Interview: ‘Stake Land’ Director Jim Mickle!

In limited theaters this Friday from Dark Sky Films is Stake Land, a quasi-vampire film that critics have been eating up (see BC’s review).

Gearing up for the apocalypse, BC caught up with director Jim Mickle who talked about bringing his monster-sized vision to the big screen.

Starring Nick Damici, Connor Paolo, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis, Sean Nelson, and Michael Cerveris, “Martin was a normal teenage boy before the country collapsed in an empty pit of economic and political disaster. A vampire epidemic has swept across what is left of the nation’s abandoned towns and cities, and it’s up to Mister, a death dealing, rogue vampire hunter, to get Martin safely north to Canada, the continent’s New Eden.

Interview inside.
BD: So you have a few known actors in smaller roles, but the two leads are relatively unknown, which really helps sell the audience into the reality of the world…

Jim Mickle: I’ve come to really enjoy that… did you see Monsters? I love that movie, and I love that you can sink yourself into the movie and believe in the story, and not see actors. It’s one of those things you have to set out to do, early on. And with Nick writing it, as soon as he wrote it he was basically cast as Mister – you don’t want to surround this guy with a bunch of celebrities.

BD: When did the idea for Stake Land come together?

Stake LandJM: Summer of 2008. We were having difficulties getting this other movie done, we had a script we were trying to get done, and it was difficult, people thought this other script was too dark, so it was frustrating trying to get it off the ground. So sort of out of that frustration… I had been looking to do a web series, something that would be like the “Lost of the web”, something you could get into and want to come back and see every week. I kept telling Nick, `Let’s come up with something we can do, something episodic, ten minutes a week.” Something we can do piecemeal and not have to take ourselves off the table for the next couple of years, but do a little at a time. And the next morning he sent me like ten pages, which is actually still the first ten minutes of the movie, and was like “I don’t know where the hell this thing is going, but I like these characters, and I like the setting.” And it just went from there. Every day he’d send me a couple of webisode scripts, and soon we had like 25 of them, 300 pages of these things, and we just started to think, “Who do we take this to?” And then Larry Fessenden came along, and said “The guys we did House of the Devil with, we want to do another movie, and I’m booked with something, do you have anything that would fit into this?” So we sent him a couple of the webisodes, and he said “This is awesome – how do we make this into a feature?” And then we kept shaping it, and Nick went away for a weekend, and sort of weaved them all together, added the post-apocalyptic thing and the Brotherhood thing, to sort of give it a backbone that would make it more satisfying overall. Then we weaved in individual things we liked about the webisodes, to make sure we had all the best bits that we liked.

BD: You could easily still do webisodes, slices of life that focused on the other supporting characters, or entirely new ones…

JM: We did do some webisodes that went along with them, because we did the movie and thought it would be nice to take advantage – we can post things online and get stuff going, so shot 6 little short films that went along with the film, and planned to put them out beforehand, with four or five different directors, that focus on sort of right before we meet them. Each one has a different setting, different tone, and even different director. Some are spooky, Danielle actually directed one that’s sort of a melancholy look at what the world’s like. So those will be coming out within the next couple of weeks (EDITOR’S NOTE – many of them are now online). We also planned a comic book… we have this whole universe to work in, so it’s just a matter of how much demand there will be for it.

BD: Let’s talk about the long take, sort of centerpiece of the movie. I assume there MIGHT be a cut in there, but I sure as hell didn’t notice one…

JM: (Laughs) There are pieces pulled out, a few frames here and there, to get rid of some… not so good extras.

BD: Was this something you planned as one shot from the script?

JM: Not at all, it was one of my favorite things in the script; we called it our “Grapes of Wrath moment”. From the beginning I was saying “We gotta nail this!” Originally we had 2-3 days to shoot the whole thing, this epic sequence. And I was like, we have to make it the moment it SHOULD be. And it was frustrating, because our time to shoot it got cut from two days to one, so the difficulty was trying to manage all this stuff with the time we had, so they were trying to simplify it, and my response after a while was like “Let’s not chip away at this, let’s be bold and make one piece here.” At some point they were like “How we gonna make this thing doable?”, so I went away for a couple days and came back and I was like “The answer is… (laughs) we’re gonna do this in one take.” And they thought I was joking, but I insisted, and then it was kind of cool, because on a low budget film everyone chips in and gets excited. It was like sports, you have a running time, you have 80 extras, you have a little girl, and she has to hit her mark at the right time, and the band actually playing on stage, and bodies and vamps dropping in, lights… it was like a choreographed routine. I think we used the fourth take, and once we started getting it together there was this energy like, “We’re actually doing it!”

BD: How long did it take to reset for each take?

JM: About a half hour? A lot of it was debris and stuff, bodies would fall, tables were rigged with ropes so you could pull it to make it fall apart. We had lots of bowls of popcorn for debris, then there was one of the stands were propped up with something almost like toothpicks, so you pull that and pieces go flying everywhere. On the first take, we called cut something, for focus, and it was before anyone pulled the rope. But as soon as we called cut they thought it was the cue for everyone to do their thing, so it was like a domino effect (laughs). That was kind of awful!

BD: On Mulberry you were confined to one location, here you almost never stay anywhere for more than five minutes before moving on to another location – was that a conscious decision, after Mulberry, to keep yourself moving?

JM: On the day we wrapped Mulberry I turned to one producer and said “Never again!” No low budget movies with creatures, makeup, action scenes… I cant, WE can’t put ourselves through this again. And then the first script for Stake Land came in, and I was like “Come on, give me a break!” You know? (Laughs) I didn’t want to make another movie with nick fighting monsters, be THAT guy. But that was the thing, Stake Land was almost like Mulberry Street inside out, with a lot of characters and similar thematic stuff going through it, but we weren’t contained to this one room. And so we could pull in these different flavors, and that was the thing I connected to I guess. You bring up different references and visual ideas and then it starts to feel like a different movie.

BD: Talk about casting Danielle… obviously it’s a big deal to get her in a horror movie as she’s kind of our generation’s Jamie Lee Curtis, but at the same time it’s very different from her other horror roles.

JM: I didn’t know she was a scream queen! I haven’t watched the Halloween movies, I know her from Roseanne and Eerie Indiana and things like that. And I felt like she was one of those actresses you watch growing up while you’re growing up, you know? And then I was doing a Fangoria radio show and she was one of the guests, so when her name came up I was like “The girl from Roseanne? She’s in horror now?” And I’m a fan, I like this stuff, so I was like “How did this slip by me?” And she was cool; she read it, and saw it as something different than what she was doing. Originally the character was different, sort of like Bonnie Raitt – an older, been-there done that, kind of honky-tonk chick, and a love interest for Mister. So it was kind of cool, being able to reshape her character and have her involved with that. She takes on a motherly/big sister role to Martin, and a lot of that was her. And then we shot the movie over two different chunks; we shot for 3 weeks and then took 3 months off to let the seasons change, let the characters grow their hair out. And during that 3 months we sat down with her and rewrote her character completely for the second half. And she was cool with it, she was like “This means less lines for me, but it makes the movie better and makes for a cooler character.”

BD: Yeah, I noticed apart from her singing, she doesn’t say anything until like 15 minutes after she’s introduced.

JM: I love that! There was little dialogue in the script to begin with, and we trimmed it down even more. I’d be like “you don’t need to see this” or an actor would say “I don’t need to see this”. And it was sort of infectious; another actor will do the same thing. One of my favorite scenes is right after we first meet her, and she looks Martin, that’s my favorite scene in the movie. It’s a quiet, sort of downtime thing, and the music’s right, the lighting’s right… We had written 100 versions of that scene, where she wakes him up, talks to him, trying to hitch a ride. We kept trying to write clever dialogue for her, dialogue for him… we kept rewriting and rewriting and it never felt like it the scene it needed to be. And finally I said to Danielle and Connor you can do whatever, if there’s a better way to do this without dialogue, let’s do it. So the two of them sort of came up with just looking for each other, she touched her belly and gave him that look – it’s such a cool to get good actors and have them be able to strip that stuff away and do something more subtle and interesting.

BD: Let’s talk about the score – I always love Jeff Grace’s stuff but I think he knocked it out of the park even more than usual on this one. A. What was it like collaborating with him and B. will it be available?

JM: We’re talking about it now – I think a record company has already agreed, I think it’s a rights thing with Dark Sky. So it IS coming out, I’m just not sure when. I had an awesome composer on Mulberry that I had a great time working with, but I heard Grace’s Last Winter score and loved it, and then you start to notice that all the Glass Eye movies have these great scores that are all different, and you look and it’s the same dude. So when this came up, he was sort of penciled thing for it before I even made the decision. But I was like “That’s cool, that’s a no-brainer”. He’s awesome, I like using scores that aren’t horror score for references, because the question is how do we get the western flavor and stay away from post-apocalyptic sounding stuff? So I was drawing from like, Days of Heaven, Assassination of Jesse James, I loved Nick Cave’s score for that… basically just temped the whole movie with scores that weren’t horror movies. Then it was up to Jeff to take these weirdly different scores and tones and instruments and sort of make one thing himself, one complete score, and he just did an awesome, awesome job. We had a rough cut of the movie and it had all these different sounds and it didn’t really make a cohesive sounding score, but he tied it all together, emotionally. Just an awesome experience.

BD: Are you looking to further explore the Stake Land universe yourself? Are there plans for a sequel, or web spinoff, the comic…?

JM: There’s a comic written, it’s up to Dark Sky, I think they want to wait to see how the movie does before putting that out. We have these short films… it’s all about what the response is. Originally they started talking about doing a sequel; right after we wrapped the movie, and my feeling was it’s a little early to be thinking about this stuff. I like sequels when they’re sort of warranted with material that is there, kind of left over – I hate when it’s like “This movie did well so let’s do another.” Nick and I would like to do a sequel that picks up ten years later. Like, Mister’s got gray hair, Martin’s in his 20s and has a beard…we’d come back to them after 10 years have passed and all these things have happened, pick up with them on the road and see what’s going on. And it’s weird for me, because the movie’s been done for almost a year, all these webisodes were pretty much done a year ago, so there’s a ton of material that’s just now seeing the light of day.

BD: So what is next for you?

JM: I’m talking to people about different stuff, that’s all just playing the patience game. Nick and I did an adaptation of a Joe Lansdale novel, that’s the one we wanted to do before Stake Land, and now the pieces are falling into place on that, just waiting for that last thing to pull the trigger so it all comes together. We’ll hopefully be shooting that by the end of summer. It takes place in summertime, so it’s gotta be this year or next. It’s called Cold in July and it’s not really horror; it’s a really dark violent country noir. I don’t know if you know Joe’s stuff, but he has this knack for country crimes. It’s a contemporary western, a suburban dad gets caught up in a tough guy movie. It’s a twisty movie about what it means to be a guy, and live by the guy code, it’s really dark and violent and satisfying, but it’s not another Mulberry so it’s been kind of tough, because it’s very different for us. But there are some cool actors interested and it can be really cool movie.