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Interview: Director Jim Mickle Talks ‘Cold in July’, Sam Shepard and Michael C. Hall’s Cologne

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Director Jim Mickle‘s new film, Cold in July, is teriffic. The film, starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, is the perfect blend of action, comedy, drama and thriller that has an ending that will leave you so satisfied, you’ll probably want to immediately watch it again.

It’s 1989 and Hall plays Richard Dane, who, to protect his family, shoots and kills a guy who’s just broken into his house. He’s hailed as a hero but when the guy’s ex-con father, Ben (Shepard), is released from prison, he comes seeking revenge. The twists and turns come fast, as the two eventually team up (along with Johnson) to find out what really is happening in the small, corrupt town.

This is one of my favorite films of the year and Mickle and the actors balance the changing tones perfectly. When I talked to Mickle recently, he said that Hall “knew that he had to create a tone in his performance that was gonna allow [Shepard and Johnson] to come in and bounce off of him.”

In the interview, Mickle (We Are What We Are) chats about the film and his incredible cast. He also tells some fun stories about Sam Shepard re-writing a pivotal scene for the film and Michael C. Hall wearing a cologne from the 80’s to help him with his character.

Check out Cold in July in theaters and on VOD now!

I love movies where I have no idea what’s gonna happen. I think one thing’s about to happen and then something I would’ve never imagined brings the story a different direction. Your movie does that, but then those twists happen like 8 more times.

Jim Mickle: Yeah.

I loved it.

Jim Mickle: Thank you, man. Thank you very much.

Was that all in the book? Or did you add some of those twists and turns?

Jim Mickle: It was. They were all in the book but sometimes they happened in different ways. And sometimes we had to slow some of those things down and make them a little bit more gradual and sometimes we had to make them a little bit more abrupt.

And it was an interesting process bringing stuff over because the first draft we did was scene by scene what the book was and pretty much held onto the book’s style. And it wound up being this really sort of long, bloated thing and finally we were able to finally sort of boil it down to its essence. And sometimes those things that worked perfectly in the book didn’t work. A lot of times because something happened because Richard’s character had been talking about something in voiceover for many pages. And by the time he makes a decision, he’s able to do it in a really abrupt way. But when we did that in the script it didn’t quite work. And so we had to sort of learn and it was really Nick Demichi, our screenwriter, and Linda Moran, the producer, who really honed in on how to externalize that stuff.

The film is kind of like this blend of drama and comedy and it’s also a thriller. And you get that perfectly. Was that hard to get that tone down? And also, do you have to work with the actors on getting all that down correctly?

Jim Mickle: Yeah. We had to… it was a lot of massaging. It was a lot of massaging of the script and then it was a lot of massaging in the edits to make that work. Because at first when you put all those pieces together they don’t quite click. You know? And it starts to feel a little bit like, wow, each scene in itself is really good but it doesn’t necessarily work in a satisfying way.

So it was a hard point of being able to shift all those things and shuffle elements and get them to the right size and sometimes that meant a scene that was 6 minutes long had to be trimmed down to 30 seconds. Other times little moments had to be played up and that sort of thing. So it was definitely a process.

And the actors, they were just amazing. Not only they were just amazing at playing the characters and just being fantastic actors, but Michael, for example, knew that when we started off shooting with him for 2 weeks, he knew that he had to create a tone in his performance that was gonna allow these other 2 guys to come in and bounce off of him. So, he kept dropping humorous things and saying, I have to make room for a movie where Don Johnson is gonna pop up in an hour. And come in with a whole different attitude. He was so smart about that.

And then Don, at the same time, was really sharp about really understanding… I’m surprised he hasn’t edited movies and directed and written before, because he has a really sharp understanding of how things are gonna work and of pacing. And he would always know, this is a scene I’ve really got to come in big here. And this is a moment where I’ve got to dial it back here because this is really about Sam. And Sam doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, so I’ve got to make sure we create space here. And he was always big about giving a lot of different options to me and trusting me to make the right choice in the edit, saying “I’m gonna give you one where I go big, I’m gonna give you one where I dial it back, I’m gonna give you a couple different options for dialogue, and you make it up at the end.”

So it was very, very, very cool process working with people that really understood the story.

