Interview: Cold In July director Jim Mickle David Watson July 2, 2014 Editor's Choice, Interviews 1972 With his twisted, ‘80s-set, neo-noir Cold In July now in cinemas, Movie Ramblings’ David Watson caught up with director Jim Mickle the morning after the film’s UK Premiere at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. David Watson: Congratulations on the film, loved it! The film screened last night to a packed audience at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, how did it go down? Jim Mickle: Great! Awesome! It was a really good audience. It’s funny when people file in and you wonder: “Are they going to like it? Is this going to be an audience that likes it?” There’s ones that come that are obviously sorta fans and fanboys and you think: “Aw, they’re gonna love this movie!” And then whenever you see grey hair, I always think like: “Are they gonna think this is too violent?” I saw a lot of that last night and they really seemed to love it! DW: Scotland’s a very violent culture… You mentioned fanboys, obviously the genre you’ve been most associated with is horror. This is still quite a dark film, what was it that attracted you? JM: The story really, you know, I read the book and I like grounded genre, when you can picture yourself in something or it feels like the kinda story or world that you can step into, I love that! This story, to me I just loved this idea that it was an everyday family man, it felt like it could’ve been anyone I grew up with, it felt like it coulda been my father, whose thrown into these, um, extreme genre conflicts was just fascinating. And the fact that it really puts him through the wringer, through everything, through a revenge thriller, through a paranoid conspiracy thriller towards vigilantism. I love that it puts this guy through all the movies I love. DW: One of the things that struck me about the film is, there’s a consistent thread of darkness, but there is no consistent tone. When I watched it, I was enjoying it but I was a little disappointed because I thought it was just going to be Cape Fear…and then it changes. And from that point on, I never knew where it was going to go. JM: I love that, that’s from the book but that was something we really wanted to make sure we kept. I had that same feeling reading the book. There’s an interesting thing, there’s like an interactivity to receiving a story, whether it’s a movie or a book, there’s a response that you go through. I remember having that same experience with the book thinking that weird sense of comfort or familiarity, like: “Oh, this is Cape Fear, this is that set-up…Cool! Great! I liked that story, I’ll like this one.” And then all of a sudden when it flips, there’s a challenge that comes with it that movies don’t put people through a lot. Books more so. In that sense, I think there was a lot of Korean thrillers that I love that, I felt like after I’d read the book and we were starting to do the movie and people were saying you can’t do a movie that’s really three movies in one or that has a shifting point of view, where your protagonist almost shifts midway through, I kept pointing a lot at Bong Joon-Ho’s films and saying there’s movies that mash-up tone and genre and deal with tonal shifts in a way that’s rewarding, it’s not a mistake you know, they’re there for a reason. DW: Obviously it’s a violent film, a dark film, but watching it again I realised, until the end, there isn’t that much onscreen violence. And the most shocking act of violence in it, we never see. JM: Yeeeeeah…We struggled with that bit in a weird way…and it was something that we needed for the story yet was something that I think too often in genre films is exploited and done because filmmakers think audiences, you know, want to see that. And I was like: “I don’t wanna see that! I never wanna see that!” I hate rapes in movies! I hate stuff that’s just, you know… So in our case, it was a piece that needed to be there to make the story work and to shift these characters and to set-up who this guy was. And I was happy to just leave it to the imagination and that was gonna be worse than anything we tried to shoot. It’s funny, when you start thinking about snuff movies; there’s a long, long, long line of that in stuff. From, I think Videodrome was like the best case of that. There’s a film called Thesis that had that. There’s 8mm. We went back and watched 8mm to see how they handled it, all they would do is show it and then cut back to Nicolas Cage and he’d go: “Aaaah!” and it was obvious that he’d never seen what they were showing. They were just like: “Now react to this!” and he would make a face. So we were always trying to find “What’s our version going to be?” And finally our version was “Leave it!” Don’t try to shock or to top it, just let people imagine it. DW: What’s great about the scene is it works entirely on the actors’ reactions, Don Johnson turning round and saying “We never show this to him!” JM: Yeah, and we didn’t show them. We shot that video, we shot it that weekend and then, I think we came in the next day or two days later to shoot the scene where they watch it. And we didn’t show them anything beforehand, we were literally like: “We’re gonna put a tape on, we’re gonna film you guys watching it…” I think it was the first scene that day, everyone comes in, you’re drinking coffee, it’s a late start, you’re joking around, Don’s talking about what he did that weekend, everyone’s in a light mood, it’s the first day of the week, everyone’s excited, you know? And then we’re like: “OK! Great! Action!” hit play and then we just shot them for eight minutes. And it was great because everything there is like a natural response to what’s going on. DW: The film has a very organic life to it, is that something you always strive for? JM: Yeah, I think so. In this one it changed because, at first, when it is Cape Fear, we wanted it to have, I wanted it to feel like a familiar genre set-up so we shot it in a genre way, lots of creeping cameras and low-angles, we really tried to up the light and the style of it. And then once Don comes into the film – and it was the same on the shoot, he steps in midway through – it became about making sure we captured the energy of those three guys, that they had, because at that point that was the most interesting, most fun thing, and so it was the allure of all this. And so at that point we sorta shifted how we were gonna tell the movie in a lot of ways. We spent about half an hour at the top of each day going through what the scenes were going to be, letting them change things if they wanted to change them, letting Don adapt the dialogue because he had so much dialogue. We’d change coverage up, we did a lot more improvisational stuff, we let stuff go. It was a cool experience shooting the film, whereas We Are What We Are was very precise and everything was very much “This is the tone we’re