American Gothic: Jim Mickle's 'We Are What We Are' reimagines 2010 Mexican horror hit
Hollywood loves remakes, and English-language remakes of foreign horror movies make solid business sense: Take a pre-tested spooky picture, get rid of the subtitle problem and sit back as the horror fans come streaming in, the way they did for The Ring.
But that's not what writer-director Jim Mickle had in mind when he was presented with the opportunity to remake the grim, Mexican family drama Somos lo que hay (We Are What We Are), which generated some serious buzz on the horror festival circuit back in 2010. Why was a family drama doing the horror rounds, you may ask? Well, because all the members of this tightknit family are cannibals. And that's not a spoiler, by the way.
Mickle's first reaction was that he wasn't interested, and not because he looks down on the genre. "I really like horror movies," he declares. "I saw every horror movie in the world growing up. When I got my first camcorder, I started making little horror movies."
And not because he didn't like Jorge Grau's Somos lo que hay—he hadn't seen it, though he knew the title because his second feature, the post-apocalyptic vampire road movie Stake Land (2010), had played in several of the same festivals. Mickle just isn't a big fan of remakes, and he was trying to set up a character-driven thriller based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale.
Mickle was committed to Lansdale's Cold in July—he wanted to make it immediately after his feature debut, the claustrophobic, low-budget siege picture Mulberry Street (2006) and went back to it after Stake Land; but he's only now shooting it, with “Dexter” star Michael C. Hall in the lead. So he agreed to look at Somos lo que hay and was struck by its unusual approach: less cannibal-family, like the grindhouse classics Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, more family-cannibal.
He and screenwriter-actor Nick Damici, who co-wrote and acted in both Mulberry Street and Stake Land, set about translating the movie…not literally translating, but reinterpreting. Their goal was to reshape the material in a way that preserved the underlying themes and character relationships but made it as thoroughly American as the original was thoroughly Mexican.
Mickle met with Grau, and came away feeling that parts of Somos lo que hay were "very personal," especially the character of the teenage son who, after the sudden death of his father, is expected to take over the job of putting a very particular kind of food on his grieving family's table.
"The more we worked on it," Mickle says, "the more it became a matter of telling the same story from the opposite perspective. I loved the thing Jorge did with religion, this thing where everybody is very Catholic, but they've forgotten the origins of their beliefs and rituals… We wanted to do something with the idea of customs that have been passed down from generation to generation.
"The original movie took place in this very crowded urban environment, but when we started thinking about it, it seemed more and more like a story that would work well in a more isolated, rural environment. And we switched the perspective to the girls."
In both films, there are three children, two girls and a boy, but in the remake the boy is a child and the responsibility for keeping the family fed shifts to Iris (Ambyr Childers, of The Master), the older of two teenage girls.
"When we were writing," Mickle recounts, "we started out dark and moody, then started getting more outrageous and upping the body count. But we realized that wasn't the way to go, that the story was something special," something rooted in a gloomy, repressed tension always on the verge of erupting.
"Visually, I really wanted the movie to have a very conservative look: long shots instead of cutting, cutting, cutting to give the scenes energy. We really wanted the tension to come from the actors' performances.
"That's hard to do on a tight schedule," he continues, "working up tension out of characters sitting around a table. You have to have everything locked down before you shoot."
Responsibility for maintaining the film's tone fell in part to the veteran actors who anchor the cast: Kelly McGillis (Top Gun, The Accused), who had a small but memorable role in Stake Land, cult favorite Michael Parks, and Bill Sage (“Boardwalk Empire”) as the family’s twisted patriarch. "I always loved [Bill’s] work,” Mickle declares. “To me, he was this dashing, chiseled, clean-cut guy, but he came into the audition in character, scared the hell out of me…and I was yes, yes, that's what we need!"
But the heavy lifting falls to young actresses Julia Garner and Childers, and he has nothing but praise for both.
"Ambyr is stunning," Mickle says. "She was raised in a Mormon household and made the connection between the family's beliefs and the kind of atmosphere she grew up in.
"I had seen Julia," who plays younger sister Rose, "in Martha Marcy May Marlene. I loved that movie and she was incredible in it and in Electrick Children. She came in with all kinds of questions, and they were all the right questions."
Nature was less cooperative: The screenplay opens amid dark clouds and storm warnings and unfolds to the backdrop of nearly nonstop rain, but the upstate New York locations—primarily Bovina and Margaretville (where Mickle rode out Hurricane Irene, which left the town's main street under water)—remained bone-dry for all but a couple of hours during five weeks of principal photography. But in the end, that was just a bump in the road…if anything stands in the movie's way, it's the difficulty of marketing movies that don't lend themselves to one-note ad campaigns.
An eOne release, We Are What We Are is neither a midnight-movie gore-fest nor a conventional art movie. Is Mickle worried that it might get lost somewhere between its two potential audiences?
"I wasn't when I was making it," he responds, "But there are all those questions about how much to reveal in the trailer, and do we ever say the word cannibal? [Which the trailer does not, though it contains strong visual hints.] We want people to recognize that the movie has a dark tone like Let the Right One In, and after that let the chips fall where they may.
"I love horror movies but I'm offended by most of them because they're factory-made. And I think real horror [enthusiasts] are already aware of the original. What I love is people who come to [a screening] and say, 'I really don't like horror films, but my boyfriend dragged me along and it wasn't what I expected.' To see people have a connection with a movie that's dark and tense but doesn't hit you over the head with it…that's great."