And the same thing with Sam. I think there’s so many elements to him where he would know like, “this is way too much dialogue, I’ve got to dial this back and do it with a look.” And then other times, “this is a moment where I really think I should say something but I shouldn’t say this. I should say something that refers to it.” He wrote one scene himself. He wrote his own dialogue for one scene. It was beautiful. And he had a lot of moments where he would ad lib little things that stuck out to him that played much better than stuff we had written. So it was a very, very cool experience.

What scene did he write?

Jim Mickle: The one where he says, “What do you do when a dog goes bad on you? You chain him up or put him down.” That was his piece and that was a scene that Nick and I had struggled with for years trying to make that scene work. So it’s a really, really, really hard scene to pull off dramatically and a lot of things going on in that scene to make it really difficult. And it wasn’t that scene in the book, it was a couple different scenes that we were combining into one and we really needed it to be sort of a strong, impactful thing. We could never quite figure out how to boil it down without being overly poetic about it or something. The night before. He said, “I got this idea how to frame this thing. I wanna play with it but do you mind if I take the scene and just tweak my dialogue? I won’t change anyone else’s dialogue.” And so he came the next morning and he had… he had a typewriter in his hotel room and he had hand typed this beautiful scene that he wrote. And brought it in and said, “Do you mind if I use this instead?” I was like, hell yeah. Go for it. You’re Sam Shepard.

I think he’s a brilliant playwright. When you guys initially ask him to be in your movie, I would be like biting my nails to see how much he liked the script.

Jim Mickle: Yeah, it was… it was nerve wracking. And we had sent it to him years before when we first finished the script in 2007. He was the first person we’d sent it to. And he never read it, he never looked at it. As far as we know. We just kept calling and waiting for him for weeks and finally they were like, “I don’t know if he’s ever gonna read it,” so we sort of had to move on.

Luckily we were able to come back to him later and I think at that point he was sort of on fire with Mud and Killing Them Softly, popping up in really cool movies. And we sent it to him and heard back pretty quickly that he liked it and that he had some things that he wanted to talk about in the script.

And I flew out to Santa Fe where he lived, my parents have a place there. I flew up to Santa Fe and sat and had breakfast with him one morning, which blew my mind completely. And we kinda talked through things and all the things that he mentioned were things that we also had issues ourselves. And so it was a collaborative thing. It wasn’t battling stuff, it was stuff that we were like… literally everything he mentioned, those were the 4 things that we haven’t quite been able to nail. We’ve always been hoping that we could collaborate with an actor to figure out how to make these things work. And the fact that it was him, someone who sort of masters writing these kind of stories, directing them, was really kind of amazing.

And he can, with one look, he can just give you so much.

Jim Mickle: Yeah. I know. I know. He can be an intense, intense man. And he also really knows how… he knows how to pose. It’s funny because he’s not a vain guy, but he knows how to pose in ways that are really cool. And he knows how… there’s this whole way that he turns his body at that moment when the lightning flash goes off in the kid’s bedroom. And that was the first shot that we got of him, was this whole way that he forms his body that forms this weird little S shape that has this weird connotation to it. It’s so cool that something that I think you get in theatre, just really understanding so many different aspects of theatre. That was so cool.

cold-in-july-michael-c-hall

And you got another theatre guy too, Michael C. Hall.

Jim Mickle: Yeah.

How did he come to the project?

Jim Mickle: He apparently read the script maybe a year before and this was while we were shooting We Are What We Are. A bunch of things happened in We Are What We Are and

Cold in July was falling apart and we’d been working on it for a long time and financing was falling apart, we were about to lose the option of the book and I kind of finally thought, “You know what? This movie’s been a headache in my life for so many years and finally it’s gonna wind up going away. And it’s like a bad girlfriend that’s sort of abused me. Every time I come crawling back to it, but it dumps me again in some awful way.”

So I was sort of numb to the project and last year at Sundance I was in that sort of boat with it and I was at a party and Michael C. Hall was there. And someone introduced us and he came over and he was like, “You did Cold in July? I love that script.”

And all of a sudden it was like woah. Woah, really? You liked that script? It sort of changed everything in a way.

