Just four features into his directing career, Jim Mickle has made two exceedingly great works in a row (including his last work WE ARE WHAT WE ARE), which were preceded by two very good films (MULBERRY ST and STAKE LAND)--make no mistake. His latest is the looping, genre-shifting COLD IN JULY, with an impressive cast that includes Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Wyatt Russell, Vinessa Shaw and Mickle's writing partner and terrific actor in his own right Nick Damici. The film is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, and it sounds like Mickle and Damici are planning to develop a series for Sundance based on Lansdale's novel "Hap and Leonard" for air in 2015.
COLD IN JULY revolves around Hall's character, Richard Dane, an ordinary man who is involved in a shooting that tips the first domino in a seemingly endless series of them that fall over in rapid, uncontrollable succession. There's a bit of Southern noir--the kind John Dahl and the Coen Brothers used to do so well--mixed in with themes of what defines manhood, fathers and son, and a bit of some truly shocking, twisted violence that seem to be a hallmark of a certain '80s variety of crime thrillers (the film is, in fact, set in the 1980s, as Hall's inspired mullet would clue you into). It's a seedy bit of perfection that shifts moods, atmosphere and even lead characters for a spell. It dares you to settle in and get comfortable before it yanks the chair out from under you.
I spoke with Mickle a couple weeks ago on the phone, just half a year after he was in Chicago for a Q&A screening of WE ARE WHAT WE ARE. We had a great time going through COLD IN JULY with a fine-tooth comb. Please enjoy my talk with Jim Mickle…
Capone: Hey, Jim. How are you?
Jim Mickle: Hey, good. How are you?
Capone: Good. It seems like only yesterday that we last spoke and you were last in Chicago.
JM: Yeah, I know. It’s been a crazy, crazy year.
Capone: When you were here in Chicago, you had already shot COLD IN JULY, right?
JM: Yeah, yeah.
Capone: Was it you or was it Nick who first read Joe Lansdale’s book, and what was it about it that got you guys hooked into this story?
JM: I read it first. I picked it up, and it was one of those things where I was reading a lot of scripts at that time, I was reading a lot of books. So many things start off, especially when it’s horror or any kind of genre, with that theme that’s like, “I’m going to bethe slasher movie” or “I’m going to be the evil kid movie” or whatever. And this starts right off with us being like, “Wow, which way is this story going to head?” And then it just kept reinventing itself and shedding its skin every couple of chapters in a way that to me was just so fresh and interesting, and all those little pieces worked. It wasn’t just gimmicky or just there to be stylish or something. It just floored me. I was floored by how well the story was handled, but also the idea of doing one of those movies that I grew up on--Southern noirs and the Texas thrillers.
Capone: I’ve read some descriptions of the film that call it “genre hopping,” but it’s not like it hops. It doesn’t ever abandon one genre to become another. It’s the definition of unsettling, in that it never really lets you settle in and get comfortable in any one particular mood, and it’s completely unpredictable, which is great. Strangely enough I noticed in the "Thank Yous" in the end that Jeremy Saulnier was listed, and he was just here last weekend with BLUE RUIN, and those two characters definitely have a few things in common in that they're thrust into these situations after a killing and they react horribly. Why did you thank him in particular?
JM: Well, we had met back when we had MULBERRY ST, they had MURDER PARTY at SXSW. We had met back then. In fact, that’s when we also first met Lansdale and talked about doing this story, at SXSW. And so over the years, we stayed in touch in odd ways, through friends of friends. And then magically he was at Directors’ Fortnight [at Cannes] last year, and we were with WE ARE WHO WE ARE, and we saw BLUE RUIN there last year and we just freaking loved it. So, he and I had a follow up after that and talked a bit, and he was telling me what he was doing, and I was like, “Our script has a lot of parallels with yours.” And gave that to him, and then he gave us some really good script notes, and then he was also at our first warts-and-all screening, when we were all like freaking out about like, “Is this really working or not?” And then he was there to give some good, harsh critiques and also some good cheerleading as well.
