Attending the Edinburgh International Film Festival for the UK premiere of his new film Cold In July along with star Don Johnson, the following afternoon, Saturday 21st June writer and director Jim Mickle was kind enough to take time out to talk with Geek Chocolate about his latest feature, a sidestep from the horror of his first three features including the acclaimed Stake Land, a critic’s pick of the New York Times, and We Are What We Are, screened at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals in 2013.
Geek Chocolate – You’ve been known as a director of horror, and Cold in July is your first branch out into the thriller genre. Was this always a long term plan or was it just too good an opportunity to miss?
Jim Mickle – Both, I guess. Originally we were hoping it would be the followup to Mulberry Street, so I thought, perfect, do a zombie film, I read the book Cold in July, I thought what a great followup, we’ll do a cool Texas noir, a perfect one-two punch, and then it just took forever to get it made. Obviously it took until now to actually go, but in a weird way I think it worked out perfectly, because I think we made three very different horror films, I got to learn a ton, and I got to work up the ladder in terms of expectation.
I think had we gone right toCold it would have been a much different film in 2008. I think it wouldn’t have had as much comedy, I don’t think it would have been as much of a narrative stretch, I think we would probably have tried to make it feel a bit more like other films that play it safe, so I’m glad that it happened that way.
GC – It’s also your first adaptation of a novel, by, Joe R Lansdale, though again scripted by yourself and Nick Damici. While it means the burden of breaking the story is off your shoulders, translating pages of prose to a motion picture has its own challenges.
JM – Yes, very much. You have to externalise a lot of stuff and that’s a tough process but I think a fascinating process.
I’d be interested to go back and read the first draft of the script because it was very much the book, and I remember just hitting spots where it would feel great and then you hit a spot were you go, I don’t know, this just doesn’t work. A lot of moments that work in the internal monologue inside a character’s head, you can spend three chapters saying “Richard Dane thought…”
Actually it’s written from his perspective, so even more so. You were four steps ahead of everything because you know what’s going on in the characters mind. In film you don’t have that so you have to externalise a lot of things, think about how you’re going to represent things through action and only what you’re going to see. It can be frustrating at times because there are a lot of times where you feel that you’re dumbing down the concept but it was all an incredible education.
GC – Your earlier projects have all been comparatively low key, actors who weren’t necessarily household names, but Cold In Julybrings in the big guns – Michael C Hall, fresh off Dexter and Kill Your Darlings, Don Johnson, who with the overt styling of Miami Vice was often overshadowed, not recognised for how good he actually was on that show, and Sam Shepard, actor, writer, director, a man held in enormous respect by his peers. How did they become involved?
JM – Just sent it to them, really. I wish there was a longer story there. We tried for Sam years ago, and he never read it. I think once Michael got involved, at that point we had a film at Sundance and it was going to Cannes, and all of a sudden people were receptive to stuff. We sent it to Sam, we sent it to Don, I think they both wanted to work with each other because they had been friends for a while but had never gotten to work together, and I think that made a big difference, too, I think that had an impact. It was the first thing each one asked me when I met them – “Is Sam doing it?” I was like, “Yeah!” And then you’d meet Don – “Is Sam doing it?” “Yeah!” So there was some of that happening along the way.
GC – You’ve worked with Wyatt Russell twice, the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and I have to ask – do you not like him? He always comes to a bad end.
JM – You know, there’s this Korean movie I love, The Chaser, and they followed that up with The Yellow Sea, and in The Chaser the protagonist and the antagonist are so good and so evil, and they do an amazing job of switching that with The Yellow Sea in a cool way, and I remember talking to Wyatt about that, saying he played a lovable, sweet as hell deputy in We Are What We Are, and it was fun to say, “you know what, we have this character in the next movie that’s so vile, and I think everything that makes you work in this one way is going to work the other way.”
Yeah, he’s just so damn… he’s got so much range and so much natural charm. He has his father’s looks and charm and his mother’s comedic timing, and you know he played sports his whole life, he only fell into acting the last couple of years, and he has so much instinct and sense of storytelling and how he’s going to come off on screen. Obviously a lot of that is instinctual, a lot of that is just living in a family that’s surrounded by that, but it’s just really a sign that people are either born with it or not.
