Edinburgh Film Festival – Cold in July Q&A

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Director Jim Mickle and actor Don Johnson were on hand after the UK premiere of their film, Cold in July, to answer a few questions for us.

So Jim, can you talk about the genesis of this project?

Jim: We had just finished our first film, Mulberry Street, we were in post production on that, and I was a big John Lansdale fan, so I just sort of binged on a whole stack of his stuff from a used book store, and Cold in July was one of those, and I started reading this and just fell head over heels for it. At that point I was just starting to read scripts from outside and I was sort of underwhelmed as a cynical movie-goer, like I feel like I’ve seen this before or heard this before. So to just read something that was everything I wanted it to be but nothing that I expected it to be, was what I wanted it to be like. So we optioned it from Joe, he was kind enough to be the first person that watched our movie and said, ‘yeah, this is cool’ which was really sweet and gratifying. I think a lot of people have tried to adapt his stuff and then go somewhere and try to make it easier and commercial and throw in random explosions. I mean, this film was optioned for a long time during the 90s and a whole different iteration of this film, and John walked away from it because he didn’t like where it was going creatively, so we just said we want to make a movie that feels exactly like the book.

In terms of Don’s character, I think when he pops up in the book it’s just like ‘holy shit, I just want to read every line of dialogue this guy says. I just want to hang out with this guy. I think there are very few actors that can pull that off.

What did you love about the book in particular Jim?

Jim: I love that you have to keep readjusting you expectations. Like there’s a moment when you’re like ‘ah this is History of Violence’ and then it changes and you’re like ‘Ah, it’s Cape Fear’ and I like that notion, because I think that movie audiences are so savvy that it’s more about how you relate to the genre, so once you decide what movie it’s like you feel like you know where it’s going to go and so that’s what was so fun about the novel. I mean, I love that it was written before anyone knew who Tarantino was, so Reservoir Dogs was 1992 and this book was written in 1990 and so I think there’s a classical innocence to it at a time before there was an urge to have a sense of irony or cleverness. It was just organically unpredictable.

Don, what drew you to the project?

Don: Well, the funny thing is, I was doing 2 films at the same time when I met Jim and I wasn’t really expecting to make a movie right away – I was going to spend the rest of the summer with my kids – they’re the only ones who still really talk to me now. I met with Jim and I’d read the script and I was intrigued by the script because I got to about page 11 and I didn’t know where the film was going, and so I kept reading and it seemed like it was going in one way and then it changed again and I was like ‘Ohhh’. THIS is something that is really interesting, let me meet the guy who’s behind all of this. When I met with Jim I just asked him a few questions. He had an amazing confident, a quiet confidence about what he saw this movie being, and he reminded me of a couple of films that we both like very much and I didn’t know it at the time but he actually liked one of my films that I’d made and that had some input. I watched his movies and I knew then, and of course I see it now that he is a gifted filmmaker.

Was there any ad libbing?

Don: Yeah, I mean Jim would roll the cameras, and as long as he’s rolling I keep talking and so there was a lot of freedom to improvise. I do a lot of preparation on the character and so I’m always fascinated to see what comes out of my mouth when it’s improvised. When I started doing it, it gave license to Sam (Shepard) who is a Pulitzer-prize winning author, I mean he’s very focused on the written word, but I mean, even he got very loose, and started ad libbing and I was like Awright, Sam!

Jim: It was fun because we started with Mike (Hall) and Vinessa (Shaw) and Nick (Damici) and then maybe 2 weeks later Sam came in and he kind of changed the dynamic of the shoot and then we just kept saying ‘Don Johnson’s guna show up’ and then once he came, he very wonderfully gave us freedom to know what moments to pick from. The funniest stuff in it is Don ‘I haven’t even had my goddam coffee yet!’ – so many of the little digs. It changed the way that we shot as well, we went a little bit more handheld to give these guys freedom and get out of their way. It was us realizing that it was the chemistry that was really going to drive the movie and once that happened we just stepped back and tried not to fuck it up.

Well, you didn’t. It’s a great movie.

Jim: Thanks!

You can read our four-star review here.

Cold in July is in cinemas now.

Flossie Topping is the former Editor-in-Chief of Critics Associated (2013-2015). She has an MA in Film Theory and an MA in Online Journalism. She has written for Screen International, Grolsch Film Works, Universal Film Magazine, The London Film Review, Best for Film, Next Projection, Metropolitan, Don't Panic and The Ealing Gazette.