Q+A with Cold in July’s Jim Mickle: Playing with conventions
Writer-director Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street, Stake Land) loved the suspense in Joe Lansdale’s novel Cold in July and wanted to duplicate in a film. So he set about working with Nick Damici on the screenplay. At first the guys produced a 220-page tome. They whittled it down to something more manageable and the resulting movie combines elements of suspense and horror. The film centers on Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall). After shooting an intruder one night, Richard faces the wrath of the victim’s father (Sam Shepard). The film follows a weird series of twists and turns as private detective Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) comes on board to try to straighten things out. Mickle spoke via phone from New York about the movie and revealed that his next project is a pilot for a TV series based on two Lansdale characters that he describes as a “couple of good old boys from Texas.”
The film showed at Sundance last year. What was that experience like?
It was great. We also went there last year with We Are What We Are. That was in the midnight section. That was great but this year we were in competition which was different. We were making a genre film and it’s like they invited us to the big kid’s table. That was pretty awesome.
You read several Joe Lansdale novels before settling on this one. What struck you about this story?
Honestly, I wasn’t looking at it to see if it would make a good movie. I went into it just to read it and enjoy it. The point was to escape. At the time I was editing a film and kind of obsessing about it. The goal was to read something entertaining to shake me up. It just leapt off the page. The fact that the plot starts right away I really enjoyed. I tend to write stories that are almost two act movies in a lot of ways. The first act usually sets up who the people are. Here was something that literally had an incident in the first line that changed everything for this character. That scene would usually be on page 20 in a script and the fact that it was the first line was so exciting. A man deals with what he’s done and has to see where that puts him in terms of the masculinity scale. I thought that was great. But, as soon as you start getting comfortable with that, it completely sheds its skin and becomes something brand new. It was fascinating.
Talk about that process of writing a script. I think I read that you ended up with this script that was more than 200 pages initially.
Yeah it was really, really, really long. It was really almost as long as the book. They don’t teach you. There’s no real class for adaptation. I think that changes from whatever the story is whatever the genre is whoever the author is. We really learned on the fly and learned from our mistakes in a lot of ways. Usually you set out to transcribe it to film and that’s where you start to realize, “Oh, there are a lot of things that you have to externalize.” Joe’s language and dialogue are his trademarks as an author. We had to find ways to condense that because it also felt like the movie version of this wanted to be a little more tightlipped. For example, Sam Shepard’s character in the book talks a lot. He talks endlessly and he says a lot about his background story and it didn’t really work on the page in the script. You really wanted him to be that tightlipped sort of iconic archetypal strong stereotype. It took a lot of massaging it and condensing it and figuring out how to get to the point of it. Sometimes we got too close to the bone. You try to change too much and it doesn’t resemble the story or the spirit or the heart of the thing and you have to start to layer back in. So it was a long process.
Was the author involved in any way? Did you consult him at all?
Yes. We would meet every fifth month to a year. If it got to a point where if we changed things drastically we would check back in and he’d give us advice. Usually he would just have one line of feedback like “I think it works well,” or “that scene is too big” or “this part goes too far,” that sort of thing. He was great. He’s a movie fan and he’s adapted himself before so I think he understands that things have to change.
I read that you didn’t want to change the time period or setting. Talk about that decision.
I like movies that take place in a world even if it’s just a slightly “off” from my own. It felt like a great opportunity to do that. I think there’s a bit of an old-fashioned story there. There’s an old-fashioned story about morality and about a man testing himself. There’s a simplicity to that and I think it’s a carryover from the movies of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. It felt like a story from another era and the minute we started even thinking about updating that and moving it to modern times it just seemed like it got complicated. I think things would be politicized and I wanted to have fun with recognizing that there’s a pulp element to it. Part of that is having fun with conventions—things we’re used to seeing and changing them slightly. It felt like a really awesome opportunity to do that.
Talk about the casting of Michael C. Hall and what he brings to the role.
Well, first he brought no vanity to it, which was great. I always kind of imagined it being a nobody, a truly an anonymous actor . . . someone who would show up and you’d have no idea who he was and you could totally accept him as the guy next door. What Michael did was he came in and just played a character—maybe the most normal guy Michael’s ever played. It was in some ways the biggest stretch as character, which I thought was really cool. So, he brought something that we tried often to find because of his heart, you know? I think that spirit is one of the things that you can start to lose as you pare things down and it sucks when you start to lose those little edges and stuff. He brought that back into it. He read the book and he sort of knew where we were coming from. I was surprised in just how funny he is in real life, how much we could convey that. I think he’s able to do things with layers that is just seamless and effortless.
The scenes with him and Sam Shepard I think are really great. What was it like to direct those two guys together?
Amazing. A lot of it is really thinking, “Great, just give me another taste of that, give me another flavor of that.” It’s very cool. I mean they’re two completely different actors stylistically. I think they knew that and I think they got off on that. I think Sam has got to feel it in that moment and he’s got to feel it in that scene; it’s like a play in front of him. He steps in there and it’s either going to be there or it isn’t. If it isn’t then he’s finding his way to get that. I think Michael is much more able to walk into any scenario and find a way to make the elements work for what he needs to happen. They had a tremendous amount of respect for each other. Sam kept saying Michael is a beautiful actor. I thought that was a really great way to describe him and I think Michael had another one of the big themes. He was like “I had dream last night that I was Sam Shepard with Sam on stage.” I love when you get two fantastic actors. Being able to put two amazing actors in a scene together and just let them play. If they start to get outside the lines, you sort of show them where the boundaries are. Let them play. Let them explore. It was amazing with those two.
Don Johnson’s like the wildcard of the bunch, huh?
Yes, definitely. (laughs)
What went into the decision of casting him in that part?
We really needed someone who could be larger-than-life, cocky and a little in your face, but charming and charismatic, so you like him still. When I saw Django Unchained, I was like, “Wow! Don Johnson!” Once that idea popped up it was like there was no other idea. It had to be Don Johnson. So, he was great and I went and met up with him and I told him what we needed and he said, “That’s my specialty. I’d love to do it and I’d love to do something with Sam and Michael.” So, it all happened very quickly.
Tell me a little bit about how your previous work informs this film or whether you see it as a departure or how you see it in connection to what you’ve done in the past.
I don’t know. I think in a lot of ways even though it’s the least genre of the bunch, I feel like it’s the most genre in a way because I think it’s the one we’re having the most fun with stylistically. There are elements to all of our films that are horror. I think my instinct was always to dress them up a little or try to do something different with them. I don’t tend to like horror movies that are aggressively horror. Especially with something like We Are What We Are, we wanted to be as composed as possible. We wanted to be as conservative and restrained and dialed back as possible and create a creepy film out of that. There is an element to it that is just absolutely fun and surprising. We’re going to take the audience on a rollercoaster ride so let’s embrace that. Let’s swing for the fences at all times and that was a blast. It was a total blast and really got me amped to continue doing things like that.
Do you think it has any elements of a horror film?
Yeah, totally. That’s what I said about doing that because it melds genres. We had so much fun, from the moment of him creeping down the hallway in that first scene. The whole stakeout of the house is one of my favorite scenes. When it gets to the second half and the action, more of the [horror] type of stuff comes into play. For a long time I was pitching this to people and saying it was not a horror film. But in a lot of ways it is the most horrific because of the consequences of real life people and what they do. I used the same cinematographer and production designer and composer from the previous film and we were still making it a horror film. We brought this other genre into the mix.
You just don’t know what’s coming next.
I know. When I finished the book, I knew I wanted to make a movie that made people feel the way I felt when I finished the book. I had no idea where it was going at any point but I enjoyed all the points.