And over the next couple of months we were able to re-option the book, all of these things fell into place and Cannes Film Festival. I was able to get on a Skype call with them and we really hit it off and connected on it. And then all of a sudden things moved very quickly. Financing happened really quickly, he was about to get off of Dexter at the end of July, and they wanted to give a big long window to recover from Dexter but he said, “no, I wanna come right from there and go right into this movie,” which was crazy. He’s amazing. Amazingly dedicated, amazingly talented. He’s the director’s best friend in every single way and just has really amazing ability to dance around a lot of really complicated things and just make it look seamless and effortless. And just gives you everything. I was completely blown away by him.

He seems like an incredibly smart actor.

Jim Mickle: He is. And really intuitive. You know? He has this ability and I think it comes from television, but he of all people I think has really mastered it where you really don’t have to direct him. He directs himself. You can see him in the middle of a performance trying different things and knowing when to pull himself back and if something throws him he knows how to get back into it and it’s almost like in one take he gives you absolutely everything that you need. And after that it’s just about picking up fun pieces of stuff. So he’s really, really incredible.

Is he the kind of actor who gives you 3 or 4 different takes?

Jim Mickle: He can. He can. I think he has an idea of what it’s gonna be and it’s really about sort of finding what those things are. I think Don, for example, is the kind of person who goes, “I’m gonna give you a lot of stuff.” But that was also his character sort of needed that. I think Michael, we didn’t quite need that. There was a lot of things that we were locking onto specifically.

So a lot of times it was trying to find that one thing that was gonna make it work or try to find the one thing that sort of showed his attraction and seduction to the sort of cowboy world and these older guys without overdoing it. And trying to touch on little events that make it so that this guy is having the worst day of his life, really, but without pushing him into too much of a punching bag. It was this kind of tightrope walk where he was constantly trying to find the right balance there.

I wanna ask you about the Don Johnson. He’s having this… I don’t know if it’s like a renaissance. But I love how he’s coming back in these really great character parts. When he came on screen in your film, it just gave me a big smile.

Jim Mickle: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I know.

When you guys were writing this and getting the cast together, was he high on your list for this part?

Jim Mickle: He was the first guy now that we came around in this phase. You know? Again, back in 2006 at that point I think he was still on Nash Bridges. I never would’ve thought of him at that point. And he was a little young. That was 7 years ago, it was a little young for that.

And then really when it came back around this time at that point, yeah. I saw… I’d seen Eastbound and Down and Django Unchained and Linda, the producer on the film when we were starting to go through names, the first name she was like Don Johnson. It’s Don Johnson. We can throw other names out here, but this guy is it. There’s only one guy that has the charisma to… because that character, he’s a character in a lot of Joe Lansdale books. He always pops up in the middle of a book and he just completely kicks the book in the nuts and completely flips it and just takes over and becomes this sort of tornado that speeds through the rest of the book and he has to be somebody that’s completely self-conscious, self-confident and completely aware and he’s kind of a douche bag and he’s kind of a used car salesman, but he’s so damn charming and so charismatic you can’t help but kind of fall in love with him. It’s really hard to nail that and it was like Don’s the only guy that can do that. And he killed it.

Did you guys have any sort of rehearsal? Or was it just right before you guys shot the scenes?

Jim Mickle: Before we started shooting we kind of had a weekend where Sam and Don hadn’t come to town yet. But Michael and Vanessa Shaw, who is wonderful, plays Ann. Michael and Vanessa came up to the location and we spent a couple of days at their house, just getting the feel of their world. So we did a table read with them and with Nick Demichi, who wrote it but who also plays the sheriff in the movie. We did a table read with the 3 of them and played some different ideas.

And it’s more about sort of just talking about it, and sort of sitting into it and getting to soak in the flavor of it. So we were able to take them to their house and sort of take them to their bedroom and Vanessa could sort of look at what kind of things would be on her nightstand and that sort of thing.

Michael made this thing where he went out and got this cologne that guys used to wear in the 80s. I forget which cologne it was now. But he got this awful cologne and he would wear it all the time. And Vanessa would be like, “Oh my God, you smell like my shop teacher.” He had this whole thing where he would just wear it. And you’d smell him and he just smelled like his character and it was a very cool thing. And that inspired Vanessa and then Vanessa went out and she sort of picked out her mom’s cologne from the 80s. It was this period of playing and sort of setting the table for all this stuff.

And then in terms of rehearsing when they came, we did a little bit. If it was a big scene we’d go through and we’d really push stuff, but once you get cooking with those guys, they’re able to come in and do one read and make sure that it’s not too stale. And then they can sort of take it and run with it.

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