One of the most exciting duos in independent film is about to unleash their latest creation on the world of cinema. Jim Mickle and Nick Damici wowed audiences with their first collaboration known as ‘Mulberry Street’ and now they are back to raise the bar once more in independent film, not to mention the horror genre, with their new film ‘Stake Land.”
The film focuses on a young boy named Martin, played by Gossip Girl’s Connor Poulo, who is about to learn how cruel the world can become. Martin was a normal teenager before the country collapsed in an empty pit of disaster. When an epidemic of vampirism strikes, humans find themselves on the run from vicious, feral beasts. Cities are tombs and survivors cling together in rural pockets, fearful of nightfall. When his family is slaughtered, young Martin (Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo) is taken under the wing of a grizzled, wayward hunter (In the Cut’s Nick Damici) whose new prey are the undead. Simply known as Mister, the vampire stalker takes Martin on a journey through the locked-down towns of America’s heartland, searching for a better place while taking down any bloodsuckers that cross their path. Along the way they recruit fellow travellers, including a nun (Kelly McGillis) who is caught in a crisis of faith when her followers turn into ravenous beasts. Belle (Danielle Harris), a pregnant young woman desperate to reach New Eden with her unborn child. As you can imagine, skirting the undead on a cross country journey is the just the start of this group’s worries. This ragtag family unit cautiously moves north, avoiding major thoroughfares that have been seized by The Brethren, a fundamentalist militia headed by Jebedia Loven (Tony award-winning actor Michael Cerveris) that sees the plague as the Lord’s work.
Icon Vs. Icon’s Jason Price recently caught up with Jim Mickle and Nick Damici to discuss their creation, the process of bringing it from script to screen, the challenges involved and what lies in store for this dynamic duo in the months to come!
We are always told that the entertainment industry is not for the faint of heart. When did you decide to pursue a career in the industry as opposed to going in a different direction?
Jim Mickle: Ya know, I grew up being into a lot of different things, from writing to photography to magic tricks. I grew up wanting to become a special effects artist and I was very interested in doing sound. I liked that film lets you play in every part of the creative process, it lets you make an art out of other art forms.
Nick Damici: Well, I kinda tried a lot of different stuff, but it didn’t work! [laughs] I found myself writing and acting and that is really what I always wanted to do. I worked for UPS for almost nine years before I realized that I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to be an actor, so since then, that has been my focus!
If you had to cite one person as a professional influence, as you were coming up, who would it be?
Jim Mickle: Originally, it was Sam Raimi. That was who, when I was 13 and saw the ‘Evil Dead’ movies, it was the first time I realized that someone was having fun with it and injecting personality and style and doing it in an interesting way. That sorta fascinated me early on. But growing up, the fun part was evolving and letting that interest leap from one to another. I don’t think there was one overall person but Raimi was the initial spark that started it. There are elements of a lot of people’s careers that I really admire.
Nick Damici: I would honestly have to say Harvey Keitel because he maintains his integrity as an actor. He hasn’t reached the level of super stardom that some of his peers have — he hasn’t sold out, lets put it that way! That moves me more than some of these guys who get too big and start doing boring work because they are more interested in money than the work.
This is your second project together. We wanted to give everyone a little background on your collaboration. How did you two first meet up?
Nick Damici: Jim was working on a student film that I took a part in for a friend of mine, who was a teacher at NYU. I’m going back to 2001. He was helping out as a grip on a one of his buddy’s movies and we just hit it off. We were at a camp, a creepy cabin place up in Connecticut. It was really creepy and the owner kept looking in everyones windows! It just became this kinda, “We should be making this movie!” thing. So we just hit it off there and Jim did his thesis film that year, ‘The Underdogs.’ I took a small part in that and we got more and more friendly as we did that and decided that we wanted to do a movie together. It took us a couple of years but we finally got ‘Mulberry Street’ done and now ‘Stake Land’ is our second effort! It’s been 10 years but we’re getting there! [laughs]
What is the most satisfying part of your collaboration?
Nick Damici: The fact that he is the only person that I have ever teamed up with where we actually get stuff done! [laughs] We have made two movies together and hopefully we will get to make more at this point! So yeah, it is definitely the fact that we get things done. We also really compliment each other. He is a little younger than I am, he is more visual. He is the cinematic guy and I am the literature guy. When we work together, I really feel that our personalities blend and come out in a way that we can appeal to a much broader audience.
