“It’s a neighborhood movie,” says Jim Mickle, director of Mulberry Street. This gritty NYC horror film, set in a rickety apartment building on the lower east side, places its emphasis on the diverse, resilient locals who live there. Some of them have been tenants all their lives, and they all form a funny, wisecracking community of oddballs. There’s Charlie (Larry Medich), the old guy who lives upstairs with his portable respirator, and Clutch (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the script with Mickle), a gruff but neighborly ex-boxer who has an unspoken affection for his upstairs neighbor, Kay (Bo Corre), a foreign woman who works at the bar down the street. Meanwhile, Clutch’s daughter (Kim Blair) just got back into the city and is making her way from Harlem to the downtown area. They aren’t caricatures, but lived-in, believable individuals—perhaps because they were based on some actual people that live upstairs from Dimici.
Gentrification is taking its toll on these working class New Yorkers, and eviction notices have gone around so the characters are already in a state of nervous anticipation. Mulberry Street allows us time to get to know these people and their daily struggles. When the monsters appear, it’s a lethal problem on top of everything else they have to deal with as hard-boiled urbanites. Set within a 24-hour period, Mulberry Street is unrelenting. A rapidly spreading infection is transforming humans into freaky rat creatures, and as the streets are taken over, our heroes hole up Night of the Living Dead style. But in much the same way the neighborhood is dying, the menace is breaking down the doorways and dragging their neighbors off into the night.
On an ultra-low budget, Mulberry Street has tremendous ingenuity suggesting a city under siege, with helicopters, police cars and barricades holding back the frightened masses. The monsters themselves are freaky-looking, slimy and matted in filthy hair, as jittery and quick as crack addicts. But the heart of the movie lies in its love for the denizens of the lower east side, a group that is rapidly disappearing from the Big Apple. The DVD of Mulberry Street has some fascinating extras (FX tests and storyboards drawn by Mickle), but no feature length commentary. The House Next Door wanted to catch a few stories from Damici and Mickle, and also hopefully inspire horror fans to seek out this creepy low budget gem.
Jim, before this, you’ve been a grip and electric, and a storyboard artist. Did you go to film school?
Jim Mickle: I went to NYU and graduated in 2002. Even when I was in school, I got a ton of jobs as a storyboard artist to the point where I almost dropped off to do that. Luckily, I stayed on because September 11th happened right before I graduated and dried up every indie in the city. That was where I was making connections, but all of those movies were erased for two or three years. I became a PA for probably a year on a Jennifer Lopez movie, Spider-Man 2, so many movies, then I started getting grip work for a year. NYU sends you out the door with this feeling like, “Go make your first feature!” On graduation day, Marcia Gay Harden spoke, saying spread your wings, and then you have to go out an experience the frustration of the real world. The hard part is the transition. The minute you start taking on some other career, it’s over. Even if you’re completely broke you have to keep one foot in just to stay involved in the business.
Almost every movie I worked on before was a first time director. It’s the worst. They’re rich, they never went to film school, they never did anything and have no idea, just blowing their money on some vanity project. It was so frustrating being a grip on those films, because it was like sending a ship out to sea and the captain of the ship had never been out on a boat before. I still felt like, “What the fuck am I doing?” on Mulberry Street, but at least you have a sense of lighting, or why something is taking so long, or whether it is taking too long. All the things that usually trip people up got me too, but at least I could say, “All right, I’ve been in this situation before. Here’s how we can deal with it.”
How did you guys meet, and what led to your collaboration on Mulberry Street?
Nick Damici: A friend of mine, this teacher at NYU, asked me if I’d be interested in doing a student thesis film called Mickey Lee in 2001. It was like an after-school special with me as a crazy school bus driver and thirty little kids. I went up to Connecticut and did that for two weeks. Jim was a friend of the director, and was working on it too. It was a great shoot—we’re staying in cabins, and every night we’d have drinks by the campfire. The guy who owned that property was crazy, which [got] Jim and I talking about doing a movie there. I wrote a script off that called The Phlebottomizer. We filmed a trailer for that with Victor Argo, but it never came to fruition. We kicked around other ideas over the years, until finally Jim called me up while working on a small, low-budget movie. He said, “Y’know, man, we can do this.”
