The writer / director tells us the ins-and-outs of low budget film making
A deadly infection breaks out in Manhattan, causing humans to devolve into blood-thirsty rat creatures. Six recently evicted tenants must survive the night and protect their downtown apartment building as the city quickly spirals out of control.
This is the world that Director Jim Mickle has created in Mulberry Street which is playing as part of 2007's After Dark Horrorfest. We recently had a chance to catch up with the Director to get his take on this timely and provocative film.
How did you come up with the idea for Mulberry Street?
Jim Mickle: It was a mix of a lot of things. Originally the script was a much more traditional zombie film. It took place in the winter in rural Pennsylvania, all outside and all at night. We realized with a shoestring budget, we could never afford that angle, and so we rewrote it for something we could afford-- Nick Damici's (lead actor/co-writer) one bedroom apartment. We decided to scale the whole apocalyptic zombie outbreak theme down to just one tenement building downtown. That decision opened a lot of creative doors to take a genre we loved and give it a very gritty New York twist. The rat idea was born out of those early discussions on ways to approach the genre in a new way but keep it personal.
Since it seems that audiences have gotten a bit comfortable with certain forms of violence and on screen scares, in what ways did you try and subvert their expectations with Mulberry Street?
Jim Mickle: By not giving them exactly what they want, exactly when they think they want it. Not having a huge FX or stunt budget, we intentionally delay a lot of the classic horror moments for the second half of the film and allow the audience to get to know the characters and sympathize with their plight. Once they were hooked, we had some freedom to play with the action and the expectations, and to experiment with really putting the audience in the middle of the action through some subjective camera work and specific sound design. Our twist is that the audience will hopefully care about the characters of Mulberry Street, and not just try and guess in what order they'll be killed. Instead of trying to top the intensity of current horror trends, we tried to make them more relatable and less predictable and allow them to grow out of realistic scenarios.
What was the most difficult part of making Mulberry Street?
Jim Mickle: Constantly being forced to compromise. Filmmaking on any scale is about adapting to your restrictions, but this film is a very extreme example of that. We shot the film for almost no money, and with a principal photography schedule of just 18 days. Yet we tackled a large-scale apocalyptic movie with a huge ensemble cast in the heart of Manhattan. Every decision was heavily influenced by the reality of our limitations. BUT that being said, this also led to pretty much every good decision in the film. We were forced to think very long and hard about every detail and I think it shows in the heart and energy of the final product.
Is there something you learned while making Mulberry Street that you didn't know before? Something that hit you after the production was over?
Jim Mickle: I learned that there is no such thing as a traditional "director" in low budget filmmaking. Your real job is to surround yourself with an army of trustworthy people and to fight off one massive, unpredictable shitstorm after another. All the while, trying to maintain an aura of positivity and encouragement, despite the constant panic dreams and nagging bursts of self doubt. And at the end, you forget all the negatives and spend your days searching for ways to jump right back into the frying pan for the next one.
Why do you think horror films are so popular now? They seem bigger than they've ever been?
Jim Mickle: Fortunately for us fans, horror films will never disappear. All genres follow cycles, and often they're dictated by the state of the world around them. I don't think it's just coincidence that the recent horror boom seems to have come about and existed in conjunction with the Bush administration and the "war on terror". I think as the status quo of our country grows more volatile and we're faced with violence, guilt, and more bad news for the future, every form of art and entertainment has to respond accordingly. Our country has been conditioned to feed into a primal blood lust, and where horror movies once served as a release valve or outlet for those feelings, the public is reaching for more and more extreme forms of entertainment to top what they see and read in the news every day. What used to be an escape is now too mild or tame. The Saw franchise is a perfect illustration of that.
What scares you when you watch a horror film? On the flipside, what doesn't scare you?
Jim Mickle: DOES- When a film taps into something primal or universal besides the usual "run for your life" kind of plot. The Descent is the best recent example of that. A monster movie that doesn't reveal the monsters until it's already subjected the audience to every claustrophobic, lost in the woods, fear of the dark scare imaginable. By the time the hook of that movie began, I was already a whimpering baby. That movie kicked my ass and I loved every minute of it.
DOESN'T- Anything involving a group of teenagers on a trip/weekend/prom night, searching for the ultimate party/spring break/good time but finding something worse... Dear movie makers, please stop making those movies. Just because one or two of them were good thirty years ago, doesn't mean we still need to see them.
What are you working on next?
Jim Mickle: An adaptation of Joe Lansdale's twisted noir-thriller novel Cold in July. It's the best book I've read in a long time, and Nick Damici and I are adapting it now for Belladonna Productions, the same people behind Mulberry Street. We'll hopefully be shooting in the middle of 2008.