June 22nd, 2011
Stake Land Feature
By Dan Collacott
One way or another humanity is doomed, if it’s not natural disasters wiping us off the face of the Earth then it’s nuclear war, if it’s not war with each other - it’s an alien invasion heralding our untimely end! But when it comes to recent films - then the two favoured flavours of human demise usually involve vampires harvesting us for blood or a zombie apocalypse that results in us becoming the best thing on the menu.
With Stake Land, director and co-writer Jim Mickle brings us a zombie apocalypse with a difference, and the difference being that the infected are vampires (so not zombies at all really). Ahh but these vampires have the intelligence and primal sophistication of zombies, rather than a love of Eastern Europe, coffins, bats a dapper dress sense and ambiguous sexuality.
But where this film differs from quite a lot of recent zombie/vampires (that act like zombie) films is that despite it’s rather silly squealing Dusk till Dawn-esque adversaries, the film has a much more serious tone to it. The vamps play second fiddle to the survival story, part narrated by Martin (Connor Paolo). Martin is saved by Mister (Nick Damaci), a bad-ass drifter who slaughters the vampire responsible for killing Martin’s family.
Mister takes Martin under his wing and teaches him how to defend himself against and kill the blood sucking hordes that have reduced civilisation to a fractured lawless society. The difference in this vision of a virus ravaged world is that the vampire’s themselves aren’t the main threat. A religious cult called the Brotherhood have thrived within this apocalyptic society and when Mister saves a nun from being raped by two brotherly disciples, he brings the wrath of their deranged leader Jebedia Loven (Michael Cerveris) upon himself and those that follow him.
The nun in question (played by Kelly McGillis in a rare cinematic appearance) joins Martin and Mister in their trip North to New Eden, a cold land within Canada where safety is assured and vampires aren’t an issue (although cannibals are apparently). At different times the survivors pick up others on their crusade for a better life as they take shelter in some of the small communities/villages that have survived the vampire holocaust. Loven and the vampires mercilessly pursue Mister and his group throughout the film, but do they ever reach the promised land alive?
Stake Land draws many parallels with films like Zombieland and The Road but doesn’t have the subsequent black humour or sense of hopelessness of either. In fact although the vamps pose a very real threat and are much harder than zombies to kill, their threat feels a little watered down. The issue Mickle seems to riff on is not so much humanity vs. vampires in a lawless uncivilised world, it is more humanity vs. humanity, citing that humans are evil and when allowed are capable of far more atrocities than vampires. This viewpoint is channelled through the fact that religious extremism fills the void democracy and civilisation leaves behind. Recent film Priest also examined this possibility, maybe there is an acute belief that when government and society is dragged to its knees we will once again return to the dark ages?
My main criticism of the film is the fact I couldn’t really decide what it wanted to be or say, there is precious little back-story to any of the characters and it covers off most if not all of the horror/survival clichés. The search for a nirvana, which no one knows actually exists, the grizzled hardened loner, his naïve protégé and a band of survivors who tag alone for the ride. The cult thing is nothing new either but Cerveris does a wonderful job of adding a truly creepy and horrific edge to the stories re-examination of humanity. The film is beautifully shot and fairly slow paced, it doesn’t aim for cheap set pieces and a constant raft of kills to keep the viewer entertained although it has it’s fair share. In fact the film has more heart and than that, but doesn’t really concentrate enough on the relationships between the survivors and their back-stories.
There is plenty to admire and like in Stake Land, but more focus on the characters themselves and the origins of the vampire infestation and cult was needed. Flash-backs and endless explanations are too often used for padding in many films of this nature but in this case without a little more meat round the vampire chewed bones I did feel the film lacked a immortal soul.
FILMMAKER Q & A WITH WRITER / DIRECTOR JIM MICKLE
The makers of the film also gave us some cool stuff to share with you all, including some clips and this Q & A with Jim Mickle, so enjoy.
Stake Land is your second collaboration with co-writer and actor Nick Damici, with whom you co-wrote the acclaimed rat-zombie film Mullberry Street. How and why did you and Nick ultimately decide to collaborate for the second time on Stake Land?
