Mood and tone can make a movie – just ask Director Jim Mickle. His first film "Mulberry Street" was a uniquely bleak, but fast-paced look at death and mayhem in the city, while his second feature "Stake Land" (out on DVD/Blu-ray August 2 from Dark Sky Films) takes a dark and dim look at the vampire genre. Both films showcase a palpable somber atmosphere one might expect from veterans like Hitchcock and Lynch and Mickle is slowly becoming a master of mood in his own right. We’re celebrating the release of "Stake Land" with a Starpulse exclusive one-on-one interview with up and coming filmmaker Mickle, who talks tone, commentary tracks and Kelly McGillis – plus check out my Blu-ray review immediately following. Grab the garlic and load the water pistol with the holy liquid, here’s...
DIRECTOR JIM MICKLE!
Where did you and co-writer Nick Damici come up with the idea for "Stake Land?"
Jim Mickle: This was sort of Nick’s baby. We were trying to get another movie going, having a lot of difficulty and decide to do a web series. I think how that’s how this whole thing started; originally we wanted to see a once a week ten minute little web serial. Both of us are huge 'I Am Legend' fans – the Richard Matheson novel, not the movies – and I think some of that comes through on "Mulberry Street."
Both "Mulberry Street" and now "Stake Land" have a distinctive dark tone and mood that truly makes the films stand out – would you say this is your signature and how do you go about achieving such a memorably gloomy vibe?
JM: I guess it is a signature – it’s not something that’s super conscious. I think a lot of it comes from movies that I like and I like that foreboding sense you see in a movie. A lot of that carries through. It’s weird, I was just at a festival in South Korea and everyone was like, ‘You’re so nice and gentle – why do you make these dark scary movies?!’ And I don’t know, but I love that sense of anticipation – I sort of get off on that.
Tone almost becomes a secondary character in the film – was it ever present on-set or is it something that happens after shooting?
JM: I think it’s both. One thing I think about a lot is music and sound design and for both films the voice was always there, but they didn't really get finalized until post-production. I edited both films and I do a lot of the sound design to build the tone and a lot of stuff gets maximized and identified there. That’s really where the final sheen comes onto the stuff. But on-set a lot of it comes from the story, a lot of it’s already there on the page and a lot of it is the context too. What I love about Stake Land is a lot of the images are really beautiful, sort of Americana images that Ryan Samul our cinematographer did an amazing job in capturing. But the context of that falls under what we’re watching now is not really a movie about Americana, but the death of Americana. Everything starts to take on a little extra sadness or sense of loss and that really builds up. But in both cases the editing is where I start to have fun.
I’m always worried when a filmmaker uses narration, but your use of voice-over for Conner Paolo’s character really added something to the film. Was there ever a hesitation about using narration in the film?
JM: Well, in the script it read really beautifully and scripts are cumbersome to read a lot of times. I think it actually helped it in a way and gave it a sort of literary feel. Heading into it I know we felt like there’s a lot of it here, but I think there was always this good sense – again coming from such a strong post-production background – this was something we could keep tweaking until the end. Literally there were some things we were writing in the soundstage while we were doing it. But I don’t believe the common theory that all voice-over is bad and it’s a form of sloppy storytelling. It can often be there a lot of times for almost another form of music in a way and it can be there to set a tone – it isn’t always about exactly what’s being said. Looking back at it now I think there are a lot of times it’s tough and there’s times where you want the audience to catch on to things, but you also want them to identify things by themselves. There are a lot of things I cut at the very last minute that I’m glad I did.
Who are some of your directing influences as a filmmaker?
JM: A lot of genre guys. I grew up loving horror and that’s how I fell into it. John Carpenter was a huge influence – early John Carpenter. He had a string of movies that meant a lot to me especially growing up and getting introduced to movies and low-budget movies. Sam Raimi and Robert Rodriguez for the do-it-yourself attitude. Also David Lynch and I think that goes maybe back to the tone that you’re talking about. He just did such a great job of capturing this feel that was timely, beautiful and pleasant to look at but also had this underlying sense of something a little twisted and sinister I think. It definitely had an influence on me and a lot of it’s not even intentional – I think I’m just trying to make a David Lynch movie a lot of times.
