“We Are What We Are” is based on Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexican film about a family of cannibals, but as director Jim Mickle, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Nick Damici, explained during a recent Dallas interview, it’s no slavish remake.
“This is, I think, an original movie [that follows] the rules of the original,” he said. “But we turned all the elements upside down. It deals with the same ideas, but in a different way.”
That was fine with Grau. “By the time they set up the call with Jorge, we’d already written a first draft,” Mickle recalled. “Then we had one quick conversation, and he basically said, ‘Do whatever you want. I really liked your movie [‘Stake Land’], and there are things I wish I’d done differently, and there are things I’m really proud of. I’m more interested in seeing what you guys will do with it.’ It was kind of this amazing blessing to not have to stick to something. It was very cool.”
Mickle and Damici’s previous picture, “Stake Land,” actually played at many of the same festivals where Grau’s had. “We kept hearing about it, but we kept missing it,” Mickle said. “Their poster came out the week before our poster came out, their trailer came out a week before our trailer came out. We were following it so closely that by the time it came out, I almost felt I knew so much about it that I didn’t need to see it. Then when the company that had gotten the rights came to us and mentioned it, I decided to see it. I had this idea in my mind of what it would be. By the time we watched it, I said, this isn’t at all as I’d imagined it. It has all the elements I imagined, but it uses them in a very different way. I wouldn’t know how to remake it, but I really liked the idea of a family of faith and ritual and ceremony, and I thought we could do an American version that would be very different.
“The original keeps you at arm’s length from the characters,” Mickle explained. “We want you to feel for every person. In a horror movie, that’s a crazy concept nowadays. Instead of rooting for them to be killed, what if you actually care about them? Spend enough time with them that you get to know them, and not just think of them as a body count? That was the thing: what if we do a cannibal movie, but instead of treating them as oddities, what if we actually made you feel and even understand what they were doing? If we could find a way to do that, then we’d have a really interesting movie, in which you’re kind of caring about the monsters. That was where the religious aspect, which was an element of the first one, really got played up. I was fascinated by the idea of what forces people to do terrible things. We’d played with religion in ‘Stake Land,’ but in a cartoony way. This was an opportunity to look at it in a more realistic way. If you’re told something all your life, you have no idea that it’s abnormal. At what point to you wake up and realize that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”
Mickle acknowledged that in many ways “We Are What We Are” goes against the grain of contemporary horror movies, which emphasize killing and gore to the exclusion of virtually anything else. “I really like when you do horror films but you don’t treat them like horror films,” he said. “So we just kept treating [this] like family melodrama.
“I think it’s what may hold us back in some ways commercially. But I’m a horror movie fan, and I’m just offended by the crap that gets offered [audiences]. You have to go overseas to find stuff that’s really interesting, or the independent horror movies, because they’re made by people who are really fans and realize that it’s not just about how many people you can kill and how quickly you can do it.
“The coolest thing is to have gone out and made a move that’s an art movie, a family drama that happens to have a really horrific backdrop, and know that the audience is sophisticated enough to stick with it. I’m sure we’ll lose people who think it’s too slow, but they’re probably not people we’d want the movie to connect with anyway. Hopefully, we’ll be able to reach a lot more people. I love hearing people who say, ‘I hate horror movies, but my boyfriend loves them and dragged me along to see this, and I ended up loving it more than he did.’
“I preach how good horror movies can be and often get laughed out of the room. So it’s nice to think that maybe we’re helping people realize it’s true.”