GC – It’s not fair to mention the guys and not Vinessa Shaw, who plays the wife and mother, but rather than being a background character, she is strong and determined, unflinching when she has to get a mop and bucket and clean blood off the walls of her house. I suspect the reason Richard doesn’t tell her what’s going on is that he knows he would end up babysitting while Ann strapped on her six shooter.
JM – Yeah. You know the book, she goes along for almost all of it, she’s alongside with him all the way almost until the end and then she kind of pulls back. I thought Joe Lansdale did a great job about telling a story about a guy who’s seduced by the road and the old west sort of mentality and sense of morality, and I always loved that it was really a tale of a husband and wife team that got seduced by that.
Then the movie really became a matter of trying to make it a coming of age story of a man, and so we wound up not having her go on the journey which kind of sucked, but I love Vinessa Shaw. She was the only person when I read the book that I pictured in the role, and the first person on the every list since then. I’ve been such a big fan of her stuff, I think she’s one of the most underrated actresses out there, she’s got a lot of range, and what I didn’t realise is she’s a total blast, she’s a total goofball, and we got to capture some of that in the movie, and I hope she’s someone that we get to keep working with.
GC – One of the things I notice about many of the great actors, is that you don’t notice they’re acting. In all your films, despite the often extreme fantastical elements, I’ve always felt that the performances of all your actors is very natural. Is that conscious direction from you?
JM – Yeah, I think a lot of that… I don’t tell them that, you know. I think in some cases, because when people get into a horror movie, sometimes they’re kind of like “is this, are we doing this for real, this can’t be?” and so kind of early on we would have to say that. As we’ve gone on I think the scripts have become more confident and you get a sense that they’re for real, we’re going to do a cannibal movie but we’re going to do it for real, we’re not making jokes and gags or a campy version. I think that a lot of that also comes from the script and realising that sense of tone, but I think a lot of that is letting people be comfortable and confident, and once they are, once they know that they can do their job and not have to worry about putting on airs, they slip into that really easily.
My job is more about… actually, I do a lot of playing music, and that kind of thing. On We Are What We Are I think there was a very strong sense of what the overall feel of the movie should be and that kind of helped them, I’d give them CDs and they’d play that. But I think for the most part it’s just about letting them be comfortable with who they are.
GC – Despite Cold In Julybeing a thriller, you still shot it like a horror film, the house at night, the illumination of a lightning flash which showing the monster at the foot of the bed, the drive with Night of the Living Dead playing, the slamming of the window the punctuation on a shocking scene like the slamming of the door in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and instead of Jeff Grace’s sparse melancholy guitar soundtrack, he did a John Carpenter synth score.
JM – It was weird, I think that this was the one. The other movies I think I really went out of my way and really pushed the crew to not make it feel like a horror film. So We Are What We Are I very much wanted to feel like Picnic At Hanging Rock, even though that’s a horror movie in it’s own way. We were gunning for that, and Stake Landwe were gunning for Terence Malick films, and Mulberry Street was about Jane Campion films, and so we were always trying not to feel like a horror movie. And then this time around, the first non-horror movie we got, it was actually fun to come back and let our freak flag fly a little bit. I think because it was a movie that was very much about genre as anything, you know genre becomes a character within these films, it was fun to embrace what we love about those kind of movies.
GC – Nick Damici has been your collaborator on all your features, both writing and appearing in lead or supporting roles. How did you guys come together and how does the creative relationship work?
JM – I met him, I think, in 2001. I was working a student film and he was the lead, and I was just incredibly impressed with him as an actor, and after every day I would just go, “dude, you’re the real deal, man, you‘re fantastic, what are you doing student films for?” We stayed in touch after the film was done, we shot that in Connecticut, we both went back to the city, I was still in film school so I would finish classes every couple of weeks and go down and have dinner at his place and he would talk about his script that he was working on. He started showing me his scripts, we started collaborating on them, I was giving him a lot of advice.
