Filmuforia talked to Jim Mickle about his 80s-set noir thriller adapted on the novel by Joe R Lansdale:
Matthew Turner (MJT): How did the project come about, first of all?
Jim Mickle (JM): I read the book – I picked it up at a used book store – I’d been a fan of [author Joe R Lansdale]’s – read it in one night and fell in love and thought, ‘I want to make a movie that makes me feel how this book feels, this sense of discovering this crazy mish-mash of genres, dark tough guy characters – I want to make a movie like this’.
MJT: I thought the structure of the film was very interesting, in that it starts as one thing, but becomes something else. How much of that is reflected in the book?
JM: Very much. Very, very, very much. We did it in slightly different ways – at times we had to do a slower transition between things or at times do a more abrupt transition, but it was very much that in the book – that was what I fell in love with, I kept hitting moments where you sort of settle into a story. You realise how interactive watching a movie is, in a way, or reading a book – any kind of receiving a story – when you start to settle into something and think, ‘Great, you know, this is cool, this is Cape Fear, sort of revenge thing, cat and mouse, great, I’m into that!’ And then as soon as that shifts into something else, it just sort of changes all expectations. You realise how lazy I think we are as audience members, because you have expectations and you want things to meet those expectations and when something doesn’t or it shifts it becomes this really challenging experience. But I just loved it and that was something we wanted to carry over into a film.
MJT: Are you worried about film reviewers spoiling too much of it?
JM: Yeah. Yeah. I think there’s a way to talk about it that’s sort of like that, you know, that it starts off as Cape Fear and then becomes two or three other films by the time it stops. I like that, in any reviews I read of any movie, I usually read the first part and then skip the synopsis and go to the end, to sort of see what’s going on. So I hope people stick with that, but for the most part, people have been pretty good about being coy about what they talk about. Except the New York Times- the New York Times gave us this shit review that was just – all they did was just summarise the entire movie, plot point for plot point! It was like, ‘How lazy can you be?’ And then offered no opinion about the movie whatsoever. It was like, ‘Great. So you basically just printed a list of spoilers and called it a review of our movie’. So that can be frustrating, you know.
MJT: This is a hell of a role for Don Johnson. Was that all on the page? How much did he bring to it?
JM: The energy of the character was on the page, much of his dialogue was on the page. Much of it was in the book. We transcribed some of that, or tried to find ways to paraphrase stuff, obviously. And he’s a very talkative character, which doesn’t always work in movies, so we had to pare that down. He added a lot on top of that, so there was a lot where he sort of got into that mode. He improvised a lot and I think that was really strong for comedy – I think when that stuff feels natural and not forced it’s good, so we let him improvise a lot. Some of my favourite stuff in there is him, you know, that line about, ‘I need a goddamn drink, I haven’t even had my coffee yet’. Little asides and stuff like that were all Don. That bit with the old phone – we sort of gave him the phone and said ‘Go’ and he came up with all that stuff, so yeah. It was sort of like, once you have him, you sort of need to capture that larger than life persona and not try to keep it in a box.
MJT: How did the cast all get involved? And did you have them in mind for the parts?
JM: No, not at all. I try not to write stuff or be thinking of stuff with certain people in mind, because you fall in love with stuff too easily. I think it’s better to get the script exactly where it needs to be and then start to think, ‘Alright, who could facilitate the script’ rather than – my writing partner Nick a lot of times will think of people and I think that paints you into corners a lot of times. So, no, I always sort of had this idea of sort of like a Texas Everyman, I kept describing him as like McConaughey in Frailty, like a 35 year old, sort of [blue collar worker], could work as a trucker, could work in a field, who knows where. So [Michael C. Hall] we met at a party in Sundance and at that point he had read the script and really liked the script. So we talked about it at Sundance and I had always pictured – I had always had a hard time accepting Dexter, because I always thought of [Michael] as his Six Feet Under character, so it took a while to really buy that and I thought, ‘I’ll never accept him as this guy!’ And the reality was just the opposite – I think he was highly qualified to play an Everyman because he had spent his entire life playing these dark characters with a lot going on. He got to finally play somebody that was very normal. So we met him at Sundance, sort of fell in love there and then the movie, I think we came to the Cannes Film Festival last year, financing happened, we landed in New York the next day, sent the script to [Sam Shepard] and Don and both of them signed on very quickly after that. After years of having a very hard time finding money and actors who would even read it, all of a sudden it was instantly – everything kind of fell into place.