Jim Mickle: Seeing it work. Being together for 10 years, it isn’t like we grew up together but we met and had very similar interests and they are both kinda weird! We kinda have the same guilty pleasures when it comes to films, the kinda films that you would be embarrassed to say that you liked, the other guy agreed on! I graduated from school and didn’t know what I was going to do. We spent a lot of time together hanging out at the bar, having a drink and complaining about the sorta movies that were getting made. I think that happens a lot of times to people, but to have the opportunity to put your money where your mouth is and actually do your own thing is rare. I think the first time around we were happy that anyone went out and saw our movie. To see it go out and have a life of its own and have the opportunity to do that a second time and see if the second film can have a bigger life is really cool. We have done things on a small scale so we haven’t had to compromise and have been able to make the kinda movies that we want to make. It is kinda fun to come out the other end of the process and see that if you make something that you really want to see and trust that other people will also want to see it, that actually comes true.
For the uninitiated, what initially sparked the idea for ‘Stake Land’?
Nick Damici: ‘Stake Land’ originally came about because we were down on our luck and not getting anything done after ‘Mulberry Street’ and were waiting for another project to get done, that looked like it wasn’t going to get done. I said, “Look, Jim, we gotta do something!” So I wrote a bunch of web-isodes based on a guy teaching a kid how to kill vampires. I figured it was something cheap that we could do in our genre. I wrote 30 web-isodes and at that point we got them to Larry Fessenden who was in ‘Mulberry Street’. Larry loved them and loved the idea. Then he got a deal with MPI to do a movie. Him and Jim had discussed wanting to work together, so when he saw this he suggested making it a feature. At that point, we had to create a new world because the web-isodes were set in the modern world. We came up with this apocalyptic world. Obama was running for president, so we thought we could include the civil rights angle and have the Klan in there but call it The Brotherhood. With these elements, we were able to let this world create itself … “What would happen if America collapsed?” and at the time the pig flu was coming in from Mexico, so that worked its way into the script. The virus that creates the vampires came from Mexico. We just let this world dictate the journey that these characters had to take and of course, Canada would be the place that you could be safe and runaway to when you are in trouble, like Americans always do.
You assembled a very talented cast. What was the casting process like for the other roles in the film and was it difficult to find the right mix of people to achieve the end product that you were aiming for?
Nick Damici: We were very lucky because we didn’t have much choice on who we were casting. We were looking for any names that we could get, obviously. Connor Paolo came along through the casting director. He has got a steady job on ‘Gossip Girl’ and is a successful young actor. We were like, “Why would he want to do this movie? We aren’t payin’ much!” [laughs] He just loved the script and wanted to come along for the ride! Danielle Harris was the same way. I couldn’t believe that we got her. It was one after another. I was shocked and surprised that these great actors wanted to do the movie. Jim and I were nobody at that point. We had done ‘Mulberry Street’ but that was it. And Kelly McGillis, I was bowled over that she would do our movie.
What did the actors bring to the film that you may not have been expecting?
Jim Mickle: Connor’s part, at first when the script was written I thought that it was one of those roles where you find a kid, pluck him out of obscurity, throw him in your movie, pair him up with this sort of hard-ass guy, see what sparks fly and really make an actor out of a no-name kid. That was my original idea for the role. But when the idea of using Connor came up, I sorta rejected it because I wanted someone vulnerable and here is this guy who has played Alexander The Great and is on ‘Gossip Girl’ arguing with adults and holding his own! [laughs] Every time I see him, he is a very confident kid and a terrific actor. He brings all these elements in his own personality that I didn’t think “Martin” was. His ability to breakdown a character and a story and find out how he fits into that while having no ego about it. He really understands the film making process.
It sorta became a triangle with myself, Nick and Connor where we were slowly building the characters very organically. Kelly was great and brought a history to it along with a dramatic weight. That was a very important aspect because we do take a lot off shots at religion in the film. Her character represents all the good things that we thought about religion. I think it was a situation where if you cast that part wrong, the whole house of cards falls apart. We couldn’t have hit it more on the head or have been more truthful with her. Danielle is a working actress and brought a real energy to the film. To be honest, she probably has more experience than anyone else on the film and she still has a love for film making and a real appreciation for it. It was pretty amazing. I sorta love that the cast is a rag-tag bunch of people with different backgrounds and experiences. That was the same thing with the movie, you didn’t have to hide that and could use it to your advantage in showing this little band of family trying to survive.
Nick, what was the biggest challenge for you in either the script-writing phase or as an actor on this project?
