We talked about doing a web series, we moved apartments and the new place had no cable or TV. We wanted to zone out and watch the laptop online, we were looking for web series, and kept thinking we'd do "Lost" for the online crowd, "someday somebody will." Nick started sending me five-page episodic stories about a guy and a kid traveling across America after a vampire epidemic. Some were episode action genre, some were beautiful stories about an orphan kid and his adopted father. We wound up with 30 things we didn't know what to do with.
[Producer] Larry Fessenden, who I'd been contacting for years since I was a freshman in film school, called me up out of blue. "House of the Devil" had done well at Dark Sky Films, did I have anything? "We have 300 pages of short vignettes, what if we did these as a feature, gave it a backbone and structure?" That was "Stakeland." A lot of episodes were still zombies with fangs, but we turned it into a very raw gritty campfire story, more like a Romero idea or the vampires in "I Am Legend."
It sounds like "The Road" or "Walking Dead."
Larry produced "Stakeland" for Dark Sky Films, the company that financed it. We could have premiered before "Walking Dead," we were pushing the distributors to release this movie, they sat on it forever and "Walking Dead" came out. That was the beginning of my struggles with distributors, hopefully that will not be repeated with this. It was a debacle. They showed up at Toronto announcing the release and gave the wrong impression. It wound up winning the Midnight Madness audience award. They didn't know what to do with it. The movie was better than what they were used to: direct video stuff. The film had an amazing life, won awards, we traveled for a couple years around world, it built a strong cult following. It's a shame that it didn't get a big push.
How did you come to make "We Are What We Are?"
Ever since "Mulberry Street" we've been trying to make a thriller, a book adaptation that I'm hoping we'll be announcing in Cannes, which is finally going forward. It was tough to find financing. It's not horror, it's an art film, it's in between, and leaves sales people scratching their heads. We were battling to get that film up and going in the summer, it was winter, so we had to wait a couple months. Meantime, Milennium got rights to this Mexican cannibal film: "Would you be interested?"
I usually scream against remakes and reboots, especially horror movies or recent foreign films like "Let the Right One In" make me livid. "We Are What We Are" had played at film festivals with "Stakeland," I had always wanted to see it. I remember hearing the synopsis and was jealous that the guy came up with it, beat me to something I'd like to do. It was an awesome concept, he was doing what we were doing, making a movie about a dysfunctional family and yet he had a fresh gut-punching genre concept.
You wouldn't have to play that much with it. I had an idea of the movie before I saw it. They gave it to us, we went back and watched it. It was a weird feeling: half of me liked it for what it is, but also, I felt the director made a personal film that was culturally specific. There was a lot left over that I was into. I felt like it was the kind of film I'd want to make. I felt like he'd made his own take on that. I was able to creatively get into it, to try to remake it or top it, make it our call-and-response effort to a personal film about growing up without a father in urban Mexico. We'll do our version about growing up and losing a mom as a teenager in a small town. We can equally tell an interesting personal story and tackle religion in an American way. He had a metaphorical Mexican twist on it.
How do you and Nick work together?
He's the workhorse doing the writing. He gets up at 6 in the morning and does bang out a couple hours so there's a draft waiting in my inbox for me to read that day, tweak, shave and go back and forth on it. It's always changing, it's always different. Sometimes it's like 50/50 back and forth. We start talking about what is exciting to both of us about story. This is a horror film about Fundamentalist religion, being able to fold that into the other concept. It goes from there. We could try to do it more traditionally, I guess, but we have to do our own weird undisciplined attack, and tear it to pieces.
How did you find your cast?
I first loved "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and Julia Garner, she was all questions, "why do this?" She was trying to get into it as a character, doing what the character was doing, questioning and doubting. It was cool to see her struggle with that. I wanted the dad to be not a cartoon monster, so we cast someone likable, soft and charming, Bill Spade. I'm a huge fan of "Flirt," the poster is on my wall, I thought of him as a young dashing sweet-faced guy. He came in and auditioned, and scared the shit out of me, his white shirt had not been washed in days, he had a beard, had it all mapped out, with the twitchy eye thing. He intimidated me in the room. He's kind of like Nicholson in "The Shining," able to give tough scenes a weighty feel. He got immediately that he was not playing a monster, but playing a guy trying to keep his family together. He struck a literal interpretation of what had been passed down to him and followed that as much as possible.
Michael Parks: I've been a huge fan a long time. I wanted to see him not be a bad ass Tarantino guy, but somebody who had a heart who you could feel for. I wrote him a letter, he said "yes."
I gave Kelly McGillis a thankless part in "Stakeland" as a nun brutalized by a militant Christian group. I just wanted her to smile--nobody smiles in a movie about the apocalypse. So I wanted to give her lighter part and open up her comedic side. She was a lot of fun.
I saw an audition tape for Ambyr Childers for something else that her agency sent over. I go through gazillion tapes of 30-year-old actress types, a lot of duds in there, I was blown away by her. She grew up in a Mormon household, ding ding. She went for it. She was skeptical at first, she had done "The Master," this was a cheap cannibal movie in the woods. She was a discovery for me.
Sundance must have been a trip for you.
It was a blur, in a lot of good ways. I didn't finish the movie until right before, edit, FX, out the door. I would have been sitting freaking out otherwise: work work work, right up until the first night. It was like pulling off a bandaid. It was great, a really cool experience because the opening went well. We were not fooling anyone. By that time they are aware of this movie, know it's about cannibals, or a remake, so they're interested going in, the expectations are there. It became about how we handled our twist surprise. It's not how you would expect us to treat it, in an almost romantic, sensual way, underplayed. That became part of the fun, to not trick you, mislead you as to which way it's going to go.
What was the reaction?
"Mulberry Street" was a love and hate splitter. I got tough skin from that. The Hollywood Reporter liked it. I felt like I could see an evolution in the perception during the week of the festival, all five screenings, you could see as it went on, it became looser, people knew they could laugh, maybe knew the ending was a surprise. It was a slow burn. I was very nervous on the first one. It was a process of getting validation with Sundance.
And were you expecting Cannes?
Julia Garner's mom is psychic. On the shoot people would call, she'd give advice. After two days at Sundance, Julia was talking to her mom, hands me the phone, I pick up: "I hear you will do well and go to Cannes because they really like the treatment of religion." Literally that night, Edouard Waintrop of Director's Fortnight saw it and loved it and wanted to have a drink. The whole time we talked, he was gushing about the depiction of religion.