It’s not often one sees a genre director ascend the independent film ladder as Jim Mickle has in the last two years. At Sundance 2013, his We Are What We Are was the clear favorite of the midnight slate, going all the way to Cannes after its Park City debut. How does a young filmmaker follow that up? Strike while the iron is hot. Mickle is back only 12 months later, and this time he’s in competition with an adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s Cold in July, a genre hybrid that is almost certain to divide audiences. It’s a unique thrill ride with echoes of John Carpenter and Michael Mann but filtered through Mickle’s growing visual confidence and remarkable skill at telling a story. It’s not an easy work to describe in standard genre terms, which is certain to frustrate some viewers and thrill others. Michael C. Hall plays an average Texas father in 1989, whose life is shattered when someone breaks into his house and the family man defends his home. Honestly, any more than that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, it’s a film about how an act of violence can open a path to an even-more-violent world than we’d like to think exists. With Sam Shepard’s best performance in years and great supporting work from Don Johnson, Cold in July is not your standard Sundance competition film. And that’s just the way Jim likes it.
Does it feel different this year?
Yes. But I’m trying to think of exactly how. I think there are different expectations because it’s not a traditional horror thing and so that means that there’s a different sense of “what it might be.” Now, I’m kind of filled with expectations of what the response might be. With We Are What We Are, we took our own stance but it was still a remake, so people knew the general concept. This is based on a book but it’s also stylistically…we do things very differently and so I’m wondering how that is going to go over.
Being in competition has to feel a little different too. Does it make you feel more pressure?
Yeah. I think so. Last year, not that it’s under the radar but it’s in a sidebar [the “Midnight” programming]. There’s a slight sense of “It’s a horror movie, what’s it going to amount to?” In a way, I think that helped the film last year because we were striving for something more and we could stand out. This year, it’s almost the opposite – a genre thing in competition. And we have bigger names. Everything ratchets up a little bit.
You’re a “genre thing” but what fucking genre? As I took notes, I was like drama-thriller-mystery-comedy-horror. How do you balance that many genres and keep the rhythm and not make it feel like you’re lurching through a bunch of short films?
Editing. And we spent six years on the script. That’s a long time. And balancing it all through Michael – through his character. We talked about “As long as you’re the through line in this. As long as your journey is what sort of holds all the stuff together, that’s what’s going to work.” A lot of it was the point of view, which, hopefully, holds it together.
Without spoiling, there are points where it does feel like it almost becomes Sam’s [Shepard] story. And you have to be conscious to bring that back. Did you ever feel like it was both of their stories?
Totally. I still do. It’s hard without getting into spoilers but I remember people early on saying that it started as Michael’s story and then became Sam’s story and they would say it like it was a bad thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. We’re used to watching movies with a hard through line. I hope that’s what’s refreshing about this. I like movies that are going to do something like that. If it works and it’s emotionally satisfying, hopefully the audience gives over in a way that you don’t give over when it’s spoon-fed.
I think this is your riskiest project to date. You have to know that not everybody will go on this genre-jumping journey. And yet others will love that riskiness about it. So, are you prepared for that “This may not be for everybody” response?
Yeah, I am. I am prepared. I think we need more films that do shake things up. This came around at a time when I was reading a lot of scripts and seeing a lot of movies where five minutes in I could tell you exactly which category it was going to fall into and where it was going to end and who was going to live and who was going to die. I don’t know. You get to a point, not even as a filmmaker but as a film watcher, where you get really jaded. Expectations are lowered. Hopefully, this belongs in a category that shakes that up. To tell a story, after Mulberry Street – it debuted at SxSW and didn’t have an amazing response. The audience was eh and our first couple reviews were really bad. We met with some of the sales people and somebody said, “Oh, so what are you going to change?” “What am I going to change?” “Yeah, you can use some of the feedback from audiences and critics. It’s a common thing.” And I was like, “I’m happy with the film. If I wasn’t happy with the film, I’d think about it.” They told me that within the horror genre, there are six definable sub-genres and if you’re audience can’t tell within the first ten minutes which genre it falls into, they lose it. It’s become a sales tool. It blew my mind.