The amazing Kelly McGillis provides some serious five-star work here – what was it like to work with her since she is so seasoned and what is her process as a performer?
JM: It’s odd because when she first got there I was more nervous about her than I think I’ve been about anybody. But really she gets there and she’s incredibly open and incredibly honest and she’s incredibly goofy – she wouldn’t take that in a bad way! She has this ability to laugh at herself and instantly after a couple of hours I was like this is gonna be great, she’s fantastic. And I think she had a lot of fun doing this because she doesn't do genre and she doesn't get genre – she says she’s never seen a horror movie. For me what I took away from it is she has this incredible ability to not be afraid of failing at anything. Well, she does fear it but has this ability to step over that fear and put herself out there in ways that so many people, especially actresses in Hollywood that aren’t in their twenties, find daunting. She steps up continually and takes on these challenges. I had a little note next to my desk when I was editing that had a quote from her about ‘by your stumbling the world is perfect’. She brought it to me one day on set and we discussed it and I stuck with that and I still have that as a sign of do things your way and even if it’s not the right choice it’s gonna be your choice.
Also you’ve chocked the Blu-ray with no less then two full-length commentary tracks – in your opinion what makes a good one?
JM: At first I used to really love to be geeky and go through each thing and I went through a lot. And then as time when on I started liking the stories and they’re great when you have good chemistry between the people that are there. Why I’m happy about ours is we went into an office where we were very comfortable, we sat back and had a couple of beers and opened up. So you get a little bit of an insight, but you also get a sense of the energy and comradery that goes into the filmmaking.
The 'Character Prequels' are just as amazing as the finished film – from more background on McGillis to Harris hanging upside down – who’s idea was it and how did you convince those involved to greenlight it?
JM: (Laughs) I don't know if I can answer that cause I have no idea myself! Early on the idea of course was to do the whole thing as a web series and once it became a feature I still had this romanticized sense of materials, this is how the future is, how do we jump on this, how do we take advantage of that and it was Larry (Fessenden, Producer) that kept the idea alive and kept saying let’s find a way to work that in. And at some point he pitched it as a promotional tool and MPI was cool enough to say yes and to go along with it. But as we were getting closer to the deadline I thought this could be overwhelming to try do all at once. It became let’s find this really collaborative way of doing it by breaking these up and having different people do each one. Almost like a song that you can cover a million times and it always feels a little different.
What’s next on your plate and will you continue your somber tone within different genres?
JM: Yes! The next one will be. It’s not a monster movie, it’s a book adaptation, but it’s a very dark southern noir with a lot of twists and turns. Ultimately it’s about a modern day small town father who gets thrown into a tough guy movie. But there’s a lot at stake and what’s kind of fun is going about looking at that now and saying if there’s no monsters we can keep that tone up for the entire movie – it’s nice to get to do one that’s all character and all mood and tone basically.
Blu-ray review time!
Title: "Stake Land"
Cast: Nick Damici, Danielle Harris, Kelly McGillis
Director: Jim Mickle
Runtime: 98 minutes
Release Company: Dark Sky Films
The Flick: What could have been "Zombieland" substituting vampires for the undead and minus the humor is saved by some strong performances and a director whose specialty is movie mood. Nick Damici (who also served as co-writer) heads up a memorable cast as a character simply known as Mister, who befriends a young boy and tries to survive a vamp apocalypse. Director Jim Mickle, who also helmed the notable "Mulberry Street," takes a somewhat familiar story and infuses it with a dark and dreary life that feels and exists like no other. (He really has a knack for this stuff!) Add in pregnant gal Danielle Harris (she’s the big sis of the group!) and nun Kelly McGillis (in some of the best work of her career – more please!) and you’ve got a flick that knows what makes fans tick.
Best Feature: The 'Going For The Throat' making-of that has actual on-set watch and learn for well over thirty minutes before any interviews even take place – fly on the wall alert!
Best Hidden Gem: The 'Character Prequels,' which provide more style and substance to the already rich cast of characters within. (More McGillis – I’m there!)
Worth the Moola: For those with a hankering for some serious in their suckers (of the blood persuasion!) play this one at the party – Mickle will bring the mood.