Up-and-coming director Jim Mickle is a jack of all trades. For the past decade, Mickle has been dipping his toes in the waters of just about every single different department in feature film or television production. He boasts credits in writing, editing, lighting, art department, visual effects, sound department, camera department, and most recently, directing. His latest work, an indie horror flick titled “Stake Land”, is his sophomore directorial effort that hits theaters June 17.

“Stake Land” is the story of an unlikely duo trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world of savage vampires. Martin, played by “Gossip Girl’s” Connor Paolo, is the sole survivor of a vampire attack that left the rest of his family dead. Not long after the attack, Martin is taken in by a loner badass who goes by the name Mister (played by Nick Damici). Mister takes Martin under his wing and teaches him how to fight the vampires and survive in the cruel world they live in. Together the mentor and apprentice travel north to Canada, where they hope to find the safe-haven town of New Eden. Along the way they meet and join forces with fellow survivors Sister (played by Kelly McGillis of “Top Gun” fame), Belle (“Halloween’s” Danielle Harris), and Willie (Sean Nelson). Together the group battles both vampires and their human allies, a radical religious society called The Brotherhood. As the team gets closer to New Eden, it becomes uncertain whether any of them will actually survive the journey.

Blast Magazine caught up with Mickle when he visited Boston recently to promote the release of “Stake Land.” We got the chance to talk to him about how “Stake Land”got started, what makes this film different than other horror movies, working on an indie budget, future plans, and much more.

BLAST: How did the idea for “Stake Land”come about and what was the process of getting the project started?

Larry Fessenden (L) and Jim Mickle (R) at the premiere of Stake Land

JIM MICKLE: Well we’d done “Mulberry Street” and we were trying to get another movie off the ground and it was a difficult thing to get moving . I think we were trying to make a jump from like, a $60,000 movie to a $3 million dollar movie and I think a lot of people weren’t psyched about that. And we had a lot of starts and stops. So out of frustration we came up with this idea to do a web series and that we could still have control over, do it piece-meal, do it on weekends. If we couldn’t make a weekend, no big deal, we could still piece it together. So that was the original idea and that was how the whole project got started. Nick [Damici, who plays Mister] just started writing these little 10 minute short films or webisodes.

Then at some point, right about the time we were looking for financing, Larry Fessenden called and said “You know, we just did this movie called “House of the Devil”, it was [distributed by] Dark Sky Films, and they want to do another movie. Ti’s busy and I’m busy, so do you have anything?” And so we sent him that first ten page script and he dug it and said, “How do we make a feature out of this?” So that was how that all began – really by accident, because we spent a long time trying to get another thing made and were just banging our heads against the wall. And this thing came along, really without even trying.

BLAST: That’s pretty cool.

JM: I know, it never happens that way!

BLAST: So how much of the web series made it into “Stake Land”?

JM: I’d say maybe about a third of it, because the web series was a completely different world. It was Mister and Martin, but it was set in modern day, and they would get a call – basically the FBI would hire them to go to different towns. So like, it’s a Chinese vamp, so they’d go to Chinatown and there’d be a certain kind of Chinese vamp there. Or you know, they’d have to go to Ohio. So there were all these different kinds of vampires in different towns and that was the “road movie” aspect of it. And in trying to fold it altogether it just felt like a collection of short films.

So, it was right around the time of the elections that Nick decided to take it away for a weekend, and he came back and it was completely reinvented in a way, with the post-apocalyptic angle and the introduction of the Brotherhood and all these new characters. Then we went back to the webisodes and said “you know, I love this webisode and how they go in that house and there’s that little girl in the attic – where can we fit this in?” My favorite was one where they stopped in a town and Martin fell in love with this girl but they had to continue on their way.

So it was fun because we were able to sort of fit in these puzzle pieces.

BLAST: So you said that the script came about during the time of the elections. Is that what contributed to the political themes in “Stake Land”?

JM: Yeah, you know at the time I think this was September of ’08 so it was right in the heat of it. And I think it was just the fact that you couldn’t get away from it really. And “Mulberry Street” has a lot of local politics in it, in a way – it’s a lot about how the landscape of New York City is changing and new buildings are coming up and yuppies are moving in and old New Yorkers are getting kicked out. So I think that was practice for this I guess. And in this we wanted to not really pick a side so much as to say that all this is gonna lead to the country devouring itself from the inside, no matter which way the country goes. And if we continue so divided that maybe this country is too big and has too many ideas going on in it to really sustain itself. So I think that was all we really wanted to address there. And religion was a whole separate element.

BLAST: Yeah, can you talk about that, about The Brotherhood?

