STAKE LAND (2010): Interview With Jim Mickle
Jim Mickle's Stake Land (2010), co-written by its leading star Nick Damici, has been a consensual favorite for the Twitch team even before its world premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes described it as "a road movie with fangs" and praised producer Larry Fessenden's "choice to take bigger chances and make bolder choices in spite of budget limitations." TIFF's audience wholeheartedly agreed and Stake Land won the Midnight Madness Award.
Twitch teammate Todd Brown proclaimed Stake Land: "The American horror film of the year. Plain and simple"; a pullquote picked up by the film's marketing team. Sean Smithson, Kurt Halfyard, and Swarez likewise placed Stake Land on their year-end top lists. "Mickle is just happy and unashamed to be making a genre picture with no pretensions to Deep Meaning," Grady Hendrix suggested; Stake Land "alternates between scrappy and stately" commented Kurt Halfyard; and Andrew Mack praised the film's "beautiful musical score that helps evoke that feeling of frontier spirit of the film."
With a a couple of Late Show screenings at SFIFF54 and a "decongestive" three-day stint at the Roxie (April 29-May 1, 2011) as part of Mike Keegan's "Spring Slaughter on 16th Street"--"a respite from the fluff clogging your cinematic sinuses this time of year" (a wry snipe if ever I've read one)--Stake Land bombs the hell out of San Francisco with its devastatingly feral undead.
Although Todd Brown already interviewed Mickle for his "New American Horror" series, and followed through with a handful of supplemental inquiries at TIFF, I couldn't resist my own round with Mickle to promote Stake Land's Bay Area premiere. My thanks to Todd for getting Mickle and I in touch.
[This conversation is not for the spoiler-wary!!]
* * *Michael Guillén: Jim, your opportunity to interact with audiences and engage their feedback has been primarily through the festival circuit at this point?
Jim Mickle: Yeah. So far, only the festival circuit. I went over to see it at Cinefest this last weekend and that was the first time I'd seen it with an audience in a while.
Guillén: How are audiences taking the film?
Mickle: Great! Since our first screening at Toronto, it's all been great. Mulberry Street (2007) had a weird response. We premiered at South by Southwest and there was a weird response there. I don't think people really knew what to think of it. It floundered a little bit and then it played at the European fantasy festivals where it started to get its legs. People started to appreciate it and realized it wasn't what they thought it was going to be but they liked it for what it was. By the time it hit Tribeca a couple of months later, it had achieved momentum and had a much stronger reception. It really seemed to connect with people.
But Stake Land right off the bat in the middle of September when we hit Toronto really connected with people and seemed to trip the response I like to hear and that I hear kind of often--"I don't really like horror movies but I like this movie"--which I feel is good. People who do like horror movies are increment when they bring their friends or dates or family and those people wind up enjoying it too.
Guillén: You won the audience award at TIFF's Midnight Madness, which isn't a bad start to a festival run.
Mickle: Yeah, that was good validation from them at the start.
Guillén: Did that audience validation come as a surprise? Or did you already have a sense that your reversion of the vampire mythos was strong and sure?
Mickle: It's tough to be able to look at it that objectively, especially that early on, and I remember moments of being on set and thinking, "Wow, this is low budget. This is very DIY. This is like going in the backyard and making a movie." On the one hand, that's great; but on the other hand, that often doesn't translate into a big audience. I remember considering these things at some point and having to black that all out just to keep moving forward, making the movie and trusting the script, characters and actors.
So that was the first thing I remembered when we did win. I didn't expect to win because there were a lot of great movies in Midnight Madness. A lot of movies that played earlier than we did seemed to have a giant reception so I was pretty shocked and excited when we won because I had spent a lot of years in Toronto in high school. It felt like a family field trip to remember all the crazy midnight movies I used to see there and it had always been a goal to have a movie of mine play there at some point.
Guillén: You went to school in New York, is that correct?
Mickle: Yes, I went to film school in New York. I grew up outside Philadelphia.
Guillén: And you've been friends with Nick Damici, the film's screenwriter and lead actor, for going on 10 years now?
Mickle: Yeah, 10 years this week actually. I just found a journal I used to keep in college when I was working on films and jotted down contact info. I looked through it and found "4/19: Met Nick Damici, actor." So, yeah, it's pretty cool to think that Stake Land will be coming out to the day almost 10 years after.
Guillén: I know it's difficult to pinpoint such things and narrow them down, but, what was it in Nick Damici when you met him that gave you a sense that you could collaborate with him in the future?
Mickle: That's a good question. I met him during a student film and he really stuck out. Usually you don't see actors in a student film where you think, "Wow, this guy's great." But he really stood out in that little student film and--especially in film school--you do a lot of work on family melodramas and coming-of-age stories where everybody's finding their voice but they're all 19-22 years old. That was at a time when I was starting to lean towards enjoying genre again. I had gone through a snobby patch of only liking foreign films and forgetting that I had grown up loving horror movies. I sort of fell back in love with them and realized that genre films were the most fun thing to be working on. So I met Nick at that time and he was one of the only people that I talked to on these sets that sort of felt the same way.
But also, I have an odd sensibility and have been influenced by a mishmash of a lot of genres and it was sort of the same for him. Then in a weird way we kind of completed each other because he was 20 years older than I am and he grew up with a whole different set of influences whereas I grew up with the films that came a whole generation after so--through our friendship--we were able to pool from a wide range of movies that pertained to what we were into. At the same time, they completely overlapped. We're both turned on by the same material, the same ideas, so I think it was all about that.
Also, we had the same kind of desperation. I was getting out of school and I was in a panic because when you graduate from school you have no idea where you're going to go or what the next step is going to be. It's terrifying. At the same time, Nick was doing In the Cut (2003), the Jane Campion film, he had a role in that, and there was all this uncertainty about whether the film was going to do well and what that might mean for his career. Both of us hit a patch for a couple of years where we were both frustrated and feeling like we weren't getting anywhere. He really wanted to act and write and I really wanted to direct and so it seemed like a perfect pairing.
Guillén: Is it fair to say that it was precisely your mutual love for genre that motivated your decision to collaborate?
Mickle: Yeah, I think so, definitely. When we were working together on that student film it was a crazy shoot where we were staying in cabins out in the middle of the woods for about two weeks and at one point the guy who owned the cabins invited us into his cabin at about 2:00 in the morning after a long shoot to sing karaoke with his family. It was an incredibly weird and surreal experience with all of us film students invading this guy's home and his daughters sitting there in their night gowns with the lights off and karaoke on the TV screen. At one point there was a Barbie doll on the floor and Nick looked at me and said, "I feel like I'm in a David Lynch movie." When he said little things like that was when I realized that he was into the same stuff I was into, I saw the same absurdity too, and right after that experience someone told me, "Hey, that guy Nick just wrote a horror film." That was right at the time I was back into horror films but I couldn't find a lot of other people who were so Nick and I bonded over genre and also bonded over wanting to do something more with the genre, to stretch it. Neither of us were interested in typical horror standards. We were thinking about how we could mix horror with the western genre and come up with a weird mixture.
Guillén: Well, it's true when you mash up genres you get some weird mixtures, but also some exact articulations of contemporary feeling. I've long thought that the juiciness of genre lies in the emotions they trigger. Specific genres trigger specific feelings and I imagine that's why audiences relate to them. When you go mixing up genres, however, you generate some complicated feelings. That's what drew me into Stake Land. Yes, it was a monster movie and I run to every monster movie I can see, but I came away with an appreciation of its complicated emotionality. Colin Geddes has used that term "elevated genre" to describe films like yours and I have to agree it's absolutely appropriate to Stake Land where you've elevated the horror narrative by plumbing its emotional depths.
Mickle: Good! Thank you. I like the horror genre because it gives a filmmaker an avenue to heighten emotions and the complexities of relationships. You can transpose other genres into that and all of a sudden you discover deeper ways of telling the story. Also, a lot of the things we deal with in Stake Land, if it weren't a horror film I think the audience might come away feeling unsatisfied because we never really come to a conclusion. We point out a lot of things about the world around us but we don't try to make Stake Land a strict message movie. We leave a lot of those threads open for discussion. If the film had been an artsy drama with a social critique and didn't have these other fun elements to it, it might have ended up being unsatisfying overall.
Guillén: I consider Stake Land a narrative of blood and salt, in the sense that it's a recapitulative narrative and--as we all know--looking back can be hazardous; you can turn into a pillar of bitter salt. But the positive aim of recapitulation is precisely to consciously place things behind you in order to move on. You accomplished this in Stake Land through Martin's voiceover reflecting on evocations of the Depression era and the frontier West and his own journey into manhood. Connor Paolo, incidentally, inhabits Martin's character arc with tremendous tenderness and dexterity. Can you speak about your choice to use narrative voiceover?