The film is so visually confident in that it doesn’t always explain itself or its characters like so many horror films. Can you talk a bit about using visuals instead of dialogue or traditional plot beats to build tension and tell your story?
The hardest part about this is that Joe is a very verbose writer. He’s defined by characters that talk a lot. It was learning the art of adaptation and learning why things work in a book and not in a movie. The first draft was 160 pages. It had every scene, character, line of dialogue. We were so proud that we were so loyal but it screwed over the book because it’s a quick read. It’s a novella. You never stop to think about how things are adding up. You’re being bombarded. And we had lost that in an epic script. It was learning how to pare it down and strip it down. Sam’s character in the book talks all the time. [He doesn’t much in the film.] This works in the novel but it isn’t going to work on-screen. Sam, especially, is going to be able to say more with a look than this four-page dialogue scene. Learning that as we went…it was Nick who has the ability to pare things down. And Linda our producer. And then Sam came in and cut it down even further.
Why Michael C. Hall? What does he bring that other actors wouldn’t?
Fearlessness. I think he’s one of the great actors out there. Dexter was the hardest show for me to get into because I was such a Six Feet Under fan. My only hesitation ever about it was that the perception is that he’s a really complicated, not normal guy because of his characters. We’re going to have to go out of our way to make him seem normal. I met him at a party here and I was like “You’re the most normal guy I’ve ever met. That’s great!” It’s a testament to what a great actor he is. He wrapped Dexter and he came to set three days later. I don’t know if anyone else could have managed the tone as well as he did. He kept saying that he’s the guy who has to make it believable that Sam Shepard and Don Johnson can exist in the same movie. Literally and figuratively in the back seat.
Back to the origin. You read the book casually for pleasure and started talking to [collaborator] Nick [Damici] about it?
Yeah, we did the sound mix for Mulberry Street in October 2006 and it had been two years of working on this very urban, very city horror film. I’m from a rural background and I didn’t want to make another city movie and I wanted to clear my head of that. I was a Lansdale fan and I had a stack and I thought it would help. I read a bunch and I think it was the third one in the stack and I read it in a couple hours. I was shaking with “This is so many different elements that I like in a way that I hadn’t seen.”
It was written in ’89 and so that’s when the film is set but did you ever consider updating it?
No. Kind of from the beginning. I think there’s a lot of things that it says about masculinity and manhood. It needs that timeless thing. If it’s too on the nose for now, it’s not going to work. We’re in a different era. All of our movies have a timeless feel and I think this couldn’t feel like today.
I also see ‘70s and ‘80s film influences on this movie. Down to [Composer] Jeff [Grace’s] Tangerine Dream riff of a score.
You use score heavily in this film and it seems to change as the genre jumps. Talk about use of music as a tone-setter or even character.
Jeff and I had been talking about it for years because this was what we were going to do before We Are What We Are but then that came about and we did that. Even during Stake Land, we were already talking about it. But if we had done it then, I don’t think we would have taken so many risks narratively. Also stylistically. I don’t think we would have gone as far. The extremes wouldn’t have been as extreme. Even musically, originally it was conceived as a Western. As the film came together, it took a life of its own and I started sending scenes to Jeff and I talking and I was watching a lot of these John Carpenter Blu-ray re-issues and I was just falling in love in with them. This is an era that was a really interesting era. There was a playfulness to these things. And the stories were more complicated in some ways. Even in basic thrillers, they were going for more.
Some people might say that this isn’t a horror movie and yet it kind of feels like one by the end. How do YOU define it? If you worked in a video store, where does this go?
I have NO idea. And I love that I don’t know where to put it. And I love that it’s going to piss a lot of people off. I liked treating it as sort of a celebration of all of these things. We Are What We Are wore its heart on its sleeve emotionally and I wanted to make something that wore its heart on its sleeve in terms of movies – the stories that defined Joe’s career and ours.
Cold in July premieres Saturday, January 18, 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival.