"We Are What We Are"
"We Are What We Are"

Just three years after Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 Mexican film "We Are What We Are" played at the Cannes Festival market (see clip and original Mexican trailer below), Jim Mickle's American remake, which debuted well at Sundance, played in the festival proper in the Director's Fortnight, which sometimes welcomes smart well-made horror films such as this one. EOne opens the elegantly shot, well-acted film--which deals with a small town religious family maintaining their long tradition of ritual cannibalism-- September 27.

The trailer for "We Are What We Are" is here.

Raised in rural Pennsylvania without much access to movie theaters, writer-director Mickle is a horror film fanatic who supported himself as a jack of all trades after graduating from NYU Film School, doing corporate videos and low budget films, often with rookie directors, as a electrician, grip or storyboard artist. He's yet another example of today's DIY ethic, as groups of would-be filmmakers pull together to help each other make low-end HD movies.

Anne Thompson: When did you decide that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Jim Mickle: I grew up first wanting to be a magician, that evolved into special effects makeup, monsters, then weirdly into movies. I'd watch horror movies for the effects work, the makeup and trickery of it. One morning I watched "Leprechaun," it was terrible, the lamest thing. Then I watched Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness," and everything clicked, the makeup and monsters and fun exercise of film craft. I was blown away by the thoughtful inspiration behind the writing, acting, effects and camera work. 'These people consider this an art!'

Jim Mickle directs Nick Damici and Michael Parks
Jim Mickle directs Nick Damici and Michael Parks

When did you start making films?

I got my camera background in [home] moviemaking with my sister (who is now a very successful production designer), neighbors, and friends. When I was in high school I got into film because my dad would take me, starting when my parents split, every September I'd miss the first week of high school to go up to the Toronto Film Festival. We'd see around five films a day. It was amazing. My sister started working on my friends' films in film school. She was into painting, studied video art at Columbia.

Then I had gone away from horror, loving foreign films, challenging independent films. I turned my back on popcorn horror stuff. When I first went to NYU, I was very pretentious: 'I'm a film student.' Four years of film school reverted me back to wanting to entertain. I fell out of love with the typical standard pretentious 22-year-old privileged ways of the world. I got fed up with that.

My senior film student film was a little tongue-in-cheek horror film "The Underdogs," about a town of dogs that teams up to overtake humans, a 50s monster movie, with German Shepherds, Collies. From there I was having fun with it, playing with style, the make-believe aspect is what turned me on. I fell back in love with that. I'm rooted in horror fandom. When it's done well, I love it.

What did you do after NYU?

I graduated school, bounded around a lot of jobs, painted in NY, did grip work, editing, spent a lot time in preproduction, production and postproduction. You were waiting for someone to give you $1 million to make your first feature: NYU set you up expect that, but it doesn't happen. I met Nick Damici, my writing partner on all three of my films, the lead in the first two, and the sheriff in this one. I met him on a short film I was working on. I liked him as an actor, liked his ideas and writing, his screenplays. I helped him. He played the killer in Jane Campion's "In the Cut." He felt his career wasn't happening. We both felt beaten up, hoping to have an opportunity. They weren't going to come to us. We'd have to take it. 

How did you make your first film?

I dreamed of making a movie, we'd raise what we need, strip down the story as much as possible. Nick writes "Mulberry Street," originally like "Night of Living Dead" in the snow on farmland, a nice experiment. But we can't make that for $10,000. That dies, we shelve it. Then he comes back, we rework the movie for a one bedroom tenement on Houston street, and shoot it all in his place with a DVX 100 Panasonic mini-DV camera, which I loved. I was doing a lot of corporate video, and I'd borrow one for the weekend and conveniently keep it for a week. I was pulling people I had worked with on sets who wanted to do something bigger. They would not get paid, but at least they'd have something to show. Ryan Samuel, my cinematographer, I had done a lot of grip work with. I got it in for $25,000, then started getting accepted to festivals, won awards, got critical response, which especially given the genre, I was not expecting.

Early on as we were putting this together a gazillion zombie movies were coming out, like "28 Weeks Later," a newer batch of Romero "The Dead" movies, and a "Dawn of the Dead" remake. We were trying to strategize to set ourselves apart, not beat them with effects and spectacle, but tell the story and create characters that were not the stereotype, but relatable to the masses, and try to say something also. It's a lot about gentrification in NYC, and eminent domain, which was a big deal at the time. The lack of budget gave us the freedom to do something more than stupid zombie movies.