Mickle: I always really liked voiceover and so I'd write it into my scripts in film school and my professors would say, "Oh this is really bad. Never use voiceover." At some point I got trained out of it. At another point, Nick and I were discussing something else--we were adapting a book that was in first person narrative--and both made the decision: "No narration." But I always thought there was something there, a context that was a way of looking into the story that we were missing without it.
When he started sending me the first couple of pages of Stake Land and once the narrative voiceover popped in I was totally like, "Ah, yes! Finally." I really like narrative voiceover and I like how you can use it as a rhythm and use it as almost another thread of the music. It's not just about story but it's also about the tones a lot of times. I was so excited when he first gave those pages to me. It also started to give Stake Land a feel of Terrence Malick, a Badlands feel, a Days of Heaven feel, and those were both movies that I appreciated but never actually thought that I would get to take a stab in the realm, especially by making a horror film. I think the narrative voiceover opened the film up to not having to be just a genre story.
The film is sort of like a backwards time machine that starts in a post-industrial world that is falling apart, then works back through the Civil Rights era almost, back through the Depression, and at one point we're bordering on the Civil War and pioneering, back to hunting and gathering.
Guillén: That's an interesting take. Stake Land is also being likened unto a road movie and within that domain of reference I appreciated that there were journeys within other journeys or journeys that were relayed into further journeys. The journeys overlap and become layered, in other words. So when you talk about the narrative being irresolute--and though that might be considered a criticism by some--that's exactly what I liked. The open-ended quality of the journey has a poetic feel.
Mickle: Absolutely. And I've read critiques of Stake Land that point that out and call it a flaw, like it wasn't a choice, like it was something we forgot. It was kind of the same thing with Mulberry Street, which was raw and we didn't quite have the tone yet. By seeing Mulberry Street several times with audiences, I got a sense of how much we can get away with and how much we can't, and the ways we could have pushed things even further, and so it was fun to come back and take a second stab with Stake Land. I could rely more on my instincts and I could rely on how I knew it would play in the theater with people who are either into it or not into it.
Guillén: I can't believe anyone wouldn't be into Stake Land but different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Mickle: It happens. There are people out there. But I'd rather have people who either love it or hate it. I'm glad it's not a middle-of-the-road movie.
Guillén: Agreed. There's nothing worse than lukewarm genre. I know you've talked to several different people about the design of your vampires. There's been a lot of witty repartee about how different your vampires are from Twilight's glittering vampires. I think one reviewer wrote that your vampires would eat up one of the Twilight vampires and spit out the glitter. How I'd like to angle in on them, however--having just watched the film again the other day--is the peculiar way in which your vampires are a metaphor for America's current economic crisis. These are creatures who maybe at one time were decent law-abiding citizens that have been drained of life--i.e., transformed--by economic forces. You could say these people have had the life sucked out of them by predatorial banks and lending institutions. Do you think that's a valid read?
Mickle: Yes, absolutely. That's part of the film's open-endedness also. We don't try to fit things too tightly into a box or to be too set in our ways. We tried not to play our narrative in any specific time in history. We were vague and unspecific about names and politics--who was the President?--and yeah, the final draft that got greenlit was in September or October 2008 before the election and it was right when people were feeling the vibe between Blue and Red states and the us vs. them politics. Also, there was all that uncertainty about which direction the country would be heading? And what these overall attitudes were going to do to the country? But the time that we were in a lot of ways more interested in was this idea of terrorists and terrorism being used as a way to control people through fear. A lot of that plays into the Brotherhood and their relationship to the vampires. That's what's sort of nice about the zombie and vampire genres--some people say our creatures are zombies/vampires--they are in a sense humans, they are characters, and not just guys in zombie suits.
Guillén: Well, that's another thing I was going to say about your creatures. They're relevant as a potential metaphor not only of how the financial crisis has drained Americans of their livelihood and created, in effect, a class of the undead; but, politically, your vampires--for as feral and ferocious as they are--achieve a certain pathos for essentially being victimized by Christian extremists. They are, in a disturbing way, misguided terrorists being used to rule others by fear. This is all the more relevant in the face of such recent headlines as Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who incited such horrific violence by burning the Koran. Christian extremism is a seriously violent issue in our country today.
Mickle: And I don't think it will cease to go that way. At one point we may have thought, "Oh we've peaked out and Stake Land might have relevance now but it won't keep being relevant."
