As we discussed the style of that film, Mickle (who comes off incredibly nice and intellectually and artistically curious) mentioned that his next film was set in the ’80s and had a very different, more neon, visual palate.
That new film, the thriller Cold in July, is out now and it’s terrific; another great cinematic growth spurt for Mickle, who with his writing partner Nick Damici, also made 2010’s acclaimed vampire film Stake Land.
Based on the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale, Cold in July weaves the taut Texas tale of quiet family man Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall) whose shooting of an intruder in his home makes him the target of the dead man’s vengeful father, Russel (Sam Shepard), himself a newly released felon.
But little in Cold in July is exactly what it seems, including the film itself. As he struggles with having killed another human, Dane’s understanding of the incident widens to eventually include political and police corruption, a gruesome crime ring, and Don Johnson having a ball as a charming and colorful good ol’ boy bounty hunter named Jim Bob. Meanwhile, the film serves up a solid mix of humor, tension, and, yes, some horrific violence.
When I spoke again with Jim Mickle a few weeks ago on the phone, we talked about the appeal of Lansdale’s novel, getting into an ’80s thriller Southern Fried Noir groove, and working with veteran actors like Hall, Shepard, and Johnson.
Cold in July opens today in select theaters.
Jim Mickle: There were things that came very naturally and things I came at as a horror-storyteller. Some scenes like cops staking out a house, I just imagined that as a horror movie in terms of anticipation and tension but with very minimal suggestions of things. Even in the second half of the film when things get quieter, more character-driven, I still imagined those scenes from a horror perspective, even if it’s not bloody or gory.
And obviously Joe Lansdale does so much horror writing, too, and I think all of that carries over in a way. But the movies I’m referencing in this film are all the same movies I was falling in love with in the ‘80s when I was falling in love with horror films, so it did feel like an extension of all that.
What drew you to Lansdale’s novel?
Mickle: Our first movie, Mulberry Street, was such an urban movie, set in lower Manhattan, and after we finished a year editing and doing post-production on that, I was just so burned out. So when we were done, I just picked up a pile of books to read to shake my brain up and escape from that.
What was it about Cold in July that jumped out at you?
Mickle: It keeps revealing itself, changing and evolving as the story goes. I love that—I love genre stories that shed their skin and become something new. And each one of Cold in July’s story sections would have made an awesome movie.
From the opening chapter, even the very first line, I was thinking, “Holy shit, this would be a great movie!” Then every time the story would change gear and head in a different direction, I’d think, “Wait, this would make a great movie, too! I want to make this movie!” I just wasn’t able to put it down.
What’s frustrating over time when you read scripts, even when you’re coming up with your own ideas and writing your own stuff, is there’s this traditional storytelling style and structure. You read a million stories about some kids going to a cabin in the woods.
It’s especially true in genre stuff where there’s a comfort in telling your audience exactly what they’re going to get and making it very clear what they’re in for and then spending 90 minutes making sure you deliver what you promised. I think all that makes for very uninspired storytelling, and for me this book shook all that up. It was so inspiring to read something that didn’t let you get comfortable, that kept you saying, “Wow!”
What made you keep it set in the ’80s? Was it just so that Hall’s character could have a mullet?
Mickle: [Laughs] The mullet was something Michael came up with the week before we started shooting.
It’s funny, I wanted to keep it in the ‘80s because reading this book made me feel like when I watched a lot of those movies for the first time in the ‘80s when I was a teenager. Like Blood Simple, The Evil Dead, and Carpenter’s The Thing, They Live, and Prince of Darkness. Joe’s book was written in ’89, and it made me feel like that teenager discovering something new for the first time.
So we wanted to stay in that time—we didn’t want to toy with cell phones or the modern politics surrounding gun control and defending your home. We wanted this movie to exist in that world with those movies I loved from the ‘80s.
As we got closer to shooting, we even looked at Roadhouse for things like production design and costuming. I’ve always been the harshest critic of the ‘80s, but while making this film, I fell back in love with all those sounds and colors, and this became a celebration of all that.
What were your influences on this film?
Mickle: Really it was the sub-genre of the Southern thriller, like John Dahl’s films (Red Rock West). Sort of Southern Fried Noir. That sub-genre kind of petered out after Dahl’s Joy Ride (2001). Nobody really does that anymore, and that was something I wanted to do, to connect with. I wanted to make another worthy entry in that sub-genre.
You mentioned Blood Simple as an obvious inspiration. What I love about this film is that when it starts out, you think it’s Cape Fear, but by the second half it felt almost like Jaws: Three disparate men coming together to venture out and hunt down a monster.
Mickle: When it came to the different tones of different sections, we would definitely talk about it in terms of, “Okay, we’re in the third movie now.” And there was some discussion as to whether or not there would be a fourth movie inside it all.
Mickle: This was the easiest movie to shoot of the four we’ve done. What was difficult was giving them enough rope. Michael’s such a pro–he can work with whatever you give him.
There were times on the set when I’d be hemming and hawing over the script, saying, “I think we may want to cut this line, it’s too expository,” and Michael would cheerfully say, “Just give it to me, it’s fine—I’ll make it work.” He can sell a line with just a tilt of his head. That guy’s just a complete package acting-wise.
Then when Sam and Don came in later they brought a new energy. At that point we’d do more stopping to talk through things, all the things that make the movie better. There’d be lines that Sam wouldn’t want to do, and he’d change them and make them better.
It got to the point where we were having so much fun, watching this thing grow and morph as we went. We were sticking to a 25-day schedule while shooting a film that was longer than anything we’d done before, but it helped to be working with Michael and Don who were used to working very quickly. Still, we’d try to stop and think of new things to do, even on that tight schedule.