JM: That took the most shaping of anything, I think. There was a lot of different stuff that we wanted to address but at some point we made the decision that we had to focus here. For me it was religion because I think that organized religion is kind of a scary idea you know?

BLAST: It can be, yeah.

JM: But also I think we wanted Kelly’s character [Sister] to be the other side of the coin – she shows how there are all these great things that can come with religion and faith. But on the other side, these things can get taken to the extremes and things can get interpreted too literally, and you can also get these guys [The Brotherhood] who have way too much power for their own good. So I think we wanted to address it yet not be too specific – not be like, it’s just Christians, because it’s not that. It’s just a cautionary tale.

Nick Damici and Kelly McGillis in Stake Land


BLAST: I’d love to talk about the music – I think it really helps set the tone of the film. I found out that Jeff Grace was your composer, and I looked into his background.

JM: Yeah, he’s awesome.

BLAST: He worked on the music for all three of the “Lord of the Rings”movies as well as on “Gangs of New York”.

JM: He was Howard Shore’s assistant for a long time, and Howard Shore is awesome.

BLAST: Can you talk about working with Jeff and what you discussed in terms of what you wanted for the music of “Stake Land”?

JM: I didn’t want it to sound like a horror movie. I think that too many people go to make horror movies and they just look at other horror movies for inspiration and reference, so you just wind up with these things that are quadruple cannibalizations of horror movies. I think that’s just the wrong way to go about it.

In this we wanted it to feel like a Dustbowl movie and a Depression-era movie, and we wanted it to sound like none of the music could have been written in the last fifty years. We wanted it to have an Americana feel. And we wanted it to have moments where it was like, a tough guy movie, like a “Dirty Dozen” sort of thing, and also have moments where it was Big Horror. So it was really complicated. I came to Jeff and was like, “Look, here’s all these elements that I want and none of these things really jive together, and it’s going to be your job to find a way to make these all glue together in a way.” And he’s a musical genius so he was able to do that.

We tried to build really classical themes, so each character very much has a theme that identifies them, which is something that I think is lost in film nowadays a little bit. And we decided we wanted to take an old-fashioned approached to it and keep it strings, keep it piano. And if we had to go big, we’d have to find a way to get other sounds out of those that you don’t usually hear. So it really was just Jeff being a genius with all that, and also getting emotionally involved in it. I think too many times people don’t get emotionally involved in horror movies and I think in this one, there was enough depth to really do that and build arcs in the characters musically and story-wise.

Actress Danielle Harris

BLAST: I know that Danielle Harris, who plays Belle, has a long history of being in horror movies, including four of the “Halloween” movies. Did you see her in a horror film and decide you wanted her for “Stake Land”? What about the other actors, how did you find them?

JM: With Danielle yes, because I had grown up actually not even knowing her from horror movies, strangely enough. I grew up watching her in TV shows and seeing her sort of grow up on screen, because she’s like a year older than I am. So I always loved seeing her when I was younger, and every time she’d pop up in a movie I’d always be like “Oh awesome, her!” but I never even knew her name or anything. And then weirdly enough we were on a Fangoria horror radio show together, and I was like “Oh my god, that’s that girl!” And then I realized that we were casting [the role of Belle] and she’s completely different than what we were thinking, but she’s awesome. And I kind of like the idea of casting against what’s expected.

BLAST: That’s really cool that it just worked out that way.

JM: Yeah it is, and she’s great, she’s awesome. I mean I think that this shows that she can do other things, because I think too often she gets lumped into “running through the woods screaming” types of roles. So I hope this helps her avoid [those types or roles].

With Sean Nelson [who plays Willie], he was in a movie called “Fresh” in the 90’s, which was an awesome movie. He had to be like 13 or 14 years old at the time and he gives this amazing child performance that I’ve always sort of championed to people. So at some point his name came up on a casting list and I was like, “Dude I gotta meet Sean Nelson.” So that’s how that happened.

Connor [Paolo, who plays Martin] was through a reading, he came in and we met and I had a little bit of a stereotype against like, “”Gossip Girl” kid,” you know?

BLAST: [laughs] Right, so going into it you were probably a little hesitant.

JM: Yeah, as soon as I saw his name I was hesitant, but the casting director kept pushing for him. I kept saying, “I don’t know man, I don’t know…” But fortunately the casting director sort of wore me down and was like, “This “is” the guy, he’s awesome.” So we brought him in for a reading and it was obvious that yeah, he is the guy for the role. And he is awesome – the movie is so much him, not just the performance but his understanding of how a film gets put together. And then I realized afterwards too the importance of having to anchor an entire movie on the lead, that’s a lot of weight to carry.


Connor Paolo as Eric Van Der Woodsen on Gossip Girl

BLAST: I’d like to talk about the oversaturation of vampires in film and television at this point in time, and how that may have affected “Stake Land”. Did you think about that as you started working on this project?

JM: No, not really. Because with “Mulberry Street”we wanted to make a zombie movie and at the time there were no zombie movies, or rather it wasn’t a hot thing. So we started working on it and by the time film””came out there were like a thousand zombie movies and everyone would say, “Oh great, here comes another zombie movie.” And it’s like no, when we came up with this idea. The purpose [of “Mulberry Street”] was to save zombies and put them back in the mainstream. So “Stake Land”is kind of the exact same thing but with vampires.

BLAST: And that’s not frustrating at all?

JM: It is frustrating, but at the same time it probably helped the film get made, I have to be cognoscente of that.

BLAST: That’s true, that’s a good point.

JM: At the time we were part of a three movie deal – there were three movies being made and we got the biggest of the three budgets. I’m sure that was due to them really liking the script, but also they probably looked at it and said “The first “Twilight” movie is coming out, vampires might be hot, let’s pay a little more attention to this one.” So yes, on the one hand it’s incredibly frustrating because I think a lot of people will write it off without even seeing it.

BLAST: Of course.

JM: But on the other hand I think a lot of people will give it a lot of credit because they’re tired of what’s out there. And it probably helped us get financed, even though we didn’t do that on purpose. So, at the end of the day I think you have to make a movie for yourself, and know that, “Alright I might be the only guy in the world that likes this.” And I think I’ve been lucky that twice now I’ve done that and it just so happens that other people really like it too. So I can go back and say “Good, I didn’t specifically make this for anybody.” And I think that’s partly why they worked, because they feel different and they aren’t trying to be sold to the masses.

BLAST: Horror is typically an expensive genre to shoot due to the costs of makeup, special effects and elaborate props, so was it difficult for you to make a successful horror movie with a small indie budget?

JM: It was, but I think that if I hadn’t done “Mulberry Street”first I would have said “Oh this is impossible.” But that really “was”impossible, so “Stake Land”was almost like a luxury. It’s so funny how in context everything gets changed. Coming off of “Mulberry Street” – we shot that movie in just 18 days, there’s about 15 or 16 huge set pieces in the film, we had no stunt guys, we had a six person crew, we used DV cameras, we had Home Depot clip lights, and we shot in a one-bedroom apartment, so everything was just totally minimal.

So by the time we came to “Stake Land”, we shot it in 26 days, which is still impressive for a movie of this size. But in some ways it actually felt like a luxury and it also felt like a good step up. We had a stunt guy for a couple days, so it was a change to go “Oh, this is what happens when you have money, you don’t have to expect that guy to jump and do a back flip!”

BLAST: [laughs]

JM: “You can bring in this other guy who can dress like him and he can actually make it really convincing!” That kind of stuff. And effects guys – the first time around we had one guy doing “Mulberry Street,” this time we had two really good guys who also had three or four people who were helping them out.

So yes, it was really tough and incredibly frustrating but fortunately I was coming off of something that was even tougher, so I was able to enjoy it.

BLAST: There were a lot of really cool locations that just worked perfectly for the post-apocalyptic setting, so where did you shoot? Did you bounce around or just film in one location?

JM: We did two big chunks. We shot for two or three weeks in Pennsylvania – I grew up outside of Reading, Pennsylvania so we shot there. Then we took a three month hiatus to let the seasons change and let the characters sort of grow up and age. And then we went to upstate New York to the Catskills and shot there for another two or three weeks.

Dario Argento's "Suspiria" is one of Mickle's horror film influences

BLAST: Were you a huge fan of horror growing up as a kid? What are some of your influences that you’ve drawn from when making your past two films?

JM: Growing up, horror movies really terrified me and I went through a phase of hating them. But when I got to be about nine or ten years old I started thinking “Oh, why is this scaring me?” and I started really watching them and became addicted to them. So I really fell in love with movies through horror movies.

A lot of the Sam Raimi ones were the first ones that really made me think “Oh there’s something interesting going on here, it’s not just stupidity for stupidity’s sake,” you know? And then also that was around the same time that “El Mariachi”was coming out and Robert Rodriguez was in this “Do It Yourself” mode – that was a big inspiration. Early John Carpenter stuff really affected me. I think he does elevated genre – or did, he hasn’t done it in awhile unfortunately – but he also combines genres really well and that was my introduction to a lot of different kinds of movies. Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” and all the kind of classic stuff from the 70s was sort of reviving right when I was getting into it.

BLAST: So you’ve done two feature films now, both of which were horror films. You also did a short film called “The Underdogs”which was horror as well. So are you aspiring to be the next George Romero or are you interested in making movies outside of the horror genre?

JM: No, hopefully now we’ll be able to get the movie made that we were trying to get made after “Mulberry Street.”

BLAST: Can you tell me a little about that?

JM: Sure. It’s a book adaptation called “Cold in July” and it’s adapted from the book by Joe Lansdale. And it isn’t horror – it’s actually country-noir, set in the late-80s in east Texas. So it’s much more confined. Both of these movies [“Mulberry Street”and “Stake Land”] are like ensemble movies – they’re big and apocalyptic. I just want to make a movie about a couple characters going through some intense situations [laughs]. So I think this will still be exciting and it’s got a lot of suspense in it, but there aren’t any monsters and I’m happy to be stepping back from that for a little bit.

At the end of the day it’s about the story, really. That’s all I cared about, and these two are really just coincidences, that they’re both horror. And I think also, after “Mulberry Street”, we felt like we could have done a little bit more but we just didn’t have the budget. Not that this was the chance to say “Now we have money, we can do that,” but it was a little bit like, “Alright, we know what we did wrong the first time, we know we can get it right this time.”

BLAST: So are you writing the script for the adaptation of “Cold in July”?

JM: Nick and I co-wrote it.

BLAST: So you’re working with Nick again.

JM: Yeah, and he’ll be [acting] in this one too. Probably not the lead, but he’ll be in it. There are three or four pretty awesome parts in it, and he’ll have a really bad-ass part.

BLAST: For your previous films you’ve been the director and the creator, so the scripts have all been based on your own ideas. How has it been, and how do you think it will be, working on this new project in which you are adapting someone else’s story and ideas?

JM: It’s been really interesting. I mean it’s been a long time, and I think it probably needed a long time because I think there’s no right way to adapt and I think you sort of learn along the way. Originally we tried to be very faithful to the book and do it literally page by page, and we wound up thinking, “It doesn’t have the same effect as it does in the book, and why is that?” So it was an interesting case of analyzing why something works, and then trying to figure out a way to make it work. And at some point you come to an epiphany that sometimes you have to change some things to make it feel the way it’s felt in the book. So it was a really interesting case.

It’s funny because we’ve sent all these drafts to [Lansdale] and we just sent one that we made some big changes in, but also I think it’s the most successful by far and the most faithful in a way. I just emailed it to him yesterday and now I just have my fingers crossed that he’s not gonna read it and freak out. He understands very much that things have to change though. But it’s tough, because you take his words and you’re trying to write in his style and come up with plot points in his style, and the whole time you’re saying “but this is all to make it feel much more like you made me feel when I read your book!” So it will be really interesting to see how it works.

BLAST: If somebody were to go to your IMDB page, they’d see that you have credits in almost every different type of field when it comes to working on films – directing, writing, editing, art department, lighting department, etc. Does that influence how you work as a director?

JM: Yeah, I think it makes me more efficient. Not that I’ve spent enough time in any one field to say that I’m a master of it, but it does really help to know what you can and can’t do, and knowing how to stay within your boundaries. Also knowing what the pace of a shoot day is like. I can’t even imagine going in and having never been on a set before and all of a sudden directing a movie. It must be the most bewildering thing ever, seeing all the people on set and being like “Who are all of these people?” So I think it’s a good way to be able to pop in and say, “Look I know that this sounds crazy when I say it but I know you could do this one thing…”

BLAST: You can relate to them better.

JM: Yeah, exactly. And I think they also respect it. You know I think a lot of times directors will say “I want it to look like this!” and then walk away and everybody is left scratching their heads. I think I’m more able to say “I want it to look like this, but I think this is how we could do it and if you have a better idea let’s do that.” So it’s an easier way to come at things I guess.

BLAST: Makes sense.

JM: And editing, definitely – I think anyone going into film, to come from that background is pretty helpful. I kind of shoot to edit, so I sort of know what I’ve got and know how to make the story work. I think I’m able to walk away [from editing] when people might stay a little bit longer but then also maybe I’ll stay a little longer thinking, “Well I know this one little thing that I might be able to get.” So it’s all part of the voice.

BLAST: Well, unfortunately we’re out of time. Thanks for taking the time to talk to Blast!

JM: Thank you!

About The Author

Bell Peloquin is a Blast staff writer. He writes the Film and Television Buzz blog.

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