Film festivals rarely scramble over horror movies. Creepy movies and violent dramas, perhaps, but nothing that involves crazed murderers with a giant axes in their hands and a tendency towards cannibalism. Writer-director Jim Mickle's films, however, are an exception. Mickel's second feature film, Stake Land, was a runner-up for the Fangoria "Chainsaw Award" and won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival in 2010. His third and most recent film, We Are What We Are, premiered as a midnight movie at Sundance.
A remake of a Mexican film, We Are What We Are centers on the macabre Parker family. Every inch of the film feels unsettling: the blue-grey tinged and storm-drenched Catskills scenery; the music peppered with steady drum-beats; and the pallor, red-rimmed eyes, and outdated clothes of the Parkers. Ambyr Childers (The Master) plays the eldest Parker child, Iris, alongside Julia Garner (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as her sister Rose, and Bill Sage as their tyrannical and extremely unwashed father. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell's son, former professional hockey player Wyatt Russell, appears as the town's deputy sheriff, and Top Gun's Kelly McGillis makes a cameo as the Parkers' trusting neighbor.
It's not for the faint-hearted or those with sensitive stomachs—at the film's world premiere, a 30-something man screamed "Holy fuck!" in shock when one character is murdered—but it is not merely mindless violence befalling pretty people. "What I thought was cool, " Wyatt Russell explained as he sat with Interview and Julia Garner in one of the Sundance lodges, "was that the twist wasn't a 'twist.' It wasn't Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candlestick. It was: 'No, it is this guy, but the twist is something shocking.'"
EMMA BROWN: Was last night the first time you'd seen the film?
WYATT RUSSELL: Yeah, it was awesome.
BROWN: How did you feel about the audience's reaction?
RUSSELL: It was fun to be a part of the reaction. If you had seen it before, and you were just trying to gauge the audience's reaction—it's not as fun. But if you're part of the "Oh my god!"—you know what's coming up, but you don't know how it played out. For me, that was fun.
BROWN: Was there anything that surprised you?
RUSSELL: Yeah. [laughs]
JULIA GARNER: There was a guy who screamed "Holy fuck! Holy shit!"
RUSSELL: I was laughing.
GARNER: He came up to me, really nice guy, and I was like, "Hey, you're the guy! You should come to every screening. I love you."
BROWN: When the director Jim introduced the movie, he mentioned that, as a filmmaker, you dream of showing your films at Sundance, but once you decide to make horror movies, you accept that it will never happen. What made you sign onto the film?
RUSSELL: It was simple. I met Jim and he was someone who was trying to make a horror film that tried not to be a horror film. It's not like every scene people's limbs [are] getting ripped off—there's a time and a space for that. It tried to be a lot more than that; you could say it was weird, but the storyline wasn't convoluted. When I met Jim, he was cool, which I didn't expect from a person who wrote something that crazy.
BROWN: What were you expecting?
RUSSELL: A weirdo. A stranger person. He's the most normal, greatest guy in the world.
GARNER: When I first read the script, I thought it was the unthinkable, the situation. I met Jim and I just connected with him, I trusted him. I knew that if I were to do this movie, I would have to completely trust the director.
BROWN: It's such a creepy, somber movie. It's hard to imagine it being filmed in a fun atmosphere. Did you have fun filming it?
RUSSELL: Yeah, it was summer camp.
GARNER: It was camp Wawa.
RUSSELL: Everyone had their own room, but there was no TV, barely any Internet.
GARNER: There was no Internet.
RUSSELL: Yeah, on the porch there was one place you could get in on.
GARNER: Yeah. [laughs] Everyone was crammed together.
RUSSELL: On this tiny little porch, and you had to talk to people.
GARNER: Right, and you knew everyone's business. [laughs]
BROWN: Did you do any camp bonding activities?
RUSSELL: Every Sunday we played softball.
GARNER: There were bonfires.
RUSSELL: Tons of bonfires! A lot of s'mores. Someone taught me how to melt the s'more perfectly. I learned how to make a perfect s'more. Lots of kielbasa, because it was a Polish resort. And there were Polish people there while we were there, so we played Polish music and sat around with them.
BROWN: Do you think the characters Iris and Rose could ever be normal?
GARNER: Normal? I think Rose wants to be, but she's not, because that's not who she is. When I first read the script, I thought it was the unthinkable—the situation. But, I'm very different from the character, so I just thought I'd try and see how I could stretch as an actress.
RUSSELL: I want to see what happens to them 30 years later—who do they turn out to be. I don't know where they're going, but they're headed somewhere.
BROWN: I feel like Rose is the character that you gravitate to in the movie—she tries to do the right thing, and seems strong given the situation. How are you different from her?
GARNER: Well, one, I'm not a cannibal. [laughs] And I don't come from an abusive, depressing household—can you imagine how that house smells? [laughs] The character of Rose has so much shame, she's so depressed—there's so much frustration—and she has to cover that up; she can't ever talk about her feelings. My house it wasn't like that at all, I come from a very open household, my mom's a therapist and my dad's an art teacher. You can only imagine... [laughs]
BROWN: Do you remember the first film that ever scared you?
GARNER: Yes. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, and I'm still scared of that movie. I love that movie, though. I saw it when I was like 10, I've been obsessed with Bette Davis since then.
RUSSELL: The first movie that ever scared me, I feel like it wasn't a scary movie. I feel like it was Dennis the Menace, or something.
GARNER: Beetlejuice used to scare me.
RUSSELL: Bettlejuice scared me to. It made me feel so weirded out.
BROWN: What about something you've seen recently? I feel like it's gotten harder...
RUSSELL: Yeah, audiences are just harder to scare.
GARNER: Because of the Internet, I think. Because everyone sees everything, everything's so exposed...
RUSSELL: Yeah, desensitized. For me, The Strangers. Just the randomness of someone coming over to your house and murdering you because you're there. I can't watch that one at night. I like to walk out of a [horror] movie like I did with The Strangers, and this movie in a way too. I'm legitimately scared, I don't want to look in a mirror—that's what I want to feel like.
BROWN: What do you both have planned next?
GARNER: I have a couple of things that I'm in the running for. I just booked this job, I found out last night before the screening, but I can't say because we have to finish...
RUSSELL: There's a job that I booked—things needs to be ironed out. And then I'm working on developing shows for television with my brother, Oliver [Hudson]. That's taking up a lot of my time. We've sold our shows—it's going through a process, where it'll be selected and hopefully made into a pilot for next season.
BROWN: Would you be in it?
RUSSELL: No, I don't think so. I'm not at the stage in my acting career where I can say, "Yeah, I might want to be in it." I have to prove my worth, my merit.
BROWN: Do your older siblings give you a lot of unsolicited life advice?
RUSSELL: [laughs] Bad unsolicited advice? Yes, my brother, tons. Oliver has never given me one piece of good advice in my life. No, I'm joking. They don't say, "You know what I think you should do..." We support each other.
WE ARE WHAT WE ARE IS CURRENTLY SCREENING AT SUNDANCE. FOR MORE SUNDANCE 2013 COVERAGE, CLICK HERE.