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Cold in July - Jim Mickle interview (exclusive)

Cold in July

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JIM Mickle talks about some of the challenges of bring Cold in July to the big screen and remaining faithful to Joe Lonsdale’s book.

He also talks about working with his cast, including Don Johnson, why Kurt Russell is among the film’s biggest fans, and what he enjoys about making films and playing with genre expectation.

Q. When did you first become aware of the novel by Joe Lonsdale? And haven’t you been trying to turn it into a movie for some time?
Jim Mickle: Yeah, definitely. I was first aware of Joe as a writer in 2003 when Bubba Hotep was released. I saw that film at a screening with Bruce Campbell, which was followed by a Q&A… I’m a huge Bruce Campbell fan. But after attending that and being impressed with the film, I thought that whoever came up with that story must be pretty cool and that I should read more of his stuff. So, I read a lot of his short stories and then, in 2006, read the book [Cold in July] and fell in love with it.

Q. How come it took so long to bring to the screen? Were you keeping it back deliberately to wait for the right moment?
Jim Mickle: No, that had nothing to do with me [laughs]. It was very hard to get anyone to pull the trigger on it. It’s very hard to be in the foreign sales and pre-sales game, when you’re trying to raise the money and attract a cast at the same time – I could never do the two together. I would get the cast, but no financing, and then vice versa. It came together and fell apart like that a number of times. But then Stakeland came up, which was much easier to make because it was a vampire film at the height of the vampire craze, and We Are What We Are was a remake of a foreign horror film, which is an easy sell, so those two movies just happened more easily and Cold in July fell on the back burner.

Q. Are you glad, in hindsight, that the delays occurred. Did the success of Stakeland and We Are What We Are make it easier to attract the cast you subsequently have?
Jim Mickle: Yes, definitely… and in that sense, I’m glad that it took as long as it did to get made. I described this for a long time as being like a really bad relationship. It would fall apart and it would feel like I was being cheated on. I’d slip away with my tail between my legs and couldn’t read another script or see another movie, but then something would come along and I’d fall in love all over again, only for the same thing to happen again. But I’m glad it did. I don’t think we would have gone as boldly as we did narratively or stylistically otherwise. I had much more confidence to be able to work with that kind of cast. We Are What We Are, in particular, had impressed Don [Johnson] and Michael [C Hall] a lot, so that was a big factor. It gave them confidence in me, which in turn gave me more confidence to experiment a little bit.

Q. How difficult was it to balance the many elements of the story? I mean, this starts out heading in one direction and changes path at least three times…. And how important is it to keep the film’s secrets?
Jim Mickle: Very important. The one thing that early on was really frustrating for me was seeing the early trailers or reading some lazy reviews that spoilt everything. It was incredibly frustrating. But right now, I feel like we’re in a good spot. People see it and are genuinely surprised even though they may already know certain directions that it might be heading in. But I fell in love with the book because of that. True, it also made it tougher to get made but I always felt that if it worked in the book, then it would work in the movie. We just had to finesse things and find out how to do it rhythmically.

Q. When it came to casting, what appealed to you about Don Johnson? Were you a fan of Miami Vice?
Jim Mickle: No, I wasn’t. I was aware of Miami Vice growing up but it was more about laughing at its excesses. At the time, I realise it was pretty forward thinking and bold and amazingly done in that sense. But I wasn’t old enough to properly appreciate it. So really it was more about seeing him pop up in things like Django Unchained and Eastbound and Down… stuff where he really seems to know who he is as a personality because that’s what we needed in this movie. We needed someone to come in at the point he does who is cocky to the point where anyone else would be obnoxious and yet you love him for it. And that’s Don in real life too [laughs]. Not many people can pull that off as effortlessly as he does – but he has that special something and he’s brilliant to work with.

