All this week Paste is bringing you preview interviews with filmmakers who are taking their new films to Sundance. Jeff Mickle was last seen in these parts with his 2013 film We Are What We Are, a re-envisioning of the Mexican horror film of the same name. His new film, Cold in July, stars Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, and it’s about a mild-mannered Everyman struggling to deal with his experience shooting an intruder in his home. We spoke with Mickle about the film, his advice on tackling the Sundance experience, and much more.
Paste: Tell us a little bit about what audiences can expect from the new film—the synopsis sounds fantastic and you’ve got a great cast—I assume it has a little less cannibalism than the last film?
Jim Mickle: Well it’s not horror, you know—there’s elements of that, it’s certainly quite dark, but it’s a little change of pace in a lot of ways. I guess the best way to describe it is as a southern-fried thriller, in the Blood Simple, Red Rock West sort of vein. Whereas We Are What We Are was a much more measured, deliberate take on the role of women in horror movies—and a subverting of some of that, It’s the other side of that coin in a weird way—[Cold in July] is much more an exploration of being a guy and being sucked into your own sort of action movie. Stylistically, it’s very different. We play with a lot of ’80s themes and sounds and looks and tried to create a bit of a world out of that, a throwback to a lot of ’80s John Carpenter stuff. I’m psyched to be able to have We Are What We Are, which is one side of the coin, and this, the opposite side.
Paste: I know you’re probably really tired of this question, and if you’re not then you will be by the time Sundance is over, but tell me about gathering the cast together.
Mickle: I actually haven’t gotten asked that at all. It was cool. We’ve had this movie for upwards of seven years—that’s when I first read the book. Belladonna Productions—we did Mulberry St together in like 2006—they optioned the book then and it’s been six or seven years pushing this thing along, trying to get it going, trying to get a cast that made sense, trying to get somebody to finance something that wasn’t straight up horror. If you’d told us at the time we’d have this cast—at that point Michael I think had just started Dexter—but it was just a different era then, I guess. But through my agent I knew that Michael had read it and liked it. At that point, we’d finished We Are What We Are and crazily enough, just last year at Sundance at a party I met Michael. Pat told me, “Hey somebody wants to talk to you,” and I turned around to hear Michael C. Hall saying, “Oh my god I loved your script!”
We kind of talked briefly there, he left, and then we’re like, “Okay, now we’ve got to really get this movie going,” and it fell in place from there. We Are What We Are was really the thing that allowed financing and the cast to fall into place. So we got Mike on board and then [I heard] Sam Shepard was interested. I flew out to New Mexico where he lives in Santa Fe—and my parents had just moved there—flew out, stayed with them and had breakfast with him one morning. That was an amazingly memorable experience.
As for Don [Johnson]—I’d seen Django Unchained and Eastbound & Down and was blown away by this new path he was going on of really fun characters. It felt like all of a sudden, “Holy shit, this is the guy to play this role.” The character is very much a larger-than-life character who comes into the book halfway through and sort of takes it over. We were looking for someone who could do that but wouldn’t annoy the hell out of you, who would really add something to drive to the story, and Don was that guy. Yeah, it was really one of those dominos things.
Paste: By the way, you are a much braver man than me sending something that you wrote—especially something that you wrote about masculinity—to Sam Shepard. That’s ballsy.
Mickle: I can’t tell you how any times we were like, “You know, we want this scene to be kind of Shepardy.” The fact that it happened that way is amazing. At some point we really killed ourselves—we couldn’t figure out how to make this one scene that was really troublesome. I can’t say how many times we rewrote it over and over, sent it back and forth to each other, threw it in the trash, picked it up again, tried it again. And [at some point] he said, “Oh, do you mind if I take a stab at this?” I was like, “Oh hell yes,” and he went home on his typewriter in his hotel room and typed out the scene where he kind of reworked his dialogue. He brought it in and said, “Is this okay? Do you mind? Is this something you guys are into? Should we run this by Nick first?” I was like, “I think that’s totally fine!” One page, hand-typed.