going for, we can’t break out of this!” This one was more about adapting to the different energies in the movie. DW: Obviously we’ve mentioned Don Johnson already but you’ve got some iconic actors in this movie. You’ve got Sam Shepard. You’ve got Michael C. Hall who everyone knows from Dexter. You’ve got Don Johnson. How was it wrangling those…quite big personalities, I’d imagine? JM: They are but it’s so funny when you get…they still have a job to do, so I’m always amazed, there’s that weird, surreal moment when you call “Cut!” and, like, three guys look at you to see: “How did I do?” And I’m like: “What the fuck? You’re Sam Shepard! You’re fucking great! All you guys are amazing!” We had the same experience with Michael Parks his first day on We Are What We Are, we were just like: “Oh my God! Michael Parks!” My favourite actor…Nick’s favourite actor (Nick Damici, screenwriter of all Mickle’s films)…we’d been shooting up until that point with Julia (Garner) and a bunch of younger actors, who were fantastic, but they’re younger so you’re coaching them through stuff…and all of a sudden Michael shows up! And I remember talking to him about characters at one point and all he wanted to do was talk about Robert Mitchum because he’d been best friends with Robert Mitchum. I’d be like: “Let’s get back to the character; how do you like to prepare?” and he’d say: “I just wet my lips and walk on through!” He was very much like “I just do my thing…” So then we shoot, and the first take, as soon as it’s done, he just looks around the corner to see how I responded. And it’s just such a weird feeling as a director, cause you’re like, I dunno, “You did great man, you’re fantastic!” But then you start to learn they still need shaping. I look at it as I give them the colouring book and they colour stuff in. And when they go outside the lines you say “That’s great but can you stay more inside the lines.” or “You know what? That’s great! Keep going.” So then it becomes more about just being a bumper to keep them herded along the way but still let them be themselves and do what they do. The thing with this one was each guy was wildly different from the other guys. Don had a lot of input, he had a lot of stuff he wanted to do dialogue-wise, he had a lot of stuff he wanted to do story-wise. He likes to play a game when he reads a script, “What’s the scene that’s not gonna make the movie?” because, always, stuff gets cut, and he always knows what it’s gonna be. And then Michael, I remember, had just come from television where he didn’t have that freedom and he was so, I think, used to being told exactly what to do and where to go. And then all of a sudden, I think for him it was sorta like: “Oh wow, there’s a give and take here…” So, he really responded to that but at first it was, like: “Wow! I’m having to be more decisive than I’m used to.” I remember when actresses were interested, I would send him a list off all the actresses I’d met with that all were desperate to do the movie. And I was like “Dude, help me out, help me make a decision. This is gonna be your wife here, you’re gonna share two weeks with her. You’re gonna be making out with her, you’re gonna be making out with her…you help me here!” And he was just like: “They’re all good. See you on set.” Dude, come on, help me! And then Sam puts incredible importance on details that I never think of. We’d start a scene and he’d be “You want me to do this?” and I’m like “What are you talking about?” But there’d be his one line in there that, I’m like, totally looking at everything else, but that’d be the thing he’d focus on. And I think that’s interesting about him…He has a way of turning meanings of everything and constantly looking at re-evaluating details and things that change it, so that it’s not what you expect. Certain lines in there that were very John Wayne, very old-fashioned cowboy, he would totally underplay it in this heartbreaking way. So I felt in my job, it was part of my job to be a little schizophrenic. Right before a take, I’d have to shift into those three different styles and that was cool, that kept you on your toes. DW: One of he things that struck me about the film, it’s set in the eighties but it has a very seventies feel, it feels like you’re watching Rolling Thunder or something, particularly towards the end. JM: Crazily enough, I didn’t see Rolling Thunder until after we were done with the film. It was after Sundance. It was one of those films I’d always heard about…People would read the script and be like: “It really reminds me of Rolling Thunder!” And I think it wasn’t available on DVD for, like, a really long time. And when I went to Sundance somebody reviewed it and the next day were like “You were obviously really inspired by Rolling Thunder!” and I was like “I’ve never seen Rolling Thunder!” But it was a big influence on Joe, the writer of the books, so I think that’s how those elements found their way into it. But that inspired Southern Comfort, that was a big one, you know, that sort of story of, like, ordinary men on a mission, especially in the South…I think all of those things had a big influence on it. And then I think also part of it was we made a stylistic decision to say “This 1989 in East Texas.” But 1989 in East Texas is probably more like eighty three or eighty four, so we tried to backdate everything. We kept saying “I don’t want it to be Wedding Singer.” I didn’t want it to be Adam Sandler. DW: There’s still some good mullets in there. JM: Yeah, yeah, totally, totally. Those things we went for and that was more once casting got involved. Michael, it was his idea to do the mullet, and once he did that, then I think other people were kinda free to do what they want with their hair. DW: Obviously, you and Nick have enjoyed a great collaboration over the last few films. Do you have plans to work again? JM: Yeah. We’re doing the TV show right now, we’re doing Hap And Leonard which is a TV show based on Joe’s book series. That’s gonna feel very Cold In July. We’re writing that right now, he’s just sent me another draft, so we’re staying together on that. There’s a couple of films I’m looking at right now that are scripts I fell in love with that he’s not a part of that. But still, I think, you know, we always want to work together and now we’re getting to the point where he’s able to start doing…he did this film Late Phases, a werewolf film, so we’re starting to be able to, uh, have experiences outside of each other and that’s always good. DW: And is he as scary in real life as he is onscreen? JM: No! He’s a total pussycat! He’s a sweetheart! I always laugh ‘cause I’m sure he’s at home right now, probably cooking. He loves to cook, he’s like an old Italian woman. He plays really, like, soft songs on acoustic guitar and gardens. It’s funny, he doesn’t have any of that, yet, onscreen and he carries so much of it. But he’s a softie!