Jim Mickle's We Are What We Are is a hybrid, an art-horror film about cannibals. The film had done well in Sundance and found its way into Director's Fortnight in Cannes, in the same year that another genre-bending director, Nicolas Winding Refn, controversially screened Only God Forgives, starring Ryan Gosling, in the competition.
they said I could do whatever I wanted and just use the name and the concept
It's no surprise that the horror-loving directors inhabit the same universe, which now of course includes Gosling, who is currently directing his first movie, How to Catch a Monster, starring Mad Men's Christina Hendricks, who had appeared in Refn and Gosling's hit movie Drive. How to Catch a Monster also features Gosling's girlfriend Eva Mendes, whom he had met when they appeared in The Place Beyond the Pines.
Gosling could not be in Cannes, though Mickle has been keeping in touch with his film via his sister, Beth.
“Beth is the production designer on How to Catch a Monster, which he is directing in Michigan and she did Only God Forgives and Drive [as well as Arbitrage and Half Nelson]. So I know Nicholas a little bit and I was really hoping to love his movie here, and then I didn't love it.”
How is his sister going on Gosling's film?
“Good, she loves it,” Mickle responds. “She's as busy as hell; I've been emailing her nonstop since we've been in Cannes and I've gotten one response, which means she's doing, like, 16-hour days and is completely exhausted. I think the movie's going to be really fantastical and really pushing it. She's amazed at how creative Ryan is and his vision. Eva Mendes is my sister's assistant and runs around and drives and picks up props and stuff and stains the wallpaper and sets with them. It's ambitious.”
So too is Mickle's film, albeit in a more reserved way, especially for a movie about cannibals. We Are What We Are is, in fact, the remake of a 2010 Mexican film by Jorge Michel Grau, though Mickle changed so much that it seems like an original.
“I hadn't seen it when it first came up but I felt like I knew everything about it because as I travelled around on the fantasy festival circuit with my second film Stake Land [a post-apocalyptic vampire yarn that won the audience award in the Midnight Madness section at 2010's Toronto Film Festival] and everyone kept saying We Are What We Are is really cool. So I didn't see it. I loved the concept and I kind of avoided it in a way because I was a little envious. That's the kind of movie I'd wanted to do, and shit, he kind of stole it! Even for a while I was like, 'What can I do that's like that, about a family of cannibals?'”
At the time he was working on his long-gestating thriller, Cold in July, which finally was announced as happening in Cannes. “It was really frustrating to try get that going after doing two horror movies,” explains Mickle, whose first film, Mulberry Street, had been about a virus that turns people into rat-like creatures. While waiting around for something to happen with Cold in July, his foreign sales company hooked him up with Andrew Corkin, the producer of Martha Marcy May Marlene.
“I'd really loved that movie, and they'd picked up the rights to We Are What We Are and asked if I'd be interested in remaking it,” Mickle recalls. “But I hate the remake train; I wish they'd just left Let the Right One In [by Sweden's Tomas Alfredson] alone and not done that American version or when they remade [South Korean Kim Jee-Woon's] A Tale of Two Sisters into that US piece of shit, The Uninvited. But then they said I could do whatever I wanted and just use the name and the concept.
“So I watched the film with my writing partner Nick Damici and we were both fascinated by the topic but felt it was not at all what we were expecting it to be. It's very Mexican, very urban; it's about the role of men in Mexican society and culture and the slums of Mexico City – all these things that we didn't understand in a personal way.”
Mickle decided to try and personalise the story as Grau had done. He'd grown up in a small Pennsylvania town and in high school his parents had split, with his mum moving out.
“I lived with my dad and I went through that experience of seeing him trying to jostle to be the mum and the dad. So pitched it to Jorge, that we would make all the guys in his story women and set it in the countryside [ultimately in the Catskills in upstate New York] and basically turn his concepts upside down. He loved that idea and that was the last time we talked until like two days ago when I met him for the first time here.”
Mickle cast Bill Sage (from Hal Hartley's movies) as the dad and rising stars Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner as his teenage daughters. Interestingly, Sage and Garner had appeared as father and daughter in the equally ethereal and fascinating Electrick Children, which also focused on religious cult rituals.
What does Mickle's dad think about this being based on their family? Not to give away too much, but his father could be well, horrified.
“It's not really that much based on our family,” Mickle chuckles. “My dad came to see a cut of the film when I was editing in a cabin in the town that we shot in and he said, 'Don't tell me how it ends; I want to wait until I see it for real.' So he saw it at Sundance for the first time and he was kind of like, 'Really?!' But my family is nothing like that one! I love what Bill did in the movie of not playing an evil guy. He kept talking about playing a guy who is doing his best to hold his family together and just happens to only have one way to do that and it's through fundamentalist beliefs and ancient traditions. That is the only thing he really knows and the only way that he really knows how to bring people together. It's all out of love, though.”
We Are What We Are screens at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival. Visit the official website for more information.