Guillén: Christian extremism isn't going away. It's only getting worse.
Mickle: During Mulberry Street there was the moment right before we came out where there was the scandal about finding rats all over the Taco Bells in New York. It was like, "Oh my God. What are the odds that would happen right when we were making a movie about rats in New York City?" So we had that little bit of a bump or wave but I remember thinking, "That was our bump or peak and we just missed it." But then we realized, no, these things continue even though we've tried to stay away from being specific about dates and places. When Obama got elected, there was a week or two where we were saying, "Shit, what is this going to do the country? What is this going to do to our story? What if he fixes everything? What if he solves the economy? And all the issues in our film are no longer issues? We'll be making a movie that brings people down because it will remind them of the old days."
Guillén: [Laughing.] That's funny. The face of new American horror will be when everything's in order and we live in a state of anxiety that everything will be taken away from us. Right.
Returning to your narrative where order has capsized and the Brotherhood seeks to re-create order through extremist means, I have to say that the sequence where they come in with helicopters and bomb the refuge of settlers with vampires is one of the most brilliant moments of horror ever. What a concept! Every time I watch that scene my heart comes up my throat like I'm going to vomit. It's terrifying.
Mickle: Oh good! [Chuckles.]
Guillén: Lately I've been interacting with several young people engaged with the disposable film movement that seeks to put affordable and available tools into the hands of aspiring media makers. Naturally, there's some discussion about the necessity of going to film school. Can you talk about whether you think it's still important to go through film school and why?
Mickle: Good question. I remember that being the big question in my mind when I decided to go to film school: does it make sense to do this? Or should I just spend my money and time and go off and make my own films? What's great about film school is it provides a structure that allows you to go out and experiment. If people are interested in making film and art, sometimes it's hard for them to focus and get down to it. The one thing you always hear from people is, "I'm going to make a movie. I'm going to make a movie." Three years later you still hear them saying, "I'm going to make a movie." So what was good for me about film school and what was the best class by far was where I made five films in a semester. You're directing a film one week, you're editing it the next, you're working on your friend's movie the next week, then the next week after that you're making another short film and so it keeps you in a mode of constantly being forced to come up with an idea that fits existing criteria and try to find your own way to make it different.
That being said, any form of community-based interest in film is good if it has that sort of film school mentality. For example, the 24-hour film, 48-hour film competitions, are great because they force people to go out and do it because that is the biggest obstacle: going out and doing it. Anything that supports that, I think is good. Especially now with the RED camera, and so many of the DSLRs, there's so many amazing cameras with Final Pro Cut being available, that you can very easily make a film on your own that can hold up to much higher standards than ever before. So the big obstacle now is getting out there and doing it.
Guillén: So if I'm hearing you right, what you're saying is that the value of film school is that it teaches you discipline about production?
Mickle: Yeah, discipline. And networking also. When I look back now and think about the people who I was friends with when I was in film school, there weren't tons of them but I was in that bubble surrounded by others who were dealing with the same sorts of issues, and learning from them, sometimes from seeing what they did wrong. That kind of experience is invaluable and you can't get it from books. There are groups like Blue Tongue films....
Guillén: Ah yes, I deeply admire their collaborative ethos!
Mickle: Well, I look at them and I think, "That's what I would be doing now if I weren't going to film school." I would surround myself in a bubble with people who are making films and who are able to support each other. Larry Fessenden does something like that with Glass Eye Pix. He's got all different scales of movies happening over there in all different stages of production. He's in this awesome world where he gets to bounce around and make his own films but also be able to comment on people's scripts and look at cuts.
Another thing about film school that's good is the competition. You go into a class and you have to watch 30 films that day. I didn't get a sense that NYU was cutthroat but you did want the things you were working on to stand out. Your films are held up to this harsh reality where people critique them. You might not like what they say but that's also something important to learn, rather than loading something up onto YouTube and ignoring the reception. There is value in learning how to handle criticism.
Guillén: Do you know if it's essential to have had film school training in order to break into the industry of studio filmmaking? Does one lead to the other?
