I recently got the chance to talk to writer and director Jim Mickle about his new film ‘Stake Land’. Here, Jim talks about working with the likes of Kelly McGillis and Danielle Harris on the film, about how to survive an apocalypse and what films have inspired him as a director…
Hey Jim. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. Your new film ‘Stake Land’ will be released in UK cinemas on 17th June 2011. For anyone who doesn’t know about ‘Stake Land’ – the main plotline stems around a guy named Mister escorting a young boy to Canada because an epidemic has swept through the world turning everyone into vampires. How did this idea originally come about?
Nick Damici (who plays Mister) just started writing the first few pages. Mister and Martin in a car and something inhuman in the trunk. From there we expanded it into a script for a web series. It wasn’t apocalyptic but it was designed and thought out to be a weekly serial. Once Glass Eye Pix got involved, we realized it was a cool jumping off point to do a feature.
How has the reception been to the film so far? Was it what you expected? From the reviews I’ve seen it seems to have the great buzz around it…
The response has been amazing. I had a feeling it would connect, but I had no idea it would go over so well with audiences and critics. Unfortunately in the US it got a pretty sad little release, so it’s a real pleasure to see it getting treated so well overseas.
How would you say ‘Stake Land’ stands out from other horror films released this year? What tricks as a director did you try to throw in?
I think it has a heart, which can be rare in the genre these days. I love escapist horror, and I have fun seeing annoying characters get torn to shreds, but I also want to care about the people I’m watching. We just tried to create real people in an extraordinary situation, and show not just the dangers they’re in, but also how it can affect them personally. It resonates so much more when the audience can relate to the characters on-screen.
The film stars Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis and Connor Paolo – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
Amazing. Fortunately much of the crew came over from “Mulberry Street”, so even though we still had an incredibly low-budget in comparison to the first film, it was like a luxury and we could actually make creative decisions. Everyone in the cast was phenomenal. The schedule was rough, the conditions weren’t the best and no one was doing it for the money, so the result was a group of talented actors who were there because they liked the script and wanted to be a part of the team. Nick and Connor gave their lives over to those two characters, and I think that energy trickled down through everyone else. Kelly and Danielle didn’t care if they looked dirty or unglamorous. They just wanted to be believable. It made my job look very easy.
Actually – it’s ironic – I live in Leicester, UK – and we’ve just had a news story come out recently that an anonymous person posted a question to the local council saying – “Is Leicester prepared for an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise?‘ – Leicester City Council went away and paid an outsider to come in and answer the question for them. After spending a good amount of the UK taxpayers money to find out the answer – it turns out we’re not. So, in your mind – what is the best way to survive an apocalypse?
Avoid the cities and learn how to live off the land. I’ve recently become obsessed with sustainable agriculture and homesteading. I still have a place in New York City for work, but I’m lucky to also have a cabin in the mountains. If it were up to me I’d be there all year round with chickens and goats and a windmill for electricity. It’s the perfect place to wait out an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise. Unless I wound up with chicken-zombies. Which would also be pretty cool.
Let’s talk about you Jim. What made you want to get into the directing chair in the first place?
I originally wanted to do Creature FX. I wanted to grow up and join KNB and make animatronic monsters and demons. From that curiosity I discovered Sam Raimi and the ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy, and John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. Those movies taught me that there was so much more to filmmaking, especially in the horror genre. Since then it’s been a constantly evolving love for how to tell stories and create worlds on the screen.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a director?
Go and do it. Don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity or you’ll be waiting forever. Put your team together and set a start date, no matter how crazy it is. Momentum is the hardest thing to get going, but once you have it, things start to happen.
You’ve spent a good five years or so being a grip hand in various projects – for anyone clueless – what does this sort of job involve? Is it good experience for anyone wanting to get into the industry?
In the US the lighting department is broken down into grips and electrics. Electrics handle lamps and power. Grips handle rigging, and help shape the light and the shadow. On something like “Transamerica” which was a road movie, we would rig the cameras and lights to the car, or to a follow vehicle. It can be a lot of fun, and involve a lot of problem solving, and especially on lower budgets, grips get a ton of hands-on experience. Any set position is good for industry experience, because you learn the ins and outs of a set and what a typical day can be like. But it can also be incredibly long hours, so it’s all about juggling time.
What films have influenced you as a director? Any favourites ones?
‘The Thing’, ‘Suspiria’, ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Blood Simple’, ‘La Haine’, ‘Evil Dead’ trilogy, ‘Dead Alive’, ‘Badlands’, ‘Funny Games’. Anything by David Lynch. Tastes evolve over time, but those will probably always stick with me.
What does a Jim Mickle day usually consist of?
A lot of frustration over trying to get the next film going. That’s a constant. I do a lot of commercial and documentary editing for hire. Play a lot of basketball, a lot of guitar, and spend as much time in the country as possible. A lot of script reading too. When Nick gets going he can send multiple drafts in a day sometimes.
Who has been your favourite actor to work with and why?
It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but I really bonded with Kelly and I loved working with her. Everyone in the movie was great, but there’s something about her experience and where she was in life that made it impossible for her to lie, so she was confident but very raw and natural. She also knew how to make it fun and to make sure I did my job as a director, and her philosophies on life hit a chord with me. Nick I feel like is an extension of me or like a brother, so that’s effortless, and I’d say Connor was the most surprising – not because he was so good (he’s amazing) but because his understanding of story and character far exceeded anyone I’ve ever met, and he’s not even 20 years old.
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
We just got financing for our Joe Lansdale adaptation ‘Cold In July’, so we’re casting that now, and we hope to be shooting this year. Look for that in 2012.
Thanks for the interview!