Interview: Michael C. Hall and Jim Mickle Tackle Joe R. Lansdale’s Cold in July


Fans of good old-fashioned filmmaking, the type of gritty down-to-earth movies they made back in the ’70s that just about every filmmaker has been trying to replicate ever since, may not like much of what’s being offered these days. Fortunately, director Jim (Stakeland) Mickle’s adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s novel Cold in July, his fourth collaboration with actor and co-writer Nick Damici, is just what those cinephiles have been looking for, a dark riveting crime thriller that really captures why Lansdale’s vivid storytelling continues to be so popular among genre fans.

The film stars Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) as Richard Dane, a family man living in suburban Texas in 1989 who accidentally shoots and kills a home burglar, only to become a target of his vengeful ex-con father Ben, played by Sam Shepard. As it turns out, there’s a lot more going on than either man realizes and after working out their differences, they go looking for answers along with Ben’s reckless friend Jim Bob, played by Don Johnson. got on the phone with Hall and Mickle a couple weeks back to talk about their critically-acclaimed film, which followed its premiere at Sundance with a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival just this past week. I remember speaking to you and Nick on the set of “Stakeland” years back and at the time, you already had the rights to adapt the book into a movie, and you’ve done one other movie in between, so what took so long to make this happen?
Jim Mickle:
I think the script was always close, but it took a long time to figure it out. I think we learned adapting as we went. We definitely had to figure it out and in a way, I’m glad it took as long as it did because it helped that. Then it just took a long time for financing really. It’s really easy when you have a horror movie and you have vampires and zombies. We kept going into meetings after “Mulberry Street” and they’d be like “Oh, we love that movie. What do you have next?” “Oh, we have this kind of quasi-Western noir thing, kind of ‘A History of Violence’ meets ‘No Country for Old Men.’ And they’d be ‘uh huh, uh huh’ and then we’d say “We also have this vampire apocalypse film” and they’d be, “Oh, great, when do we start shooting?” It was very difficult to get it going and I think it was never thriller-y enough but it was always something. “It has too much character, but it’s not character enough to be a character study. It’s too violent yet it’s not violent enough that it can be a horror film.” We spent a lot of time trying to make it fit into what people wanted it to be, and finally we got to the point where let’s return to what it once was and then Michael came along and the whole thing got a breath of reinvigoration I think.

CS: How far into the process before Michael joined up and how did you meet with Jim and Nick and what made you interested in playing the character?
Michael C. Hall:
I read the script probably two years ago now and loved it and would periodically ask my representative what was happening with it and I’d hear whatever their end of the story was, but I went to Sundance not this past one but the year before when Jim was there with “We Are What We Are” and I was there with “Kill Your Darlings.” I was at a party and Nick introduced himself and said that he understood I was a fan of the script and I said, “Most definitely I am.” Jim was at the party as well and Nick brought me over and we started up a conversation. I think the last thing I said was “See you on set!” I just wanted to impress upon him how much I loved it and how much I wanted to do it. I guess that coincided with them getting the ball rolling again, getting financing and making it a real thing. For me, I was interested in finding a character who was just a regular guy, not remarkably afflicted or capable of murder and maybe around him crazy things are happening and this really pivots around that. I thought it was a great script and as I became more and more familiar with Jim’s work I was all the more excited about being a part of it, but yeah it happened really quickly. It’s only about a year ago that I had a conversation with Jim after he had just arrived in Cannes about making the movie and here we are a year later, it’s amazing.

CS: Joe’s a fairly prolific writer and I’m surprised more of his stuff hasn’t been adapted. I know he’s a producer on his movie. Why do you think his work which is so vivid and cinematic isn’t as translated into other media as much as other writers?
I think what made this one tough to make is what makes all of his stuff great but hard to make. For example, “The Big Blow” is a novella of his I love and he adapted that into a script we were talking about the other day, and I just felt terrible because I know that this movie will never exist. Knowing the finances and economics of Hollywood filmmaking, he does a lot of period stuff which is hard to finance unless you have a really great high concept idea. I think movies have all become more polarized. I think it’s either the giant, giant tentpole studio movies or the smaller low budget films and I think Joe’s novels work really well in the middle ground. I think those movies go away a lot. I think what makes his stuff great is that you can’t really pin it down and it evolves and it’s a little bit of a mash-up of themes and genres, and I think that’s harder and harder and harder to get away with anymore.

CS: He also has a very specific setting for his stories, set in the South, which is a little foreign from where you and Nick started out with “Mulberry Street.”
That was part of the issue is that I think Joe’s “Bubba Ho-Tep” was really the only thing that’s been known of his stuff and it always felt like a shame that was the only thing people knew of him because that was only one tiny end of the spectrum of the Lansdale world, so I think it always felt a little bit like a challenge to not be the Yankees that came down and screwed up Texas. I went back to Nacogdoches, Texas, where he lives, a couple months ago, because they had a film festival, and it was amazing that I think we were kind of soft about a lot of things. There were a lot of characters that we went big on that would have been subtle in real life. It’s a cool world and it’s a world that I think he does beautifully on the page and I hope does get done more often.

