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