The Curtis Hotel is right across the street from the Denver Performing Arts Complex--a city block "hollowed out" in the middle that houses Denver's premier venues: the ones for the opera, the ballet, the symphony, and touring companies of Broadway productions. On a hot day in September, I walked through the complex, under the four-storey-high glass canopy, to the Curtis. It's a fun place, this hotel; the floors have themes. I met Jim Mickle on the superhero floor, on the morning his film was to screen at the 4th Mile High Horror Film Festival. He's a tall guy, affable, friendly, and not at all what I was expecting after watching his sober, dense, matriarchal horror movie We Are What We Are. I expected, at the least, a tweed coat with leather patches on the elbows. On the last day of publicity for the film, after which he was returning to editing duties on his adaptation of Joe Lansdale's awesome noir Cold in July, I promised I would try to avoid asking him questions he'd already answered a few dozen times before--although I couldn't resist bringing up Kelly McGillis and Witness because, yeah, I'm a big, giant dork. We started off, though, talking about Antonia Bird's Ravenous and his own film's Ravenous feel.
JIM MICKLE: (laughs) I love Ravenous, man, love it.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: No kidding? I was
listening to the soundtrack on the way over.
We used that as a reference for our soundtrack!
The Damon Albarn, really? You used it
as incidental music?
No, not really, more afterwards. It was part of this conversation about how we use Americana music in a different way, a way that we hadn't heard before and that was where it led us, to that soundtrack. We had two composers on the piece, one was Phil Mossman, who was with LCD Soundsystem, right, so a very electronic background. So the question became, How do we use old, rustic instruments to pull in that old, analog feel? So we referenced that soundtrack a lot when we were talking about it.
Not because of the cannibalism?
(laughs) No. Just because it was sort of this perverse bluegrass.
Tell me more about Americana.
I can't speak for Nick [Damici], but I can say that for me I wanted to explore religion, especially American religion, particularly how young these religions are. I was really fascinated by the origins, the possibility to explore those origins, because really it wasn't all that long ago that they were born, you know. How did they start? What kind of tension created it--you can still get at a lot of that, that unspeakable element, because there isn't the weight of history and time covering it up. A lot of faith, a lot of belief, you know, it's grounded somewhere close to that sense of destiny that made at some point these unspeakable acts make sense, but as time goes on, that tension is gone and all that's left is this manipulation and misunderstanding.
Religion as an unfortunate telephone
Yes, it's a whisper down the lane sort of thing, and by the end of it you have this really warped thing happening, this warped version of something that might have made sense at some time in terms of survival, in terms of whatever, but whatever it's become... Anyway, this is what I feel about religion in a nutshell. I wanted to present a scenario, and I know that Nick did, too, where the things that happen in the film have some grounding in something that used to make sense even if no one has a sense of what that might have been now. But they still enact it, right? It's all so open and vague, religion can be, it's all interpretation, and we wanted to sort of understand better how things like this get started.
Your film isn't about rebellion
against belief, though.
Yeah, there's a nature vs. nurture thing going on in there that we wanted to get to a little bit, you know--the girls want to rebel against the father...
Not "the" Father.
So talk to me about your opening
shots of the leaf, into the water, to the mother, then the water again, and a
line in your film that speaks to "the whole of nature's cruelty."
I think it's in all our stuff and this was just that opportunity to push it to the forefront. Nick always says that "nature always wins." You see it here [in Colorado] with all the flooding you guys just went through, and you saw it in some very similar flooding in the Catskills the year before we shot there. Being there to see that devastation, and how small we are against that... I think that people like to think of themselves as the controllers of nature, you know, and then every once in a while nature comes around and smacks them around for a while and you realize how... I dunno, I tend a bit [towards] nihilism when I start to talk about it.
Yet, there's an irony about nature,
right? The beauty of the leaf, the tragedy of the mother...
Yes, yes, there's a beauty to nature that's also incredibly powerful. And it's unforgiving...
Herzog in the jungle.
Yes, exactly, that obscenity of nature. He's standing there in the middle of the most incredibly beautiful place on the planet and his monologue is about how the birds are crying about death and sex and struggle--and all of it wants to eat you. I think that element is always something that's hovering around in our work, you know, all the way back to Mulberry St. in there with the pandemic idea and the evolving neighbourhood thing. Stake Land was almost traveling back in time in a way that wasn't like a futuristic Book of Eli kind of feeling, no steampunk or anything like that, [no] shining chrome, but more the rapidity that the Earth reclaims itself, you know, just exactly how fast once we're gone, it'll be like we were never here.
And religion as a means to impose
meaning on that?
Yes, absolutely yes.
You know, while I was watching your movie I was thinking a lot about transubstantiation: the ritual of Mass that is, essentially, ritualistic cannibalism.
Right, we didn't want it to be an attack on any one specific religion or anything like that--not the Catholics so much, really, if it was any group it was the Mormons, just because of the relative newness of that religion. Just because how young it is, but also specifically how much it weighs on women. We wanted very much to talk about the burden that women carry in these faiths. It's so funny, when we did Stake Land we hinted at issues in Christianity and people just immediately freak out. We were trying to talk about 9/11 and Islamists and all those things in there, but it was that that really ticked people off. We wanted to keep it vague, but really to me, all of it, all religion, is incredibly absurd. I mean, there's good stuff about it...
Well, like Nature, right?
Right, yes--it has potential and it's maybe necessary and maybe it doesn't exist without it but it also has the potential to be this devastating force for destruction and division. I know so many wonderful people who are very religious and I know that their faith is a big part of that, but at the same time, it's just all so absurd. Honestly, I think genre film is the only place that encompass something as big as that absurdity, and that beauty.
What's horror but transgression and the betrayal of potential?
It's funny, I keep getting asked by people if my next movie is going to be a "nice" movie--but what's a nice movie? I mean, I don't want to work in anything that isn't flexible, that can't contain big ideas about important things. At the same time, even though these things were on our mind, we didn't set out to make what you're describing, you know, we didn't set out to do stuff like nature/nurture debates or, you know, blow up Mormonism or eating the Host or anything like that, we just wanted to observe, you know, to tackle these darker issues, sure, but only in a way that was still natural and meaningful to people, that everything would still ring true. We made Mulberry St. for like $10,000, right, but afterwards people were coming to us and saying that it was a really effective 9/11 movie. It wasn't our intention, you know, but you can't help but be infected by certain themes and places.
Maybe that. It has to be unintentional, right? You have to be open to things. I'm thinking of a movie like World Trade Center that tackled 9/11 head on, right, and in the process made one of the most offensive movies of all time.
Stone made a Stanley Kramer movie.
Right! it's absolutely horrible. If you come to it with Message, you're going to make offensive garbage. He's better with U-Turn, better even with stuff like JFK where he was trying to light a fire--but you go in and you try to teach something?
"We get the criticism a lot that we're sort of highlighting violence against women and that really makes me wonder if we screwed up, or if people have agendas and just see what they expect to see."
Talk to me about matriarchies.
It came from the Mormonism thing, this idea that if faith and tradition is strong enough, it allows people who are most injured by those faiths and traditions to swallow some really harmful, terrible, ridiculous things. Especially in fundamental wings--it's horrifying. What happens to allow that, though? Is it that the mother has endured that also? Something really interesting in that--things that I've observed in my own life with my family and my friends and I don't know that they're as well examined as patriarchal aspects of religion.
It's tied in with the liturgy.
That's true, so we wanted to look at the weight on the women's shoulders and it's the women in the film that do what they do for the family, right, because they're strong where the men are weak. We wanted to have women characters that were strong--that were absolutely powerful, absolutely necessary, so that when they weren't around, society falls apart. I don't think we acknowledge that, see that, enough. We see it in our lives, not our movies. Even [Kelly McGillis's] character is strong, and generous...
...and not masculinized.
We get the criticism a lot that we're sort of highlighting violence against women and that really makes me wonder if we screwed up, or if people have agendas and just see what they expect to see.
There are a lot of lines in the movie
that sound Biblical, or seem to be Biblical in origin--like the opening quote,
and a moment in the middle where someone asks if something is from the Bible.
That's the brilliance of Nick, he's not religious at all, he doesn't come from any specific faith, but he's able to really just take on that cadence of scripture. What happened with the quote at the beginning is I just needed a voiceover for a sequence that was a specific length. I told him about the shot and we looked at it and timed it and he came right back with that whole thing and we ended up using the quote twice just because I ended up shortening that and couldn't end up fitting it all in. But that's what it was and I think it played well as a way to sort of set the mood of the thing that over these images of nature you read, then you hear, this thing that sounds like religion.
A good time to talk about floods.
Most of that was just seeing it in person there on location, just so brutal, the evidence of the power of nature and all of these things that we built just sort of scattered. It didn't begin with anything plainly symbolic so much as it was just something that was so... I keep saying powerful, but so powerful--you couldn't ignore it, it was everywhere and the people you know seemed to carry that with them and the places, too. The sense too of who we are as people in seeing a year later the kind of rebuilding and cleanup that had occurred in the face of it.
Yes, that's where those elements began to emerge, but really I think those elements emerge just naturally when you look at flooding, and water, and washing away and drowning--all of that language just fits together. Seeing it all firsthand, Nick was able to start shading in some of those elements, especially the unearthing, you know, the revealing of the past.
It reminded me of Lone Star.
That's a huge compliment, I love Lone Star. (laughs) Americana, too.
I know you grew up in Lancaster
County, and now Kelly McGillis...
I love Witness, really love it. Peter Weir is a hero. With Kelly, she's just a totally normal person. I think she did Stake Land for us just because it was a twenty minute commute for her--but she's just this totally cool person who's professional, and great, and totally game for anything. She's a gamer. First day she just got out of her car, hiked up her pants, crass, lit a cigarette, hangin' out, pullin' at her underwear... It was like, "Okay!" You learn a lot from Kelly, too, she has stories, man, she has history--she was in the whole Hollywood thing, everything. And besides, Witness is key, having grown up there it was a big movie for us. Kelly kind of was, you know, growing up. (laughs)
Oh, I know. So, speaking of being set in the '80s, Cold in July--what
is it about Lansdale that rhymes for you with your sensibility?
I love Joe Lansdale, love his work. I'm really proud of the film as it is right now--it's in post. I read it after Mulberry St., which was as urban as you get, and I was really steeped in New York and wanted to get as far away from that as I could, so I bought this whole stack of Lansdale books and started reading through them. It just all jumped out at me. When I was reading him, I felt like I could see what the movie was going to be, what it was going to look like, how I wanted to shoot certain scenes. I think his books follow familiar story elements, but uses them in a way that feels completely fresh and surprising. I was getting a lot of scripts then, too, but by page four I was feeling like, "I know exactly where this is going"--but I never felt like I could predict even the next page of a Lansdale.
Honestly, watching We Are What We Are and then learning that you were doing a
Lansdale adaptation, it made sense to me.
Cool, that's really cool, I'm so attracted to this southern noir thing.
By-product of growing up in a small
(laughs) Most definitely. I loved growing up and hearing about some eccentric dude living in the hills--that was my childhood. And David Lynch, when I saw Blue Velvet it really hit me hard, the manicured lawns and all that small-town stuff and then all the beetles digging around underneath. All of that speaks to me, and Joe's stuff rings with that, too. He does all the genres I like, westerns, horror, the noirs. You know, talking about that, I think who's doing films like that really well right now are the South Koreans, the mixing of comedy and horror and all those things with so much style, with so much stuff.
Considering, too, that I Saw the Devil was a big hit for them--meaning families were going.
Totally! Totally. It's awesome. I met Bong Joon-ho recently and he's, you know, just this dude. I was freaking out to meet him, but he's just so normal, man, he was just talking about how painful the writing process is...
And the editing by Harvey Weinstein
(laughs) No doubt, no doubt. But he was just this real dude griping about all the same things that we were all griping about. It was incredibly inspiring in a weird way, you know. This is a guy that I love and never thought I'd be in the same room with, and I'm just so inspired by his work and his vision, you know, and he's just completely real and approachable and he's not trying to do anything either. It's just getting close to it and feeling it and making something that's true.