Jim Mickle’s American version of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican horror We Are What We Are is that rare thing: a remake that improves on its predecessor. By taking the story of an isolated, deeply traditional cannibal family and transplanting it to a flood-drenched rural American landscape, Mickle (Stake Land, Cold In July) has crafted one of the most intelligent, moving horrors of the year.
Bill Sage leads the excellent ensemble cast as patriarch Frank Parker, who is determined that his daughters (Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers) take up their late mother’s duty as provider. Sage has been an indie film fixture since the the late 1980s, working with directors like Mary Harron, Hal Hartley, Gregg Araki and Lisa Cholodenko on films like American Psycho, Trust, Mysterious Skin and High Art. We talked to the actor about why he wasn’t worried about doing a remake, playing a monster, and why he loves the horror community.
How did Jim Mickle approach you for the role of Frank Parker?
I went in and I went and read for him. I’d gotten the script the night before and it all happened pretty quick. I believe by the end of the day I think he decided to cast me, I think. I wasn’t familiar with him, maybe I’d heard of Stake Land but I hadn’t seen it. But I was blown away by the script. I distinctly remember saying to my wife that this is an amazing script. It’s an allegory, it’s a great American horror story and by the way, they eat people.
It’s almost a Dustbowl horror; there’s a real Steinbeck quality to it. What in particular drew you to the script?
Absolutely, and I love Steinbeck. It’s just that I think the dogmatic religious aspect, and I think that it sort of felt like Northern Appalachian. In America we associate Appalachia with West Virginia and that region but there’s a whole dark thing that goes on up in the Catskills, there’s a whole mythology to that and it’s Appalachia and Steinbeck meets William Kennedy.
Were you concerned about taking on a remake at all?
No, it was pretty clear from what we had talked about, I also wasn’t really that familiar with the Mexican version, that this was really a reimagining of that story through an American scope. I think it took on different themes than Jorge’s. Plus they were so on board with this one, you know. I met Jorge out in Cannes.
I think he’s working on the sequel to the American film, isn’t he?
Yeah, they’re working on that. A prequel and a sequel they’re thinking about. I’m sure it’ll be good, no matter what they do with it. It will not be like standard prequel or sequel; I think they’ll think of it in terms of a trilogy.
Well, that’s just it, what you said. To keep him a human character, really find where his humanity lives. The story tells us and we see the things that he does that make him horrific, but I thought of him more as an…he’s also a grieving husband and a loving father. There are lots of obstacles, great obstacles in the way. One, he’s dying of prion, the very thing that he thinks is his salvation is actually killing him. There was great research to find there, the folded protein that comes from eating human flesh. The tribes in New Guinea in the late 50s, there’s actual footage you can see of ghastly, horrific what people go through when they’re dying of this. And he has an early onset of Parkinson’s disease so that was something physical to work on.
There are all kinds of obstacles in the way of him trying to survive and love his family and he’s also, this is not a person that sees a lot of people during the day. I mean I said that to Jim, I really imagined this guy; I think his wife took care of the kids and he went to his man cave and did his thing. And he might go for days at a time without speaking to another human being so he’s got a whole conversation going on his head. He’s got a whole dialogue with God and you see one section where he’s speaking to God and he’s speaking like in tongues. There’s lots to do with this character, you could just keep digging and digging and find more stuff.
There’s that great scene where he opens up to his neighbour Marge (Kelly McGillis) a little bit, and then is very awkward afterwards.
Yeah, that was the very first scene we shot and that was a great example of seeing Frank about as vulnerable, he had broken down and he was vulnerable the night before and it’s almost like something sexual had happened. And he’s got to give her something but there’s a shame attached to letting another woman hold him especially so close after his wife had died. He is the Book of Deuteronomy. My man is hard on himself! And he’s hard on other people. So it was easy to imagine his backstory and what his childhood must have been like and what was thrust upon him, what was expected of him. I think a lot was expected of him, to keep the tradition going that was dwindling, that was dying out in those parts. How long could something like that go on without it being discovered? And then of course everything comes up. Everything comes floating down the river, as it were.
Was it difficult to shoot the finale?
No, not really. We took some time on that and stuff like that’s very technical. We had this really great guy, Brian Speers, we were in good hands with the blood and gore and the knife to the hand and he was amazing.
It’s fantastic how biblical it is.
Yeah, right? Well, Frank also my take on it with Jim was that Frank wins. Frank gets what he wants. It’s not exactly how exactly how he expected it, but I said “I think we should cover it where you see him relinquish, just subtle, it shouldn’t be too heavy handed but you see him actually relinquish, spread his arms out in crucifixion.” Which is what I did, he’s going out sacrificed. I think somewhere in the pain of all of that, in the horror of what’s happening, he comes to this realisation.
