Legendary actress, director and SHOCK writer Debbie Rochon talks to maverick director Jim Mickle about adapting Joe R.Lansdale.
Most of the horror communities Ive met swoon at the mere mention of BUBBA HO-TEP. Sure it has fantastical elements, even some monster themes seasoned throughout but its not a traditional horror film. Having Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as Jack Kennedy fighting an Egyptian Mummy might be enough to get their attention initially,but its the absurdist fun and deft filmmaking that make you stay. And re-watch it. And then buy it. While all of the actors and the director Don Coscarelli deserve full credit, you would be depriving yourself of some seriously off the wall reading if you didnt search out the writer of the original story its based on: Joe R Lansdale.
This was exactly how director Jim Mickle found the work of Lansdale.
Mickle would first make his own mark in the horror world before taking on another writers material. His longtime collaborator Nick Damici met Mickle on his Student Thesis short called THE UNDERDOGS and they have been cinematically married ever since. Their first 3 feature films were solid, smart horror films rooted in as much character development as they were blood. MULLBERRY ST., STAKE LAND and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE have garnered them solid street cred in the genre.
Then they changed it up. COLD IN JULY would be the first Lansdale-penned story the duo would bring to life. This home invasion themed noir tale takes place, as everything in Lansdales universe does, in East Texas. Mickle proved he could excel at more than one genre and his deep interest in slow burn character development was a perfect match for Lansdales material. Oh yeah. They both have a very dark and wry sense of humor too. Mickle handled the material and his high caliber cast with ease, a cast that included Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. When Mickle and Damici had their movie COLD IN JULY selected to screen at the Sundance Film Festival it caught the attention of the right people.
And so here we are. Our down to Earth small town boy Jim Mickle and his collaborator Nick Damici now write and direct the Sundance channel original series HAP AND LEONARD, based on a series of novels by Lansdale that take place – you guessed it – in East Texas. Although in reality the series is lensed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
The official Sundance description for the show reads, Set in the late 1980s, HAP AND LEONARD is a darkly comic swamp noir story of two best friends, one femme fatale, a crew of washed-up revolutionaries, a pair of murderous psycho-killers, some lost loot and the fuzz. Based on the novels by Lansdale, the six-hour series event follows Hap Collins (James Purefoy), an East Texas white boy with a weakness for Southern women, and Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams), a gay, black Vietnam vet with a hot temper. When Haps seductive ex-wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks) resurfaces with a deal they cant refuse, a simple get-rich-quick scheme snowballs into bloody mayhem.
SHOCK: I know you loved the movie BUBBA HO-TEP. That seems be what started you on Joe R Lansdales books. Before you started the Hap and Leonard TV series, you made a movie based on one of his novels. What draws you to his material?
MICKLE: I just love his world. The rural, frozen in time feel is something I totally relate to. It has some of that Lynchian, twisted Americana vibe, but distinctly Texan. I love the humor. It can be grounded or wildly over-the-top, but he pulls it all off. It also balances out the intensely dark side of Joes stories that can make them dangerous while theyre still fun. They can be dark but with a heart.
He doesnt fit into one box or one genre and I love him for it. He gathers up elements from horror, noir, Western, sci-fi, coming-of-age and cooks it all together like a stew. Thats hard to get away with these days but its a blast to read because you never know where his stories will go. It keeps you on your toes as a reader.
SHOCK: There’s something really attractive about the raw and gritty world these characters live in. Are you more comfortable telling stories about strong yet damaged characters? Do you relate at all to them?
MICKLE: I relate to all of them and how human they are. I dont know how to tell stories about slick or polished characters. Theres usually no meat to them. I love all of these characters because they have the same issues we all do. Theyre all looking for a purpose. Even the bad ones. Most stories are about characters trying to to get to the top of lifes ladder, but Hap and Leonard are just doing what they can to get both feet on the bottom rung. There’s something noble and utterly relatable about that. Theres a heightened sense to the world, but their flaws are down to earth and completely human. They love too much and it gets them into trouble.
SHOCK: From the outside looking in – my guess is that you are a solid, loyal small town guy with strong principals. Does this help or hinder your working in film/TV on the business end of things?
