Horror fans feeling down about the decidedly romantic turn vampires have taken in pop culture in recent years can take heart — the vamps in director Jim Mickle‘s post-apocalyptic horror thriller “Stake Land,” which follows an orphaned boy who’s taken under the wing of a grizzled monster hunter, don’t sparkle. Heck, they can barely even speak. They growl and bite, that’s it. And the audiences who have seen the film at festivals since its premiere at Toronto last fall seem to like it that way — “Stake Land,” which echoes Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” has been getting favorable reviews. Contributor Patrick Kevin Day spoke by phone with Mickle about his vampire epic, which opens Friday.
PKD: “Stake Land” is not a typical vampire film. What was its origin?
JM: Originally, it was a much different project. It took place in modern day. [Co-writer and star] Nick [Damici] and I planned to do this as a Web series and shoot little bits at a time. It was cool and had a lot of fun action and a lot of fun horror stuff, but it didn’t have any of the social commentary we had fallen in love with in [our previous feature] “Mulberry Street.” We figured out the plot and the characters and then we tried to figure out exactly what it was. We ended up folding all these webisodes together into a single story, but you could feel like it wasn’t an overarching through-line that connected everything. So Nick took it away for a weekend and when he came back, the new draft had the post-apocalyptic thing and the brotherhood and the history of what happened to the world. He’s great about being able to touch on stuff without hitting you over the head. So all that stuff made it richer and much more emotionally dramatic. That was my way into the film. This isn’t just “Blade 4.” This is a mix of “Grapes of Wrath” and other non-horror movies.
PKD: So the vampires were part of it from the beginning?
JM: Yeah. There was a time when I had just moved apartments and I just wanted to zone out and I didn’t have TV, but I did have Internet. I started watching Web series. I couldn’t find anything that wrapped me up like a TV show could and I got frustrated. This didn’t make any sense. Technology is here and somebody is going to make the “Lost” of the Internet and as soon as it happens everyone is going to be flocking to this and trying to do this. So I originally started attempting to do that. We were trying to make an independent thriller and were having trouble raising financing for it so we said, “Let’s try this.” It was something with a serial narrative. We started talking some ideas and then Nick sent me the first 10 pages the next morning, which was the pilot for the Web series. That has never changed, that was the first 10 minutes of the movie… But after that, it was much more of a video game thing with levels and different kinds of vampires. It was a lot of fun and if we had $50 million we could have made it, but I think at some point you have to realize we’re not going to be able to pull off one amazing action scene after another. We had to figure out a way to make it work at an independent level. What worked on “Mulberry Street” was to strip out horror stuff and get our characters working. So if all these action or horror scenes fall on their face, we’ll still have a cool story people will be into. All this genre stuff is icing on the cake. It keeps the genre fans happy, but if you’re looking for something different, that’s also there. Nick would send me [scripts for] two or three webisodes a day. And each one would be 10 pages. There was one really cool story about waiting in a morgue for a dead body to come back to life and having to kill it. The webisodes were really great almost short stories, almost like comic books. One after another. Some of those we kept and re-purposed for this movie.
PKD: Vampires are everywhere these days in pop culture. Did that help you get funding or work against you?
JM: I think it helped. This was the end of 2008. I know “Twilight” was around. “True Blood” was on TV. Vampires weren’t a huge cultural phenomenon, but there was a sense that zombies were over. Vampires were still cool and there was a lot you could do with them. They made me nervous at first because I didn’t want to come out and compete. “Mulberry” came at a time when the market was saturated by zombie movies, and the public was tired of zombies. But I think it helped us. The film was part of a three-picture deal set up with Larry Fessenden’s company Glass Eye Pix. They had a little bit of money that they were going to break up into three different movies: us and “Hypothermia” and a movie called “Bitter Feast” that’s already out on DVD. It helped to have one thing they could say, “Yeah, this is commercial. Therefore we can set aside the largest amount of this small pot for this.” It did help. They wanted someone they could advertise overseas. I give them credit that after we wrote it, they said “OK, Nick is the lead” and that’s it.
PKD: How did your collaboration start with Nick? He’s a generation older than you?
JM: I’m 31. He’s 20 years older. I met him on a student film. I was a grip on a friend’s film at NYU. He had cast Nick in the lead role as a tough-as-nails school bus driver who was an ex-con. We were out in the middle of nowhere in the woods, staying in cabins. I was the guy making horror movies and little thrillers while everyone was making coming of age, meaning of life stories. I met Nick and thought he was awesome. During the shoot, late at night, I’d look over and he’d be sitting on the porch in a rocking chair playing a guitar and sipping brandy. I’d come over and start hanging out and talking about movies and realizing we had the same taste in movies. What I like about Nick is he looks like Charles Bronson, but he’s still like a 13-year-old kid in study hall who draws pictures of vampires in his notebook. I went to his house the other day and he was making this giant King Kong sculpture out of clay. It was so detailed, like the kind of thing you’d see on EBay. He’s got this whole side of his kitchen he’s turned into jungles and pterodactyls. It’s funny that he’s got this tough-guy look, he could be in “The Dirty Dozen,” but he has this really creative side he can’t let go of. In some ways I feel like more of the adult. We hit it off and after that I cast him in my student film. He does the lead writing but we bounce stuff off each other and shape stuff together. In writing, he comes at stuff from the inside, from character. He builds characters and creates a story around them. I’m more a visual, external, how-do-we-work-in-these-cool- settings kind of guy. His way is a much more satisfying way. It’s a cool relationship.
