Finding The Family Values In A Cannibal Clan
The Sundance midnight premiere of We Are What We Are was terrifying and grotesque, but also strangely affecting.
PARK CITY, UTAH — It was the moment all horror film makers dream of. As the world premiere of We Are What We Are, a remake of a Mexican cult mini-classic about a family of cannibals, boiled up to its dramatic crescendo, an act of shocking violence suddenly erupted. The audience jolted, but one viewer was so overcome that he let loose a blood-curdling cry of "Holy shit!" worthy of the Psycho scream. The shout brought the audience down from the collective tension into peels of laughter.
The tension, the relieved laughter and dramatic heights that preceded the moment were testimony to WAWWA's unexpected power; a film that provides a not only a great thriller ride, but a remarkably touching look at a very real-life family under stress, whose dilemmas will be all too familiar to many non-cannibals watching the film.
WAWWA opens amidst a cataclysmic downpour drenching New York's Hudson Valley, where from the general gloom, a mother ventures into the rain, only to be overcome and brought down by a mysterious ailment. The action shifts to the family left behind; two teenage daughters (played with a perfect sense of dread by Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers), a seven year old son (Jack Gore) and a grim, domineering father (Bill Sage). As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that the daughters are now meant to take over some horrific tasks left behind by their mother; tasks involving some sort of sacred ritual, the family's food supply and a series of missing persons in the area. Kelly McGillis, also stars as a neighbor who suspects all is not right with the folks next door.
Beyond the film's genre thrills, what gives it its power is a sense of a family struggling to manage its secrets, even as their spirits rebel against them. Sage's father character —cannibal though he is — is deeply sympathetic as a man of few words to whom a tradition has been passed down, and feels it is his duty to guide his children through it. For the girls who must take on their terrible tasks, their journey is animated by the question, "Why can't we be like other families?" a familiar question for any teenager, just cast in a slightly different light in cannibalistic surroundings.
Speaking with the director and the cast the day after the premiere, it was clear they approached the project as a family drama, informed by a general backdrop of terror. Director Jim Mickle said, "I like horror films that allow you to merge into drama with interesting characters." Noting that it is not until about 45 minutes into the film that things "start to unravel," from dread to actual violence, he said, "What I like about this kind of stuff is that it's such a strong genre concept that I felt there was a lot of room to really explore that without worrying about leaving people bored."
Asked if the film means for the audience to take the side of its cannibals protagonists, Mickle said, "Yeah, totally. I wanted to bring in first the dad, dealing with his wife's deal who doesn't quite know what to do. Then I wanted to focus in, oh, by the way, they have this montrous background. And if you can still sympathize with the family I've done my job."
For Bill Sage, the actor who portrayed the father, the journey of making the film — which shot over 25 days in an isolated spot in the Hudson Valley — was about empathizing not only with the father, but with this remote community, much of which was still coping while they were shooting with the devastating after-effects of Hurricane Irene, which swept through the area in 2011. "I got there a week early," Sage recalled, "and tried to meet some of the locals. I saw a couple people who helped me. There were mannerisms that I incorporated into the character. One man in particular who was selling furniture in his house, The community had been devastated, so people were struggling there."
Of bringing out the dread in the scenes, he explained, "The circumstances are really heightened, so there's not a lot you have to do."
For the two actresses who portrayed the teenage sisters, shooting the film was about finding their way into a very dark emotional place. Childers said, "The biggest thing for me was living in LA, and being a mother and a wife, you have to take three days to shut your life down and make sure everyone is good at home and just focus, because these are such introverted dark people that you kinda have to be into that fucked-up head space. I tired to think of just dark really shitty things."
Warner, who has previously played a member of another messed-up family in Martha Marcy May Marlene said, " The first thing I tried to do was to not judge my character. When I was trying to find Rose, I was just looking for my inner shame. That dark place of shame. Shame is probably the worst feeling because it connects to everything; depression, anger, it all comes down to shame."
Despite the unrelentingly grim tone on the screen, however, the cast remembered the shoot as a time of fun and play. Garner recalled, "We pulled it off because it was so much fun to shoot and we could get into those dark moments but when it stopped, we were like how we are now."
"It's a safe space, Jim [Mickle] creates," Sage said. "The crew were all living together. It was camp."
Garner lit up, "It really was. It was Camp WAWWA. There were babies and dogs everywhere."
Wyatt Russell (who plays a sheriff's deputy in the film) recalled, "Jim likes to make movies that are fun. It comes from an innocent place so you are able to do all these crazy dark things and not have to feel terrible about it."
Thinking back on her career which has also included The Last Exorcism Part II, Garner mused, "This is my second horror film, and they're a lot of fun to shoot. Maybe I'm weird but I kind of like being in a dark place and then the next minute, having fun."