CS; Michael, you have two pretty amazing co-stars in this with Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, who each don’t appear on screen that much but they’re forces of nature in this one, so what was it like working with them?
I think it was great. Neither of them really disappoint. They’re both, in their way, larger than life and icons of masculinity, in a way. It was really easy to give over to play a character who is enamored with them and who wanted to sit in the backseat and go along for the ride with those guys. I grew up in a very different context. As an actor, you move through Sam Shepard’s work as a writer when you’re coming into terms with what it is to act and who you are as an actor, you’re going to do, if not a production of one of his plays, maybe some of his scenes in an acting class, and of course, Don Johnson was the coolest guy in the world when I was in junior high and high school. To play a guy who is looking to two characters to give him cues for what it is to be a man, it was really easy to give over to that, given that those two were playing those parts.

CS: Were you able to get past any fanboy adulation when you first met them and use your acting experience to keep cool?
Yeah, I tried to keep it cool, and any element of that I could just sublimate and let it belong to Richard Dane, because I think he has whatever fanboyish equivalent in terms of his sense of these two guys.

CS: The movie seems more topical now than when Joe wrote it and maybe even from when you and Nick started adapting it, because there’s been so much in the news about gun laws, “Stand Your Ground,” all these underlying issues that come into play in this story without hitting the viewer over the head with it. Was that something that crossed your mind while you were in production?
Yeah, it did, and there’s a lot of reasons to keep it in the ’80s—there were tonal reasons why that made sense—there’s also old-fashioned fanatic reasons why that made sense—but another reason I think was that if it did take place now, I think there would be a lot more attached to it and it would sort of have to make a stand about that. To me, that wasn’t the goal of it. That was sort of a means to an end of hopefully this larger personal explanation that this guy was going through. Those are elements and they are pretty big elements, and honestly, I thought we might get hit more with that from audiences so fortunately they’re able to see it for the fun that is and understand that we’re looking at a different angle about that. I have friends who talk about “Blue Ruin” a lot and I think that touches on it in a much more realistic contemporary way. I think we wanted to explore more about what it was doing for that character.

CS: What are some of the challenges as a director and an actor in terms of making a period piece? There are obvious ones and I imagine both of you were alive in 1989, but what about putting yourself into the head of an adult during that time?
Well, literally my head was enclosed in a mullet haircut and definitely the clothes that I wore informed who I was, how I stood, how I walked, and there’s something simpler, more elemental, less distracted about that world. Logistically there were other things. Having to find a phone booth to make a phone call. It was nice to revisit that time. I was in high school or getting out of high school and going to college around ’89. I didn’t grow up in Texas, I grew up in North Carolina, and I grew up around a lot of small town people and it was fun to revisit that time and place.
Mickle: I think there’s also a sense in terms of cinematically. I think when Tarantino came around, which I think was ’92, it changed the landscape of what you can do in these kinds of movies so I think he took what used to be a genre of thrillers and quasi-noirs and brought a self-referencing self-awareness sort of irony to things. I remember when I read the book coming away and feeling like “God damn! This guy wrote a book before anyone knew who Tarantino was” and there’s this sort of delightful innocence about that stuff that hopefully we captured. What Michael just said that there’s a sense that characters aren’t just distracted the way that we are now and there isn’t as much of a sense of reflection I think, it’s just real honest reflection that gave us a lot of room to play with his character.

CS: Although I was never in Texas during that time, I felt there was a real authenticity to that aspect of the movie. So what’s next for you both? Are you and Nick going to continue to develop new things to do together?
Yeah, we’re playing with stuff and trying to figure out what that’ll be next. I think the most concrete thing is playing in the television world with some of Joe’s work, so that’s pretty exciting. That’s the most concrete thing and the rest of it is following whatever the next story is without really paying attention to what genre that is and any expectations, I guess. For a long time, “Cold in July” was the only thing and it’s weird now to have made it.

CS: Michael, I know you’re on Broadway now but a month back there were murmurs, and I’m not sure if it was wishful thinking, of you maybe playing Daredevil in the Netflix series and that you were interested. Is there any merit to that at all?
You know, I wish I had more conversations with my agent and less conversations with people in your line of work about that. That’s total internet-generated rumor. I think the Daredevil in that script is about 20 years younger than me, so I don’t think that’s real. It’s very flattering. If you want to write a letter I won’t stop you, but that’s not real.

Cold in July opens in select cities and On Demand starting Friday, May 23.