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Exclusive: Jorge Michel Grau on We Are What We Are

Mexican food never tasted quite like human!

Cannibalism is a subject that lends itself well to horror films, though it’s also something that actually happens in the real world despite all the moral taboos it breaks.

In Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are, cannibalism is a way of life for a Mexican family who find themselves without their head of household who normally brings home the unlucky souls the family feeds upon. Needing new sources of food and without their so-called hunter-gatherer, it’s up to his two sons and their seemingly innocent daughter (played by Paulina Gaitan of Sin Nombre) to go out into the city to find new victims upon which they can feed.

Grau’s gritty realism at depicting this particular region of Mexico and showing how one family survives within it makes the genre-mixing We Are What We Are more of a street drama than a straight horror flick, but the brutal dismemberment of the family’s eventual food supply will likely make stomachs churn even in the most steadfast horror fans… and hopefully not from hunger!

After premiering at Cannes in 2010, Grau’s film played at a number of Fall film festivals including Fantastic Fest in Austin (where it won their award for Best Picture!) and the New York Film Festival. ShockTillYouDrop.com had a chance to talk to Grau while he was in New York for the latter. You can also check out an exclusive clip from the film we scored right here.

ShockTillYouDrop.com: Let’s start with an easy one: what got you going on writing a movie about a cannibal family in Mexico who have to eat people to survive?

Jorge Michel Grau:
My main objective was to tell the story of a family that’s disintegrating as a metaphor for society that’s disintegrating, and the theme of cannibalism I thought served me well. It’s a very obvious metaphor that served me to talk about how man preys upon other me. Man’s only predator is another man, and so I thought that the combination of these two themes really worked well for the purpose of what I wanted to do.

Shock: Did you see it as a horror film while you were making it? Or a human story with genre elements?

Grau:
I like horror films. I saw a lot of films by John Carpenter and Dario Argento when I was younger, and I’m drawn to sort of dark twisted, gruesome films, so I was naturally drawn to that particular genre.

Shock: There isn’t anything supernatural like ghosts or vampires, and it feels like this could be a real thing where people need to survive or find victims for occult rituals. There’s nothing that takes it out of the ordinary human story, so I was curious whether this was something that has happened or happens in Mexico. I guess the question is how much of this is based in reality?

Grau:
From a dramatic point of view, the film is very realistic and is based on a reality that you do see in daily life in Mexico, these problems, the disintegration of families, the decaying of the social fabric, widespread corruption among police offices. The existence of tribes or sectors of society that have been abandoned by the government or by the authorities. As I drifted towards the theme of cannibalism, I began to do research on the topic, and I found out that there’d actually been a number of cases in real life about people who had eaten other human beings. In Mexico, there were two famous cases, here in the U.S. there have several well-known cases, and the famous case in Austria where somebody made an online advertisement wanting to eat somebody, and they got an answer and they actually ate that person.

Shock: Wow, I remember that ad, but I never knew someone actually followed through on it. This family clearly doesn’t have money, but they seem to be getting people to eat not necessarily to survive, but for some sort of cult ritual that requires eating the flesh. They could probably get food from other places, but you kept it rather vague why they needed specifically to eat humans. Was that intentional?

Grau:
Yeah, I made that lack of information on purpose. Not only did I want the audience to be in the dark, so to speak, but I wanted the characters to a certain extent to be in the dark about their motivations. So for instance, in the case of the ritual, I wanted to create a situation whereby the characters feel the need to perform this ritual, but they don’t really know why they have to do it or the reasons behind it. This allows the main character Alfredo to undergo the personal crisis that he undergoes, because he doesn’t understand what’s behind the process and the need to carry out what has to be carried out.

Shock: You have an amazing cast for this. Paulina Gaitan I know was in “Sin Nombre,” but how important was it to get new faces or actors who might not be as well-known compared to getting better known Mexican actors?

Grau:
My only basic rule was to find actors that had the age or looked like the age of the character. There are very few actors that are 17 or 18 in Mexico who are very well known. Paulina is perhaps the only one, but the truth is that when we began to shoot “We Are What We Are,” “Sin Nombre” had just opened commercially (in Mexico) so of course, she’s much better known now but that was not the case when we began making our movie. The actress who plays the mother, Carmen Beato, she’s very well known for her television roles, less so for her film roles, but I really liked her as an actress and that’s why I went after her.

Shock: As a fan of Argento and Carpenter, when you actually had to show the mother dismembering the body, how gory did you want to go with it? Did you know you wanted to go to a certain point and be very realistic with it?

Grau:
As I was writing the script, I came up with certain scenes and I shot the scenes that I had written in terms of violence and what I did was I basically put myself in the shoes of the spectators and thought, “What would I want to see? In what part of the film did I want to see the violence occur and what level of violence as a viewer was I willing to accept?” I feel that by allowing each viewer to imagine the degree of violence that he or she would allow their mind to run away with, it will be a much more effective film, so that’s why there are scenes of violence that are initiated and then at a certain point, the violence is shifted from on-screen to off-screen. Things happen behind a wall, behind plastic or curtains so you don’t actually see what happens.

Shock: But the sound FX when they’re dismembering the body is amazing because it’s very disturbing without actually seeing everything. By the way, I’m surprised the family didn’t find any tourists for their cannibalistic ritual, because I would think they would make much easier victims and a good source for food. Do they not like the taste of tourists in Mexico?

Grau:
Well, because the film takes place in a neighborhood that’s actually far away from the tourist centers of Mexico. It would be very unlikely that a tourist would ever find his or her way into this particular part of the city, so hence, the reason why… as an exercise, it crossed my mind at one point, but because I really wanted to make a very hyper-realistic film, it would be very difficult for a tourist to find his or her way into this neighborhood or for me to go and grab one and bring them in. I also didn’t want the characters of the film to actually stray far from their natural habitat, which would be this particular part of the city.

Shock: I don’t want to give up the ending and who survives, who doesn’t, but you definitely seemed to set up the possibilities for a sequel. Was that very deliberate to explore this material in another film or was that just a tease for the audience?

Grau:
Well, on the one hand I wanted to put an ending that would put the viewer in the position of saying “Great, the monster survived!” but at the time say, “Oh my God! The monster survive, I’m at risk!” So there would be that ambivalence, but of course, yes, it does open the possibility for a sequel. Since making a film is such a difficult proposition in Mexico, who knows if that possibility will ever come about? If it does, yes, maybe I’ll follow through with it, and if not, I’ll just go ahead with something else.

We Are What We Are opens in New York at the IFC Center on Friday, February 18, then On Demand on February 23.

Source: Edward Douglas