Catching Up With Jim Mickle, director of Cold in July

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Cold in July takes place in the ’80s, stars Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Nick Damici, and Don Johnson in a masculine crime yarn, and bends genre like a strongman bends steel. So nobody might be surprised to learn that it comes courtesy of Jim Mickle, the man behind horror-first fare like Mulberry Street, Stake Land and last year’s We Are What We Are, films that disguise themselves as macabre tales of zombies, vampires and cannibals but wind up being about so much more.

I had the privilege of talking to Jim recently; we discussed the time and effort that went into adapting Joe R. Landsdale’s 1989 novel for the screen, the boon of having Sam Shepard participating in the film, the importance of uncategorizable films, and why more filmmakers should push themselves to try something new.

Paste: So, why Cold in July? What drew you to Joe R. Landsdale’s novel to start with?
Jim Mickle: I’ve been a big fan of his since Bubba Ho-Tep. That’s when I discovered him, and then I just decided to go and read everything I could find from him. I read this book in 2006 and really loved it. I thought it was exactly the kind of movie I would want to make, something unpredictable and totally comfortable with changing itself, and evolving, and becoming this sort of uncharacterizable thing. I just thought it was amazing.

At that time, we had Mulberry Street, and it was the only thing we had done so far, and I loved the idea of being able to follow up a horror movie with something like this—you know, a noir, thriller, quasi-Western revenge pic. I gave the book to Nick Damici, my co-writer, and he gave it to Linda Moran, our producer, and they both read it the next and they fell in love with it, and that set us off. That was seven years ago, and it’s taken until now to get it made.

Paste: Was it worth the wait for you? Watching you go from Mulberry Street, to Stake Land, to We Are What We Are, to this—it feels quite different from what you’ve done before. Was there more enthusiasm on your part because this is such a divergence from your previous films?
Mickle: Yeah. I think that with everything we’ve done, the thing that’s gotten me excited is that it’s not just like the thing we just did, you know? So with Mulberry Street, I had trepidations going to Stake Land because it was another movie with Nick sort of battling vampire-zombie type creatures. But the reality was that it was so tonally completely different. Mulberry Street was all about claustrophobic New York, but Stake Land was all about the wide-open Americana, and I loved that. And after doing something that was as big and open as Stake Land—this big apocalyptic world with many, many characters, a long journey that went for a long span of time, a lot of set pieces, a lot of action, a lot of effects—I wanted to do something that was the exact opposite of that. The idea of doing something that was the quiet story of two girls, where all of the sort of spookiness is underneath, and it was very restrained, and it’s all about nuance—I loved that idea, too.

And then, when Cold in July came around, we’d just done this deliberately paced, slow, female-driven, creepy movie, and we relied on elegance instead of romance, so the idea of turning around and doing this sort of testosterone-driven, sweaty story about masculinity and a normal guy testing himself, with some sleaze and all that kind of stuff thrown in—we loved the idea that this was the exact opposite. Especially since these are the same crews that have worked on all of these movies, and in a lot of cases we’re shooting them in the same town. So it’s a lot of fun to each time say, “All right, remember what we did last year? We’re going to do the exact opposite this year,” and to tell Jeff Grace, who this time around did our score, “No violins, no quartets … just synthesizers—we’re making an action movie.” It’s a lot of fun when people rise to the occasion for a challenge like that.

Paste: I remember when we talked about We Are What We Are last October, you mentioned your belief in uncategorizable movies. Do you feel that Cold in July fits into that? I noticed when watching the film that it would go from one genre to the next without skipping a beat. Is it important to you for viewers to be unable to put you into one niche?
Mickle: Yeah, yeah. I’m a jaded movie-goer—I imagine you watch a lot of movies as well—and it’s so easy to get tired of or get bored by stuff and say, “Oh, I know exactly what this is.” Every time I start a movie now, I think, “I know exactly where this is going, I’ve seen this set-up a thousand times, I can see where it’s going a mile away.” I like stories and movies that are surprising, that mix things up. It’s really hard to find it, honestly, and it’s hard to come up with it.

[Cold in July] is refreshing because it’s by a master storyteller who had written the book twenty-five years ago, before a lot of these trends had really taken hold, and before the whole wave of irony instead of self-reflective storytelling took hold in the ’90s. It’s a cool story that was just content to be what it was, and didn’t hop around genres in a showy way or to be stylish. It did it just out of character motivations. That’s amazing.

