A Conversation With Nick Damici
Veteran genre actor, writer and producer Nick Damici has more than 15 years of experience in Hollywood, but it wasn't until 2006 when fans got their real, first taste of his craft.
That was when his first collaboration with writer-director Jim Mickle, Mulberry Street, part of the inaugural 8 Films to Die For string of DVD releases, first hit home media.
The pair have since gone on to co-write three more feature films (Stake Land, We Are What We Are and Cold in July) plus share co-creator and writing duties on the continuing SundanceTV series, Hap and Leonard.
Damici also has acted in each of the efforts.
Damici has a gruff, Robert DeNiro-vibe, both in appearance and his acting style, and his presence immediately helps anchor the crazy goings-on in full-fledged genre films like Stake Land, which considers what the United States might become following a widespread vampire apocalypse.
Damici is back this month with Stake Land II, which he wrote and headlines, as "Mister," the world-weary vampire killer who takes on a young protege in Martin (Connor Paolo) as they traverse the country trying to survive.
BVB: Blood Violence and Babes was thrilled to have the opportunity recently to speak with Damici by phone about the sequel, the potential for a third and final chapter and why old guys seem to be having all the fun lately in genre movies.
BVB: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me for my website, Blood Violence and Babes. I really appreciate it. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am because I have been a fan of your work for years and I still, I absolutely loved the original Stake Land and was just blown away the first time I saw it in 2010. I still consider it one of the best vampire movies ever made in terms of action, character development and just imagining the widespread devastation of a vampire apocalypse. So I’m just thrilled to be able to talk to you, not only about that but the sequel.
ND: Thanks so much, man.
BVB: Oh you’re so welcome. And it’s funny, because when the original came out, I actually got to talk to Jim Mickle and wasn’t able to talk to you at that time, so now I’m kind of – I feel like I’ve come full circle because now I’m getting to talk to the other half of the original duo. You co-wrote the first Stake Land with Jim. Who originally came up with the character of “Mister”? Was it your idea from the beginning or did you guys kind of collaborate throughout on the whole thing?
ND: Yeah, Jim and I have partnered for a long time. We always share writing credit. I do 90 percent of the actual writing and then he comes in as a director/editor and we hash shit out and discuss it. But I basically come up with the world and the characters and all that.
BVB: Sure. What was it that appealed to you, when you conceived of “Mister,” what drew you to that character? To keep fleshing him out and developing him?
ND: Um, “Mister” is – you know, I knew right away, you’re creating an archetype, so…the movie itself, the script itself is very loosely based on the influence very much of The Searchers, the John Wayne movie, The Searchers. I just thought that end of it was pretty steadfast. If I was going to do it, that archetype character, what I wanted to avoid mostly was the typical modern-take on those characters. They kill somebody and say something funny.
ND: Something witty. I just wanted to play this much more real. John Wayne, I would have to say, his Ethan is probably most of the influence for the character of “Mister.”
BVB: Oh, that’s cool. That’s super. That’s not something you would expect for a genre film like this, and I love that. That’s awesome.
BVB: Did you always believe there would be a sequel, or was there talk initially back in 2010 when the first film was released of doing a follow-up?
ND: Yeah, sequel has always been – I always pictured Stake Land as a trilogy, so I always wanted to at least get a second one done and see if I could bridge that into a third one was always the plan, so I’m happy that this came to fruition. And rightfully so, it’s good in a sense that it didn’t take so long to come about because I like the idea that time went by, that Martin got to become a man. You know, we didn’t pick right up. There’s something interesting in that. And also for “Mister,” for the character, to see him aging and being middle-aged now, it changes it and yet it’s the same. So it’s kind of just interesting. So it will be fun at some point to go back and watch them in line and see that actually happen.
BVB: And that was actually – you’re kind of reading my mind – because I had jotted down notes as far as questions and one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was that aspect of how – there are so few films, especially in the horror genre, that bring back the same actors for the same roles. I think of Phantasm as kind of the template for that because they’ve had the same guys playing those same characters since 1979, I think.
BVB: Which you, as a fan, and as the audience, you get to kind of grow and age with them and the characters, which really draws you closer to them and also makes what happens to them resonate more. And so in this case, I love that both you and Connor came back, and now he’s grown from a young man into a young adult and the change is not only striking visually because you see how much he’s grown, but it really kind of ties you closer to those characters. Was it really important for you, from the outset, to make sure that Connor was on board as far as both you and him coming back?
ND: Yeah, that was a big, a real big part of it. It’s always been that. To me, I love the world of Stake Land and the apocalyptic thing, but that was a no-brainer for me, you know, something interesting to explore. But the core and the heart of Stake Land is that relationship.
ND: And I think that’s really what the trilogy would be – if I get a full trilogy. What each movie is is exploring their relationship, you know, and where it goes as they age in this world.
ND: That was always the plan. If we get Stake Land III done, not to spoil anything, it seems like “Mister” died in II but, you know, it’s a movie.
