'We Are What We Are' Director Shares 5 Ways to Do Horror Reboots Right

We Are What We Are - H 2013

We Are What We Are - H 2013

While Hollywood spent millions regurgitating old formulas and pissing off genre fans, Jim Mickle remade 2010's “Somos lo que hay” into an emotionally-arresting cannibal movie.

Director Jim Mickle hates remakes. That made the decision to direct one based on the 2010 Mexican horror drama Somos lo que hay (We Are What We Are) a bit difficult. His gut reaction was an expanded version of, “Hell no.”

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“First it was the sheer stereotype of, 'I don't want to do a remake!'” Mickle tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don't agree with most of them. So many times, almost all the time, you see a remake made for commercial reasons. A producer somewhere tried to fake a creative reason for it to exist.” He recalls the tragic Hollywoodization of one of his favorite films, Kim Jee-Woon's 2003 A Tale of Two Sisters. “When they remade that [as 2009's The Uninvited] -- that trainwreck of a disaster of a worthless movie. They had the decency to let it coast by without people knowing it was a remake. I was afraid of taking something complex and adding a bunch of shit on top of it.”

Mickle succeeded. We Are What We Are may fall under the “horror” category by the time it lands on Netflix, but it's not a blood and guts fest. Working with writer Nick Damici, Mickle crafts a slow-burn exploration of two sisters' lives, young girls trapped in a family with bloodthirsty tendencies. 

How did Mickle avoid the pitfalls of remaking? With a few strict guidelines:

1. Find a New Angle to a Similar Theme

“We watched [the 2010 film] and lived with it and asked a lot of 'what ifs?''' Mackie says of the initial re-approach to We Are What We Are. “That kind of morphed to 'we're doing a remake' to 'we're doing an original film but it's going to take place within certain perimeters.' We'd retrain certain ideas and themes but we'd be able to do our own film in it. Limits breed creativity."

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Digesting the concept took Mickle many days, but he says his revelatory moment came when he decided to switch the genders of the two main teenagers. In his version, two boys would become two girls. “I loved what Jorge [Michel Grau, director of the 2010 version,] did, how he explored ideas on religion,” Mickle says. Switching the characters to girls allowed him to “push the story further” and create a world we don't often see in horror movies. “I wanted to make a slow, delicate, fragile movie about cannibalism. The idea of doing that with two girls in the leads ...  it all just started to click.”

2. Set It in a Location That Reflects the Theme, Not Just a Place That Looks Like the First Movie

Mickle shot his last film, Stake Land, an apocalyptic vampire movie, around his hometown of Pottstown, Penn. Knowing the area well drew him back to town for We Are What We Are. This time, he could mine the rural suburbs for its deep connection to religion. “Neither Nick nor I knew much about growing up in the city. I grew up close to Amish country and I live part-time in the Catskills. So once we did that, it became a canvas I understood and could play around with. And that Nick could play around with because we both spent time there,” he says.

3. Use Casting to Breathe New Life into the Picture

If Mickle's version of We Are What We Are was going to carve out its own place in the cinematic landscape, it had find talent would serve a purpose greater than pushing the story forward. As the writer/director describes it, he found a physical manifestation of his ripe location in actress Julia Garner.

“Julia was the key to the whole thing,” he says. “She has this built-in innocence and ethereal quality. Having grown up around Quakers and Amish, [I can see] she brings that. Really rare. All-American and classical, like a porcelain doll.” Mickle was looking for an actress who could fit into his established production design. When he found Julia, she became the production design, her curly blonde locks setting a texture pattern. There's a reason her blue eyes and pale skin match the wallpaper.

4. Acknowledge What the Original Did Right

“We didn't want to throw it out and start over,” Mickle says of the original. Most horror remakes go one way, a drastic makeover, or the other, all too beholden to the source material. Mickle wanted to take what he loved about the original, tip his hat when the love was strong enough, and filter the rest through his own sensibilities. An impossible-to-resist nod happens right from the get go.

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“I loved what it was saying about religion. It was doing it in a way that was very specific to Mexico and patriarchal families. My goal was to start that movie off the same way as the original. That was really my contribution to the script. We'll do that scene and fans of the original will know it.”

5. Don't Conventionalize for Conventions Sake

We Are What We Are has the foundation of a horror movie. Meaning, it could have been just another horror remake. And it almost was. “The first draft of the script, up until the halfway point it was very similar,” Mickle says. “Then in the second half it became a conventional horror film. And it totally works! You read it and said, 'Yes, this is great.' There's a good body count, good scares, lots of surprises, people killing each other.” The writer/director says he was proud of that original script. It was only after handing it off to his producer and girlfriend Linda Moran, that he stripped down into the finished product. Moran felt the “horror” version of We Are What We Are was untrue to the story and, ultimately, unsatisfying to the viewer.

“We had a big ending that took place on a cliff. It was kind of a showstopper ending. But the more we boiled it down and stopped relying on those scares, that gave us permission to say it's a movie about two girls under the weight of tradition and not just 'a family of cannibals in the woods,'” Mickle says.