Southern Discomfort: Jim Mickle on Cold in July

Jim Mickle is proving himself one of the most exciting young filmmakers working in the US today. Fourth feature Cold in July, a ripe, pulpy thriller with a big-name cast, is his best yet. We spoke to him ahead of its UK premiere at EIFF

Feature by Chris Fyvie | 02 Jul 2014

“I kept describing it as this sort of bad relationship with a girlfriend, who’s abusive, and she’ll cheat on you, and you’ll limp away, then you’ll see that she’s still kinda interested, and you come back to get your heartbroken all over again!” says director Jim Mickle of his struggle to bring new film Cold in July to the screen. It’s a good thing he did keep going back for more (“That happened, like, four or five times!”); his and writing partner Nick Damici’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s sweaty, pulpy, Southern neo-noir novel from 1989 is among the most interesting and entertaining films of the year so far.

It’s an adaptation as sweaty and pulpy as Lansdale’s text, as Michael C. Hall’s small town schmuck guns down a home invader then finds himself the target of a vengeful father, played by the ever-wonderful Sam Shepard. Differing tones and genres are merged seamlessly – part horror, part thriller, part hillbilly buddy revenge flick – under Mickle and Damici’s confident hand. Oh, and Don Johnson pops up as a seedy and swaggering private eye, in case you weren’t sold already.

Mickle is in magnetic form when we meet after Cold in July’s UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival; he's clearly a bit jet lagged and rough around the edges, but with great, thunderous charm and enthusiasm to be here, and to finally have this film seen at all. The extent of the struggle they had comes into focus with the knowledge this was actually intended to be the filmmakers’ second feature, following their micro-budget 2006 debut. “We had done our first movie, Mulberry Street, which is a sort of a throwback to zombie films, and that was obviously something we were very in to and very inspired by, but right after that I was like, ‘I don’t wanna continue just doing these kinda films,’ you know?” explains Mickle of the beginning to this near eight year saga.

Mickle insists it was almost an accident in reading Lansdale’s book that prompted a shift to neo-noir specifically. “I’m not smart or savvy enough to build that strategy! I wish I could!” he bellows, self-effacingly (if you can bellow, self-effacingly). “I see people who really have an ability to look at what they do and construct things, but I don’t think I do,” he continues. “It was really the book. At that point we’d just made a movie, I didn’t know if we’d ever get to make another movie again. Sometimes you read a book and you can just picture the movie, or what it’s going to feel like when you’re watching it, and it was one of those. I could kinda feel the whole thing, and see the whole thing, and as soon as I finished it was just like, ‘Wow! This guy just completely mindfucked me! In, like, a great way.’”

The issues began as soon as rights were secured. “The reality of financing and distribution is that once you do a low-budget horror film, people wanna make you do low-budget horror films forever! So it was much, much, much easier to get Stake Land made and then We Are What We Are, which, for financiers… the idea of a foreign horror remake is perfect. So we wound up doing a trio of horror films before we actually got to do the neo-noir one.” Not that the actual adaptation of the text itself proved plain sailing for them either. “We went and told Joe, ‘We’re going to make exactly your book.’ That was our pitch to him,” grins Mickle (the folly of this now causes him great amusement). “So we did that, and along the way we realised!. The first draft of the script was really, really, really long. The beauty of the book is you can read it one sitting, it’s a novella. But the first draft of the script took forever to read! It was like an epic movie!”

Changing tack ironed-out the material, leading to the lean and menacing film Mickle and Damici finally produced. “We had to learn the art of how to translate something to make it feel like it. If you can do exactly it, then that’s great, but we had to learn that there were moments where we would have to come up with the movie version to make it still feel like the book. So I’m proud that even though the final script is probably the furthest from the book in a way, I think it’s the one that feels the most like the book.” Mickle and Damici’s writing partnership has evolved over the years, both now discovering their own roles and strengths. “I think we’ve started to find our balance,” says Mickle. “Nick writes totally from the heart, totally emotionally; everything is instinct, everything is about what you feel. Whereas I think I, having now edited all these movies, have more structure; this is where we want this information, this beat has to be here. I give Nick the road map and he’s doing the scene-by-scene stuff and then we’ll share that back-and-forth. I’m not interested in the dialogue and that kinda stuff, and I’ll start to have a conversation with him about structure and he just tunes out immediately! So it’s kind of a perfect marriage!”

A chance encounter almost seven years after Mickle and Damici had originally conceived of their Cold in July finally broke the curse. “We would put the movie together, then it would fall apart, then we’d go make Stakeland, then we’d go back and try to raise the financing again, then financing really wouldn’t want to stick around, and then we’d start to get interest from an actor, then they’d have to back out for a year. It was that whole process for a long time,” says Mickle of the intervening period. And they nearly lost it altogether: “around the time of We Are What We Are at Sundance [2013], I felt the whole thing was going to fall apart again. At that point I think the author was tired of us optioning it for a year and then not doing anything, so we were running it by the month, which was terrifying, because there’s so much pressure and anyone can just jump in!” But then Michael C. Hall came along. “Meeting Michael at Sundance, that it was like, ‘Wow’, someone who felt creatively right, somebody who gets the movie financed.