I think more than anything I’m kind of his muse as a writer, we spend a lot of time together, he writes things that he’s knows that I’m going to like or I’m going to gravitate towards or be able to enhance or play with. That’s a fantastic relationship, and now it’s gotten to an interesting spot where I think we’ve managed to figure out where we fit together as writers. I think I’m more a fan of structure and how the overall is going to fit into place, and he’s the details guy, in the moment, the dialogue. We found a good way that all fits together, so it’s been cool. I think we found a structure finally to the relationship.
GC – Stake Landis, for me, one the most important horror films of the last few years, but it didn’t receive wide distribution in America in 2010, and likely played on more screens in Britain when we got it in the summer of 2011, but it had a great response from the audiences who did see it. Part of the strength of the film is that it isn’t commercial, it doesn’t pull punches, almost unremittingly bleak, which is a hard sell for a distributor. Did you know that was a risk going in?
JM – I didn’t, no, I had no idea. I think at that point I wasn’t savvy enough, and I’m still not savvy enough to think of that or what that’s going to mean. And it’s always a moving target. I remember at the time thinking that we have a vampire movie at the height of vampire fucking freakout. We had the script and by the time we actually shot it at that point Twilight had just come out, everybody loved Twilight, it was just –
JM – In the distributors minds, in the financiers minds, everybody loved vampires. I remember thinking it actually turned me off, I don’t want to make a vampire movie, and so no, I had no idea, and I’m thankful that we got the release that we did here because I think it sort of justified us, you can do this stuff and you’re not just going to be relegated to one box in one store, maybe. I think all of our movies have always done better overseas than they have in the States and I think had they not we would probably have given up a while ago.
GC – I said almost unremittingly bleak; in all the horror, the one luminous source of warmth was Sister. In both Stake Landand We Are What We Are, the presence of Kelly McGillis brings a grace and serenity to the most terrible events, and one of the things I admire most about her is that she doesn’t look Hollywood, she looks like a woman of maturity in all the right ways, someone who has lived a full life and is content with who they are, yet horror is not a genre I would have associated her with. I would never have said I was a fan of hers until I saw her in your work. What brought her on board?
JM – Well, Stake Land we sent her a letter, and it was a role that nobody wanted to play. We sent it to everyone, we would send it to every actress over the age of forty, and the only ones that wanted to play it were women that had had terrible plastic surgery and I think saw it was a way that they could feel authentic, but we didn’t want them, so the only people that felt right had no interest in it. And then she… I think it was her bravery in saying yes, she had gone to seminary, she was a person of faith, and to do a movie like that, to do a role like that, was all her.
Mulberry Street had moments of bleakness and ended on a very bleak note, and I didn’t want to be the guy that just did movies that ended on bleak notes, and so I think we made a conscious effort to have that sense of warmth and heart to it, and Kelly has got so much of that. We’ve borrowed that twice now, and hopefully more.
GC – Mulberrry Street, despite the obvious limitations of what you had to work with – perhaps it would be flattering to even call it a budget – was your calling card, and Stake Land got you noticed internationally; the obvious next step was not an English language remake of an acclaimed foreign language film. How did Somos lo que hay become We Are What We Are?
JM – We were trying to make Cold In July, as we had been for five years at that point, and Memento Films who was our foreign sales company that was going to come on board to do it, they saw that it was going to be another year of not making Cold, we weren’t ready to go, it was reaching wintertime, obviously we couldn’t shoot in the winter, and so they said “we have the rights to this movie, would you guys be interested in redoing this?” And our initial reaction was no, but I think that movie, there was so much that just felt like a kindred spirit to the kind of movies that we were making and working on that it felt like a cool opportunity to do a riff on that film.
GC – You are likely aware that there is a reaction in many people to immediately dismiss remakes, but it was almost as though you took the barest two line synopsis and turned every aspect of the original on its head, an arid claustrophobic slum becoming a rain drenched trailer park on the edge of a forest, the dead patriarch leaving two antagonistic sons becoming a surviving father of two daughters devoted to each other. Was that an immediate decision, that it had to be utterly different?
JM – That was the goal, to really make an original film that felt like it played by somebody else’s rules, and it honoured that but a movie that felt like it wasn’t even trying to top that film or one-up that film but celebrate it.
GC – Whether it be rat zombies, the vampire apocalypse, homestead cannibals or just plain cold murder, you are at the top of your game. Jim Mickle, thank you for your films and thank you for your time today.