Cold in July

Q. His character is a real scene-stealer and I gather he exists in more books. Is there a temptation to do something more with him?
Jim Mickle: Totally! We’re doing a TV series based on Joe’s books [Hap and Leonard] and Jim Bob is a character in a lot of those stories. So, I’m always nudging him and saying: “Don, do you know that we’re doing this?” So, yes, once it all comes together and we have dates, I think we’re going to try to find the best way to use him. I don’t think he’s dying to jump back into TV full-time but I would love to find a world where he can come in and steal scenes [laughs]. He’s just did From Dusk ‘til Dawn [the TV series] and he’s also got another show he’s working on right now. So, he wants to use himself judiciously. But we’ll see…

Q. And what appealed to you about Michael C Hall in the lead role?
Jim Mickle: What most impresses me about Michael is his ability to create characters and re-invent himself for what those characters need to be. I was such a Six Feet Under fan that I initially found it hard to accept him as Dexter. But then I saw how great he was in that role too. And I think that’s the genius of Michael… he’s not shy about recreating himself for what the character needs to be. In that sense, he’s like an old school actor for his ability to really change everything – his body language, his speech patterns, the way he moves…. A lot of actors get to a point of success where they end up playing different versions of themselves. But Michael is a true actor in the sense that he’ll change from character to character.

Q. Talking of transformative actors, Sam Shephard is also another great. How was working with him? And wasn’t he first on board?
Jim Mickle: No, Michael was first on board. We had actually offered it to Sam right away in back in 2008 and waited forever for him to read it. I don’t think he even remembers that. But after Michael came on board, suddenly all the red lights went away and it became a real movie. The financing clicked into place. And Sam and Don fell in only a week later – and both at the same time. I hadn’t realised that they were friends in real life and wanted to work together. They also hadn’t seen each other in a while, so this gave them a great chance to team up… It was one of those beautiful accidents.

Q. Cold in July represents your first move away from horror. Was that a conscious decision?
Jim Mickle: Yes, I guess so. It was the one we wanted to play with genre the most because it’s partly a mix-tape of genres in a fun way. I like genres and I like experimenting with them and playing with people’s expectations of them. So, yes, for myself I was glad we had made three horror films that didn’t feel like horror films and which all felt different from each other. But this was the ultimate challenge, especially as we’d just done a film [We Are What We Are] so female-centric and subtle, nuanced and understated that we wanted to come out of the gate flying on this one and really mix it all up. So, we really flipped every element and that was a lot of fun.

Q. Given that you enjoy toying with genre expectation, does that mean a move up to bigger films would be difficult? Or do you fancy taking on a larger budget and putting your own stamp on it if allowed?
Jim Mickle: I would definitely like to try something bigger and put my stamp on it. I feel I’m starting to do that with this film. But that said, I have always loved the horror genre because it’s the most forgiving genre – audiences are willing to suspend disbelief and encourage experiment more than in any other genre. So, I‘ve always been comfortable making art films dressed up as horror films and seeing how they have been received.

Q. Does doing the TV thing mean you’re stepping away from movies, or do you have something else you’re working on too?
Jim Mickle: Well, I’m doing the TV thing and then there’s two movies that I’m playing with right now. I’m currently trying to get a cast for both but they’re based on two fantastic scripts. One is a bigger studio film but the other one is a smaller, more Hitchcockian kind of story. I love both of them and have been talking to some very cool people about doing them. I made the mistake on Cold in July of just having the one thing to concentrate on and dealing with that emotionally has been tough. So, now I always try to keep a couple of different things going.

Cold in July

Q. Cold in July also looks great and I detected a lot of homage being played to the likes of the Coens, Cronenberg, Lynch and even a little Scorsese of Cape Fear thrown in?
Jim Mickle: Right, that was fun. Part of the challenge of making We Are What We Are was that I decided early on to try and lock into a certain style… a Michael Haneke kind of style that meant we would hold long takes and be very conservative. But that meant we had to stick to that tone for the whole film, whereas on Cold in July that changed every week. It was almost like a variety hour – and everything changed when Sam turned up in the movie and on-set, and it was the same with Don. It was very cool.

Q. What’s been your favourite response to Cold in July so far?
Jim Mickle: Good question! Well, Kurt Russell is my favourite actor of all time and he was at the film’s premiere in Sundance. I was so nervous for the entire film because you don’t know if it’s working or not… even though everyone applauded and laughed at the right time, you’re never sure whether the whole thing clicks and will get the overall response you’re hoping for. But during the end credits, I went and stood in the back and he came up and gave me a big hug and said: “That movie fucking rules!” If nothing else, that was the best compliment I could have received.

Q. Would you like to one day direct him in a movie?
Jim Mickle: Oh man, I would love to. We’ve talked about doing a couple of things… and, of course, his son, Wyatt, is in the film and is brilliant as Freddy. But I’d love to work with Kurt one day too. But who knows…

Watch the trailer l Read our review

Cold in July is released in UK cinemas on Friday, June 27, 2014