It’s hard to believe it’s been about five years since writer/director Jim Mickle released his impressive feature film debut Mulberry Street, which was his exploration of the darker side of humanity amidst a zombie outbreak. Now Mickle is back with his haunting take on the vampire subgenre of horror, Stake Land.
The film stars Nick Damici (with whom Mickle co-wrote the script), Connor Paolo, Kelly McGillis, and Danielle Harris.
Dread Central recently had the opportunity to talk with Mickle about how he managed to create a completely unique spin on vampires during a time where the bloodsuckers seem to be everywhere, his experiences putting Stake Land together, and why story sometimes matters more than the monsters in horror.
Even though vampires are huge business for Hollywood these days, Mickle said that wasn’t something that influenced him and Damici (who also co-wrote and starred in Mulberry Street) when they originally began working on the follow-up project to their 2006 indie breakout film. “We had started working on Stake Land before all the vampire buzz started up everywhere. There were only Twilight books at that point, and Let the Right One In had just been released so I had no idea there would be this huge influx of vampire movies coming out these days.”
“It was Nick’s idea to explore the vampire mythology. We had done zombies in Mulberry Street so it seemed like an interesting way to go for our next film. I wanted to get vampires back to being actually scary again, and the vampire mythology taps into a lot of universal fears, which is why they’re timeless creatures. That’s why there will always be vampire movies so the fact that there are so many these days really doesn’t make me worry too much- we’ve done something different here with Stake Land,” Mickle added.
Part of Mickle and Damici’s approach to Stake Land (review here) was to make a story that could stand the test of time even if there weren’t any vampires in the film.
“I get bored when movies are just one-trick ponies and there isn’t much going besides the creatures or whatever it is that is the focus of the movie so with Stake Land I made sure there was a lot to think about with this film beyond just the vampire plague,” said Mickle. “For me as a storyteller, I always ask myself if the movie would still work if we took the horror elements out, and I think we achieved that in this film.”
“Horror movies don’t always have to be about kids running in a forest and getting killed by a faceless slasher. Movies that resonate are often about other things at their core, and that’s true in the horror genre as well. That’s what I hope we did here,” added Mickle.
In Stake Land the survivors of the vampire outbreak have more to worry about than whether or not they will become lunch for the bloodthirsty creatures lurking everywhere. There were also deadly religious zealots, the politics of other survivors left to fend for themselves, and rumors of cannibals destroying surviving communities. Mickle discussed how the 2008 election served as inspiration for many of these themes in the film.
Mickle said, “At the time we wrote this film, it was at the same time as the 2008 election, and I saw how divided the country was so there’s a lot of that reflected in Stake Land. There were a lot of intense things happening in the world at that time, too, like the economy, and I think that spilled over into our script. One other element we added into Stake Land was the idea of organized religion and how truly scary it can be so that’s where the Brotherhood came into play. There’s a scary kind of power associated with religious leaders, and I would say that’s a big part of our film, too.”
Once the duo finished the script, it was time for Mickle to start assembling his players. Damici was already on board to play mysterious survivor “Mister,” who becomes the leader of a small group of survivors traveling to find New Eden, a northern community that is said to be plague-free and a safe haven for the living. Joining Mister on his journey are young Martin (Paolo), whom Mister saves at the start of the film; a nun with unwavering faith in humanity (McGillis); and a pregnant singer named Belle (Harris).
Mickle realized early on that the role of Martin would come to be the heart of Stake Land and knew that he’d need to get someone spectacular to take on the challenging role. “Martin was one of the roles I knew needed to be cast perfectly, and I think Connor did an amazing job as Martin. I don’t think Stake Land would be nearly as rich had it not been for his performance. I had never seen ‘Gossip Girl’ (Paolo is a series regular) so I didn’t know what to expect, but believe me when I say he blew me and any pretenses I had about the show he works on away with his performance in this movie. He’s a rising talent for sure.”
The writer/director went on to discuss bringing horror veteran Harris on to the project, despite the fact he had no idea her genre pedigree was so rich.
“I grew up watching Danielle on shows like ‘Roseanne’ so I didn’t realize until recently that she was a ‘Scream Queen,’” explained Mickle. “We met during a Fangoria Radio Show once and I knew immediately how great she was. Her character in Stake Land is so different than most of the roles she often plays. We worked together a lot to flesh out her character and make it almost a reflection of Danielle herself – a warm, sweet and talented person.”
With Stake Land’s release later this week, Mickle spoke about why theatrical releases for independent films are so important in this filmmaking climate.
“It’s so hard these days to get independent films in theaters, and I have always felt like the theatrical experience – actually going to the movies with other fans around you – is such an important part of making movies,” said Mickle. “You want people to experience your work, and even though these days a lot of distributors focus on the VOD or home releases, I am just ecstatic that Dark Sky believes in us enough to put Stake Land in theaters. I am beyond thrilled, and I’m hoping audiences will respond to what we’ve created in the film.”
The writer/director went on to discuss if there are future plans to revisit Martin’s character in a Stake Land sequel and what he’s got lined up next. “There was a lot that we didn’t get to do with Stake Land so I would definitely be open to doing a sequel, but maybe in like ten years or so. I think it would be interesting to catch up with Martin’s character at that point in his life and find out what happened with New Eden and how he’s managed to make his way in the screwed up world he lives in.”
“But for right now I’m working on a western thriller project that has a lot broader themes than even in Stake Land which I am pretty excited about. But I know that if I did horror for the rest of my life, I know I would die a happy man at the end. This is by far the best genre to ever work in. Period,” Mickle added.
Our thanks to Jim for taking the time to speak with us. For more visit the Stake Land viral site On to New Eden. When you’re done there, be sure to visit the new official Stake Land page on Facebook.