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The Makers of “Stake Land” on Raising the Stakes of the Vampire Film

The Makers of “Stake Land” on Raising the Stakes of the Vampire Film (photo)

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It’s been a wild week for the cast and crew of “Stake Land,” who wasted no time after enjoying the triumph of winning the Midnight Madness Audience Award at this year’s Toronto Film Festival to hopping on a plane to Fantastic Fest where they were greeted with similar applause during their premiere in Austin Saturday night. Such a quick turnaround might be considered an anomaly for the vampire film of late, an unusual take on the genre that’s meant to be savored rather than devoured, a road movie set against the harsh backdrop of the bitter American northwest after a virus has turned much of the world into bloodsuckers.

Inspired by westerns like “The Searchers,” director Jim Mickle and writer/star Nick Damici wanted to do some vast after last working together on the claustrophobic zombie flick “Mulberry Street” in 2006 and in fact, it would be easy to say they’ve raised the stakes with their latest film. Starring Damici and “Gossip Girl”‘s Connor Paolo as a veteran vamp hunter and a newbie stake specialist, respectively, “Stake Land” follows the pair as they make their way towards New Eden (i.e. Canada), picking up fellow survivors Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris and Sean Nelson along the way, and fending off the growing cult of The Brotherhood, a group of Bible-beating crazies led by a coolly seductive Michael Cerveris (Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd”).

While Mickle isn’t hesitant about delivering the frights, he and Damici are also not shy about rethinking the way the world ends from the countless other films that have come before; different breeds and races of vampires may threaten to sink their teeth into the remaining humans, but that doesn’t nearly compare with the sinking feeling of isolation and despair that pervades the country, which makes it all that much sweeter when the quintet of survivors find the occasional enclave of the living who take an extra bit of pleasure in the most mundane of things. (A rather ordinary house party, captured in a single take, is the setting for one of the film’s most joyous and subsequently scary moments.)

After its Fantastic Fest debut, I got a chance to speak to Mickle, Damici, Paolo and Harris (who feels like a “proud mama” with two films in the fest, the other being Adam Green’s “Hatchet II”) who talked about “Stake Land”‘s evolution into a feature, the influence of America’s current political climate and making vampires scary again.

09272010_Stakeland1.jpgHow did this idea start?

Jim Mickle: It started as a Web series and it was kind of out of frustration of not being able to get bigger movies made or financing for a couple of the things we were trying to do. At the time, we just moved and I didn’t have a TV. I wanted to zone out and watch something online and looking for Web series, I realized that the Web series aren’t very good. I haven’t checked [back online] in a long time, but it felt like this is something to try to do. I talked to Nick and he sent me 10 pages of this thing that was just a killer read. Originally, it was like 12 webisodes and then it turned into 24 and at some point, [producer] Larry Fessenden came on and said, “You have a possibility to make a film here. What if we condensed all these together?” So it kind of spawned from that.

Nick, how do the goals change when you change from a series to a feature – I imagine there’s more than just getting to points of closure.

ND: I took the best of what I really liked out of the Web series, the types of vampires, the general arc of the story and just put it into a new world basically and condensed it down into a script where we could more control the world. The Web series was set in a modern world. It wasn’t an apocalyptic place. So that kind of changed everything.

Jim, I’ve heard you describe this as a “‘Grapes of Wrath’ with vampires.” How much did the world outside affect what you wanted to do with this?

JM: A lot, because there was a point where the script was a fun sort of buddy road movie and then we were trying to find the glue that would connect all the stories and make it one. It was right around the time of the elections and Nick just disappeared for a weekend and said “I’m going to get all this to fit together.” He came back with something that was completely different from what had come before, but held on to all the great moments that everyone liked. It had this glue of the world had crumbled and fallen apart, a little bit more holding up a mirror to what was going on at the time. The Tea Party wasn’t around, I think, when we were beginning, but they were brewing.

ND: There was a lot of anti-Obama sentiment.

Connor Paolo: Brewing, heh. [laughs]

Connor and Danielle, you’re both known for playing roles that are usually a little more pronounced. Was it interesting to hit different beats than you normally have to play?

Danielle Harris: Yeah, the hardest thing for an actor to do is leave themselves alone and you really don’t have a choice, so I’m amazed when I see the film — I would leave every day, going I don’t feel like I did anything today. And then you watch it and you’re like, there’s actually so much that I’ve realized here.

As characters, as people, we built our relationships together because we were uncomfortable outdoors and freezing, working late and really having to trust each other as people and getting to know each other. I think you see those relationships grow throughout when you watch the movie because they were actually developing when we were filming, so I think it comes across that way.

During the post-screening Q & A, you said you actually took an unusual break in between filming during the spring and the winter. Did knowing what you had in the can during the first half help shape what you did in the second?

ND: Just what you said. We did have that leisure – it was very good. We could step away for a few months and really be able to look at some of the stuff we’d done and then retool the second half to really get it to where we saw it was organically going, which may not have agreed with where we had planned to go, but it was where it should go, so it allowed us to do that whereas if we had just pushed through the shoot, it would’ve been much more as the original script was.

DH: It was a blessing at that time.

JM: Yeah, these guys get to know each other. When you do a movie, it’s like this weird, intense thing and it’s a life-changing experience. Then you walk away from it and it’s like you kind of forget about it. But this time, you can do the intense thing and walk away from it and come back with all the same people and get to do it all over again, only now there’s a chemistry. Everyone has a feel for stuff and you can hit the ground running without starting from scratch again.

Was it actually easier for you as actors to pick it back up?

CP: Nick and I never left it really because, as you see in the film, we have our own type of martial arts that we do and we trained for that almost daily, so I was very much with him during the off-times and as a result, kept things very alive in my mind. It sounds small, but even something as simple as growing my hair out just kept [things going]. As an actor, you do a film and you always look back and go, “I could’ve done this” and the nice thing about this hiatus was any of the things that you felt you kind of had a shortcoming in the first half, you’re like now I know what I want to hit with this character.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.