Paste: It is interesting how many movies try to make themselves into just one thing these days, so it’s nice to see people challenge themselves by balancing lots of genres. But that must be difficult to do.
Mickle: Very. Very, very, very. I mean, it took a while to get the script right, because even though the book was really tight, and smart, and was laid up so well, it was very difficult to translate that to the page and make all of those elements work. Figuring those elements out was part of the reason it took a long time to get it made. But then it’s also hard going into the edit, trying to make them all mesh together, which is when you first find out that they don’t work, and that can be scary, because you’re like, “Oh god, we a million different movies in one here.”

That’s where character comes into play. This movie had the potential to feel like a scattershot, a whole bunch of different things mixed up together. But if we’re able to make this the story of one guy who has this journey that takes him through a lot of different worlds, then hopefully it will have an overall satisfying feel to it, and that was the reason to really rely on Michael [C. Hall], and to rely on his experience, and not just mix the genre up.

Paste: So was Michael your first choice?
Mickle: Well, no. Back in the day, I read the book back in 2006, so at that point he’d only really done Six Feet Under. And I love Six Feet Under—that’s probably my favorite show of all time—but I wouldn’t have necessarily thought of David Fisher at that point for this movie. At the time that we were doing it, when we first had a budget planned early on, there was a lot of pressure to cast really obvious, big-budget stars in this. It was always Nicholas Cage or Mark Wahlberg. I wanted someone who was much more interesting than that, and as time went on, I really noticed Michael. He stood out as someone with this amazing ability to play different characters really seamlessly, and I really kind of fell in love with him and with his work.

He came about it in a weird way: the script kept going, and we went to do We Are What We Are, and I sort of walked away from Cold for a year. At some point, I thought it was never even going to happen—the financing, all this stuff had fallen apart. And I bumped into Michael C. Hall at a party at Sundance last year, and he had read the script, and he said, “I really loved that movie Cold in July, what’s going on with it?” At that point, I was like, “I don’t know what’s going on with it.”

But it started this whole weird thing. We wound up going to Cannes a couple of months later—by that point we got a green light—and it was perfect timing because we’d just finished up there. So it all worked out.

Paste: I’ll admit that I really liked Michael, but now I’m sort of sad I didn’t get to see Mark Wahlberg in a mullet.
Mickle: Or Nicholas Cage! Or John Travolta—that was one that was pushed early on.

Paste: I thought that having Sam Shepard involved was a huge coup for you. How did you get him and Don Johnson pulled into this?
Mickle: In that original phase, we had actually sent the script to Sam Shepard, almost gave him the first draft of it. I thought that this was the perfect kind of role for him, but he never read it and we got the runaround from his people for a long time—nothing ever came of it. When it came back around, and we finally got the financing for it, I think I wrote him a letter, and at that point with Michael involved, I think it made it a little bit easier to reach out to him. This time around, I actually got to Sam, and he read it, and he liked it.

At the same time, he also had known Don from back in the day, and they had come across each other a lot in the last couple of decades, and they had always wanted to work together. Coincidentally, we had also made an offer to Don. Once Michael was on, things moved pretty quickly, and both of those guys were really into it.

The first time I met with Sam, he already had a million notes written down, and he already had a lot of thoughts on it. I love that, because we always said we wanted someone who could come in who was going to fill in the blanks. We didn’t write a lot of dialogue for him. There was a lot of dialogue in the book, but we made a conscious decision to make him a quiet character. So when I first met him, he just had a million notes scribbled down on every scene that he was in of what was going on with him, and I just thought, ‘Exactly what we need.’ It was a blessed opportunity to work with all three.

Paste: That’s kind of a gift, when you have an actor who will fill in the blanks.
Mickle: Yeah!

Paste: Over time, I felt like Sam’s character started to occupy more of a protagonist role and share that space with Michael’s character. Did you find it difficult to give them both equal balance?
Mickle: Yeah, I did. That’s one of the things that I liked about it. I remember early on, the financiers were saying, “Your movie isn’t going to work because you don’t have a lead character! You have two lead characters, and the movie doesn’t work!” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s not true that it doesn’t work. That’s what makes it cool, that’s what makes it interesting, and we’re not going to go in and write Sam’s character down just because you want a movie that has one main character.”

So it was a pain in the ass, but it does make it really difficult for an audience, I think, to go onto that ride. In the second half, even though Sam’s character starts to take a big chunk of the pie, it was really important to play things through Michael. Michael and I talked at some point, and I said, “Alright, we’re moving into the point of the movie where you’re along for a ride here, and a lot of this movie is just your kind of crazy experience, even though a lot of the focus is on the other guys. We need to make sure it’s through you.”