MJT: Did you encourage the actors to read the book?
JM: I did, yes. I did and then I realised it was probably not the greatest idea, because there are a lot of things where we zig left where the book zagged right. And so I think [Vinessa Shaw] read the whole thing, which is great, because I think she was able to – we had to really pare her character down, which sucked, because her character’s a big part of the book and a big part of the journey they go on. And in order to keep it focused on Michael and to really make it a two hour movie instead of a four hour movie, we really pared it down to more his story, but what was great is I think she read it and really got a sense of who her character was and fill in a lot of the gaps and stuff, so that was really great. Don and Sam did not – I remember Don saying, rightly so, that the book is not the script and the script is not the movie and the movie isn’t the movie until you edit it, which I think is very true. And so he was very careful to make sure that he wasn’t – I think it’s easy to say, ‘Well, in the book, this happens!’, you know, and he would say, rightly so – but that’s not reflected in the movie and so it can be very hard to remember what’s what.
MJT: Johnson’s having this kind of amazing late career resurgence that reminds me a bit of William Shatner, making these kind of iconic appearances. How conscious of that was he?
JM: Good question. He has a very strong sense of self and a very strong sense of who his audience is, who his demographic is. He has a very clear, very accurate idea of how he comes off, which is really great.
[Digi-recorder fault meant that interview cut out at that point. Spotted it a few minutes later and resumed].
MJT: Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to lose?
JM: There was. In the book, there was Vinessa’s character that I was – there was a really strong sense of the husband / wife journey that happened in that book that we really had to boil down to Michael’s sort of discovery as a man. That, I was sorry to see go, but I don’t think it would have worked in the movie. There’s a lot of scenes with Jim-Bob in the book, he gets introduced in a much different way and he comes in earlier, he’s involved in the digging of the grave scene and that kind of stuff, that was great. Miss a lot of that stuff. There’s about twenty minutes of deleted scenes that will be on the DVD and they’re all great scenes but as much as I love them, there’s always a reason why stuff gets cut. So we just watched some of them to do a commentary on them and as I watched, I thought, ‘It’s so funny that anyone ever thought this needed to be in the movie’, but in almost every case, there were scenes that were like, ‘We can not cut that out of the movie, it needs to be there!’ I just find that interesting, that the things that get cut are the things that, usually, on the page, are the things you think you need the most.
MJT: What was the hardest thing to get right, overall?
JM: Good question. I think the rhythms, because even if something works and has a certain energy and pace and rhythm in the book and even though when they work in a script, once you get to the actual movie experience, there is a different way to ingest that. And so that was something that was constantly being shaped the entire time, you know, how long do you spend here, how quickly do you move through things. And it took a long time of back and forth with a lot of test audiences to really get a sense of when there was too much of something. And I still see people that feel like there’s too much of something and not enough of something else, but that is a tough thing. It’s really hard to stay objective to that when you’re editing something and something you know for that long. So that was always a tough thing.
MJT: Had you seen Blue Ruin? I noticed its director [Jeremy Saulnier] had a thank you in the credits.
JM: Yeah. I love that movie. And Jeremy was there at our first screening. He read the script and gave some really great notes at the script stage and then he came and watched the first cut and I just remember him being like, you know, ‘Take a deep breath – it’s going to get there. This movie isn’t it, but take a deep breath, it’s going to get there.’ We had met on our first movies in 2007, we were at South By Southwest and we kept bumping into each other at festivals with Murder Party and Mulberry St and then last year, We Are What We Are played Director’s Fortnight with Blue Ruin and we sort of rekindled and met back up. He was very helpful and I think we’re a little bit of a support group for each other in many ways.
MJT: What makes Texas so perfect for Texan Noir? And why are we seeing the rise of it now?
