Jim Mickle interview: Cold In July, thrillers, Argento

We talk to director Jim Mickle about his latest film Cold In July, the secret of suspense and his influences, from the Coens to Argento...

Where Hollywood appears to have largely abandoned the thriller genre in favour of ever bigger action adventures and sequels, indie filmmakers have stepped in to fill the breach. Earlier this year saw the release of Jeremy Saulnier’s quirky low-budget genre piece Blue Ruin – a satisfyingly grisly thriller with a great everyman performance from Macon Blair.

This Friday sees the UK release of Cold In July, the latest film from director Jim Mickle. It stars Dexter’s Michael C Hall as Richard, an ordinary family man thrown into a wild and unpredictable criminal underworld after shooting a mysterious intruder in his living room one night.

Adapted from Joe Landsdale’s novel of the same name, Cold In July initially slips into the southern neo-noir subgenre, before events start to take one abrupt turn and then another, until we’re no longer quite sure what’s going to happen next. Cold In July sees Mickle stray beyond the horror genre he explored so successfully in Mulberry St, Stake Land and We Are What We Are, yet there are elements of both the gore and dread of those earlier films in his latest work.

With a stunning ensemble cast – Hall’s joined by Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, who are both brilliant as a criminal father and a private eye, respectively – and a slick streak of black humour, Cold In July is a must-see entry in an increasingly rarefied genre.

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We had the privelege of sitting down with Jim Mickle earlier this week. Here’s what the director had to say about the difficulties he had getting the film made in the current climate, his inspirations and influences, and building up an air of suspense through framing, editing and dazzling splashes of colour.

When it came to adapting Cold In July, was it the slipperier aspects of it that interested you? Because it isn’t a by-the-numbers thriller, is it?

Yeah, that was the big draw – doing something that didn’t feel overly familiar. There are elements that feel completely different, so it’s a combination.

If this was a 50s noir thriller, it could easily have been told from the perspective of Don Johnson’s private eye character, couldn’t it?

Yeah, that’s right! [Laughs] I liked the idea that it felt like an ordinary guy’s story. It could have been my story or your story. I kept describing it as being like my dad, because that was the age he would have been with a son my age in 1989. If he was going through life as normal, and then all of a sudden he got thrown into a film noir plot, where you couldn’t tell where things were going to go next, I thought that was such a cool way to tell a story.

As well as this ordinary protagonist, which is unusual in itself, you have those scenes like the one where they’re cleaning up the house after the opening scene. How important was it to get those in the film?

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Oh, huge. The first one was in the book, where they clean up after the shooting. It was a scene I always loved, and I remember when we had long drafts people would always look through to try to find ways to make it tighter, and it was always the same thing: why do we need to see this? Why don’t we cut it?

I was like, “No!” If anything, cut the shooting. This is the stuff that you need. I felt you were finding the everyday, normal things that you wouldn’t think of in a noir as opposed to the ones you’d expect. The stuff that made it feel more real and grounded.

I think the thing this has in common with your earlier horror films is, your attitude to violence is realistic and unflinching. Is it important to you to show violence for what it is?

I think so. I’m not that interested in spectacle, and I don’t think we’d have had the budget for that luxury. I think part of it was coming from our first movie [Mulberry St] where we didn’t have any money to spend, knowing that we were going to do something that was so heavy. I remember saying at the time, “We’re making a zombie film. There are 900 zombie films being shot right now, and all of them have a bigger budget, more spectacle, better special effects. How are we going to make ours stand out in any way?”

Our approach was to treat it as real. Let’s make it the most realistic one. Let’s make it the one you can relate to the most. So it carried over from there, when we realised how rewarding that was for the cast, for everybody. When you have all the money in the world and you can do what the hell you want, it doesn’t necessarily feel like your film has a point of view or a perspective.

Hopefully ours, when we do go there [with violence], it has a reason in terms of narrative and character, but also point of view.

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I was thinking as well that in the 80s and 90s, medium-to-low budget thrillers were quite common, but now they seem to have gone the way of the western, which is disappointing. Why do you think that is?

