Interviewed by Lesley Coffin
The interview was previously published in 2014, during the theatrical release of Cold in July
If you happened to love last year’s creepy yet beautiful horror film We Are What We Are, you are certainly looking forward to writer/director Jim Mickle’s follow-up. But rather than make another horror film, Mickle went in a completely different direction with the visceral, aggressive 80s-set, western influenced action film Cold in July. Starring Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, and Michael C. Hall, this very male-centric film premieres in the UK at the Edinburgh International Film Festival June 20th. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the funny and very charming Mickle to discuss the film’s western roots, his long collaboration with writer/actor Nick Damici, and the power of casting icons.
Having just seen the movie, I have to say, I’m still not sure what I saw, but it is a wild ride and I think I liked the movie.
Good that’s the point. It’s supposed to be an experience.
I should say that I was a really big fan of We Are What We Are, it was one of my favorite movies from last year. So as soon as I found out that this was your next movie I knew I wanted to see. But it will be interesting if the same audiences that embraced that movie gets into this one, or if you find an entirely different audience.
I think you’re right and that was kind of the point. Because with We Are What We Are, I think that we felt like we were going lighter than fans of our earlier films expected, because it was a lot slower than our other two films had been. A bit more ponderous, and it caught a lot of people off guard. And then we finished that and went to Sundance, and a lot of people who didn’t know our other films thought we specialized in really slow pace movies, quiet dramas with elements of horror. So it’s sort of fun to come out with this movie that we began working on almost 10 years ago which is completely different from any of the other movies we’ve made.
It was interesting when comparing the two films because they are so different but you still have the father element in both films. But what is amazing is to take into account how different that troubled relationship is in both films.
It’s been weird because it’s an element of all the films that Nick and I have done, but we don’t do it consciously. But somebody called it out during our second movie, asking what our fascination with the fractured family unit is, and we didn’t know what they were talking about but then they named everything off from our films and we realized, he was right. All our films have been about family. And that was before We Are What We Are. And then I thought where does that come from? And I still don’t know because both of us, Nick and I, have had amazing families and very healthy relationships with our fathers. I actually just got back from a 3 day canoe trip with my dad and it was one of the best experiences of my life. So I don’t think I have a lot of father issues and it’s funny because I think of this as kind of a love story between father and son. Yes, Sam was a bad, absent father, but there’s an element, and it’s more direct in the book, we just hit at it in the film, about the connection between Michael and his father and the fact that Michael wants to live in the footsteps of great man.
It’s really interesting because you develop a dichotomy between Michael’s relationships with his father, which don’t see on screen, Michael relationship with Sam’s as a surrogate father, Michael’s relationship with his own son, compared to Sam’s relationship with his own son (Wyatt Russell). There is that great moment between Michael and his son, when he tells his not to play with the toy gun.
Totally. And I think it’s interesting that despite everything that happens to Michael at the beginning of the film, when Michael fires the gun, he is also attracted to that element of danger that Sam represent. He’s that romanticized outlaw that most men are attracted to, even if they have had really decent, good fathers. That was really fun, because I have a great man for a father. He’s a doctor and saves lives. And I just make movies, but he also looks at me and says with pride “I have a son who gets to make a living doing crazy things, and be a journey man living from job to job.” It’s fascinating how men relate to one another that way.
I wanted to ask about the idea of masculine and feminine approaches to violence. In We Are What We Are you have a really slow, beautiful scene of the girls drawing where they’ll cut up the body with lipstick. In this scene, the violence seems to be all about brutality and masculine energy. Did you want to play with that element comparing masculine and feminine approaches to violence?
Mickle: Yes, and more so I think because we had done We Are What We Are. I don’t think we would had focused on that had we would have gone as far as far with that element, and we might have played it a little closer to the vest and been truer to the book. But because he did this movie after We Are What We Are, with the same crew and in the same town, I know there were expectations that we would make a movie similar to We Are What We Are and we wanted to go in the complete opposite direction essentially. And that surprised our crew. I know it shocked our composer when we said we didn’t want any strings or piano, just a synthesizer score. I really love filmmakers like Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle who can jump from genre to genre and play with those elements. And We Are What We Are had this very button-up and restrained style, only giving audiences elements of what was happening and hints of characters, so audiences were always leaning in. But this I wanted to have some fun and play with the idea of it being a little more out there as an example of pulp fiction. But I also wanted to throw audiences into a new type of film that was sweating and intense and masculine.
One element that makes that so interesting is the way the three guys together feed off of each other’s masculinity, especially when you put Sam and Don in scenes together.
Well the chemistry of those three actors was really special and something you can’t, predict but it was necessary because it was in the book. I hoped their relationship was conveyed in the script, but it really comes down to the actors and how they relate to each other and the fun of seeing that on screen. There are elements of Sam and Don in those characters, but Michael really had to become that character and he’s able to just disappear into roles.
People like Sam and Don and Michael, who have these very well know screen personas, do you like playing with that when casting, or do you try ignore their past work when casting?
Well, when I was first approached about hiring Michael, I was resistant because he was five days removed from wrapping Dexter and I was insistent that we not have an actor who we’ve seen have a gun in their hand. So I was nervous hiring Michael because he’d already explored that darker side for eight years. Michael saw this as an opportunity to play a normal guy, and he’s great in the role. In the case of the other two, their public images really worked to our benefit because I wanted it to feel the same way as when we saw Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson in films in the 70s and 80s. You expect things from them before they do anything. When we screened it at Sundance, the minute Don pulled up in that car, people were squealing. People see his boots and just start clapping.
Speaking of anticipating a character based on the actor, Wyatt Russell was probably the most likable character in We Are What We Are, and when we see his photo in the police station as a
wanted man, you assume certain things about who his character will be. How did you think of casting him for the part of Sam’s son?
Well there a couple things that went into that casting. There were two films by the same director, The Chaser and The Yellow Sea (Na Hong-jin). In The Chaser, the actor played a pimp and a serial killer, and in the Yellow Sea, the director cast the same actor and flipped the roles, in this really beautiful way. I like the idea of a director having that kind of faith in actors. And when we brought Wyatt in for We Are What We Are, he blew me away, he was just great. And he also happens to be uncontrollably likable. And when you have a character like his role in this movie, that quality is even more powerful. There is a moment in the book, and in the movie, when we have a conversation with him, and he’s really polite. So having someone as likable as Wyatt really added layers to that small, but important role.
The movie is incredibly violent, especially during the conclusion. What are your feelings about violence in film and how to effectively show it on screen?
There’s one scene with a batting cage which is supposed to be disturbing and make you have a very strong reaction to a character and that is there to move the story forward. But I did want the last scene of violence to feel cathartic. You want to throw this buttoned up person (Michael’s character) in the line of fire and see how he would react. But it was also important that the scene not seem so fun that we were sending a message of endorsing violence. We wanted to walk a line, where it felt like someone had the craziest weekend of his life, in a really extreme, dramatic way and still kept it very clearly in the world of this 80s, action, pulpy film.
There are elements in We Are What We Are when you’re almost not sure when and where the movie is set; if it’s present day. This is very clearly set in the 80s and in Texas. Why did you choose not to update it?
I don’t know, because we did think about updating it at times. But then you think about, well, should Michael call his wife on a cell phone or phone booth. And setting it in the 80s just made more sense for the story and tone we were going for. And when I finished the book, it felt like such a clear example of “pre-Tarantino” culture that it worked better to make it a period piece. I didn’t want to put the gun in a character’s hand and feel like there was a sense of irony. And for me, it was fun to read a book written before all that happened in the 90s, by a guy who had clearly been inspired by classic westerns and 70s horror films, but was not winking at those influences.
The film certainly has elements of being a western, the way the three men basically form a posse. Did you study Westerns before starting the film?
That elements is clearly in the book and my co-writer understands the genre completely, because that’s what he grew up with. But I did always think of this as a contemporary Western, and when I was reading the script, I would always play the Paris, Texas soundtrack. And originally, in 2007, I thought we would incorporate a lot more of that into the film, the slide guitar and western visuals. But then we did Stake Land, which had a lot of Western elements in it. And then we got away from the film being a literal contemporary western, because we had gotten some of that out of our system and I had kind of gotten bored of westerns, and that’s when we embraced the movie being a fun 80s action movie with western influences.
Nick has been your collaborator on all four of your films, how did you initially connect?
I went to NYU film school and met him on a student project, where Nick was the lead actor. And he just blew me away. You never go to a student film where the actors are that good. I was saying, who is this guy who seems like Charles Bronson or some icon of 70s movies. And then when you talk to him off set, he’s exactly like that, and I was just like, you’re the real deal. His cabin was next to my cabin and after shooting all day, he would be on his porch playing his guitar with his dog, drinking cherry branding and had this Jack Palance thing. So I went over and started picking his brain and realized that he was a writer too, and he sent what he had written to me and they were all these pulp stories that I had been trying to write, but didn’t completely understand because I was a little too young. But all his education was in the 60s and 70s, pre-Tarantino world, with this very old fashion way of storytelling. And I was still trying to just be “clever” so there was this weird connect we had, where he knew all this stuff, but has a tendency to go overboard, so I was able to kind of ground him and make things a little more relevant and up-to-date from the stories he was writing. I would read something of his and say, this is great, but we can’t literally just make a 70s movie, we have to find a way of updating this so it matters. And for me, I had all this respect and love for movies about honor and manhood from the 60s and 70s, but I didn’t grow up with them the way he had.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)