JM: Well, I think it always was there, I mean, I think there’s a lot of – I mean, even like Jim Thompson’s stuff and Cormac McCarthy is a little bit further east of there, but I think there always was that and I think there’s a sense of nostalgia in America, probably that dates to the cowboys, old west sort of vibe that I think a lot of people link to Texas, even though it was happening in a lot of other places. I think there’s still a strong connection to that and I think there is a lot of leftover nostalgia for those kinds of stories and that sense of morality. I think that happens a lot. And I think there’s a big sense of pride in Texas, both self-pride – I’m always amazed that everyone from Texas has a great sense of self-confidence, in a very cool way. And also a confidence and a pride in their state and I think that makes for strong-willed people and strong-willed characters and I think they’re always interesting, when you put them into these kinds of stories. I think there’s a great sense of lawlessness there that, in society, sucks – in society, Texas is like the state that keeps popping up and causing problems and you keep sort of having to [give them a] smack on the head and keep them in line. But in movies, that’s great, that’s a great character to have. It’s very open, it’s gigantic, there’s a million different areas of it, you know, you have the dusty plains of the west and you have the more sort of Bayou country pine tree green luscious spot like East Texas, where our movie is set, so there’s a lot of interesting thematic stuff and then visually, I think it’s just great. You know, Paris, Texas, Sam Shepard, when you need a story about a guy who’s lost in this open world, you go there.
MJT: That was a happy coincidence, casting Shepard, then?
JM: Yeah, it was, it was. Because originally I had always thought of Cold in July as a sort of 1989 western set in the suburbs, so I would always listen to the Paris, Texas soundtrack, Ry Cooder’s steel guitar, I would always listen to that soundtrack every time I’d read the script and just try to dive back into it, get into the head of it and then it’s one of those happy evolutions is, you know, we ended up being nowhere near that, musically, at the end of the day.
MJT: Do you have a favourite Texan noir movie?
JM: Blood Simple.
MJT: What’s your next project?
JM: We’re doing a TV show called Hap and Leonard, which is a continuation of Cold in July in some ways. Joe R. Lansdale, who wrote that novel, it’s a book series he has of two bumbling idiots who crime-solve in the late 80s in East Texas. So we’re working on that right now and there’s two films that I’m working on right now, one a much bigger film and one that’s sort of a quieter, subtler, sort of Hitchcockian thing. Trying to have a couple of different things out there and see what works first, as opposed to what we did with Cold in July, which was fall in love with one idea and fall into depression when we thought it wasn’t going to work.
MJT: Does that mean you’re sort of moving away from horror movies?
JM: I don’t know ‘moving away’ – I don’t have a strong ability to structure things from the outside, you know? So it’s been now a matter of reading a lot of scripts, reading a lot of books, trying to develop my own stuff and with Nick and it’s really hard to control that. So I’ve been responding to just the best material, whether it’s horror or science-fiction or action or whatever. It’s been really focussing on that and also, I think, being in a weird spot where we’ve done – we’re getting a great release here in the UK with Cold in July, which I’m so thankful for and so thankful to Icon for. And in the US we’ve had a great release, but the whole model of distribution there is changing so much, so we came out Memorial Day weekend, against X-Men, you know, and we came out with zero advertising, on a couple of screens. And that was the movie I thought was going to be sort of our breakout film, it was really going to make some noise. So it’s been like a little bit of an existential thing of, like, what do independent filmmakers do anymore? How do you get stuff out there? Part of that is a move towards television, I think, because that’s a place where you can do things that don’t have to be laden with superheroes in order to make it connect with an audience. But it’s tough, it’s really tough, because I think if you do horror, everyone wants it to be really, really cheap horror, so they can turn it around and make gangbuster dollars – you know, unless it’s Paranormal Activity, it’s not successful. And so I feel like every couple of years, when we start to do the rounds with talking to studios or Hollywood executives, it’s always, ‘It’s very much ‘The Conjuring’, that’s what anyone says that just means, ‘Some people go into a house and some supernatural shit happens’, that’s code for that. It used to be, ‘It’s Paranormal Activity-inspired’, which was everyone’s way of saying it’s found footage. So I think in horror, it’s really hard to do anything different, it’s really hard to do anything that’s challenging in any way. There used to be a little more receptiveness, I think to financiers who were willing to back something like that and I think now we have a lot of ideas of things that we want to do like that, but you need a lot of money to do it, and then once you start talking about that, then you shift very quickly out of those movies and fall into fifty million dollar plus summer blockbusters that have to be remakes or sequels or based on previous intellectual property and that sort of thing. So it’s trying to find what’s going to succeed, what’s going to feel like, yes, it was worth spending two years slaving on this, what’s going to feel sustainable and I don’t know what’s sustainable right now in movies other than television.
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COLD IN JULY IS OUT NOW ON DVD, BLU-ray AND ON DEMAND