“His name had come up over the years, but I was always like, ‘Nah, that’s Dexter! We already know that that guy has a dark side!’” continues Mickle. “What we were looking for was kind of an everyman – so many actors don’t want to play the everyman, they want to play Captain America – and what was kinda fun, and right under our nose the whole time, was that the one guy who desperately wanted to play someone normal was Michael.” He quickly corrects himself: “I probably shouldn’t say 'desperate': it’s not like he was sitting there, like, pleading! But it was something that was really interesting to him, because he hadn’t had that opportunity yet, and yet I think he’s one of the best, I don’t wanna say ‘character actors’, because that makes it sound like he’s not a lead, but I think he’s one of the best actors at creating characters.”

“Once you do a low-budget horror film, people wanna make you do low-budget horror films forever!” – Jim Mickle

Everything else fell into place remarkably quickly from that point, including the rest of the impressive cast: “I think it went to Sam [Shepard] and Don [Johnson] the next week, and they were both on board a week later.” The performances are superb, Shepard in particular delighting with a really meaty role after some supporting parts in recent work such as Mud and Out of the Furnace. “He was either going to love it or he was gonna say: ‘Screw you, I’ve been doing this my entire career and I’m not really interested!’” wisecracks Mickle of getting Shepard involved. “It’s amazing having him on set. It’s amazing having him involved, because we had a character who in the books talks a lot. All he does is talk, and we made him more of a sort of tight-lipped, Old West character who only really articulates things through violence and action.”

The film arguably centres on Shepard’s character, Russel, particularly in the second half, and his contribution to the role was profound. In a late scene, there is a line that completely flips perceptions of that character and the film as a whole. “That was all Sam!” bellows Mickle once more. “That wasn’t in the book, that wasn’t in the script. Sam came to us before shooting that scene and said, ‘I have an idea of playing this, where for the entire movie my character’s been 100% certain of what he’s doing and all of a sudden he gets to this moment and it’s almost like he’s dealing with senility, or delirium, and he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. He realises he’s been in prison for years and now he’s out and realises he’s committed all these crimes and now he’s faced with that for the first time, and I think there’d be a sense of confusion and being overwhelmed.’ I was like, ‘Wow! Who would think to do that?’ That’s the beauty of Sam.”

Along with those performances, the aesthetic and design of the film is crucial to its success. Time and place is wonderfully rendered, and when the subject is raise of the obvious inspirations in creating a throwback exploitation film – invoking John Carpenter and Walter Hill – I get slightly more than I bargained for. “For a long time Nick and I said: ‘If you’re going to remake something, remake [Hill’s] Southern Comfort!’” he begins. “It’s like a Southern thriller; Blood Simple was a big influence, Red Rock West is a big one, The Hot-Spot with Don is a big one. Even The Mean Season with Kurt Russell... Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, Angel Heart – I love the whole feel that that had, Thin Blue Line – jeez, what else? No Country for Old Men, obviously, Fargo, anything that had that [noir] feel, really, kicked it off, but a lot of Walter Hill stuff, a lot of Carpenter stuff. I don’t think there’s a specific Carpenter movie that really hits this one, but his movies overall had a big impact. Korean thrillers, they were also a huge, huge influence along with all those great American thrillers. Specifically things like Memories of Murder, The Chaser; I think they have a great ability to throw a lot of tones together.”

It’s refreshing to have a filmmaker embrace his influences so openly, and post-production is where Mickle really discovered the “feel” he keeps returning to, and the film’s synth soundtrack is a massive part of that. “Usually while I’m editing I’ll do a lot of playing with temp scores, just to find the tone,” he explains. “There’s a lot of great issues in the movie, moral issues, but ultimately that’s not what Joe’s doing – he’s a yarn teller, a back-porch guy, a sit around the campfire and tell a story guy. So I think we had to have something that felt like it was OK to just be taken away by the story. I start to play around, and find stuff, and experiment, and try versions that feel different, and usually there’s a moment where you marry a scene with a sound, or a piece of music and it just works. For me, that was the cemetery scene, where Sam threatens Michael, there’s this great beat that comes in. I was trying to play with a lot of Sorcerer soundtrack queues by Tangerine Dream, and all of a sudden it just kinda hit. Like, ‘Yes! This finally gives you the OK to watch this like it’s one of those films.’ It’s so cool the way that context changes how you can ingest a movie.”

This genre feel is cemented by Damici’s appearance as a sleazy Sheriff; the writer-actor is such an old-school presence. Mickle is fulsome in his praise of his partner-in-grime, whom he met while working on a student film in 2001. “He’s great! I mean, the biggest crime is that he doesn’t get cast more. That makes no sense to me,” he offers, genuinely a bit bewildered and melancholy for the first time in our chat. However, Mickle soon perks-up when I posit that Damici seems to be the perfect cross of Powers Boothe and Nick Nolte in Cold in July. “Yeah! Yeah! Totally! That’s exactly what we wanted! I do not get it! I thought after Stakeland that his performance was so good that we’ll never be able to get him again,” he says with conviction. Then the melancholy again: “Maybe it’s just this weird tragedy of the time he was born; he’s the next Charles Bronson in an age where Hollywood thinks they don’t need Charles Bronsons anymore.” Hollywood certainly needs him writing with his buddy, though, and the cineliterate, dextrous and nimble features that are the result of their collaboration.

Cold in July had its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival and opened in UK cinemas 27 Jun