Shannon O’Connor ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Editor-In-Chief
Jim Mickle, director of indie horror films such as Stake Land and Mulberry St, has ventured into a new genre of filmmaking with his latest film Cold In July.
Cold In July, based on Joe R. Lansdale’s novella of the same title, is the gritty and dark tale of a man who makes a split-second decision to shoot an intruder in his house and the dark path the repercussions take him down. Although the film is not strictly horror, it still incorporates the suspense and intensity of a horror film, while also adding in stellar performances and an engrossing narrative.
Emertainment Monthly had the opportunity to speak with Mickle about his new film, the challenges of changing genres and the critical acclaim the film has been receiving.
What was it about Joe R. Lansdale’s novel “Cold In July” that made you want to adapt it into a feature film?
I think the fact that it didn’t really play by any rules; the fact that it sort of set up one story and then went to blow that story up and pick those and move them in another direction and it kept doing that. I was reading a lot things at the time that were all very simple and were very much like one concept, kind of very one road way. This was something that came along out of the blue and while it was doing some very tricky story-telling it also has this great ground and personal element that I really responded to. So, I finished the book and I just felt like “wow, I want to make a movie that makes people feel the way I felt when I read this book.”
What was the process of adapting the novel into the film?
It was hard. Everything we do I think we do a first test on, quickly, and then we spend a long time revising. Sometimes the final thing can maintain no elements from the original draft, and I think that the whole status about writing and rewriting is very true. The first draft is very long and written very quickly. Nick Damici does the bulk of the writing, he is my writing partner and he did a draft that was 160 pages; it was very long. The beauty of the book is that it is very short, it is a novella and you can read it very quickly. You can read it in one sitting, it is a page turner and you are sort of swept up in it and the energy of how quickly things move, you don’t get bogged down with lots of subplots. So, that was hard to pull off, to be able to maintain the characters, the energy of the movie and all the little touches and character pieces. To be able to get all of that and not have this big bloated, epic movie was really difficult. So, it was a constant massaging of [the screenplay], I want to say, over the course of 5 or 6 years while we were also waiting for funding to happen.
The cast of the film is incredible, what was the casting process like and was it difficult to find actors to meet the expectations you had in mind for the characters from the novel?
It was difficult for a very long time, because in order to get the film financed for a really long time financiers that had interest always wanted to shoot for the roof. They really had an unrealistic idea of who we were going to get to do [the film] and that was very difficult to accept, because I wanted the best people for the job and I didn’t want whoever had the best box office numbers that year or something. There is big song and dance along trying to find the right aspect there, and finally we were able to find a number where we could make the movie and really just make it with the best people possible. In the end, we wound up getting a lot of movie stars (laughs), it went really well. So, it was kind of an interesting process once the movie was greenlit, the finance people very quickly got [the actors] involved. They were all the first people we talked to; Michael [C. Hall] I met at a party at Sundance last year and he had read the script previously and responded to it and we both bonded over that quickly and half-drunkenly in a weird setting. And then Mike thought of Sam [Shepard] and Don [Johnson], we said it at the same time, and it turns out they had known each other previously and kind of always wanted to work together and now decades later they had this opportunity, so they both were kind of interested because of that. We sent the script to Sam eight years ago, when we first adapted it, to see if he would be into it and he never got back to us, and I don’t know what changed this time, but we approached him again and he was down.
This is the fourth feature length film and first non-horror film you have directed, how was this directing experience different from the others?
It was the easiest one to shoot especially because a lot of it was being able to rely on actors being awesome (laughs). Not that that had not been the case before, but I think you are always left with trying to do that, but also trying to pull a set piece that is awesome and horror elements [like] blood, effects, stunts and that kind of stuff and then being able to work with actors. So, a little bit less of that this time which makes thing a little bit easier and much more about what was on the page and what was motivating the characters. So, that was a little bit different, but we kind of went at it the same way, because it was the same exact crew that just did We Are What We Are. We did that a year before and most of those people has also come from Stake Land, our second film, and a lot of those people worked on Mulberry St, our first movie. So, it was the same crew going in [and] we were shooting in pretty much the same town where we had shot We Are What We Are. Even though [Cold In July] is not a horror film I think there are a lot of elements and style [in the film] that comes with a horror film. We wanted to create that sense of tension and dread, so it was a matter of bringing all of that to the story that didn’t necessarily have that big dent, [but] a little bit more of a western type of thriller idea.
The film is absolutely stunning, what was the greatest challenge in keeping the thematic atmosphere present throughout the entire film?
We had a lot of locations; more locations than we had ever shot before. With We Are What We Are, we spent three weeks of that movie basically in one house, and I think we spent over one week in one kitchen. This movie pops all over the place and that can be difficult, because you are spending a lot of time moving every day. You are not able to park at one location, take the equipment out overnight, come in the next morning and get up and pick up what’s left off. Every night you are packing up, you’re moving at once, you’re packing the trucks, you’re going to another spot, you’re driving, you’re stopping, you’re setting up, you’re getting everyone back in. So, that could be very difficult when you are trying to move quickly and be on the same exact schedule we had on all the other movies. That can be very, very, very, very difficult when you have to move sometimes two or three times a day. But, I think we had a crew that was very sharp, our locations were very, very smart about trying to schedule and find places that were in close proximity to each other. Whenever you can find a store that is also across the street from a video store we will also be shooting in, can make the transition not very hard. I think good prep led us to be able to be flexible and creative on set. I think we did a good job setting ourselves up for that.
When your film premiered it got a lot of critical acclaim at Sundance, what was it like getting that kind of response from both critics and audiences?
It was great, because we got good responses on our previous films, especially the one before [Cold In July], critics really liked it. Going into this one, I kind of went in thinking critics aren’t going to like this one as much… we are intentionally going to be a little trashy. There are a lot of things we jerk around in that is probably going to piss some people off, but that is part of the fun of it. I have learned over time to not try to please everyone, but make a movie that you want to see and trust that there is an audience for the movie you like as well. That is how we went into this one and then surprisingly so far it has be going better than the previous ones. So, it’s good and I think it is very good confidence and encouragement to keep following what you are interested in. It can be really hard to say “screw it” and don’t do whatever the most obvious thing is and whatever everyone thinks is the wave right now.
What projects are you working on next?
A couple of different things. Nothing firm yet, nothing official. A couple indie things, a couple of bigger studio things and we are starting our television show, it is going to be announced next week, I think. That has been kind of the bulk of stuff right now, exploring that world.
The film opens in limited release on May 23.
Watch The Trailer: