The New American Horror: Jim Mickle

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The New American Horror: Jim Mickle
[In honor of his latest film, Stake Land, being selected to the Toronto International Film Festival, we proudly re-introduce the interview we ran with director Jim Mickle back in April.]

Five directors. Ten questions. Meet the face of The New American Horror.

Sure, the American horror film has never gone away. Far from it. America has long been the prime producer of horror film on the face of the planet. But what we are seeing now is the beginning of a distinct movement within American independent horror, a community of film makers with shared ideals and similar aesthetics. A group of film makers producing films that are clearly and uniquely their own. Films made not as low budget audition pieces for a big budget Hollywood job but because these are the films that they love.  Not since the days that Wes Craven and Sam Raimi were embedding messages to one another in their films has there been such a unique and tightly connected group. They may not all know each other but they certainly know each others' work.

The five break down into three distinct groups. There is the west coast duo of Adam Green (Frozen, Hatchet) and Paul Solet (Grace). There is the eastern pairing of Larry Fessenden proteges Ti West (The House of the Devil) and Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street, Stake Land) and the southern outsider Adam Wingard (Pop Skull, A Horrible Way To Die).

We posed the same ten questions to each of the five and will feature their responses, one a day, throughout this week.  Today: Jim Mickle.

1.  Your name and year of birth.

Jim Mickle 1979

2.  What is the first film you remember seeing in a movie theatre? Who took you?

My parents took me to see PINOCCHIO when I was too little to remember much, but I can very clearly remember the theater experience and the whale scene.

3.  What is the first moment you remember thinking that making movies was something you wanted to do?

It sounds predictable, but I remember the exact shot in ARMY OF DARKNESS where all of my unfocused interest in the film world kind of clicked into place and I knew exactly what I wanted to be doing.

I was about thirteen and  obsessed with make-up FX and animatronics and was always trying to build monsters with bike brake cables and cheap latex. The idea of making movies was just an excuse to try out FX gags. But about 10 minutes into ARMY OF DARKNESS, there's a wide shot of them pulling up to the castle and I remember being completely caught up by the filmmaking up to that point. I was aware for the first time of the language of storytelling and how whoever was making the movie was having fun with camera moves, compositions, costumes, music, etc. There were all these other elements to filmmaking that I started paying attention to.

I had just watched TICKS and LEPRECHAUN that day too, so I was ready for something new even at that age.

4.  The directors grouped in this series were all chosen because something feels essentially American about them. In your mind, what separates American horror film from horror around the world?

It can probably be best described by its wide variety. That and a big part of its resurgence is a new sense of fear and paranoia largely prompted by American politics. Whether it's dealt with directly or indirectly, we have something to talk about again and now things like the end-of-the-world don't seem so impossible anymore. So suddenly, there's a real appetite for films that deal with everyday scary things, THE LAST WINTER being a perfect example.

I'd like to think we're dealing with a time that's closer to the '70s in terms of the appetite for real genre films. New software and camera technology allow indie filmmakers to actually compete with studio fare for attention instead of being relegated to little or no release. Hollywood can stick to remaking everything in sight, and indie filmmakers can take more complicated topics and make more satisfying genre experiences affordably.

These days we have things like TWILIGHT and SAW which are enough to satisfy a large portion of the audience, but there's now a lot more room for smaller films to get some love from bigger audiences. Somehow the sheer size of the US genre scene has allowed for a lot more freedom than has in a long time, and I think it's reflected by how many new voices there are to go along with the traditional studio fare.

5.  To what extent has your aesthetic been shaped by budget? How would your films change if you had a hundred million to work with?

MULBERRY STREET was shaped entirely by its budget. Almost every aspect of its construction was designed to get around the fact that we had virtually no money to spend. The result was a creature movie with an epic concern for everything else-- character, tone, and performances. In that case, the lack of budget probably resulted in a much purer filmmaking experience even if it couldn't satisfy every genre fan. But had it come out the way I was originally hoping for (a no-budget, slapstick, B-movie, with over the top rat monster set pieces) it probably would have connected with no one. In many ways it was the perfect first feature experience.

STAKE LAND has allowed a little more room to play, but the budget concerns - and more specifically the tight schedule worries - again were solved by coming up with more creative and interesting solutions. Out of habit, the fundamentals of character and tone are still the main thrust, but I think we've been able to find the right balance with real scares and action.

So while budget restrictions can be the most frustrating part of making low budget films, they've also forced some of the decisions that I'm most proud of. Larry Fessenden was a big proponent of using limitations as a spark plug for taking bigger chances and bolder choices.

I doubt an obscenely large budget would mean any real improvement of the quality of films I'd make. If I had $100 million, hopefully I'd split it up and make a bunch of smaller movies, then fund other people's movies with the rest. And hopefully I'd be able to continue working with the same people, but instead pay them what they really deserve.

6.  How important is it to you to be involved in the script writing process?

Hugely important, and not just in telling the story that you want to tell. To know every beat of the script intimately as well as every draft that's come before it, it allows you to respond to spontaneous on-set ideas at a gut level and to understand immediately the ripple effect any new idea may create.

I think one way I evolved on STAKE LAND was in constantly being open to new ideas and new directions for scenes, characters, and dialogue. Once it was written, we incorporated ideas from actors, department heads, and crew members with equal attention. I've worked on movies where the director seemed to be understanding the scene for the first time on the set. But being a part of the writing phase gives you that freedom to have faith in the subtleties without being a slave to the script just because it's printed that way.

With myself and Nick Damici I like to think that he's doing the heavy lifting on the script front, then we tweak until - and even while - we're shooting the scene and then I'm able to finish it in the editing room.

7.  What, in your mind, is the distinction between shock and fear? How do you try to use both in your work?

The shock part can get old for me pretty quickly. I think the whole J-horror explosion gave filmmakers the confidence to scare audiences with an overall feel of dread and the constant notion that something truly horrifying could happen at any moment, even if it never did. I'd rather be on the edge of my seat for two hours than just waiting for a good jump scare to spike my adrenalin for a few seconds.

I like filmmakers that understand the need to earn the audience's fear. MULBERRY STREET experiments with some of that, but with STAKE LAND I think we've matured and adopted more of the classic Spielberg notion of pulling the audience in with some well timed scares early, and then using those cues and some of the viewer's preconceptions of what will happen to let them scare themselves without any jump scares. My favorite sequence in the film is a five minute span of silence where nothing happens, but I think because of earlier scenes, we've convinced the viewer that something is going to happen. The delay seems to get the most visceral response from audiences so far.

8.  What makes the classics great? What do you try to emulate from the films and directors who came before you?

Their ability to take risks and to experiment with traditions even when it wasn't established that audiences were ready for it. John Carpenter is king for understanding how to play the genre as a western. Ridley Scott and Dan O'Bannon had the balls to play a sci-fi/spaceship story as a haunted house movie. The Coen Brothers constantly subvert different genres while honoring them at the same time. Terence Malick understood how to play great human dramas with very little dialogue or set up. I love that he managed to tell big stories with many small, quiet human touches that added up to something very satisfying as a whole. Larry Fessenden deserves all the praise in the world for using the genre to explore themes that audiences would traditionally never really care for on their own. These are all things that have hugely influenced STAKE LAND and anything else I'm trying to do. Any time someone plays with the dark genre and uses it to explore bigger themes or stretches it over another genre's canvas it almost always results in something interesting.

9.  Are there other genres you would like to experiment with? Why?

I could retire if I got to do a Western. Thankfully there are filmmakers out there who won't let the genre die entirely but I think it's kind of tragic that it's dwindled so much and seems to be looked at as such a risk by Hollywood. Now it's only worth doing if you can put Russel Crowe AND Christian Bale on the poster. I love how flexible it is as a genre and how again it can be used to explore an unlimited set of themes and characterizations. Mostly I love how tailor made the genre is for telling stories visually. You never need much dialogue or exposition when you got dudes staring each other down at a train station. Yet, you can throw in some Shakespeare and it becomes DEADWOOD. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is one of my new favorites of the last decade. I could watch it on an endless loop.

I'd love to do a film noir, kind of for the same reasons. We're hoping to do Joe Lansdale's novel COLD IN JULY, which feels like a western / noir just filtered through Joe's twisted mind.

10.  Is there anything you absolutely would not consider doing, either as a professional move - i.e. for hire studio work - or ethical lines within your own films?

I complain about the Hollywood system a lot, but I'd never turn my nose up at a chance to do something at a studio, solely because it's for a studio or because it's for hire. Every project has its own baggage, and I'd love the challenge of taking something at that level and trying to make it my own if the freedom was there to do it. I could never kill a real animal for a movie. I don't think I could remake something that I really liked the first time.

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Kurt HalfyardApril 16, 2010 11:06 AM

OK, Jim Mikkle is my new hero. Every answer to this question appeals directly to my sensibility. I loved Mulberry Street (and for that matter, The Coen's, Terrence Malick, The Last Winter and The Assassination of Jesse James and I would really, really, really love to see him make a western (I Sell The Dead style, in tight locations in NYC, just for the challenge!)

MetrogenicApril 17, 2010 7:22 PM

What Kurt said. Mulberry Street was my favorite out of that year's After Dark Horrorfest offerings, and he had all the right answers, as far as I'm concerned. We do need more westerns. Just to add another to the list, The Proposition is one of my favorite films of the last decade.

Kurt HalfyardApril 17, 2010 7:37 PM

It doesn't even have to be a conventional western.

Blueberry, Dear Wendy, No Country For Old Men, and A History of Violence are all 'westerns' in their own way. And they are all spiffy cinema to boot!

Ben UmsteadApril 17, 2010 8:38 PM

Really digging the vibe here with this Mickle fellow. I've seen this giant blow-up rat near Rockefeller Center a few times... some guys babble around it, about infection I suppose... there is a big cartoonish sore on the rat. Wonder if this was around as an influence for Mulberry Street.

James MarshAugust 17, 2010 10:56 PM

Really must get around to watching my copy of MULBERRY STREET - thanks for the reminder!