Capone: Aside from a couple nasty kills here and there, this is fairly far afield from the horror that you’ve been doing. It’s more of a crime drama. Is this a temporary shift, or is this something you’re going to bounce around and try and be a little bit more varied in the kind of work that you do from now on?
JM: You know, things are coming up that are definitely in the vein of the earlier stuff that we’ve been doing. There are a couple of things that could be completely different, or at least more in the direction that COLD is heading, I think. But I don’t know. That’s part of the fun, you follow the story really more than the genre, I guess. So yeah, it’s definitely not abandoning one, but there are a couple of different ways to go.
Capone: What I originally wrote in my notes when I saw COLD IN JULY is it’s actually evolving. It doesn’t follow a straight path; it’s like a living, growing, shifting animal, and instead of pealing back layers to simplify things, it adds more as it goes along. Is this something you wanted to build up, and did you have to struggle to keep things on track and not allow certain elements lost?
JM: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Yeah, it was. I mean, first it made everything really difficult finding financiers. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at those notes that were like, you know, “It shifts perspective!” or, “It shifts tone!” Or, it does this, it does that. And I kept sending them notes about these great Korean thrillers as examples of like movies that get away with that and jump tone and have odd humor mixed in with really intense bouts of action. I don't know if I ever really convinced people.
But it was really tough because it was tough to make a lot of things work on the page. And then I think more than anything, there were a lot of things that worked on the page that then didn’t translate to the final edit. Or there were a lot of things were we packed so much in to try and satisfy all these different desires to make things feel more comfortable only to realize those things were just an epic amount of fat. So I think the edit was really difficult, mostly because there was so much stuff there.
And then when like Don [Johnson] came in, he had a million things to play with, so a lot of the Don scenes wind up being much longer than they were originally scripted. And then once he comes in, there’s this really weird balance of How do you keep this Michael’s story? How do you keep these three guys in check and balanced in a way that is satisfying, yet let all of them dominate the moments that they need to dominate. But I love that. I edited with another editor now for the first time, and that was an interesting experience, really being able to sit with it, whereas something like STAKE LAND probably didn’t really change. We didn’t cut scenes; we didn’t take things out. We really knew what was going to be there. And the same with WE ARE WHAT WE ARE. There were chunks of things. But this was like this constant balance of shifting things, removing sub plots, and putting them back in different places.
Weirdly, a lot of those things were things we added to the book in order to make people’s notes go away. So yeah, it was a really interesting process. Buta lot of it, the bones of Joe’s stuff, is there, and his story I think led the way, and then there are two or three things that we had to, not remove, but just not play as hard as the book did, which hurts, because I really love those things. A lot of those are what drove me to do it in the first place, but it’s also nice in a way to feel like there are still things left for people that want to read the book and vice versa.
Capone: I feel like I’ve seen Sam Shepard in a lot of things lately, but they’ve always been reduced to much smaller time on screen. Thank you for really using him here, because once he shows up, he’s in the movie for the whole thing, and it’s great to see him back on the boards like this. When you’re handing him your script for the first time, is that the hardest, scariest thing because he is this great writer. “Here’s my piece of crap; take a look at it.”
JM: Yeah, very much, very much. We actually sent it to him a long time ago, and at that time he never read it the first time around. I think he was the first guy that we sent it to, whatever it was, probably like 2008 when we first did it, and we kept hearing, “He’s on a fishing trip with his son this weekend.” And three weeks would go by, and finally it was just like, “I don’t know if he’s ever going to read it.” So we walked away from it at that point.
When we got it to him this new round, we heard pretty quickly that he liked it. He lives in Santa Fe, and my parents had just moved out there, so I went out for a long weekend and had breakfast burritos with him at a restaurant on the side of the road near his place out there. It was so cool because he came in and it was a meeting to see like, “Is he even going to be in?” Maybe we would have to talk him into it. But he sat down, and he opened up his script; it was so cool and old school. He had written in the margins on every page of the script. There was more pencil writing than there was like printed writing. And as soon as I saw that I was like, “Yeah, he’s in.” He wouldn’t have spent so much time getting invested in this if he wasn't interested. He’s very respectful of that process totally and was able to separate and compartmentalize acting and writing. So when we got in a hole, he would help out with that stuff, and that was a great help.
