Writer/director Jim Mickle rocked the indie genre film world last year with a horror movie about domesticated cannibals called “We Are What We Are.” Now, he has gone and done it again with his tightly crafted, southern-fried thriller “Cold in July,” starring an unlikely, but perfectly melded trio: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson and Sam Shepard. It his theaters and VOD May 23rd via IFC Films. (Q&A with Hall below.)
It’s East Texas, 1989. Richard Dane (Hall) is a small-town family man who becomes a hero after he, in a tensely choreographed and gruesome opening sequence, accidentally shoots and kills a wanted man who’s burgling his house. But his so-called act of bravery yields a dangerous fallout when the dead crook’s father (Sam Shepard) rolls into town lusting for blood, and with some seriously bleak baggage of his own in tow. Is the man whom Richard killed truly the man we thought he was?
What follows is a many-layered mystery that takes time to smell the roses, as Mickle is as interested in painting local color as he is in creating a dizzying conspiracy. He and scribe Nick Damici (who cowrote “We Are What We Are”) adapted the film from Joe R. Lansdale’s grizzly 1989 pulp page-turner.
Unlike Michael C. Hall’s coldblooded serial killer in Showtime’s “Dexter,” or his self-loathing, closet queen of an undertaker in HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” here he plays an innocent everyman who’s just trying to do his best, keep a roof over his family, and stay out of trouble. Oh how wrong Richard Dane turns out to be. With “Cold in July,” he turns from TV to film, brilliantly portraying a morally confounded everyman at war with himself. It’s a fascinating performance. I spoke with Hall, who’s very smart and thinks carefully before he speaks, on the phone. I particularly like this analogy (after the jump): Playing “a television character is like a marriage,” where playing “a film character is like a love affair.”
Ryan Lattanzio: In the first scene, you’re shown as someone who
has never fired a gun, much less killed someone — obviously this quite different
from “Dexter,” the character you finished up last year. Was this an uncomfortable transition?
Michael C. Hall: It was no more odd a transition than any transition. I
was certainly aware and thankful, to be honest, to be playing someone after
“Dexter” who was killing someone without meaning to, wanting to, needing to, and
is, after having done it, bewildered horrified, panicked. He has a very human
response to him. It was somewhat therapeutic. I finished “Dexter” and considered deactivated whatever it was I needed to play that guy who would chop people up and then go eat a sandwich. Afterwards, one of my thoughts was, what have I done? [In “Cold in July”], it was
nice to visit the murder scene from a more everyday, average, human
RL: I’m sorry to keep talking about “Dexter.” It’s inevitable. But did any aspects of that character bleed into this one?
MCH: It didn’t. He’s on a very different journey. If anything, in watching the film, I look at
the scene with Sam [Shepard] where we’re digging up the body of the guy I shot … I never once thought about the parallels. I think there
were things that contextualize this movie that were very “Dexter”-ish in their
way; I didn’t really have to shake him out of my head while we were doing it,
which is a testament to how compelling the world Jim created was.
RL: The film is set in 1989, East Texas, and your character possesses a certain swagger that feels very much of the period. I can’t explain it, but I really bought you as this person. How did you accomplish this? Did the mullet help?
MCH: He’s a guy with somewhat of a cultivated swagger and as much as he has some nagging insecurity about his
rights to his own manhood, I think the clothes sort of informed how he moved; and the fact that he lives in a small Southern town, where you’re more free to take up more
space, and to move through more space. I grew up in the South,
in the 80s, where there were plenty of people — myself included — who had some version of
that haircut. Some of the decisions are more instinctual and less intellectually
considered but there was something about the way he moved that felt right.
RL: Looking over your television and film roles, from “Dexter” to “Six Feet Under” and, now, “Cold in July,” you seem to have a penchant for dark material. Do you seek out the darkness, or does it find you?
MCH: I haven’t ever consciously announced to myself
or anyone else that I am seeking that out, but it does seem that I have. I think it finds me as much as I find it. I’m drawn to things that are
characterized by complexity and darkness and things that deal with the more
fundamental issues that we face. Mainly, our mortality.
RL: Why do you find that attractive?
MCH: I don’t know. I guess there’s nothing we
have more collectively. It’s the thing that we all have in common: that none of
us chose to be here, and we’re all going to die.
RL: Alright, let’s step back, for a minute, from our own mortality. What is it like to be directed by Jim Mickle?
MCH: He’s great. He has such a welcoming, fun vibe
on set. He’s a great leader; he’s sort of effortless and easy but, at
the same time, he’s got a real decisiveness and there’s a real sense that he
knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants. It’s certainly makes it easier
to run through the dark alongside train tracks all night when you know that the
result is going to be a phenomenal sequence. It’s nice to be on a set where you
feel a sense of safety because the safer you feel, the more unsafe you feel like
you’re allowed to be. Because you’re going to be taken care of; you’re being
watched, seen, considered and Jim’s great. I would jump at the opportunity to
work with him again.
RL: You have a deep television background, and here you’re part of quite an unusual trio of actors. You have TV legend Don Johnson, and renaissance man Sam Shepard. How did you fit in, and what was your rapport like?
MCH: It’s a very interesting combination of actors
and characters. We loved it. We laughed a lot. We really did. I think some of
it had to do with the fact that we were just in it together. We joined the
carnival together. I think there was a sense of amusement, that we were all
there in the same movie together playing the characters we were. But they were
both really game and I commend them for it, given the bare bones nature of the
production. Both those guys are icons. Given that I was playing someone who was
sitting in the backseat of a car, it was an easy assignment to kind of be
mystified by them. It was a kind of heady experience.
RL: Has it been easy for you to jump back into making movies?
MCH: It’s certainly different — and welcome — to commit to things that have a definitive ending from the beginning. In
terms of the schedule of making a movie, a television character is like a
marriage and a film character is like a love affair. But the really intense schedule of doing a cable series, I think, prepares
you as well as anything for being on a film set. But I guess the big
change is that [a film] is not open-ended, and you’re not trying to bend your mind toward the initially unimaginable developments in the story [of a TV series]. You have a
general sense of the whole thing in the beginning of a film, and it’s very pleasant to
work in that way.