Mickle: I think it's absolutely just the opposite. It's weird, you know. I'm in New York and I'm in the independent world here but I just spent two weeks in L.A. working on a film and doing a lot of meetings and started to get a little bit of a sense of that studio system; by no means any real sense of it but for the first time I stuck my toe in those waters. I was blown away by how much it seemed--and I know this sounds cliché--to be a corporate culture. I don't know if there really was or is a presence of film school background, maybe there is but they take things for granted and don't talk about it? But then, the other night I was back in New York and went to a party for IFC Films and wound up in a conversation with a bunch of guys from L.A. and I was blown away by the topics in our conversation. One of the guys I talked to had worked on a T.V. show in L.A. doing lighting but we wound up having a conversation about Terrence Malick. So I guess there's two very different worlds going on there. One of the best things I did as a young filmmaker was working on a lot of different types of movies, pre-production, production, and post-production, and having that as a background. It helped me navigate but I've started to realize that all that stuff was not essential at all.
Guillén: When you were talking to Todd Brown you said, "I could retire if I got to do a western." That intrigued me, partially because there is such a strong western feel to Stake Land, but also because the western seems to be making something of a comeback not in and of itself but through its galvinization with other genres, particularly horror and sci-fi. Case in point would be this summer's upcoming blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens. Yet I would love and encourage you to do a pure western.
Mickle: Yeah, me too! It's fun to see some of these western mash-ups, but it would be great if all that meant there would be a resurgence of the pure genre. I'm in a minority but I wasn't really impressed with the remake of True Grit. It just felt like it was the best we had for a western and that's okay but I would like to think that the fact that it did well would make it much easier to do it better. Unfortunately, there's a mentality--especially with remakes being so prevalent--where studios don't want to spend a lot of money and westerns with desert sands and period costumes mean money; therefore, no.
Guillén: Well, if anyone could do it, I think it's you. The value of a western lies in its characters and--as someone recently said--there's no small parts in a western. All the characters are important. You've shown us in Stake Land, a horror film, that it's the characters that vitalize the genre.
Shifting into the noir genre, I understand you're adapting Joe Lansdale's Cold in July, which you've describe as a western noir hybrid. Is that still in the works?
Mickle: Yes, it is. It's been an up and down back and forth sort of in the works but just in the last week or two it's gotten a big boost behind it. Half the task is finding the cast and financing but now it looks like the financing is there and a good chunk of the cast is there so I'm hoping by the end of the month that all those nuts and bolts will be put on and it will be ready to go. We're looking to do an August or September shoot.
Guillén: Can you provide a synopsis of that project and why you're being drawn to it?
Mickle: Yeah, sure. It's a story with a lot of twists and turns so it's been a tough pitch, which I sort of like. I don't like the this-meets-that sort of pitch. Cold in July is about a guy, a father, who wakes up one night to find a burglar in his living room. He shoots the guy and kills him and winds up facing off against the father of the dead burglar and they end up having an odd relationship, which is I guess the best way to put it. I like it because in a lot of ways it's two or three different stories in one. By the time you get to the end of it, you can't believe you started where you did. I really like those kinds of stories. I find that so many times when I come to see movies or I read scripts that I know exactly how they're going to end and who's going to be there and where the location is and so this is one of those narratives where some place in the middle you give in to the story and explore it to see where it goes. But it is a morality tale. It's a character-based thriller. What made it tough to get done for a while was that it wasn't a straightforward thriller and I think people wanted something that was going to be easily defined: a thriller that could be put in the thriller section. It finally will go forward without having to lose any of its character stuff.
Someone has pointed out the family stuff in Mulberry Street and Stake Land and Cold In July is going to fit into that, again without really trying, but it's a strong ode to fathers, good dads and bad dads. Nick and I both have great dads and so I think in a lot of ways this is a love letter to them. But also, I'm a huge fan of Joe Lansdale and he's best known for Bubba Ho-Tep and some of the crazier over-the-top stories, but he also has these quiet, simmering, contained stories with twists and turns that are not over the top or big genre mash-ups. He writes both of those equally well but he's not really known for his quiet stories. As a fan of his work, I'm proud to be able to bring that quiet side of his universe onto the screen.
Guillén: Sounds great. Good luck with that. Since you've brought up the suggested father-son dynamic between Mister and Martin, I can reference its sad and lovely poignance in Stake Land's final scenes where you've brought up the necessity of the father having to let go in order for the boy to become a man. Any sense of what happened to Mister?
Mickle: No. Actually no. I had ideas and Larry had ideas and Nick had ideas but the one idea that really came to the forefront was that we shouldn't really know and, to a certain extent, don't really even need to know or want to know. Anytime we pushed in that direction it felt wrong. It's the simplicity that makes it more interesting.
Cross-published on The Evening Class.
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