Jim Mickle is quietly making a name for himself as one of the most important horror directors working today. Whether it's tenement dwellers fighting off a rat zombie horde in Mulberry Street (2006), or a religious vampire cult ruling over an apocalyptic future America in Stakeland (2010) Mickle and his writing partner Nick Damici have returned time and again to the theme of societies struggle to strike a balance between community and individuality. His latest film, a remake of Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are hits at the heart of horror by questioning the connective tissue between family ties, rigid belief systems and the need to breakout.
ScreenAnarchy: People in your movies have to struggle to survive. Some sacrifice community and some don't in order to do so.
Jim Mickle: I think a lot of that has to do with growing up in a small town. I grew up near Amish country in Lancaster Pennsylvania. Our community was kind of self contained. I didn't expect to go away and live in a city. But I became obsessed with film and especially David Lynch and the way he captured this bucolic vision of America in these beautiful settings. Whenever I get a script that's set in the city or modern times my brain just kind of shuts off.
My girlfriend and I live in the city but we have a place in rural upstate New York. In fact it's where we shot this and Stakeland. More and more I find I hate coming back to the city. Even coming out and doing stuff like this I find I want to be back there. Maybe do a little farming.
Larry Fessendon is about a half hour down the road from us. We'll get together sometimes and be like, "What are we doing going back to the city. We could stay here and grow vegetables and make movies."
Lynch tended to find darkness and chaos underneath order. You usually start with darkness and chaos and work your way down to what's beautiful. For instance families in your work are always under siege but they still matter even when they are really scary. It's as if you're terrified by the idea of family and belief and yet in love with it.
I think that's easy to do. There's beauty and darkness everywhere in those subjects. A lot of the family stuff though comes from Nick and his writing. It's funny because he never talks about it but I think we all go thru stuff to some degree. Nick's dad was a bartender in Hell's Kitchen. Which was actually pretty neat in some ways. There's always a nostalgia for how we were brought up but looking back... My parents split up during my last couple years of high school.
But I had a great upbringing and family has always been really important to me. I'm still close with my sister and my parents. Nick's upbringing was more like the tenement building you see in Mulberry Street and he could run from floor to floor to hang out with his aunt and uncle and grandma. Both of us had a strong sense of being part of communities. It's funny because our next film, Cold in July also has some really dark family stuff in it.
It's a pull between nostalgia and history. What we idealize about the idea of childhood and the reality of where it didn't measure up.
And a lot of the history is so good. It never goes away.
But breaking into individuality in the midst of community.
My family was very much into the idea of teaching us how to make our own decisions and spirituality was about working things out rather than belonging to institutions. My grandparents on the other hand were very religious. I would see the difference between those ways of being. On the one hand there was this idea of think for yourself and on the other I would go to visit my grandparents on my mom's side and end up kicking my feet in the pews.
So you saw those things as two completely separate ways of looking at the world.
My Grandfather was this really smart man. He ran Harrisburg, Hospital for a long time. He was a real man of science. I just found it so odd that he could subscribe to something that was not backed by science. Especially because he was so rigid about his beliefs. He fell down the steps of the church one time and broke his hip and I asked people "Why did this happen at church. " Everyone was like, "You can't ask that question." That was absurd to me. The idea that I couldn't ask a question.
To me that's what it's about. Once you start to form rules, and structure that and enter into that rigidity where noone can ask questions spirituality becomes very troubling. It can get scary very quickly. Especially in families.
Do you think it's possible to talk about the idea of God without doing that?
I don't know. To me it's all science. We're born and we die and we go into the ground and fertilize the next thing. The philosophical idea of God is certainly interesting to me. We all hope that there's some sort of ultimate order.
As someone who's drawn to the horror genre do you see your attraction to it as a purely biological thing? Do you feel that's all your characters, for instance, are struggling with?
Horror is the best genre to explore that sort of thing. I was telling someone about the plot of Stakeland and they said, "That's great but why the vampires?" and I just laughed. That would have been a really unsatisfying story to me. Not just because vampires and genre mechanics are fun but because we need metaphors to stand in for the ideas we're trying to articulate. It frames a broader conversation.
For instance in We Are What We Are cannibalism is a stand in for tradition, and faith and ritual. If we had just made a movie about tradition without that metaphor I'm not sure I would want to see it. The horror genre can get away with that and still treat the ideas it wants to put forth seriously.
So you believe in film as something that is part of community rather than as something that is just an idealogical soapbox.
I'm really proud to know a lot of filmmaker's that have work like that. Larry and Jorge. This doesn't make Jorge's movie obsolete, for instance. It's just part of the conversation he started, or an offshoot. There's a dialogue going on if we can get beyond the things that make us feel like we can't ask questions or talk about certain things.