Review/Interview: ‘We Are What We Are’
Director Jim Mickle Talks About Horror And Beauty
Friday, February 14, 2014
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews the remake "We Are What We Are" and speaks with its director Jim Mickle.
“We Are What We Are” made my 10 Best List for 2013. But the only way to get the film screened in San Diego was to track it down and get the Digital Gym Cinema to run it for one night (screening once only at 9 p.m. on Feb. 15).
Aargh! You don’t know how frustrating it was last year to see the vacuous remake of Brian DePalma’s 70s horror film “Carrie” open wide in theaters and the exquisite American remake of the 2010 Mexican film “Somos Lo Que Hay/We Are What We Are” open nowhere in town. WTF! Writer/director/editor Jim Mickle did everything right in tackling the remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s contemporary horror tale. He was hesitant to take it on and only did so once he figured out a way to make the material his own.
As with the original film, this new version focuses on a reclusive family. In Mickle’s film, we have the Parkers, headed by patriarch Frank (Bill Sage). The Parkers have always kept to themselves, and Frank runs his family with fierce sense of conviction to his ancestral traditions. The film throws us into their lives just as tragedy strikes leaving his daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) forced to assume some horrific family customs, and then show how, as Shakespeare said, "blood will have blood." Mickle delivers a bloody ending that is likely to jolt the audience, and it is a scene entirely unique to his version of the story.
The basic outline of the plot is the same as the original but the twist Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici find is to take this tale of modern day cannibalism and give it a religious, Puritan spin, endowing it with a sense of ritual and even beauty.
Mickle says it’s frustrating trying to convince people that horror and beauty can work together. But “We Are What We Are” is proof. By making an elegantly shot, visually seductive film with young girls (who look like Botticelli madonnas) faced with horrific choices from their own loving father, he sets the horror off in bold relief. In “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” there’s no surprise to having a chainsaw-wielding man in a mask made of human flesh turn out to be a cannibal. That film – stunning in its own right -- was about horror being ugly from start to finish. But “We Are What We Are” wants to come at horror from a less travel road, and that’s what makes it so startling and fresh.
In one sense it begins quickly by throwing us into a situation – the Parker family trying to maintain old and shocking traditions in a modern world – that are already set. Yet as a narrative, it takes its time unfolding all the details. It pulls you in slowly and builds to some graphic but well earned gore. And by “well earned” I mean that it is not gratuitous, it is in service of the plot and comes at a point when the girls have to face the family secret in a very vivid and visceral way. And yet even in some of these scenes of violence, Mickle finds moments of visual beauty that act as a delay in the violence registering as something terrifying. Again Mickle shows how to expand the genre rather than cop out to clichés.
The film has a certain timeless quality to its production design and costuming. There are scenes with the Parkers in which we feel we could be in the present days or in a time from centuries past. But while the setting in not specific, the story feels very grounded in a real world, a world defined by family dynamics that we can recognize. What’s universal is the unraveling of a family when a key family member is removed, and how the remaining members try to rebuild and try to fill the void. What we can’t readily identify with, though, is the ritual of cannibalism. But it’s through this contrast that Mickle pulls us in and allows the horror creep up on us in unexpected ways.
“We Are What We Are” (rated R for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language) is not just a stunning remake but a provocative film about the horrors we can find within the usual comforts of family and tradition.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mickle late last year as the film was being rolled out in select cities, San Diego not being one of them in 2013. It is only with the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray through Entertainment One last month that a San Diego screening was finally secured.
Some people are suffering fatigue from English language remakes of foreign horror films. So did you have any hesitation at all about taking something like this on?
JIM MICKLE: Yes, many, many, many. And I have the same fatigue. I am not a fan of the trend and struggled a lot with being a part of the problem with this. So it definitely wasn’t an instant decision. It took a long time to talk ourselves into it.
How did you tackle it in a way that you felt would avoid some of the pitfalls of remakes?
JM: I think at the base the thing that ultimately sort of convinced us or made us feel like there was something there was all the things that the film did that I respected and was sort of envious of, I had already wanted to do something like that, a quiet simmering film, and all the narrative things, all the thematic things, all those elements were elements that I really in the mood to explore and I think Nick was too. To do something really different and sort of challenge ourselves to really do something different from what we had done. So then once I think we sort of set up that we were going to do this, then it really just became about coming up with a way to make this an original film that played with those ideas, with Jorge’s ideas. It was literally a re-make not just a translation. It was like we were going to reinvent this thing and reimagine the elements in a way that makes sense for us and not just force the original elements into a more commercial box or like a more commercially accessible box but something that works for our style of storytelling.
You did see the original, you didn’t avoid it?