Nick Damici: For me it was that I am not a kid anymore, I am over 50! [laughs] It was stamina, ya know! You go in there and there are all these young people and we are shooting three weeks at a clip, I am camping, sleeping on a cot, so that is always tough. It is a physical thing. You either do it or ya don’t. You just have to suck it up. I want to do as much of that as I can now because as I get older, I realize I am not going to have that kinda stamina. For me that was the challenge. The process was a labor of love. I built all of my props. I carved all the stakes that I used, I made my pants, my shoes and a bow and arrow. So that part I really enjoyed, becoming the character by doing things that he would do. The challenges were much more on the production end and on Jim’s end. Orchestrating and getting people together, which fortunately, I didn’t have to do!
What does the future hold for a potential sequel?
Jim Mickle: We have given thought to it. There is plenty of material. We have actually started releasing these prequels online that give you some background on the characters. We had a lot of extra material and we sorta wanted to open up the world. Yeah, we are really just waiting to see how the movie does and if people enjoy it and if it warrants a sequel. I think Nick and I have both said that it would be fun to come back in a few years, give it some breathing time, and she how the actors and characters have changed and the world has changed. It will also be interesting to see how America has changed. This film is very much a commentary on America. I think it is very interesting from the time that we wrote it, to the time that it premiered, to the time that it is opening in theaters that we have evolved in three very different stages … it seems the world is going to be more interesting the longer we wait! [laughs]
Nick Damici: Yeah, my take on it is that if we did a sequel, I would want enough downtime to have the world and the characters change enough that it would be a different story. I keep telling our main producers that I will do the sequel if they give me flying vampires and lots of money! So we will see what happens! [laughs]
Being a seasoned vet of the film industry. What is the best piece of advice that you would give to young filmmakers and actors?
Jim Mickle: The best advice I can give is to just do it. I think that if you wait for opportunities, they are a one in a million shot. If you just go and do it, you are only going to get better and you are only going to learn from doing things yourself. There are so many people fighting for so few positions that I think you have to carve your own path. I think that if we hadn’t made ‘Mulberry Street’ that I would still be editing or in the back of the grip truck talking about how one day I am going to make a movie, waiting on someone to give me a million dollars and say, “Go do it!” So, do something of your own and put your stamp on it.
Nick Damici: Do anything else you can but become an actor! [laughs] The bottom line is that it is a long haul. Ya know, I’m not rollin’ in bucks. It is a hard life. It is not a life that you can support a family on unless you are super successful. I don’t have kids, so I can do what I want to do but if I had kids, I would be working a job like everybody else. I don’t think it is something that you should pursue unless you can’t do anything else. That would be my advice. I remember David Niven said in his autobiography that “an actor should always have another job.” That is so true because the work is few and far between unless you get very lucky. I think that if you are tenacious enough, and I think that is the case with me, I have stuck in there and I got a few breaks finally after many years and we will see what happens with that, but I could easily have not gotten those breaks and could be a waiter right now. I don’t think it is something that you should encourage people to do unless they absolutely don’t want to do anything else. I think too many people try to become actors because they like the romance of it. It’s like becoming a brain surgeon because of the money. I don’t think you should do that unless you are really into being a brain surgeon, ya know! [laughs]
Is there a particular type of film or genre that you are anxious to tackle in the future that you may not have been able to take on yet?
Nick Damici: That is an interesting question. Yeah. In this one, we kinda did a western. Jim and I have always wanted to do a western and we kinda consider ‘Stake Land’ our western. I’d like to do a real western one day but I would also like to do a period piece, 13th century or something like that. Anything different, really. I am not that interested in the modern world, I don’t think it is that interesting of a place. I think it is twittered out and boring at this point. That is why ‘Stake Land’ took place in another world. Contemporary stuff just doesn’t interest me. I would love to do a detective thing set back in the ‘30s, ‘40s or ‘50s. I love those kinda films.
Do you ever take a moment to look back at your work and give thought to how you have evolved as an actor over the years?
Nick Damici: Yeah, it is natural. As you get older, you get more confident. With the more stuff you do, the more confident you get. I think that I have a lot more confidence in what I do and professionalism is obviously experience. I don’t get butterflies anymore, where I used to. I don’t get nervous anymore and I think that brings a realism to the characters that I play, they are behaving and not pretending to behave anymore. I think that is one of my assets as an actor. I am a no bullshit actor. I am not a high brow actor, it’s not rocket science, just do it! [laughs]
What is on the horizon for you two in the coming months?
Jim Mickle: We adapted a book called ‘Cold In July’ by Joe Landsdale who wrote ‘Bubba Hotep’ a few years back. It is sort of a country-noir, sort of a modern western that takes place in 1989 in East Texas. It is a very twisty-turny, small town crime thriller. We adapted that a couple years ago and just last night got the word that it looks like it is actually going to happen. Hopefully, we will be shooting that in the summer time!
If you want to see more or support the film, be sure to visit the official Facebook page for ‘Stake Land’!