I know, I know. I think it’s the polarisation of movies. The movie industry, like the economy, like everything else, has grown further and further apart. So now it’s giant tent pole movies or found footage movies. Or, what’s the least amount of money I can spend on a movie, but drive in massive numbers of people? Then you wind up with Paranormal Activity or Saw or The Conjuring.

So it’s frustrating, because I feel we’re at a point where, 10 or 15 years ago, or 20 years ago, we’d have been able to survive and work our way up the ladder one rung at a time. We’d have been able to make a really cool ladder of movies that we’d be proud of and would have a chance to succeed.

It’s frustrating now, because it feels like we have to either downgrade the scope of the movies and do something really tiny, or go so unapologetically commercial that we wind up with a giant tent pole movie. Because really, in between… it’s like this movie. It took so damn long to get this movie made because people don’t have confidence or interest in doing this middle ground stuff.

And you have this insanely good cast.

Yeah. That was what got it made eventually, was the cast . That was what gave us the luxury to do it.

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As you say, there’s a huge divide between big tent pole movies and low-budget movies. And you have filmmakers who get to make one low-budget movie, like Gareth Edwards who went on to do Godzilla. Would you want to make that kind of jump, or do you enjoy working independently?

I like it, but I feel we’ve hit a ceiling, you know? It’s frustrating. Especially in the States with unions. You get to a point where you can go so high, but then you can’t take one more step. You gotta take a huge step, and once you’ve taken that, you’re in this middle ground where no one wants to make those movies unless you have the greatest cast ever. But a lot of the time, those casts don’t want to do those movies because they’re getting offers that are 20 times bigger for the [tent pole] films.

So it gets to be this hard thing where you don’t have a lot of room to finesse stuff. One of the things I might do next is a much bigger film. It’s not quite Godzilla, but it’s more in that direction. And I like that, I feel like it’s been a good training ground doing these movies, and if there were more people who did do that, who did do the Gareth Edwards thing where they step from a story motivated by what needed to be there, like character and things like that, before going into [a big budget film] – that’s much better than a commercial filmmaker who makes really cool commercials but all of a sudden has to handle large-scope drama, you know? 

Well, then you have the grounding, don’t you, which is important. Going back to Cold In July and your other films, I get the impression that your range of influences is incredibly broad.

[Laughs] Yeah, it is. Definitely. In this one more than the others, I feel we got an opportunity to show that in a way. The other films were definitely horror films, but I went out of my way to make them not feel like horror films. On Mulberry St, we wanted to make it feel like a 70s neighbourhood drama, or like The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three for the most part. On Stake Land, we wanted it to feel like a Terrence Malick road movie, and We Are What We Are was supposed to be a beautiful period piece – feminine, almost like a Jane Austen thing that happened to have a dark, horrible motivation behind it all.

This is the one, because it isn’t a horror film, that we had a little more fun exploring the genre elements to it. It’s like a mix tape of different genres, and it felt fun to ride that and know that the audience, like the book, would be thinking, “Oh, this is Cape Fear.” Then as soon as they settle in, it jerks into something else. I wanted the film to have that stylistic change.

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How important was colour to the film from a design standpoint?

Very important. We wanted it to be something subdued at the beginning, but then as characters came in it got more seductive. The perfect example is, there’s a moment where Sam [Shepard] walks into a shop that feels like it’s out of Suspiria. We chose this diner with this neon light everywhere, and he walks into a corridor with this harsh yellow light, a harsh red, a harsh blue, and I was like, “Yes! This is perfect!”

And then by the time Don comes in – especially the last third of the film – then we started doing hot pink and turquoise and going everywhere. So it was huge. Tough, because I come from an illustration background – I used to do storyboards. And I wanted to do comic books. If I hadn’t done horror films, I probably would have gone into comic book illustrations, and so I’m very much like black ink on white paper. When I think of things it’s usually black and white, and I don’t think about colour all that much until I have to.

It’s like wardrobe. I don’t think of a thing until I’m confronted by it, and it’s like, “Oh! What a cool thing to play with!” Colour’s sort of the same thing. This is a good example of being able to go crazy with colour and let it be a big selling point.