JM: No, we watched it but we only watched it once. I might have seen it twice. Nick talked a lot about it being like covering a song you like but doing your spin on it.
What was the hook for you, what was it in the original that you really wanted to delve into?
JM: The religious aspect, that really stood out for me in the first one as something that was really strong and almost wished that they did a little bit more of that in the original. They venture off in a lot of different areas, sort of self discovery that the film does in the first one and I was obsessed with that idea, been toying with that idea already to try and work that into a horror film. So I felt like he gave us a really good springboard to be able to explore that. And that’s what I sort of kept coming back to and getting excited about that we could really present this as sort of a religious parable and there’s a lot of that that’s kind of absurd to me, the idea of tying in cannibalism was kind of appropriately absurd but hopefully kind of scarily symbolic in a way.
You also gave it an American twist in the religion as opposed the the Catholic horror feel of the original.
JM: Yes. Totally. That was a more Puritan sort of version of it, that was all very intended. I grew up around a lot of that. I didn’t really have it all that intensely in my family but I was always sort of surrounded by it in some way and I think that comes out in a lot of our stuff in a way. But I find that really fascinating. We take everything much more literally in our sort of American home grown faith.
One thing that always interests me is the decision a director makes as to when to show something and when not to, when to be graphic with violence and gore, and when to decide to pull back and leave it to the audience’s imagination. So for you, what kind of issues did you struggle with in terms of how graphic you wanted to get with this?
JM: I think I felt like we had done it before so some of it was in an effort to just do something different. We had done two films that when it calls for the gore and violence we go there. And sometimes it just undercut some of the filmmaking and some of the characters and the messages of our films, I got that sense a little bit that there’s definitely an audience that we are not going to reach because we’re going there and so with this one we just wanted everything to be earned, like it had to be earned and when we go there it really had to be justified and really had to be, when it is in the film, it’s because the characters have been drawn to it not because the filmmakers felt like it’s been twenty minutes since we’ve seen something so to ground everything around that and then try to play things from their point of view. So even though they are doing something horrific. It is a religious thing so I think there’s a lot of beauty visually and stylistically too to a lot of religions and a lot of ritual and religious ceremonies so we wanted to keep that aspect as much as we could and really make that the scary part that hopefully you can look at it and see the familiarity to your own practices and holidays and that sort of thing.
Do you have a hard time convincing people sometimes of combining words like beauty and horror?
JM: I do and then it’s kind of frustrating like aargh! It works, it works. I think there’s a lot of horror filmmakers and whoever’s in charge I think feel that there always has to be an ugliness to make horror work. And I think that’s totally the case and I enjoy those too but I think it’s a much more flexible genre than anyone kind of gives it credit for. It’s also that we wanted a fairy tale element to the thing too and I think that ties into it a lot and I think those things can exist side by side, when they do they work really well. I think the Japanese and Korean genre films reflect that a lot and a lot of foreign horror films reflect that a lot because I think they are coming from different influences.
What were your influences in terms of horror? Did you love the genre since you were a kid?
JM: Totally. I got into movies through horror films. I was terrified of them when I was little so I’d track down… at first I was terrified then they said it became taboo, something I shouldn’t watch cause they scared me and then I’d track ‘em down and just watch everything I could get my hands on. So early on it was the “Evil Dead” movies, they were the first films to make me go from liking horror movies to liking movies and wanting to make them, and then a strong influence from Dario Argento and Italian horror films, and I think that is a perfect example of beauty and horror coming together, and both elements being sort of heightened because they are sort of a catalyst for each other and there’s a classiness and a classicism that I love and I think hopefully that comes through in this, there’s a lot of elements from that that we sort of borrow from and try to reinvent in a way. So that and John Carpenter’s films, and the way he can sort of combine genres, combine westerns and horror together I think nobody does it better, it’s obviously a big influence on “Stakeland.” And Kim Jee-woon and Bong Jun-Ho, two Korean filmmakers that kind of make really fantastic films, those are the big ones. I kind of go through phases, you know originally I was inspired by over the top special effects gore movies, Peter Jackson’s first two films, Sam Raimi’s first three or four films, and that was kind of what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and then I think I started liking the other parts of filmmaking, not just the effects.
You mentioned a Puritan element to the religion and this fairy tale element, there are points in the film where you could take a frame out of it and you really wouldn’t know what time it was set it. It could be in the past. I assume that was a deliberate choice you made.
