Jim Mickle Interview
Written by Charlotte Stear
Charlotte Stear: First off, what was the inspiration for writing Stake Land?
Jim Mickle: Nick Damici and I were trying to follow up our first film "Mulberry Street". At some point we decided to go back to the do-it-yourself filmmaking model, so we set our sights on making a web series, something that could air episodically online. Nick started sending me short 10 page scripts and the first one became the opening 10 minutes of STAKE LAND. From there, we stretched it out to many, many chapters of the Martin and Mister story. Once the chance to make a feature version came about, Nick collapsed all the stories down to one throughline. So it kind of became a feature film by accident. This was all during the 2008 presidential elections, so a lot of the division in the country worked its way into the story.
CS: I was really impressed with the cast, especially Connor Paolo having only known him for his work on Gossip Girl! The group seemed to form an odd family on screen, how do you think the cast coped with bringing their parts alive and did you see their chemistry on camera grow?
JM: I tried to allow the actors to create their roles very organically. They're all so good, and there's so little dialogue, so it was important to let them feel who their characters were, and where they had come from. We took a 3 month break in the middle of shooting to allow the seasons to change. We did a lot of script polishing during that break and tried to tailor roles more to the cast and their chemistry. Once we came back for the second shoot, it was like coming back to summer camp and reuniting, so I think the bonds were more intense than usual. We all stayed at a golf resort too, so the actors and the crew all grew to be a tight little family, and I think that carries over on the screen. I wanted them to go through the hiking and the traveling for real, so it was kind of like boot camp.
CS: One of the standout things about this film was the amazing cinematography and backdrop for the story, what locations did you shoot in?
JM: The first half was shot mostly in my dad's backyard in rural Pennsylvania where I grew up. For the second half we traveled to upstate New York to the Catskill mountains to get the rocky, winter look of the north. In both cases, we did a ton of preparation to build the scenes around pre-existing locations so we could use the strengths of what we already had. Ryan Samul is a fantastic cinematographer and we had a second camera going at all times with a guy named Bobby Boothe who has a great eye for additional coverage and all the extra beauty shots that make up the flavor of the movie.
CS: How important were the images of America to the story for you?
JM: Hugely important. I'm depressed every day by how our country turns on itself and seems headed for collapse like a slow motion train wreck, unfortunately taking the rest of the world with us. We wanted to make a horror movie, but I wanted this to be the heart beat of the story. I wanted it to feel like a Depression-era movie, but keep enough recognizable threads to show that that we're headed for a new depression unless we all start looking out for each other. It was important to me back in 2008 when we started writing it, but even more so now that we've had three more disappointing years as a country. I wanted Stake Land to feel like the world today-- sad and scary.
CS: You looked to be out in the open for a lot on the shoot. Did this cause any additional problems than doing it simply on a set?
JM: It's all on location. No sets. I love the authenticity of shooting in real places and letting in some of the unpredictability. Especially with a film that has so many different looks and locations spread out over such a long period of time. I was always hoping it would rain or snow, or take some violent seasonal change. Usually you're hoping for control on a movie shoot, but I wanted to embrace the episodic nature and let fate dictate some of our looks. The production team always wants more continuity but I think if you're telling a story well and the audience is connecting, you can get away with a lot more.
CS: There are so many styles mixed up here, sometimes I felt there were ‘80s flashbacks to The Lost Boys and then we were straight back to a John Wayne western style, this truly made it unique and appealing for me. Was this an intentional crossover you were trying to create?
JM: It's definitely part of the flavor of the movie. We didn't set out to try and combine all of that intentionally, but I think because I like so many different genres and eras of films, and Nick comes from another generation of movies than I do, it has a real melting pot feel. My goal was to focus on the arc of Martin's coming of age story and then let the beats fall wherever they felt right, even if the tone wasn't traditional or if different genres were slammed together. Jeff Grace's score did so much to tie up all the different tones into one coherent piece. I just wanted it all to feel different and unexpected.
CS: Was I being too much of horror geek when I thought I saw a Nightmare on Elm Street reference when in Strivington they walked past the street sign “Elm Street”?
JM: Geek! That was one of those happy accidents that comes from location shooting, but as soon as we saw it, I had to leave it in. It's funny in that shot, you can actually see the camera operator and the focus puller walking behind the actors, but because of the Elm Street sign, everyone's eyes go to that.
CS: There is a heavy theme of religion and faith woven into the story, was this subject matter an important one you wanted to tackle? Why did you want it to have such a presence in the film?
JM: Very important for me. And I know Nick was sick of the fanatics at the time. Not just Christians, but all fanatics that pop up these days. I wanted to find something truly scary on top of the vampires, and for me that's organized religion. There are a million great things about faith, but with that comes a lot of bad things that can be greedy and destructive and that's the direction the whole country is taking. The power of the masses leads to its downfall whether it's politics or religion or financial fanaticism. I wanted to make a horror film about that.
CS: Vampires are obviously very hot property at the moment what with True Blood and Twilight, did you have this in your mind as you were making the film?
JM: Not at all actually. When we started it was before vampires had turned into such a cultural phenomenon. We liked vampires and wanted to make them dirty and dangerous again, since we had just done a different take on zombies with Mulberry Street. By the time the greenlight came through and we were starting to shoot, the vampire thing kind of exploded. It was good and bad for us I think. Probably helped to get the film made and out there, but a lot of fans are also sick of them, so you make your film and send it out to the world and hope it finds a way to connect, which I think it has.
CS: Your vampires are pretty different to any others out there at the moment, what kind of look were you trying to achieve with your particular vamps?
JM: We just wanted them to be unpredictable and act and move differently from what modern audiences are used. We let Brian Spears the FX artist have a lot of freedom to bend the vampire rules with teeth shapes and to follow the different ages and changes in our vampire myth. Tried to stick more to the feral being idea. We also brought in a great dance choreographer named Danny Mefford who helped give them a consistent, animalistic body language and that was hugely important. The goal was to keep them bloody and scary.
CS: Accompanying the beautiful scenic shots is a really haunting soundtrack, was music a major thought for you when making this film? Who did you work with on the soundtrack?
JM: Jeff Grace did the score and it's something really special. He's done some great scores,and I was really psyched to work with him on this. As I mentioned there's a lot of different flavors and the early cuts with my temp music had sort of an odd feel to it. His score was like the glaze that held the whole funky sculpture together. I wanted it to feel like old school Americana. Lots of Western and lots of folk sounds. I love that kind of music. We also had a lot of traditional scoring for arcs and character themes that Jeff did a beautiful job of orchestrating so the music had its own flavor but also told a story on its own and mixed the character beats, the horror beats, and the action beats. We also have songs by Deer Tick and Vetiver in there, so the net result is it sounds like it could have all been written decades ago. I was hoping for an O Brother, Where Art Thou? vibe.
CS: What’s next for you after Stake Land?
JM: Hoping to shoot our new one in the spring. COLD IN JULY- an adaptation of the Joe Lansdale, country-noir novel. We've been working on that one for a while now. Also working on a new script with Nick that would be very fun to do. Just trying to find ways to take different approaches to genre stories and make them unique.
CS: Thank you so much for answering these questions, I really did love the movie!
JM: Thanks a lot and thanks for spreading the word!
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