As the director of a pair of startlingly original horror thrillers, Douglassville native Jim Mickle is the first to admit he has no appetite for remakes.
So when he was approached by the producers of the Mexican cannibal movie “We Are What We Are” about shooting an English-language version, his first instinct was to take a pass.
But then Mickle sat down and watched the movie and, much to his surprise, he ate it up.
“The film changed my mind,” says Mickle. “After I watched it, I felt like it was an interesting movie in its own right. But I also felt like (director Jorge Michael Grau) hadn’t done everything with the concept that could be done.
“I felt like I could take it in different directions but still address the themes that Jorge was playing with. There was still something really interesting to be done with it.”
“Interesting” is a good word to describe “We Are What We Are,” a cannibal movie unlike any you’ve seen before. Bill Sage stars as Frank Parker, the patriarch of a flesh-eating clan who, after his wife’s accidental death, turns to his two daughters (Ambyr Childers of “The Master” and Julia Garner of “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) to continue the family tradition of killing and preparing the family meal.
Meanwhile, a torrential downpour begins to flood the Parker’s small town, threatening to uncover clues that might expose the family’s secrets. Co-starring in the film is Michael Parks and former Reading resident Kelly McGillis, who also starred in Mickle’s previous feature, “Stake Land.”
When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, it received rave reviews from a number of trade publications which are notoriously tough on horror thrillers.
Not surprisingly given the positive reviews and sold-out Sundance screenings, “We Are” sold quickly to distributor E1, a New York-based company which will open the film in Philadelphia on Oct. 11.
The success of “We Are What We Are” has allowed Mickle to finally quit his day job as an editor on commercials and videos.
“I don’t have time for my day job anymore, luckily,” he said with a laugh. “When I got back from Sundance, I started my next movie (‘Cold in July’ with Don Johnson and Michael C. Hall) and then I had to jump into post-production on that, and into promotion for ‘We Are What We.’
“It’s nice to be able to focus on my movies and not have to fit them in on lunch breaks and after hours.”
One of the reasons that “We Are” has been netting positive reviews is because it builds suspense so effectively. Mickle spends time crafting interesting characters before uncorking the cannibal gore. And even then, the ickiest elements are left to the viewers’ imagination.
“Any time we came upon a scene that required (cannibalism), we’d say, ‘How do we show it without showing it? How do we do it through clever references?’
“We have a couple moments that go there. But I’m proud of the fact that when you expect the film to (get gory), we pull back.”
As far as Mickle is concerned, “We Are” is less of a cannibal movie and more about a family struggling to stay together after something horrible has happened to them.
“The actors can’t play the horror but they can play (the family dynamics),” said Mickle. “You can watch the movie and forget it has this dark side to it.
“In some sense, Frank is just a father who’s doing his best to keep his family together and to stick to his traditions.”
Indeed, the religious Parkers are about as far from the cannibal clan in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” as you can get.
“Cannibals are usually portrayed as monsters so it was fun to play with that a bit,” said Mickle, who co-wrote the film with his long-time writing partner, Nick Damici. “The people in this movie do horrible things so it was a challenge to also make them likeable and believable. They’re the cannibals next door.”
While Mickle’s last movie “Stake Land” was filmed primarily in Douglasville, this time around he shot the movie in Upstate New York near where he and his girlfriend live. But he did include at least one nod to his hometown.
“There’s a trailer park called Valley View in the movie,” he said. “We called it that after the Valley View trailer park in Douglasville, on 422. So that’s my little reference to my hometown.”
Jim isn’t the only filmmaker in his family. His sister, Beth Mickle, is one of the most in-demand production designers in Hollywood, with a handful of big films to her credit, including “2 Guns” with Denzel Washington, “Arbitrage” with Richard Gere and the now-playing comedy “Thanks For Sharing” with Gwyneth Paltrow.
Jim hasn’t worked with his sister since she designed “Mulberry Street,” his first feature. But it hasn’t been for lack of trying.
“Beth was still in Thailand doing `Only God Forgives’ when I was making `We Are,’ “ recalled Jim. “And then for ‘Cold in July,’ she’d just started Will Smith’s next movie. And that has a budget about a hundred times what my film had.
“But one day our paths will cross, and we’ll make another movie together … Beth is really kicking butt out there. It’s amazing. To come from the indie world and be navigating these giant, studio movies is really incredible. She’s incredible.”
A 1998 graduate of Daniel Boone High School, Jim admited that growing up he used to watch a lot of horror movies as an excuse to check out the monsters and creatures created by the films’ special effects artists.
When he watched Sam Raimi’s “Army of Darkness,” though, he suddenly realized that special effects are best enjoyed when they’re in the service of a terrific story.
Growing up, Jim and Beth used to make movies together in their backyard. The lessons Jim learned in Douglasville he still uses today.
“Making those movies taught me to not be precious and to simply make do with what you have,” said Mickle. “I learned to embrace what I had and find a way to make it interesting. And that still works for me now.
“Even on ‘We Are,’ where we had a pretty incredible cast, it was still a low-budget film. And we weren’t able to get everything we planned for. We had to improvise. And sometimes that is the most fun. The actors really sink their teeth into because we’re all discovering it as we go.”
After graduating from Daniel Boone, Jim headed to NYU to major in film. While still a student – and for a few years afterwards – he worked a series of entry level jobs, including a storyboard artist on “The Hebrew Hammer,” a production assistant on “Spider-Man 2” and “Made in Manhattan,” and a lightning technician on “Transamerica” and “Shortbus.”
In the 2000s, Mickle hooked up with Damici and the pair enjoyed almost immediate success with “Mulberry Street,” a horror thriller about rat-zombies taking over Manhattan. The film was picked up for distribution by Lionsgate. Next came the vampire chiller “Stake Land,” which landed in theaters via IFC.
Mickle believes that growing up in Douglasville shaped him as an artist .“I think there’s a small town element in all of my movies,” he said. “Had I grown up in New York or L.A., I don’t know if movies would have seemed so special to me. I might have been more cynical about filmmaking.
“I hope I bring a different tone to my movies, and I think that comes from just growing up in a real town.”
Mickle’s next movie “Cold in July” is being prepped for an early 2014 release. Part western and part thriller, the film is hugely ambitious compared to the more contained “We Are What We.”
“It feels like a billion different movies in one,” said Mickle. “Every week, it felt like we were shooting a new movie.”
Colloborating with Michael C. Hall fresh off his “Dexter” run was a treat, said the filmmaker. “It was interesting working with someone who’s done so much in so many different genres: theater, TV and film.
“It was fascinating to see how he could adapt to anything … Don Johnson was the same way. You could almost throw anything at them and they’d find a way to make it work.”