Mickle: It was a film being made for very little money by a couple of people working at Manhattan Theater Source. They owned all the equipment. One of them was the sound guy, one was the director of photography, one was the director, and they were all actors. They said, “We already have everything. Let’s just make this movie ourselves.” They were having more fun than I had ever seen on a movie set, so instead of going for the big break and waiting for the big money to arrive, let’s just do something very simple, in one or two locations. I was on that shoot for a week, and by the time I came back Nick already had half the script written.
Damici: I wrote a zombie script called Dead of Night, which we were gonna do as a back-to-the-roots throwback horror movie in Pennsylvania.
Mickle: It was all night exteriors, snow, zombies—and we were trying to figure out how we could even afford to bring people out there, putting them up in hotels. That alone came out to $40,000. On top of that is food and gas. We realized we didn’t have the budget. So I thought, “Well, there goes that idea.” Nick came back to me a week later, though, and said, “Y’know, we could still do it. But we shoot it right here.”
Damici: My buddy Tim House, who plays the super in Mulberry Street and is our main producer, money-wise, said he thought he could come up with maybe ten grand. I said, “The only way we can do this is if we shoot the whole movie in my kitchen.” Literally, that was the original idea. These people are in their apartment, and crazy shit is happening out in the street. From there, it grew, and we ended up using the neighborhood. The brunt of it was using this building and the kitchen. We took that script and reworked it into Mulberry Street.
Mickle: It started off in the first couple drafts as a straightforward zombie movie, where a rat bite starts spreading the infection. At some point, it became obvious that we could make them into these rat zombies, rat creatures, rat-zoids—I’ve seen every description of these things online. It seemed a good twist, and allowed us to do our own thing.
Damici: It was interesting how the creatures became less important. It became more about the story, and people surviving this disaster.
Mickle: It’s cool to see the reaction to that. Some people get that and embrace that, and some people refuse. “That’s not how I like my horror movies! Don’t even try it!” When we first finished Mulberry Street, we had seen it so many times that we didn’t know if it was good or bad. But regardless, I was glad that we were trying something different. I’m a horror fan and the thing I hate recently is that so many movies are remakes that do the same shit over and over again.
Did the characters evolve along with the premise?
Damici: All of the characters pretty much changed. I’ve lived in this building for fifteen years now. The two brothers were based on these two old guys who lived upstairs. Charlie’s still up there and we see him every day. Frank was his brother. Died of emphysema. The hospital bed my father was in [playing the fictional Charlie in the film]—we borrowed it from [the real] Charlie. He still had it. [The character] Coco was based on this guy Tom who was here when I moved in—a transvestite and a crack addict, crazy out of his mind, bringing homeless guys to his place. Finally he got thrown out, then he died of a heart attack not long after. A lot of the characters were brought in from the reality of the apartment building.
Mickle: The archetypes stayed from the Pennsylvania script. That was more Night of the Living Dead, with the characters you expect to see in the zombie movie. Bringing it here, we found people in real life who made interesting characters in this situation.
Damici: Kay was originally going to be a New York character, but I knew this actress Bo Corre [originally from Sweden]. This movie is such a New York piece, and there are so many foreigners here now. I ran into her one afternoon—she was working at a flower shop and I haven’t seen her in ages. We talked for a few minutes, and when I got back home I said to myself, “Woah, she could play Kay!” I ran right back out and said, “Hey Bo! Read this script!” The other actors are good friends of mine, like Timmy and Larry Fleischman, and we’ve done stuff together.
Mickle: Nick’s dad played the old guy, Charlie.
Damici: That was a no-brainer for me. I didn’t know if he could do it physically, since in the past couple years he had two triple-bypasses. But I asked him and he said, “Yeah.”
He had never acted in a movie before, but you must have known that he’s such a character.
Damici: Oh yeah. 20 years as a bartender…I knew he’d be fine. He’s very photogenic, so I figured once he relaxed, he’d be fine. I thought he stole the movie.
Mickle: He caught on really quick. The first take or two he was nervous, but then he realized he should just be himself. By the end, he was rocking.