MICKLE: Ha, both. On the creative side I love being outside of the industry bubble and I think everything weve made is because were in our own place geographically and taste-wise. I still prefer the woods to LA. But its a business and it can be frustrating as hell. The corporate side of the industry can make you want to tear your own face off. Fortunately Ive got a great producer in Linda Moran and a team of like-minded collaborators to lean on. Im a team sports guy and filmmaking is the ultimate team sport. Nick Damici calls making movies “going to war.”
SHOCK: It feels like we have gone from all of the great creative works being only on film, and TV being 90% silliness, to most of the great works are now on TV in comparison to the blockbusters on the Imax screen. While we can all still search out and find great indie films, in general, is this a thought process you agree with?
MICKLE: Yes absolutely. And it couldnt have come at a better time. Film has constricted into these stark, polarizing pockets of risk. Obviously the superhero shit dwarfs everything but even the small, awards-bait movie has become its own little marketing niche to shoehorn stories into and it all feels very fear based and cynical.
I like middle-tier stories, but if you want to make movies now, it better be dirt cheap or obscenely expensive. Youre kind of screwed if you want to do anything in between. The economics of the risk are just harder to make work so thankfully television has stepped in to let the in-between stuff flourish. I missed the boat of the mid-90s independent film explosion, but I feel like we’re seeing a lot of the same Wild West, no rules, content driven storytelling and willingness to experiment on the smaller screen.
After making four features it was also crazy to think that the huge majority of our audience was discovering these movies at home on VOD anyway, so its refreshing to make something intended to be seen that way. And now we get a bigger canvas and we can roll it out weekly so theres a cool endurance factor to it too.
SHOCK: The actors in HAP AND LEONARD are all very strong performers. I find it funny how many TV series, especially characters from the South, are played by English actors.
MICKLE: Casting for this blew my mind. First off, actors are more and more scarce because everyone is on a show now and theyre booked for long periods of time. So it can be hard to cast roles, but it also opens the door to a lot of great actors you dont typically see. You get a lot of great character actors who usually only get a few quick scenes in a movie but now get to have these large arcs and a chance to see how great they are. Jimmy Simpson is a perfect example in this show.
The English thing makes sense oddly enough. Theyre often classically trained and very well rounded, incredibly smart with character and story. Theyre usually in it for the acting and a lot of American actors are into the celebrity part of acting. Id love to cast American actors, but its hard to find the perfect combo for leads. We had local casting working out of NY, LA, Louisiana, London and Australia before we found out James Purefoy was ending his run on THE FOLLOWING. And Pollyanna McIntosh is a force of nature no matter where shes from.
SHOCK: What has the experience been like adapting Lansdale’s work, has he been protective at all about his stories or how you may use or not use his ideas?
MICKLE: Joe is incredibly supportive and respectful of the process, but he also knows what he likes and speaks up when he doesnt. The whole process of adapting something you love can be really challenging because theres a reason why youre doing it you loved it and it worked beautifully for you on the page. So youre trying to translate something without fucking it up, yet every medium has its limitations so inevitably you have to reconfigure some things and not force the right elements into the wrong shape. Luckily were pretty faithful with this season of HAP AND LEONARD more so than other books to series, so I think were all happy with it. He wants his dialogue to be right, but we all do. Thats one of the best parts of any Lansdale story. Hopefully when its not verbatim, it still feels like him.
SHOCK: For the horror fans, will you be making a genre film again soon?
MICKLE: Nick Damici and I are diving back into an original screenplay he wrote called THE NIGHT HUNTER. We worked on it for a while before WE ARE WHAT WE ARE came about and that lead steadily to now, so were stepping back into it after 5 years away. Were really excited about that. Kind of an old fashioned monster movie with a cool historical fiction element. Also have another project with a lot of genre elements that Im excited about with two really cool writers. Starts off as one film and morphs into something else as it goes which Im a big fan of. And waiting to see if theres a season two of Hap and Leonard and if so that will likely be a darker season than the treasure hunt lunacy of the first season.
SHOCK: As you continue working in TV and film does it get easier to have your projects green lit?
MICKLE: I imagine it does, but because of the show, there hasnt been as much time for other projects. Thats been my life for the last 2+ years. But I love doing it, so no complaints…
Be sure to sure to catch HAP AND LEONARDs bloody season finale on Sundance TV this Wednesday night at 10/9C!