Moonlight was also something we talked about a lot. Moonlight, in that era of filmmaking – the 70s, 80s and 90s – always had that very blue moonlight. I always loved that. It was in the movies I grew up with, and it’s so old-fashioned, to have that feel. I remember when I was in film school, there was this big push to having white or silver moonlight. People were saying, “That’s what moonlight really looks like. We should do that.” So on this one, we found this really cool colour called peacock, which is blue, but it also has a little bit of green  in it so it didn’t feel completely old-fashioned – it felt like a reinvention of the blue moonlight look. 

I’ve got written down here in my notes and underlined, look: Argento!

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Cool, yeah!

I also have Mario Bava, and Corman’s Masque Of The Red Death.

Yeah, totally!

Suspiria was a big, big influence. Overall, you know? Then there’s elements of the Coens.

And maybe John Dahl’s thrillers, too? Red Rock West, The Last Seduction…

Very much, very much. Before we started shooting, I sent everyone Blood Simple and Red Rock West and Memories Of Murder, the South Korean film. I sent out those three movies and said, “This is the kind of film we’re making”.

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When I fell in love with movies as a teenager, I think I watched The Evil Dead and later that week watched Blood Simple for the first time. They became these two strands of movie interests I had growing up. Red Rock West and all of those southern thrillers and Texas noirs were as formative as horror films.

One of Cold In July’s themes seems to be about masculinity.  Is that fair to say?

That and fatherhood I think. A lot of people mention masculinity, but someone wrote this great thing that was about the elements of fatherhood. Which are very similar, but that was the specific part of masculinity [it addresses]. I didn’t want it to be like Straw Dogs, where it’s about a man who couldn’t stick up for himself but then finds the ability to. It was also about a guy looking for a father figure and also trying to shape himself as a father – and in the beginning, not feeling comfortable with his son, with what his role was.

I thought it was about the violence that men are capable of.

Yeah, definitely. I think that comes from Sam’s character being a guy who can only articulate himself through violence and not through words or nuanced thinking.

Do you think it offers a quite bleak view?

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It does. Hence the humour. I think the humour was a big part of the book, and we wanted to carry it over. With We Are What We Are, it was a very specific film because it was supposed to be bleak and an emotional gut punch, and I’m glad it was. I didn’t want to just make gut-punching movies without a sense of entertainment to them, so I think this was a good way to go – it has a comic streak running through it. 

I understand that it isn’t a totally faithful adaptation of the book.

Yeah, mostly in terms of narrative – but tonally I think we nail it. It’s funny, because I went back and read a little bit recently, and it was funny to realise, “Oh wow, we did change that.” or “Oh, we did take that from the book. I thought we’d changed it.” I think there’s stuff we’d change, but it was in order to keep it focused. There was a couple of plot twists we had to reinvent, because in the book you could spend chapters exploring someone’s inner thoughts, but in cinematic terms, that doesn’t work. It doesn’t connect, so we had to finesse those scenes.

It must have helped that you had a cast who are so good at articulating things non-verbally.

Definitely. The big one was the fatherhood thing. It was something that was in the book, and we had more of it in the script – we went crazy with the whole father-son thing. There was a whole other sub-plot, which was only snipped out of scenes, where [Michael C Hall’s character, Richard] is trying to repair this photo frame with a picture of his father in it. When I talk about it now, it sounds so heavy-handed, but it was a big part of the script and what we shot. The beauty was that Michael sold so much of that, that we didn’t need all these things anymore.

Do you and Nick [Damici, co-writer, actor and regular collaborator] often talk about the nuts and bolts of suspense – what makes a scene work from that perspective?

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A little bit. That’s more something I’m interested in, particularly when it comes from shooting and editing. It’s something I wind up writing myself. That whole piece when they’re asleep  and you don’t know what’s going to happen next – that’s my favourite sequence in the whole movie. I love the idea that you don’t know where or when something’s going to come from. We’ve hopefully established that the movie will do anything at that point, and will duke in a million different directions. I love that whole experience of having an audience not know what’s going to happen, and to do it without dialogue.

That’s more during shooting, with Ryan [Samul] the cinematographer, playing with that whole idea. I remember in film school – speaking of Argento – Terror At The Opera, where she has the needles in her eyes? I had this teaching assistant, he did this whole class on scene direction. And in that sequence, when she’s got that knife, I think, they used every side of the frame as a threat, so it could come from the right, from the left, from above, from below and also from straight on. There’s this great sense of claustrophobia, of not knowing where the attack’s going to come from. I was fascinated by that whole lesson.