Nick and I have been friends for almost 10 years, and there's a certain creative energy that kicks in once we dig into an idea and get rolling. It's creates a synergy that really defines both films and their personalities. As a writer he has an amazing way with giving things a heavy, iconic feel, but always with a heart. The fact that we're from two different generations, means there's decades of influences that get stirred into these stories. As an actor he's a lot of fun to work with because he gets so involved. For Stake Land he made his own costume, carved his own weapons, and slept in a tent for the whole shoot. A lot of creating the Mister character for me was just observing how he was off the set. It's a wonderful experience to make films with friends.
Stake Land marks Kelly McGillis’ return to the big screen after almost a decade and also a significant feature film role for Connor Paolo. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to cast Kelly and Connor and their subsequent contributions to the film.
Kelly McGillis was great. We had limited time to cast that part, and I remember thinking she was too much of a longshot, and had no reason to return to the bigscreen on an independent horror film. Fortunately she follows her own beats and instincts and doesn't seem concerned with doing what others expect. Once she joined the film, we knew we were doing something special.
The casting director Sig de Miguel lobbied endlessly to make Connor Paolo "Martin". I was lucky to find out that the reality is Connor is one of the most gifted actors of his generation. On top of that he adds a focus and dedication that can be startling at times. Many of the best moments in the film came from his ideas and his insane knowledge of his own character arc, and when someone like that is the lead, it makes the director's job a lot easier. I wanted to follow these characters like we had stumbled across them in the wild and decided to do a travelogue with them, so through spending a lot of time together, Nick and Connor became Mister and Martin before we even shot.
The film obviously owes a lot to the vampire and zombie movie genres as well as apocalyptic movies but there is also a lot of similarities between Stake Land and classical westerns. Was it a conscious decision to make a film that looks and feels like a western?
Very much so. Nick and I adore the western genre, and part of Stake Land comes from the fact that it's difficult to pull off a pure western these days. We obviously are fans of apocalyptic stories, and found that the two genres fit and complement each other quite well. The idea was to play the future not as a high tech sci-fi vision, but as a look back to the depression and even to the pioneer days as the landscape gets bleaker and more unforgiving. From the cinematography and production design to the costumes, we tried to imagine the film as a depression era world.
Mulberry Street and Stake Land are both cautionary fables in their own ways, and the apocalyptic setting allows for social commentary without being too literal. With multiple wars, economic disasters, and environmental catastrophes happening all the time, it's hard to ignore it all when you tell a story these days.
Over the last couple of years, the popularity of the vampire genre has exploded throughout film, television, and the literary world. How do you think Stake Land fits into the vampire genre landscape?
By not really being a vampire movie. From day one, our priority was the characters and what they meant to each other. By that thinking, the vampires became another obstacle in a world that had turned cold and brutal. Though they're nasty and feral creatures, we also tried to treat them like victims in some way. We liked the idea that the fear of these things could be used to control and manipulate. They're more like terrorists than anything else. Every saturated sub-genre needs a kick in the balls at times, and I hope Stake Land serves to do that.
I hope people walk away surprised and refreshed and with a little more faith in the genre.
Is there any interesting or noteworthy footage that was left out of the film? How long was the shoot? Any other interesting production or post-production technical things of note?
The script had very little dialogue in it to start. Originally each of the main characters had a moment to tell their story, and we wound up cutting all or most of those moments out. When talented actors inhabit a role, it's amazing to see how much they can express without dialogue or backstories, and in most cases it was more effective to feel who the character was instead of hearing it firsthand. Nick and I are allergic to exposition so I tried to leave in just enough, and let the rest come out in their quiet moments. The only cuts to the film were to try and say more with less.
We shot for 27 days. The shoot was spread out during the summer and winter time to maintain the passing time and landscapes of the story. Early on we did a weekend camera test and were able to use the footage to cut a pre-production teaser. Some of that footage was then cut into the film, so the end result is over a year of footage and seasons cut into the film. We shot on the RED camera and I cut the film on Final Cut Pro and pulled off the visual effects in Adobe After FX, both readily available commercial software.
And finally, who are some of your filmmaking influences?
John Carpenter movies meant a lot to me growing up. To be in the same program with his film this year is kind of mind-blowing. I grew up obsessed with David Lynch, Dario Argento, and Sam Raimi. With Mulberry Street and Stake Land, I enjoy looking at non genre films for reference and inspiration, anywhere from Jane Campion to Terrence Malick. I love when films can mix up genres and sub-genres and experiment with expectations. There's a Finnish film called "Sauna" that played here 2 years ago and that kind of floored me. No idea what it was about, but when it was over I wanted to watch it again.