He was very smart about making sure that everything was always being played through him. We tried to shoot it in a way that it was very subjective to him, to keep it grounded and to keep it one guy’s story. So yeah, it wasn’t a black-and-white thing, but I think that was part of the fun of it.

Paste: One other thing I noticed—there’s a lot of scoring in this film. I felt like the score here was used as a means for setting tone and establishing character. Was that something you’d intended on doing?
Mickle: Not initially. I think the music always kind of comes organically. It’s just figuring out what’s going to happen. In the case of We Are What We Are, I gave the script to Jeff Grace, our composer, really early on so we could talk about ideas before we started shooting. A lot of times, he’s able to start writing pieces ahead, so we can be playing them on set and starting to think about setting tone and all that kind of stuff. With this case, it kept changing, I think because the movie itself changes so much and because it’s been around for a long time. A lot of the ideas we talked about years ago changed, and by the time we came to make the movie, we already felt a lot of those ideas were sort of old. We wanted to shake things up.

So once we started to set this tone. One of Michael’s ideas was to wear the mullet, and once he had the idea to wear the mullet, it sort of set the tone for the whole movie in a way—how far we were going to be able to go in terms of production design and costuming.

Originally, I was worried that it was going too far, but I had a blast doing it. It started to feel like the old movies that I grew up on, and that this book sort of grew out of. So then it became this decision to make the music a character in the movie, to not just be a supportive thing, but to really be a character in the movie. It’s tough to pull that off. It’s hard not to go overboard, but I really love the way that Jeff did it. He managed something that obviously set a whole feel for this movie and sort of placed it into this ’80s, VHS style, and yet he was able to pull off the emotion of it.

Paste: The film is so rooted in that ’80s sensibility. There was never a moment where you said, “Hey, let’s update this for the 2010s,”?
Mickle: No. Once you start to adapt something like this, you have to ask yourself right away, “Do we update this to now?” No, I think the instinct was to always keep it there. This is a story from this era, this is a story that’s inspired by movies from this era, so we kept it there and kept it a part of this sort of fantasy, fairytale feel. I think if you were to do a straight-ahead version of that story now, it wouldn’t work as well.

It got tough, because at some point we really had to cut the budget down. We had to trim everything to the bone in order to get it made. Once you do that, the first thing that becomes a huge savings is not having to have every car in the movie be an ’80s car. It gets really tough on the art department, and tough on location, and really limits what you’re able to do, but I think it was important to all of us and I’m thankful that we stuck to it.

Paste: It’s interesting to think about how one decision like that can impact the entire production. Like, the cars—that’s not something that would have occurred to me, as someone who’s on the other side of things.
Mickle: Yeah, a lot of those locations, we walked into them and they had to be ready. We didn’t have a lot of money to redress every set. The art department on this was amazing. They would come in and they would camouflage modern stuff really well. The microwave in Michael’s house, that was a brand-new microwave, and they did this cool thing where they came in with wood panel contact paper, covered the whole thing so that it had that wood panel ’80s feel. They covered up all the digital stuff, and that’s all just for one scene where he goes to put a mug in the microwave for, like, two seconds. All that thought has to go into that. So the art department really did an amazing job of making all of that stuff work.

Paste: Do you feel like this was a risky project for you to undertake, especially having established yourself as a horror guy? Not that Stake Land, or We Are What We Are or Mulberry Street can even be categorized simply as horror, but do you think there’s a bit of a risk leaping from something like We Are What We Are to something like Cold in July?
Mickle: There’s probably a risk to that, but I think that’s what I like about it. There are a lot of things about it that make it more commercial, there are a lot of things about it that make it less commercial, but it’s hard to be able to think about things in just that way. Looking back, yes, I remember the first interview I had about it was someone who said, “This is the riskiest thing, yet. You’re asking your audience to swallow a lot of things that they’re probably not ready to swallow. This is going to polarize a lot of people.” Actually, I thought it was our most fun, accessible thing.

Paste: It definitely worked for me, but there’s always a question of whether changing track is going to polarize people. But at the same time, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that should happen a little bit more.
Mickle: It definitely should. That’s how I think things get into a rut. That’s how people just continue going out on the same trends. That’s how found footage happens, and happens, and happens, and happens, and happens. (laughs) I think whether it works successfully or not, I think you need people that are trying to push things in a different direction or it gets stale quickly.

Paste: I totally agree. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Jim. Best of luck, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with next!
Mickle: Me neither!