Capone: So you were actually able to reap the benefits of his abilities as a writer?
JM: Yeah, totally. There was one scene--the one where he talks about putting a dog down--that was a scene that Nick and I had struggled with for freaking forever. We just could not nail it. We'd been paraphrasing something in the book that happened over the course--I think it was a more gradual progression of things, and it happened over the course of, I don’t know, three chapters. And so we condensed it, and we maybe had that conversation condensed over three pages, and we kept trying to condense it more and more and more, and finally the night before we shot it, he said, “I’m looking into this scene and I feel like there’s a couple of other ways you could maybe do this. I got some ideas.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool.”
And then finally, he was like, “Do you mind if I just do a pass on this for my lines?” It was such a great playwright thing. He was like, “I won’t change anyone else’s lines, I promise. I just want to try some different things with me.” And so he did. He went back, and at the time, he was writing a novel--he’s still writing a novel--and he writes on a typewriter. And so he went back to his hotel and came in the next morning, and I got the call from like the second AD: “Sam would like to talk to you about his page.” And I came, and it was hand-typed page. He'd kept to his word; he’d condensed stuff down so much, it was just this beautiful, simple, bit of back and forth, and everyone else's lines were the same.
Capone: I assume you have that page framed somewhere.
JM: I do, I do. It’s on the wall. I absolutely do.
Capone: You kept the setting in the '80s. Why was that important? But other than using the White Lion song at the end, why did you want to keep it in the '80s? And the other thing that is awesome is that fully stocked, VHS video store.
JM: You know, it wasweird because it was written in ’89, and I felt like there was so many scenes in there--like the scene when he races to the phone booth to call his wife--where these inconveniences of that time felt so good, and also eliminated all the need to do the whole like, do they have reception on their cell phone?, and that kind of stuff. To me, there was a great nostalgia factor to the whole book end of the story, and reading it made me feel like this story was written in this beautifully simple time.
It was before the whole Sundance indie boom. It was before Tarantino was reinventing things, and it was before movies that had to have an irony to them or a self awareness in order to do classic stories in a way. So it felt like there was just this beautiful bubble with that story that existed when Joe wrote it, and I wanted the movie to stay comfortably in that bubble. I think those themes are an interesting thematic way to go then, and I think the ideas of vigilantism obviously changes now that we have Trayvon Martin and all these interesting real-life cases now. I think it allows us to go to a more innocent time. And it was just fun as shit to do a period piece. I allowed us to do that movie without constantly trying to wink at it. It was one of those movies.
Capone: The score definitely elicits a very John Carpenter vibe. I know there is some other electronic music that you can point to, but to me that’s what it sounds like. What were your instructions to Jeff Grace in terms of the sound and feel of the score?
JM: It evolved. The script had been around for a while, and he had read it maybe three years ago, and then at that time we were talking about like Ry Cooder and like PARIS, TEXAS, and I think we were in much more like, “We’re doing a Texas thriller.” And at that point, I think we were considering it an '80s Western, which it still is in a lot of ways, but we were thinking about it stylistically that way too, and then it evolved as we shot it. When Michael made the call to wear this mullet hair piece, it shook the whole movie up. Honestly for me, I’ve been involved in this story for so long and had tried out a lot of the things that we wanted to do originally in other movies, so by the time we got to it, we were looking to find a new, fresh way to it rather than what we’ve been thinking about.
And when Michael got the mullet, it set the bar for everything--wardrobe, production design, everything. And we started watching these movies for references, and then I started thinking like, “These scores are awesome. You don’t hear these anymore. They’re great.” So then at that point, we started cutting to a lot of Carpenter-type music and really having fun with that whole idea. I also love that Jeff’s so good that he can be a chameleon musically, so it’s really fun to say like, “Alright, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE is this beautiful chamber piece, melancholy thing. For this, he said, "Do a score with no piano, no strings; you only have '80s synthesizers.” And I think it’s his best score. He killed it.
Capone: Jim, thank you so much for talking again.
JM: Yeah, thank you.
Capone: And we’ll hopefully get to talk again down the line.