I missed Stake Land at Fantastic Fest, but it got picked up and comes out this week so I got another chance. I got to talk with director Jim Mickle about his take on the vampire apocalypse. He has survivors try to form new towns while they learn to stake the undead. The only problem is religious zealots see the vampires as a form of the rapture and want them to finish the job.
CraveOnline: This may be the only post-apocalyptic movie that actually shows happy moments, which are of course undermined by tragedy, but what was your philosophy with that?
Jim Mickle: Yeah, a lot of that is Nick [Damici]. I would read the script the first time and feel just the same way. It comes a little bit from I love those movies. The Road came out, it’s gray, there wasn’t really an up and a down. Also I’ve written stuff before that’s just been a constant downer and it was really hard to get the audience involved emotionally. I think Nick’s skill is to really be able to go up and down and give chances at hope and pull that away and make the story dynamic. Another thing I think, coming from Mulberry Street, one of the things about that, we were trying to make a post 9/11 movie but any time you see movies where people are trapped in a house, back to Night of the Living Dead, they’re always bickering and the story is always about how they fight. How they argue, the in fighting is what brings them down, which is interesting but I think the thing with Mulberry Street again which is Nick, on 9/11, the thing that characterized that day more than anything was people came together and really no one cared about the Yankees versus the Mets. People just wanted to help each other and you all feel like you’re part of the same human race. So I think yeah, that gets lost in a lot of post-Apocalyptic stories, the fact that it’s actually going to be something that brings people together in a lot of ways.
CraveOnline: And then they’ll drop vampires out of helicopters and ruin it all.
Jim Mickle: Exactly, the extremists come along and f*** it all up.
CraveOnline: I also love when they have to find supplies. Did the aspect of what’s left after the end appeal to you?
Jim Mickle: Yeah, absolutely. I think another thing Nick and I both sort of have an affinity for nature. I grew up on a farm. I have a place upstate in the Catskills. I spend all my time there. I think Nick’s sort of the same way and I think part of this also was how much you would rely on nature. And early on there were actually much less vampires. It was much more a survival story about what are you actually going to eat. The last half of the movie felt like Jeremiah Johnson. It was complete getting back to hunter gatherer times and Jack London. Yeah, I think it’s fun when you have those scenes where everyone’s looking for supplies and you open up the closet and it’s filled with machine guns and stuff, but it’s fun for like a second. I was more interested in what are you going to take or what are you going to live off of. How do you rely on nature again to get you through it?
CraveOnline: What was your philosophy for the action, the vampire battles?
Jim Mickle: To have it feel real really. I think if you want super over-stylized over-choreographed zombie vampie action, there are many, many movies that will give that to you. I think it’s more interesting, A because of our budget because we can’t do a lot of those things, but bringing more character stuff. That first barn scene, it’s meant to sort of kick you in the gut and say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that.” That’s sort of how the kid feels. It’s meant to be seen through his eyes and his first battle, when he fights the vampire at the hotel, that was like his first time in a lot of ways. It’s meant to be sloppy and meant to be filled with mistakes. It’s not something where you throw a stake from 100 feet away and it pierces the vampire’s heart or chops a zombie’s head off. I grew up loving those movies that had that sort of sense to them, but as time goes on, I’m much more interested in what does this mean for the character and always going back to that really.
CraveOnline: You say realistic, but you didn’t rely on that shakycam thing which I don’t consider realistic at all.
Jim Mickle: No, I think a lot of that is cameras. Mulberry Street, I think a lot of people feel like that’s a shakycam movie and it is when I look back at that. I think it’s more about the cameras. I think once all these small cameras that had no leverage to them and no weight [came out], I think people couldn’t help it in a lot of ways. I think that actually ended up becoming a style. 30 Days of Night incorporated that, movies that had no excuse to not do it. Even they were just doing it. I think especially Nick himself is a trainer. He’s a kickboxing trainer and a fight trainer, so I think he brings with it a sense of realism and what you would actually do. This was my first time getting to work with a stunt choreographer which is a lot of fun, trying to find new ways to do things with him but also just make it all feel like you’re authentic.
CraveOnline: Were you frustrated when you were working on other productions in a technical capacity and seeing other directors work?
Jim Mickle: Yeah, all the time. Not warranted all the time but there is a definite sense of that. One of the things that’s interesting I think in most movies, the director oftentimes is the least experienced person on the set. Everyone around him is working on four movies that year and it’s only that guy’s first movie that year. Especially the level of movies I was doing, it was always first time directors and a lot of them hadn’t even gone to film school and some of them weren’t even interested in making films. It was like oh, here’s something to occupy my time and I have the money. So yeah, it was really frustrating and it was probably the thing that fueled me to say look, I just have to do it myself, which ultimately was the answer. Just do it yourself an say I know how to do these things. I know how to edit a movie. I know how to light a movie and I know people that know how to do this. I can form a team of people that can actually pull these things off. So yeah, it’s tough. It’s great experience but it’s definitely for someone who has a lot of pride and feels like I can do it as well as this guy can, it does get frustrating.
CraveOnline: On your second feature, how do you feel about your skills and your crew?
Jim Mickle: Good. I think Mulberry was a lot of learning by trial and error. That’s how I also felt, like it wasn’t much of an ability to direct the movie. I felt like that movie was much more about just taking one impossible day and one pile of obstacles and crap storm and just trying to come out of it with some footage. The fact that we turned it into a movie was still as surprising to me as anyone. This time around, it actually was an opportunity to sit and think about the style and think about what choices were going to mean what. So I think this time around, there was a moment I remember stopping and thinking I love all these choices, I love what we’re doing here. I don't know if anyone else is going to like them, but you’ve got to make a movie for yourself and what you think you want to see, and then people connect to that. So yeah, I think it just gives you confidence to trust your instincts more than anything.
CraveOnline: Will you and Nick be a team moving forward?
Jim Mickle: Yeah, we adapted a book called Cold in July. That looks like that’ll probably be our next project, shooting at the end of the summer, knock on wood. It’s something we adapted together, based on the Joe Lansdale novel and it’s not 100% horror. It’s more of a country noir sort of story. It’s like a western, takes place in the late ‘80s in east Texas, very twisty turny narrative but very character based and still I think grounded in our mixed genre sensibilities.
CraveOnline: How was your experience at Toronto and Fantastic Fest?
Jim Mickle: It was great. I used to go to Toronto, my dad would take me there in high school, sort of a field trip when he did and I was getting into films. So I went ’96, ’97, ’98, would stand in line and go to every midnight movie. I fell in love with the whole thing, so through film school, my whole experience was I just want to go back one day and show a movie at Midnight Madness. So to get to go back and see it and have an audience appreciate it was kind of mind blowing. Fantastic Fest was great. We had an experience with SXSW. We premiered Mulberry Street there. It did well but also seemed to have sort of an odd reaction. I think people didn’t really know what to think of it so it was nice to go back and be welcomed and have people really sort of get the movie at Fantastic Fest. They’re both great. The fan sensibility at Fantastic Fest is great. The fact that you can go to that little bar/bowling alley next door and meet people who just saw the movie, that’s amazing. For a big festival, I think Toronto is great because I’ve gone to Sundance a couple of times and it’s just kind of obnoxious. Just drop all the elements of L.A. and the movie business on a mountain, but Toronto is still people that go because they want to see movies and they like movies, and independent movies.
CraveOnline: I had a good experience at Sundance too so I guess it only gets better from here.
Jim Mickle: Yeah, you’ll love Toronto. Good city, good movies, it’s great. I’m partial to Midnight Madness. That’s definitely a major part.