PKD: Sounds a little like the relationship between Mister and the kid in the movie.
JM: Absolutely. That’s definitely part of it. When I got out of school, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I couldn’t get work. He lives a couple of blocks away in downtown Manhattan. He’d get me a job and I’d make 80 bucks PA-ing on some crappy movie and he’d make me dinner and say, “Just stick with it. Just stick with it.” I cut a preproduction diary of how “Stake Land” started, pictures of us working together that match up with pictures of Mister and Martin in the movie. It’s kind of nice to look back at that.
PKD: I understand you broke this shoot up into segments. Seems very ambitious for an independent film.
JM: There was a lot of excitement about it. The Glass Eye guys have a crew that works on these films. They’re low-budget movies, but they were going to shoot a lot of these. The one before us shot a month before us and the one that shot after us shot a month after us. So people knew they could do these movies, they’d be fun and there was enough of them that we weren’t worried about losing people to other jobs. It was really tough on casting. Originally, the idea was to do three portions. We were going to do summer, fall and then winter, and come back in January in upstate New York where there’s a foot of snow. That was the goal, but we realized the actors were a little leery of doing that because it was the middle of pilot season. We were asking them to book six months out of their year even though we were only using them for six shooting days. It got a little ambitious. We shot footage for a teaser trailer in March. Then we took off for a few months and came back in August to shoot a bit more. Then we came back once more around Thanksgiving and shot for two weeks. There was some changeover in the crew, but not much at all. If we had shot it all back to back, I don’t think we could have kept that pace four weeks in a row. We only had to worry about getting half the action scenes right. People would ask questions about the script and I’d say, “Don’t’ worry about it. It may change completely by the time we shoot.” I was able to edit the film together during the break and see where scenes were going. We ended up rewriting a lot of stuff. Danielle Harris‘ character got really rewritten. Originally, she was Mister’s love interest. That was a whole different dynamic and when she arrived we realized it didn’t make sense. She looks like a teenager and Nick was playing the character like John Wayne in his later years. It was cool to bring her in and get help on what her character was going to be. Once we were able to see how bad-ass Michael Cerveris was, we were able to make more scenes for him. So it’s a very cool process if you actually get to stop in the middle of your movie and adjust your track and go back in.
PKD: Will you try to re-create that same process on your next film?
JM: Maybe. The cool thing about having Larry Fessenden as a producer is that he’s also a director, and not just a director but a very cool, very unorthodox director. So he’s always trying to find new ways of doing things. The next one I’m hoping to do is much more contained and doesn’t warrant such a weird schedule.
PKD: The movie seems to evoke a political landscape very similar to the post-election mood of America circa 2004, when liberals were looking to Canada as an escape from what they saw as a country run by armed militias and conservative religious leaders. Intentional?
JM: Yeah. Early on we were trying to do too much stuff. I think by the time the first draft was finished, it was September ’08 right during the ramp-up to the presidential election and really starting to see that vibe between blue and red states. “Mulberry Street” was written during a time when we were both forced to move out of our apartments and there was eminent domain stuff going on and the neighborhood was really changing and we couldn’t afford where we were living. We were able to use that as a local talking point for a horror movie. This movie has a big Americana sense about it. Part of that was not being specific about names and places and times. Sort of not mapping out Obama or McCain or Bush, trying to be very archetypal to that kind of stuff, knowing that the specifics are going to change but it’s always going to be the same forces, whether it’s now or Vietnam with “Night of the Living Dead.” These things will always be there. At some point, when Obama was getting elected I got depressed. I said to Nick, “What if Obama comes in and he can solve everything? There’s no more racism and classes are equal?” It’s funny that two and a half years later the movie is coming out and it’s even more screwed up.
PKD: So many images seem to come from the Great Depression. Did you dig those out of the archive?
JM: Absolutely. That was the first thing. The idea of going out and making a low-budget movie with creatures was interesting. But at some point, this became a different post-apocalyptic movie. This is actually what America will look like if it does go under. We went back and watched “Grapes of Wrath,” “Bound for Glory” and “Days of Heaven,” then looked at a lot of archival photos. It was so awesome because of the simplicity in those images, these heart-wrenching images of children wearing potato sacks by the side of the road. I love the production design of this movie but the costumes are amazing.
PKD: So what’s next?
JM: We adapted a novel by Joe Landsdale, the guy who wrote the story “Bubba Ho-Tep” is based on. He’s got a wild, crazy career. It’s called “Cold in July.” It’s one he did in 1989-1990. It’s a twist-turny country noir. It has a lot of stuff about fatherhood. It’s much more character-based. We adapted it three years ago, but then “Stake Land” happened. We have one very cool actor interested so far and we’re trying to find the rest of the cast. Knock on wood. What I found with “Stake Land” is that everyone says, “So what’s next?” and then I tell them and they say, “So it’s a straightforward genre thing?” And I say, “It’s not. It feels like one, but it’s not.” You’ll see their face sink. So many people will pass on it. They’ll say, “I wish it was more straightforward genre.” Then they’ll say, “But ‘Stake Land’ moved me. I cried.” How can you say that and then turn around and admit openly that all you want is straightforward genre?”
— Patrick Kevin Day
[For the record, 11:50 a.m. April 29: This post originally stated that Larry Fessenden’s company is Dark Sky Films. It is Glass Eye Pix. ]
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