Jim Mickle returned to the director’s chair earlier this year with new film Cold In July, which was an adaptation of the novel by Joe R. Lansdale. The movie was met well critically and had a great run on the festival circuit.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film ahead of it’s home release next week. We chatted about what drew him to the story and working with some a terrific cast.
- Cold In July is about to be released on DVD, so can you tell me a bit about the film?
Cold In July is a 1980s inspired thriller: very much the kind of film that doesn’t really get made anymore.
It is about a normal family man, father, and husband who in the act of defending of home, sets of a chain reaction of events that leads him discover a darker side of himself but also the people around him.
- You are in the director's chair for the film, so where did this project start for you? And what was the initial appeal of this story?
It started as a novel by a great author called Joe R. Lansdale who is known for a wide range of things, including a gut wrenching crime thriller. I read it about six or seven years ago and fell in love with it instantly.
I felt like I wanted to make a film that made me feel that this book felt, which was completely unpredictable and completely wide open to anything that was going to happen. It really felt like movies that I had grown up with. We set out from there on a very long journey to getting it made.
- That does touch on my next question. Cold In July has been a bit of a labour of love for you as it has taken many years to get to this point. Why do you think that it has taken to long to get it made? How much do you feel that the fact that you can't really put this film into a specific box or category has something to do with that?
I think that has everything to do with that. Before this, I made three horror films and I think when you are making horror films - especially if you are making low budget horror films as we were - it is a lot easier to get a film off the ground as people can see a target audience and know that they can recoup financially from that.
We were lucky because we had a zombie film at the height of zombie movies kicking off. Our next film was a vampire film, and that just happened to be at the same time of Twilight and vampire movies really becoming popular. Without really trying, we were riding the waves of popular interest within the horror genre.
Cold of July never really fit into one category; even though it is a thriller, it is many different kind of thrillers. And I think I t was that fact that scared many people off for a while and they wanted us to find the instantly bankable and instantly sellable version of the film, which we never wanted to do.
We wanted to deliver the movie that we all know it could be and what it ultimately came to be; it is a film cannot be categorised or summed up easily. I think that ambition should be taken on more often in film. I think that people would feel a lot less cynical about the movies that are made if people stick to their guns and make them the right way.
- As you say, the movie is based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale so where there any specific aspects of the book that you felt you had to include in the film? Were there any bits that you loved in the book by you had to leave behind?
The humour was a big element of the book that we wanted to keep. In translating the book, the thing that started to really click for us was when we started boiling some of it down to its core elements. Joe is a very talky writer - all of his characters talk a lot - and while that colourful dialogue is the best part of Joe’s writing when we translated it over, we found that we had a gigantic pile of script.
In book form, you would just read through and love it, but in script form, it becomes something that you end up wading though. Therefore, we really had to find the heart and the bare bones of it and build the story back up. By doing that, we lost a lot of the humour that is inherently in the story because the story is told from Richard’s point of view; you are always in his head and he is always able to laugh at some of the uncertainties of life.
We had to get some of the humour back in. A big part in doing that was Michael C. Hall, who I never would have guessed from seeing him in Dexter, has a great sense of humour and comedic timing. He really was able to bring a lot of that back in in very subtle and understated ways that I really liked.
There were some moments in the middle of the film that were very fun scenes and very fun twists and turns - we had to spread them out and we had to introduce some of the characters a lot later in the story in order to keep the focus the right way. The character of Michael’s wife Ann - played by Vinessa Shaw - there are a lot of interesting things in the middle of the book that we had to strip away to keep the focus on Michael.
That is something that does kick me in the gut a little bit as I love that the book has this great rollicking husband and wife duo for a good portion of it. To keep the focus on what Michael was going through cinematically, we had to cut that down.
- There are some great actors in this film, including Michael C Hall. What do you se in this actor for the central role?
Mostly, because of his ability to morph into different characters effortlessly. I was a huge Six Feet Under fan and it took me a long time to even come around to Dexter; I had just always thought of him as David Fisher from Six Feet Under. Once I watched him Dexter I was blown away again and I was like ‘wow, how am I going to watch him in anything else?’
Then I have seen him in little roles and he really can just do anything. At a time when so many actors are about celebrity culture and just play a different version of themselves in every film, here is a guy who is actually an old-fashioned actor and puts on the suit of whomever he is playing and completely morph into it.
The main character of this film is a normal everyday guy - what defines him is the fact that he is so average and relatable to every normal guy. Michael has always played characters that are so big or have afflictions, was really cool to put himself in a role where he gets to shed all of that and morph into a completely normal guy.
He did an amazing job with it because it so easily could have been boring but I think that he really gave it a great spark. There are a lot of unseen things that he does that are pretty amazing, such as tying the film together as it shift and other characters come into play.
I think he does a really amazing job of understanding what his character does for the movie and how to make all of those pieces fit together.
- Don Johnson and Sam Shepard also star so can you talk about getting them on board?
Once Michael got on board… we spent a long time trying to find who that duo was going to be in a big screen version and we wanted Don Johnson and Sam Shepard.
It was tough to get the scripts into their hands until Michael came on board and them people really started to take the project seriously and more than just a b-movie pulp exercise. It turned out that they already knew each other - which certainly didn’t hurt - and they had wanted to act together.
They were amazing, in completely different ways to Michael and different ways from each other; Don has his energy, Sam has his energy, and they couldn’t be more different.
- This is a dark and violent movie and yet the most shocking act of violence, we never see. I wondered why you chose to handle it in that way?
I think probably a lot of that we got out of our system by doing three horror films. We were so excited to be making films and making horror films that we really did have a ‘pedal to the metal’ feel to things and we didn’t shy away from visceral and shocking moments.
But it also felt that by the time that we had got to this, we had done that, we had explored that, and we had really good examples of that with the stuff that we had done.
This was about balance and how much to show and how much not to show. Ultimately, what is important in our film is not what happens but how the characters react to it.
There is a lesson in storytelling here as well by asking what is important here? Is it seeing this horrible act of violence? Or is it the characters that see this and have to process this and make a decision because of it?
When you have actors like ours, the most horrifying response can be to keep the camera on their face watching. It was a good moment and we knew that is what we always wanted to do. It happened in a very organic way that hopefully works better for the film.
- The movie had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and has gone on to enjoy critical success. How have you personally been finding the response to the film so far?
We had just done We Are What We Are, which was really well received and had had a good festival run, and I thought that we were never going to top that. In a way, that gave me a freedom to make the film that we wanted to make.
We had had this in the can for a while and we had always wanted it to be a trashy, sweaty, dirty, pulpy story, and having the critical success from our previous film did give us the confidence to do make that movie.
We never tried to top what we had done before, win critics over, or do an art house thing; we just made the film the way we thought it should be. What is so rewarding, is that is also had that same response and has come over really well with audiences.
That has been a really good lesson; to make the film that you are supposed to make and to not try pander I guess. It has been really great and has given us the confidence to really stick with the stories that we want to tell no matter what genre they happen to be in.
- Finally, what's next for you?
One the one hand, we are developing a TV series - it is an extension of Cold In July and will be for the Sundance TV channel. It is also based on Joe Lansdale’s work and will feature some of the characters that are in Cold in July.
We have just turned that final script in and will hopefully find out in the next few weeks if that is going to go ahead next year.
I also have to movies that I am casting at the moment. One is a quiet Hitchcockian thriller and one is a little bit bigger and is a science fiction/ special effects film. So I have three wildly different things in the pipeline and we will see which one goes first.
Cold In July will be available on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand from 20th October.