JM: Yeah. I think we explored that in all the movies so everybody knows at this point that that’s sort of what we’re going for unless specified otherwise. I don’t think I really relate to modern movies and I think there’s an old-fashioned sense to Nick’s writing that comes through in the acting too, he writes a sort of a country dialect to things which is funny because he came out of Hell’s Kitchen. I think that comes through in the acting. Especially for this story, it’s not a specific, you know, issues of faith and tradition by their very nature have always been around and always will be around and they really aren’t specific to any specific area in the country so I didn’t really want to peg it even though we were shooting in upstate New York, we didn’t want to ever say that this is an issue with upstate New York, it’s everywhere, it’s Bible Belt, it’s Midwest, it’s in the South, it’s in Utah, especially Utah, it’s all over the place. Same thing with the time period, I think it’s fun when you can’t really tell what decade something is happening in. I think maybe our stories have a universal sort of old-fashioned sense to them that they can exist in period. I don’t know if you could do that with every movie.
In terms of how you directed the actors, what did you want to convey about the family dynamic? What was the most important thing about how that family functioned?
JM: I guess that they are always a family that is recovering from a loss and I think that was what we were always coming back to. And that’s one of the things that kind of jumped out, you know my parents split up when I was in high school and it’s a tough time to go through for parents and for kids after that and not that this was sort of version of that, but I think that crept into it only in that there was this sympathy I saw for both of my parents, specifically my dad who was trying to sort of raise two kids now and sort of have to take care of a lot of the day to day elements that he just wasn’t comfortable with, and I thought that that was kind of a cool character to have in this. If Frank was a guy who wasn’t a monster that was set out to turn his daughters into monsters but he was a guy who all of a sudden had to do the things that he’d never paid attention to and is not equipped to do at all, so I think that was big for him and then each character has their goal. Iris I think is, I didn’t what her to be now you’re told to do this and realize you’re going to have to become this evil person, it was very much how much of it is this sense of appreciation for, just like you inheriting your grandmother’s jewelry when she dies, is this something where you are almost proud to inherit this and feel like you are stepping into your mother’s shoes and for Julia this is, we kind of talked about it, is at some point in this family they have to have the there’s no Santa Claus conversation, the parents have to sit the kids down, and say, you know, hey, what you have actually been eating once a year for the last couple years is humans and this is way we do it and this is why these things come down the line, so we would talk about that a lot and even though Julia is Jewish, we still had that conversation, at what point did you get that information and how, perhaps it was in the last year or two, this is the first year you are doing it and you’re still not quite comfortable or come around to it and you are not afraid to ask some of these questions. You don’t know better than to ask these questions. SO I think we talked about it in a very traditional family sense, it just had, the cannibalism was just a stand in for these sort of bigger themes so that let them be very grounded. They weren’t having to play horror movie emotions, they were able to play family emotions.
A lot of horror taps into current events in a back door sort of way. I’m just wondering if your film is sort of tapping into any current issues?
JM: Yeah, I think religion, I’m kind of terrified about how quickly religion can leak into politics and become something that quickly becomes something that is some sort of a moral guideline whether you believe in it or not and I think that’s sort of scary and I think you see that a lot more and more and especially you see that with the conservative treatment of women’s rights, and it’s not that we went out to make that movie specifically but I think there was a big element of that to this, I would say if there was a current trend we’re sort of shining a light on, I think hopefully that’s it.
What do you feel most proud of now that the film’s done?
JM: That it’s caught on. People respond to it. And I think as we’ve gone on I’ve gotten a little bit, and I think Nick has gotten a little bit cavalier, originally we were a bit worried what people were going to think and then you sort of as you find your voice you feel more comfortable with knowing I’m going to make a movie for myself, and it’s going to do unexpected things and make unexpected decisions but they are decisions that excite me and that these elements can work together and you trust that there’s an audience out there that’s going to share your taste and know that if there isn’t that you made the decisions that you wanted to make and explored them, so we’ve been getting a little bit bolder as we’ve gone along and it’s just great that you set out to do these things and know that they are not traditional ways of doing it, and it’s great to go to festivals and get validated at festivals and see audiences and how they respond to things and hear people raise their hand and ask about the end of the film and what it means to us, and you can tell by the way they are asking the questions that they have a different idea than maybe their girlfriend or their friend that they came to see the film with. People will come to me days later that have sort of thought about it and their ideas about what certain themes are about and to have done that with a movie is really amazing. So it’s great whether people like it or not, I’m proud that it’s had that effect on people.
I have to say that I began watching the film with a chip on my shoulder cause I really liked the original, and I thought oh not another remake. It took a little while, the first couple scenes were like I’m not sure, but by about the 30 minute mark I was hooked.
JM: Oh awesome. That’s great. Thank you that’s great to hear. I would have been one of those people too. I would have been right there with you going, aw, I gotta go see this, they’re going to f-ck it up.
Well after seeing what they did with the remake of “Let the Right One In.”
JM: Yeah that was what I kept saying was like we can’t make “Let Me In.” If we make “Let Me In” we have failed. I will never be able to live with myself.