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Jim Mickle Journeys Into “Stake Land”

Jim Mickle Journeys Into “Stake Land” (photo)

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If you’re looking for bloody vampire action, “Stake Land” will do the trick. The new film from director Jim Mickle has gore and guts galore. But there’s a lot more to “Stake Land” than the sharp, stabby stuff. Its story, about a couple of survivors of the vampire apocalypse on the road to a safe haven called New Eden, is loaded with political and cultural allegories: during their journey, teenage Martin (Connor Paolo) and grizzled vampire hunter Mister (Nick Damici) have more than bloodsuckers to be wary of. A sect of religious fundamentalists called The Brotherhood, who believe the vampires have been sent by God to raze the world in order for them to reclaim it in His name, are slowly taking over what little is left of the United States of America. Mickle says the whole scenario was inspired by the climate surrounding the 2008 Presidential election. “I felt so political,” Mickle told me. “You want to do and say all these things, but the fact of the matter is if you were to do it in a movie no one would see it. But people will see this.”

This is Mickle’s second film with writer/actor (“wractor,” people, let’s make that a real world) Damici, after 2006’s “Mulberry Street.” As a filmmaking team, they get a kick out of combining genres in unusual ways. “I like anytime you take a movie that doesn’t need to be in the horror genre and you throw it in there and see what it does,” Mickle says. “‘The Fly’ remake is one of my favorite movies. And if you took the fly out of that it would be a great romance, and I would probably never watch it. But you have him vomit on himself and you can be as pure and honest with that romance as you want.”

“Stake Land” is pure and honest, with a great combination of scares and smarts. During our interview, I asked Mickle how his partnership with Damici began, how far “Stake Land”‘s allegory goes, and whether he’s prepared himself for a possible vampire apocalypse.

Your collaboration with your lead actor and co-writer is an unusual one. It’s not like you guys grew up together. How did you two hook up?

I was gripping on a student film, ten years ago this week, actually. In fact, I just found a journal I used to keep at the time. And in there it had Nick’s phone number and a little note: “Keep in touch with this guy! He’s a good actor!” You never really see great actors in student films. A lot of people are still getting their feet wet, but he was so confident. We started hanging out and kind of became drinking buddies.

I graduated [from NYU film school] and didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do. Both of us went through frustrations at the same time: he’d done a movie that was going to blow up, but it didn’t really blow up; I had an opportunity to direct something, but that didn’t happen. After like five or six years, we both said, “Let’s just do something together and kick the door in one way or another.” And that was “Mulberry Street.” And that turned out to be a great experience.

Did the idea for “Stake Land” start with him or you?

After “Mulberry Street” we had tried to make another movie but that was a difficult one to make because it wasn’t a straightforward genre piece. There was just so much frustration from that, and so many times we were ready to go but didn’t. And I was back to my day job, Nick was back to his day job. So I said, “Let’s come up with something where we don’t have to quit our jobs and can shoot it on the weekends. Let’s do a web series: we can release ten minutes at a time, it can always be a work-in-progress.” The next morning, I woke up and Nick had sent me this script, and it was the first ten pages of what ended up being the movie.

At what point did you decide to turn the web series into a feature? Was that when Larry Fessenden got involved?

I’d tried to get a project going with him a couple times. Nick and I had maybe fifteen or sixteen webisodes, and Larry literally emailed a week later, saying, “I have an opportunity to make a feature film. It’s already funded. What do you guys have?” We showed him the series and he instantly connected with it.

Then it became about figuring out how to turn it into a feature. That was a whole other thing. We chiseled, chiseled, chiseled. Then Nick went away on a weekend and when he came back, all of a sudden the story was more apocalyptic and it had the Brotherhood and all these current elements in it that tied the whole thing together.

Since you bring them up, let’s talk about the Brotherhood. In traditional vampire movies, religion is a weapon against the undead: crosses, holy water, stuff like that. In this movie, religion is arguably a more dangerous threat to civilization than vampirism. Where did that twist come from?

Our webisodes were awesome but they didn’t really have a point. I didn’t want to make “Blade.” If you’re making a movie for $40 million, great; you can build it around your action sequences. I think the reason that “Mulberry Street” succeeded was that if you pulled out all the horror elements of that film, the characters are still strong enough that you’d actually care about what was going to happen. The horror elements are almost the icing on the cake.

We came to “Stake Land” with the same discipline. But we had to find that thing that was going to make it current. This was like September 2008, right before the election. You could sort of see all of a sudden how divided the country was. And it was interesting to bring that into a horror movie.

How deeply should I read into that allegory? You could argue that the Brotherhood are the Religious right, who start from this stronghold in the south, and expand their influence northward until the last liberals left in the United States have to try to escape to Canada.

Someone the other day mentioned to me how the vampires in this are almost victims; you look at them and they could be the starved middle class. That’s the cool thing about zombies and vampires. They’re still human; you can put these themes on top of them. So, yeah, all that stuff is intentional. It’s all about trying to find the balance. If you want to look into it you can, but if you just want to have a fun time at the movies, you can.

The other thing I felt bubbling beneath the surface was the vibe of an old Western.



Absolutely. At first when I read the initial script I was like, “Aw, I don’t want to do another movie of Nick fighting creatures.” But then you realize this is a Western. And nowadays you don’t get to make Westerns. You bring in a horror element, you call it “post-apocalyptic,” and you can make a Western. I know “The Searchers” was a big influence on Nick’s script and his character.

The look of the film is very believably post-apocalyptic. I’m wondering where you shot the film and how much of that look was production design and how much was just the natural rot of wherever that was.

We shot half of it in a town that I grew up in outside of Reading, PA. We shot half of that portion in my dad’s backyard. That’s my barn, that’s my cornfield, those are my woods.

Really? This is how you envision where you grew up? As a nightmarish hellscape.

[laughs] Well I knew the town next to us, which is Pottstown, was a post-industrial town. You drive down there and throw a stone, you’ll hit three abandoned gas stations. We were able to send out our second camera — we had two cameras going at all times — with a list of shots we needed. We told him, “Just drive down this road and shoot what you’ll see and you’ll get all this stuff.”

So we did that for half the film. Then we took off for three months and came back and shot in the Catskills for three more weeks.

Are these the Catskills that used to be the famous vaudeville circuit?

Yeah, kind of. We shot in Pine Hill, which was a big money spot in the ’50s and ’60s. Now it looks like a ghost town. We shot the one tiny town scene there. We had to find a town that we could make look like a small town that’s been cut off from society for decades. And you walk into Pine Hill and go, “Oh, this is it.”

That scene in the town has that really dramatic long take, where a town dance gets interrupted by an attack by the Brotherhood and some vampires. It’s an incredible shot. Why’d you want to play that whole sequence in long take?

Originally we had something like 60 setups over two days listed for that scene. But we kept having to trim away at the schedule as we got later and later in the shoot. At some point Larry Fessenden sat me down and said “How do we turn these limitations into bold creative choices?” I’m a big fan of “Children of Men” and the long takes in there. Not just because they’re show-offy, but because they really suck you in. The fact that there’s no cuts doesn’t allow you to look away or say to yourself, “It’s just a movie.”

The thing about that sequence is it begins as this beautiful scene, by far the prettiest moment in the movie. And it’s coupled with the most tragic. So what if you don’t even cut between those two?

How many takes did you need to get it right?

We did four, and I think the one in the film is the third one.

Do you have a plan for your own life should the apocalypse hit?



I do. It’s to head upstate and go live off the land. In some ways, I wouldn’t be all that disturbed. And I think where Nick and I both connected with the material was the realization that if the apocalypse happened, the future would look like the Depression. At some point, Nick said, really smartly, that movie in a lot of ways is about characters going back in time. We go from post-industrial all the way back to hunters and gatherers and pioneers. Originally, we wanted the end of the movie to be like “Jeremiah Johnson” for the last half hour.

Wow. Okay, last question: given unlimited access to money, time, and actors, what would you want to do next?

I’d love to do “I Am Legend” the way it is in the book, which is such an awesome character piece. It was the first thing Nick and I bonded over. At some point, I asked him, “Have you ever read it?” and he’s like, “Dude, a million times.” And there’s definitely elements of it in both my movies with Nick.

I feel like it’s one of those properties that Hollywood will never get right. They’re always going to want to twist it, and find a way to put a Lamborghini in Times Square, you know?

[laughs]

It’s like just make the damn book. It’s fine.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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