I had had some years earlier, I had a hiking accident where I nearly severed the tops of my fingers on my left hand in an accident. Luckily there was a good hand surgeon, I got the use of my hand back, but the pain involved in four hours of cleaning that out without any kind of pain medication…something about that extended kind of pain, you come to a different realisation of things. And I remember at that time I had sort of given over to “This is the pain, here it is,” and you could feel very alive. So it sort of influenced my thought of that and what could be going through his mind when this is happening. What came to me is that it would be very like Frank to sacrifice himself.
Oh, I was excited when I heard she was playing Rose. I was really, really excited about that. Because there’s nobody like her, she’s such an interesting combination of things. And I knew that she would probably be better in this than that, she was great in Electrick Children. But I knew that something about her demeanour, something about her would really work for this. Also I always had a lot of fun with her. I taught her to drive, she was old enough to get her license but she lives in New York, so you don’t have to do a whole lot of driving in New York. So one of the things that we did was I taught her to drive.
Was it quite a relaxed set?
I think it was. I always have a good time with crews for some reason. But I did more with this crew than any other I’ve ever worked with. I think because we were off in a pretty secluded area, no cell phone usage. Very limited Wi-Fi, there’s no cell towers, so that was kind of amazing; it was amazing for this film. Amazing for my character. So there were bonfires every night and just hanging out with the crew. Julia and I were a big part of that.
It was great working with Ambyr as well. You can throw anything at her and she responds. It’s amazing. For some reason in the process between action and cut I would always have something come to me where I would throw something at her. During one of the takes, completely out of nowhere, at the dinner table there’s a scene where I lean down and kiss her right on the lips. I don’t know, it just came to me. In all his hubris and after chasing his children and getting them back, he just kisses her right on the mouth. And she doesn’t flinch; she just stays with it no matter what. So in other words, it’s fine with some actors, I like to kind of go off a little bit and see where, if you have the right director for that and the right actors you’re working with, it can be great. You know, where it’s not exactly as you rehearsed it. It shouldn’t be; something should happen, an event should occur.
That’s what you want to happen, something unexpected that surprise even you. You always want to be surprised between action and cut, either by something that I do or something the other person does.
You haven’t done a lot of horror. Is it just a genre that you haven’t been particularly excited by?
No, it just hasn’t come up; I’m really excited by it. I am now. Especially after coming across the horror fans. I started a Twitter account and horror fans, it’s truly independent, they feel like they own it. Because you look at something like the Spirit Awards or something that’s supposed to represent independent film but it really doesn’t, it’s the same list of people that are nominated for Academy Awards. I don’t know how the BAFTAs are…
Yeah, it’s the same.
Right. So this is really unique. So our film’s nominated for seven Chainsaws from Fangoria Magazine, and a friend of mine was sort of making fun of it and I thought “You know what, I’m honoured! I’m honoured by the chainsaws.” Because it’s a fanbase thing. They care about this art form and it tells stories. Sometimes it’s just gratuitous and sometimes it’s not. Even the stuff that’s really gratuitous can be quite good. I mean, Texas Chainsaw Massacre I always thought was a great film. The Shining is probably my favourite film. I had an affinity for the art form.
A couple of years earlier, a good friend of mine Eric Mendolsohn who is a director, and he did Judy Berlin, Three Backyards, and he teaches at Columbia, and he got me a script. He had a student who knew we were friends and wanted to get a script to me. It was a short film, it was his thesis film, and he’s British and Jonathan Von Tullecken, he directed this short film called Off Season in the horror genre, and it’s just me and a dog and it was nominated for a BAFTA in 2010, 2011. And it’s incredible. 13 minutes, it’s amazing. Really well-done film, and that was kind of a…Some people might think of American Psycho as a horror, I think of it more as a comedy.
You’ve made a lot of films with Hal Hartley. Do you have a favourite?
Well I’m going to do another film with him, Ned Rifle. I think it’s going to be good. I think Simple Men. I think Simple Men and Trust are probably his signature films, really, but those two films in particular. He continues to evolve but he also went to less mainstream as opposed to more. I don’t know, I think some of his stuff is less accessible but he is a true artist. I think that those two films in particular, Trust and Simple Men. I have a lot to do in Simple Men, so.
It made me feel old but honoured, as well, the Museum of the Moving Image honoured me with a Bill Sage Then and Now. So two of the films they showed were Simple Men and We Are What We Are. Interesting double bill and wildly different characters. But I looked at it and I thought “I like the way things have gone. I’ve stayed true to myself and I feel good about what I’ve done.
We Are What We Are comes to select UK cinemas on 28th February and on DVD 3rd March. You can buy the DVD for £9 at Amazon.co.uk.