this before the True Blood, Twilight and the barrage of vampire stuff. We wanted the vampires scary and to scare the crap out of me. It wasn’t so much like, we want to avoid this or avoid that, but then I think also in doing low budget stuff, you’re always trying to find: What’s interesting that we could do that’s going to make it click? In this case, I think it was that idea that they weren’t going to talk.

Shock: What was the launching point story-wise, playing on religion? Imagining a world rife with vampires? The lone vampire hunter who finds a pupil?

Mickle: It was a web-series and it took place in modern day and there was almost like an FBI conspiracy that there were vampires, but they were trying to cover them up and they would hire this guy to go around. Along the way, he finds his partner. I think it always worked and what was cool about it was it was a playground to explore all these different types of vampires and different areas that they would go into and what kind of vampire would be there and how to fight them. We would map out these things. Then, once Larry Fessenden came along and proposed we do a feature, it was about how do we connect all these dots? Nick became this backbone to pull it all together and give it an overall arc. That was when Nick really disappeared for a weekend, came back and said, “I got a whole new way to do this.”

Shock: Discuss the challenges of shooting a film on this budget? Did you run up and down the East Coast gather what you needed?

Mickle: Yeah, well the concept from the beginning was to shoot it over the course of a year. Use the four different seasons but because of actor availability, you can’t really do that. So, we did end up making three seasons I think where in the springtime we shot on the Red cameras and we were testing that technology to see if it was something we wanted to use. But then, we basically got to borrow the cameras for the weekend and shoot stuff to make sure it worked and we could use that as an opportunity to get a lot of sort of B roll footage of Nick. We shot that in Pennsylvania, I want to say in March. We went to Pennsylvania and shot a lot of that stuff. Then, we came back in August and we shot the first half of the movie in my dad’s backyard, in his cornfield and barn. Then, we shot for three weeks and then we took off for three or four months and came back in November and brought the whole cast back, brought the whole crew back and then moved to the Catskill Mountains and caught the tail-end of fall, beginning of winter.

Shock: Did you feel at ease with the scope of this project and the large cast?

Mickle: I think so, yeah. I’m attracted to much broader character stories that happen to be set in a horror movie, you know? I think it’s always so much more fun because the thing I like about horror movies is I grew up being a fanboy and loving the blood and guts. Then, as I sort of evolved, I became to respect horror films in that they’re really the last genre where you can really experiment technically and film-wise and sort of not be punished by your audience because you can get away with throwing on these really bold music choices, this bold cinematography and offbeat characters and acting choices and you can feel free to get crazy with the camera. I think emotionally and dramatically you’re also always at this heightened level, you can actually take a melodramatic character drama and pop it into that setting and all of a sudden it takes on this whole new feel and energy to it. Mulberry Street was very contained and we couldn’t really leave this department, but it was so much fun to play with the ensemble cast and the setting, and this was an opportunity to turn that inside out or explode it and do that on a much bigger scale.

Shock: Do you think that there’s any – for lack of a better phrase – blood left in the vampire genre to tap at this point?

Mickle: Yeah, I think there always is. I don’t know off the top of my head what it would be, but I do think there’s always a little toothpaste left in the tube, you know? But I like it when something comes along that’s a game changer and it shakes up thinking. I think there’s always going to be something there. It’s just a matter of finding it.

Shock: Do you think there’s material left to explore within the Stake Land universe?

Mickle: There are webisodes coming out before the movie and a comic book prequel. We shot seven little short films that are going to be coming out. Different directors. It’ll have a different take and handle on it. But I think there’s a lot of material that we never got to make with this that would be fun to explore, but one thing I’ve talked about Nick is not, if the movie definitely does well and people want there to be another one, that it would be fun to do it years from now, see where the context of the country is and let Martin grow up and meet different people and sort of come back to it that way.

Shock: Has Stake Land paved the way for any upcoming projects?

Mickle: Yeah, this book Cold in July that we adapted a while ago, it’s Joe Lansdale’s book and a Western thriller, country noir sort of thing. Stake Land definitely opened up some doors to finally get that made. So that’s on the table hopefully this year. Then, some other stuff has popped up within the last week, so we’ll have to wait and see.

You can find all of those webisodes Mickle referred to over at Apple now. Stake Land opens in select theaters April 22 through Dark Sky Films.

Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor

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Weekend: Nov. 14, 2019, Nov. 17, 2019

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