Paste: Like Keith Richards picking up a guitar and saying, “You mind if I try a little solo on this song?”
Mickle: Yeah, exactly! We shot it all in one long take too.
Paste: Tell me about someone in your crew who was indispensable. Who, as you look back at it, you think, “Thank goodness we had so-and-so because this would not be nearly as good of a movie without this cinematographer or this editor or this composer or this…” you know, whomever. (I know that’s like asking you to only choose one of your children.)
Mickle: I’m going to cop-out a little bit and—not [name] somebody from there. Linda Moran, our producer. I read the book in Fall 2006. I gave it to her, she read it that next day, and I asked, “Hey what do you think? What if we option this?” Without hesitation, she said, “Yes, this is what we should try to do.” So many times along the way, when I lost faith on it she would actually step in—when I was editing We Are What We Are last year, she stepped in, worked on the script hand-in-hand with Nick to really whip it into shape. Then there was a point last year when I was like, “This movie is never going to happen,” and she was really the one who got the script where it needed to be and came back and said, “Come on, take a look, I think we’ve cracked a lot of things here.” And from there she picked out just about every song that plays in there. Don Johnson was her idea—she said that before I’d even thought about it. At the end of the day, there’s going to be like 14 producers listed in the credits but really it’s her—from saying, “Yeah this is a great book, we should make a movie out of this,” all the way to making sure that everyone gets to Sundance on time and has a place to stay and every step in between. I wouldn’t have been able to make this movie without her.
Paste: That’s awesome.
Mickle: So many times producers really get the bad reputation they have of just being slimy people or that they’re barely involved in anything. Yeah, she actually does all this stuff in between that other producers are supposed to do.
Paste: I got two more questions—first of all, I’m asking everybody: Where were you when you got the call and what was your reaction?
Mickle: I flipped the hell out. We were editing for a screening that night for our first screening in front of an audience of more than just a handful of people. We were getting the cut ready for that, and I was pretty crazed during that day, and I got a call from a number in LA. I thought it was somebody calling to give me feedback on the previous cut, and I flipped out, turned my phone off and threw it in the corner. I was like, “I’m not going to look at my phone. I’m not going to look at my damn phone until I get through this cut, get the Blu-ray out, get everything we need.” At that point, I felt just bombarded by feedback and comments and people getting in the way. I literally turned the corner and I turn my phone on, forgot about it, got in the elevator to go to the screening and got a text message from my agent saying, “Call the man back.” I literally called him up like nine hours later, and he said, “We’ve talked to everybody so far—you’re the only person who hasn’t called us back!” And yeah, it was pretty epic because we submitted very, very, very late—the time we submitted I think we’d only had a cut for about six days, and it was really, really, really, really tight. I thought, ‘You know, I’m really happy with the movie. I’m proud of the movie,’ but the version we sent in was so early it felt like we probably just missed by a couple of weeks of really having a great film. Thankfully, they recognized stuff in it.
Paste: That’s awesome. My final question, which I’m asking everyone who is not a first-time Sundance director: Tell me, for the first-time directors, what do you wish somebody had told you before you took a film to Sundance?
Mickle: Good question—the advice that I would give is the advice that I had gotten before that, which is to really savor it. Because it’s so intense and it’s so quick, you know? It’s such a blip on the scale of the movie, but it means so much and you wind up doing so much—it’s such a crazy, intense, fast experience. I remember we rolled in Thursday, and our screening was that Friday night so it was like, “Boom!” All of a sudden you’re doing your reunion, you’re talking about the film, you screen the next day, you’re talking to a ton of people and press and everything just goes so quickly. It’s just like, you spend your life at a certain pace, and then all of a sudden for a handful of days it’s incredibly intense and really big. It’s really easy to forget to step back and say, “Oh this is great. We’ve earned this.” So I have to remind myself this year to do that.
Paste: Great advice. Thank you for your time!