So I think we tried to play with that in the cinematography and the editing, and also the music. I think Jeff [Grace], who’s done a lot of our films and Ti West’s films, he has a footing in horror films, but he studied under Howard Shore for years and years and years. So he always has all of that to draw on. So now we’ve done three movies together, it was great fun to mix things up and use those things to create suspense. 

You co-edited as well, so that must be important to you, to get those suspense beats working precisely.

Yes, yes. Huge. One of the hardest parts of this movie was not editing it all myself. Because I’d done the others, and then this one… at the end of the day, it was good because it brought in an outside opinion. But there were times when it was really frustrating, because I’d be saying, “We’ve already done this. I don’t want to do it again. I want to push it in a new direction.” But editing is my favourite part of the process by far.

I used to say you’re not under a time constraint, but that’s not really true – with more and more pressure, you’re totally under a time constraint. I love being in a dark room by myself and being able to test ideas out without having a hundred people standing around saying, “Four minutes until lunch” and all those other things that happen on set that can be so frustrating. I love shaping the movie, and piecing it together in the way it’s supposed to fit.

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I think what’s good about it, on the subject of suspense, is that you try to second guess the movie and you never quite get it right. It feels like a while since I’ve seen a film that does that.

There’s an interactive aspect to it. That comes from Joe’s book, I’ve got to give him credit – it all comes from him. It’s why I wanted to make it so badly. I got to the end of the book and I had sweaty finger prints on the pages because you never know where it’s going to go. I think it also comes from this idea that Spielberg once said, which is, “You fool the audience once, they’re more forgiving. It’s much easier to lead them through the film.”

I thought that about this story: once you set up something that feels familiar, and then you shift it, the audience has a feeling of interactivity. They don’t sit and say, “Okay, I know what this movie is, I know where this is going, I’m going to sit back and watch you do it, but I’m not necessarily going to be surprised.” Once you’ve surprised them once, you suddenly have the ability to go in any direction. They watch it in a different way from other films. 

You talked about staying true to the spirit of the book rather than its events. Did you take the same approach to We Are What We Are, where you adapted it like a book rather than remade it?

With We Are What We Are, I didn’t like the idea of doing a remake. I wanted to do something that was going to be more like an original film. It’s like an acoustic cover of an electric song or something like that. It’s something we really love and we want to do something different with it.

On [Cold In July], because Joe [Lansdale] has such a specific style, and because Bubba Ho-Tep is the only other thing he’s known for cinematically – which is such a small chunk of what he does – I think we wanted to be accurate to the feel of his and not have to make an original film out of it. We Are What We Are has these elements, like, we don’t want to just translate it. How do we  make it our movie?

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Also, as an audience, I never got remakes that just do the same thing again. Like with Let Me In, the remake of Let The Right One In – to just change a couple of elements in a movie that felt pretty damn perfect to begin with seemed pointless, you know? And so I felt the same way about this. [Jorge Michel Grau] made the best version of We Are What We Are that he possibly could, so what are we going to do?

Will you be returning to these characters in Cold In July again?

Well, we’re working on the TV show [Hap And Leonard] right now, which is a continuation of this.

Oh, I didn’t realise that it had the connection.

Yeah. It’s the book Joe Lansdale wrote right after Cold In July, and I think it’s a series of about eight or nine books. He’s writing the new one right now. He has these two characters, Hap and Leonard, who are these two shit kickers, Texas guys from the late 80s who try to solve crimes – usually with ridiculous results. Don [Johnson]’s character Jim Bob, he’s in most of the books, he’s the guy they call to save the day. The book I’m reading right now, Michael [C Hall]’s character pops up too in one, because he recommends them to somebody.

I like it, because I love the world and the tone. Usually when I’ve finished something I’m, “Ah, I don’t want to do this again.” At least not for a while. With this, I could totally imagine staying in it. So we’re doing that for the Sundance TV Channel, and that’ll hopefully be on in the spring of next year.

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I shall look out for that. Jim Mickle, thank you very much.

Cold In July is out on the 27th June in the UK.

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