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Filmmaker Jim Mickle Offers a New Take on Vampires

Jim Mickle's "Stake Land" may ostensibly be yet another vampire movie, but it offers a refreshing approach to the increasingly worked-over genre. Mickle's vampires are not "Twilight"/"True Blood" sexy, and his story focuses on the deeply human in the midst of a fantastic (and horrible) reality.

The film depicts the series of events that befalls a young man, Martin (Connor Paolo), after his family is killed in a post-apocalyptic world where humans are transformed into vampires. He teams up with a mysterious warrior figure known only as Mister (Nick Damici) and a group of fellow refugees (Kelly McGillis, Sean Nelson, and others).

The screenplay was written by Damici and Mickle, who also directed, and exhibits much of the same supernatural horror and violence that appeared in the duo's first feature, "Mulberry Street." The creative pair seems to gravitate toward this sort of fare, but "Stake Land" was inspired by a wide variety of sources, including "The Searchers," Terrence Malick's films, and "The Grapes of Wrath." In fact, despite the film's fantastical appearance, Mickle claims he wanted it "to feel like a Dust Bowl movie." There is a kind of earnest roughness and naturalness in the film that hearkens to classic westerns and Depression-set works. Mickle also sought to explore "the inevitability of nature," he says. "That comes also from a Jack London sensibility of survival."

Perhaps it is this unusual collection of sources that gives the film its unique flavor, but it's no accident that "Stake Land" approaches traditional components of vampire and post-apocalyptic films in a new way. Mickle and Damici made a point to focus on humanity over the unhuman.

Mickle began the creative process for his film before the current vampire explosion. There is significantly greater social consciousness to Mickle's story, which also deals with themes of gentrification and fanaticism. His vampires are scary; they do not speak; there is enough disparity between them and the film's humans that, while the vampires are recognizably humanoid, the emotional spotlight is on the human characters rather than the bloodsuckers.

"We wanted the vampire violence to have a fun depth to it, a choreographed sense to it," Mickle explains, "and the human-on-human violence we wanted to treat very much real, like you're walking up the street and this sort of stuff just happens." The film's violence teeters between campy gratuitousness and grounded grittiness, but it is the characters that make "Stake Land" so compelling.

Surprising Casting

The young man at the center of the tale, Martin, is brought to life by Paolo, an actor more recognizable as an Upper East Side social fixture on the CW's "Gossip Girl." Paolo's previous credits made Mickle hesitate at first to bring him on board, but, the director says, Paolo "pushed and pushed and was really enthusiastic and came in to meet and just had such an incredible understanding of the character, even more so than I did. I am really glad we cast him. The movie would be really a lot different with someone who wasn't as sharp as he was and good as he is on screen."

The rest of the casting process was also full of surprises, including the hiring of Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris, who was not the physical type Mickle originally imagined for his villain, but the director decided to cast him, favoring the bold choice, which, he notes, fully paid off. McGillis was another actor who "just kind of came out of left field," Mickle says. He admits to never actually having seen "Top Gun"—probably McGillis' most famous film— but concedes, "Casting her was incredible luck, and I think it's one of those things that you never think of right off the bat, but when it happens, it's like there is no other way things could have gone."

Mickle emphasizes the major role that passion and enthusiasm played in assembling the cast, particularly the keen interest in and love of the script displayed by Nelson and  Paolo—which "went so far," Mickle says. The shooting schedule required the actors to be available for two extended periods separated by a few months, a demanding sacrifice for working actors, so their enthusiasm for the project was vital. It was also, in the way independent cinema often is, contagious.

When McGillis first arrived on set, Mickle recalls, "I think there was a little bit of a sense of 'All right, what is this? We're shooting in this backyard; there's families around here. The script could go one way or another. Where is this going to go?' And then I think when she saw [the other actors] and saw Michael beat into [the] scene and saw that he was right up on board, it was kind of cool to see her come around and get on board, like, 'Oh, this is going to look great.' "

A New Approach

Mickle, who has held positions in many arenas of production—pre-, post-, and principal—admits that "Stake Land" was the first time he really had to think about an approach to directing actors with whom he had no prior relationship. He quickly realized that "some people want to hear a lot, and some people don't want to hear anything. At the very least, you can make sure everyone is really comfortable and knows that they can screw up and it will be okay. And know that they can try a lot of different things to find exactly what it is, and that's okay. I also edit the film too, so I can kind of shoot from that perspective of along the way knowing, that piece of that scene feels great here, that piece of that scene feels great here, so I think it helps to move quickly, because it's much more spontaneous with what pops up."

He also found the value in stepping back, because "at some point," he says, the actors "sort of become that character, and you let go in a way, and what they give you is a more truthful portrayal than what you might be thinking in your mind it was going to be. And it is kind of fun when that happens…when you step away and you say, 'This guy is this guy now, and what he did is the right way.' "

Mickle, whose own acting in the film was limited to a few distorted radio voices, found a lot to admire in his cast. "One thing that I noticed about people like Kelly and Nick is their ability to do a ton without actually doing anything," he says. "Kelly was sort of amazing in having really big things to do and then doing nothing. And it was beautiful. So many people do not have the confidence to just sort of be themselves and understand that the material is going to work and they're there to serve that."

Mickle emphasizes that if a particular project "is something you want to do, make sure people know that's what you want to do," recalling the passion with which several of his cast approached his film. It was that passion, and the humanity of it that those actors brought to the film, that makes "Stake Land," under Mickle's informed hand, a movie that is far less about vampires and the apocalypse than it is about what real people do in the face of dire, and unnatural, threats.

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