BVB: Well, sure, and that’s why I was actually going to say the ending definitely left it open for interpretation whether he could vanquish the approaching horde of vampires. But I’m sure me and other fans of the film are pretty certain that he could, even though he had somewhat said, ‘My time is done.’ Kind of passing the baton to Martin. But I love that idea of bringing them both back to kind of really conclude properly this world and see how you would end it because I think there’s been a lot in both films that’s made of how the vampires have changed society significantly by just kind of eradicating most of society, but in Stake Land II with this group who has kind of chosen Mother as their messiah, it adds a whole new element of fanaticism that likely could occur in that type of situation. Where a group of people rallies around a figure and uses that figure as their reason for continuing to exist. I thought it was brilliant the way that you framed that because it was a logical next step. You weren’t just redoing the first film. You actually moved the dial quite a bit and really opened up the world, which was awesome.
ND: Yeah, that was pretty much the plan. You know, I wanted to explore The Brotherhood thing just a little bit further, somehow, and I thought that was the natural progression of it. That they, being fanatics, that’s what I think fanatics would do. Their society is gone but they’re going to go along with what is going on and just create a new society out of it because they need that. “Mister,” and everyone else is just surviving in a world.
BVB: Exactly. I felt like Stake Land II had a – when you talk about the hope for a trilogy, I got that vibe right off the bat because Stake Land II had the Empire Strikes Back kind of feel to it where it was decidedly darker, even though the first film was noticeably bleak in presenting this world and making you afraid of what could happen in that world. You open Stake Land II with Martin’s wife and child being killed. And then it kind of morphs into this epic quest, which I thought was really interesting and gave people a chance to just kind of settle in and really kind of experience the film. It wasn’t so much the action-packed opening that most people would expect from a sequel where the idea is bigger, louder, flashier, all that. You really are telling a long-form story and doing it in a way that keeps it interesting and just keeps you involved, which I liked, a lot.
ND: Yeah, I think that is the core of it. As I said, it was always about “Mister” and Martin. Obviously the setup has always kind of been Martin’s story in a way. We get to see “Mister” through Martin’s eyes. Martin being the protagonist of the first one. And I just thought continuing that here and – as far as the action-packed sequences, believe me, I wrote them in. I wanted this to be big, but budget being what it was, we were just restricted in what we could do. Sometimes that’s actually a gift because you have to get down to bolts and nails that are true and keep it honest and not just go for the flash and the action. So it was grounded in a character reality that continued Stake Land but did not emulate it, just try and redo Stake Land again, which a lot of sequels just do. I didn’t want people to feel like they were watching the same movie. It is a continuation and I think that’s an important part. And also it being a bridge was a big one to me, because again I have aspirations to do a third one. So make sure it was a bridge. And also [inaudible] it because it sure looks like “Mister” dies, and emotionally, I think that impact worked.
BVB: I agree.
ND: And in the third one, obviously, I don’t want to give away spoilers, but I’m not going to do a third Stake Land without “Mister,” so…
BVB: (Laughing) Right! I know we’re short on time, but I did have two more questions. One is just a fun one because whenever I watch a film like this, I love seeing what I think are influences that the writer and/or director may have had. In this case, since you wrote it, I wanted to ask – when Martin finally finds “Mister,” and he comes across the, he gets taken to the industrial area and all that, that whole section of the film had a very distinct Mad Max kind of vibe. Was that your intention?
ND: Completely. It was out and out, not rip-off, but homage to Mad Max. I just thought it fit. It’s one of the best apocalyptic movies ever made.
BVB: Absolutely. I totally agree. I loved that whole part of the film. I loved the whole film, but that part was fun because it was a great way to reintroduce “Mister,” but also have that action-packed moment where they’re fighting and you’re like, ‘Oh no!’ (Laughing) ‘What’s going to happen?’ It was great. One other thing I was curious about. Do you feel like audiences today are identifying more with older, established characters like “Mister,” and actors who have that kind of genre clout, that are well-known within the genre of horror, sci-fi, whatever it might be? There’s been a noticeable trend recently. You’ve got Bruce Campbell reprising Ash from The Evil Dead on the Starz show. And you have Reggie Bannister, like I mentioned, in Phantasm. They just concluded that franchise with the fifth film. And now you’ve got the second, and hopefully third, appearance of “Mister.” It used to be that these types of films were anchored by younger actors, and now it seems like the trend is to have a more established, recognizable, yet more mature actor kind of leading the charge. Do you feel like that’s how it’s been going or is this just…
ND: Considering that I’m 57 years old, I hope it’s going that way.
ND: I think it’s just – things always come and go. I think people have had enough of 20-year-olds, not to knock 20-year-olds.
BVB: No, no, no…not at all.
ND: There’s something about a mature character that you can’t…a 20-year-old actor just doesn’t have the life experience that a 57-year-old guy has. You know what I mean? And actors are not just characters on screen. Most of it is based on who they are. That’s the truth that you see. The actor lets himself show through, and his experiences and stuff are going to count for something. I think maybe the best of both worlds in Stake Land because we do have Connor, so it does appeal to that younger audience, but also I think, for awhile there, it’s just like on television, you’ve got 20-year-olds as CSI cops. I’m like, wait a minute, you’ve got to be a doctor to be a CSI cop!
BVB: (Laughing) Right!
ND: Eight years of medical school. And then become a cop. And then a detective. They’re probably 35 when they get promoted to CSI.
ND: So, that kind of thing, I like to base things in as much reality as I can, even though I’m a genre filmmaker and I’ve got vampires and crazy shit going on. I think that makes that work. If you treat that world like it’s real, then the audience will go along with you. Hopefully that’s what we did.