As the director of Mulberry Street, Stake Land, We Are What We Are and now Cold In July, Jim Mickle is no stranger to life’s murkier recesses. He got into film as a 13-year-old, designing werewolves and creature effects, before meeting and bonding with long-term screenwriting partner Nick Damici at film school over a shared love of 70s horror film. Sat with him discussing the USA’s World Cup draw with Portugal from the night before, however, Mickle could not be any lighter or friendlier.
So it came as quite a shock last year when, at a Q&A screening of family-with-a-dark-secret shocker ‘We Are What We Are’, a member of the audience stood up to tell him he was psychically scarred and needed mental help. Although Mickle politely thanked him and tried to move the session on, the man persisted, telling Mickle he was “fucked up and had father issues”. The haranguing didn’t stop there either.
“He chased me out to the lobby and tried to analyse me. All I could say was that everyone I know who makes horror movies are well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky people and the people I’ve met who are most fucked in the head are the ones into romantic comedies. So there’s got to be something about exploring the darker side of things that is cathartic.”
As it happens, Cold In July is a rather excellent trip into the darker side of life. An adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, it starts off as a home invasion chiller, evolves into something more complex and then concludes with poetic brutality. Mickle tells me this is what excited him when he first read it, eight years ago. “It was fun to read something that was so uninterested in playing by its own rules – it kept blowing itself up and reinventing itself. You never see that. Movies are so set now, defining what they’re going to be from the outset”
Despite his initial enthusiasm for book, its journey to the screen proved a long and arduous one. In an age where films are increasingly funded by pre-sales, everything that Mickle liked about Lansdale’s genre-shifting story was exactly what sales people don’t want to hear. Classified as a ‘tweener’ movie (one that falls between genre classifications), studios liked the script but were only willing to take it on with three A-list stars. The three they wanted: Mark Wahlberg, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta.
Mickle had other ideas, suggesting Michael C Hall or Joel Edgerton, only to be told neither were big enough draws. He even proposed a pre-Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner. “But it was always ‘nah, he’s got a big nose, he’s not a leading man’,” he recalls. “And then Hurt Locker comes out and everyone’s like ‘you know who would be great in your movie? Jeremy Renner!’ Everyone’s chasing after the same four or five bankable guys, but not just bankable – they have to be bankable worldwide. It’s really done away with the sense of exploration or discovery.”
To be able to choose the people they thought best for the job, Mickle and Damici slashed the film’s budget in half. Things swiftly fell into place. Mickle hadn’t felt completely sold on Hall for the lead role, still thinking of him as David Fisher in acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under, but a chance meeting at a party changed everything. “We realised that Michael was exactly as the character is – the guy you wouldn’t notice first at a party. As soon as we had him all of a sudden it was a game changer with everyone else. Agents were calling out of the blue, and I couldn’t believe I was meeting with the people who wanted a role in the film.”
Don Johnson and Sam Shepard signed up swiftly after, giving Mickle an impressive acting triumvirate. His next challenge was meeting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Shepard face to face at a burrito restaurant in Santa Fe. “I was terrified, and he walked in with pencil marks all over a hard copy of the script – there were more pencil scribbles on the page than there was text. So right away I thought he gets it, he’s obviously been thinking about and invested in it. He wrote some of his dialogue, so it was really a matter of learning to ride that and not try to force anything.”
Even with such a stellar cast, Cold In July still couldn’t escape the ‘arthouse’ tag and a middle of the road release in the US. “As soon as you say ‘arthouse’, if you’re not Wes Anderson that means you’re going to be on video on demand,” Mickle explains.
A studio executive spelled it out to him. “In the US, a movie has to make a married couple feel inspired to hire a babysitter, pay for car-parking, get dinner and then go and see the movie, so by the end of the night they’ve spent well over $100. As soon as you hear that, it explains everything about the movies that are coming out.” Exciting, effervescent and refreshingly original, Cold In July most definitely isn’t one of those ‘movies’.
Cold In July is in cinemas on June 27
Follow Nick Norton on Twitter @OnlyForKoolKids